I've been a musician for the past 20 years, but I've been an electronic musician for a lot less than that. I use Apple's Logic Pro and a variety of software synthesizers to record songs these days, but coming from an electric guitar, I've missed the natural expressiveness that comes from playing a traditional instrument—particularly a stringed one.
Or at least, it couldn't be replicated in the past. Now ROLI's Songmaker Kit promises a wider range of expression than you'd typically get with a MIDI controller, and it works marvelously with many of Logic Pro's built-in synthesizers, like the famed Alchemy.
I've been tinkering with these new kits this summer, but this won't be a full Ars review per say (this isn't Guitar World for better or worse). We won't be benchmarking the instrument's responsiveness or anything like that, but think about it like this: I'm a curious musician who went all-digital for practical reasons a few years ago, and I went into test-driving this device hoping I could get the best of both my musical past and my musical future from it.
And generally, I found the Songmaker Kit to be a respectable middle ground—provided you put some time in to configure your software instruments. This new kit still is not a guitar despite all the YouTube videos of musicians shredding Jimi Hendrix riffs on this stuff. But it's hard not to see ROLI's latest offering as a natural next step for electronic music.
Seeking more expression
ROLI Songmaker Kit
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Buy In my early 20s, I was a professional musician—I played electric guitar in blues, rock, and roots music bands. In my late 20s, Id moved on to unrelated but comparatively more stable work in digital media and journalism, but I occasionally still moonlighted as a DJ.
In one of my first tech-writing jobs—at Endadget—I bonded with the then-editor-in-chief and also the then-managing editor over how we were all musicians—more specifically, musicians interested in the production side of things. We talked about that in our work IRC chat room at least as often as we talked about tech.
In fact, music production in Logic was what originally drew me away from Windows PCs to the Mac platform about a decade ago. To me, tech and creative applications like this are inextricably linked now. And those creative applications are why I've lived primarily in the Apple ecosystem for several years.
Yet, for most of my early years as a musician, I was an analog purist. I was the sort of guitarist who refused to play on a solid state amp, because, well, who are we kidding: if you don't get that natural, subtle tube distortion with a Fender Twin or Vox AC-30 turned up to about 7, youre not really playing guitar, amirite?
I still feel that way about guitar, to be honest. But as the years went on, I played less guitar and spent more time with synthesizers, turntables, MIDI controllers, and software like Logic Pro X.
I didn't even own a guitar for a long time, though I just recently bought a Fender Stratocaster again. Blame it mostly on living in dense, thin-walled apartment buildings in Chicago, New York, and LA. But Logic has a permanent spot in my Mac's dock, nevertheless.
I missed playing guitar primarily because there are so many dimensions of expression in any stringed instrument, but especially electric guitar, when compared to your typical MIDI controller. There are the subtleties of how you pluck with the pick, where you pluck it in relation to the currently active pickups, with or without an attempt to also trigger harmonics. There's vibrato, bending on the strings, a whammy bar, bending the guitar neck, a wah-wah pedal, managing and manipulating feedback, and numerous settings on both the guitar itself and the amp—not to mention the limitless possibilities granted by pedals and other tech both digital and analog.
Using MPE MIDI, ROLI's kit promises that level of expression in a keyboard-styled MIDI controller. With a little configuration, that turns out to be mostly true.
Whats included in ROLIs Songmaker Kit
Everything in this package existed before, but the Songmaker Kit is ROLI's first attempt to bundle it all into a one-stop shop. It includes a 24-key Seaboard Block, a Loop Block, and a Lightpad Block (the last of which we've covered before).
The Seaboard Block and Lightpad Block are covered in a malleable rubber material that is sensitive to various levels of pressure—one dimension by which you can control the sounds. You can press your fingers down and draw them up or down across the surface to adjust pitch (or whatever else you configure that input to do). Without any of those added dimensions, the Seaboard Block is basically a 24-key keyboard, and the Lightpad Block is like a little drum pad divided into sectors. The Loop Block does exactly what it sounds like: it allows you to manage loops on the fly in your performance. This particular one doesn't do anything that other little loop boxes don't do.
It's probably easier to see and hear this product in action than to read about it, so here's a video from ROLI that, despite heavy editing, gets the point across well.
Not shown in the video: the hours of creating and configuring software synthesizers, both in terms of mapping them to the controller's various methods of input and in terms of the sounds themselves. It also takes plenty of time practicing and fine tuning those inputs to get the most out of your performance. But if you've made electronic music before, you knew that already.
Listing image by Samuel Axon