I've played instruments for most of my life, but as I've gotten older I've had less time for jamming with bands. That's led me to consider dabbling in electronic instruments that would let me make my own compositions without needing to wrangle other musicians. Of course, both hardware and software can add up fast. (I've wanted Teenage Engineering's OP-1 for years, but just can't bring myself to drop $850 on it.)
That's why Roli's new modular Blocks system caught my eye. The $180 Lightpad controller is both affordable and versatile, distilling a lot of the touch-sensitive technology found in Roli's larger Seaboard into a super-compact gadget. Your iOS device does all the heavy lifting while the Lightpad lets you perform in some unique ways. And, the modular nature of the Blocks system lets you get in at an affordable price while expanding your setup down the line.
That's the promise, anyway, and it's an intriguing idea. Unfortunately, after spending a week playing with Roli's Blocks system, I've found an otherwise compelling concept is let down by some inconsistent hardware. (If you're not familiar with Roli Blocks, this post lays out the basics of how they work.)
It took a lot longer than I would have liked to see this screen.
The first Lightpad that Roli sent me was a pre-production unit, and I ran into lots of trouble trying to get it to work. The recommended firmware update wouldn't install, and without it I experienced uneven performance; basically, the Lightpad block wasn't reliably responding to my fingers. Giving Roli the benefit of the doubt, I had a replacement sent to me that represented the sort of final hardware shoppers will receive. It worked better, but I still experienced some vexing issues.
Once again, my problems started with a firmware update. Once I connected the Lightpad block to my iPad, I tried updating the software through the Roli Noise app, but it failed more than a dozen times before it finally worked. All told, it took an hour before I could start using the system. Not a great first experience.
Things were better once I got the Lightpad working, but there's a pretty steep learning curve here. The Lightpad's main performance interface is either a 5x5 grid of notes (or a 4x4 grid for when you're in drum machine mode). Each of those blocks is a pitch in the 12-note chromatic scale. Tapping a square plays the note, and you can either slide left or right to change the pitch or slide up and down to change a preset modulation effect. The Lightpad is pressure sensitive, too, so a hard press increases volume or intensity compared to a gentle tap.
It's a system that allows for a wide degree of flexibility, which is great -- to a point. The big problem I had when using the Roli Lightpad was that I rarely knew what would happen any time I tapped the block. Using what I felt was a "normal" amount of pressure usually yielded a note much quieter than I anticipated, which meant I had to jam my finger down to get a strong attack. But every so often I'd get a note much louder than anticipated, or I'd accidentally activate a modulation effect without meaning to.
I found some other problems with the interface as my testing progressed. It's great to slide across the pad to move up and down in the scale -- but not all positions on the Lightpad are created equal. If there's a note on the right-most side of the block, there's no way to slide up to a higher pitch; similarly, you can't slide down in pitch from notes located on the left side of the block.
Using the up-and-down modulation feature is also imprecise for notes located in the top or bottom row of the block. If you tap a note in the middle, you have lots of room on the block to move your finger up and down, but tapping something in the top row means there's very little room to slide your finger up and change the effect.
Even more troubling is the fact that you can still slide your finger up on that highest row of notes to change the effect -- but you only have less than a half-inch to work with, which means there's no precision. If you tap a note in the middle of the Lightpad, you have several inches on either side to drag your finger up and down to change the effect. That space is significantly reduced when playing the top or bottom row, so you can activate an effect by barely moving your finger. This is not a good thing.
Ultimately, my experience playing melodies on the Lightpad was hampered by these problems. I just didn't know what to expect each time I put my finger down, so trying to play a repeated bass line with any degree of precision was a lot more difficult than I expected. The problem was compounded when I switched to trying to build out drum beats. For a number of the drum sounds, tapping and holding your finger down plays a pre-set rhythm (those sounds are labeled as "groove kits"). That's all well and good, but if I wanted to try and tap out my own beat, things didn't work out as well. Even on drum kit sounds where one tap of my finger matched up with one drum hit, the Lightpad often didn't catch every time I touched the block.
Once I figured out the Lightpad's various quirks, I could stop fighting them and just go with it, which made for a much more enjoyable experience. The learning curve comes from understanding as best you can what happens when you tap the Lightpad and keeping that in mind as you play. Things get a lot more fun after that. Instead of trying to tap out precise drum beats, I just put a few fingers down on the pad, moved them around and came out with a decent-sounding groove.
The Roli Blocks system also has a pretty robust recording system, which makes it easy to repeat any patterns you come up with. You're given four tracks, each of which has a total of 12 slots to record a musical pattern. Once you've put down some recordings, you can use the Lightpad as a sequencer, tapping to switch between the different recordings and play them back in any order you choose.
The Lightpad isn't the only block that Roli is selling right now. There are also two $80 add-on tools, the Live Block and the Loop Block. The Live Block gives you physical buttons to control a variety of features ordinarily tucked away in the iOS app. You can use it to switch between instruments, change the active octave or scale, turn on the arpeggio feature, add sustain to notes and more. This felt more useful to me than the Loop Block, which gives you access to various record and playback features. For most people, though, the Lightpad alone should be sufficient.
After my time learning the quirks of Roli Blocks, I went back to the question of whether or not the Lightpad is worth my $180. There's no doubt that it has a lot of cool music-making features, and Roli says it plans to add more sounds to the companion Noise app for iOS. The company also announced last week that the Lightpad will soon work as a MIDI controller for Mac and Windows music production apps, greatly expanding its functionality.
Right now, though, I can't quite recommend the Lightpad. The performance inconsistencies made it a lot harder to start using the Lightpad; the time I spent trying to figure out what exactly would happen when I tapped the gadget was more frustrating than fun. And the Noise app for iPhone and iPad lets you perform and record for free without even needing additional hardware. No, the touchscreen doesn't have the same degree of pressure sensitivity that the Lightpad has -- but on a 3D-touch capable iPhone, it comes close.
However, if Roli can address the pressure sensitivity issues in a future software update, I'll seriously consider it. Just adding the ability to adjust how much pressure is needed to activate a note would make a big difference in usability. That alone would probably be enough for me to give the Lightpad a full recommendation. As it is, I suggest checking Roli Blocks out in your local Apple Store first. Or, download the Noise app to your iPhone or iPad and see what you think. At that point you should have a much better idea if Roli's latest will work for you as a music creation tool.