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Thu January 9, 2014
Music Interviews

This Expensive Rubber Mat Could Be The Synth Of The Future

Originally published on Tue January 14, 2014 10:06 am

Consider the piano: Invented sometime in the late 17th century, the instrument has been through several iterations in its centuries-old life. For example, the type of piano on which Bach or Mozart wrote looked and sounded very different from the piano we know today.

Now, an American inventor named Roland Lamb is trying to take the instrument another step further, having developed a fondness for the piano at an early age.

"I grew up in rural New Hampshire," Lamb says. "I was home-schooled. So the only interesting things in the house were books and the piano."

Lamb says that experience left him with a nagging desire to get more out of the instrument.

"I remember reading about Thelonious Monk, of whom it was said he was searching for the space between the black and white keys," Lamb says. "So he'd always play these little chromatic clusters. And it was like he was pushing the instrument to its limit. And I thought, you know, maybe this is a question for design? Maybe we could reinvent the piano and actually make it capable of playing those notes between the keys."

Lamb, 35, founded a tech startup in Britain called Roli (after his own nickname), based in a studio and workshop in East London, to create an instrument that could do just that.

Lamb describes the Seaboard as "a futuristic version of the piano." Actually, it kind of looks like a cross between a keyboard and Apple's iPod: It's clean, sleekly designed and just a few inches thick. But instead of individual keys, there are two rows of rounded bumps that look like hot dogs sliced in half and made of grey silicone. Lamb says musicians can literally dig their fingers into these molds to create different sounds.

"It's a soft material," Lamb says. "At first, it feels strange and alien and different — especially for piano players, because they're so used to the cool, smooth touch of piano keys."

However, he says, once musicians get a feel for it, this squishy keyboard allows them to do things they can't do with typical synthesizer keyboards.

To demonstrate, Roli employee Heen-Wah Wai gave me a side-by-side demonstration. He says a bass line played on a standard keyboard sounds stiff, like it's pretending to be another instrument. On the Seaboard, however, Wai says he can bend and slide notes as though he were actually playing a double bass, which he does by rotating his fingers across the silicone bumps and sliding them along the edge of the keyboard.

Wai says the Seaboard's rubbery surface also allows him to control the intensity of each individual note by digging his fingers deeper into its soft material.

"You can press harder or softer to control the volume, to simulate the volume swell of a stringed instrument," Wai says.

As a result, a single player is able to sound like a full ensemble of musicians.

"If you close your eyes, you can imagine each key has a kind of bow in it and has that kind of orchestral feel," Lamb says. "And each key can be controlled separately, so it gives the effect of five or six people with cellos playing different notes at different volumes."

Conceptually, Lamb says, these innovations have been possible for a long time. But it's only lately that computer-processing speeds have advanced enough to turn the idea into a reality.

"To create this, we have to read data very, very rapidly," Lamb says. "And five or 10 years ago, even the kind of benchmarks within the industry wouldn't really have been enough to achieve what we're achieving today."

That being said, what about the playability of the instrument? Rob Gentry, a Roli employee who demonstrates the Seaboard to potential buyers and investors, says the instrument feels natural and intuitive — but not necessarily effortless.

"You need to be a little more precise when it comes to playing," says Gentry, who's also a musician in London. "You can play a little out of tune, for example, if you're not careful. But that's like anything. It's just practice. Whilst it's really heavily based around a keyboard, it's its own instrument."

One other caveat: Buying a Seaboard will set you back anywhere from $3,000 to $4,500, depending which size you get.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Consider the piano. Invented sometime in the late 17th century, the instrument has been through several iterations in its centuries-old life. The type of piano that Bach or Mozart composed for looked and sounded very different from the instrument we know today. Now, a new high-tech piano keyboard called the Seaboard is trying to take it a step further. Christopher Werth met its inventor in London and sent us this report.

CHRISTOPHER WERTH, BYLINE: Roland Lamb developed a fondness for the piano as a kid almost out of necessity.

