Things that don’t work yet

On Roli Blocks, musical technologies, and designing connected objects in general

A shorter edit of this piece was first published in Disegno #14, April 2017.

What is a musical instrument? Roli, a London-based startup, has devised several devices over the last few years that each explore this question. Its reinvention of the keyboard, the Seaboard, caught the imagination when it launched in 2013, while its latest product, the Blocks Lightpad, prompts the same question.

At first glance, it’s an unprepossessing lump, in Kickstarter Black. It’s inert and opaque, though weighted in the hand just-so and with a rubberised silicone ‘give’ to its top, both of which imply some kind of latent potency. But there are no obvious affordances, no immediate agency, nothing you might strum, plonk, thrum or kick. A couple of ports on the sides look USB-ish, but then what object doesn’t have a USB port these days? It’s almost a pocket-sized version of 2001’s monolith. Until you find the power switch, that is, and the surface of the block suddenly glows, pulses and flows in appealing patterns, revealing a pixellated coloured grid, swimming under that opaque rubbery surface.

Yet still no sound. That requires a Bluetooth connection to an iPad or iPhone, and Roli’s Noise app for iOS, which becomes the voice through which Blocks speaks. Noise contains a library of patches available via the instrument’s squidgy grid, and a simple tool for constructing loops, melodies, harmonies, rhythms, accessing scales and chords. For making music, in other words, which you are suddenly doing within minutes.

The Lightpad’s multi-touch surface feels durable, but turns out to be not that sensitive. You can’t really dance your figures across it. Instead, you press down firmly, and then glide and slide around, bending and slurring sounds, using what Roli call “five dimensional touch”, with manoeuvres like “strike, glide, slide, press and lift”.

Noise is clearly aimed at beginners (and you can decide whether that price point of £170 for the Lightpad is appropriate.) You can’t edit much, nor add much. At a basic level, you’ve got four tracks to layer up and 100 pre-installed sounds. But you are making music, and quickly.

In that, the combination of Blocks and Noise makes it essentially the beginner’s counterpart to pro tools like, say, Ableton Push and Ableton Live. But an entry-level version of often-complex digital music kit is probably a good thing, and Roli claim that “Blocks is the most accessible and versatile music creation system ever made”.

That’s probably an alternative fact, but it’s also a telling statement, for all its hyperbole. Reading between the lines, you can immediately sense the complex trade-off between “accessible and versatile”, guess at the compromises taken to be able to easily and quickly deliver what Roli call “sounds like you’d hear in a video game or on the dance floor”. They’ve achieved some of that, for sure, but what does Blocks lose, as a “music creation system”, if the focus is on the quick and easy? And how does Blocks compare against other, earlier forms of “music creation system”?

Promisingly, my kids were drawn straight in. They pounded the thing, as kids tend to, but delighted in the ability to quickly layer up a diverse array of different sounds, as well as seeing their finger movements across the Lightpad echoed on the iPad’s screen. “Like a ghost is playing it!”, my seven year-old said.

My daughter’s first few seconds addressing the Blocks Lightpad

But the fact it’s approachable is no leap forward over an earlier generation of instruments. Analogue instruments — guitars, drums, pianos, woodwind, strings — offer themselves up not merely to the fingers, but to the body. They are moulded around our physical frame, the extent of our reach, the spread of our fingers, the width of our mouth. As haptic interfaces — enabling forms of controlled touch interaction — they are hard to beat. They are not limited to Roli’s “five dimensions of touch”. Connect them to a primal force like electricity, and they mutate into something else again. And yet the whole body is still in charge, shaping the sound with a limitless precision in ways that most interaction designers can still only dream of. Jimi Hendrix would use his entire body, and its position on the stage in relation to his amps, speakers, hundreds of other bodies, and the architecture of the space — likely productive zones chalked onto the floor beforehand, as ‘spikes’ — to form and direct the sound of his guitar.

Watch a professional use Blocks (Roli have many videos online) and the sounds emerging from the stage are hugely impressive, but the interaction seems awkward, constrained. Fingers stabbing, beating and dragging over its few centimetres, Blocks forces the entire body to diminish itself, the arms in a V, drawn down onto a small square of the Lightpad, the size of a stack of beermats. There’s not much range of expression there, and as a visual spectacle it’s somewhat limited, and not exactly alluring. More like a particularly intense bout of emailing than watching Prince at work. (Though I wouldn’t want to bet on what tomorrow’s kids will think looks cool, aware that people said the same things about Kraftwerk.)

Even after half a century of human-computer interaction research, and the burgeoning interest in wearables, VR, AR and physical computing, there are few interfaces, if any, that can afford the level of control or creative exploration that the deceptively straightforward electric guitar or keyboard has had.

Derek Bailey’s guitar

And crucially, that same electric guitar is also potent in the hands of all those less than a master. Not to overstate it, but it is immediately intuitive and accessible, and then complex over time. The perceived affordances of a guitar or keyboard intrinsically convey how to play them — what parts make a noise, and how — such that one can approach an instrument for the first time and create organised noise within seconds. Frankly, many records have been made shortly afterwards.

