Archive for December, 2014

Overall Roli Experience notes – 1 week in

After the first week with the Seaboard, I am quite happy with my purchase.

  • The Seaboard is very high quality.  The Seaboard’s exterior is carefully milled aluminum, all the surfaces are well finished, and there are very elegant details like the engraving at the back of the unit. Oh, and it only weighs 15 lbs!  It is very easy to transport!
  • The Seaboard fully delivers the promise of making a lot of expression available in an approachable package for keyboard players. Having the notes laid out in a familiar fashion, with excellent tactile feedback for navigation is perfect for me.  It splits the difference between traditional controllers and unique instruments like the Haaken Continuum or Eigenharp, which inhabit their own space entirely.  This middle ground feels perfect to me as a player.
  • Roli has been very responsive to questions that I’ve had, and I have had quality interaction via Skype with their support team.  They are working hard to make the Seaboard better and are clearly listening to their early users.  They have been a pleasure to do business with from my first demo at Roger Linn’s house to post-sale support.  A quality outfit.

 

Playing the Roli Seaboard Grand

Playing the Roli Seaboard is a very different than a piano, though the layout is similar.  I’ve touched on several of these differences over the past several days.  Today, I want to concentrate on the actual playing technique and how that compares to other keyboard instruments.

In my initial explorations, I had a lot of trouble with note velocity and evenness, especially on anything that seems piano-like in the base sound set.  So, I switched over to one of my sampled pianos and started experimenting with MIDI Monitor running on-screen.

I had two initial issues.  First, my fingers seemed uneven enough, that I could not play scales or running passages smoothly volume-wise.  Pianos samples are VERY velocity sensitive, and what I could play easily on a weighted controller was uneven on the Seaboard.  It is much more sensitive.  I found that my index finger has a tendency to hit harder than any other finger.  Most synth sounds are not especially velocity sensitive, and so it goes unnoticed there.  My largest problem was sudden MIDI 127’s that jumped out of the texture.  I also noticed that I had very little control over where the aftertouch data started, and I was often starting with aftertouch values larger than the note-on event.   I did figure all this out, as you’ll read below.

The second issue has to do with playing semitones.  Semitones are obviously a core part of music – there are two in every major or minor scale.  The Seaboard manual gives a basic overview of finger techniques for vibrato, pitch-bend, etc and includes a special note regarding semitones:

“Currently the Seaboard cannot play two adjacent semitones simultaneously such as C and C#. They will only bend or jump from one to other depending on how they are played and the pitch bend settings in SGS.”

You can, of course, play them sequentially (as in a scale) and you can play minor 9ths to your heart’s content.  You can play major seconds and every other interval, but not minor seconds.  It isn’t that big a deal, since this interval is normally avoided in tonal music.  Where I have tripped up is in scale playing.  Both I and another pianist friend get pitch bent notes when executing fast scales. It affects legato work in scale passages.  To avoid the pitch bend, I have to cleanly articulate the notes.  It can be minimized with practice and correct technique, but it is there, and in this way the Seaboard is quite different from any other keyboard I own.  Legato scales in a pianistic sense are not fully possible in the same way as other controllers.  The Seaboard demands something close to what organists would describe as “ordinary touch” or ‘articulated legato” , which is a slightly detached legato – not staccato or accented – but not slurred together either.

It should be said that the software that comes with the Seaboard allows one to turn pitch bend off and pitch is just as distinct as on a piano – no in-between.  In a studio setting, this would eliminate most issues, I think.  Depending on the patch and the application, the Seaboard can be set up to turn velocity and pitch-bend off completely.  For me, I purchased the Seaboard specifically for live performance, so I won’t be using these modes.  There is no fast way to change this on-the-fly, and to me, the point of the Seaboard is expressivity!  So, mine will operate with pitch bend and velocity on all the time.

