The Big Review: ROLI LUMI Keys 1

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Price £300
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ROLI’s LUMI Keys 1 is the final production version of the advanced keyboard that was originally launched on Kickstarter in 2019. It serves two purposes: to be the hardware controller for the LUMI piano tuition app, and as a two-octave controller keyboard with polyphonic aftertouch.

If you want the rainbow…

LUMI Keys 1 is sleekly designed, with a sturdy plastic housing and a rubberised base that stays put on your desk. The keys are incredibly bright, with uniquely consistent backlighting across each. Just having a rainbow-coloured LUMI Keys on your desk – or better, two – sparks joy.

The hardware has four self-explanatory play modes: Rainbow, Single Color Scale, Piano and Night Mode, the last of which features dimmed keys that light up when pressed. Backlight response is immediate, but in Rainbow and Single Colour Scale modes, the lights dim when you play, making it harder to see what’s highlighted. The ability to turn this off would be welcome.

When you put a LUMI Keys 1 controller alongside another, they magnetically snap together for power- and data-sharing, which also means that you only have to connect one
of them via Bluetooth, making setup a breeze.

As far as playing feel goes, the keys are not full-width, though ROLI describes them as “better sized for the average human hand”. They’re fine when playing monophonic parts but narrower keys can make playing chords feel cramped. The keys are the same width as those on the Novation Launchkey Mini but, because they’re longer, there’s a little more space for chords here.

ROLI LUMI 1

ROLI also reckons the LUMI Keys 1 has 92 per cent of the plunge depth of a grand piano, which in real terms is somewhat misleading. In our tests, we find more like half the plunge depth before hitting the resistance of the keybed. That makes a big difference to the playing feel. But, to think of LUMI as piano-like may not be helpful anyway. In fact, when playing, we found it more useful to think of LUMI Keys 1 as a big ROLI Lightpad Block with a keyboard playing surface.

Also, the strike (velocity) and pressure sensitivity can be a challenge to get accustomed to. The most common issues include accidental note retriggering, a failure to register key presses and recording tiny velocity values. To address this, there’s a fixed-velocity mode, plus basic sensitivity controls in ROLI’s Dashboard software. But DAW-based velocity scaling makes the keyboard far easier to wrangle.

LUMI Keys 1 is designed to help you learn piano, so it’s strange that there’s no sustain pedal input. There aren’t any pitch or mod controls either. Sure, you can get around the lack of modulation by programming aftertouch to control your mod parameters but there’s no simple fix for the absence of pitch bend.

ROLI LUMI 1

Practice makes perfect

With the LUMI music app, connection via Bluetooth is easy, stable and free of any perceptible latency.

The app’s main modes are Learn and Play. Learn is for interactive video lessons, while Play gives you access to a library of songs, sorted by difficulty, with four styles of notation: Cascade, the Guitar Hero-style mode with falling notes; Rainbow, which looks like side-scrolling Piano Roll data; ColorNote, which is musical staff notation with colours corresponding to the keys; and Classic, which sees regular black notes on a white stave.
The big sell for learners is how interactive the lessons are. During lessons, LUMI Keys 1 lights up in step with your tuition, making the experience both personalised and immediate. The lessons are also short, delivered by approachable tutors and well-pitched for beginners. For building up your muscle memory, there are also practice modes for scales and chords.

It can take some concentration to produce consistent volume swells in the Polyphonic Aftertouch mode

Though the hardware integration with the LUMI Music app is relatively seamless, occasionally the tuition is hampered by the keyboard’s form. For example, when you begin learning songs with simultaneous left and right-hand parts, it can get cramped with only a single LUMI Keys 1. The same goes for some songs in the Play area. The LUMI app is free with around 40 songs, but you can unlock over 400 tracks with the monthly subscription fee of about £7.50 (about £5 when paid annually).

There are different versions of many of the pieces to cater to different abilities, from First Steps to Expert. These versions vary depending on the number of hardware controllers you have, and whether you want to play left or right-hand parts, or both. We have a lot of fun playing singable instrumental themes from film and TV, such as that from Game of Thrones. There’s also room for growth. Playing Europe’s iconic The Final Countdown in Expert mode with both hands is undoubtedly an aspirational piece (read: horrendously difficult). It’s one that more than necessitates the half-speed playback function and, ideally, two LUMI Keys 1 controllers. But, of course, that will set you back another £300.

The songs that don’t work as well mostly fall into the modern pop category. Alicia Keys’ Fallin’, for example, should be an arpeggio-laden treat, but it suffers from sheet musicitis. It asks you to tackle the complex vocal melody with a MIDI keyboard rather than getting you to nail the accompaniment.

ROLI LUMI 1

Touch and go

The first desktop app you encounter is ROLI Dashboard, the control app for LUMI Keys 1. It gives you control over light modes, scales, colour, brightness and sensitivity curves for Strike, Pressure and Lift. You also get control over the type of pressure-based control messages it sends: Channel Pressure or Polyphonic Aftertouch.

