by Scott Billings

Key Change

Everyone should have the freedom to make music, with or without those awkward childhood years spent studying scales and playing “Chopsticks” on grandma’s electric organ. At least that’s the idea behind the Seaboard, a new kind of instrument whose creator aims to disrupt the music-making industry.

“It’s a reimagination, a reinvention of the piano keyboard,” says Roland Lamb, philosophy student turned founder and CEO of Roli, the London-based maker of a digital keyboard that is manufactured by Flex.

The Seaboard doesn’t look or feel exactly like anything most people have played. Unlike a piano, the instrument consists of a matte black slab with rows of long, evenly spaced ripples that suggest the gentle swells of an ocean. “We’ve taken the black and white keys and replaced them with what we call ‘keywaves,’” Lamb says. One online commenter said it looks like the controls for a stealth fighter jet.

 On a Seaboard, you can press down on one of its keys, like a piano, but you can also wiggle your finger, like you would on a violin string, to make the pitch bend or warble.

Photo: Jérôme Sessini/MAGNUM

With the Seaboard, you don’t need the skills of a maestro to take off on a musical journey. On a Seaboard, you can press down on one of its keys, like a piano, but you can also wiggle your finger, like you would on a violin string, to make the pitch bend or warble. Glide your finger up a key to stretch the note like a pedal steel guitar would. Think of it as the theremin’s cooler younger brother.

The Seaboard can replicate the sounds of other instruments, too, including brass, percussion, and electronic and hybrid synthetic-acoustic sounds. “Every single musical instrument has a different dynamic language,” Lamb says. “Some are more percussive, some are more about bends, some are more about the breath, about swells.” Lamb says that the Seaboard can match the dynamic languages of other instruments because its unique interactivity makes it so expressive. “Where the piano brought one dimension of touch, the Seaboard brings five: strike, glide, slide, press, and lift,” he says.

In other words, it’s designed not only to replicate sounds but to change the way we play music. “Throughout the history of the piano, most people played it the way it was intended, which is by striking the keys,” he says. “Because the Seaboard is a single continuous surface, it has all these different dimensions of control.” This allows musicians to be more experimental—and creative.

“Although it looks like a keyboard, knowing a little music theory and piano-playing skills will help, but I don’t think you need to be a piano prodigy to get the most out of this,” wrote one Amazon reviewer who gave the Seaboard Rise, the more affordable version of the instrument, five stars. “There’s never been anything like it before, so there is nothing to reference. Which only means…this now sets interesting standards for writing music.”

Music publications are impressed with the Rise, noting that while the instrument is still in its early days, it may be the next step in the evolution of the keyboard. As music technology magazine Sound on Sound said, “it seems to expand (or even explode) musical horizons in a way that few other electronic instruments do.”

Reviews for the larger Seaboard Grand are also positive. CNN called it “the piano of the future,” while The Wall Street Journal proclaimed, “This can lead to the development of more intuitive ways for humans to interact with digital technology, not just musical instruments, through touch.”

Experimentation and creativity are key when it comes to creating new music with the Seaboard. “It’s very open-ended in the ways people can interpret it,” Lamb says. “Giving people this capability in an instrument—to have all of these sonic possibilities at their fingertips—is very fundamental to the Seaboard. A disruption is built in.”

The promise of a music-making shake-up has attracted some serious investment. In 2014, Roli secured $12.8 million in initial venture capital financing led by Balderton Capital, the London-based venture capital firm with investments in social games developer Wooga and music-streaming service Mog, which was acquired by Apple in 2012. Other investors include FirstMark Capital, a firm that has financed Pinterest and Shopify; Index Ventures, which invested in Sonos and SoundCloud; and Universal Music, which provided strategic funding. The combined investment is considered one of the largest ever in a music hardware company.

“The more I understood what [Roli] was trying to do and where they wanted to go, the more I realized what a great fit they were with Flex,” says Mike Dennison, president of Flex’s Consumer Technologies Group. “In my view, smart and connected doesn’t just mean connected to the cloud. It means, can you talk to the consumer and connect with their ability to make music? In the music space, Roli is going to disrupt the market in a big way. The Seaboard is no different from 3-D printing, where you can take it into a home and suddenly anyone can make jewelry or parts or whatever they need without full-scale manufacturing.”

But disrupting the music industry is a complex challenge. The Seaboard is engineered with never-before-seen interactivity and functionality, but to make real waves in music production, it must be embraced by influential music-makers and the communities that could actually use it to create mainstream music.

Roli’s website is showered with praise from those in the music industry—people such as Reut Feldman, studio manager at Atlantic Records in Los Angeles, and Vasco Hexel, head of the Composition for Screen master’s program at the Royal College of Music. These and other heavy hitters have agreed that the Seaboard is a game changer that opens up worlds of creativity.

 

Roli is going to disrupt the market in a big way. The Seaboard is no different from 3-D printing, where you can take it into a home and suddenly anyone can make jewelry or parts or whatever they need without full-scale manufacturing, says Dennison.

