Review: Roli Blocks
ROLI might have finally cracked open the market for the longstanding ‘next big thing’ in MIDI — MIDI Polyphonic Expression. If only Ableton would get onboard.
I’m always on the lookout for the studio of the future. What image that conjures up in my mind is forever changing, but it always centres around one goal; achieving more complex tasks, easier, and with more musicality. MIDI Polyphonic Expression (MPE) fits squarely into that mould. Or should that be ‘fits cubely’?
What is MPE? Think of it like breaking down the barriers between notes. You can slide between any pitch, or modulate a sound by pressure or movement, all without lifting a finger to grab a mod or pitch wheel, knob or joystick.
We’ve already covered ROLI’s Seaboards, which look like keyboards but feel like a gel shoe insole. Awkward to play on at first — like learning how to walk again — but with four extra dimensions of touch to spur you on through the learning curve, you’ll be gliding around the keys in no time.
The core of ROLI’s Blocks is the Lightpad. It’s square, with a tough plastic body and a silicone top. The top has a bit of give, but it’s hardly the level of squish of a Seaboard, it feels more like a drum pad you might find on a Push, or similar. This is where all your finger-drumming and notes are played in.
It’s got ‘DNA’ connectors on all sides. These magnetically lock other Blocks into place as well as passing power and control signals. At the moment there are two other Blocks in the series; the Loop and Live blocks. Both essentially bring software-based controls from the Blocks-specific Noise app into the hardware domain. Loop is recording specific, and the Live block is catered to performance. Both of these are rectangular, with two joining together to form the same size square as the Lightpad. All of them have onboard batteries that are rechargeable via a USB-C connection on the Lightpad.
There are two main ways you can use Blocks. The standard mode is pairing it via Bluetooth with ROLI’s Noise iOS app. The second way is to connect it to your computer via a USB-C cable (Blocks ships wth a USB-C to USB-A cable) and using it to your control your DAW through the Blocks Dashboard application, which is currently still in beta. We’ll get to that, but first, Noise.
Noise is free of charge. It’s a fun app with great quality sounds, making it worth grabbing even if you don’t have Blocks. You can still operate the app with your fingertips, you’ll just be missing the two touch dimensions on the Z axis — Press and Lift.
It interfaces perfectly with Blocks. It’s essentially a four-instrument sequencer, allowing you to create four-bar 4/4 loops in slots along a grid. There’s also snap, which automatically quantises your playing. I’m unsure of exactly how much quantisation or of what sort the snap option is imbuing, but it mostly seems musical and adaptive to whatever other parts you’ve laid down. It seems especially smart for a non-adjustable function, especially considering there’s also no swing control.
There is a tempo dial, but no tap tempo, which means you can’t tap to get beats moving quickly if you’ve already got an idea in your head. There’s a sense ROLI wants you to start from nothing within the boundaries of the Lightpad and four bar loops.
Also, despite there being a host of chord, arpeggio and scale types to choose from, there’s no way of breaking out of 4/4. You can also only select one chord type at a time, without any recourse to alter chords after you’ve recorded a pass or on the fly. I found the Blocks concept had lots of little tradeoffs like this along the way. It’s the curse of attempting to make an instrument that’s simple enough for someone with little music experience to get started on, but actual musicians want to play.
For instance, you can’t overdub parts, which means you have to be an ace at finger drumming if you want to execute anything complex. There’s also no mixer; all the patches play back at their pre-defined level. And while you can change each of the four sounds you’re working with at any time, it changes them globally across all your loops. Much like Ableton’s session view. With three banks or four loops for each part, it becomes a test of invention. How many 4/4 parts can you play with the same instrument that fit the other loops you’ve already laid down. It’s like a Chinese whisper of musical ideas. You don’t know where you’ll end up at the last set of loops, and sometimes you’ll rue the selected palette of sounds.
