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ROLI Seaboard Rise

Keyboard Controller
Published February 2016
By Robin Bigwood

ROLI Seaboard Rise

ROLI’s new instrument further develops the technology of their revolutionary Seaboard Grand — at a much more affordable price.

The Seaboard Rise is the latest hardware product from ROLI, a London–based startup who have been causing a bit of a stir, in keyboard circles at least, with their Seaboard Grand (reviewed in SOS September 2015 issue. In case you’re not up to speed with ROLI’s products, it essentially goes like this. The Seaboards are keyboard–like instruments with flexible silicone rubber ‘keywaves’ instead of moving keys. This unique playing surface promises musical inflection and parameter control of a distinctly different nature from conventional controllers or synths. At the same time, though, the standard layout of naturals and sharps/flats mean keyboard players should feel at home right away.

When reviewing the Seaboard Grand I found it to be a beguiling and inspiring instrument, with its finger–driven vibrato and bends, and wonderful polyphonic aftertouch. It wasn’t without its quirks and drawbacks, though. Foremost among these was the eccentric behaviour when adjacent semitones were played: it couldn’t sound them simultaneously. And its keywaves’ touch response, though impressive in its own way, was limited to Strike (velocity), Glide (X-axis pitch bends) and Press (Z-axis aftertouch) only. There was no sensitivity to Y-axis front/back finger position, and other than some assignable pedal inputs, no additional real–time controls — not a single knob, slider or wheel. And then there’s the stiff £2399$2999 asking price, which put it beyond many players’ budgets. On its own terms the Grand can be an exciting prospect, but in a typical DAW ecosystem, combined with third-party virtual instruments, it fell some way short of being the multi–purpose, wallet–loosening controller–to–rule–all–controllers I’d hoped it might be.

ROLI’s new Seaboard Rise, on the other hand, might just be a different proposition. The £599$799 price tag alone means it should be within striking distance of many more musicians. And while there are many conceptual and physical similarities, the Rise offers a combination of features and strengths all of its own.

Ship Shape

The Rise is the smallest Seaboard to date, with just two octaves of keywaves. The soft playing surface is also 40mm shorter front to back than on the Grand, and it feels different. The rubber is a bit firmer, the surface a bit smoother and less fibrous, and it feels like there’s less compressible depth. What we’d call the black keys on a conventional keyboard (and which here are picked out with thin, remarkably durable white stripes) have subtly sculpted edges. This keywave surface is probably much cheaper to mass–produce than the Grand’s handmade moulded silicone, but I didn’t perceive it to be in any way inferior. It also looks fantastic.

The rest of the unit maintains ROLI’s reputation for Apple–like standards of finish and construction. The black aluminium casework is stunning, and wonderfully rigid — I can’t think of a better constructed controller or synth. There’s a MacBook Air–like rear–to–front taper, and broad non–slip rubber pads on the base. The ‘Rise 25’ label on the rear hints that we might see some larger variants in the future.

On the left edge there are sockets for a pedal, USB A and B connectors, and an optional power adaptor. The USB B port is of course standard for computer connection, but the A port is mysterious, and undocumented. It might presumably have a phone or tablet–related role in the future. The pedal socket can accept either switch–type or expression pedals (with their exact type and role being configured in software), but an inserted jack doesn’t go all the way in — several millimetres of sleeve remain exposed. It’s supposed to be like this, and is perfectly secure, but is vaguely disconcerting none the less.

Potentially much more interesting is what can be found on the main front panel of the Rise, to the left of the keywaves. Here are several more small rubber panels that have a similar texture to the keywaves, though they are much firmer to the touch and hardly compressible at all.

At the side of the Rise we find a pedal socket, USB A  and B ports and a  socket for the optional power adaptor.At the side of the Rise we find a pedal socket, USB A and B ports and a socket for the optional power adaptor.

At the bottom left is a power switch, with a central multi–colour LCD that denotes different modes of operation and operating states. Next to it a left–right rocker switch for transposing by octave. Move up and we come to an X–Y pad with a tiny bump, just discernible to the touch, that represents the centre position. Above that are three assignable touch strips, identical in depth, width and feel. Finally, at the top, there’s another left/right rocker, hardwired for stepping through patches and presets.