So, for me, this has led to understanding how to play the Seaboard as a Seaboard, not as a piano, or an organ.  This is a very important point.  This is a new instrument.  It has similarities to other instruments. But it is not those things.  It is its own thing and needs to be approached as such.  This is reasonable – all the new expressivity comes with new technique to be learned.  With that said, how can one achieve velocity and aftertouch control and come to terms with the semi-tone behavior of this surface?  I have found that the concepts of “Prepared Touch” and “Articulate Legato” are key to controlling the Seaboard.

Prepared touch is when my fingers are lightly in contact with the surface prior to playing.  This eliminates the finger-drop and powerful wrist rotations that are a part of traditional piano technique.  Starting with my fingers resting gently on the keys and not lifting them from the surface, I obtain very controllable middle values from MIDI 15 to about 70.  I can’t really get above 80 from a standing start on the surface.  If I add a tiny finger drop, I am consistently in the 90-110 range, and any hand/arm weight and 127 is easily generated.  This is very different than a piano, where it is normal to use finger, wrist, and arm movement to operate the mechanism.  It is simply too much force for the Seaboard.  There are no moving parts, no hammer to swing, no friction from dozens of wooden parts.

From a practical perspective, the places where I still “slip into piano mode” are around leaps, arpeggios, and finger crossings involving wrist rotation.  Piano technique is designed to put power into these motions, and it is simply not needed on the Seaboard.  I am sure that as I continue to play on the Seaboard, my finger drop will improve so it can seamlessly transition from a fully prepared touch to a small finger-drop, and then seamlessly into a motion that engages the wrist and small amount of forearm.

Articulate legato is the best way I have found to approach the Seaboard from an articulation perspective.  A pianistic legato slurs the notes together, and at speed,   there is a slight overlap of the keys due to the distance they have to travel to produce a note.  That ever-so-slight overlapping will produce a pitch-bend on consecutive semitones when played on the Seaboard, which is generally not what is desired.  The notes need a very slight separation.  This is exactly how pipe organs were played for hundreds of years.  Bach would have considered it “ordinary touch”.  When playing in a large reverberant space, each note had to have its own start and stop for the counterpoint to be intelligible in the wash of reverb.  The Seaboard wants that same articulation.  When done this way, melodic lines are connected and smooth.

If playing the Baroque clavichord was common, I suspect the Seaboard technique would be completely intuitive to most players.  Given that it has been a few hundred years since clavichord playing was anything other than an oddity, we are going to have to use more contemporary analogies.  For me, this appears to be a hybrid of prepared touch and articulate legato, with small bits taken from organ and others from piano.  From organ, keeping the fingers lightly resting on the keys, and not lifting the fingers to play forms the basis of prepared touch – the standard way of playing pp through mf volumes on the Seaboard.  Piano technique adds a small finger drop to generate forte, and the wrist and arm need only the smallest engagement to generate full fortissimo velocities.  For scalar melodic passages, articulate legato is the normal way of shaping note length that always works on the Seaboard.  Where the desire is to pitch-bend freely between notes, add vibrato, etc, the Seaboard is on its own terms, and the surface readily accommodates those with slides, wiggles, etc.  Finger substitution and other techniques to correctly position the hand and wrist all transfer fairly directly.

The summary is that, like all fine instruments, the Seaboard requires subtle control and practice to master.  It is capable of far more expression than I can currently control in a performance-ready context.  That is to be expected given that I don’t have a clavichord in my studio.  I remain of the opinion that it is as capable of expression as a stringed instrument like the cello., only with the added benefits of polyphony, greater compass, ability to change sounds, etc.  When I wish to emulate a piano, I will use my Infinte Response VAX-77 keyboard, which is wonderful in that context.  I am not a big Hammond player, but if I was, I’d use something with a waterfall keyed.  For all else, the Seaboard is capable of doing amazing things, and I look forward to refining and developing a fully expressive and controllable technique on the Roli Seaboard.

Roli Seaboard Day Five

I was curious about exactly what the Seaboard sends for MIDI data, so I launched a MIDI monitor app that I use.

