MIDI (Musical Instrument Digital Interface) has been around for 34 years, primarily as a way to connect external keyboards to computers. The Roli Lightpad Block M (US$199) is something completely different -- it's a small (3.7 x 3.7 x .86 inches / 94 x 94 x 21.8 mm) block that can be attached to a number of other Roli devices, but is a powerful standalone MIDI controller as well. A skilled musician could do wonders with the Lightpad Block M, but even a non-musician can easily coax fantastic sounds out of the box.
The Roli Lightpad Block M is deceptively plain looking. The top surface of the controller has a touch surface with small bumps (the M stands for microkeywaves, the name for these undulations) on it for haptic feedback about where your fingers are. Around the sides are magnetic DNA couplers that connect the Lightpad Block M to other Roli products, including the Seaboard keyboard, Live Block and Loop Block.
The Lightpad Block M is equipped with a USB-C port for charging, and it runs up to 4 hours on a 2-hour charge. Like most other MIDI devices, it can use the USB-C port to connect to a computer but also includes Bluetooth LE for wireless connectivity.
Embedded under those ripple-like bumps on the top of the Lightpad Block M are LEDs that light up in a variety of colors and intensities, Those lights supply other feedback, like an expanding "blue wave" to indicate that you need to pair the Block with another device. Pairing is easy, particularly with the free Roli Play app providing instructions.
Roli Play is designed to teach the "5D Touch" gestures used to play the controller with the fingers, play around with various instruments, create songs by laying down a drum beat and adding instruments, discover more of the Roli devices and apps, and view recordings of songs that you've made. Roli also provides an app called Noise (free with in-app purchases).
You're not limited to just the Roli apps, though. As a MIDI device, the Lightpad Block M can be used with just about any MIDI-controlled app or device. Roli calls out Equator Player, Ableton Live Lite, Strobe2 Player, Tracktion Waveform, ROLI Dashboard and Max MSP as all being compatible, or you can use Apple's very own Garage Band or Logic Pro apps.
While I'm not a musician, I was able to start playing some pretty sophisticated (at least in my mind) tracks, using the lights, app, and other cues to switch between notes, instruments and scales. The sound files included with both Roli Play and Noise are vast, and provide a number of sounds that are fun to explore.
I found Roli Play to be the best way to learn how to use the Lightpad Block M. A quick tutorial shows how to use the various gestures -- strike (tap), press (tap and hold), glide (swipe left and right), slide (swipe up and down), and lift. Those five gestures are all you need to know, and the LEDs on top of the Block M provide great feedback.
Play gives you a set of genres to choose from when creating a song -- classical, electronic, grime, pop, rock, and urban. Each genre comes with a set of instruments. Next, you're introduced to the SongDial, a clock-like interface on the iPhone that represents your song with drum, bass, chord and lead tracks. Each measure of a song is indicated by a single clockwise rotation around the SongDial. Individual tracks can be played so you can fine-tune them, and you can create loops that can be launched at different times in the track that's playing.
The modular design of the Roli line is simply genius. A budding musician can start with just a Block M and an iPhone or iPad, then add the other blocks as his or her skills grow. The $199 price tag is not that bad (considering the price of "real" musical instruments!), and the pad is portable for practicing or performing anywhere.
Roli recommends using wired earphones to listen to the music that's being produced, and I think I know why. I tried using the Lightpad Block M with my Apple AirPods and found that there was a definite lag between tapping on the Block's surface and getting a tone. With the wired earphones in place, that lag was gone and it was much easier to get immediate sound feedback.
The only negative I ran into while reviewing the Block M was not the fault of the device; when I was using Roli Play, my iPhone X always got hot. That was odd, since I don't think I've ever encountered another app that made my iPhone respond that way! If any other Lightpad Block M owners are reading this review, I'd love to hear if you've experienced similar heating with your iPhone.
For gadget fans or musicians, Roli's Lightpad Block M is an extremely portable and versatile MIDI controller. With a little practice, it's possible to get some amazing sounds out of the Block M -- I can only imagine how impressive a skilled musician would be with this device.
Apple World Today Rating (out of 5 stars): ★★★★★