Since 1975, Moore’s Law has held that the processing power of a microchip doubles every couple of years. For musical instruments, however, the pace of innovation has been somewhat slower.
“For the last 400 years, you have been able to control soft and loud by how hard you hit a piano key, but that has been it,” says Roli founder Roland Lamb. “That’s one dimension of expression. We’ve added four more.” Over the last six years, Roli has designed, built and sold the Seaboard – a sensory keyboard made from spongy silicon which is sensitive to finger pressure, allowing its player to modulate the sound with every sweep, slide and vibrato.
When you press in and move your finger, the pitch bends as if you were gliding it along the strings of a guitar. The sound is uncanny, and if you shut your eyes, you couldn’t tell that it was being produced by a midi controller.
“Before now, you couldn’t control a sound like that without years of practising a guitar and having real talent.” A lifelong musician, Lamb grew up playing keyboards and the piano, but he had planned on becoming a philosopher, not an entrepreneur. After winning a six-year scholarship to study whatever he wanted, Lamb resolved to do a PhD in philosophy, but try his hand at product design at the Royal College of Art (RCA) for two years before committing fully.
“I didn’t find furniture or traditional product design very interesting,” he reflects. But I really liked the conceptual side. My philosophical studies had taken me to Asia, and I loved the music – the expressiveness of instruments like the sitar.”
He remembers playing the piano in the RCA cafe, and wanting to be able to control the pitch with a gesture of his body, or use a movement to change the shape of the sound. “With a saxophone or a double-bass, there is a hugely expressive range with beautiful bends and slides, but you can’t play a lot of notes at the same time like you can on a piano.”
Outside the box
Lamb spent the next few years trying to realise that idea – building prototypes and learning about engineering. He tried taking pianos apart to add another axis of motion, and he found that touch screens weren’t tactile enough. Eventually, he hit upon the idea of an instrument which could be played like a keyboard, and all of its sounds could be modulated. “It couldn’t be flat because you have to feel where all the keys are. But you’ve got to be able to move your hands around continuously, so there couldn’t be separate mechanical elements either.”
The most striking aspect of the Seaboard is its unbroken, undulating surface. But it is laid out exactly like a piano keyboard. “This was partly because I was lazy and didn’t want to learn anything else.” But he knew it needed to be instantly accessible to existing pianists. “Successful instruments are always an evolution of something older, because of muscle memory, and music which has been written for a particular community.”
Today, the Seaboard’s diversity has earned it a loyal following of artists, spanning a range of musical genres. Hans Zimmer phoned up shortly after the first model – the Grand – was announced. “He has been a nice adviser to us, thinking about sounds and the product’s use in film. AR Rahman uses it a lot in concerts and when he composes.” Jamie xx, Hudson Mohawke, Steve Angello and Meghan Trainor are also fans.
Endorsement from famous musicians is a bonus for any startup, but it may prove fundamental to Roli’s success. “If your business is in a feature and price competitive market, you can have a very clear view of what you need to do to get your customer. You can segment and get surgical. But you face competitors who may do the same things as you. We’re not subject to a lot of those pressures because nobody else is making exactly what we’re making. But we have challenges around customer education – we need to change habits and build a community which uses the product.” Online videos which show musicians experimenting with the Seaboard are the most effective form of advertising, Lamb says.
For a philosophy student, creating such a technologically complex machine all by himself inevitably came with some challenges. But it wasn’t developing the material, embedding the sensors, programming the software, or overcoming aesthetic issues that vexed him most, but integrating each of these pieces and processes. “Like a high performance car, every part of a musical instrument has to work exactly how it should. And when I was building prototypes on my own, they may have been relatively simplistic from an engineering perspective, but they were advanced in terms of integration because it was all in my head.”
After Roli received its first angel funding in 2012, Lamb hired around ten engineers to work on prototypes for the Seaboard Grand. “They were all much better than me in each of their respective disciplines, but it was very difficult to get everything perfectly integrated. It took time to get that back.”
Having secured $12.8m in Series A funding from Balderton Capital, Universal Music and other investors in 2014, the Haggerston-based startup now employs 90, and offices have opened in New York and Los Angeles. Lamb is finally satisfied that the Seaboard is integrated with its own software. “We’ve been through a long period of development.” First came the Seaboard Grand Limited First Edition, which started shipping in 2014. A stage version with 61 keys has since been released, and a studio model with 37 keys. “These have the sound engine built in, so they work as standalone instruments that you can plug into a speaker and take on tour.
In September, the firm announced the Seaboard Rise. Portable and wireless, it comes with 49 or 25 keys, but requires a laptop to generate sound.
As chief executive, Lamb has swapped toolkit for balance sheet, but his familiarity with the production process remains an asset. By the time he received his first lot of funding, Lamb had built a complete, working prototype of the software and the hardware. “Managing the product development process is helped by the fact that I know a little bit about each of the areas that our 50 engineers work on, and the problems they face because I have the experience of building it all myself first. But development is just one part of a much larger story, and for me, that’s the exciting part.”