Meet the Seaboard Rise 2, the squishy sequel to ROLI’s original expressive keyboard controller.
It’s been eight years since ROLI launched their revolutionary Seaboard Grand expressive keyboard (SOS September 2015), and I am pleased, if a little surprised, that such a small company has weathered the commercial storms and, after a financial restructuring, are still around in 2023 to ship the latest iteration in their line of Seaboard products.
The path of development has not been a straight line: for a while, ROLI were pushing an entire product range of small, pressure‑sensitive, networkable MIDI controllers called Blocks (SOS October 2017) — I have a handful of the Seaboard Block mini‑keyboards and like them a lot — and more recently ROLI have been nudging themselves into the educational market with the illuminated, tutorial‑equipped LUMI Keys (SOS July 2021).
Alongside the hardware products, ROLI have developed software instruments that showcase the power of the polyphonic glide and expression of the keyboards. Equator2 (SOS October 2021) is an expressive, multi‑layered and very capable hybrid synthesizer, based on the original Equator which actually ran natively inside the Seaboard Grand, while ROLI Studio (reviewed alongside LUMI Keys, SOS July 2021) was oriented more towards the Blocks, providing a streamlined macro‑based interface to a variety of embedded synthesis engines. For completeness, I’ll also mention that ROLI’s acquisition of FXpansion in 2016 added more hardcore synthesis products to the collection, including the excellent Cypher2 (SOS May 2019). The ROLI devices and software promoted polyphonic expression into a MIDI standard called MPE, now directly supported by DAWs including Ableton Live and Bitwig Studio.
The Seaboard Rise 2 is something of a return to roots for ROLI, being a full‑sized keyboard with a solid aluminium casing the exact same dimensions as the original Seaboard Rise. Whereas the Rise came in two and four‑octave versions (I dug out my two‑octave Rise for comparison), the Rise 2 is only available as a four‑octave instrument, this apparently being the most popular version. Personally, I like gigging with a selection of small, portable controllers, my music not being sufficiently keyboard‑oriented to make it worth carrying around the bigger version, but for studio use, or for musicians who have heavily invested in ROLI keyboard technique, four octaves is a good size. The left‑hand controls of the Rise and Rise 2 are, as far as I can tell, identical in form and function.
The Seaboard Rise 2 marks a return by ROLI to the professional instrument market...
One obvious difference between the generations is colour: the original Rise (which I’ll refer to as the Rise 1) is keyboard‑standard black, while the Rise 2 is a fetching pale metallic blue. The colouring is subtle, more like a slightly blueish silver, and in some lights the blue tint is hardly perceptible. A less obvious but more important difference is that the Rise 2 has a redesigned playing surface, where the keys have protruding ‘frets’. We’ll look at this new feature shortly.
As with the Rise 1, all connection ports are on the left edge of the case. There’s a quarter‑inch footpedal socket (assignable in software, defaulting to sustain), a USB‑C socket and a 3.5mm socket for a MIDI out adaptor. Unlike the Rise 1, there’s no socket for an external power supply — presumably the idea is that it can be powered over USB‑C. For the purposes of the review, I plugged the USB‑C cable into an old Apple iPhone charger to keep the battery topped up, and used the Rise 2 via Bluetooth, which seemed to work fine with no apparent extra latency into my Mac. A slight frustration was that, on each power‑up, the Bluetooth connection had to be re‑established.
The Rise 2 comes as part of a bundle: aside from the hardware accessories (the MIDI out adaptor and a rather nice braided USB‑A to USB‑C cable) you get the Equator2 synth, the ROLI Studio instrument package, the eight‑track Ableton Live Lite (the latest version of which is MPE‑compatible) and the ROLI Dashboard control panel, which is pretty much essential for any customisation or configuration of the keyboard. ROLI Connect, which is the licence manager and downloader, is available online and is your gateway to everything else, including additional paid‑for sound packs. Two sound packs for both Equator2 and Studio Player are bundled: they are called Granular Motion and Motion Waves, and as the names suggest, they are packed full of rich, animated rhythms and textures that are probably more suited to demo showrooms or film‑scoring sessions than the average gig. There are, however, plenty of bread‑and‑butter presets in the standard libraries.
