In This Issue
Roli Seaboard Rise MKII MPE Keyboard Controller – the Synth and Software Review
Marty Cutler got his hands on the new version of this highly expressive instrument
A quick thumbnail refresher course: MIDI Polyphonic Expression (MPE) is a fairly new addition to the spec that lets you control individual notes independently, rather than affecting all notes on the same MIDI channel the same way.
Rather than using the standard pitch wheel to shift everything, for example, an MPE keyboard would bend just the notes you want to bend – as with a guitar string. Typically – and on the Roli Seaboard Rise MkII – each key senses when you move your fingers sideways.
Likewise, vertical motion on the key sends a separate MIDI control message for that note alone, and pressure on the key sends Polyphonic Aftertouch. MPE has been an official part of the MIDI spec for a few years now, and it is rapidly approaching mainstream acceptance. Quite literally, it opens up many new channels of expression.
Roli was an early entry into affordable controllers expressly designed to support MPE. They have winnowed their Seaboard line of controllers down to the Seaboard 49 MKII, with some modifications to the original unit in response to user input.
Above board. The first noticeable change from the original Seaboard is its blue-tinged aluminum chassis. It looks great, but this change is more than a cosmetic – it provides well-defined contrast to the black silicone playing surface carried over from the original design. That’s no small thing if you are playing a dimly-lit stage.
The new Seaboard’s keys are also a bit wider, a significant improvement if you’ve played the original and tagged adjacent notes by accident.
Roli builds on the tactile nature of their controller with the addition of embossed “frets” on the keys (they call them Keywaves). These provide tactile guides to the pitch “center” of each note, making it far easier to stay in tune – or stray from dead center – without sounding amateurish and sloppy.
Confession: I’m not a great keyboardist, but the Seabord Rise MK II not only made my playing sound better, it encouraged me to take chances by making broad pitch swoops accurate. You’ll find ribbon controller strips above and below the Keywaves. They generate pitch bend and any other MPE controller. What’s more. it’s polyphonic, so if you’re feeling lucky you can play completely free of frets (or keys). The Keywave embossing can provide a visual guide.
Other than the Keywaves, little has changed surrounding the instrument’s playing surface. The control panel includes three illuminated faders that default to adjusting the Keywave sensitivity to Glide (pitchbend), Slide, and Pressure. Slide maps the vertical motion of a finger along the key. As with Pressure, Slide can be assigned to a number of different parameters.
The Seaboard senses both attack and release velocity (which you’d normally assign to the release segment of a sound’s envelope). An X-Y Touch Pad controller is freely assignable through the Roli Dashboard.
Side order. Things have changed somewhat around the left side panel. There’s no power supply, and it’s not a great loss as the new instrument draws power and charges via a USB C connector. Charging the instrument takes about three hours and lasts for around eight.
There’s a port for a foot pedal, and an 1/8″ TRS jack to attach a breakout MIDI Out port. I’m not a fan of breakout attachments in general; things can get messy enough on my desktop, and a built-in port is less exposed to damage. Nonetheless, the original Seaboard only supported MIDI over USB, so if you needed to connect external synths you had to do it through a computer. The option to connect directly to your hardware is a welcome improvement.
As with the original Seaboard, you can connect MIDI wirelessly through Bluetooth with a quick trip to the Audio MIDI Setup app. I didn’t perceive any latency or other response issues using the Bluetooth connection.
Well-adjusted. For all of its improvements, transitioning between a standard MIDI controller and an instrument expressly built for polyphonic expression has its hurdles. Keeping pitch accurate can be a challenge when the slightest sideways movement can have a drastic effect on tuning; if you’ve played violin, slide trombone, or fretless bass, you understand.
Don’t let that discourage you, because the Roli provides the tools to help you refine your expressivity. If you set a lower threshold for sensitivity (using the above-mentioned touch faders), landing on a Keywave left or right of center won’t affect the initial pitch until you purposely wiggle your finger. Similarly, you can scale back the response along the vertical axis, or pressure.
The included Roli Dashboard app gives you graphic feedback to fine-tune controls and select the controller types. But the Seaboard faders let you make adjustments quickly and dynamically in real time.
For devices that aren’t MPE ready, you can switch the Seaboard between being a single or multi-channel MIDI controller. The multi-channel setting provides a limited degree of polyphonic expression to synths that don’t yet support MPE.
Round the equator. Roli ups the ante considerably with the inclusion of some terrific software, the most remarkable of which is Equator 2. It’s a full-featured synthesizer with several oscillator types and rich modulation features that fully exploit MPE control.
Equator 2 was built from the ground up to support MPE. It sounds great, with a hefty balance of emulative and fanciful programming, and it has plenty of tools for expressive synthesis.
Also free with the Seaboard, the Roli Studio Player has a generous sampling of additional libraries for the instrument, including other Roli-supported synths such as FXPansion Strobe 2 and Cypher 2, with a useful control panel to put sounds in motion through MPE as well as other parameters. The browsers are set up well, making for easy choices.
Hopefully, someday Roli will consider releasing 61- and 88-key Seaboards again, but the current 49-key version strikes a reasonable balance between range and desktop real estate. The remarkable playability and expressive brilliance of the instrument is in its own class. I recommend Roli Seaboard Rise without reservation.