Review: ROLI LUMI Keys 1

Has ROLI reinvented piano tuition with their smart and brightly coloured LUMI Keys 1? We don our sunglasses to find out.

REVIEW OVERVIEW

MT Choice
9

MT VERDICT

+ Multicoloured backlights are beautiful and useful
+ Educational mechanics are impressive
+ Colour-note relationship aids musicality
+ Polyphonic aftertouch

– No sustain pedal or pitch/mod wheels
– Key width and depth may frustrate some

LUMI is probably as close as you’ll get to piano tuition without an in-person tutor, and to have polyphonic aftertouch in such a small product is a plus.

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Price £299, $79/year for LUMI Complete app content
Contact LUMI

ROLI’s LUMI Keys 1 is the final production version of the company’s advanced keyboard initially launched on Kickstarter. And while we’re very excited to see a version aimed more squarely at studio musicians and producers, in this review we’re mainly focusing on the hardware and its abilities as a piano/keyboard learning system. To that end, we’ve conducted our review with two of the hardware controllers and the accompanying LUMI app, running on an iPad Pro.

If you want the rainbow…

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ROLI LUMI

You can’t miss the LUMI Keys. Its keys are incredibly bright, with consistent backlighting across the entire playing surface. The plastic keys sit in a sleek and sturdy plastic housing with a rubberised base that stays put. Just having a LUMI Keys on your desk – or better, two – is joyful and invites you to play.

With each device being 24-notes, extending your range is as simple as magnetically attaching another LUMI Keys 1. This magnetic ‘DNA’ connection, developed for Blocks, shares both power and data meaning you only have to connect one via Bluetooth, which is a timesaver.

As far as playing goes, keys on the controller are not full piano width. ROLI describes them as “better sized for the average human hand”. For playing monophonic parts they’re fine, but the narrower keys can sometimes make chords feel cramped. Intriguingly, the keys are the same width as the mini keys on the Novation Launchkey Mini, but that’s where the similarities end. Because they’re significantly longer, there’s a bit more space for chords than with regular mini keys. If you have smaller hands, then this might well be a plus, but if you’re already used to the size of a full-sized keyboard, there is the potential for this to feel a little confusing.

Having a LUMI Keys 1 on your desk is joyful and invites you to play

ROLI also claims that LUMI Keys 1 has 92% of the plunge depth of a grand piano, which in real terms is somewhat misleading. In our tests, there was more like half the plunge depth (around 5mm) before hitting the resistance of the keybed. That makes a big difference to the playing feel.

But, to think of LUMI as piano-like may not be particularly helpful, anyway. When playing, it might be useful to think of LUMI Keys 1 as a big ROLI Lightpad Block with a keyboard playing surface. The feel certainly isn’t as springy as some budget controllers – and that’s a good thing. And if you spend enough time with it, you do get used to the feel of it with the LUMI app. In fact, as soon as we started digging into the learning experience, we virtually forgot about key size.

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One odd omission is a sustain pedal input, given that LUMI Keys 1 is designed to help you learn piano. There are also no pitch or mod controls if you choose to use it as a controller for other iOS music apps. You can get work around the lack of modulation and pitch bend by programming aftertouch to control these parameters, but not at the same time.

Practice makes perfect

ROLI LUMI 1

Connection to the LUMI Music app via Bluetooth is stable and free of any perceptible latency. You can either listen back on your tablet/phone’s speakers or use wired headphones. Sensibly, wireless headphones are not supported because they’d introduce too significant a lag. The only slight frustration here comes from Apple’s decision to exclude headphone outs from iPad Pros, new iPad Airs, and more recent iPhones, so you’ll need an adaptor. But mercifully, these are pretty cheap online.

The app has two main modes: Learn and Play. Learn is for interactive video lessons, while Play gives you access to an ever-growing library of songs, sorted by difficulty, with four styles of notation, which we’ll get into shortly.

For maximum off-the-bat entertainment, we dive into the Play section and pick some classic film and TV themes, hoping to be able to keep up in the Guitar Hero-like Cascade mode where notes fall down the iPad screen towards you. We’re immediately humbled by an advanced arrangement of the Jurassic Park theme. With enough practice, we could probably get close to nailing it, but it re-iterates what we knew already: learning the piano takes time. And, perhaps unsurprisingly, having 24 keys is much harder than hitting four buttons on a Guitar Hero controller.