 

Roli is also eager to put the Seaboard in the hands of students. The company offers educational outreach to schools and universities by providing discounts on the Seaboard, as well as lesson materials, online support, and training. Partners include London’s Abbey Road Institute and Guildhall School of Music and Drama, Boston’s Berklee College of Music, and even a Pennsylvania high school—Central Bucks High School West—which hosted one of the first Seaboard concerts.

Roli’s roster of musicians includes Grammy-winning singer Meghan Trainor and Oscar-winning composer Hans Zimmer, who has been a Seaboard fan since the Grand launched, calling it “a new, truly expressive digital instrument.”

Stevie Wonder and Will.i.am have also demoed the Seaboard in recent weeks, according to the company.

The Seaboard’s adoption by well-known musicians might help draw new customers to the instrument. The company has an artist-relations team of influencers in the U.S. and Europe who introduce the keyboard to musicians from a variety of genres and musical backgrounds.

The Seaboard’s two models, the Rise and the Grand, can be found in approximately 200 retail locations in more than 15 countries.

“You’re going to see adoption of the Seaboard occur in two ways,” says Flex’s Dennison. “First in the music industry, which is happening with the current products, and then with electronics consumers in future iterations of the keyboard, now in development. People are going to see that a 6-year-old can play this, create loops, make this really cool musical experience. Then all of a sudden you’ve created a bridge to a world where people are able to make music without being musicians or owning a studio.”

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Photo: Jérôme Sessini/MAGNUM

Instead of having keys, you could have a wavelike surface. You could play on the tops of the waves. Once I had that idea, I became so passionate about it, and I wanted to play this instrument so much myself, Lamb says.

Roli hopes the familiarity of a keyboard, even a reimagined one, will allow all kinds of cultural influencers to immediately understand how to use the Seaboard, then open them up to new possibilities with the tech lurking just below the surface.

“Broadly speaking, the tech you use is better than the tech you don’t use,” says Grammy-nominated musician and producer Moby.

Although perhaps best known for his tech-forward music, Moby grew up playing traditional instruments—the guitar and piano. Along the way, he experimented with all kinds of recording and playing tools, plus a wide variety of recording and production software. He hasn’t come across the Seaboard or played it yet, he says, but it called to mind his experience with music company Pioneer’s CDJ. Like the Seaboard, the CDJ represented a new kind of music-making instrument in a familiar form when it debuted in the early 1990s. The player allowed DJs to mix CDs—a new format back then—in the same way they mixed vinyl records. The CDJ’s interface was a disc that DJs could spin like a record.

“Your monkey brain felt like you were moving a real CD,” Moby says. “But you weren’t. You were moving information coming off of the CD—it was a RAM buffer. It was a brand new tech offered in a way that all of us could be instantly familiar with, and we all bought one.”

Ironically, the newest CDJs don’t even take CDs—all of the music is digital, but you still manipulate and mix songs by sliding discs. “When something has that kind of gateway of familiarity,” Moby says, “it inclines the user to like it, and you have this Pavlovian response to it. Then you can get into the newness of it because your brain judges it as familiar and safe.”

That’s part of the reason Roli’s Seaboard still functions at its most basic level like a keyboard, to invite traditional players into the experience. Without that link to something familiar, adoption could become a challenge. Moby recalls recently trying out a different music-making platform, Ableton Live. The music-production software has an interface that resembles its predecessors’, but it works very differently. “I quite literally came up against a neural wall. It’s been so many years of making music in a certain way, I could feel the synaptic blocks preventing me from using Ableton Live,” he says. “It was like ordering spaghetti and biting into it and tasting walnuts.”

Roli is coding adoption into the Seaboard’s DNA. For one, it has acquired major music platforms. One of the biggest was the 2014 purchase of Juce (pronounced “juice”), a C++ cross-platform framework used by leading audio companies such as M-Audio, Pioneer, and Korg. The acquisition allowed Roli to expand the Seaboard’s compatibility with existing third-party software and develop Juce as a leading framework for creating next-generation interfaces for music and beyond.

The following year, Roli made it easier for Seaboard users to collaborate with one another when it picked up Blend.io, a music software program that lets musicians work together creatively, no matter where they live.

Like the Seaboard itself, the story behind the keyboard isn’t black and white. The instrument is a symbol of its creator’s relationship with art and technology.

Lamb, originally from New Hampshire, was an 18-year-old budding jazz pianist when he decided to move to a monastery in Japan to study Zen Buddhism. After that, he enrolled at Harvard University, where he studied comparative philosophy, focusing on philosophical works written in classical Chinese and Sanskrit. He graduated with highest honors. Lamb eventually relocated to London to get a degree in design from the Royal College of Art, seeking a break from philosophy to engage his lifelong interest in design.

“I wanted to do something more technological, something that really touched my heart,” Lamb says. “So I started thinking about music—how when I was sitting at the piano, I wanted more expression, more layers of control, more possibilities. But I wanted something more sensual, something that would use my own muscle memory. 

“And I had this idea,” he continues. “Instead of having keys, you could have a wavelike surface. You could play on the tops of the waves. Once I had that idea, I became so passionate about it, and I wanted to play this instrument so much myself, I didn’t hear any of the naysayers.”

