One of legendary inventor Bob Moog’s quests in life was to design an instrument controller with greater expressive capabilities than traditional keyboards. He wanted a keyboard that let players produce vibrato and shape timbre using the same fluid, natural motion they use to play notes, like most non-keyboards. If Bob were alive today, I suspect he would be thrilled about polyphonic multidimensional controllers (PMCs) such as the Roger Linn Design LinnStrument, Eigenlabs Eigenharp and Haken Continuum Fingerboard.
Two years ago, London-based company Roli launched a PMC called the Seaboard Grand. Aimed squarely at keyboard players, it got a lot of attention and sparked a lot of desire. At $8,888, however, the price of the 88-note model was way more than most musicians were willing to shell out. Roli recognized that a better price point would boost the Seaboard’s chances of surviving and recently introduced the Rise, an affordable 25-note version with most of the same capabilities as its pricier counterparts.
Look, Ma, No Keys!
The all-black, slightly wedge-shaped Rise is surprisingly thin, surprisingly heavy and sits comfortably in your lap. Its playing surface is a thick sheet of elastic silicone with 25 raised ridges molded into keywaves. Although the keywaves are the approximate length, width, and spacing of piano keys, the Rise has no moving parts. Like a keyboard, the keywave surface has “black keys” that stand in higher relief than the “white keys.” The only markings are thin white stripes on the “black keys.” I found it a bit disorienting to be playing an all-black near-keyboard that had black keys where white keys should be and white stripes where black keys should be.
The keywaves sense five types of expression: velocity, Aftertouch, release velocity, vertical movement and horizontal movement. Roli calls these dimensions Strike, Press, Lift, Slide, and Glide, respectively, aka “the five dimensions of touch.” Producing vi-brato by wiggling your finger to subtly vary pitch is definitely more expressive than using a modulation wheel because you’re directly controlling depth and speed simultaneously. In addition to the usual channel Aftertouch, the Rise can respond to individual finger pressure by sending MIDI on up to ten channels simultaneously.
Above and below the keywaves are 3/4"-wide flat sections called pitch ribbons. Though you can use these to play the Rise like an Ondes Martenot or electro-theremin, they’re most useful for sliding into notes by moving your finger from a ribbon to a keywave. Even with the Glide parameter up full, though, you can’t do an entirely smooth glide because the pitches are stepped.
To the playing surface’s left are illuminated buttons, assignable touch faders and an assignable x-y touch pad. One pair of buttons steps through octaves, and another pair changes presets. Illumination on the three faders indicates their current settings. The power button doubles as a switch to select either Expression or MIDI mode. In Expression mode, the touch faders determine how Glide, Slide and Press respond to your playing dynamics. In MIDI mode, they control whatever MIDI CCs you choose.
On the Rise’s left side, a 1/4" pedal jack accommodates a footswitch or pedal for modulating any destination you choose. A USB Type B jack connects to your computer, carrying MIDI data and providing power to the Rise, and a USB Type A jack connects to mobile devices. A connection for a third-party power adapter lets you charge the Rise’s internal lithium polymer battery in much less time than USB. You’ll need to use the internal battery power if you want to connect to another device using Bluetooth.
I should also mention that the Rise comes in its own hard foam carrying case to protect it from the rigors of the road. For protection at home or in the studio, the optional Rise Flip Case ($130) is a semi-rigid cover, very much like an Apple iPad Smart Cover, that folds into a stand for mobile devices.
The Software Side
Although the Rise has buttons and faders for real-time performance control, it lacks any kind of display or physical controls for global settings. That makes its companion application Dashboard essential for managing performance parameters such as MIDI channels and modes, CC assignments, dynamic range curves, and so on. Dashboard is also where you download and install software and firmware updates.
