I am, primarily, a guitarist. Dabbling in keys and synths has always felt a bit unnatural from a physical standpoint. A keyboard doesn’t respond the way a fretted instrument does. This isn’t surprising, nor is it a bad thing. It’s just not what I’m used to. The better part of a decade into my journey with synthesizers, I still find myself wiggling my fingers as if it’s going to create vibrato, or trying to “bend” one note while keeping the other rooted to create shifting harmonies.
I’ve tried my share of MPE (MIDI Polyphonic Expression) controllers, which can capture some of that nuance. But the Roli Seaboard Rise 2 is the first I’ve played that manages to deliver all of that expressiveness without also being an unmitigated headache in some way. It’s probably my new favorite MIDI controller. But, I still have a hard time recommending it to most people.
The immediately obvious issue is the price. $1,399 is a lot of money for a MIDI controller. There are some MIDI controllers that come close, but they generally have more generous software bundles; more extensive controls (including faders, knobs and pads); transport controls for your DAW; built-in arpeggiators or sequencers; and screens for viewing parameters and browsing presets.
Of course, what those controllers usually lack is MPE functionality. And it’s not like the Seaboard Rise 2 isn’t a premium device. It’s constructed almost entirely from metal, save for the silicone keybed and the small selection of controls to its left. It feels extremely durable, and I’m pretty sure I’d have to go out of my way to do any significant damage to it. Despite that, it’s also surprisingly thin and light. At roughly 33 inches, it’s slightly longer than your average 49-key controller, but it’s less than an inch thick and only a hair over 12 pounds. And that’s despite having a battery that can last eight hours when connected over Bluetooth. For comparison, Arturia’s batteryless Keylab 49 MKII is nearly 3 inches thick and tips the scales at 14 pounds.
I’d stop shy of calling it portable, but it’s certainly luggable. I’ve moved it around my home studio quite a bit and it seems easy enough to drag to a gig, especially if you pick up the $100 soft case.
You’re not buying the Seaboard Rise 2 for the portability, though. You’re here for the continuous “Keywave2” surface. And let me tell you, once you get over how strange it feels it’s pretty incredible.
It’s important to note that I’ve never played the original Seaboard Rise. But I have used many other MPE controllers, including Roli’s Blocks lineup. They’ve all had some sort of significant shortcoming, and the Roli Blocks were borderline unusable. Almost everything I’ve tried has felt either like a novelty or a prototype, rather than a consumer-ready product. (The two exceptions to this being the latest Ableton Push and the Expressive E Osmose, though they’re very different devices with drawbacks of their own.) So, while I’m fascinated with MPE and think there’s a lot of potential in the technology, I came into this review with pretty low expectations.
But, the Seaboard Rise 2 feels like the first time a company has gotten almost everything right in a standalone MPE MIDI controller. The subtle “Precision Frets” make feeling your way around the keyboard much easier. I am not a skilled pianist or keyboard player who’s doing lightning-quick scale runs based entirely on muscle memory. Still, I welcomed their addition. They made it a lot more obvious when I should stop a slide and helped me make sure my strikes were centered on the keys so I didn’t end up sounding out of tune.
The squishy silicone keybed also provides excellent feedback. Most other MPE devices I’ve used have very little travel, if any at all. You might as well be trying to play on a coffee table. Not the Seaboard. The “keys” (if you can really call them that) jut up, giving you a sense for where to put your fingers. The surface gently resists and bunches up under your finger when you’re performing slides, delivering much needed tactile feedback. There’s a lot of depth to the surface, too; this isn’t just a thin silicone skin laid over the top of some sensors. It’s not quite as satisfying as feeling a key bottom out beneath your fingers, but it’s actually easier to coax nuance out of the velocity and aftertouch than on more traditional controllers.
That ability to get subtle shifts in timbre, tone and pitch are what make MPE, and the Seaboard in particular, special. With the right combination of hardware or software, each note played can have its own unique expression. A basic example of this being controlling the filter cutoff of a synth patch with the slide parameter on the Seaboard. That means as you move your finger from the bottom of the control surface to the top, the filter opens up to create a brighter sound. But in this case you can raise the cutoff on the higher notes only to emphasize the melody, while keeping the lower register muted and droning.
