It’s typical to see a new gizmo advertised in some flashy, attention-grabbing way. It’s less typical to see that flashiness also touted as the product’s core feature.
The Roli Lumi (you know, because “illumination”) is a multicolored, light-up keyboard aimed at musical novices eager to learn to play the piano. The device won’t ship until October, but presales opened up on Kickstarter today.
Roli is best known for its flagship product, the Seaboard. That device is a futuristic-looking keyboard with a squishy, flat black surface in place of physical keys. The touch-sensitive surface responds to different gestures and can detect the amount of pressure behind each caress. The Seaboard can be temperamental if you’re hoping to make it work like a real piano, but there’s something immensely satisfying about getting an instrument to make different sounds by kneading it like a piece of dough.
By comparison, the Lumi is a more traditional keyboard, in that it has regular keys. There are only 24 of them—about a quarter of the keys you’ll find on a full-sized piano—but this limitation was intentional, as the Lumi is designed with portability in mind. It’s also part of Roli’s Blocks line, which is a family of music production devices that can interlock together via magnetic connectors and function as MIDI controllers for use in Roli’s companion app, or in third-party desktop software. Snap three or four Lumis together and you have something approaching, or even exceeding, the range of a full-sized keyboard. Oh yeah, and the keys light up.
The goal of the Lumi is to help beginners associate musical notes with colors. Start in a Guitar Hero-esque mode, where, after loading the iOS app, you can choose a song to play along with. Different colored notes light up on the keyboard as notes slide across the screen in time with the music. The app tells you when to depress each corresponding key. Next thing you know, you’re playing a song.
It simplifies the learning process, according to Roli founder and CEO Roland Lamb. “A lot of music is highly abstract,” he says. “And not only is it abstract, it’s based on ancient technology. Instruments are the products of ideas that came about thousands of years ago, and were constrained by the acoustic principles of materials like wood and horsehair and metal.”
Music notation, Lamb continued, is similarly abstract. Learning the way notes are written and how to play them takes dedication, memorization, and practice. Roli’s answer to these ancient constraints is to embrace technology.
The Lumi’s more advanced modes help direct the player into seeking out harmonically resonant sounds on their own. Notes that sound good when played together will light up in similar shades, to encourage players to experiment with building chords or inventing countermelodies. Eventually, the goal is to get to playing songs without the guiding lights at all. “We wanted to build a seamless on-ramp to music making,” Lamb says.
The Lumi may seem made for beginners, but the company also wants the device to entice more advanced players. To that effect, users will be able to program custom color maps onto the Lumi’s keys. Jordan Rudess, keyboardist for the progressive metal band Dream Theater, is one of the first professionals to jump on board.
“I’ve been asking about this kind of thing for a long time,” Rudess says. “Like, give me visual information about what is happening on my keyboard—what are the splits, what are the layers? So, you know, as soon as Roland showed me the Lumi, I was like ‘OK, finally, thank you. This is awesome.’”
Rudess, who is also a former adviser for Roli from the era of the first Seaboard, estimated that he plays around 500 different sounds during each live performance. With the Lumi, he could use different light colors to distinguish between the various tones. There’s also the appeal of bright, flashing lights for their own sake. “As an entertainer, it’ll be awesome to go onstage and have those keys light up,” he says. “That’ll be amazing, especially if I use it as a keytar … People are gonna freak out.”
The Lumi will be priced at $250. Though Kickstarter campaigns can sometimes end up in limbo, Roli is a reputable company with a reliable track record of making and releasing musical hardware, and the crowdfunding effort is being used mostly to encourage people to preorder the device. The Lumi is slated to ship out this fall regardless of how many orders come in.