Roli’s bigger Seaboards, the 37-note Grand Studio ($1,999), 61-note Grand Stage ($2,999) and 88-note Grand Limited First Edition, contain an onboard synth engine powered by Linux. The Rise, however, is strictly a MIDI controller. It works with any MIDI hardware or software instrument, and because it’s class-compliant, it appeared immediately in Audio MIDI setup when I connected it to my Mac via USB. The Rise delivers the biggest bang, however, controlling Roli’s included soft synth, Equator (see Figure 1).
|Fig. 1: Making the most of the Rise’s enhanced expressive capabilities, the
Equator soft synth packs a lot of sound-design capabilities into a clearly
organized graphic user interface.
Equator runs in Windows or Mac OS X, either standalone or as a plug-in; a player for the iPhone should be available by the time you read this. One thing I appreciate about the standalone version is that you can undo or redo your most recent change. I also like that Equator can fill my display at the click of a button. I wish all soft synths supported these two functions.
Though optimized for the Seaboard, you can play Equator with any MIDI controller. A browser lets you choose from 127 factory presets that show off its capabilities, or you can create your own. Equator is specifically designed to take advantage of the Seaboard’s five types of touch modulation, with graphical controls for changing expression curves that display real-time feedback as you play. In the GUI’s top half, the Synth view appears by default, and you can access the Mixer and Global views by clicking on tabs. The GUI’s bottom half contains all your modulation controls with sections for keywave parameters, touch faders and touch pad, two LFOs and five freely assignable envelope generators.
Equator’s signal path is stereo throughout, beginning with three DSP-generated audio oscillators. You can choose from 49 digital waveforms, and an FM module lets you configure the oscillators to modulate one another in any of four combinations. You also get two stereo sample-playback sources with a selection of 55 multisamples. Samples include pianos, guitars, choir, orchestra, strings, mallet, and flute, along with synthesized sources that have names like Outerpad, PM Coconut, and Wallet.
Each sample source has its own multimode filter, as does the pink and white noise generator. You can route the combined output of the oscillators, samples, and noise generator through two additional multimode filters. All five filters are identical, with the usual lowpass, highpass, and bandpass types, as well as notch, comb, and an assortment of state-variable filters. Stereo effects include ring modulation, EQ, chorus, delay, reverb, and unusually sophisticated bitcrusher and distortion processors.
Equator requires some pretty hefty lifting from your computer. Running it on my 7-year-old, 8-core, 3.2GHz Mac Pro with plenty of memory and OS X 10.9, it frequently sputtered as I played—something no soft synth has ever done on my computer. According to Roli’s minimum system requirements, it needs a more up-to-date processor—a 2.5GHz i5 or faster. By the time I finished my review, I had a brand-new, quad-core, 4GHz iMac Retina running OS X 10.11, and everything worked perfectly. Nonetheless, you should be aware that this synth eats CPUs for breakfast.
Rising Above the Fray
The Rise does most of what the more expensive Seaboards do, albeit with a physically narrower note range, and it does it so well you have to wonder why the other Seaboards are so expensive. Granted, they have internal sound engines and the Rise is only a controller, but the included soft synth is identical to their internal synths.
If your computer can handle it, Equator is very capable and fun to use. Its combination of DSP waveforms and sample playback gives it a sound all its own, and its nuanced response to your playing makes it the perfect match for Roli hardware.
I’ve played several PMCs and own a Continuum, and the Rise looks like the one most likely to succeed in the marketplace. The price is right, its possibilities are vast, and it’s similar enough to a traditional keyboard that the learning curve isn’t particularly steep. At the very least, you should get your hands on one and take it for a spin.
Pros Easiest PMC for keyboardists to learn. Includes a top-notch soft synth that takes advantage of its strengths and has a stereo signal path all the way through. Very affordable compared to other PMCs.
Cons Difficult to see in low light. Can’t perform entirely smooth glides. Equator soft synth is a processor hog.
Among the current crop of polyphonic multidimensional controllers, the Rise is the most affordable and among the easiest for keyboardists to play.