The New Roli Seaboard May Change the Way Musician Create

A keyboard that gives music expressivity

  • The ROLI Seaboard 2 is an ultra-expressive MIDI keyboard controller.
  • MPE, or MIDI Polyphonic Expression, gives electronic instruments the expressivity of a violin or guitar.
  • MPE controllers come in all kinds of weird shapes and sizes.
The Seaboard Rise 2 sitting on a desk with other equipment to make electronic music.

Roli

A new wave of keyboard controllers brings the expression of acoustic instruments to electronic music. 

We're accustomed to piano-style keyboards that sense how hard you hit them and how long you hold down the keys. MPE, or MIDI Polyphonic Expression, is the next step. It lets musicians control sounds through aftertouch, by sliding their fingers over the keys, and—in the case of this new ROLI Seaboard—by smushing your fingers into its soft surface. The difference is incredible. 

"MPE is honestly one of the most exciting things that has happened to instrumental gear in the last decade," musician, songwriter, and producer Andre Yaniv told Lifewire via email. 

Rise Up

The $1,399 Seaboard RISE 2 is, as the name suggests, ROLI's second attempt at an MPE controller. The company went bankrupt, but it wasn't down to the quality of the devices. I reviewed the original Seaboard RISE some years ago and found it to be very well built. The new version is almost identical, with the addition of ridges along its silicone keys. These ridges look similar to a guitar's frets and make it easier to slide up and down the keys.

View looking down on the Seaboard Rise 2 as someone plays it.

Roli

And sliding is what you want to do. MPE controllers let you slide, poke, pull-off, and push down to add all kinds of extra expression to the music. While violinists have fingers vibrato, and guitar players can change the pitch in microtonal increments by bending (pushing or pulling) the stings to the side, synth players have had to do with pitch wheels and other workarounds.

MPE is built on top of the MIDI standard that electronic instruments and other gear use to communicate. It's limited and pushes the edges of MIDI's capabilities, but the result is that you can play a synth or sampler with as much feeling as you can play a stringed instrument. 

And because it's all electronic, you can use these gestures to control anything—not just pitch or volume. In supporting software, pretty much any synthesizer parameter can be mapped to these expressive touches. You might slide a finger along the key to open the filter, giving the audio an almost spoken "wah" sound. Some controllers even detect how fast you pull your finger off the keys, adding yet another parameter. 

Expression Impressions

I never got on with that original ROLI, despite its beautiful construction. The silicone keys were surprisingly responsive but still felt mushy. Perhaps if I were a keyboard player and not a guitarist, I would have fared better. 

"I think Roli's keyboards have been surpassed by other options today in terms of expressiveness, plus even the iPad has far more variety to choose from, and it doesn't suffer from the same physical wear issues," said musician Neum at the Audiobus electronic music forum. 

Fortunately, there are other options, in both a standard piano-keyboard format and also in layouts more suited to guitarists and other stringed instrumentalists. The LinnStrument, for example, is a grid of expressive pads which can mimic the layout of notes across the strings of a guitar or similar. This makes it much easier for a guitarist to switch because they won't have to re-learn scales and chord shapes. 

For users of the amazing Ableton Live audio workstation software, Ableton's Push 2 now offers MPE when used with the latest Live 11. Expression is limited to pressure-sensitive "polyphonic aftertouch," where the pressure on each pad is tracked, so every note can be manipulated individually. But even so, it's a lot better than just banging on those pads and not getting much feedback. 

Another option is to fake it. The iPad has a touch-sensitive screen, but it can actually manage quite a bit of expression, and iPad musicians enjoy a larger range of apps. Apple's own GarageBand, for instance, uses the iPad's accelerometers to sense how hard you play its keyboard. And Thumbjam lets you slide your fingers over the touch-screen to play some incredibly expressive—and startlingly realistic—sampled instruments. 

With this new wave in full swing, MPE will only get more integrated into musical controllers, which is great news for musicians—and for listeners, who get to enjoy the benefits without all the work.

Was this page helpful?