Roli Songmaker kit
WHILE ROLI FIRST introduced itself to the world with the seriously premium Seaboard controller, the launch of its more affordable Blocks range aims to bring its unique multidimensional flavour of music control to the masses. The Songmaker Kit combines three of the modular, wireless block controllers – the Seaboard, Loop, and Lightpad M Block – alongside a travel case for the trio and a host of music software to get you going. This includes the full version of the company’s flagship Equator software synthesiser, which was explicitly designed for the Seaboard’s 5D control scheme, along with the lightweight Player versions of Strobe2 and Cypher2 soft-synths from partner company FX-Pansion. When put alongside the other Lite or trial versions of bundled software, the Songmaker Kit is tremendous value for those starting out with nothing in the way of music-making gear, but musicians with existing hardware and software might find that there’s some overlap.
For those unfamiliar, the essence of Roli’s products is to offer hardware that controls software instruments via MIDI, but with considerably greater degrees of expressivity when compared with more customary controllers. For the Seaboard block, this means you’ll have a squishy silicon version of an otherwise-familiar keyboard, allowing you to play notes and control further parameters of the software instrument via five pressure- sensitive gestures – strike, press, glide, slide, and lift. This will alter your sound depending on how hard you initially hit the key, how much you press it down afterwards, how much you slide your finger up or down the key, and how quickly you pull your finger off. You can also seamlessly glide between notes to smoothly alter their pitch or apply a vibrato effect. The Lightpad is a similarly seamless take on the otherwise rigid convention of beat pads, although the degrees of expressivity are somewhat reduced and less useful.
While the intention of this kit is to get people up and running from scratch, the connectivity and setup is a little on the convoluted side. Thankfully, there’s a “Learn” section on Roli’s website that explains things fairly comprehensively and the support team is very helpful, but some direction out of the box would go a long way. There are also some compatibility limitations if you’re using Windows (no MIDI via Bluetooth, USB only) and Android is entirely unsupported at the time of writing – this includes the Pixel 2, despite the marketing mentioning otherwise.
However, once the kit is running as it should, it truly is a uniquely creative experience in the world of computer music. Having approached synthesis after spending decades on guitar, this reviewer found Roli’s controllers almost as liberating and fluid as a guitar could be, although the occasional mis-trigger can dispel the magic. The units are sturdy, the battery life impressive, the design language is sleek and stylish, and the concept is creative, but ultimately the biggest challenge Roli faces is its target audience. With the premium pricing, difficult setup, and deep functionality, it becomes a little harder to recommend to complete beginners, although musicians without controllers or software synths will get the most value out of the bundle. We didn’t find the Light-pad or Loop blocks as compelling as the Seaboard Block, which you can score alongside a full version of Equator for around $350 less, but if you’re looking at getting yourself anything else from the hardware and software package, the Songmaker Kit is still the way to go.