by Anders Johanson November 22, 2020 9 min read
In every area of nearly every industry you have the companies who are steadfast and reliable, and then you have the Nintendo’s of the world - the companies who are always doing things that seem a little “out there” compared to everyone else, but are extraordinary and push boundaries in their own ways. While Sony and Microsoft push forward and create updated versions of their much-loved systems without too much else going on, Nintendo is always doing something new and crazy. The Wii, the Wii U, the Switch, the 3DS - none of it stuck to any type of pattern, and, aside from maybe the Wii U, all of them were successful. Neither route is more right than the other, there is room for all types of creativity and innovation, but there’s something to be said of companies who continue to change not only themselves but the industry at large. When the people at ROLI debuted the Seaboard several years ago people weren’t quite sure exactly how to receive it.
ROLI’s own description of the new product is as follows, “Evolved from the piano keyboard, the Seaboard is a new musical instrument which bridges the gap between acoustic and digital music by putting the control of pitch, volume and timbre right at your fingertips.” The idea of using a keyboard and having the ability to touch it and manipulate it in ways that a normal keyboard wouldn’t allow you to didn’t initially seem like something people would want. As time went on more and more people came to realize and understand exactly how innovative and unique this product was, and the Seaboard took off, giving way to new versions and eventually other product lines from ROLI. Where the Seaboard might throw some people off is in the membrane-like quality of the actual keybed itself, this new product takes inspiration from the classic look and feel of piano keys that everyone is familiar with.
Originally pitched as a KickStarter campaign product that would help people learn music through color-coded prompts on the keyboard itself as well as an accompanying app, ROLI released the LUMI Keys with a slightly different intention than originally described. Rather than pairing with an app for music instruction, the keyboard is now being marketed as just another piece of studio gear. While cool and no doubt functional, this has caused some backlash among the people who supported the campaign, as contributors are frustrated that their money went towards something that wasn’t quite what it was promised to be. Another case in an ever-compiling list of KickStarter campaigns that either flopped or turned into something else, the LUMI Keys is bound to receive more backlash as time goes on, but the actual product that is now being released is still a special offering in itself. It’s understandable that people feel slighted or even misled now that the product is hitting the market as it appears that there is not going to be an app, or even any instructional functionality, with the LUMI Keys that will be available for purchase. The KickStarter campaign aimed to raise£100,000, or $132,949.90 USD, but went on to blow past that number, raising a total of£1,629,014, or $2,165,489.04 USD. To have that much invested in a specific product and idea and then turn around and make something similar but not exactly what you promised is, well… a different type of decision to say the least.
Nevertheless, there is still a new product on the way from the people at ROLI, and though its announcement comes with a healthy dose of some controversy, the final product is still an exceptional feat of versatility and creativity, all packed into a sleek and concise form factor. If you’re familiar with the ROLI Seaboard and the way you can interact with it then this new product will feel like a natural progression from there. If you’ve never used the Seaboard, then this new offering from ROLI will be an interesting leap from what you might be used to as a keyboard player.
LUMI Keys, the new keyboard from ROLI, keeps the original parameter manipulation idea from the Seaboard, but packs it into a smaller form factor with a keyboard reminiscent of actual piano keys. While the Seaboard’s keybed, at a glance, looks like one continuous piece of material, which is literal but also a symbol of the continuous flow of music and performance, the LUMI Keys holds true to the classic look and feel of synthesizer keyboards, giving you a more familiar surface to work with. The keyboard is backlit with bright colors that, depending on what setting you have activated, will represent different functions and features of the controller. Or, if you don’t need it to have a practical function or indication, you can just assign lights to the keys simply to make it look cool. LUMI Keys offers, as ROLI calls it, an expressive dimension to your playing and the way that the keyboard interacts with your software instruments. Each key has pitch bend and aftertouch that you can manipulate just by touching the key - no need for a pitch or modulation wheel on the face of the unit. While you can attach it to ROLI’s BLOCKS line of products for more functionality, all you will need to get started using this product comes in the box. Building off of the BLOCKS line of products, ROLI has included the magnetic linking technology from their modular BLOCKS in the new LUMI Keys, so if you have more than one LUMI Keys unit you can connect them together just by placing them next to each other. Your digital audio workstation will recognize how many keys are active without any other calibrating or customizing needed. Each unit is 24 keys, or two octaves, so you can create a 48-key, 72-key, or even a 96-key keyboard by chaining them all together, and the product is designed in such a way that you won’t even notice where the transition points are between each of the smaller keyboards.
With all of the different ways to interact with the keyboard across the different touch capabilities and visual guides, ROLI is marketing the LUMI Keys as the world’s first four-dimensional keyboard. It’s easy to see how intuitive the controls are by just watching videos, so the marketing for this product is spot-on. The actual unit itself doesn’t offer very much in the way of knobs on sliders, only giving you exactly what you need to plug in and play.
