One of the aims of the Blocks range is to make music production more accessible. Thanks to its modular structure and the easy-to-use NOISE app, you can start making sounds with minimal technical know-how. However, the Seaboard Block is also a powerful MIDI controller for more advanced producers. There's a growing number of MPE controllers available, like the LinnStrument, the Eigenharp range and the Haken Audio Continuum. Most of these, however, are extremely expensive, which makes the Seaboard Block the most affordable MPE keyboard controller on the market.
The Seaboard's slick, minimal aesthetic is on the stylish end of the scale when it comes to music equipment. Each key is raised and the sharp notes are marked by white vertical stripes. The case is solid, and the silicone keywaves, while pliable and supple, feel durable. These raised keys take a bit of getting used to, but you'll catch on quickly. You can snap on other Blocks using the magnetic DNA connectors on the side of the unit, which means you can extend the key range by chaining multiple Seaboard Blocks together. Connecting to other devices is handled via USB or wirelessly using Bluetooth (Mac users should check how reliable their computer's Bluetooth is, as Apple's implementation can be flaky). If you own a Touch Block, you can change the sensitivity of the five dimensions of touch, switch portamento on and off and fix note velocity on the fly, which further increases the Seaboard Block's capabilities in live performance.
If you're the kind of keyboardist who loves to use aftertouch and the modulation and pitch wheels to jam out Keith Emerson style, then the Seaboard Block is for you. You can use side-to-side key motion for vibrato while the flat areas above and below the keys let you glide up and down the scale (pitch quantisation is only by quarter note and the gaps are filled in with light portamento). Up-down key slide motion functions in a similar way to aftertouch. For example, you might use it to open a filter or increase drive. Release velocity, meanwhile, can be used to control parameters like envelope release time. It goes without saying that you can go beyond the obvious applications and get as experimental as you want, leading to performances that are more organic than a normal keyboard can achieve. The patches included with the Equator Player sound engine show this off with bass modulation, meandering leads and pads whose complex shifting is controlled by subtle, human variations in gesture rather than by LFOs or envelopes.
The Seaboard Block benefits greatly from compatible software. To take full advantage, you'll want both your DAW and your synth to be MPE-ready. There's a list of compatible software on ROLI's webpage. Most notably, Ableton Live is absent, and when it comes to synths, MPE support is the exception rather than the rule. ROLI has provided workarounds but they have significant limitations. With an incompatible DAW, it's very difficult to edit your MIDI performance after it has been recorded. With an incompatible synth, you can't properly preview your patch before setting up the workaround, and making tweaks afterwards is arduous. If you're beholden to your existing software, you can still get good results using the Seaboard Block as a non-MPE controller, which can send aftertouch, pitch bend and slide on a global basis.
ROLI has been helpful in dealing with the lack of wider support for MPE by including a three-month license for Max/MSP and a free copy of Tracktion Waveform, a serviceable, MPE-ready DAW. Still, a full version of Equator would have been useful to a wide variety of producers. ROLI's Dashboard software allows you to tweak some functions using their Littlefoot programming language, but fuller, Lightpad Block-style support for hardware hackers would be great for audio-visual projects.
As a compact keyboard, it's not a substitute for a full-size Rise. The small range is limiting but makes for a handy travel tool, particularly for Rise owners. It's one of the most expensive compact controller keyboards you can find but the premium price is justified by the design rather than just the functionality. Music is hardly the most lucrative profession, and this philosophy might not sit well with a lot of experienced producers, let alone the untrained musicians that the Blocks range is partially marketed towards.
As with the rest of ROLI's range, the Seaboard Block would primarily suit those who are focused on keyboard performance and willing to base the rest of their setup around MPE support. It does seem that MPE is picking up across the industry (it would be great if Ableton Live supported it), and ROLI will be able to capitalise as it grows. In the meantime, if you've been itching to try out ROLI's technology but couldn't quite justify the cost of a Rise, the Seaboard Block gives you an opportunity.
Ease of use: 4.2