ROLI Dashboard is the generic configuration tool for all things ROLI. I use it heavily for the ROLI Blocks, which are highly configurable and can be connected up in multiple layouts, but it also does the job for a Seaboard Rise. Sadly, it doesn’t seem to do the job for more than one Rise connected at once, and gets confused about which one it is communicating with. ROLI claim that you are unlikely to want to switch between multiple units that often once they are configured, but it would be nice if the software dealt with this situation more elegantly.
The Dashboard panel for the Rise 2 looks much like that for the original model. The five graphs are programmable response curves for the so‑called five dimensions of gesture:
- strike (velocity)
- glide (pitch‑bend)
- slide (forward/back motion)
- press (polyphonic pressure)
- lift (release velocity)
For strike and lift, the response can be sharpened (magnifying the lower end of the response curve), and the minimum and maximum values can be changed to flatten the overall response. For glide, slide and press, a straight line graph is a linear response; lower graph ‘values’ reduce the response at the end ranges of the control, while picking up the scaling in the middle region. These three settings are mirrored on the device itself via its left‑hand slider controls. I find it useful to think of these settings not in terms of scaling, but in terms of dead zones. Looking at glide as the most significant and perceptible control, a ‘maximum’ setting is linear response across the whole keyboard, making it resemble a ribbon controller. Dial back the glide, and you start to introduce partially dead zones around each key, making the in‑tune pitch more controllable, but sharpening the change half way between keys. The setting is a trade‑off: dial the glide right back, and you are getting a more clear‑cut and in‑tune glissando; turn it up, and pitch control is more difficult but vibrato is more sensitive. With the glide at its minimum setting, pitch control is effectively turned off completely, and a glissando gesture will trigger consecutive notes like a conventional keyboard.
An aside on glissando: with glide off, a sweep across the ‘ribbon’ area at the front of the keys will play the notes in the C major scale (or whatever transposition you might set up in the Dashboard), while a sweep across the area behind the keys generates a chromatic sequence.
The most significant change between Rise 1 and Rise 2 is the redesigned keyboard. Every ‘key’ now has a prominent ridge or fret so that you can, in theory, position your fingers accurately at the centre of the key horizontally when playing. The keys have also been reshaped a little, to make them a little wider with sharper ‘shoulders’ — a redesign that was initially seen on the Seaboard Block.
Since I already own a Seaboard Rise 1, I was able to set the two models up side by side for direct comparison. Executive summary: the Rise 2 is in almost all regards an improvement, but the Rise 1 still has merits, and the redesign doesn’t make a Seaboard suddenly easy to play: some aspects of playing are aided by the new design, some are not.
Let’s look at the fretting first. When you trigger a keywave, the MIDI note transmitted will be pitch‑perfect even if you are off‑centre; the pitch‑bend is relative to the initial point of impact. Therefore, the provision of frets isn’t obviously going to provide a clear benefit to pitch accuracy when triggering notes. The frets do assist in other ways, though. I did find that the fretting meant that I didn’t need to look at the keyboard as closely as with the Rise 1 — I could feel what I was doing — and they were a definite help when forming chords. Certainly, if you’re a sight‑reading keyboardist or someone who generally plays by feel rather than sight (something my piano teacher always tried to drum into me), the fretting will help. With a bit of care, you can feel your way into notes and chords using the frets before actually triggering them. This was especially apparent with glide turned off completely, reverting the Rise 2 into essentially piano mode: I felt more confident fingering in classical piano style on the fretted Rise than the non‑fretted one. Alternatively, when gliding between notes, the frets do offer definite help to stop accurately on the final pitch rather than slightly overshooting, although they can serve as a slight obstruction.
