LUMI review: Learning to play piano Guitar Hero-style with a wireless iOS controller

Today we are taking a closer look at LUMI — ROLI’s new connected light-up keyboard controller for learning how to play piano. ROLI began taking orders after a successful Kickstarter put the new iOS-based learning platform on the map, and we have since had a chance to go hands-on with the Guitar Hero meets MIDI keyboard controller learning system. Head below for more details. 

LUMI Keys build

LUMI Keys — the hardware keyboard aspect of the system — is essentially a fully software-integrated wireless MIDI keyboard controller with 24 illuminated RGB keys. Bluetooth connectivity to the companion LUMI app is complemented by a 6-hour wireless battery life and USB-C charging. The housing is a sturdy one, tight enough to fit in your backpack, but also quite robust and slightly chunkier than you might expect on the tabletop. Some of the more on-the-go MIDI controllers out there sacrifice some playability in favor of portability, in my opinion, but ROLI has left just enough heft and weight on this thing to feel like you can actually dig your fingers into it when you need to. For those already familiar with the ROLI Block eco system of products, LUMI Keys takes on a similar form factor as something like the beloved Seaboard Block (a mainstay in our list of the best MIDI keyboards out there). It is outfitted with ROLI’s magnetic DNA connector system as well, allowing a pair of LUMI Keys to smoothly snap together into one, along with the rest of the DNA-equipped gear in the lineup. 

The keys

ROLI has employed DS5.5 keys (about ⅞ the width of standard piano keys) that are apparently “better sized for the average human hand.” While I’m not sure if that’s actually the case or not, they feel great to me. I, for one, have been playing keyboard for many years and just usually prefer full-on grand piano-sized options or something in the pro “synth-action” category, so the size choice here by ROLI did leave me initially skeptical. A little bit more throw on the main keys would have been a nice touch here, but after going hands-on with the brightly colored starter keyboard, it only took a few minutes before I was right at home. The width and separation on full-size keys can be a bit of barrier when first getting your hands on them — especially when it comes to chords and the like — so the tighter setup on the LUMI Keys seems like the right choice to me.

The full-key, Fresnel lens-inspired RGB lighting — a method used to magnify light in lighthouses — on the keys is particularly vibrant and noteworthy here as well. Everything is easy to see and lines up well with the syncopated, on-screen lessons and piano rolls in the app, with varying degrees of brightness — to prime you for the next note in the scale, song, or lesson, for example. 

LUMI app

LUMI Keys is a perfectly capable MIDI controller on its own, but it’s the LUMI app integration here most folks will be investing in. Consisting of everything from lessons and Guitar Hero-like exercises to “bite-sized films” hosted by professionals walking beginners through the early stages of playing piano, there are several integrated options for players here. The carte blanche content spans from activities that feel like an actual teacher is slowly rolling out the basics to something a little bit more fun like learning to play the basic melodies of hit songs (more on this below) in the form of a familiar rhythm game. 

LUMI Essential vs. LUMI Complete

The LUMI app consists of the LUMI Library — a collection of the aforementioned lessons, songs to play along with, exercises, and more. The library comes in two flavors: LUMI Essential and LUMI Complete. Essential comes free with your LUMI Keys and LUMI Complete goes for $79 a year (or paid monthly) and includes 400+ songs (and growing “every month”), 130+ interactive lessons, and 380 exercises (mainly focusing on all of the chords and scales). I was able to give the entire Complete package a test run for this review so it’s hard to say exactly how long the more limited free Essential bundle will keep folks busy. But if we are talking about picking up piano/keyboard for the first time, the 40 classic songs, 60+ lessons and 72 chord/scale exercises seem like a great start, especially considering they will all need to be done multiple times to even get a basic handle of them. Not to mention the fact that LUMI Keys just becomes a great little portable USB-C MIDI keyboard controller when you’re done with/tired of the lessons. 

ROLI is still in the process of rolling out actual rhythm games that appear as though they are more focused on younger crowds with stereotypical video game-like visuals and characters — possibly a never-ending runner type of setup. But I cannot say for sure, as I didn’t get a chance to try them/it. 

I found the early beginner lessons to be quite informative and patient, although it seems as though some of these “bite-sized film” lessons could benefit from a sort of quick rewind feature or some way to scrub through them. It’s easy enough to restart these quick lessons anyway (they range from roughly 2 to 4 minutes each), but that was one thing I would have appreciated here. 

It should also be mentioned that the LUMI Guitar Hero mode and much of the pop songs you play along with are quite simple. Players are essentially guided through a sort of play-along lite where the melody is pulled from the vocal of the song in question. At first it seemed like an odd choice to have players jam a sort of stripped down vocal melody as opposed to actual piano parts, but clearly ROLI is leaning toward making learning a more fun process, and this method certainly achieves this. While certainly something that could get added in the future, it seems like these play-along modes could feature a more traditional option for players who have already mastered the vocal melodies-on-piano here. But again, ROLI is targeting new players, keeping them interested with fun musical activities and songs, and not worrying a whole lot about the technical side of things until players are ready for it. 

In the end, it would appear as though LUMI is one of the more capable piano learning systems out there that will actually keep folks interested. It’s hard to compare to a real piano teacher you can interact with and get a more personal lesson from, but LUMI is about as good as it gets otherwise. The more Guitar Hero-like format might not be the music theory-based learning experience you would get from a proper piano lesson, but it’s also much more fun and a great way to capture beginners before they get bored and forget about the keyboard altogether. 

ROLI is currently taking pre-orders for the LUMI Launch Bundle at $299, which is $130 off the MSRP. It includes your very own LUMI Keys keyboard, a FREE LUMI Snapcase, and a 1-year LUMI Complete subscription (at $50 off the regular $79 price tag). It is offering full refunds and 30-day returns ahead of the current “December 16 shipping window. Just keep in mind that could slip at any point here as more units get pre-ordered. 

Buy the LUMI featured in this review direct from ROLI.

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