The surfaces of ROLI products practically beg you to touch them. Unlike the slappy, clicky keys or gorilla glass surfaces on most new tech, they're coated in a responsive, almost fleshlike silicon rubber that's at once alien and intuitive. So what are you waiting for? For the first time in the company's history, it has made an instrument that is decidedly not for musicians. That's the elevator pitch, anyway. Unlike the gorgeous but pricey Seaboard - ROLI's flagship product, which brought squishy, feature-heavy keys to the piano back in 2013 - BLOCKS requires little musical fluency to operate or master. But the low cost of entry (in ability and actual money) is just the beginning of what makes this little brick so interesting.
BLOCKS' 5x5 light grid responds to both pressure and gesture. A hard tap will be louder than a soft one; tapping, holding and gliding a finger will modulate the sound differently depending on which direction you sweep it in, and it will accept as many inputs as you have fingers. Features within the instrument's app can even switch off parts of the grid that would be out of key. Don't know what that means? Perfect - BLOCKS will make it so you never have to learn.
BLOCKS most closely resembles a MIDI Fighter or Launchpad, only smaller. Except it doesn't have to be. Each module can be linked together - and paired to the app via Bluetooth - for a larger, tappable canvas on which to compose. Though the Lightpad module is the heart of BLOCKS, there are two thinner ones - Loop and Live - that make some of the app features more immediately accessible. Linked modules can likewise be charged at the same time. Lightpads run $US180 ($235) each while Loop and Live are $US80 ($105).
Making music creation accessible to amateurs or non-musicians necessitates a certain lack of features (though what I saw of the NOISE app suggests its still fairly robust). Notably, there's no way to add custom sounds to the app, so users will be relying on built-in soundpacks. Then again, a glut of options is sometimes paralysing even for seasoned audio engineers, and as a portable music creation tool BLOCKS seems uniquely fun.
BLOCKS launches today. Check back for a full review in the coming weeks.