The reshaped surface has wider ‘channels’ in front of the ‘black’ keys, making those areas a bit easier to locate and play. Most of the time you will probably be playing the raised keys directly, but for short glides over the keys themselves, in particular from a ‘white’ key to a ‘black’ one, the new shape definitely added accuracy and confidence. It also made some chords a lot easier to finger.
One thing that became apparent when comparing the Rise 2 and Rise 1 was that the newer model felt a little less sensitive to pressure than the original. I checked the settings in ROLI Dashboard to make sure they were the same, and as an attempt at an objective measure I gently balanced the edge of a weighted coffee coaster on some keys to see whether both instruments did actually trigger with the same pressure, and it appeared that they were equivalent. My current working theory is that the narrower keys on the Rise 1 can be pressed further down with a little less effort than the wider ones on the Rise 2, leading to a slightly more responsive feel. If you’ve never played a Rise 1, this isn’t going to be an issue, and is probably not even noticeable unless you line up and compare the models side by side. In any case, ROLI Dashboard allows the pressure response curve to be tweaked to taste.
I did find that the fretting meant that I didn’t need to look at the keyboard as closely as with the Rise 1 — I could feel what I was doing — and they were a definite help when forming chords.
Overall then, the Rise 2 is almost but not quite an everything‑is‑better version of the Rise 1, at least for my tastes: the frets make it easier and more accurate to play in most circumstances, but it feels slightly less responsive and expressive than the original. In truth, I probably wouldn’t have noticed a difference in sensitivity had I not been testing the two at the same time. And for improved accuracy whilst playing, the Rise 2 wins. If you’ve never played a Rise 1 then the Rise 2 will give you the full Seaboard experience, while if you happen to own a Rise 1, then maybe you’ll want to hang on to it for the best of both worlds.
When it comes to glide gestures, the Rise 2 comes with a new feature: an ability to glide between consecutive chromatic notes by pressure alone. Play one note and then press an adjacent one, and you can glide back and forth between them in a ‘see‑saw’ action using pressure alone. This behaviour is apparent in the earlier models but is not consistent — it seems that my Rise 1 sometimes allows it, sometimes not — but is now implemented as a documented feature. This semitone legato is an on/off setting, and only available if glide is set to maximum. A down side is that you can’t intentionally play two distinct adjacent notes if the glide setting is full and legato is enabled: attempting to do so will always invoke this glide. And this pressure‑glide is adjacent keys only, so won’t glide a whole tone between adjacent notes in a scale, although you might be able to develop a technique where you ‘walk’ the intervening key to make a semitone glide — I managed to do this, but only falteringly.
The Seaboard Rise 2 marks a return by ROLI to the professional instrument market, after their forays into ‘prosumer’ controllers like the Blocks and the education‑oriented LUMI. The Rise 2 looks stunning, and is a clear refinement of the original with a redesigned, ‘fretted’ keyboard and the ability to legato slide between semitones. The refinement is not quite a revolution, though: the new Rise still requires the development of a new playing technique, and with glide set to maximum it is not always more forgiving than the original. Also, the original shape and response of the keys on the Rise 1 might be favoured by some players. But the Rise 2 is a valiant effort to bring a challenging instrument design under more control.
- Redesigned, ‘fretted’ playing surface.
- Configurable semitone legato gesture.
- The bundled Equator2 soft synth is versatile, capable and a good match to the Rise 2’s expressiveness.
- Striking steel blue case finish.
- Original ‘Rise 1’ key shape still has advantages.
- No two‑octave model available at time of writing.
- Playing a Seaboard well still requires practice.
- ROLI Dashboard cannot work with more than one Rise at once.
The Rise 2 is a design refresh with an updated fretted playing surface, offering an evolutionary improvement in playing experience. The bundled Equator2 soft synth is still a responsive powerhouse, balancing sonic versatility, expressiveness and ease of programming. Now that the MPE protocol standard is pretty mainstream, there’s no reason not to dip your toe into what might — once again — be the future of the keyboard.