I confess to being a bit hard on ROLI Blocks. The squishy, light up music making pocket pillows seem a trifle, I don’t know, toy like? Anyway, they have just released an open beta of their “Blocks Dashboard” editor which has the potential to transform these little musical cushions into something rather useful – a modular MIDI control surface.
It was the video that took my attention. Up until now, all the ROLI Blocks videos seem to be about beautiful people poking little light boxes making beats and “toons” in unintelligible ways. However, in this new video there’s a no-less-beautiful guy but he simply and competently shows the control of multiple parameters and devices in Bitwig Studio. It’s a complete revelation. There’s also videos on using Blocks Dashboard with Logic, Ableton and Garage Band. Each of them projects a quality and a professional use of these devices that I had not encountered before.
How does it work?
So what’s it all about? Well, the three Blocks – Lightpad Block, Loop Block and Live Block – become an open-ended MIDI control surface. Each Lightpad Block can become a note input device, an XY control, a row of faders or drum pads or an expression control – whatever you conjure up in the Dashboard. The Loop Block can very obviously be utilised as a transport controller but both the Loop and Live Blocks can be assigned to whatever you like. The Dashboard software lets you set-up the Blocks however you wish, specifying controller numbers and parameters and usage. All of the settings can be saved as a “Mode”. What’s missing from the videos is any focus on the Dashboard itself. We get just a glimpse of the setting up of the mode and so there’s not a lot more I can say about it.
You can, of course, add more Blocks for more faders, pads, controls and expand as far as you like. They are a little bit… weeny. A 5×5 grid is not a whole lot to play with but the ease of expansion does get around this quite quickly. At £169 for a Lightpad Block that could add up quite quickly.
I’m quite impressed by this development after being initially snobby and underwhelmed. And this is still in beta and so ROLI claim to be adding more features over the coming months. The only snag from my point of view is that although the Blocks work fine with Windows there is no Windows based mechanism for firmware updating. Apparently, this isn’t ROLI’s fault – although I’m not sure who else would take on that responsibility. Maybe you could take it to your local Apple store to do the update?
Anyway, the Dashboard software is free to all Blocks users and is available, along with more information, on the ROLI website.