The Sea Board


29 August 2013

This week Disegno is hard at work finishing our fifth printed issue. As the new magazine takes form, we are taking the opportunity to revisit previous issues. Here, we republish a feature from Disegno No.4, an examination of Roland Lamb's Seaboard.

British designer Roland Lamb has created a new musical instrument. Tactile, intuitive to use, and highly expressive, the Seaboard is an electronic keyboard with skin-like surface, instead of keys.

There has been some grumbling among the design community that the word “design” is becoming more noun than verb. And that, as a result, the artefacts and systems that should be understood as the results of a complex, highly nuanced process are reduced to mere designs. So it is refreshing to come across a designer who regards the discipline as something closer to philosophical endeavour – as language, theory, thought, and argument. Roland Lamb is such a man. Moreover, he has turned his original, first-principles thinking into a design for the most innovative new electronic music instrument for years, the Seaboard.

Yet, when Lamb enrolled to study product design at London’s Royal College of Art in 2008, he had no idea of himself as a cutting-edge designer, let alone the chief executive of an East London start-up. For Lamb, the RCA programme – led by legendary industrial designer Ron Arad – was a chance to expand his interests, a staging post between his Harvard degree in comparative philosophy (classical Chinese and Sanskrit) and returning to the Massachusetts university for his PhD. “I was looking at design from a conceptual framework, because I’d studied philosophy,” says Lamb. “The world of material culture and technology were becoming intellectually important to me. But it was like a philosophical exercise. And I thought it was going to be something more like an enrichment.” But within months, the soft-spoken academic who played a bit of jazz piano on the side, hit on the idea of a new instrument that would take over his life.

Lamb is courteous and formidably intellectual – the fine-grained questioning that comes naturally to a philosopher seems comfortably embedded in his everyday discourse. His spacious workshop in a Dalston cul-de-sac has nice furniture, paintings on the walls, and a light-drenched reception area that doubles as meeting room and exercise space. Vintage reference books are displayed – serving as decoration, inspiration, and a celebration of learning.

Designer Roland Lamb at his East London studio, where he now employs 20 people.

In little more than four years, Lamb’s Seaboard has gone from being a student project, to a working prototype, to a commercial product manufactured by his own start-up. The first item to come out of Roli, the company he founded in 2009, is the limited-edition Seaboard Grand, an 88-note polyphonic instrument that can sound like an acoustic grand piano, but which puts many more timbres and performance options at the disposal of the adventurous musician. For the product of a conceptual thought process, the Seaboard is a remarkably solid, beautiful, and tactile object. To fully understand it, you have to touch it and play (with) it.

The first three letters of the instrument are significant – they stand for “sensory”, “elastic” and “adaptive”. Lamb explains that the Seaboard name applies to the SEA interface technology on which the instrument is based. But it’s an evocative name too, which reminds you that a keyboard is made up of waves, like the surface of the sea, or the undulating ridges of sand that remain on a beach as the tide goes out.

“I came from this completely different field and I was always interested in music,” says Lamb. “At the RCA, I was looking at a lot of different projects, I was trying to find why I should care about product design. I didn’t just want to make more things.” He realised that he had little “emotional engagement” with the objects that many of his contemporaries were designing: “I like nice chairs, but it wasn’t like I wanted to spend all my time designing chairs. I wondered how I would engage with this world of product design.”

The workmanship that goes into making a Seaboard creates a solid and tactile object

The nudge came from visiting design tutors Jurgen Bey and Martino Gamper, who together with the students were doing a music project with instrument manufacturer Yamaha. “I was sitting at the café at the RCA, thinking about instruments and music and what I wanted to do,” says Lamb. “And I was playing the piano there and remembering that when I had been more active as a player, I’d always wanted more expressiveness, to be able to do different things. I saw that desire in myself and figured that a lot of other people would have that, too. Knowing about things like pitch wheels, which were really bad design solutions, made me think, ‘Oh, there must some sort of opportunity to do something better.’ That dissatisfaction was the root.”

For Lamb, the fundamental aspect of instrument design is muscle memory. Most successful new instruments have built upon the playing conventions established by earlier instruments, usually adding one new element. Theobald Boehm added mechanical keys to open-holed flutes; the electric guitar added electrical energy to a well established acoustic instrument.

Lamb’s innovation is to retain the layout of the piano while changing its feel. The Seaboard’s keyboard is a spongy, undulating, unbroken strip of silicon that enables the performer to add several new levels of expression. You can strike it hard or caress it; bend notes and squeeze extra sounds by pressing down after the initial attack. Some pianists will find it alien; others will love the idea of a keyboard that promises the expressiveness of a violin or a saxophone.

Lamb’s innovation is to retain the layout of the piano while changing its feel

Glance at the Seaboard and you immediately perceive the black and white keys of the conventional piano, organ or synthesiser. Anyone with a rudimentary piano technique can sit down at the instrument and play it – you know immediately where to put your fingers. But when your fingers fall into place to play your favourite tune, you realise that there’s no mechanical action – the keyboard is smooth, almost skin-like, and defined by a series of wave-like ridges. My first thoughts, when I started playing around on the Seaboard, were that it can be a kind of “fretless piano”. If you caress the keys from top to bottom (it feels soft and warm to the touch) you can execute a spectacular portamento, or you can play choppy funk chords by tapping the upper ridges of the waves as if they were keys. The biggest surprise comes when you play a single-note melody with your right hand – the Seaboard enables the player to perform this tune with the expressiveness of a violin or a flute, with changing vibrato, dynamics and timbre.