All the white marks on these black surfaces light up white when the Rise is powered. For the rockers and X–Y pad the backlight is constant, in the car–dashboard courtesy vein. The touch strip faders, though, have a more flexible 14–segment backlit strip to indicate a range of values, level–meter style.

Haul Anchor

Getting started with the Rise involves first some quick registration work on ROLI’s web site, plus downloading and installing a software suite, currently available for OS X (10.8 or later) and Windows (7 or later). You end up with a helper/configuration utility called ROLI Dashboard for Rise, as well as the in–house synth Equator for Rise. I’ll call these Dashboard and Equator from here on, for the sake of brevity.

With the Rise USBed to your computer and the Dashboard/Equator duo launched, you’re up and running, ready to explore those tactile keywaves. And what immediately emerges is that the Rise can do everything the big–money Grand does, and a whole lot more besides.

The Rise’s multi-touch capabilities are referred to as ‘5D touch’. So there’s the same Strike, Glide and Press response as on the Grand. But ROLI have also added front/rear ‘Slide’ sensitivity, and release–velocity ‘Lift’ is there also.

In Equator, a synth built from the ground up to support this 5D touch, many patches have Strike controlling initial level, Glide modulating pitch, Slide allied to some aspect of timbre (such as filter cutoff, to give a simple example), and Press controlling sustain level and another aspect of timbre. Lift, when it’s utilised, is ideally suited to controlling envelope release time for shaping note ends. That Y–axis slide response is really something, generating MIDI CC74 messages, and adding a level of expressive control that can take some time to fully comprehend, but which soon proves to be fun and easy to control.

Just thinking of the Rise as sort of futuristic, souped–up moving key controller gets you a long way. But radically new playing styles beckon when you twig that the ridges on the keywave surface are nothing more than a tactile guide to pitch position. For example, after triggering a note on a raised part of a keywave, you can pull left or right across adjacent troughs and ridges for Theremin–like bends or fall–offs. Alternatively, pull forward or back into the troughs, to smoothly explore front–to-back Slide effects. Then there’s the flat sections in front of and behind the ridges. These are responsive right to the edge, so can be treated like a violin or fretless bass fingerboard, allowing for really smooth glisses and full–width pitch bends. All the while, every point of touch remains independent of others, so you can be adding a finger–waggle vibrato with one finger while performing a Press swell with your other hand, and a gliss with your nose, and everything stays separate. Actually I didn’t test nose response, but you get the picture.

As with the Grand, the Rise is particularly impressive driving patches that allow a touch–controlled crescendo from absolute silence. You’d need a breath controller with a conventional MIDI keyboard to get remotely near to this level of nuance, and even then you wouldn’t be able to do it polyphonically. It’s at times like these, with the Rise, that you start to forget you’re playing a finger–driven instrument — the experience is much more like bowing, blowing or tonguing. And it’s addictive.

If Rise trounces Grand in multi–touch response, so it does in some other general ways. First, it does away with the weird semitone handling I mentioned above, where directly adjacent notes couldn’t be sounded simultaneously, but were interpreted as one being bent in pitch into the other. Now you can sound neighbouring semitones, but bend one into another when you need to, which is better in every respect. The Rise also tracks multiple individual touches more accurately and fully. Let’s say you hold a static note with one hand, whilst glissing the entire width of the keywave surface with the other. The gliss passes ‘through’ the held note, as it were, the two touches tracked as entirely separate gestures. On the Grand the same thing wasn’t possible. First, the maximum bend range was shorter, and second, glisses got ‘absorbed’ into held notes they attempted to pass. All this points to the fact that the Rise touch-sensing technology must be of a completely different type. In its two-octave form it’s already potent. If it can be scaled up to bigger compasses it could be more impressive still.

Modes & Mappings

Harking back yet again to the Grand, it could be difficult of keep certain kinds of playing fully in tune. Imagine playing vigorous, chordal electric piano stabs for example. This instrument doesn’t really benefit from any kind of touch response apart from Strike, and yet the Grand would all too readily generate pitch–bend data for any little slip in finger position, potentially resulting in serious wonky–sounding chops — unless you were able to strip out pitch–bend at the patch level.

