Roli Songmaker Kit
Designed and developed by UK-based music tech company Roli, the Songmaker Kit is a portable, battery-powered modular MIDI interface system designed for creating electronic soundscapes, loops and beats on the move, in the studio or at a desktop. The kit we’re reviewing here is comprised of a two-octave Seaboard Block keyboard, a Lightpad Block M and a Loop Block. Ingeniously, all three snap together using magnetic contacts and, what’s more, you can pretty much join them up in any configuration you want.
Let’s take a look at the Lightpad Block M first. Around 9cm square, this palm-sized controller lets you create a range of drum patterns and instrument loops by simply interacting with its fantastically soft and squidgy illuminated surface. Divided into different coloured squares, each representing a different instrument sound or musical note, the Lightpad Block M’s interface is great fun to play with, especially when used with the Noise app. What’s more, because the notes lock to a scale of your choosing, there’s little chance of any major cockups creeping into the composition.
However, the Lightpad’s playing surface isn’t really sensitive enough to very light tapping and this makes it difficult to create subtle velocity nuances, especially when creating drum patterns. Furthermore, in order to generate a louder drum sound you need to hammer the fingertip down quite hard and that soon becomes a chore.
It has to be said that, while the experience was mostly enjoyable, this writer never created anything musically meaningful that could ever be used in a professional context, but then that was probably never its aim. No question, the Lightpad Block M is an extremely classy and colourful bit of music-making kit, but it’s not something I would personally recommend to someone with zero musical ability; unless they’re rich enough to splurge on a whim.
The magnetic clip-on Loop Block is one of three available Blocks designed to ‘put studio techniques for recording and editing music at your fingertips’. The Loop Block’s sole purpose is to provide quicker access to the play and record modes, the metronome and that most obligatory facet off modern electronic music, ‘quantize’, whereby the loop’s individual beats are automatically snapped to a grid to make your erratic pad tapping sound perfectly in time, just like a pro. However, this writer didn’t find it especially useful; in fact it was easier using the iPad or desktop screen.
The final element of the Songmaker Kit, the Seaboard Block, is far and away the most professional product in the package – and the most expensive (£280 when purchased separately). The Seaboard Block is basically a two-octave keyboard designed for triggering sounds and manipulating their wave forms. It’s especially good for creating cinematic soundscapes and utterly brilliant for playing scorching riffs. The keyboard itself is covered in a smooth, spongy silicone that feels relatively tactile under the finger tips. However, it does come with a pair of caveats. Firstly, there’s the awkwardness of the keys’ layout which makes it all too easy to play bum notes (bizarrely, the spaces between each key are wider than the keys themselves), and secondly, playing a fast string of notes takes a lot of finger effort to make each note sound with the same uniform velocity.
On the plus side, the Seaboard Block is equipped with MPE (MIDI Polyphonic Expression), a clever multidimensional system that takes musical articulation to a whole new level. All other keyboards and stand-alone synthesizers are equipped with modulation and pitch-bend wheels that affect the entire sound. So, for instance, if you play a four-note chord and adjust the modulation wheel, the sound frequencies of all four notes are changed in exactly the same way. By contrast, when you play the same four-note chord on this keyboard, you can slide just one finger up or press it down and only that particular note will modulate. This is a groundbreaking way of producing an extra layer of expression, though whether the untrained ear will appreciate this kind of subtlety is open to debate. The pitch bend system is perhaps an even better innovation because it allows you to play a single note and change its pitch in one fluid motion by sliding your finger up the key and to the left or right along the top-mounted touch-sensitive pad.
These two facets alone make the Seaboard Block the perfect keyboard for playing expressive parts, replete with a raft of tantalising modulation effects. However, to make the most of MPE you’ll need to use the Seaboard Block either with the included Equator software, the Noise app or an MPE-capable third party digital audio workstation (DAW) like Logic Pro and Cubase.
The whole Roli system works best with the supplied Equator desktop software (PC and Mac), which comes with a diverse selection of great sounds, including orchestral pads, organs, brass and synth leads. But if you want to use the package while on the move, you’ll need to download the not especially user friendly Noise app (iOS only) which features a variety of similar sounds and an interface that mimics the Lightpad Block and Seaboard Block. Complete novices are advised to head straight for the excellent Roli Play tutorial app (iOS) which provides a good introduction to the basics.
This writer plays in a recording and touring band so I’d like to think I’m pretty au fait with most electronic musical toys. However, this one had me flummoxed for a while. It really is a very steep learning curve on pretty much all fronts. Just getting your head round the concept and setting up all the modules and plethora of supplied software involves a lot of frustration and constant referral to YouTube tutorials and Roli’s support centre. And when you do eventually start creating, it’s not quite as intuitive as the online video ads make out. Nevertheless, if you’re a seasoned master of EDM, technically well informed and have a healthy bank balance, then this Songmaker Kit is probably right up your niche.