Through my adventures with the Herovision project and Game On (previously on CDMo), I’ve posted a bit about Rock Band and rhythm gaming. Alongside the recent public beta release of Rock Band Network, Peter posted a QA with some more technical details on how the process works.

As digital creatives and performers, I can imagine that plenty of visualists will be interested in this, and authoring a track utilizes skills – rhythm, midi sequencing – that are already in your arsenal. Apart from the musical side, each song for Rock Band Network also requires a “Camera and Lights” track (official instructions and specifications), which lets you direct a “controllable randomizer”, choosing which band member is in focus, camera distance (closeups, no closeups), spotlights, video effects etc.

With quite a few businesses already offering charting of tracks for Rock Band Network, I hope that some of them have more than a passing interest in live video direction, otherwise I predict plenty of RBN tracks with excitingly frequent occurences of strobe lights and video trails effects.

Technique and aesthetics aside, there have been some comments on CDMu and elsewhere from musicians and performers who haven’t played Rock Band, and don’t quite understand what all the fuss is about. This is understandable, until about a month before I started Herovision, I’d never even picked up one of those little plastic guitars, and the drumkit… Well, video first, then I’ll explain:

I started taking music lessons before I was 5 years old, and I’ve played saxophone since I was 10, so I was on stage long before I realised that people would pay me to fiddle with video on my laptop. Despite thousands of hours of band practices, and hundreds of gigs over the years in all manner of groups, I never really had any proficiency for kit-drumming. My rhythm is fine, but I was never able to separate my arm and leg movements, so I’d get quickly frustrated whenever a drummer would try to get me going on a kit.

After the Game On project was completed, I’d still never even tried drumming in Rock Band,¬†and decided to give the single-player campaign (or “tour”) a go on the drums. The progression of tracks is beautifully structured to gradually introduce you to new, more complicated techniques, and by the end of the Medium-level tour, I found that I was able to sit at a real drum kit, hold down a variety of beats, and even play some songs with other “real” musicians.

10 months later, and I’m embarking on the “expert” tour in Rock Band 2. At this level I’m playing basically the same thing that the original drummer – mechanically at least. Not only am I finding it musically challenging, but flailing away at Lazy Eye or PDA is surprisingly good exercise.

So yesterday I decided it would be interesting to find out just how much work I’m doing when I sit down for an hour of Rock Band. Of course, the footage isn’t very exciting in realtime, but a 25x time stretch in After Effects made it much more interesting.

With all the attention focussed on musical gaming, it’s understandable that many musicians and performers are dubious. There’s lots of anecdotal evidence that these games are “getting kids in to performing music”, but I believe that there’s much more to it than that. So much of being good at an art is pure mechanical repetition – practicing something over and over until your body develops muscle memory of how to play a song, draw a face, or animate a transition.

Gaming got me in to VJing. I had to learn to write batch files to get my DOS games running, which got me in to programming, editing video and graphic design, which eventually led me to VJing as a way to combine all of these things. To me, “can games inspire creativity” and “can games teach us real, useful skills” are forgone conclusions, I’m simply interested in the capabilities that the next generation of games will give us.

I’ll have some more to say on this next week on CDMu, but for now: What path led you to performing with video? What upcoming gaming technology are you looking forward to incorporating with your art?

  • I guess you're right. Last Sunday I was playing Frets On Fire (the open-source Rock Band clone) with some friends, and while I was having fun playing Drums in Hard level, a friend who's musician suggested me to take a few "real" drums lessons so in a few weeks we'll be able to jam together in his rehearsal room, because this game gave me the necessary skills to play -basic- rhythms on a real drumkit. Now I'm  getting really excited!

  • Cool post! And video. I'm a drummer, and when i tried Rock Band I didn't feel like I was playing drums at all. I tried playing on expert and it just wasn't the song (which I had already learned). Maybe it was just a bad track? I failed out miserably.
    That's what I'm really excited about with this. With drummers actually programming their drums, I think it will be close to the real thing (although all kinds of accents are untranslatable still). It'll be fun to see how hard these things get when musicians are trying to put every single detail in! Sounds like you did some cool, well-done tracks though. Any to recommend for next time I play?

  • @Will: A lot of musicians have problems when they try to play the game, because they're often playing the actual song, rather than what the game says the song is. You lose points if you play a note that isn't on your "chart", even if it should actually be there in the song. I know some musicians who play rock band by not actually listening to the song, and just focussing on the visuals of the notes.
    For drums on expert though, I've found that the track tends to sound extremely close to what I'm hearing. On the weekend I'm going to make another video, using a midi drum kit controlling Rock Band, and see how close the drumkit-generated sounds are to the real track.
    There's still plenty of detail to go – no hi-hat control at all, for instance. So even though I'm feeling like I have some reasonably mad skills, it's still a long way from the kind of proficiency that proper lessons and practice gives.

  • dtr

    what's the drumkit you're using? can alesis/roland/… midi drumkits hook up to rock band? looks like a very fun way to get started with drums!

  • @dtr: That kit is actually the official Guitar Hero: World Tour drums for Wii. It has a MIDI DIN in, so you can plug in whatever midi controller you like to trigger the game. There's some more serious "drum brains" out there that have been made for Rock Band, and also the awesome MidiRocker, which I'll be doing a demo video of soon.

  • Cool. I was also using bad drums, so maybe I'll try those. Can't wait to see MidiRocker demo.