Other gripes include the inability to reorder loops, you can only re-record over them. In playback mode, once you set a loop to trigger at the next four bar start point, you can’t change your mind and trigger a different loop of that instrument until it has completed a four bar cycle. On the upside, Roli just released an update allowing users to export WAV stems via iTunes to use in a DAW.
With all that, it might sound like a hated the Blocks experience. On the contrary. As with all creative pursuits; limitations can be liberating. While there are some annoyances, sure, the sounds on offer are well-selected, modern and eminently playable. You can also expand your palette with packs from RZA, Steve Aoki and more. It’s the most fun I’ve had with mobile music-making. With a fully-charged Lightpad and your phone, you can prod and play for hours. Pound for pound, there’s no other instrument that gives you the level of expression a Lightpad can for its size.
NEED TO KNOW
DASHBOARD OPENS DAWS
Thankfully, ROLI has quickly realised there’s a whole other market of music makers out there who would like to get serious with Blocks. To that end, they’ve released a beta of Blocks Dashboard; a control application that defines the way your Lightpad can behave within your DAW. With just one USB cable, you’ve instantly got an MPE hardware input device for the cost of a plug-in.
You can use Blocks in a variety of ways to control your DAW, as a fader block with four banks of four faders, a Mixer block with four buttons and faders, an XYZ pad, Drum or Melodic block. You can also play Space Invaders or Pong to kill time.
My main creative DAW these days is Ableton Live, but unfortunately it’s among the half that doesn’t natively support MPE, which makes integration a bit of a drag. You can force it to respond to MPE, but it’s in no way simple or neat. When using a Drum Rack, you have to convert every Simpler instance to a Sampler. Then you have to assign the dimensions of touch to MIDI parameters… for each sample. It’s arduous, but once you’ve set up that drum rack, you can save it as a preset. Forcing instruments to work with MPE is diabolical by comparison. First, you have to figure out the patch you want to use, then duplicate that track by the polyphony you desire. Six tracks will give you six-note polyphony. Once you’ve wrangled the Blocks dashboard to output the number of MIDI channels and assigned each voice track a different MIDI input channel, you’re ready to go. Unfortunately, the MIDI note data spreads across all the tracks seemingly randomly; forget trying to edit a performance afterwards. You also can’t feasibly change the patch or alter it in any way without making the exact same change across all the voice tracks. You’re better off treating it like a hardware synth and recording the group’s output to a separate audio track. Like I said, not exactly neat.
Thankfully, other DAWs natively support MPE. Apparently, Logic and Cubase handle it with aplomb, as does Bitwig. I have an original version of Bigwig, not the latest update, but it still works like a dream.
It’s really simple to map the Lightpad, as every built-in Bitwig instrument lets you map Velocity, Timbre and Pressure, which correspond to ROLI’s Strike, Slide and Press dimensions. Most also have Release, which you can assign Lift to. You can also set multiple parameters to the same dimension and adjust the direction they respond too. For instance, I mapped multiple organ drawbars to the Slide dimension, which allowed me to play expressively with their intensity, while they all stayed in relative lock step. It’s astoundingly simple, and would be intensely time consuming to emulate in post.
If you’re a Bitwig, Logic or Cubase user and looking for an affordable path to MPE, get a Lightpad Block. It’ll immediately reinvent things like arpeggiation. Being able to slide notes of your chord around rather than having to trigger them exactly at the next beat so you don’t mess up any note orders adds a whole new level of movement and expression to a simple form.
That’s just one of many examples of the way MPE can revolutionise your music. While there isn’t a huge selection of MPE-compatible virtual instruments available, there’s still enough to seriously consider integrating MPE into your workflow. The Loop and Live Blocks are not for everyone, they’re add-ons for players who get really serious about using the Noise app. I often found it more convenient to not have them connected, because it meant I could have the Lightpad on my lap without having bits de-magnetising. However, I guarantee you won’t regret grabbing a Lightpad to go along with your other controllers, especially if you’re used to bashing away on a Push, MPC or Maschine.