Analyzing data from the MIDI Monitor application, a couple of interesting things pop out.  Here’s the start of a note:

15:11:43.034 From Seaboard GRAND Note On 5 C4 21

15:11:43.035 From Seaboard GRAND Pitch Wheel 5 0

15:11:43.054 From Seaboard GRAND Aftertouch 5 C4 69

15:11:43.061 From Seaboard GRAND Aftertouch 5 C4 71

15:11:43.068 From Seaboard GRAND Aftertouch 5 C4 73

There is the note on, and an immediate Pitch Bend = 0 message, I presume to make sure that the value is zero’d from any previous playing of that note or controller on this channel – smart and necessary.  Aftertouch is sent continuously beginning 20ms after the Note On event, with a 7ms sampling rate.  Pitch Bend seems to be sampled at 13ms.

15:16:58.592 From Seaboard GRAND Pitch Wheel 2 -138

15:16:58.605 From Seaboard GRAND Pitch Wheel 2 -212

15:16:58.618 From Seaboard GRAND Pitch Wheel 2 -234

15:16:58.631 From Seaboard GRAND Pitch Wheel 2 -180

15:16:58.644 From Seaboard GRAND Pitch Wheel 2 -42

While I doubt this is of any practical use, the main thing I’ve learned from playing with this is that the Seaboard is constantly sending data, at a very fast rate, and I don’t have to press very hard to generate meaningful after touch data.  This is nothing like the almost worthless “Channel Pressure” on most synths.  It is immediate, sensitive, and controllable.  There is also no need for hard “pushing” pressure – it is quite subtle, and therefore important to understand so as not to exert undue pressure and tire the arms.  Even my Infinite Response VAX-77, one of the few keyboards in history to generate polyphonic aftertouch has a definite extra “push” needed to access the aftertouch.  The Seaboard doest not.  If you play a note, you are generating aftertouch data seamlessly and easily, with far more control.

Roli Seaboard Day Four

I realized that the “pitch centers” I mentioned yesterday act much the same as “frets” on a guitar. The reality is that they are larger and easier to hit than the fingerings for a violin, for example.  They are much smaller than the total area of a white key on the piano, but not strange for other instruments.

I regularly find my fingers between the black keys – much more so than on a piano.

I like the secure feeling of the space between the black and white keys for playing the white keys with fingers 2-5.  My thumb easily rests on the white key “ridge” that is at the bottom of the keyboard.

I am not finding myself using the “extra” black key that lives between the white key ridges, but it works great for sliding into that half-step.  I am certain that with time this will be musically useful.  This is one of those extra things that just didn’t exist until the Seaboard came along.

I like touching it.  It feels good under fingers. It is a surface that encourages me to play delicately, but yet responds to aggressive input.  I naturally gravitate toward a prepared touch, effortless technique with the Seaboard that feels good. I will turn my attention to the software and studio integration points shortly, but it must be said that the keyboard works ergonomically better than any I have ever owned.  It is enough like a piano that those of us with that orientation can easily adapt, and yet, it is different in new ways that matter tremendously to the musician desirous of maximum expressive potential.

Seaboard + Solaris = Success

The Seaboard is an interesting instrument because it sends each “finger” on a unique MIDI channel in its most expressive “multi-channel” mode.  If you have a multi-timbral synth or plug-in, you can set the synth to play the same sound on multiple channels and then it works the way one would expect.

 

The John Bowen Solaris is a fantastic synth – easily the most flexible architecture of anything I own.  It is NOT multi-timbral, though.  By default, it sends and receives on channel 1, like most synths.  In the Global setup, there is an “Omni” mode that causes it to listen on all channels.  This works perfectly with the Seaboard.  It sends on multiple channels and the Solaris applies all that data to the currently selected patch.

 

The Mighty Solaris

The Mighty Solaris

The Seaboard only has USB MID – no 5-pin DIN connectors, so I ran it into Mainstage, through an “External Instrument” channel, and then out to a physical MIDI port and into the Solaris.  Everything worked right away.

