Well, that sounds different: Will Roland Lamb's hi-tech keyboard revolutionise music?

Lamb has created a new kind of keyboard – one without keys that's covered in rubber. But, as Will Coldwell hears, we're creatures of habit when it comes to our instruments

Tucked inside a north London railway arch is the manufacturing warehouse for music-technology start-up Roli. On one side of the spacious room are two men surrounded by soldering irons, circuit boards and microscopic parts. On the other side are several partly dismantled old pianos, with wooden hammers and ivory keys soon to be converted into workstations for the engineers.

It's an appropriate juxtaposition, given that Roli is producing a new musical instrument. Named the Seaboard Keyboard, it was released to the public last month and the company hopes it will revolutionise the way music is made, and performed. But with existing instruments so ingrained in our culture, the only test now is whether people will take to it.

"Based on historic evidence, I think it's a tremendously difficult thing to do," says Roland Lamb, who founded Roli four years ago after inventing the Seaboard himself. "Whether it becomes a success now is really in the hands of the musicians."

Minimal, shadowy and black, even Lamb admits it is difficult to describe the Seaboard in words. At first glance it resembles a traditional keyboard, but a closer look reveals there are no individual keys. Instead, the top is constructed from a continuous piece of soft rubber. It has just a single button and dial, where musicians can select their preloaded sounds.

While a piano key can only be pressed down, the surface of the Seaboard responds to even the slightest changes in pressure or movement from your fingers. Each note can be manipulated individually as you play, while smooth strips on the top and bottom of the Seaboard permit for seamless glissando flourishes or fluid sliding from one note to the next.

The audio for the Seaboard – which is a fully integrated synthesiser – is programmed by software specially developed by Roli for the multidimensional instrument, but it can also be hooked up to existing production software, meaning that the potential for musicians is limitless. "You know those old Casios where you press a button and it plays a samba? This is the other end of the spectrum to that," says Lamb.

A tour of Roli's offices makes it clear that they are working on something far more hi-tech than your average midi device. Behind glass, walls staff work on multiscreen computers, with flashing lights and electronic gear scattered around like a digital laboratory. In a dimly lit room dubbed the "soundhive", it is time to hear the Seaboard being played. Today it is Roli's 22-year-old product specialist, Heen-Wah Wai – a talented cellist and pianist – who is gracing the "keys".

He leans forward to play the opening notes of Debussy's Clair de Lune and already the notes begin to echo and reverberate in a way that seems familiar, yet alien at the same time. The melodic notes bend in an unheard of way, while previous notes drone and linger to create a haunting and complex soundscape – an intriguing fusion of new and old.

It was the limitations of a standard keyboard that first led Lamb to conjure up the idea for the Seaboard in 2009. "I've always been a keyboard player and played in a band," he says. "But I used to have a bit of frustration with it... I always felt that when it came to doing solos the guitar could be much more expressive."

His approach to solving that problem, however, was as much from a philosophical perspective as a physical one. Lamb is not what you would describe as a traditionally trained electronic engineer. At 18, he moved to a monastery in Japan to learn Zen Buddhism, before attending Harvard to study Chinese and Sanskrit philosophy. It was only then that he made his way to the UK, where he was mentored by acclaimed architect and designer Ron Arad at the RCA's Design Products department.

"I took apart a real piano, then I took apart an electric piano," he says. "I realised there couldn't be a mechanical solution. I tried it with touch screens but there was no tactile feedback, so I started shaping the surface with clay, then I went out and bought some mattress topper and started cutting foam. When I built the prototype, I made a video of me playing it and even though it didn't work I dubbed the video with the sounds I wanted to hear. And that's pretty much what the Seaboard now is."

With interest from the likes of Hollywood composer Hans Zimmer and Jordan Rudess, of progressive metal band Dream Theater, the Seaboard is already making a healthy impression in the music world. The Seaboard Grand is being sold direct from Roli for £5,500, while smaller versions are available for less.

One person who understands the challenges surrounding the development of new instruments is Gil Weinberg, Founding Director of the Georgia Tech Center for Music Technology. The centre plays host to the Margaret Guthman musical instrument competition, which invites entrants to explore creative new ways that music can be played and experienced through new instruments.

Most of the new instruments that Weinberg sees focus on digital technology. "Many of these instruments serve as 'controllers' just controlling a remote sound generation source," he explains. "But in order to create an intuitive, rich and expressive musical instrument, we will need to re-couple the control with the sound generation. Physical feedback from your instrument is important for expressive playing."

It is clear that there is a desire within the music world to bridge the gap between digital and acoustic, as well as interface and instrument. Last year's winner did just that. The Electrumpet, made by Dutch musician Hans Leeuw, combined a trumpet with extra knobs and a sensor that reacted to hand waves and gestures.

"I believe in the personal expression that comes from the physical connection between the performer and the sounds you can hear," says Leeuw. "I hope my instrument, and instruments such as the Seaboard, can add this kind of expression and help blend these worlds together."

Back in Roli's soundhive, Wai has just completed his recital of Clair de Lune, leaving an eerie silence in the room. "Debussy wrote it for the piano but there are certain parts that sound great on the Seaboard," says Lamb, looking dotingly at his creation. "And you wonder, what would he have thought of it?"

PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Novelist Martin Amis at The Times Cheltenham Literature Festival

books
Arts and Entertainment
Alfred Molina, left, and John Lithgow in a scene from 'Love Is Strange'

After giving gay film R-rating despite no sex or violence

film
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Robin Williams will be given a 'meaningful remembrance' at the Emmy Awards

film
Arts and Entertainment

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Arctic Monkeys headline this year's Reading and Leeds festivals, but there's a whole host of other bands to check out too
music
Arts and Entertainment
Blue singer Simon Webbe will be confirmed for Strictly Come Dancing

tv
Arts and Entertainment
'The Great British Bake Off' showcases food at its most sumptuous
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Cliff Richard performs at the Ziggo Dome in Amsterdam on 17 May 2014

music
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Educating the East End returns to Channel 4 this autumn

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch will voice Shere Khan in Andy Serkis' movie take on The Jungle Book

film
Arts and Entertainment
DJ Calvin Harris performs at the iHeartRadio Music Festival

music
Arts and Entertainment
The eyes have it: Kate Bush

music
Arts and Entertainment
From left to right: Mark Crown, DJ Locksmith and Amir Amor of Rudimental performing on stage during day one of the Wireless Festival at Perry Park, Birmingham

music
Arts and Entertainment

books
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Vine has won the funniest joke award at the Edinburgh Festival 2014

Edinburgh
Arts and Entertainment
Peter Capaldi and Chris Addison star in political comedy The Thick of IT

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Judy Murray said she

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Vine has won the funniest joke award at the Edinburgh Festival 2014

edinburgh
Arts and Entertainment
Jeremy Paxman has admitted he is a 'one-nation Tory' and complained that Newsnight is made by idealistic '13-year-olds' who foolishly think they can 'change the world'.

Edinburgh
Arts and Entertainment
Seoul singer G-Dragon could lead the invasion as South Korea has its sights set on Western markets
music
Arts and Entertainment
tv
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    All this talk of an ‘apocalyptic’ threat is simply childish

    Robert Fisk: All this talk of an ‘apocalyptic’ threat is simply childish

    Chuck Hagel and Martin Dempsey were pure Hollywood. They only needed Tom Cruise
    Mafia Dons: is the Camorra in control of the Granite City?

    Mafia Dons: is the Camorra in control of the Granite City?

    So claims an EU report which points to the Italian Mob’s alleged grip on everything from public works to property
    Emmys look set to overhaul the Oscars as Hollywood’s prize draw

    Emmys look set to overhaul the Oscars as Hollywood’s prize draw

    Once the poor relation, the awards show now has the top stars and boasts the best drama
    What happens to African migrants once they land in Italy during the summer?

    What happens to migrants once they land in Italy?

    Memphis Barker follows their trail through southern Europe
    French connection: After 1,300 years, there’s a bridge to Mont Saint-Michel

    French connection: After 1,300 years, there’s a bridge to Mont Saint-Michel

    The ugly causeway is being dismantled, an elegant connection erected in its place. So everyone’s happy, right?
    Frank Mugisha: Uganda's most outspoken gay rights activist on changing people's attitudes, coming out, and the threat of being attacked

    Frank Mugisha: 'Coming out was a gradual process '

    Uganda's most outspoken gay rights activist on changing people's attitudes, coming out, and the threat of being attacked
    Radio 1 to hire 'YouTube-famous' vloggers to broadcast online

    Radio 1’s new top ten

    The ‘vloggers’ signed up to find twentysomething audience
    David Abraham: Big ideas for the small screen

    David Abraham: Big ideas for the small screen

    A blistering attack on US influence on British television has lifted the savvy head of Channel 4 out of the shadows
    Florence Knight's perfect picnic: Make the most of summer's last Bank Holiday weekend

    Florence Knight's perfect picnic

    Polpetto's head chef shares her favourite recipes from Iced Earl Grey tea to baked peaches, mascarpone & brown sugar meringues...
    Horst P Horst: The fashion photography genius who inspired Madonna comes to the V&A

    Horst P Horst comes to the V&A

    The London's museum has delved into its archives to stage a far-reaching retrospective celebrating the photographer's six decades of creativity
    Mark Hix recipes: Try our chef's summery soups for a real seasonal refresher

    Mark Hix's summery soups

    Soup isn’t just about comforting broths and steaming hot bowls...
    Tim Sherwood column: 'It started as a three-horse race but turned into the Grand National'

    Tim Sherwood column

    I would have taken the Crystal Palace job if I’d been offered it soon after my interview... but the whole process dragged on so I had to pull out
    Eden Hazard: Young, gifted... not yet perfect

    Eden Hazard: Young, gifted... not yet perfect

    Eden Hazard admits he is still below the level of Ronaldo and Messi but, after a breakthrough season, is ready to thrill Chelsea’s fans
    Tim Howard: I’m an old dog. I don’t get too excited

    Tim Howard: I’m an old dog. I don’t get too excited

    The Everton and US goalkeeper was such a star at the World Cup that the President phoned to congratulate him... not that he knows what the fuss is all about
    Match of the Day at 50: Show reminds us that even the most revered BBC institution may have a finite lifespan – thanks to the opposition

    Tom Peck on Match of the Day at 50

    The show reminds us that even the most revered BBC institution may have a finite lifespan – thanks to the opposition