Go from being just a gamer to a creator: a powerful collection of tools let you author every detail of a Rock Band track. Not only does your music appear in the game, but you can – if you like – control even every little lighting effect that appears. Screenshots courtesy Harmonix.

Games really are reshaping music. Despite their relatively simple gameplay, the Guitar Hero and Rock Band franchises originated by developer Harmonix are stimulating interest in real music making. It’s no accident that you can walk into a Best Buy and, next to aisles of video games, find a growing selection of serious musical instruments and technology.

These titles are also stimulating interest in music and artists and producing a new distribution outlet, at a time when the distribution picture for music can seem bleak. But until now, that outlet has been limited to big acts, big tracks, and big deals with big labels. It has only promoted music you already know, not the discovery of new music. Rock Band Network could change all that.

We took a detailed look in August at how Rock Band Network worked technically, and how authoring a song for RBN could give you the same level of gameplay and choreographed graphics that the official Rock Band tracks get. But now here’s the big news: at long last, RBN is opening to the general public, starting with an open beta for artists and play-testers.

Coulton “plays” Coulton: Jonathan Coulton and friends play “Still Alive” in its Rock Band iteration. With the help of Rock Band Network, this is just the beginning. Photo (CC-BY) Jacob Davies.

What it is: Rock Band Network is a new set of authoring tools (built around Reaper), a submission process (built around Microsoft’s Xbox 360 XNA Ceators Club), and an upcoming store to host indie tracks called the Rock Band Network Music Store.

What it costs: Rock Band Network membership is free, but you’ll need a $99/year XNA Creators’ Club Premium account to submit or test music.

What you’ll need: To author titles, you need an Xbox 360, a copy of the Reaper software, a set of free plug-ins for Reaper for RBN, the XNA account, and either a Windows PC or Mac. (You’ll need Windows, either virtualized or on another machine, in order to actually load the tracks for testing, but you can author on either; see below for more.)

What it gets you (as an artist): If you make it through the peer-reviewed submission process, you stand to set your own pricing and receive 30% royalties (retail, excluding tax) on everything you sell.

What it gets you (as a peer reviewer): With the XNA Creators’ Club membership, you can play as many tracks as you want without any additional charge, in exchange for your feedback. Tired: squeezing into sweaty, overcrowded bars at CMJ and South by Southwest to hear new acts. Wired: Scouting for new acts on your cough with your Xbox 360. And that could make a nice community of music, depending on how this evolves.

Where the tracks will be distributed: Anyone with a copy of Rock Band 2 (and presumably future versions of Rock Band) can play your tracks. Releases will initially debut on the Xbox 360 store for 30 days. A “selection” of tracks will also appear on the PS3 and Wii stores after that. (The approved songs will stay on the RBN Store on Xbox 360, regardless.)

When does all of this happen? The open beta launches today for peer reviewers and artists. The store is due, um, “real soon now.” (No specific date yet.) The game itself is ready to go, at least on Xbox 360: a patch introduced way back in September added the ability to play RBN tracks.


CDM Talks to Harmonix

John Drake, Program Manager for Rock Band Network, took some time out to answer my questions on the eve of launch.

CDM: What will the Rock Band Network Store look like? Where will you get access to it? Will it be a similar store on the PS3 and Wii?

John: The RBN store will run in parallel to the existing Harmonix DLC store, and will be in the same menu location within Rock Band 2. The RBN store has more info about each song than our existing DLC store does, and it has more ways to discover new music: you can search by subgenre, album, country of origin, record label, even the author of the song.

The PS3 store will be very similar to the Xbox 360 store. Details of the Wii RBN presence are still being worked out.

Ed. note: It’s especially nice to see the RBN store on equal footing. I had high hopes for the XNA-produced games on Xbox Live, but those titles aren’t displayed or listed in exactly the same way, which I think has hurt the initiative a bit.

CDM: In addition to the XNA Premium subscription, you still need Windows to support testing your own tracks, yes? Do you need a Windows PC to be a playtester?

John: You need to run Windows in order to transfer song files to the Xbox 360, because we use Games for Windows Live to manage the transfer. We have informally tested running Windows on a Mac on a number of virtual machines, as well as BootCamp, and most of them work perfectly for transferring files.

Ed.: I can add, a number of the Harmonix guys are Mac fans, so you can believe they tried the virtualization approach!