ROLAND LAMB: I grew up in rural New Hampshire, and I was home schooled as a kid. And we had no TV, and the only interesting things in the house were the books and the piano.

WERTH: But he says that early experience left him with a nagging desire to get more out of the instrument.

LAMB: I remember reading about Thelonious Monk, of whom it was said he was searching for the space between the black and white keys. So he'd always play these, like, little chromatic clusters.

(SOUNDBITE OF PIANO MUSIC)

LAMB: And it was like he was pushing the instrument to its limit. And I thought, you know, maybe this is a question for design. Maybe we could reinvent the piano and actually make it capable of playing those notes between the keys.

WERTH: So Roland Lamb, who's now 35 years old, founded a tech start up called Roli, named after himself.

LAMB: This is where we do our physical prototyping.

WERTH: At this workshop in east London, Lamb's staff is building the Seaboard.

LAMB: It looks like a futuristic version of the piano.

WERTH: Actually, it kind of looks like a cross between a keyboard and Apple's iPod. It's clean, sleekly designed, just a few inches thick. But instead of individual keys, there are two rows of rounded bumps that look like hot dogs sliced in half and made of grey silicone. Lamb says musicians can literally dig their fingers into them to make different sounds.

LAMB: It's a soft material and at first, it feels strange and alien and different, especially for piano players because they're so used to the cool, smooth touch of piano keys.

WERTH: But, he says, once they get a feel for it, this squishy keyboard allows musicians to do things they can't do with typical synthesizer keyboards.

LAMB: Try it now. Try it. Turn the piano down a little bit.

WERTH: To demonstrate, Roli employee Heen-Wah Wai sits down to play a bass line on both a Seaboard and on a run-of-the-mill electric keyboard to compare them side by side.

LAMB: All right. Sounds good.

HEEN-WAH WAI: So here we have two of the same - exactly the same double bass sounds.

WERTH: Heen-Wah starts with the standard keyboard...

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WERTH: ...which he says sounds flat and, well, like a keyboard pretending to be a double bass.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WERTH: Now, listen to Heen-Wah play the same tune on the Seaboard.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WERTH: Heen-Wah can bend and slide notes as though he were playing a double bass by rotating his fingers across the silicone bumps and sliding along the edge of the keyboard to slur notes like it's a bass string. And he says the Seaboard's rubbery surface also allows him to control the intensity of each individual note by digging his fingers deeper into the keyboard's soft material.

WAI: You can press harder or softer to control the volume, to simulate the volume swell of a stringed instrument.

WERTH: Which means a single player like Heen-Wah can sound like a full ensemble of musicians. He switches the Seaboard to the sound of a cello as Roland Lamb and I have a listen.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

LAMB: So if you close your eyes and you imagine, each key has a kind of bow in it and has that kind of orchestral feel. And each key can be controlled separately, so it gives the effect of five or six people with cellos playing different notes at different volumes.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WERTH: Conceptually, Lamb says these innovations have been possible for a long time. But he says it's only lately that computer processing speeds have advanced enough to turn the idea into a reality.

LAMB: To create this, we have to read data very, very rapidly. And five or 10 years ago, even the kind of benchmarks within the industry wouldn't really have been enough to achieve what we're achieving today.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ROB GENTRY: Ooh, the computer is going crazy.

WERTH: That's Rob Gentry. He's a local London musician who works for Roli, demonstrating the Seaboard to potential buyers and investors. And he says the instrument does feel natural and intuitive. There's just one caveat.

GENTRY: You need to be a little more precise when it comes to playing. I mean, you can play a little out of tune, for example, if it's - if you're not careful. But that's like anything. It's just practice. Whilst it's really heavily based around a keyboard, it's its own instrument.

WERTH: Oh, and buying one will set you back anywhere from three to four and a half thousand big ones, depending on which size Seaboard you get. For NPR News, I'm Christopher Werth, London.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Singing) No one loves you more around here. No one loves you more around here not like me, not like me, not like me.

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

You are listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.