British music-hardware startup ROLI has just launched its latest product, Seaboard Block, which the company hopes will help it attract more customers who are mainstream, amateur musicians rather than just professionals.
The new device, a £280 ‘super powered keyboard’, is effectively a hybrid of ROLI’s existing products: the Seaboard keyboard which first launched in early 2014, and the Blocks modular music-making devices that debuted in late 2016.
Music Ally spoke to founder and CEO Roland Lamb about how the company got to this stage; what it’s planning next; and how ROLI is trying to open up music-making to as wide an audience as possible.
“I started the company because of my own love of music – my own love of creation,” Lamb says of the origins of ROLI. “The Seaboard came from a particular frustration I had with the piano keyboard. I had been playing piano my whole life and wanted something that would be a bit more expressive. I had tried to play other instruments like bass and saxophone, but I wasn’t very good at them. I had spent years practicing the piano.”
Lamb had moved from studying classical Chinese and Sanskrit philosophy at Harvard to studying at the Royal College Of Art in London in 2009 after winning a scholarship, which is where the seeds of the Seaboard were sown.
While there, he decided to work on musical instruments, and felt he should be able to control the sound of the piano like he could with a saxophone or when bending the strings on a guitar or bass. “I also played stringed instruments and that was totally intuitive to me,” says Lamb, of how he wanted to transpose this musical functionality across to the keyboard.
“I started by taking apart pianos and thinking I could maybe get the key to move on the piano. Quickly I felt that that was not going to work and was not going to be intuitive,” he continues.
“Pretty early on I had an idea that, instead of mechanical keys, it should work more like a surface where you could feel where you were on it – like a wave – and that you play along the tops of the waves if you want to play the keys; and then you slide around to get all the other gestures and all the other sounds and all the other capabilities.”
“I just didn’t want the left-to-right movement, but also to press in and slide and control sound in a more open-ended way. I got super-excited about that. I basically had no technical background in design – and certainly not in engineering.”
Lamb spent the first two years tinkering with crude prototypes and bankrolling his endeavours himself, also setting up the company at this time.
“We got investors in pretty early on,” he says of how the project started to accelerate. “For the first two years, I was just building prototypes on my own as a student. I had a student budget and was doing it all myself […] Then in 2012, I got my first angel investment. By that time, I had built a fully working prototype.”
Since then, ROLI has attracted a series of investors including Index Ventures, Foundry Group, Founders Fund and BGF Ventures – as well as Universal Music Group.
“Over the years, I have raised close to $50m,” Lamb says – the biggest round being Series A funding of $27m in May 2016. “That is partly because we have launched different products and we have shown traction and the value of the company.”
Lamb admits it has been a steady process of feeling out this technology, and what it may be capable of.
“We spent a lot of time at the beginning modelling different acoustic instruments and learning how to control them; it was a good way to develop the language around the instrument, to understand the capabilities and to push the performance of the instruments,” he says.
“You get a lot of expression there that you couldn’t get on a keyboard. From there, I started to explore these other gestures, such as pressing in, and felt that would be really natural to simulate breath on a saxophone. These are things you can’t really control on a piano.”
The aim is the kind of versatility that enables a player to recreate, for example, guitar solos – bent notes and all – on the keyboard, the thinking being that a player can devote their life to learning one instrument but now with a much wider palette of sounds at their disposal.
The second category of instruments the company created was Blocks, aiming to do for percussion that the Seaboard did for keyboards. “If the Seaboard is an evolution of the piano, let Blocks be an evolution of the drum,” is how Lamb puts it.
One block is portable and affordable, was the reasoning – with users able to build up a kit as they progress. “With Blocks, they are modular, so you can add on another Block and build up the capability and make it that you have more scales,” says Lamb. “We wanted it to be that you could play expressively – like with the Seaboard. That way it would become more of a single package for people to create music.”
This was the company’s first play towards the amateur/learner market, as previously the Seaboard had treated a certain level of proficiency on the piano as a given.
“It’s accessible because you can use it with your phone and it’s an accessible price point,” he says of Blocks. “In terms of versatility, you can programme it and set it up to do whatever you want and customise it in ways that has never really been possible before with electronic instruments.”
ROLI now has deals in place to sell its instruments in Apple stores worldwide as well as via its own website. Those distribution channels will play an important role in the rollout of Seaboard Blocks.
“It’s a Blocks version of the Seaboard and it makes our Seaboard technology more accessible than ever,” says Lamb of where it’s pitched in the market. “It’s more portable and more affordable but it really expands the capability of Blocks as a system.”
Like a musical Transformer (the sci-fi cartoon series, not the Lou Reed album), you can snap two together to create a full-size keyboard as well as add Blocks, with all the pieces magnetically connecting together.
“We didn’t want that portability to limit you in terms of capability and that is where the modular system becomes really powerful,” he says. “We have gone from addressing professionals to addressing anyone who is interested in electronic music.”
Asked if these instruments – because they effectively turn musicians into a one-man band – will drive other musicians out of business by making them surplus to requirements, Lamb is diplomatically sanguine.
“I will be OK with that as long as we are making music making much more accessible to a much wider audience.”