Anyone can learn to play the piano, but it takes dedication. People tend to give up not because it’s too difficult, but because they get bored practicing so much they don’t actually get to make any music. Roli wants to change that with the latest entry in its family of modular ‘Blocks‘ instruments, a light-up keyboard called the Lumi.
The Lumi came as a surprise when I sat down to chat with Roli a few weeks ago. The company had focused on its futuristic Seaboard concept – an innovative keyboard made of a continuous pressure-sensitive surface – that a more traditional keyboard seemed out of the question. But Roli wanted to use its know-how to create a more accessible instrument. Where the Seaboard seems to take knowing basic keyboard skills and music theory as a pre-requisite, the Lumi is all about teaching newcomers.
Follow-the-lights keyboards have been around for decades, but the Lumi takes the concept to a new level. Most such products only light up a small portion of the keys or have an LED above them. They’re also usually one or two colors. The Lumi lights up the entire key in a full suite of vibrant colors of varying intensities. This makes it easier to follow along with the notes displayed in the Lumi’s app, making it easier to differentiate specific notes in tricky packages.
Roli does a lot to help you learn. If you only care about playing specific songs, you can follow a Synthesia-style waterfall of colored notes, but that method tends to only improve your muscle memory. For more translatable skills, you have the option to display music in a more traditional sheet music form, either with colored notes or traditional black-and-white form. Roli also has built-in lessons covering scales, chords, playing techniques and more – all made more accessible by being able to follow the colored lights.
But by far my favorite thing about the Lumi is its ‘Jam’ feature. Rather than learning a new song from scratch, this takes advantage of the Lumi’s lights to help you improvise and harmonize alongside a tune.
The Lumi lights up two sets of keys in Jam mode: in vibrant colors are notes that match the particular chord being played, while in dimmer colors are the rest of the notes in the scale. This makes it easy to sound ‘good’ by simply pressing the chord lights, or you can be a little more adventurous with the wider notes in the scale. I can’t stress the awesomeness of this enough. My first real “a-ha!” moment learning piano came when I started to learn chords and scales; learn some basic chords and scales, and you can learn to play the bulk of music out there.
It also felt surprisingly good to play in the couple of minutes I spent trying it. While it doesn’t approximate the feel of a proper weighted keyboard – that’s not something everyone wants anyway – the keys have more travel than you’d expect for something so thin and light. Roli says the keys have 92 percent the plunge distance of a piano. They are 7/8ths the size of a standard piano key, and being part of the modular blocks system, its easy to expand the keyboard to whatever size you need. I can see the Lumi being popular with non-beginners simply for its portability; I don’t know of anything else this portable that feels as good to play.
The keys are pressure sensitive and feature polyphonic aftertouch, but it would’ve been nice to see some of the sliding features of the seaboard. And while the 7/8th size is more than playable, I’d also like to see what Roli could do with a full-size weighted keyboard with the Lumi’s feature – perhaps that’s somewhere down the line, Roli?
The Lumi began its Kickstarter campaign today and has already passed its funding goal. If it tickles your fancy, you can reserve yours for $187 before units begin shipping to backers in October. It will retail later this year for $249.