Roli Lightpad Block Review: Worth The Learning Curve
Roli makes unique MIDI controllers with soft, highly sensitive silicone surfaces. What makes this particularly exciting is that the surfaces let you dynamically bend pitches and ‘shape sounds’ based on how much pressure you apply.
The Beatmaker Kit bundle Lightpad Block M (M for Microkeywave Surface) and the Loop Block. When used with audio production software, it’s an incredibly powerful and impressive tool.
The Beatmaker Kit is only an entry-level set in Roli’s ecosystem of modular and multitouch MIDI controllers, with the Seaboard Rise at the top of the hierarchy at nearly £1000.
Despite being one of Roli’s more affordable kits, the Beatmaker Kit still isn’t cheap. We try it out to see if it’s worth the price and how useful it is to fledgling musicians.
Price and Availability
You can buy the Beatmaker Kit directly from Roli for £249.95/around US$326 (stock is expected to return after 3 April). Individually, the Lightpad Block M costs £189.99/around $248 while the Loop Block costs £89.95/around $117.
The Beatmaker Kit bundle is also available from John Lewis for £209 (at time of writing) and Amazon for £249.95/$299.95.
Design and Build
There are a couple of features that make Roli devices unique, and the Beatmaker Kit is no exception. First, is that it’s made of a soft silicone surface that can manipulate pitch and the quality of the sounds based on how you press the pad. Second, it’s modular, so you can connect multiple devices together in any configuration.
The sides of the Roli Lightpad Block and Loop Block feature magnetic connection pins, or ‘DNA connectors’, as the brand calls it, that snap effortlessly to other Roli controllers and blocks. This means you can build an elaborate production dashboard using a combination of controller blocks, Lightpads and keyboards, like the Seaboard.
The Blocks pair via Bluetooth to your phone (iOS only), though you can use a cabled USB-C connector to your laptop too if you prefer desktop use.
The Lightpad Block’s defining feature is that its soft silicone surface is embedded with a colourful underlying dot matrix of hypnotic LED lights that also respond to the quality of your touch. Apply more pressure and it glows brighter, swipe a finger across and the lights make a trail. At its least it’s entertaining to look at, at its most it’s an excellent visualization of haptic feedback. (See our review of the Sphero Specdrums, which uses colours and touch to make music in a slightly different way).
You can play with five gestures – strike, glide, slide, press and lift – which build Roli’s 5D touch vocabulary. Together, it gives you a great sense of tactile control when you sculpt a melody or beat. You can tune the 5D responsiveness through Roli’s Noise app (for iOS only, more on this see below).
The Beatmaker Kit’s Loop Block doesn’t produce any tones on its own. It simply lets you have useful production controls at your fingertips (like ‘Play, ‘Record’ or ‘Metronome’) when using the Lightpad Block – controls you would otherwise have on the Noise app or via a third-party program. If you’re just starting out, you might as well get the Lightpad Block on its own. The Loop Block feels like a nice-to-have, but non-essential.
The Loop Block might be useful to some users who prefer physical touch, however the Noise app alone offers the same functions and much more flexibility, so we preferred using the app directly.
Features and App
You can’t do much with the Beatmaker Kit without software – or a ‘digital audio workstation’ (DAW) if you want to use the technical music production term – and due to this, Apple users may have a slight advantage over Windows and Android users.
In our experience, it was much easier to connect the Lightpad Block and start experimenting with sounds on a MacBook. The devices are supported by Garageband, so we just needed to fire off the program to get started.
In contrast, our experience on a PC felt glitchy and the devices stopped responding at times.
Windows users will need to install DAW software. Thankfully, Roli bundles software and offers discounts on market leading programs. Software that’s included are Tracktion Waveform and Ableton Live Lite, while you can get discounts on Strobe2 Player, Cypher2 and 6 months access to Melodics, a desktop app with gamified tutorials to learn MIDI keyboards, controllers and drums.
Also included is the Roli Dashboard (for desktop) that lets you see all connected devices, access compatible apps and software, and customize how the Blocks respond.
If you’re a beginner, the best place to start is with the Noise app. Again, Apple users get a leg up as Noise is not Android supported. It’s also where you can tune the 5D sensitivity of the Lightpad Block.
You will need to pair the devices via Bluetooth before starting. We learnt we needed to pair the Lightpad Block first on its own, without it connected to the Loop Block, for it to be recognised.
The Noise app itself fashions a clean and sparse UI – just the type of visual design you’d expect from a premium product. While the minimalist interface is visually pleasing, it’s perhaps a little too minimalist. At first go, it’s likely to leave you scratching your head wondering where and how to start.
There is a help button in the top right corner of the screen that provides small snippets of direction, but there’s still a lot left to the imagination. There are bite-sized tutorial videos in the app too, but again, these feel a little too short. The longest video is only a minute long. To really make the most of the app you will need to consult Roli’s online support section. We found this page useful to get us started.
The app lets you compose a loop up to eight bars long with up to four tracks: one track for the beat or bass, and the rest for other instruments.
This is where you can get creative with tones and effect packs. The app comes loaded with several options, which should be more than enough to experiment with and get the creative juices flowing. Another impressive feature is you can customize the musical key the instruments play in, and the key style (Locrian, Whole Tone, Arabic and more). You can also customize arpeggiated tones, and chord tones.
Noise is an excellent springboard to help you familiarise yourself with the device and its features before you graduate to more sophisticated software. You can also export your creation as a .wav or for Ableton.
The Lightpad Block M offers a wealth of creative options for professional music makers and hobbyists alike, though to the point where it may be overwhelming to start. Yes, there’s a steep learning curve, but once you get the hang of it, it’s a lot of fun.
You can use the Beatmaker Kit with Garageband, Ableton and several other advanced production software, as well as Roli’s app Noise. We would be excited to see support for Android in the future and a UI that maintains its minimalist design, while allowing more intuitive use. The Loopblock also doesn’t feel particularly necessary if you’re just starting out as you can get a greater degree of control just via the app itself. Of course, it may be better suited to those who do use various DAW software and would prefer having easy access to oft-used controls.
We recommend the Roli Lightpad Block to those who are genuinely interested in music production and have the patience to learn how it works with the software – there is after all a lot you can do, and it’s great fun to use. Plus it’s ultra-portable, which gives you the freedom to create music wherever you are.
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