 

I mapped Poly-AT in the Solaris modulation settings to the VCA level, set the pitch-bend to +/- 12, and I had full control over the Solaris, just the same as the factory soundset.

Roli Seaboard Grand – Day Three

Another significant benefit compared to an acoustic piano is that the effort to make a sound does not change from front to back of the keybed.  A piano or synth keyed is hinged or balanced and some point behind the playing surface.  In a grand, this is a ways off, giving lots of leverage and control.  On  a cheap mini-synth, the hinge is right past the rear edge of the key.  As the leverage decreases close to the back edge of the key, it is harder and harder to play.

The Seaboard is not like this.  There is no hinge, only a continuous and uniform playing surface.  It is as easy to play at the top, bottom, or anywhere in between.  This makes hand positions that would simply not work on a fixed keyboard easy.  The Seaboard’s surface is far more ergonomic in this regard.  The natural attitude of the hand always works, and no compensation has to be made for rigid keys that have varying leverage across their length.

There are also a lot of subtle things that one notices after spending time with the instrument.  There is  an easily-felt “pocket” where the raised edge of the “white key” traditions into the depression between the black keys.  It doesn’t look flat in the picture, but feels flat to the touch, and is identified as the intersection of three points.  This is an easy aim point, and very secure from a pitch perspective.  Similarly, on the white keys that are at the “edges” of a group of black keys, there is a small ridge that runs alongside the black key.  This is the pitch center for that white key, and is easily felt.

IMG_0562

Seaboard Touch Points

 

 

The Seaboard navigates well by feel.  The surface feels good and the pitch centers fall to finger well.  This is an ideal keyboard to work on prepared-touch methods.

i have begun to work out how to rotate correctly for arpeggio work without changing the pressure on the thumb or pivot finger.  It seemed that it didn’t work at first, but it is definitely possible to maintain pitch and volume while moving about.

Roli Seaboard Grand – Day Two

I am starting to find evenness when moving around.  Initially, I would get suddenly louder sounds when moving around.  The piano does not care if you push unevenly or apply unnecessary force.  The Seaboard responds to all this.  It is a subtle instrument, and demands careful attention to detail when playing multiple voices.  Simple two-part moving lines can be beautiful and expressive.

I think that Bach’s Solo Cello works would be excellent expressive practice for the LH.

It is possible to maintain much better wrist position than with an acoustic piano.  By using the whole playing surface, the hand and fingers can naturally fall where ever they need to be without requiring much forearm adjustment.  It is so much easier and more accurate to play between the black keys, and this transforms the ease of fingering many things.

Finger substitution can be done on a single key, even while maintaining an expressive swell.

Playing LH bass is fun and natural.  It feels right, not flat like a piano, but lively like playing a bass or a guitar.  This is a big change.  The notes respond and have variation without feeling “machine-gun” similar.

The key surface feels nice.  It has a slight texture that you can barely feel, but yet it is as easy to slide as to stay exactly in one position.

It is easiest to see the playing surface with side-light rather than overhead light.  Flat overhead light removes the shadows from the surface and makes it hard to see what is what.  Side-light cast shadows and brings the surface texture out.

Playing octaves can be very fast.  There is not as much motion needed to get up and down from the black keys, and you can play the very front of the black keys.  This makes it into one motion, without the forward-and-back feeling of playing an acoustic piano.  So far, I am getting best results by targeting the space right between the black keys – it is easier than targeting the ridge of the white keys.

The keyboard is getting easer and easier to navigate by feel.

I think the key for patches is to go for expressivity first and sheer number as a very secondary concern.  It is capable of a lot of variation with good programming and that is clearly something to take advantage of.

The folks at Roli have done us all a great service by not explaining the Seaboard fully.  There is so much to explore and figure out!  It is a pleasure to just spend time with it, exploring, tweaking, playing, and noticing what else could be done with it.

