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Design Products Start-up ROLI Designs the Future of Music

The latest innovation from ROLI – a business founded by alumnus Roland Lamb (PhD Design Products, 2014) – which launched this week, is set to revolutionise and democratise music creation. A touch-controlled modular synthesiser, Blocks enables users to create music through intuitive presses, glides and taps.

‘Many areas of life have been transformed by the digital,’ explains Lamb. ‘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.’

The main component of the system is the Lightpad Block, an illuminated surface made with special tactile silicone. Using breakthrough engineering, the block enables users with no musical training or experience to express themselves through music. Users can select from pre-set scales and set the device to show notes in one particular key, making it impossible to play a wrong note.

The blocks connect through Bluetooth to Noise, a free app for iPhone and iPad, and can also be connected magnetically to other blocks, sharing data to create a single interactive surface. Blocks also acts as a beat-making machine and a Loop Block and Live Block can be added to expand the possibilities of creating compositions and performing tracks live.

Various musicians have been involved with the development and launch of the new project, which is available to purchase directly from ROLI and exclusively from Apple Stores. RZA – a rapper, producer and musician best-known as co-founder of the Wu-Tang Clan – demonstrated Blocks at the Apple Store in Williamsburg. 

‘When you touch it, you will automatically get something out of it’ explained RZA at the event. ‘I think it’s one of the best entry-level devices because you don’t have to know music to make music. Music is something that you feel. Whether you know how to make music or not, or play music traditionally, when you start playing with this, you will find your voice.’ 

The core feature of Blocks builds on ROLI’s first innovation the Seaboard, which Lamb developed while studying at the RCA. The Seaboard is a tactile keyboard that increases the expressive capability of the electronic keyboard by offering additional control over the aural quality of notes. Blocks enables a range of sounds to be created through five different physical interactions. Strikes to the surface sound a note as a piano key might, whereas gliding from side to side bends the pitch of notes, and sliding up and down modulates the sound. Pressing into the surface deepens the sound of notes and the speed at which you lift off the surface controls resonance.

Singer, songwriter and producer Grimes has also endorsed the product. ‘Roli Blocks will democratise music production. It's so intuitive and versatile. I'm always on the go, and Blocks is the most powerful mobile production tool I've ever used.’ Grimes, RZA and electro-house musician and producer Steve Aoki are all contributing signature soundpacks that users of Blocks will be able to access. 

Sharing her thoughts on Instagram, Grimes wrote: ‘It's great for beginners [because] you can do things like choose a scale and then it visually lays it out for you so that if you don't have formal training you can see [and] understand how to compose a piece of music in a specific key.’ 

Lamb graduated with MA in Design Products in 2010 and went on to complete a PhD at the College in 2014. InnovationRCA, the College's start-up incubation programme, supported ROLI in its early stages, enabling Lamb to develop his design innovation into a viable and successful business. ROLI has now emerged as a leader in music technology innovation and the Seaboard has received various awards including the 2014 Design Museum Design of the Year award in the Product category and the 2014 Swarovski Emerging Talent Medal at the London Design Festival.

Lamb took an unusual route to studying at the RCA, with a degree in Classical Chinese and Sanskrit Philosophy from Harvard University. A lifelong passion for playing the piano motivated Lamb to create a more responsive keyboard that would allow for a similar range of sounds offered by other instruments. Despite an initial lack of knowledge in sensor engineering and material science, Lamb used his time at the RCA to experiment, taking apart pianos and keyboards to gain the practical understanding needed to realise his idea.

Design Products provides a platform for students wishing to explore approaches to creativity for purpose. As Lamb’s route into design attests, the programme is open to applicants from a range of educational backgrounds and disciplines. Within the programme, students follow platform-based pathways to determine their own design culture while building a portfolio of work that will locate them in their desired professional context.

Find out more about Design Products in the School of Design, and how to Apply.