CDM: Since we last talked, there has been a private beta. Were there any additional improvements / changes since our August conversation? What kind of feedback have you gotten?

John: The closed beta has been absolutely invaluable to help us shape the experience for the new members just now joining the program. We’ve cleaned up and organized the documents section of the website, added a great deal of new information, clarified policies for submitting songs, and generally made sure that the pipeline is running smoothly. None of the major processes are any different than initially designed, but we have changed a million small details to make it better.

It’s important to note that the members that have been in the beta have been absolutely extraordinary: patient, intelligent, hard working, thoughtful, and helpful to each other as they worked through the inevitable issues that cropped up as we readied the site for launch.

CDM: Have any currently-available tracks come through the private beta process? (Jonathan Coulton’s?)

John: We currently have nearly 40 approved tracks, including tracks by the inimitable JoCo, and a bunch more up for playtesting and peer review. We’re expecting even more great content to go up for testing in the next few days, and we’re excited for people to join our playtesting ranks to get even more songs through the pipeline!

CDM: I see TuneCore is offering track preparation services. Have you seen similar offerings begin to appear? (For some of us, doing the authoring may actually be satisfying – we’re weird that way!)

John: There’s a great variety of services cropping up from authoring houses offering with different programs to create songs for bands. These range from straight, up-front fee structures to a $0 down, pay us out of your royalties deal. It’s really exciting to see how different groups are responding!

*PS, I’m with you on the satisfaction of authoring. I’ve been working with my band to put our whole last and current record (17 songs in total) up for RBN. It’s a lot of work, but it’s super rewarding to get involved in the process! And it’s really doable if you’re used to making music as a passion!

CDM: Outside RBN, are these tools beginning to be used on Harmonix’s own tracks? (I believe that was in the works when we last spoke.)

John: It was always the intention that the tools we developed for the Rock Band Network would be integrated internally at Harmonix and that has begun to happen. With the industry leading amount of content we produce (over 1000 songs and counting) anything that makes the job of our unparalleled Audio Team easier is welcome, and in most cases the Rock Band specific tools were built by members of the Audio Team themselves!

CDM: Okay, enough of the nit-picky details… what’s it mean for you that you finally get to take this to public beta? Now with a few months more perspective on it, what do you think this will mean for musicians to get on this platform, revenue aside?

John: As our Senior Producer Matthew Nordhaus said about Rock Band Network, “It completes me.” We’re already thrilled with the community working within RBN and we’re hopeful to see a lot more great content and enthusiastic playtesters signing up at now that we’re open!

Additionally, we’re really proud of our teams here at Harmonix and MTV Games, who have designed a really smart way of getting great music into the hands of fans. Empowering musical groups of all sizes and genres to be able to post their own content for sale is really a dream come true at Harmonix. Adding the great variety of music for our passionate fanbase only makes it that much sweeter. We’ll be even more excited when the store turns on and those first tracks sell!

Go Check it Out

I hope to help document both how artists are using RBN and the technical process for doing this yourself over the coming weeks. In the meantime, you can hop on the beta yourself if you’re interested:

How to submit a song:
Scroll down to “Adding a song to the pipeline.”

How to become a peer reviewer?

And yes, I still want to see an Amplitude/Frequency Network that’s friendly to electronic music, minus drums + guitar. I think Harmonix knows a few of us feel that way.

Jonathan Coulton on Rock Band Network, from the awesome PAX.

PAX ’09 Rock Band Network Panel #3 from Harmonix on Vimeo.

Everything you need:

Video interview by G4:

  • Keats' Handwrit

    Wait, so if we go through all that authoring process, our song only gets in the Xbox 360 store for a month? And, unless its popular, we won't even make it into the PS3 or Wii store at all??

    Way to deflate me RBN… 🙁

    I assumed it would be like itunes- you put it up there and it would stay available. I mean, let's say you are going on tour– you want to tell your fans, you can buy a shirt, CD, download on itunes and we're also on Rockband. But now, you can only tell that to part of your tour and then it's over. Am I overreacting here?

  • Emu

    I think it was saying that xbox get first dibs on the songs (probably some deal made with MS) and then sony and nintendo get a billboard top 20 version of these songs. I didn't see anything about tracks being removed after 30 days.

