Lamb – who studied Classical Chinese and Sanskrit Philosophy at Harvard before earning a scholarship to study MA Design Products at the Royal College of Art in London – founded ROLI in 2009.
He learned to play piano as a child (his father is a jazz pianist) and it was this experience that inspired him to create the company’s first product, the Seaboard Grand – conceived as a more expressive and intuitive alternative to a traditional piano or keyboard. He made a prototype while studying at RCA, founded ROLI and gathered a team of engineers to help bring the product to market.
The Seaboard Grand, released in 2013, received positive reviews and several awards for its innovative design. The instrument features an all-black silicone rubber surface and touch sensitive controls, meaning players can create sounds and adjust pitch and volume simply by swiping, pressing or tapping directly on to keys – rather than using dials or switches on a separate device. Wired described it as a “visionary electric piano” that hinted at the future of musical UIs, while Sound on Sound claimed it was a bold and “groundbreaking” invention. But with a four-figure price tag, it was prohibitively expensive and made in a limited run of just 88.
Since then, however, ROLI has been working to make its products cheaper and more accessible. It released follow up models the Seabord RISE 25 and RISE 49, acquired music sharing platform Blend.io and launched Noise, a free app that lets you create music using simple gestures. It has also released BLOCKS, a modular system of pocket-sized devices that clip together. A Lightpad allows users to create music by tapping and swiping while Live and Loop Blocks can be used to record and loop tracks, which can then be shared through the NOISE app. The company regularly publishes tutorials for novice musicians on its website, and has released a Developer Kit to help people programme apps using BLOCKS.
At Brilliant Minds – a two-day conference taking place during the Stockholm Symposium – Lamb revealed the latest product, Seaboard BLOCK, which he described as the “first truly accessible keyboard”.
The Seaboard BLOCK costs £279 and can be connected with other BLOCKS devices. It features a similar distinctive, all-black design to other Seaboard models but is much smaller (small enough to fit in a rucksack), and singer-producer Grimes is apparently a fan.
The device comes with free “soundpacks” covering a range of genres – from vintage electronica to ‘cinematic’ – which are available through the Noise app and ROLI has released two films showing how it can be used either on its own or with other BLOCKS products (see above and below).
If music creation is to become more accessible, Lamb said we need instruments that are “affordable, easy to use, deeply expressive and connected”, allowing anyone to easily create music and share it with others.”
Lamb sees this as the future of music creation – speaking to the audience at Brilliant Minds, he said that while music distribution and consumption had gone through rapid innovation, music creation was lagging far behind. Learning to play an instrument remains difficult and expensive and as a result, the acoustic instrument market has remained stagnant while music consumption has grown massively.
Lamb sees few opportunities left for innovation in music consumption and distribution – “billions of people can access huge music libraries from anywhere in the world … [as consumers], we have everything we could ever want” he said – but believes there was huge potential for innovation in the instrument market.
He acknowledged that AI presents many opportunities for the future of music, allowing people to produce original tracks using algorithms instead of musicians – but said that machines were unlikely to replace musicians any time soon. People still love the idea of being in a room with an artist and it is this human connection that drives our love of music, he said – we are still interested in the person behind our favourite songs and watching someone play.
If music creation is to become more accessible, however, Lamb said we need instruments that are “affordable, easy to use, deeply expressive and connected”, allowing anyone to easily create music and share it with others.
At £279, the ROLI Seaboard BLOCKS won’t be affordable for everyone but it does open the company’s products up to a much bigger market and is much more intuitive (and portable) than a traditional electric keyboard.
The product will ship late June and is available through the ROLI website through partners Sweetwater, GuitarCenter and SamAsh.
More info at roli.com