If you’re picking up LUMI for the first time, you can avoid similar humiliation by selecting songs by difficulty level. These range from First Steps, which mainly follow melodic right-hand parts, through to Expert, which offers incredibly complex arrangements involving two-handed playing.

Back to school

The teachers in the LUMI apps Learn section are approachable and start with the basics

The critical first step with LUMI as a learning tool is to take advantage of the built-in lessons. These bite-sized tutorials come from four approachable teachers and start with the fundamentals. During classes, the keyboard lights up in step with the tutor’s instruction, making the experience both personal and immediate. It’s this impressive level of interactivity that’s the big sell for piano learners. There are also scale and chord practice modes which are useful for building muscle memory and, importantly, drilling the colour-note relationship into your head.

Though the hardware integration with the LUMI Music app is pretty seamless, occasionally the tuition is hampered by the keyboard’s form. For example, when you begin learning songs with simultaneous left and right-hand parts, it can get cramped with only a single LUMI Keys 1. The same goes for some songs in the Play area. However, this is a pretty minor complaint, especially considering how smooth the learning experience is.

Once you’ve been through some of these lessons and begun to get a feel for the correspondence between note and colour – C is red, D is orange, and so on – the Play side of the LUMI app becomes a lot more fun.

Play time

ROLI LUMI 1

The LUMI app is free with around 40 songs, but you can unlock over 400 tracks with the monthly subscription fee of about £7.50 (about £5 when paid annually). There are different versions of many of the pieces to cater to different abilities, as previously mentioned. Versions vary depending on whether you want to play left- or right-hand parts, or both. The ability to play through each hand, in turn, is a smart move, especially if you’re working with only one LUMI Keys 1.

There are also three playback modes for each song: Watch, Practice and Challenge. The first lets you watch the music performed on the screen and the LUMI Keys 1. Practice permits you to slow down the accompaniments to 0.75- and 0.5-speed playback. For the pop tracks, this means time-stretching audio because the accompaniments are well-performed covers of original pop tracks. The zynaptiq algorithm does an admirable job of this. If even a half-time playback is too much to keep pace with, you can also use the Wait mode in Practice which silences the backing and lets you play in your own time – ideal for learning complex parts. Finally, Challenge is a full-on game mode, points and all.

Cascade mode is like Mr Miyagi tricking you into building muscle memory by waxing cars

Helpfully, with a tablet, as opposed to a smaller device, the notes flying down the screen in Cascade mode (aka Guitar Hero mode) almost line up with the keys on a single LUMI Keys 1, helping you rack up those note streaks.

One concern with the gamification of LUMI is how useful it’s going to be in the real world if you’ve learned only to follow notes falling towards you. To put it bluntly, I don’t know anyone who’s become a good guitarist from playing Guitar Hero. ROLI has thought about that, though.

For each song in the Play section of the app, you can view notation in four ways. The most game-like is Cascade mode, and it’s quite addictive. What you might not realise as you’re playing along with songs in this mode is that you’re drilling the meaningful colour-note relationship into your head. Cascade mode is like Mr Miyagi tricking you into building muscle memory by waxing cars.

So, when you move to the next mode, Rainbow, with its enlarged stave and side-scrolling coloured pitch blobs, your fingers stand a better chance of landing in the right places. Then, once you’ve got your head around Rainbow, there’s ColorNote mode which introduces musical staff notation but with each note coloured to correspond to the keys. Finally, Classic mode is regular black notes on a white stave.

Rainbow mode is a blown-up musical stave with coloured piano-roll-esque pitch blobs to transpose learning from Cascade mode to real musical notation

Honestly, we were apprehensive about whether LUMI could surreptitiously get us to learn to read staff notation. However, the Rainbow mode is a remarkably smart gateway to get learners – and seasoned stave-phobic producers – to understand traditional musical notation.

After a relatively short amount of time, it improved our musical understanding and made the lofty goal of playing keyboard seem more attainable.