  • @Keats': No, they're Xbox-exclusive for 30 days before they can be approved on the PS3 and Wii stores, meaning the Xbox owners get the first shot at the tracks. After 30 days, they continue to live on the Xbox 360. And since only a selection of tracks will make it to PS3 and Wii, the Xbox 360 will also have the deepest catalog, as well as getting tracks first.

    The 30-day exclusive may be intended to favor the Xbox platform, but the Wii and PS3 are more limited because those platforms lack a strong community content channel — that's what XNA, Games for Windows Live, and the Creators' Club provide. It's not as wide-open as the PC, but as game consoles go, the Xbox has more infrastructure in place for this stuff.

  • PooPoo the Korruptah

    As a reaper user and ardent supporter, bordering on fanboi, this is embarrassing.

    Its a game. A lame game at best.

    So sad.

  • Emu

    In the grand scheme of things, this increases the population of people wanting to learn how to perform/create real music… and given that this is a 'digital' music blog, it isn't that far of a leap. Hating on the savages for wanting to learn your culture–in their own way–is dumb.

  • i applaud the concept, and i've no doubt that some people will totally geek out on this and create some subversive experimental music with this

    for its intended purpose/audience, my concern is that there's just too many requirements/connections to be made, and too steep a learning curve for non-musicians to suddenly become "electronic composers".

    why not add some user-friendly recording/sequencing capability to the existing game? (why complicate things by involving another computer, etc.?)

  • @john k:

    I'm not quite sure you're following the concept. This set of tools is not for non-musicians. It's absolutely for "advanced" artists wanting to sell their music (with the original stems, played with instruments, not game systems) in a form for the game. Now, that doesn't mean everyone in that target audience knows how to operate Reaper. But just as people may hire a sound op and rent a studio, some of those artists will go hire someone to do the work for them. Others may wind up seeing this as an opportunity to learn Reaper, and that'll work, too — it's more about a painstaking amount of work than it is a terribly high degree of difficulty.

    The reason they've done things in this way is that you're getting the full-blown development tools the developers are using. Activision tried adding some sequencing features to their Guitar Hero franchise (the one Harmonix started), and frankly, I don't think the results were anything to write home about.

    This isn't about playing a game. It's about having the same capacity the developers do, and adapting your music with the same degree of quality and detail. If you think the characters onscreen and the lights aren't responding just right as your track plays, you can fix it. If you have specific ideas about how hard each mode should be to play, you can adjust that. This IS the set of tools Harmonix now uses to prepare their tracks.

    And the cost/complexity isn't that great. TuneCore will charge you $1000 on sale to prepare a track for RockBand, with a regular price of $2500. (Yipes!)

    But the actual cost here, assuming you had nothing at all:

    Xbox 360: ca. $250

    Reaper: $60 (and you get a DAW in the process)

    Windows license: ca. $200 if you don't have one, and you can run it virtually on the Mac

    XNA subscription: $100 a year

    Almost all of those are things you might buy anyway, with the exception of XNA (unless you're a game developer). But that's a pretty low upfront cost and complexity given you then have these millions of gamers as a potential audience. And you don't need a special deal or a lawyer or even a label, etc.

  • Jim

    "And the cost/complexity isn’t that great. TuneCore will charge you $1000 on sale to prepare a track for RockBand, with a regular price of $2500. (Yipes!)"

    Wow, what? $2,500 to chart a song? Are these guys catering to MC Hammer or what? Rhythm Authors just takes a portion of the royalties.

    I personally like that the whole setup is a bit exclusive; it ensures quality. If it were free and easy to use, you'd immediately see a flood of terribly-done songs in the Rock Band Network. Harmonix does have standards to maintain.

  • @Jim: It's not that outrageous; authoring is time-consuming. And it's similar to doing a run of CDs for your tour, etc. But yeah, assuming you don't have that cash around – and if you're like me and authoring sounds like a good time – then there's a strong incentive to do it yourself.

    Quality is important, for sure; that's why there's that peer review, too.

  • HeXcoda

    Hiya. Rock Band fan, incredibly hobbyist music creator here.

    The cost to produce a song for RBN isn't really monetary. Chances are good people who want to give this a shot have a PC with Windows (or virtual Windows), and XB360s aren't exactly rarities either. Myself, all I needed to do was pick up the XNA subscription, and I had all the gear I needed to get going.

