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The Piano Of The Future?

...of $12.8 million—one of the largest in music products history—pledged to ROLI Ltd., its British inventor/manufacturer, has impressed nearly everybody else.

Hailed as “the piano of the future” by CNN, the groundbreaking Seaboard GRAND puts performance parameters including timbre, volume, vibrato, pitch bend, and aftertouch directly under the player’s fingers. Its squishy, tactilely inviting playing surface facilitates intuitive manipulation of sounds much as a guitarist or saxophonist would bend a note or sweeten it with vibrato, without the distraction and detachment from the source associated with using a joystick or mod wheel. Importantly, each key controls expression parameters independently of every other key, enabling, for example, the addition of vibrato and slurs to a lead line while the other notes remain unaffected.

Though its keys are black and gray, the Seaboard GRAND’s layout is completely standard, lending to a smooth learning curve for most pianists. A few are initially unnerved by the surface’s sensual, almost flesh-like feel, but in general it is precisely these characteristics and tactile feedback that many players have found very compelling. It is “organic,” they say, both in the feel of the keys and its path to tonal modification.

“For a guitarist or violinist, it’s second nature to be able to push strings to bend notes or change timbre,” says ROLI Head of Artist Relations Evan O’Brien. “Horn players can do it just as directly with subtle changes in their embouchure. For keyboardists, the Seaboard is very exciting, because it seems like much more of an extension of their normal technique, musical ideas, and creativity.”

Hand-assembled entirely at ROLI’s production facility in the Dalston district of London, the Seaboard GRAND is essentially a super-sophisticated MIDI controller. It ships with a customized version of FXpansion’s Synth Squad Player. However, O’Brien points out that it’s “really easy to get going with many other systems” such as Apple’s Logic, Native Instruments’ Kontakt, and Spectrasonics’ Omnisphere. Planned updates will create a more complete “ecosystem” facilitating plug-and-play interface with more third-party software products. ROLI is also developing Equator, a dedicated Seaboard synth engine that will enable loading sounds onto the Seaboard without needing a computer to access them.

Numerous media accolades for the Seaboard GRAND have been matched by awards recognizing both its advanced technology and its sleek aesthetics. Recent honors include the SXSW Music Accelerator in 2013 and  the Design Museum’s 2014 Designs of the Year Award for the product category, besting leading international hardware companies such as Nest and GoPro. It’s also up against creations from Miuccia Prada, Zaha Hadid, and Konstantin Grcic for the overall award, which will be announced June 30.

ROLI took its first orders for the Limited First Edition ROLI Seaboard GRAND in August 2013 and began shipping last February. Complete with bespoke stand and custom case, it sells for $8,888, and only 88 of these super-premium instruments will be made. Introductory/pre-order prices for the 61-keywave Seaboard Grand Stage and 37-keywave Seaboard GRAND Studio are $2,999 and $1,999, respectively. Pre-orders for these two instruments, which will be available this fall, are already “very strong.”

Intended to fuel increased production, global expansion, and growth of ROLI’s leadership and product engineering teams, the enthusiastic $12.8 million response to ROLI’s Series A investment round came from Balderton Capital (investors in LoveFilm and Kobalt Music Group), FirstMark Capital (investors in Pinterest and Shopify), Index Ventures (investors in Sonos and SoundCloud), and strategic investor Universal Music Group, the world’s largest music company. As part of the deal, Daniel Waterhouse of Balderton and Amish Jani of FirstMark have joined ROLI’s board of directors.

In a formal announcement of the deal, ROLI founder and CEO Roland Lamb commented, “This capital will enable us to scale production capacity to meet growing demand, build our team, and accelerate our product roadmap. The Seaboard is just the first in a line of breakthrough music hardware and software products, and the investment will speed development of core platform products like our sound engine Equator. Ultimately, ROLI’s mission is to create new interfaces that expand the bandwidth of interaction between people and technology, and this financing is a major step towards realizing that goal.”

Lamb followed an untraditional path to spearheading a high-growth technology company. He studied classical Chinese and Sanskrit philosophy at Harvard, lived in a Zen monastery in Japan, and worked as a gigging jazz pianist. He invented the Seaboard in 2009 while studying design under Ron Arad at the Royal College of Art, and developed a working prototype in his spare room before receiving the first angel funding for ROLI in 2012.

In addition to its direct online sales, ROLI instruments are currently available through only two retail partners: Just Music in Berlin, Germany, and Pierre’s Fine Pianos in Los Angeles. The company is “exploring a range of options and establishing key relationships” for additional distribution but is currently focused on ramping up production to whittle down back-orders. ROLI’s growing staff and the newfound investment capital are already having the desired effect. There are no current plans to license the Seaboard’s control capabilities and unique interface to other manufacturers.

Insiders characterize the landmark capital funding as commensurate with the talent, fire, and creative buzz surrounding ROLI’s 33-member team, up from just three only two years ago. Lamb says the stake will aid in the company’s search for “inventors, designers, and entrepreneurs who are passionate about changing how we interface with technology.”

On May 22, ROLI celebrated its rewarding new partnerships with a showcase of the Seaboard GRAND at Abbey Road Studios, which is now a part of the Universal Music Group. The evening featured performances by a Seaboard GRAND ensemble comprising Jordan Rudess (Dream Theater), who has signed on with ROLI as “head of music experience”; ROLI demonstrators Heen-wah Wai and Marco Parisi; and Haken drummer Raymond Hearne. (See video of the performance at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=T-ErKSrKDsc.) Held in Abbey Road’s Studio 2, famously used by artists such as The Beatles and Pink Floyd, the exclusive, super-charged event befit the major push forward for a company with bold ambitions and a truly unique vision.

“We want to establish the Seaboard not just as an ‘alternative controller,’” insists O’Brien, “but as a living instrument that brings a new level of expression and control capabilities to music making for keyboardists and beyond.” Citing the diverse range of artists, producers, and composers interested in ROLI’s Featured Artists Program, he continues, “The Seaboard may not be for everybody, but it could be for anybody—from hip-hop, R&B, and electronic dance and pop artists, to DJs, to virtuosic classical or jazz players like Cory Henry of Snarky Puppy, to film scorers like Hans Zimmer [an early adopter who shared his thoughts about the Seaboard in a CNN feature], and modern funk pioneers like DaM-FunK. It’s really exciting to be a part of their musical inspiration and creative process.”


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