To improve this and other aspects of touch response, the Rise implements variable sensitivity for its 5D Touch in a directly accessible form. Glide, Slide and Press sensitivity can be adjusted on the fly, any time, using the three front-panel faders. In the case of that wobbly electric piano, you’d simply set Glide sensitivity to off, by dragging or touching the fader labelled ‘< >’ to its lowest setting. Then, not only would you do away with potential out–of–tuneness, but glisses on the keywaves are interpreted as they would be on piano or organ, with new note triggers for every pitch you pass. This is a great and significant development. It’s not all about gross on/off changes either: subtly sculpting touch sensitivity with the left hand often proves musically fruitful between (and even within) phrases played with the right.

Touch tweaks aren’t all the faders do, either. A brief press of the Rise power button (whose LED changes from cyan to white) and they generate MIDI Continuous Controller values instead: CCs 107, 109 and 111 by default, but the numbers are fully configurable in the Dashboard utility. Add in the excellent, sensitive and accurate X–Y pad (which defaults to CCs 113 and 114) and suddenly that’s a lot of real–time control, which complements the multi–touch aspects beautifully for many sounds.

The ROLI Dashboard for Rise utility is a graphical front end for various configuration aspects of the hardware controller, including its 5D touch settings, represented by the central ‘graphs’ here. The Visualiser section depicts touches on the keywave surface in real time: as you play, circles move and throb and the grid background distorts. Cosmic.The ROLI Dashboard for Rise utility is a graphical front end for various configuration aspects of the hardware controller, including its 5D touch settings, represented by the central ‘graphs’ here. The Visualiser section depicts touches on the keywave surface in real time: as you play, circles move and throb and the grid background distorts. Cosmic.

Looking at the Dashboard program in more detail, it allows all aspects of touch to be tweaked with the mouse through its five central graphs, with a proper bi–directional real-time relationship between software and controller. All additional MIDI and controller mappings are carried out in the lower half of the Dashboard window, with very clear assignment of MIDI CC messages (helpfully labelled in the pop–up menus) for the X–Y pad, faders and pedal.

More mystifying, however, is Dashboard’s MIDI settings panel. Channel Mode is fair enough, and suffice it to say you’ll want to select Multi here, to drive compatible multi-channel synths and DAWs, and get full satisfaction from the Seaboard experience. ‘MPE’ relates to the new ‘Multidimensional Polyphonic Expression’ MIDI standard, of which ROLI are leading exponents, and also seems self–explanatory: it enables specific MIDI channel behaviour. However, it has an unexpected and apparently undocumented side effect of changing the way front–rear Slide response generates its default CC74 values. Without going into boring detail, it’s all about whether touch position generates values absolutely or relatively, and the issue I discovered is that different Equator patches seemed to work better with one or the other for certain playing styles. It seems odd to have what might be a useful musical/expressive feature all tied up with a configuration setting. The Tracking settings beneath are even harder to grasp, implying some sort of limitation of Glide, Slide and Press tracking when none is apparent to the player. After reading ROLI’s documentation of these settings I was none the wiser, but luckily they don’t seem to be central to the playing experience — at least any that I encountered.

Around The World

As ROLI’s house synth, Equator offers deep Seaboard compatibility out of the virtual box. It has an extensive and sophisticated architecture accessed from a clear, modern, tabbed interface: two preset sample–replay oscillators with on–board filters, three VA–type oscillators that can become operators in an FM scheme, a noise generator, two multi-mode filters, two LFOs, five envelope generators, really flexible keytracking, built–in EQ and effects, and a mixer that allows for sophisticated filter routing and effects sends. 5D touch graphs are presented front and centre, and effectively become additional modulation sources. The faders and X–Y pad are represented in the user interface too.

In sound character Equator is notably contemporary and slick, and a good proportion of presets are presented with generous helpings of delay and reverb. All make impressive use of keywave control in some way, and while you don’t have to be Bob Moog to realise this is fundamentally a deep and flexible synth, I wonder if lovers of dark and spooky electronica might find it a bit too clean and superficially attractive. I think there’s certainly scope to equip Equator with additional preset banks exploring alternative characters and musical genres. That’s particularly relevant now as FXpansion’s Synth Squad, bundled with the Seaboard Grand, isn’t part of the package included with the Rise.