The LUMI Keys come with four different functions that each have their own characteristics and personality. Despite the fact that this is a distinctly new product from ROLI, their signature design and capabilities from the Seaboard and BLOCKS lines are still very much at the heart of the LUMI Keys. The innovative interaction with a keyboard will push your creativity to places you may not have expected to go, just based on the way you work with this keyboard. Here’s a brief description of each of the LUMI Keys’ four functions.
When using the keyboard in Glide mode, moving your fingers from side to side on each key will alter the key’s pitch, essentially becoming a vibrato technique like with a stringed instrument. This type of functionality can turn a regular live performance into something very expressive and different each time, but it also has a place in the recording studio! Use the Glide function to get your patches to sound exactly the way you want them to without any need for tedious automation or pitch-altering plugins. Just play it in the way you want it to sound and move on to the next thing.
If you are using the LUMI Keys in Press mode, pressing down on the keys in different places and at different velocities will alter the timbre of your sound. From soft and light to hard and heavy, or anywhere in between, the Press mode will allow you to give more shape and depth to the sound of your synthesizer. You can even manipulate multiple keys in different ways at the same time, allowing for one note in your chord to be played softer while others come in a little more aggressive and loud, and then sliding that note up to its full velocity to match the others. The Press functionality gives a lot of room for variance each time you play a note.
Setting the LUMI Keys to the Lift function provides a truly unique response. Upon lifting your finger off of the keys it will retrigger the note but to a setting that you determine. This setting can create some interesting dynamic shifts and percussive elements in a track depending on how you play the note in and what you have the release parameters programmed to. Going from soft to suddenly loud, or the other way around, can give your piece more character than you would be able to achieve otherwise.
Strike, the fourth and final setting of the LUMI Keys, is the one most similar to how a normal keyboard would function. Simply hit the keys and hear your sound! Having this option among the other more unique options gives even more of a sense of familiarity to the LUMI Keys, as it isn’t just a novelty product with gimmicky functions, but it can actually be a normal keyboard if you need to use it in that way (which you undoubtedly will).
Right now ROLI is offering an introductory pre-order price of $269.00, and after the pre-order period ends the price will go up to its normal price of $299.00. In addition to the keyboard unit itself, ROLI is offering a Limited Time Launch Bundle that includes a ROLI Snap carrying case to protect your keyboard in your backpack or other storage area, a $50 voucher for ROLI’s website, three ROLI Studio sound packs, and the ROLI Studio software suite that runs as plugins in your digital audio workstation and is optimized to be compatible with any of ROLI’s product lines - a total value of $247 worth of extras. That’s nearly an entire additional keyboard’s worth of add-ons for this bundle.
The ROLI LUMI Keys offer a deeper hands-on approach to playing a keyboard than any other device available on the current market, with the exception of the ROLI Seaboard. Its pitch-altering and other parameter-modulating functionality is one of the more unparalleled design features that you’ll see, and you can do things with it that you simply cannot do with other units without the help of post-production processing and automation. The LUMI Keys are compact while still being fully-functional compared to other smaller keyboard units in its price range or lower, but it’s understandable if the asking price is the thing that ultimately steers you in another direction. Just know that what you’ll be able to do on the LUMI Keys in terms of features and functions is entirely exclusive to this product, so if you’re trying to find something similar but in a different form factor or price range you just will not be able to. The pitch-bending and aftertouch technology in each key are what makes this unit stand apart from the others in its class.
If you're looking for a decent travel MIDI keyboard than you may be in luck. The ROLI LUMI is MIDI compatible with the ROLI software or 3rd party software. That makes this this keyboard a pretty low cost portable MIDI keyboard. In terms of dexterity and strength, there have been some conflicting reports that the ROLI LUMI hardware feels slightly on the cheaper side (but you get what you pay for). Being made from a plastic polymer, there's no doubt that this board can get banged up pretty quickly if you're a bedroom producer tossing this into a backpack..
It’s hard to truly comment on the disappointment the KickStarter backers may be feeling without having actually contributed any money to this specific campaign myself, so I’m not going to say anything like “It’s cool despite all of that” because that’s a blanket statement that doesn’t need to be said. As someone who has contributed to other KickStarters where the end result was similar to this one, it definitely is a bummer, even if you do still end up with some sort of product after the dust settles. All I can do is comment on what ROLIis releasing, and what theyare releasing is an innovative and different product when put up against other things in its price range. The ROLI LUMI Keys will be a unique addition to a live set up, especially when paired with some of the other controllers in their BLOCKS range of products. Its uses may just be too niche for some people out there who don’t want to spend $300 on a couple of features that they may or may not end up using, but again that’s where the beauty lies in this product - only the ROLI LUMI Keys and ROLI Seaboard can do what they do. If that’s worth the price tag to you, and you can see yourself using this product, then by all means go for it. It’s hard to deny the technological accomplishment that is this keyboard, but its inception and backstory just leaves a bitter taste at the finish.
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