Giving each note its own unique velocity, cutoff, et cetera can add incredible depth to even the most simplistic performance. In a more advanced example of how this might work, imagine a software instrument based on orchestral strings. On something like the Seaboard Rise 2, quickly tapping the keys and immediately pulling off could be used to play pizzicato for stabbing chords. But lightly pressing into the silicone surface would produce a slower attack, allowing you to play languid melodies over the top of sharp harmonies. Sliding your finger up to the top could add gentle vibrato to emphasize particular notes, and dragging it left or right would produce realistic glides that are normally only possible on an unfretted, stringed instrument, not a keyboard.
I highlight that example because the Seaboard seems especially suited to scoring work. While it’s fine for playing your typical lead and bass patches, it separates itself from the pack once you start exploring sounds that are slower and have more evolution. The slight dissonance I could introduce by moving one finger just slightly off the center of a key created this spooky atmosphere that I kept getting lost in. Maybe it was just the season I was doing most of my testing during, but all I kept thinking about was how much I wanted to score a horror movie.
Clearly Roli knows this is a strength, because a lot of the presets in its Equator 2 softsynth seem geared toward soundtrack work. Normally, the plugin costs $249, but thankfully it’s included for free with the Seaboard Rise 2. It easily does the best job of showcasing the controller’s various powers. The unfortunate thing is, only a little over a third of the presets are MPE-compatible. And while it’s certainly a powerful instrument, Equator 2 has a number of quirks that keep it from feeling fully polished.
Perhaps the biggest of those issues is that, when you first install it, many of the factory presets are completely broken and nonfunctional. That’s because there are two additional libraries you need to install. But these are in a drop-down list, and there is zero indication that anything else is needed until you actually open the app and it repeatedly tells you that files are missing. I uninstalled and reinstalled Equator and all its preset packs, hoping that would fix the issue. It was only after some Googling that I discovered there were more required downloads hiding right inside the Roli Connect app.
The Roli Dashboard at least feels a little less slapdash, and it’s arguably a more essential part of the experience. This is where you’ll do all the necessary configuring, like choosing whether the Seaboard is in MPE mode or standard MIDI, selecting what MIDI CCs the XY pad controls and setting the sensitivity levels of things like glide and slide. You’ll basically always want to have the Dashboard open because, the unfortunate truth is, MPE is still kind of messy. Non-MPE-compatible instruments and plugins might not work right if you don’t switch the Rise to single channel mode. I’ve found getting MPE-enabled plugins to work properly in Ableton Live 11 a little tricky.
Even when you do get an MPE-enabled instrument (hardware or software) paired up with a controller like the Seaboard Rise, you’ll probably need to do some finetuning to get them completely in sync. For example, you’ll have to make sure the pitch bend range in both the Dashboard and whatever you’re controlling match up. If the Seaboard is set for a 48-note range, but, let’s say, Pigments is set for only two, slides will never land where you expect them and even narrowly missing the deadcenter of a key will result in chords that are painfully out of tune.
When everything works, though, it’s pretty special. The Seaboard Rise 2 is easier to play and more versatile than any other MPE MIDI controller I’ve tried. It’s probably the most successful showcase of what is possible with the technology.
Sure, it’s expensive, can be finicky to configure, and there are limited options for instruments that take advantage of its full expressive capabilities. But MPE-capable softsynths are likely only going to grow in popularity over the next few years. Most people should probably hold out and see what the consensus from reviewers is on the more affordable Seaboard Block M. But if you just want the best MPE MIDI controller you can currently buy and don’t mind shelling out for a premium device, the Roli Seaboard Rise 2 is it.
This article originally appeared on Engadget at https://www.engadget.com/roli-seaboard-rise-2-review-i-wish-i-had-a-horror-movie-to-score-150028305.html?src=rss