    The real cost is in labor and skill. This isn't a LEGO set… putting together a playable track involves a lot of work, using Harmonix design standards to lay out the playable notes for all four difficulties and all four instruments, designing the venue's lighting and camerawork, debugging, running it through the community playtesters and tweaking, etc, etc. In the end you could spend 200 hours on one track.

    That's why the 3rd party companies like Rhythm Authors ($0 up front, royalties in the back) and TuneCore ($INSANE up front, no royalties in the back) make sense. Time is money, and not all bands are going to want to fly this one indie and code up their own playable game tracks… sure, it'd save them money to DIY, but there's more to it than money.

    So, if you want in on RBN, look at all your options: DIY, royalty-based company, upfront-based company, etc. See what makes the most sense for your band. And I'll be ready to playtest your vocals on the other end. *salute*

  • Jim

    @Peter: well, compared to the other pricing models I've seen, that's the most outrageous, especially since there's no guarantee that you'll profit. RA and other companies won't actually get paid unless your band does – that seems infinitely more reasonable to me.

    Peer review helps quality, but making it more exclusive helps ensure that there isn't a huge backlog of unprofessional/copyright-violating/downright stupid work that would make the system nigh on unusable.

  • No, I think we're all in agreement here. Thanks the HeXcoda for clarifying those options, too. And yeah, actually, I think if your main goal with RBN is publicizing your work, the $0 upfront system of RA may be a better option. (Well, it'll be a no-brainer for some, as they may not even have the $1000 to spend!)

    We have a different audience on CDM as people who are already Reaper fans or know their way around a DAW may really enjoy tinkering with things like the animation system. 😉

  • @peter: ok, yeah, thanks, i kinda get it now.

    RB doesn't hold that much appeal for me, but i realize it's incredibly popular. and i see, yeah, this is more about (or will inevitably become about) "established" artists creating their own content for RBN– yay another promotional tool. i guess i sorta see the same thing happening here as happened with iphone music apps — creative apps getting dwarfed by oodles of band promo apps. but perhaps i'm being too cynical. obviously gives bands/people a chance to get their music out there in a novel way, and certainly they just have to mention it on their myspace page, or wherever.

    maybe it will lead to musical exercises/challenges composed intentionally to challenge RB players' "instrumental" skills. (the rebirth of techno Math Rock) any generative composition tools part of this?

    maybe opens up new job/business opportunities for composers/designers.

    my question then becomes: how do you differentiate yourself visually?? how flexible are the visual tools, assuming you work with the same basic existing RB instrument/stage templates/constructs?

    anyway, i don't mean to poop on it.. interesting initiative by the RB folks, and of course, having fun enjoying music is great and certainly no less valuable because/if it's pop music, and this does offer a new paradigm for the enterprising little guy to create interactive music for the masses

  • For now, you are limited to the visual appearance of Rock Band 2. So, that aspect is relatively restrictive. It'll be interesting to see ambitious artists open up their own gaming experiences, etc. This is more about just fitting your stuff to the RB2 game experience. That said, it could still be quite popular and a good fit for certain kinds of music.

  • HeXcoda

    Visually you don't have much you can control. You can pick from a set of camera angles, lighting arrangements, and animations — "Playing Normal" vs. "Playing Intense" and other such generic descriptors. Still, even within that, you can author a hell of a good music video to go alongside your work. JoCo's "Creepy Doll" uses the lighting and video filters to good effect there, differentiating well between the quiet and crazy parts of the song.

    Still, the number one way to stand out is with your music. That's what people came for, first and foremost. Bring good music to the table and you'll do fine. Bring unusual music to the table and… well, you'll probably also do fine (I've seen a lot of interest in the few urban/hiphop and techno flavored tracks that are in RBN compared to a tidal wave of indie rock).

  • @hexcoda: thanks for the additional info

  • Jim

    @Keats – I know that a lot of Rock Band Network tracks will end up being sold for $1. What would you rather get for $1, a song you can listen to on iTunes, or a song you can play on Rock Band?

  • please pardon my Rock Band ignorance

    another question:

    all the screenshots in this story just show the guitar fretboard — i assume you can create parts for the drums or whatever other controllers there are now? i'm looking at their website now and it looks like the controllers (guitar, bass, drums– and weird-no keyboard?!) are all pretty expensive.

    i assume the guitar is the generic controller you get??? i dunno – seriously -looking at harmonix website and amazon – it looks like you buy the software alone, and have to spend a considerable sum beyond to get any controllers (i didn't realize this was such an expensive game!)

    my point is– do people really buy all the controllers? would it be wise to program music for guitar AND drums AND bass. or just program for "traditional" game controller? can you play drum parts with the guitar controller (and vice versa)?

