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Synths you've been gone: Vintage tech rules at Musikmesse 2015

Crowdfunded classic reissues and more

+Vids The trend of re-releasing or updating classic synths, which we saw at NAMM in January, continued apace at the biggest musical instrument fair in the world in Frankfurt last week. But for once there was a strong British presence, with innovative new products, as well.

In Hall 5.1, where most of the synthesiser manufacturers exhibit, there was mostly a re-run of Anaheim's new products receiving their European debut, but there were also three British companies in the mix.

Based in Dalston, close to London's Silicon Roundabout, Roli was showing its innovative controller Seaboard which "reimagines the piano keyboard as a soft, continuous pressure-sensitive surface". In short, instead of using pitch bend and mod wheels and a volume foot pedal, it enables control of all these functions on an individual note-by-note basis.

The buzzwords are "disruptive platform sensor technology”. For the musician this translates to: after playing a note in the traditional keyboard manner you can change its volume and timbre by pushing into the soft rubbery keys, and add vibrato or pitch bend by sideways movements.

Rock and Roli

A fledgling UK innovator, Roli has been touting Seaboard since late 2013, but its handcrafted keyboards are finally getting some serious attention and attracted superstar demonstrator Jordan Rudess of Dream Theater. He is more often found on the booths of Korg and Kurzweil putting those synths through their paces. Jordan very kindly did us a close-up one-on-one demonstration of the Seaboard, so you can see exactly how the instrument responds to his playing.

Jordan Rudess of Dream Theater demonstates the Roli Seaboard controller keyboard at Frankfurt Musikmesse 2015

Jordan Rudess of Dream Theater demonstrates the Roli Seaboard controller keyboard

For fans of his more frenetic playing style (and there were many of these crowding the Roli booth to catch him in action), we also managed to catch him performing with a couple of friends over the heads of the assembled throng for his blitz action solo on this uptempo tune. Clearly, Germany boasts more than its fare share of Dream Theater fans.

Unlike the radically new Linnstrument we saw at NAMM, the Seaboard allows keyboard players to leverage their hard-won playing skills with the familiar black and white key layout but add expression directly to each note in the manner of violin vibrato or portamento, without needing to acquire a completely new performance skill.

To my fingertips, it felt like the perfect way to exceed the limitations of the traditional mechanical keyboard without throwing out this basic frame of reference with the bathwater. It may have been the long-dormant violinist in me, but I soon found myself adding volume and pitch variations to individual notes in an intuitive way.

The Seaboard's onboard processor can be used to run the bundled Equator software, which comprises a full audio engine running FXpansion's Synth Squad suite of plug-ins. Equator can also be run under Mac OS 10.7 and later, being triggered from Seaboard's pair of USB A and USB B ports. These also give you access to integrate Seaboard into the full world of MIDI sequencing and virtual plug-ins.

Youtube Video

Jordan Rudess of Dream Theater duets on the Roli Seaboard controller keyboard with band

The Seaboard will come in three lengths of 37, 61 and 88 keywaves (Roli's term for their new twist on traditional keys) and all three models can be pre-ordered now at with prices starting at £1,399. More information from Roli.

The innovative approach of Seaboard has already won Roli several awards – including the Music Accelerator at Austin's recent SXSW film/music festival and the UK Design Museum's Product Design of the Year – before it even ships. Deliveries are expected to begin in June of this year.

For keyboard players looking to move beyond the limited expressivity of traditional electronic keyboards, it certainly looks and feels like the future.

Next page: Sound thinking

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