Using ROLI Dashboard with any non-ROLI plug-in is a smooth experience that invites unfamiliar progressions and playing styles. With only the notes of specific scales lit, it makes it easy to stay in the right harmonic territory even in the most complex keys.
ROLI Studio Player, the main software instrument that comes with LUMI Keys 1,  also has some well-conceived features that help turn vague creative ideas into concrete musical forms.

ROLI Studio Player integrates well with the hardware, showing scales, arpeggiation and chords. The base colour corresponds to the sound engine the plug-in is using.

Patches range from cinematic to synthwave and EDM to experimental. Most are eminently playable and, with the polyphonic aftertouch feature, they can feel deeply expressive too. But oddly, in chordal work such as playing synth pads, it can take some concentration to produce consistent volume swells in the Polyphonic Aftertouch mode.

Using the Channel Pressure option rather than Poly Aftertouch doesn’t help much either, instead producing even more erratic swells. In future updates, it would be great to see more extensive controls for tailoring the pressure response.

Communication between ROLI Studio Player and the hardware is stable, but there are a few little gremlins. ROLI Dashboard and the ROLI Studio Player software seem to compete for hardware control, which can unexpectedly flip you from one mode (and octave) to another when you’re adjusting hardware settings.

The ROLI LUMI Keys 1 has lots going for it but there are areas in which it could be refined

That aside, the most valuable part of the ROLI Studio Player software is the Smart Chords feature. Smart Chords is a twist on the one-finger chord function. However, for each degree of the scale, you can elect one of seven chord types. This lets you rapidly set out harmonic progressions. All you have to do is choose your key and start hitting notes, though a few more chord options might be useful. The Add Bass option is a masterstroke of simplicity, adding a root note in the bass, while the Auto Invert option is fantastic for making parts feel like they were played by skilled a keyboardist. And all the added notes are lit up on the hardware in pink.

A Strum control staggers note timings to create strummed chords, a feature that’s perfect for plucked patches such as harp, and even piano. The Multi-Layered Arpeggiator is a riot, deftly generating controlled chaos with its three simultaneous layers of arpeggiation. And it’s also a lot of fun to watch the notes flashing up and down the keyboard, this time in vibrant yellow.

One quirk in ROLI Studio Player is that the base backlight colours are primarily blue, purple and green. Unfortunately, it can be difficult to see which notes in a scale are illuminated when playing, so we’d like to see options more hardware control options to remedy that.

With ROLI Studio Drums, LUMI comes into its own again, and this is where it’s worth thinking of this as a cousin to the Lightpad Block. The keybed is ideally suited to drums and feels suitably bouncy, with key colours denoting drum types for easy navigation.

Light our way

The ROLI LUMI Keys 1 has lots going for it. The learning tech is impressive but, for producers, there are a few areas in which it could be refined. The light-up keys are easily the best we’ve seen and far more informative than expected. While the playing feel won’t be for everyone, it’s still usable for such a small, portable device. However, it would be great if it had features that made it a bit more expressive. One such feature is Polyphonic  Aftertouch, but this could also be improved with more calibration tools.

LUMI Keys 1 excels at getting you out of your normal musical mindset. It gets you thinking in colours and shapes rather than keys. But it requires a shift in playing style to get the most out of it. If you’re happy to do that, you’ll love it.

If ROLI releases a studio version with a sustain pedal input and pitch/mod wheels, we’d be keen, especially if the keys have more travel. Tantalisingly, ROLI has also mentioned third-party support for key lights, which would make this an even more attractive compositional tool. We’re looking forward to seeing how LUMI develops.

Do I really need this?

ROLI LUMI 1

Want to learn piano? This is a fun way to do it. There’s no other product that teaches piano in such a smart and integrated way. But as a production controller, its success will depend on your priorities. The lack of hardware controls and high price mean that its main selling points are its lights and aftertouch. The ROLI Studio Player integration makes it a fantastic creative tool but you can buy the software separately.

Key Features

  • 24-note keyboard with DS5.5 width keys
  • RGB illuminated keys
  • Polyphonic aftertouch
  • Two devices can be connected magnetically
  • Interactive songs and lessons via LUMI iOS/Android app
  • Bluetooth and USB connectivity
  • Bundled with ROLI Studio Player, ROLI Studio Drums and ROLI Dashboard desktop apps
  • 6-hour battery life

Alternatives

Native Instruments
Komplete Kontrol S25 £300

Another light-up keyboard but made with composers in mind, its lights show arpeggiator, chords, scales and visible keysplits and keyswitches. Benefits include NKS integration and full-sized keys.

Novation
49 SL MKIII £500

If you want light-up keys and literally every other conceivable kind of control, for the price
of two ROLI LUMI Keys 1s, look no further. What you lose in tuition capability, you make up for with knobs, faders and pads.

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