A big, complex patch in Equator for Rise, ROLI’s bespoke synth for this version of the Seaboard. A big, complex patch in Equator for Rise, ROLI’s bespoke synth for this version of the Seaboard.

A down side of Equator is CPU load. I’d noticed this before when testing the version that ships with the Grand, and apparently no significant optimisations have occurred in the interim period. On my 2.2GHz quad-core i7 MacBook Pro I found a few notes of an average patch could easily eat up 70 percent of a processing core. To get some more perspective, I also tested on a brand-new 1.6GHz dual-core i5 MacBook Air. On that machine, typical four- or five-note chordal playing could see well over half the entire processing power used up. Add to that Dashboard’s smaller but still significant CPU overhead and the ROLI combo is a draining presence on the resources of all but the most potent Macs and PCs. Equator is by far the most CPU-hungry synth I’ve ever used, and although stand-alone use to support real–time Rise playing shouldn’t cause problems for modern Macs and PCs, sequencing several instances easily could.Equator is a  potent virtual instrument, but as the little screen grab of OS X’s Activity Monitor shows, in combination with the Dashboard utility it isn’t shy about devouring your CPU.Equator is a potent virtual instrument, but as the little screen grab of OS X’s Activity Monitor shows, in combination with the Dashboard utility it isn’t shy about devouring your CPU.

Leaving Harbour

Seaboards, like LinnStruments, Soundplanes and pretty much any overtly expressive touch-activated controller, transmit note data on multiple MIDI channels simultaneously: it’s how the different data streams of pitch–bend and polyphonic aftertouch (for example) stay separate from one another. Synths like Equator, of course, are purpose–built to work with this approach, and others do too, like U–he Diva, FXpansion’s Strobe 2 and Sonic Charge’s Synplant. Multitimbral instruments such as Kontakt, MachFive and Omnisphere can also be set up to play the same sound triggered by multiple MIDI channels, which works out the same.

The problem is that until the new Multidimensional Polyphonic Expression MIDI standard is universally adopted (which could be years away, and possibly never), nearly all other virtual instruments, including industry standards by Native Instruments, Arturia and the like, aren’t compatible. Or rather, they’re playable in a basic fashion, but will be unable to support the expressive features you bought your Rise for in the first place. The PolyThru app that was bundled with the Grand, and which restored much expressive functionality to incompatible synths, offers some hope in this direction, and though it’s not available for the Rise at the time of writing, ROLI assure us that it will be by the time you read this. They also tell us that it will be compatible with both Windows and Mac OS.

This leads us on to the question of DAW compatibility itself. Good multi-channel Seaboard compatibility is offered by Logic Pro X, GarageBand, Cubase 7, Reaper, Bitwig Studio and Tracktion. Most other DAWs including Pro Tools, Digital Performer, Studio One and Live can be made to work, but tortuously so, requiring an equal number of MIDI or Instrument tracks for each note of polyphony you require, for any multi-channel synth you intend to play or record from the Seaboard. Even if you persevere with this cumbersome approach, you might find editing Seaboard parts challenging, as the constituent notes and data of your performance will be littered across those multiple tracks.

To ROLI’s credit, good support material for integrating the Seaboard with many different DAWs is provided on their web site, including detailed advice about configuration and synth hosting, and downloadable project and song templates. Generally though, my tip would be to think of the Rise as a general-purpose, day–in/day–out controller only for those compatible DAWs. The others you’d be better of regarding more as single–instance instrument hosts, for supporting real–time Rise playing with compatible synths, and much less so for sequencing them.

Plain Sailing

Most keyboard players would have to be made of wood, I think, not to be excited, or at least intrigued, by what ROLI’s Seaboards offer. I certainly am, but in the case of the £2399$2999 Seaboard Grand I also knew that the odds of my splashing out and owning one for myself were, short of a lottery win, nil. It was beautiful and inspiring, but it also had a few too many eccentricities for that price tag to make sense, to me.