As your playing improves, there’s plenty of scope to try harder and harder parts. The Final Countdown in Expert mode with both hands is undoubtedly an aspirational piece to play (read: horrendously difficult). It’s one that more than necessitates the half-speed function and ideally two LUMI Keys 1 controllers. But that will set you back another £299/$299. And that’s worth remembering. For the best learning experience with LUMI, you’ll want two.

Song selections

For our money, the musical sweet spot is singable instrumentals such as the Game of Thrones theme. This is doubly entertaining when you change the instrument sound to strings for full dragon-riding authenticity. I Wanna Dance With Somebody is equally successful because it incorporates the vocal melody and the lead synth parts in a well-thought-out arrangement.

Songs that don’t quite hit the mark mostly fall into the modern pop category. Alicia Keys’ Fallin’, for example, should be an arpeggio-laden treat, but it suffers from sheet music-itis. It asks you to try and convey a complex vocal melody with a MIDI keyboard rather than playing the accompaniment.

Synth control

As a controller for iOS synths, LUMI Keys 1 is a blast to play. Again, the Bluetooth MIDI connection is fast and reliable. A click of the LUMI Keys 1’s power button cycles through four lighting modes: Rainbow, Single Color Scale, Piano and Night Mode (dimmed keys that light up when pressed).

In apps that support polyphonic aftertouch such as Moog’s Minimoog app, you can gain more control by setting aftertouch to modulation amount, pitch or filter cutoff. There’s no real interaction between the backlit keys and apps, though. For instance, you can’t change the notes that light up.

There does exist ROLI Dashboard – a control app for Seaboards, Blocks and LUMI – but at the time of writing, this is not bundled with LUMI Keys 1. There are other plug-ins such as ROLI Studio Player and ROLI Studio Drums that are technically compatible with LUMI Keys, too. And we will be reviewing these integrations in future.

Light our way

ROLI LUMI 1

The ROLI LUMI Keys 1 has loads going for it as a learning tool and an attractive keyboard controller. We love the light-up keys. They are gorgeous and far more useful than we’d expected. Seeing notes in colour helps you navigate the keyboard with ease and going back to a regular black-and-white keyboard feels like a let-down.

The feel and key size won’t be to everyone’s taste. It certainly doesn’t feel like playing the piano, and you will get note mistriggers from time to time, but the learning functionality and polyphonic aftertouch outweigh these drawbacks.

Expressivity has always been at the core of ROLI’s products with their pushing of MPE on Seaboard and Lightpad Blocks, so we’d love to see more options in this area. Some kind of pitch bend would be welcome, even if it’s just to play along with vocal parts more faithfully. Equally, for a more authentic piano experience, a sustain pedal input would be a fine addition.

In short, due to the tight integration of hardware and software, LUMI is probably as close as you’ll get to piano tuition without an in-person tutor.

Do I really need this?

ROLI LUMI 1

If you’re keen to learn the piano, this could be the most entertaining way of getting there. There’s no other competitor product that’s this slick and integrated for teaching piano, or one that ties hardware to an app like this. There are other keyboards with lights for learning, but ROLI might well be the most fun.

Key Features

  • 24-note keyboard with DS5.5 width keys
  • RGB illuminated keys
  • Polyphonic aftertouch
  • Comes with LUMI Snapcase
  • Multiple devices can be connected magnetically
  • Interactive songs and lessons via LUMI iOS/Android app
  • Bluetooth and USB connectivity
  • Comes with $50 voucher towards LUMI Complete content library in LUMI app
  • 6-hour battery life

Alternatives

Melodics
$12.49/mo (billed annually)

Designed to improve the keyboard and finger drumming skills of producers, Melodics is a mature learning app for iOS and desktop that works with any USB MIDI or Bluetooth keyboard. With over 800 lessons and 50 courses, the focus is on building practice habits and functional playing technique than learning musical notation, though it does also have a Guitar Hero-style mode.

Casio
LK-S250 and Chordana app
£249

Casio’s light-up keyboard boasts 61 keys and the accompanying Chordana learning app offer a Cascade-like mode, but the user experience lacks the finesse of ROLI’s offering.

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