ROLI Lightpad Block M Studio Edition. Part 1: Hardware. Bluetooth/USB MIDI Controller with LED Touch Surface, USB-C MIDI/Power Port, Bluetooth and bundled ROLI Studio Software for Mac/PC/iOS/iPadOS. Latest version released late 2019. Suggested retail price $199.95 www.ROLI.com
The ROLI Lightpad Block M Studio Edition is the newest version of a handheld MPE-compatible alternative MIDI controller and software bundle offered by the England-based company ROLI. The hardware is unique enough and the software components are so extensive, especially with recent updates, that this review will be split into two parts. This review, Part I, will focus on the hardware, and Part II, included in the next issue of College Music Symposium, will focus on the software. Best-known for the Seaboard piano-style MIDI keyboard controllers, ROLI is a leader of the new MIDI Polyphonic Expression standard (MPE), approved in January 2018 by the MIDI Manufacturers Association (MMA). MPE-compatible devices can control multiple parameters on each note in a polyphonic texture, individually shaping pitch, timbre, and other expressive elements in MPE-compatible software. These MPE-compatible controllers and softsynths now enable a performer to easily perform with greater nuance, such as being able to lower the cutoff frequency of a filter while increasing the volume of a single note within a chord being held.
At 3.7” wide, 3.7” deep, 0.86" high, and just over a half pound, the Lightpad Block M can be played from a tabletop or held in one hand and manipulated by the other. A fully charged built-in battery is good for four hours. The provided USB-C to USB-A cable allows one to connect it to a computer, charger (not provided), or powered USB hub for playing and/or charging. Connecting to a computer via USB also enables one to reconfigure the device and transmit MIDI information. As with other ROLI devices, it has 6-pin proprietary DNA connectors, two on each side in the case of the Lightpad, to magnetically connect ROLI devices to each other, including Seaboards, sharing power and MIDI information. Bluetooth MIDI is also possible on iOS, iPadOS, and Mac OS devices. (Microsoft is still developing viable Bluetooth MIDI on Windows for MPE use.)
One controls a Lightpad Block by touching, pressing, and dragging across the top surface. A silicone surface layer covers small microkeywave touch spots (15 wide by 15 deep, totaling 225 points) for interaction. The microkeywaves and resulting grooves are just high enough to give users a tactile reference for touch, drag, and pressure without feeling like keys or buttons. Bright multi-colored glowing lights provide essential visual feedback. Lightpad Blocks are reliable and sturdy but intended only for finger interaction. One should not use pencils or percussion sticks on the device.
Touching, pressing into, and dragging across the Lightpad Blocks generates ROLI’s five-dimensional MPE data. These five dimensions on each location are Strike (how hard the finger touches at the start), Glide (moving left to right while holding down), Slide (moving back and forth while holding down), Press (pressure into a spot after a finger has made contact), and Lift (speed of pressure while releasing a finger). I found it more productive to keep fingers close to the surface, as small movements have enough force and speed to create accurate and expressive performances.
ROLI Lightpad Block comes with a collection of applications and configuration software, ranging from sliders and faders to drum pads. As mentioned earlier, the possibilities are so varied that examples and details of the configure software and softsynths, Part II of this review will be covered in the next issue of Symposium.
Although users are familiar with touch and release, taking full advantage of the other three dimensions, such as dragging a finger left and up while holding the finger down, takes some practice to create expressive and nuanced performances. The lights and colors provide useful feedback on the five dimensions when playing. Hand sized, they are convenient for carrying along to sessions or sitting next to or on top of a keyboard workspace. Since it is small and portable, and quick and easy to reconfigure (changing from sliders, to drum blocks, to XYZ pad), it has quickly become an essential part of my computer music work area. The combination of tactile and colored light feedback and flexible software in the device offers a variety of users, including those with disabilities who might have difficulty with other instruments, an opportunity to perform and shape sounds. Additionally, it could be an affordable starter device for folks interested in exploring MPE possibilities and working with ROLI’s five-dimensional touch.