Skip to main content

Roli’s mesmerizing Blocks illuminate the way for budding musicians

British manufacturer Roli is best known for its innovative range of portable musical keyboards. The futuristic-looking Seaboard Grand, which launched last year, replaces traditional piano keys with continuous-touch “keywaves” that enable a nearly infinite number of pitches. The Noise, a virtual keyboard for iOS devices, uses phones’ “taptic” engines to approximate the tactility of physical keys. But the company’s newest musical invention is far and away its most transformative. It’s a modular series of accessories called Blocks, and it promises to be one of the most portable, intuitive, and customizable music controllers on the market.

Blocks is the product of years of collective research, said Ruben Dax, a product specialist demonstrator at Roli. “We wanted to create something powerful enough for people to shape music,” he added. “We wanted a system that could grow with you.”

Blocks may be a platform, but its undisputed flagship is the Lightpad Block, a small, black polyurethane block that’s deceptively simple in appearance. Short of a “Blocks” logo in white lettering on one of its four sides, a single USB Type-C connector, and pairs of metal contacts, it could almost pass for a spiffier model of the heating plates that inhabit college dorm rooms. Almost.

The Lightpad Block is best thought of as an instrument panel, Dax said. And in keeping with that vision, it works like an everyday, off-the-shelf MIDI controller. You assign any one of Noise’s more than 128 virtual sounds and instruments in the Noise app to individual Blocks on the Lightpad –or rows of blocks, or multiple columns, or the entirety of the controller’s light-up interface. Supplying a few of the choice’s are musicians Grimes, Steve Aoki, and RZA, who’ve partnered with Roli to produce “signature soundpacks” available from within the Noise app.

The Lightpad Block’s namesake are the dozens upon dozens of multicolored LEDs that sit millimeters beneath its perforated, touch-sensitive grid. When idle, they perform a dazzling array of animations that evoke scenes from ocean waves to whacked-out electronic dance parties. And when paired to an iPhone or iPad, they act as a physical extension of Roli’s Noise app.

It’s impressive hardware. Roli developed the Blocks platform’s magnetic connector, which transmits both power and data, entirely in-house. (The Lightpad lasts about “four hours” on a charge, Dax said.) And it optimized the Roli’s Bluetooth connectivity to perform at “zero latency”: Changes to settings within the Noise app reflect instantaneously on Blocks modules. It’s also eerily responsive: When the Lightpad is configured as an instrument controller, taps of a finger show as ghostly outlines on the Noise app’s interface.

Instrument selections are designated by color. Switch from a flute to a horn, for instance, and the Lightpad’s LEDs might shine red instead of blue, depending on your configuration. Configurations of LEDs also reflect the Noise app’s settings. Tapping a minor pentatonic scale illuminates only the blocks — notes — on that scale.

All the more impressive is the Lightpad’s versatility. Using the same pressure-sensing technology as the Seaboard Grand, the 10-finger touchpad is capable of differentiating between subtle touches, firm taps, and several degrees of force in-between. The quickness with which you release one of the glowing pads makes an audible difference in sound. Swiping your finger across lit “keys” manipulates pitch; spaces between the pads affect the timbre of the note produced. And you can mimic vibrato — the warbling sound produced by a bow moving rapidly forward and back against a stringed instrument — by wiggling your finger.

The Lightpad can do more than just control instruments. It can queue samples as part of looping sequences. You can assign those samples to individual blocks, if you so choose (pressing a colored block triggers a sample, and tapping it again pauses it). And you can pair assigned blocks with virtual instrument controls: from the Noise app’s interface, you can swap between assigned loops and instrument keys on the fly.

Additional peripherals make that manipulation easier. The optional Live Block and Loop Block, both of which require a separate purchase, attach to the Lightpad Block via a proprietary high-speed interface. They add illuminated playback controls, a metronome toggle, a dedicated “record” button, volume controls, and a multicolor progress bar that reflects the progression of the loop or song that’s playing.

When you’ve put the finishing touches on your creation, you’ll be able to share it among users of Noise.FM, Roli’s new social network for music producers. Other users can then download your creations and remix them, or collaborate and share their songs with you. And it’s entirely free, Dax said. The company is hoping Roli’s built-in Noise community — the more than 250,000 users who’ve downloaded the original Noise app — will help get the collective creative juices flowing quickly.

Blocks will also getting a lift in the form of an exclusive retail partnership with Apple. Starting later this year, the entire Blocks platform — the Lightpad Block, Live Block, and Loop Block — will go on sale at Apple Stores around the world. Employees will be trained on how to use and demonstrate the modules. The Lightpad Block will retail for $180, while the Live Bloc and Loop Block will each start at $80.

“Many areas of life have been transformed by the digital,” Roland Lamb, founder and CEO of Roli, said. “Music, though, remains a universal language that everyone understands, but only a few can speak. Blocks will change that, and enable people around the world to experience the joy of music-making for the first time.”

Kyle Wiggers
Former Digital Trends Contributor
Kyle Wiggers is a writer, Web designer, and podcaster with an acute interest in all things tech. When not reviewing gadgets…
How to save your data from Google’s purge of inactive accounts
The Google "G" logo on an Android phone.

Google is about to begin deleting inactive Google accounts, which could mean you’re about to lose photos, documents, and other data that you actually want to keep.

The good news is that there’s a way you can safely hold onto everything, but you’ll need to take action this week to be sure.

Read more
Best Apple Watch deals: Series 9 and Ultra 2 discounted
Someone wearing an Apple Watch Ultra 2, showing the Modular Ultra watch face.

If you're deep into the Apple ecosystem, or you simply want a wearable device that will pair extremely well with your iPhone, then you should be looking to purchase an Apple Watch. Since it was first launched in 2015, there have been several models of the Apple Watch, with features that improve each year. Of course, you'll want to buy the latest tech, so we've gathered all the offers that we could find for the Apple Watch Series 9 and the Apple Watch Ultra 2. For those who want to stick to a tight budget, we've also rounded up bargains for the Apple Watch SE. If you're not too sure about the Apple Watch, then take a look at the other smartwatch deals that we've come across.
Best Apple Watch SE deals

The first-generation Apple Watch SE, which was released in 2020, and the second-generation Apple Watch SE, which was rolled out in 2022, are the most affordable ways of getting an Apple Watch. They don't give up too much in order to keep costs low compared to their more expensive peers though. The Apple Watch SE 2, in particular, still provides comprehensive fitness tracking features, a comfortable fit, and excellent software as it can be updated to Apple's latest watchOS 10.

Read more
How one of my favorite Android phones actually changed my life
Man using OnePlus Open black color with one hand while sitting on a couch.

"Nobody exists on purpose. Nobody belongs anywhere. Everybody's gonna die. Come watch TV." I was reminded of this soul-crushing monolog while doing a rerun of Rick and Morty before diving into the latest season. These lines rattled me, not for their essence, but because they echoed with my low spirits at that moment. Lying on the couch, I curled into the blanket and watched a few more episodes.

I was watching the show on the OnePlus Open and couldn't possibly imagine the same experience using any other phone or tablet. It's not because the OnePlus Open is one of my favorite phones of this year (it is, but that's not related), but because it is one of the most helpful phones with a feature-rich software experience and screen real-estate of a tiny tablet like the iPad mini.

Read more