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New $300 keyboard will mimic sound of any instrument, mixes tracks


Roli Seaboard Block<br />Source: Roli

A U.K. startup is trying to tap your inner composer with a strange little black 12-key silicon keyboard that allows users to mimic the sound and playing style of almost any other instrument.

The Seaboard Block, which launched Thursday, is the latest digital musical instrument from ROLI, a London-based company whose keyboards have become a must-have accessory for many professional musicians and producers, including rapper Rza, electronic musician Grimes and film composer A.R. Rahman.

ROLI, whose previous products have been stocked in Apple Inc. stores, has raised $43.5 million in venture capital from a number of firms, including London’s Balderton Capital and BGF Ventures, Hong Kong’s Horizons Ventures, and Foundry Group, based in Boulder, Colorado.


As with other Seaboard-branded instruments ROLI makes, the silicon keys on the Seaboard Block allow the player to bend pitch, modulate tone and produce effects like vibrato, sounds that cannot be easily replicated with traditional music synthesizers.

But with a price tag of $300, the Seaboard Block represents a further push into the mass consumer market for ROLI, whose earlier products were aimed at professional musicians. The company’s 25-key Seaboard Rise sells for $700; its 88-key Seaboard Grand goes for $8,900.

“We wanted to get a lower price point,” Roland Lamb, ROLI’s founder and chief executive officer, said in an interview in ROLI’s London offices last month. “So we stripped the Seaboard down to its essence.”

Like the larger versions of the Seaboard that ROLI sells, the Seaboard Block’s mound-shaped silicon keys enable a player to make music more expressively than a standard keyboard. “We want to create instruments that are deeply emotive and easy to play,” Lamb said.

“Music creation today looks and feels and sounds very similar to what Bob Moog was doing, with sound engines and controllers,” Lamb said at tech conference in Stockholm Thursday, referring to the famous electronic music pioneer who built the first keyboard synthesizer in the mid-1960s. He said ROLI’s Seaboards represented a major step in the evolution of electronic music creation.

Late last year, the company began pivoting toward being a mass market hardware company when it rolled out the $180 Lightpad Block. A trim, square device with a colorful set of dot-like LED lights embedded in the top, the Lightpad Block produces a range of sounds and mixing effects through desktop software and a mobile app. The LED dots make it easy for someone to visualize how they are making music or to learn how to play a particular piece by “following the dots,” Lamb said.

ROLI scored a coup when Apple agreed to stock the Lightpad Block in its stores. Lamb says sales of the Lightpad devices and other Blocks modules that create special effects, like loops, have been “good” — but he declined to provide specific numbers.

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