But there’s another surprise for the unsuspecting Seaboard player – “aftertouch”. When you press down further on a note that you are already playing, the sound can change even more. Aftertouch has been around since the late 1970s – notably on the mighty Yamaha CS-80 synth (performed by keyboard experts such as Larry Fast and Christopher Heaton) – but it is rarely used in contemporary synth and keyboard designs.

By the beginning of 2009, Lamb had already tested and eliminated two possible approaches to an expressive keyboard. First, he experimented with the idea of having conventional piano keys that moved in additional directions, but soon abandoned that line of enquiry. “The mechanical solutions, where you have physical piano keys that somehow have additional axes, didn’t seem like good solutions to me,” he says. Then, Lamb looked at a screen-based approach, and realised that “a touchscreen-type solution would never work because it relied on a visual feedback loop”. He was looking for something that would enable players to use their muscle memory and feel where their fingers were. He hit on the unusual form of the Seaboard keyboard by using a process familiar to all designers – sketching. He was searching for the answer to the question: “What does that leave, if I can’t have something flat, and I can’t have something mechanical, how am I going to recreate the experience of playing the piano?”

Lamb sketched the piano keyboard over and over again, with different angles and different ways of showing what it was. “In these sketches I started drawing over them, until I was at the point where I had smoothed out all the features – I had black keys and white keys but it was like a corrugated set of waves,” he says. “Soon after, I felt there was a solution – where you could play on the tops of these corrugated waves and then slide the pitch by sliding between them. The issue was one of discreteness and continuousness – so you needed to be able to play an array of discrete events when you play the piano. And then I wanted all these discrete events to become continuous events.”

Constructing the Seaboard, which is defined by a series of ridges, covered in a case that is almost skin-like

On a trip to India, Lamb took his sketches to some wood carvers in Dehli and asked them to carve the shape for him so that he could experience what it would feel like. He also asked Indian touchscreen manufacturers whether they could build touchscreens on corrugated surfaces. When he returned to London, he developed his idea further by making models from foam and clay, and realised it should be soft. “What really made it click was the name Seaboard, because it characterised the musical instrument so well,” he recalls. “It’s a Seaboard action not a keyboard action.” What he didn’t know was how to make it work.

Lamb hadn’t done anything like modelling, coding, or electrical engineering before. “It was like becoming a child again,” he says. “When I finished Harvard I had done really well, I was very confident and I’d won a scholarship. But at the RCA, I was surrounded by people who were pretty advanced as designers, I felt out on a limb. I had to go back to basics, letting go of a position of strength in one environment and accepting a position of weakness.” In fact, it proved useful as Lamb was able to call on his fellow graduates to help him with the Seaboard’s design, namely Alex Hulme, Hong-Yeul Eom and Heegun Koo.

Turning his soundless prototype into an instrument has forced Lamb to reinvent himself as a craftsman, teaching himself the materials science necessary to make the Seaboard’s silicon surface; developing the sensor technology that would turn a musician’s touch into real-time data; and learning the Java computer programming language from scratch in a month. By summer he had a concept model. By the end of August 2009 he had a working prototype, the Seaboard 2, which made very basic sounds, and for his graduation the following year, he had finished a version that contained all the elements he had imagined – the Seaboard 3.

In the time since he left the RCA in summer 2010, Lamb has raised grant and investment money from the Technology Strategy Board, that has enabled him to turn his one-man operation into a medium-sized company with 18 staff making several versions of the Seaboard. He is now developing ideas for other products that will use his innovative SEA interface. Surveying his busy workshop, Lamb appears to enjoy his chief executive role as much as he relished the challenges of soldering every connection in his Seaboard prototypes. “I’ve realised that all the things I’ve learnt about materials science, programming, or electronic engineering have been tremendously useful in building a team to turn it into a product and bring it to market. You really need to know about 30 to 40 per cent of a given field to be able to work with people who are more qualified than you. If you know less than that you can’t communicate about it.”

The 88-note polyphonic instrument has “aftertouch”, so that when a note is played for longer, the sound will change even more

Lamb shows me a diagram of what’s involved in the Seaboard project: sound, vision, tactility, interaction, the integration of all these elements, and how they behave over time. “Initially, I was working in all of these areas,” he says. “Materials science, silicon engineering, sensor development, firmware, electrical engineering, software product design, interface design, graphic design, industrial design, design for manufacture, mechanical engineering, sound design, assembly and testing! I knew I needed to recruit people who were better than me in each area, and knew more than I did, but people in different areas might focus more on one or two of these user experience issues, or on certain kinds of components. Maintaining the integration I had [previously] by doing everything myself was quite difficult.”

What Lamb is describing is not so different from the musician who starts by writing music at home using computers and makes the leap to working with an orchestra. To design an instrument is to design an interface: the fate of his invention is now in the hands of musicians, literally. Keyboard players, composers, and producers from a variety of genres are already exploring this “sensory, elastic, and adaptive” interface to see what they can make with it.

The Sound Hive at Roli Labs has been built together with acoustic engineers

Lamb is critical of the highly conservative way instrument design has progressed over the past decades, focusing on features rather than innovations. Then, there are the new programmes and tools that make it easier for unskilled musicians to make music, which he describes as “one step forward in terms of doing something cool, but two steps back in terms of expressiveness”. Yet whenever there has been genuine innovation in instrument design – the piano, the saxophone, the drum kit, the electric guitar, the synthesiser – there’s been huge impact on music culture. The piano changed classical music; synths transformed pop.

“During the development of synthesisers they really were the cutting edge of what was possible technologically,” says Lamb. “And then that became a sound and a style and people have found other ways to do that in software and smaller formats and so on. But I’m not aware of too many endeavours where they say, ‘We have completely new tools now in terms of modern computers and techniques for building interfaces, so let’s apply those to music and see what comes out.’” And that is exactly what Lamb did.