From home schooling in rural New Hampshire to a Zen monastery in Japan to London’s Royal College of Art, Roland Lamb’s circuitous journey may seem an unlikely one for someone who would reinvent a 17th century instrument. But that breadth of experience, innate curiosity and intelligence were the right recipe for bringing the worlds of music and engineering together to create the ROLI Seaboard.
Modeled after the piano, the Seaboard has a spongy silicone surface that is sensitive to pressure, allowing musicians to modulate sounds through slides, glides, presses, and other natural movements — some of them borrowed from the world of string instruments. The son of a jazz musician, Lamb was inspired by tales of the famed jazz pianist Thelonious Monk who was said to be “searching for the space between the black and white keys” and frustrated by the limits of the traditional keyboard. Lamb began experimenting creating an instrument with more expression, adjusting pitch, volume and sound through movement. While earning a PhD in Design Products at London’s Royal College of Art, Lamb produced the first prototype of the Seaboard.
That prototype was enough to earn Lamb funding for a business. In East London he established ROLI, based on his nickname. He assembled a diverse team of engineers who helped turn the Seaboard into a market-ready instrument for music-makers around the world. They launched the first Seaboard GRAND in 2013. In the years since, ROLI has added additional products. They include BLOCKS, a modular music making system that lets customers mix and match musical “Blocks” together to create customized instruments that are all powered by an app. The Seaboard has since earned several design awards as well as praise from a wide range of musicians and music producers, including Pharrell Williams, Grimes, Hans Zimmer, Martyn Ware, producer and founding member of The Human League and Heaven 17.
“I regard the Seaboard to be the most exciting physical keyboard I’ve ever used, both for the studio and live. It enables me to create sounds that are impossible to contemplate using any other instrument,” Ware claims on the ROLI website.
Part software company, part hardware company, part design firm, Roli embraces the diversity of its business. Some parts of the Seaboard GRAND are still hand-molded on site. Each day starts with a standing meeting and at lunch the whole company sits down together for a vegetarian meal. The result is a commitment to music. “We want music creation to be as seamless as other digitized areas of life,” says a ROLI representative. “By inventing new, connected tools we are extending the joy of music-making to everyone.”
But the business is not without its challenges. In creating such a radically new instrument, Roli has no competition, but it has had to create a new community of ROLI players. That is in part why it is modeled closely on the piano. Lamb wanted it to be familiar enough to draw on musician’s experiences. Community building has been a critical to the success of the Seaboard, lest it be doomed to the margins like the theramin, an early electronic instrument that relied on players moving their hands between two antennae. Despite getting a significant boost after interest from Brian Wilson and the Beach Boys, the theramin has since all but disappeared except for the soundtracks of early science fiction and horror films.
ROLI is similarly counting on enthusiasm from well known musicians to help spur its growth. It features musicians using its instruments on its website prominently and even sports a ROLI Spotify playlist.
For example, Shama Rahman, a London-based neuroscientist and musician, brought a Seaboard on the Antarctic Biennale expedition, a project that asks artists to create something from the world’s harshest and least populated continent. She set out to create a musical work that viscerally captures the Antarctic environment. Dropping hydrophones into the frozen sea and laying them on ice sheets, she recorded in situ sounds of whale song and cracking ice — and is now integrating those sounds in songs and a film.
The Seaboard also got a significant boost when Marius Devries, an early adopter of the instrument and the executive music producer of the Academy Award-winning movie “La La Land” featured it in a scene in the movie with actor Ryan Gosling.
It’s been a long journey for a man who was once more interested in philosophy than engineering leading him to a monastery at the age of 18 but the company now employs 90, and has opened offices in New York and Los Angeles. Lamb, now the CEO and focused more on operations, told London’s City AM:
“Managing the product development process is helped by the fact that I know a little bit about each of the areas that our 50 engineers work on and the problems they face because I have the experience of building it all myself first. But development is just one part of a much larger story, and for me, that’s the exciting part.”
ROLI continues its growth, announcing last month that Grammy award winner Pharrell Williams has invested in the company and become co-owner. Williams was also appointed as ROLI’s chief creative officer.
ROLI’s success and acclaim has led it to adopt NetSuite’s cloud business platform to help it manage its rapid growth in staff numbers, international expansion and increasing product lines. It joins a host of highly exciting and entrepreneurial companies which are revolutionizing their markets and managing rapid growth with the help of the cloud and NetSuite.