The Rise is a whole different proposition. OK, there are no onboard sounds, but all the Grand’s expressive capabilities are there, and more besides. There’s no bizarre semitone gotcha, and the additional real–time controller features suddenly mean the Rise can do duty as a general controller for a whole range of compatible (and even not–so–compatible) synths. Being able to tweak aspects of touch sensitivity means that it’s suddenly much better at driving sounds that aren’t overtly expressive in character, not least pianos, pads, mallets and old–school synths. The two-octave range and overall form–factor is well chosen, not least because it lets the Rise exist alongside (and beautifully complement) a conventional controller in a typical small–studio setup. For solo–style, monophonic ultra–expressive noodling — which just oozes out of the Seaboard — the pitch compass is just fine.

The Rise may be significantly smaller than the Grand, but it’s gained some extra front-panel controls, in the form of an X–Y pad and three assignable control strips.The Rise may be significantly smaller than the Grand, but it’s gained some extra front-panel controls, in the form of an X–Y pad and three assignable control strips.

Meanwhile, at that hugely more accessible £599$799 price tag, it seems that nothing has been lost in the build quality department. USB powering is great to see, while the battery–supported Bluetooth MIDI is a real luxury. You even get a nice expanded-polypropylene case, and an iPad–style flip cover is now available as an optional extra for particularly nomadic users.

Are there any down sides? Well, yes, a few. Lift sensitivity, the equivalent of release velocity, seems a blunt tool: it mostly generates values very near maximum or minimum, and even then somewhat uncontrollably. Thankfully it’s by far the least important of the touch response types for the vast majority of patches. The CPU consumption of the ROLI software remains concerning, and third–party compatibility with the MPE standard is still very limited at this point.

Taken as a whole, though, and approached with an open mind, ROLI’s Rise is surely one of the most exciting, progressive and potent MIDI controllers ever made. It manages to be fun, inspirational and esoteric all at the same time, and seems to expand (or even explode) musical horizons in a way that few other electronic instruments do. Despite the third–party compatibility concerns there’s still a huge amount offer — and this time the price is right. If it appeals, I’d encourage you to jump right in — the water is fine.

Alternatives

The closest competitors to the Rise are Keith McMillen’s cheaper K–Board and QuNexus controllers, and Roger Linn’s costlier LinnStrument. These products are fundamentally different in conception and aspects of design, though; with its continuous keyboard–shape layout and tightly integrated software bundle the Rise stands (or should that be floats?) alone.

Remote Rise

These days we all expect MIDI controllers to be USB–powered, and luckily the Rise doesn’t disappoint in that respect. But it goes a big step further too, supporting wireless MIDI over Bluetooth on recent Macs (with a Bluetooth LE chip) running OS 10.10 or later.Recent Macs running OS 10.10 or later can utilise the Seaboard Rise’s MIDI-over-Bluetooth feature. Configuration in the Audio MIDI Setup utility is dead easy and the connection apparently rock solid.Recent Macs running OS 10.10 or later can utilise the Seaboard Rise’s MIDI-over-Bluetooth feature. Configuration in the Audio MIDI Setup utility is dead easy and the connection apparently rock solid.

To support this, the Rise has a built-in battery that charges via USB, or from an external power supply. Charging from USB while the unit is turned on takes seven hours, a little less when turned off, and a full charge then supports “11–12 hours of continuous play”, which seemed a fair assessment. The power switch has a red LED sequence to show varying levels of battery depletion.

Bluetooth setup is then really straightforward, initiated with a front-panel button-press combo. Then, after making OS X’s Audio MIDI Setup scan for devices, connection is just a click away. Although I detected very little discernible latency for typical expressive Equator patches, ROLI say it amounts to 30ms, measured ‘touch to sound’, including the audio buffer — 6ms more than via a USB connection. I also found the connection entirely reliable, unfussily reestablishing itself following power cycling of Rise or Mac, or physical separation.

If you’re wondering why ROLI didn’t add strap bosses to allow wireless keytar–style playing, I’d suggest it’s because Seaboards aren’t ideally suited to vertical use: you really need them horizontal, firmly supported and still, so you can use sufficient force to fully explore the soft keywave texture. Even so, I’m sure it’s only a matter of time before some early adopters start modding...

Published February 2016