The Seaboard Grand, the first Seaboard model, was released in early 2014. It was intended for professional musicians and producers who understand how digital sound works.

“For musicians, for keyboard players, the Seaboard has already been a revolutionary device,” Lamb says. “It’s still quite advanced in its functionality. And we’re still in the early stages of developing it for new users.”

The goal now is to make the Seaboard accessible to amateur musicians. Lamb calls last year’s launch of the Rise the first step in making that ambition a reality. To Lamb, the Rise represented a significant and swift improvement in both price and ease of use.

Then, last December, Roli introduced Noise, a free app for smartphones and tablets that lets users try out a virtual version of the Seaboard to give an idea of its capabilities. “When Noise first came out, it was for early adopters who were interested in the new technology,” Lamb says. “But by version two or three, everyone wanted one and everyone felt that this was the future.”

Lamb envisions the Seaboard undergoing a development process similar to traditional musical instruments, albeit more rapid. As he says, “If you think about the violin or piano, they evolved and were refined over hundreds of years. So we want to continue that process.”

That process began with creating a new instrument from scratch.

“Our focus has really been to reimagine the hardware,” Lamb says. “With the Seaboard, you can do stuff that you previously needed from all these different devices and controllers, which in many cases just wasn’t possible.”

The Seaboard essentially combines several once-disparate functionalities right at the user’s fingertips. Lamb suggests that this all-in-one approach is similar to how an iPhone consolidates the capabilities of several machines including a phone, camera, and calculator.

Roli also developed the main software for the instrument.

“We had to create our own sound software that could accept all that high-resolution data and do interesting and cool things with it,” Lamb says.

That includes core applications, much like what Apple developed for its devices.

“To create a revolutionary new experience, you need the revolutionary new hardware and a core set of killer applications,” Lamb says. One of these applications is the Seaboard’s sound engine Equator, which allows users to tap into the full power of the instrument.

And, like Apple, Roli also allows the Seaboard to work with third-party apps and compatible software. The total package—instrument, software, and apps—has been well received.

When London journalist James Vincent tried out the Seaboard for the online news site The Verge, he reported that the strange keyboard took some getting used to. “The Seaboard might be intuitive, but it doesn’t mean there isn’t a learning curve,” he wrote. “I spent about an hour playing with and listening to both the Grand and the Rise, and I only just felt I was beginning to get a grip on the mechanics by the time I had to leave.”

We had to create our own sound software that could accept all that high-resolution data and do interesting and cool things with it, says Lamb.

In the article, Lamb stressed that while the keyboard does come with manual instructions, he wants people to just experiment. “You don’t have to learn how the controls work, you just play and learn as you play,” he told Vincent.

And in response to those who think the Seaboard is hard to play, Lamb offered a historical perspective. “While I was doing my PhD and researching the topic, I read one of the early reviews of the pianoforte,” he told The Verge, referring to the precursor of the modern piano that was invented around 1700. “The guy was like, ‘It’s too difficult to play. No one’s ever going to use this thing. It doesn’t make sense. You can’t control it.’ And people have said that about the Seaboard and really, I think it’s just a matter of time.”

Sophie-Rose Goldsworthy of Polar Front playing music with the Seaboard

Musician: Sophie-Rose Goldsworthy of Polar Front, a band based in Swindon, UK. Photo: Jim Buell

As renowned electronic musician BT says in a Roli demo posted on YouTube, “It’s just a tremendously exciting innovation in keyboard technology. It’s like a quantum leap forward from the piano and the pianoforte, which were the last great innovations in a manual keyboard.”

Lamb’s attitude toward continuing that innovation hasn’t changed. He intends to keep working on the Seaboard, developing it further. “We do feel that the Rise is fully baked now as an instrument,” he says.

“So we want to now work to see if we can make it more accessible, easier to learn, easier to get started, easier to play. All of those kinds of things.”

Lamb is optimistic that there will be a Seaboard for the amateur musician before long.

Flex’s Dennison offers a hint about the Seaboard’s next iteration. “The next product is about adoption,” he says. “It’s about taking that invention and the things that [Roli] created and redeploying it in a different way that’s approachable to the masses.”

Lamb adds, “We want [the Seaboard] to be recognized as an instrument that you could pick up, that will be as easy or easier than a guitar or piano or other instrument.”

Above all, the Seaboard fulfills Lamb’s mission to merge technology and art.

“Making music more accessible and expressive in a digital age will definitely be my life’s work,” he says.

And while there will always be traditional instruments, Lamb thinks that digital will eventually take over, much as it did with film and analog phones. “There are so many benefits you can leverage once a process becomes digitized,” he says.

Even if it takes time to bring amateur musicians into the digital fold, Lamb thinks he and his company are positioned well. “Eventually most music will be made through electronic instruments,” he explains. “And that will represent a very big market over time. We’re fairly early to that scenario but we want to continue our leadership within high-resolution instruments and new ways of making music. And I’m confident the market will come to us.”

Scott Billings is a veteran editor/writer who has worked at The Wall Street Journal, CNBC, and The Street.

  Cover photo: Jérôme Sessini/MAGNUM