Rap and turntable DJ setup in the Bronx, photo by Henry Chalfont

Over the late 1970s and early 1980s, punk indicated how such devices could be ‘hacked’ in entirely different ways to soundtrack no less than a new way of life, just as synth-pop produced different noises from rudimentary electronics, whilst techno used the same objects to create an underground resistance to that, and most enduringly, hip-hop conjured up a new genre from two turntables and a microphone. Part of the key to those various splinters developing into the rich musical seams they did was the sheer approachability of their chosen weapons — the turntable, the sampler, the guitar, the drum kit.

Co-opting the words of physical computing pioneer Mark Weiser, these devices are “seamful” as opposed to seamless: their design intrinsically reveals its seams, how it works, and how it doesn’t. Or, as Dieter Rams would have it, their design makes the product understandable. Their interfaces are immediately rewarding as well as highly adaptable, a form of accessibility that also suggests the ability to ‘hack’ these things easily. Ultimately, it meant that they could produce entirely unpredictable results.

The Blocks Lightpad is, well, a little blocky in this respect, attempting to remove complexity by simply omitting almost all physical features, hiding options within the Noise app. Ironically, this ends up meaning that its interface is not a huge step up from Noise itself. It’s caught in the middle here: it does not have those immediate affordances (although it is not hard to use once set up) and yet equally, you feel like you’d reach the edges of its complexity fairly soon.

It’s unfair to compare Blocks with the guitar, the latter a device with hundreds of years of development, and many millions of players over time, an object used by both the Carter Family and Carter The Unstoppable Sex Machine, Sid Vicious and Steve Reich. Certainly its creators would not be likely to make such a comparison.

Yet what other design principles can we draw from musical instruments, without suggesting they they are equivalent?

Blocks feels solid, sturdy and durable enough, certainly compared to many of the other digital devices in my house, or to any contemporary phone save the Punkt MP01. The Noise app fell over a couple of times. Ditto its Bluetooth connection, but with none of the squally changeable weather that the vagaries of Bluetooth connectivity usually feels like.

But still, would you want to rely on it onstage, downstairs in crowded bar, with the hot, wet air full of a hundred other live Bluetooth connections, gaffer-taped power leads across a carpet sticky with lager, baying punters eager for a floor-filler right now? It could be that the iPhone or iPad is the weakest link in Roli’s chain — but it’s a weak link nonetheless. That is the reality of much live music-making, rather than those slickly staged performance videos at music technology trade fairs.

Musical instruments tend to get better as they get older, too. They thrive in the environment described above. Scratches are stories, patina is poetry, crackle adds character. That is not simply wear and tear, but collected experience, just as the depressions in a Florentine tower’s steps betray centuries of stories. (Whether those stories are by Dante or Dan Brown is another matter.) By contrast, it’s quite unlikely that Blocks will even work at all in a decade or so. Physically, it’ll probably be fine; the concern would be over its dependencies on other operating systems, app ecosystems, USB connectors and the like. In that, it’s hardly unusual, sadly. The half-life of digital devices is astonishingly short. Equally, thanks to the “move fast and break things” M.O. of the tech sector, multiplied by the waves of prototypes-as-products unleashed by Kickstarter, we are surrounded by devices that don’t actually work very well.

John Lanchester, talking recently about the Amazon Echo, noted how all technology fails, as that is, effectively, the very definition of technology. “Technology is things that don’t work yet,” he said. This, as opposed to things that were previously technologies but now simply things that do work, such as spectacles, kettles, coffee machines, buses, and yes, electric guitars, drum kits and keyboards.

And when those instruments do fail, they tend to fail in interesting ways, as they are no longer technologies. In fact, much great music has been made through such failure. For instance, an incapacitated Brian Eno inventing ambient music when his record player got stuck playing harp music at low volume and he couldn’t get up to fix it. As David Toop noted years ago, an imperfect voice is almost always more interesting than the ‘technically perfect’ voices we hear on today’s talent shows. The distorted guitar is actually the sound of failure — of being too loud for its medium — but that, ultimately, is one of the happiest failures ever.

Instruments that are not technology can be adapted, reassembled, they become imperfect over time, and do so in interesting ways. They are exemplars of, in the contemporary argot, “recombinant innovation.”

Blocks, in comparison, is still very much technology. It is a relatively controlled environment and its failures are limited and predictable accordingly. That will tend to make it less interesting as a creative tool, ultimately. William Gibson once wrote that “the anticipation of outcome guarantees, if not failure, the absence of grace.”

On this fundamental measure, Blocks is not there yet. When it breaks, it has the frozen dumb intransigence of our phones or email, rather than with the compelling, if occasionally frustrating, intrigue of a crackly Hammond organ, a stuttering 303, or a trumpet with a bent bell.

What Blocks + Noise does incredibly well, however, is simplify the process of making music. Its embedded loops and patches instantly sound great when combined, and they are easy to find, and layer up. This is really Noise in action; Blocks is just a pleasing slab with which to bring the Noise, and then alter it in real time. It’s Noise’s UI that cleverly enables users to easily access scales, chords and arpeggios. But it’s also Noise’s UI that lets Blocks play scales without ‘errors’. That is ultimately more problematic, in terms of learning. This is where the ease of simply making a sound is preferenced over understanding a sound, which ultimately limits music-making rather than enabling it. (And the grid UI inevitably means that controls are limited in certain directions: a note in the middle can be slid in any direction; one on the edge, not so much. This seems a fundamental design flaw.)

