Not ready for prime time
Reviewed in the United States on 4 April 2019
I was hoping these little blocks could be used simply and quickly to make drum loops and songs, but everything about them is difficult.
The Beatmaker Kit, which is made up of the Lightpad Block M and the Loop Block, is an interesting idea which just doesn't work very well. The primary device is the Lightpad Block, which musically operates as a pad (so you can play drums or other sampled instruments on it), but can also be used as a minimal controller for certain DAWS (at least Garageband and Logic). It apparently can also be programmed to control other software, but that is beyond my skill and knowledge as a beginner with this device.
I bought the Beatmaker Kit because I was looking for a small, simple device for making drum tracks, and, on the surface, it seemed like this could be the thing. But, as discussed below, the included software ranges from bad to ok. More significantly, the surface of the Lightpad M, a kind of hard, malleable plastic, is just not very sensitive. When tapping from softest to hardest (whether in MPE or regular MIDI mode), you get about a range of four different volume levels (possibly just three, but I'm giving them the benefit of the doubt). Changing the "strike" sensitivity in the Roli Dashboard did not change this at all. This is four fewer volume levels than the pads on a drum machine could give you thirty years ago. You can also make additional textures with other sampled instruments from the MPE "expressions" - slide, glide, pressure, and lift - but these don't make any difference with percussion instruments, where the main thing is how hard and fast they are being hit. So it's not very good as a drum pad, and the Seaboard Block , which also has about the same sensitivity to striking on percussion instruments, has a greater range of control and ability to make music utilizing the MPE expressions, rendering the Lightpad M superfluous. (Note also that I have not been able to figure out how to get the Seaboard and Lightpad M Blocks, when connected together in an app or a DAW, to be able to play different instruments - you get the same sounds from each. Perhaps there is a way to program this, but it is certainly unobvious.)
I was also hoping that this set would be plug and play, but it is not. It has taken me a couple of dozen hours to figure out what works and what doesn't work so far. There is almost no documentation in the box. There are a few online video tutorials by Roli, but they operate under the assumption that you will be able to do what they are doing onscreen right away, which is highly unlikely. There are also manuals for each Block buried deep in the Roli website, but these are very basic and mostly just cover the physical elements of each Block. So there is a lot of trial and error (mostly error) when you are getting started.
The Blocks are designed to be used via Bluetooth (for phones and tablets) and via USB for computers. (Supposedly, you can also connect a Block via USB to a pad or tablet via the Apple Camera connector, but when I tried that, my iPhone and iPad each said they did not have enough energy to support the Blocks and didn't recognize the midi signals). Unfortunately, the Bluetooth connection is not solid when used with Roli's two proprietary apps, Play and Noise, and beats were consistently dropped (I'd say about at least once very sixteen hits). So it's a pain in the ass and not very useful if you were trying to record something. Also, it is very difficult to get an iOS device to find and link with one Block via Bluetooth, and getting it to link with two Blocks is extremely difficult and only seems to happen randomly.
Of the two Roli apps, Play is, as it's name suggests, a sort of game for recording basic beats and notes. It's fun for about 10 minutes. Noise is supposed to be a functional DAW and synth engine of sorts, but it only comes with two drum sets (one for hip hop, which has crappy, crappy sounds, and one, I kid you not, for bongos). There are also a couple of dozen instrument sounds (mostly synthy) which are ok, but this thing is sold as a "Beatmaker", so you would think it would have the ability to make some actual non-lame beats out of the box. You are then supposed to make in-app purchases of other sound kits, presumably some of which have decent samples, but after shelling out over $200 for the Beatmaker Kit, I was not in the mood to give Roli more money. In any event, along with the bluetooth dropped beat/note issue, Noise is pretty useless.
But the Blocks can also be used with computer apps (and DAWs) via USB, and this is where they are moderately useful. The kit includes downloads for three synth engines (Equator, Cypher 2, and Strobe 2), all of which recognize 5D/MPE midi signals and are owned by Roli. Unfortunately, Cypher 2 does not recognize the midi signals coming from the Lightpad M, but the other synths work with it, and Strobe 2 and Cypher 2 have some interesting sounds. You can also use the Beatmaker kit with the Roli synths or with other sampled instruments in several DAWs (but not Pro Tools). Roli has also just released an app in beta called the Roli Studio Player, which incorporates Equator, Strobe 2, and Cypher 2, and which could simplify using them (it is buggy - lots of static and noise - at the moment).
In some DAWs (Garageband, and Logic, not sure about others), the Loop Block acts as a basic controller for recording, which is nice if you don't want to reach for you mouse, but if you are habituated to using a mouse with a DAW, not that helpful. (You can also use the Lightpad as a controller for volume, muting, and panning for up to four tracks, and as an effect controller in Garageband and Logic).
You also get a six month subscription to Melodics, which has lessons on how to use the Lightpad as a pad/drum machine, which is the most helpful software included in the package.
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