BLOCKS & Dashboard Review – Innovative Music-Making

The announcement of the Dashboard software for ROLI’s BLOCKS at NAMM has made these intriguing devices an even better prospect for DAW users, as Andy Jones discovers…

BLOCKS

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Details
Kit BLOCKS
Manufacturer ROLI
Price Lightpad £169; Loop £69; Live £69
Contact Sound Technology
01462 480 000
Web www.soundtech.co.uk, www.roli.com

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ROLI’s BLOCKS are a futuristic set of devices aimed at all levels of music producer – but specifically at anyone wanting to make music on the move, both quickly and somewhat unconventionally.

They take the company’s multi-dimensional touch philosophy – as found on the rather amazing RISE keyboards – one step further by plonking it squarely (literally) onto a wireless modular setup that you can configure yourself. You heard that right – the concept is both ‘wireless’ and ‘modular’.

As usual with Shoreditch-based ROLI, it’s so ‘on trend’ you can almost smell the street food and vinyl stalls. I even feel compelled to drink craft beer as I review it…

The concept

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I’m going to glide over the three types of module available in the BLOCKS system but before that, you’ll need to download the NOISE app for iOS, which is also a great partner for the RISE keyboards. It’s been significantly updated to act as the sound engine for these units; you effectively use them to compose your music and NOISE to make the noise.

Starting with the Lightpad BLOCK, as with the other three, you’ll need to get it connected to the NOISE app via Bluetooth. Easy stuff. Think of the Lightpad as the central performance component and you won’t go far wrong.

“It’s wireless, it’s modular – as usual with ROLI, it’s so on trend that I feel compelled to drink craft beer as I review it…”

The NOISE app has two modes. Song View is where you play and record loops to make songs (with a grid system, rather like Live’s clips), and Instrument View is where you play individual sounds across four tracks to make music (drums, bass and two synths).

Instrument View is also the best place to easily explore the key to the system and ROLI’s philosophy: the now-infamous multi-dimensions of touch. You use intuitive gestures that include these dimensions: Strike is just like hitting a regular note with different velocities; Press gives you an aftertouch-like effect; Glide left and right allow you to use glissando changes between notes;
Slide up and down let you assign parameters to how you move your fingers up and down the screen; and finally, Lift Off can change another parameter as you release the note.

Making music

Before we go onto the other modules, just a quick departure back to the NOISE app and Song View…

This is the big draw of BLOCKS: it makes music making easy. You can launch pre-written loops across the four tracks, but quickly overwrite them with your own and then chain them together to make complete songs. Adding beats is super easy; just press a button and loops will play in time, but then you can record your gestures to bring in all sorts of sonic movement. In fact, you can do this on any of the four instrument tracks, but with the beats, it is particularly rewarding.

The other BLOCKS

When you start to investigate the other BLOCKS, you realise that these are essentially more control options and a better way of controlling features within NOISE. The more you get into them, the more you start using the BLOCKS hardware and the less you use your phone – that is the very point of the system.

The Live BLOCK, for example, has Stay In Key and Chordal options available at the touch of a button, so there’s no fiddling on screen. The Loop BLOCK, too, essentially takes some of the features out of the phone and puts them right in front of you: set loop points, record drum parts and switch the metronome.

The overall music-making experience is good, but as a DAW user, you might feel a little out of control during parts of the process – BLOCKS is aimed at all levels of music maker, after all. However, work with it and you could quite easily use BLOCKS for scratchpad ideas on the road. Yet as a DAW user, BLOCKS has another trick up its multi-touch sleeve for you, and this is where it gets really good…

DAW control

Earlier this year, ROLI announced BLOCKS Dashboard – which is a piece of software, currently in Beta, that enables you to configure your BLOCKS to become different controllers for your DAW (currently Cubase, Logic, Bitwig, Live and others are supported, but check the ROLI website). You have to update NOISE and then the firmware for each BLOCK, which was frustrating, as they need to be at 30 per cent charge to do it (ours were drained completely and took a while to charge).

Once all firmware is updated, it’s quite easy to select new functionality for your BLOCK, as a Browse function lets you choose from factory programs. So, for example, you can have a Melodic BLOCK which acts as a playing surface to trigger your DAW instruments, or a Mixer BLOCK which assigns four faders to a BLOCK to control your mixer.

There are even ways to turn a BLOCK into a game. Then, within your DAW, you have to select which controller is controlled by the four faders – and you have your controller set up.

It is a bit of a faff, if I’m honest – I’m sure there will be templates for popular DAWs in the finished version – and you will need to connect several together to have something like the setup shown above. Hopefully, when the Dashboard software is complete, the experience will be a lot slicker… that’s when these BLOCKs will really come into their own.

Conclusion

A couple of points do need addressing. The first is that you can do a lot of what the BLOCKS music-making side of the system does using NOISE and your mobile phone. However, as you get into the BLOCKS system, you begin to realise that it’s that bit more intuitive, and that the extra modules make the experience a lot more tactile and a lot more fun – especially when you take into account all of those multiple dimensions that your phone can’t do just yet.

The performing aspect can’t be underplayed – you’ll look a lot cooler with the Lightpad on stage than tapping away at your mobile phone.

However, this brings up another point: for performance, you’ll want to have a couple connected together and while the connectors are solid when lying down on your desk, I can see them coming apart when you least want them to when on stage. Whatever your thoughts, you should try out NOISE, the app, as it‘s free and you’ll get a good sense of what it can do and what the BLOCKS system can do for you.

Really, for MusicTech readers, the most exciting aspect of BLOCKS is its ability to control your music software. To have the multitouch expression while playing your instruments in your chosen DAW can add a level of control you won’t get with any other MIDI controllers (RISE aside, of course): and they do look very cool.

Okay, getting the kind of setup shown in the image to the left will cost over £1,200: an expensive outlay for a DAW controller, but even in Beta stage, the process eventually worked well, and integration between gesture control, multi-dimensional touch controls and software is where the possibilities going forward look so intriguing and exciting.

BLOCKS is a good option for mobile scratchpad production, but control over software is where it gets interesting. As usual, ROLI is ahead of the curve on this one and BLOCKS could be the start of an incredible journey; best of all, to a large extent, the company is putting you at the wheel.

Lightpad Key features

  • 15×15 LED matrix Bluetooth controller
  • Includes USB-C to USB-A Cable
  • Dimensions (mm): 94x20x94
  • Weight (g): 250

Loop & Live Key features

  • Dimensions (mm): 94x20x48
  • Weight (g): 160
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