The latest addition to the BLOCKS range is the Seaboard BLOCK, a miniaturised version of ROLI's Seaboard 5D Touch keybed. Featuring the same Velocity, Pressure, Slide (Y axis), Glide (X Axis) and Release velocity control points - all per note.
It's a 2 octave keybed, with the same yeilding keyboard surface that the larger versions have but with the omission of the dedicated slider controls. The only additional being Octave shift - by pressing on the L+R chevrons on the top corners.
I was interested in this due to the fact that the larger format Seaboard Grand and Seaboard Rise have larger keys and make the movements required to create the expression have to cover a larger area. This does require considerable effort for the small handed and can lead to hand fatigue. I figured that this would be easier to play.
But first, the Seaboard BLOCK features the same stand-alone operation with Bluetooth MIDI connections (OS X 10.10 up) iOS 9 up, plus a USB-C type connector for charging and wired MIDI operation (lead supplied). It's got a chargeable battery so you can play completely wire free, though I did experience some Bluetooth drop out when paired with an iPad Air2, I had no issues on the laptop.
The Seaboard BLOCK comes with a the player version of the excellent ROLI Equator synth which demonstrates the expression possibilities through some excellent sound design. You can upgrade to the full Equator for $79 (usual price $179).
The ROLI way is definitely something you should try before dismissing it as new fangled hipster tech, though it seems to have the qualities of Marmite - eg: some people really love it, some hate. However, you do need to modify your playing technique to get the best from it, I wouldn't suggest buying this as your only controller.
Seaboard BLOCK also pairs with the ROLI Noise app, a sound engine, control centre and musical sketchpad which also links up with your other BLOCKS should you have them. The sounds available are also nicely paired to use with the Seaboard, but I have to say although it's designed to make music creation intuitive, it's just not quite there. I won't go into that here but focus on the Seaboard itself.
Configuration of the Seaboard is done via the BLOCKS Dashboard (register to download), with control over the sensitivity and curves for each dimension of control storable in presets, the larger versions allow direct tweaking via the actual hardware. It's also possible to do this in the NOISE app too.
When playing the Seaboard via a host computer, either wired or wireless, you will need to ensure your DAW will support multi-channel single input channels to drive the Equator Player synth it transmits lots of data across 15 MIDI channels in MPE (or 5D Touch mode) - for instance Ableton Live requires setup of multiple MIDI tracks routed back to the instance of Equator to work, but others - such as Reaper, just needs a simple "recieve all" MIDI channels flag. Same is true for Logic Pro X, Bitwig, Sonar, Cubase and Tracktion Waveform. You can of course, configure it to transmit on a single channel should you wish.
Additionally, there are some other alternatives to Equator - FXpansion Strobe 2, Softube Modular, UVI Falcon and more - see full list here: https://support.roli.com/article/mpe-compatible-synthesisers/
You can of course, just route the Seaboard to a single channel for triggering the traditional way, but this does rather defeat the point of the expression available.
I must say, I do really like the performance related aspect of this controller, you just get something really quite different from playing a pad or expressive solo instrument, that you won't find elsewhere. However, for editing those performances, you will need to be aware that not all DAWs will allow you to move notes and controller data at the same time (Reaper does). In that case, it's going to be quicker to just play it again.
The pairing of Equator with the Seaboard is for me the most satisfying approach (I'm also told Strobe2 is brilliant), the sounds are very inspiring and results in bags of ideas tumbling out.
The added bonus that you can now enter the world of Seaboard at a vastly reduced cost is also attractive (£279/$299) for those not ready to splash out big on a larger Seaboard.
It's definitely something to try, not for everyone, but the additional expression available for those that persevere is pretty rewarding. Clustered chords with small movements for each note come alive. The multiple axis of control can make sounds become incredibly expressive. You can even play out of tune which weird as it sounds, does give a different angle to standard chords - it's something you may dig. Or not.
I'm quite taken with the Seaboard BLOCK and will be sorry to see it go.
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