Musically, I am a walking Dunning-Kruger effect. I’ve learned just enough to act like I know what I’m doing but not enough to, you know, play an instrument. The long isolation of pandemic life has inspired a plethora of new hobbies, and a few months ago, I thought, maybe music could be mine.
Enter Lumi Keys. Lumi Keys from Roli is a keyboard contained in a foot-long block, with translucent keys that light up in various colors depending on which note is played. It’s primarily marketed towards beginners, and it wirelessly pairs with a companion app loaded with virtual music lessons. The app tells the keys to light up in time to the music, so you know which ones to press to play along. These flashy lights and bright colors seemed like just the thing to hold the attention of my easily distracted idiot brain.
Months of on-and-off usage of two different versions of the Lumi Keys did not make me a musical prodigy. (Not that I expected it to.) I enjoyed my time with the device more as an gadget or instrument than an instructional tool. It’s a solid midi controller and the lessons are straightforward and easy to grasp, even if the cover versions of popular songs can feel a little uninspiring.
Lumi Keys started as a Kickstarter project back in 2019. After reaching its fundraising goal on the first day, Roli started production and released a limited run to its Kickstarter backers. The company was then blindsided by pandemic-induced manufacturing woes. In the meantime, Roli has made some small tweaks to improve build quality and has re-released a new version of the keyboard. For preorder, anyway. It costs $299, and an optional subscription to the app is $79 per year.
I happen to have both the “Kickstarter version” of the product and the new version. The latter is the one I mostly used. The Lumi Keys fits right on my dinky desk, where it takes up less space than my typing keyboard. It has 24 keys total, making it just over a fourth the size of a standard full keyboard. Size constraints mean that the keys are narrower than on a normal piano, which can take some adjustment if you’re used to regular-sized keys.
Lumi Keys is part of Roli’s Blocks line, which means there are little magnetic connectors on the side that let you sync up two blocks side-by-side. Pair two of them and you’ve doubled your octave range. Lined up, the seam between two Lumi Keys is barely noticeable, though the connectors can disconnect easily if you’re really jamming out or you bonk one of the devices at the wrong angle. Rubber strips on the bottom keep it from sliding around too much on a flat surface.
The keys themselves feel springy and plastic. Roli claims that the keys have 92 percent of the plunge depth of a grand piano, but there’s no confusing the soft squish of the Lumi’s keyboard with the crisp, satisfying clunk of a regular piano. But this is a portable keyboard, not a Steinway. And hey, did I mention the keys light up?
The lighting effects in the Lumi Keys are inspired by something called a Fresnel lens—the kind they use in lighthouses. That seems like overkill, but it works. The colors are visible even in well-lit areas, and in the dark it can feel like you’re at a Laser Floyd show. Each note in an octave is a different color. That makes it especially helpful for the notation-challenged among us who can’t navigate a keyboard by feel. The light is also the basis of Roli’s music lessons.
The lessons in the Lumi app are all about picking a song and then matching the notes on screen to the ones that flash on the keyboard. It’s a simple, straightforward concept that I am legally obligated to compare to Guitar Hero. Onscreen, colorful little loafs slide toward you in time with the rhythm. The corresponding notes on the keyboard light up the same color. Hit ’em right and you’re a virtuoso. Miss too many and the lesson stops and all the lights on the keyboard flash red to remind you that your fingers are little more than floppy sausages.
The Lumi is much more patient with me than any human teacher would be. When I played along to a rendition of Billie Eilish’s “Bad Guy,” I hit just 60 percent of the notes correctly. Where an in-person instructor might have said, “You just randomly slapped the keyboard and hoped you hit the right notes, do it again,” the Lumi awarded me three stars and allowed me to advance to the next lesson.
Lumi’s course offerings alternate between these practical playthroughs and instructional videos. They’ll take you through the basics like scales and hand placement, then build toward more complicated techniques. You can choose between *Guitar Hero–*esque mode, following along to actual sheet music, or anything in between. The music genres range from classical to modern pop hits, though it’s worth noting that the modern stuff is not the original songs. They’re cover songs, re-recorded due to licensing restrictions. The music mostly works, but if you’re playing a super familiar song, those uncanny differences can be off-putting.
There’s a great deal of content included in the Lumi app, but only a fraction of it comes gratis. The Lumi Essential portion of the app features 40 songs and around 60 lessons. Access to Lumi Complete, the full library of 600 songs and 100-plus lessons, will run you $79 per year.
If you’re not interested in paying for yet another damn subscription service, or if you’re already an accomplished musician, the Lumi Keys does also work as a midi controller. You can hook it up to a computer, connect it to a digital audio workstation like Ableton, and produce your own tunes. It works as well as any midi controller I’ve tried, plus the light show makes you feel like you’re putting on your own stage performance. If you really know what you’re doing, Roli’s desktop software lets you customize the Key’s lighting patterns pretty much however you want.
For my lessons, I used the Lumi Keys primarily with an iPad, which worked great. I didn’t have any problems with Bluetooth connectivity, though if you spend a few minutes on the Roli subreddit, you’ll notice that I seem to be one of the lucky ones. The Lumi works on Android as well, although for me that was a rougher experience. When I tried to click two Lumis together, they both just started flashing their lights wildly and became unresponsive. No such troubles on the iPad.
That wasn’t the only technical problem I encountered. Sometimes one key or another just wouldn’t work. It would light up, but not register sound when I pressed it. Turning it off and then back on again usually fixed it, until the issue would pop up again a couple days later. This wouldn’t be terribly concerning, except that I have experienced the same issue on the Roli Seaboard Block. When I asked Roli about these technical issues, both the reported problems with Bluetooth connectivity and the intermittent nonworking keys, a spokesperson said that Roli has a dedicated quality assurance team that’s always on the lookout for bugs, and that the company updates the product’s firmware every few weeks. Also, running the latest version of the app should fix some glitches (though in my experience, not all).
Earlier I mentioned that this new version of the Lumi Keys keyboard is only available for pre-order. This is where getting your hands on one gets a little complicated. Supply is limited, so they’re shipping in batches PS5-style. Confusingly, Roli sells two different Lumi bundles, from two different websites. The Lumi Launch Bundle comes with a keyboard, a case, and a $50 credit toward a year of the Lumi Complete subscription service. The Lumi Keys Studio Edition, available on Roli’s main website, comes with all that plus a selection of Roli’s desktop software. Both bundles are $299, though the price can occasionally dip on one or the other.
This marketing schism hints at the Lumi Keys keyboard’s broader identity crisis. It’s a versatile device in a lot of ways—approachable to beginners and robust enough for experienced producers. But that also puts it in a kind of limbo. If you want to create custom beep-boops, you can snag a small, simple midi controller for around $70. A really nice full-sized keyboard can go for just over $200. (We have whole guides for the best gear and the best apps for learning music.)
The on-demand lessons in the app are nice, but in the end, I found myself spending more time just farting around in a DAW with the Lumi hooked up to my computer than I did trying to learn how to play the instrument. Thanks to Lumi Keys, I actually know what chords are now! But I don’t know if the light-up keys are enough to keep me going.
And maybe that’s the biggest challenge Roli faces with Lumi Keys, bigger than even the technical hiccups: While it offers music lessons on demand during a time when some of us have quite literally grasped at anything that will help us feel a little more sane or productive, it’s competing with on-demand everything else, too. The flashing lights might only hold my attention for so long.