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Roli's Blocks are a new kind of surface for music-making

Roli's Blocks are a new kind of surface for music-making


But the software is what matters

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Most people, in my experience, like music. Many people, in my experience, would like to make music. But have you ever tried to make music? It's kind of difficult! There are so many different notes, and you get one note wrong and blam now it just sounds like the cat got into the music room.

I think maybe Roli's all-new Blocks can help. Blocks are wireless, modular, mobile music accessories that snap together and form a little impromptu loop studio when gathered all together. But that's not the really important part. What's important is Roli's new Noise app. It's free, it's intuitive, and it lets you make music. After a half-hour demo from a professional, I made my own beat from scratch, complete with sick flute solo. I've spent a lot of money and time on music gear and software, ranging from Roland to GarageBand, Maschine to FL Studio. And it's not usually this easy to make something.

Wait, so if everything's in the app, what's the point of the Blocks? Well, the main Block you'll want is the Lightpad. It's $179, and it's kind of great. It has a smooth (but not too smooth) rubber surface that feels like a premium drum pad. Behind the surface are colorful LED lights that can define all sorts of different grids depending on what you're doing. Playing a melody? Go 5 x 5. Playing the bongos? 2 x 2 is plenty. The pressure sensitivity is, well, sensitive, although I felt like the "sweet spot" sound of most instruments required more pressure than I'm used to on finger drum pads.

Lightpad is just a dumb brick without the software

But again, a Block like Lightpad is just a dumb brick without the software. The software Roli has made allows you to pick an instrument and then be extremely expressive with how you play it. Take the flute, for instance. Tap it to pipe out a note. Hold it to "blow." Tap really softly and you get breath noises. Tap and drag away from the note for all sorts of other effects, like vibrato. Every instrument is like this. Hammer on and hammer off effects are commonplace, but the dragging effects usually require more work and are way less intuitive than Noise + Blocks makes them. The hi-hat in the drum kit, for instance, can be dragged up for a sort of drumroll, with the distance of the drag defining the speed of the drumroll.

This expressiveness is important because you can't import your own samples or instruments, and you can't tweak knobs or sliders to change how something sounds. You're dealing with a good-sized default palette (120 sounds and loops at the outset), where the individuality of the music you make will come from how you play it. The pressure sensitivity of the Lightpad is key, but you can also get similar expressiveness if you play on-screen with a 3D Touch-enabled iOS device like the iPhone 7 or 6S.

Individuality of the music you make will come from how you play it

The other thing I love about the software is how it makes a bunch of different musical scales easily available, and totally intuitive to play. You can have the notes of a pentatonic C scale light up, for instance, with the other squares showing black. Or you can disappear the black notes, giving you a whole surface of good-sounding notes to wail on. It makes improvisation without theory possible, and I love it.

The other blocks are even less "essential" than the Lightpad: the Live Block and Loop Block are $79 each and expose controls that otherwise might take a few taps to expose in the app. But if you really do go all-in and invest in a "full" setup: Live, Loop, a Lightpad for playing and a Lightpad for launching loops, it's an undeniably great experience. A totally-worth-$516 experience? You'll have to be the judge.

You actually can try it all out first

Here's the good news: you actually can try it all out first before you buy all this gear. You can get the app for free, of course, and just try that. But the hardware itself will be available for demo in select Apple Stores.

Roli previously tried to redefine the keyboard, and maybe it went a little far. But Blocks greatly simplifies the process of making electronic music from conception to performance, and that’s kind of neat.