I am very pleased with the surface, but the satisfaction goes deeper than “I like it” or “it is cool” to “this is meaningful.  It makes something possible that was missing.”  It is a profound instrument and a significant change for synthesis.  This is the surface that keyboard synthesizers need to “come alive”.  Simple velocity sensitivity with channel aftertouch and a mod wheel are simply inadequate as performance tools now that this is available.

Day One with the Roli Seaboard Grand Stage

Yesterday, I received my Seaboard Grand Stage.  I placed my order a year ago, so I opened the box with anticipation.  This is a brand-new 61-note keyboard controller and synthesizer made by Roli (http://www.roli.com/pre-order-a-seaboard-grand-stage).

 

Fresh out of the box!

Fresh out of the box!

It is like a piano in the same way that a flute is like an alto saxophone – both use the same fingering, but otherwise are completely different instruments.  A certain amount of muscle memory and dexterity transfers directly, but just like the embouchure is completely different and requires learning from scratch, so too, the Seaboard has its own technique and possibilities.

Immediate thoughts after a few hours of experimenting with the factory sound set.

1. This is a unique musical instrument.  It is not a piano, or a keyboard, except notionally.  It is going to take practice to bring out its strengths and subtleties

2. It is VERY expressive.  Like a stringed instrument, or an electric guitar on high-gain with compression.  It behaves like an acoustic instrument.  It is very subtle, and small changes make a big difference.  Being able to play a harpsichord would not prepare one for the expressive potential of a piano.  Similarly a piano does not prepare one for the expressive possibilities of crafting notes after sounding them, or re-shaping attack characteristics mid-phrase, or bending pitch continuously.  It is another world and level of musical potential.

3.That said, it is a joy to play.  The connectedness to sound is immediate and powerful

4. It is VERY precise.  The pitch center is very narrow compared to a piano key.  One can play piano keys and as long as you are on the key, there is a fair bit of room to move about for easier hand position.  The difference between using “pitch correction” and not is substantial.  I am learning with it on!

5.  The keyboard mirrors top and bottom. You can play the “black keys” in-between the white keys at the front edge of the keyboard, and vice-versa.  It is symmetrical.  The black keys are also lower in height than on a piano, making it easier to reach over them, between them, etc.  The ergonomics are superior, and will allow the elimination of certain front-back movements required on an acoustic piano.

6. Technique is going to matter.  There is much more resistance than a synth with after-touch.  It is deeper and more resistant, yet it responds to pressure that would not sound an acoustic grand. While a good piano teacher will say not to “push” into the keyed – the Seaboard encourages this.  Correctly using gravity and arm weight and keeping the fingers and wrists properly positioned to transfer the force will be essential or the muscles of the forearm will quickly tire.

7. The degrees between legato and staccato are infinite, and much broader than a keyboard instrument.  Much like tonguing on a brass instrument – there is a wide range of possibility that all has musical application.

8.  It begs to have sounds custom-made for it, and tailored for a player and a musical application.

This is the most expressive musical instrument I have played.  I also play the trombone.  It has a unique ability to glissando smoothly due to the slide.  The Seaboard does this, but can do it polyphonically and over a larger pitch range. All string and wind instruments allow you to alter the sound after starting a note.  The Seaboard does this too, but is polyphonic and you can change sounds at will.   It also has a larger compass than typical orchestral instruments, but retains the ability to significantly alter the attack and timbre with minor physical changes that can be executed at speed while playing.  Pitch bends, hammer-ons, etc are all better than on a guitar, and can be done polyphonically.  Pitched percussion patches are simply delightful to play as a keyboard player and respond naturally.

I haven’t found the speed limit on this keyboard.  I don’t know whether it can repeat single notes quite as fast as the escapement action on a grand piano, but I can trigger repeated sixteenth notes at 150bpm with one finger without issue.  At present it is faster than I can push it.  Since Jordan Rudess and other monster players seem happy, there does not seem to be a trigger issue the way there is on most weighted piano controllers.  This isn’t the instrument to buy if you want a grand piano anyway – that should be obvious.

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