We've been a fan of Roli's futuristic keyboard for a few years now, as we watched virtuosos like Hans Zimmer and Jordan Rudess push the Seaboard Grand to some pretty impressive extremes. That's to be expected; when the Seaboard Grand debuted, it was an $8,888 instrument — not something that most people would consider an impulse buy.
That started to change, somewhat. Late last year, Roli unveiled the Seaboard Rise, which disconnected the software aspect of the keyboard — it requires a laptop or tablet to play versus the standalone capabilities of the Grand — but also lowered the price of entry. A 25-key Rise comes in at $800, while the 49-key version costs $1,200. That's still way more than most electronic pianos / MIDI controllers, but more accessible than before for independent artists and serious hobbyists.
Or, in this case, people who really like playing
TV HBO theme songs.
Roli's Seaboards are part of a (relatively) new category of musical instruments known as polyphonic multidimensional controllers (PMCs) — instruments like the Eigenharp, Haken Continuum, and Linnstrument that could only really exist in digital form. The Seaboard intentionally looks like a melted, rubberized keyboard, but those keys are intended only as guideposts for traditional piano keys. Pressing anywhere between the keys will produce "in-between" notes. Slide your finger up and down the pad — or dig into a note and wiggle your finger a bit — to create a fluid, undulating sound not possible on traditional keys.
With all that potential comes a pretty big learning curve, as hitting a key a little off can produce unintended, "off-key" sounds. (The sensitivity of Roli's "multidimensionality" can be tweaked in software, up to and including making it as standard as a classic piano.) It's amazing how much you come to appreciate having a margin of error of a few millimeters on standard keys.
That's what makes the Game of Thrones theme a fun challenge for the Seaboard. The main melody is played by a stringed instrument, which allows for stylistic flair, but for the most part the notes are punctuated, which requires extra control here. Embellishment is possible but is best when used only occasionally. It can be frustrating, but the kind of frustrating that feels fun and rewarding when you manage to pull it off.
Photography by James Bareham