What you can’t do easily is edit loops, or simply add to the palette of sounds available. You’re essentially limited to the sounds that Roli deem appropriate to start with, and then whoever Roli decides can add further “sound packs” (even if they have the great taste to choose RZA as one of the contributors), and its social network of other Blocks users, Noise.FM. It’s an obvious strategy to open up a creative ecosystem via social networks, even though its often proven tricky for hardware companies to execute these things well (we’re looking at you, Apple.)

A more diverse ‘App Store model’ for sound packs would be interesting; an App Store model on top of an open source codebase and software development kit even more so, combining curation and creation. The MPE MIDI tech underlying Blocks does give extensibility, ultimately, but perhaps this moves beyond beginner territory some way, onto the foggy battlefield of pro music gear, where it will probably be outgunned.

You can physically extend Blocks by buying more units and daisy-chaining them together magnetically. A ‘Live Block’ adds handy controls for performance, and ‘Loop Block’ makes recording easier. The modular approach is no bad thing in itself, and is well-executed via the magnetic ‘DNA’ connector. Roli could begin to build up an interesting array of physical input devices here, and one could imagine some weird and wonderful confections might emerge — particularly with an open source hardware model.

So Noise limits Blocks, on purpose, whereas MPE MIDI over USB x DNA extends Blocks, into a world of acronyms at least.

But rather than balancing “accessible and versatile”, as the press kit hopes, is Blocks thus caught in no man’s land as a result?

It’s the innate obviousness of musical instruments that enables their accessibility, whilst its their almost limitless sensitivity and adaptability that means they take a lifetime to master.

This is a classic bind in design. In submerging or concealing complexity, to enable easy access to core features and quick results, Roli have also had to submerge true creativity.

This may be the right decision for Roli. Blocks, or some descendent of Blocks, will introduce numerous people to music-making, whether children or simply beginners. That is no bad thing. It sees Blocks as a more grown-up version of devices like Cubetto or Kano, or the various hardware kits Technology Will Save Us make, or the Scratch Jr programming language — all designed to introduce kids (and others) to coding. Yet Blocks can also go ‘pro’; it is clearly capable of being used by professional musicians, and no doubt will be. This is an artful balancing act; useful to beginners and professionals alike. For that, Roli deserves great credit.

Yet if interaction design can be about limiting options as much as enabling them, here too we can learn from the design of musical instruments. Brian Eno described how constraints can engender creativity:

Why is it that guitar players are still making interesting music on this primitive, ridiculous instrument? Six strings, arbitrary length, yet they still do more interesting things in general than synthesiser players do, and I think it’s because they’re not baffled by options. They quite quickly know what the instrument can do, and they start doing something with it — whereas my experience of synthesiser players is that they’re constantly looking through manuals and not actually playing!

Blocks + Noise requires little in the way of manuals, again to Roli’s credit. Yet Noise is still far from obvious, and the Blocks Lightpad, as an object, does not communicate its affordances as immediately as those six strings do, and its limited physical interactions ultimately render it less open than those six strings.

Eno again:

That’s the main difference between normal instruments and synths. Normal instruments are made up of thousands and thousands of molecules, whereas electronic instruments are the amplified movements of a few atoms. So they’re much more deterministic than normal instruments.

Blocks betrays this kind of determinism, despite its connection to a potentially limitless digital sound-world. How might Roli have closed the gap a little between Blocks and its other devices, like the Seaboard, by extending its its materiality? And how might that sound-world be more open, more hackable? Could it retain its accessibility, but not at the expense of complexity? Like a guitar, bass, drums or piano, in other words?

Or, lest this view be misconstrued as overly romantic, watch KORG’s wunderkind Chief Engineer Tatsuya Takahashi demonstrate the variation possible in a deceptively simple sampling device like the KORG Volca, partly due to its balance of accessible and extensible, analog and digital.

Compared to the other digital objects that increasingly surround us, Blocks can hold its head high. It is only when compared to musical instruments that it begins to look a limited, awkward, somewhat diminished device. Perhaps this is unfair. Yet more broadly, it tells us that we need to raise the bar when it comes to digital objects.

For such connected objects to move on from being technology — from being “things that don’t work yet” — we could learn a great deal from musical instruments. They were technology too at one point, after all.

Resilient, adaptable, extensible, hackable, seamful, open, accessible, taking advantage of the body and its multi-sensory interface, combining physical materality and digital flexibility, and an ability to age well and fail gracefully, or at least interestingly — these are all qualities of good musical instruments that would actually serve well as design principles for a world of connected objects. Perhaps this is what we should be aspiring to: to move from designing technology to designing instruments.

Blocks, for all its many qualities, does no more than hint at what could be. Ironically, it scores well as connected object but not as musical instrument. This tells us much about how far we have yet to go with digital technology.

A shorter edit of this piece was first published in Disegno #14, April 2017.