ROLI Seaboard Crosses a Piano with a Fretless String Instrument

London-based tech start-up ROLI has introduced a new musical instrument line that should get musicians and audiophiles salivating. The "Seaboard" is a continuous-touch keyboard with curved "keywaves" (instead of keys) that flow into one another like waves on the sea (thus the name.) This overcomes the step-function limitations of a traditional keyboard, letting musicians bend and select pitches with absolute precision, analogous in principle to a fretless stringed instrument like a violin. The only other on-board control is a "Sounddial" resembling an iPod click wheel that allows for continuous preset indexing and fine-tuning.

To all you who are concerned about the instrument's ability to produce tones in pitch: by playing on the tops of the keywaves, you can play it like a normal piano. The keys, which use subtractive — rather than reactive — synthesis, are instantaneously touch-sensitive. As with any new instrument, the Seaboard takes practice. (ROLI has released a few online demos of the instrument for prospective customers to catch a taste, including one by Jamie Cullum.) This development, given its fundamentally different way of producing tones in an integrated interface, could change the way musicians compose songs.

The Seaboard comes in three flavors: the Grand Studio with 37 keywaves, the Grand Stage with 61 keywaves and the Grand Limited Edition, with the full standard key set of 88. All three models have the same features you'll find on a standard electronic keyboard, including pedal inputs, audio outs and headphone jacks. They run on the OS X operating system and come with a USB thumb drive preloaded with the Seaboard software.

Running hot on the heels of ROLI founder Roland Lamb's Sept. 23 TEDx talk at the Royal Albert Hall, the release of the Seaboard comes with drastic price enticements in the early stages. Early adopters can acquire a Seaboard Grand Studio for $1,999 or a Grand Stage for $2,999 through Nov. 15, 2013. After that, they ship for $3,000 and $4,500, respectively. The Grand Limited First Edition is first come, first served at $8,888.88.