  • @John:

    Yes, you create parts for drums, vocals (via MIDI melody), guitar.

    Yes, people really do buy all the controllers. Right now, there are a couple of bundles with the mic, drums, and guitar that run $80 (for RB1 controllers) to $100 (for RB2). Given that most current-gen games go for $60 when they come out, that's not outrageous. The more expensive combinations only occur if you want a la carte and/or better-quality controllers (or the fancy new Beatles ones).

    Actually, many in the game press speculated gamers wouldn't spend the extra money required for Rock Band, for getting friends together on multiple instruments. Harmonix proved them wrong. Even more surprising, many gamers have upgraded to, for instance, MIDI controllers that act as real drum controllers, or gone out and bought real instruments and learned to play as a way of "graduating" from the game.

    There are countless lessons for the Musical Instrument / music tech industries here.

  • Just a little additional perspective, from someone who's approached Rock Band from being a "traditional" musician (saxophone) as well as an electronic performer.

    Like many artists who have actually been on stage, I thought Rock Band seemed like a silly, wasteful thing. I tried Guitar Hero for the first time in 2008, enjoyed it purely as a gaming exercise, and then quickly realised that it could be combined with video hardware to create something more interesting, and more performative. So I made Herovision, which allowed "non-performers" to get up on stage and have some of the "rock concert" experience.

    To me, this was already a fantastic thing, giving regular people a chance to experience how fun, exciting, and possibly terrifying it can be to get up on stage and perform for other people.

    However, despite all of the time I spent working with Rock Band, I never really tried the one part which can currently be used for serious music training – the Drums.

    This is because I'd never thought myself capable of being a drummer. I've played saxophone in bands since primary school, was high school music captain, etc. I've got fine rhythm, and plenty of musicality and performance experience, but have never been able to pick up kit drumming, as I felt incapable of separating my leg and arm movements.

    So after several months of putting on Herovision performances, I decided to sit down and play through the single-player campaign on the drum kit, to see if it could actually teach me anything musical.

    As a gamer, I quite quickly got addicted to the scoring and competitive aspects, but as a musician I found that the campaign (or "tour") was cleverly constructed to continuously extend the techniques I was exposed to, starting with simple beats and rhythms, and slowly adding more complexity, combining and then separating arm and leg movements, and building up the muscle memory that allows a drummer to continue a kick pattern while their arms are changing rhythms.

    After playing through the Medium difficulty tour, I found that I was able to sit down at a real drum kit and hold down a variety of beats, and not long afterwards I played sampled drums as part of a live gig, using an MPD24 and Ableton Live.

    Since then, I've continued to "practice" drums with Rock Band, and have progressed to the point where I'm currently making my way through the Expert tour. This means that I'm – mechanically at least – playing the same material as the drummers who recorded the tracks. On- and off-beat kick drum patterns, shifting drum beats, fills etc.

    This isn't to say that I'm suddenly "a drummer", or even that Rock Band has taught me to be a drummer. Before I picked up the sticks I had a decade of formal instrument and music theory training, musicianship and live performance training from an incredibly talented and demanding band master, and hundreds of live performances on stage.

    That said, a huge part of being a musician is the repetitive, mechanical training which teaches your body and muscles to play your instrument, and playing Rock Band is the most enjoyable form of "practice" I've ever had. I was never really much for independent practice when I was learning saxophone, and relied mostly on natural skill and loads of school band rehearsals to move me forward.

    If, say, "Sax Hero" had been available when I was learning, I'm quite certain that I would have done exponentially more practice, and been a much better musician today.

  • @ peter & jaymis: thanks again for all the info and personal experience. i definitely think RBN could go gangbusters, although at this stage, it is definitely targeted at music designers/composers/players/"real bands" more than people who love to play the game (nothing wrong with that). but definitely could influence another generation to get into computer composition/recording. i hope Reaper inked a good deal with Harmonix!

    but interesting question remains– why no (piano) keyboard controller?? or is there one? i sure didn't see any mention of it. would that be psychologically too similar to a "real instrument" and therefore more intimidating?? i can definitely understand why they started with a guitar– guitars are cool. but since then, aren't they presenting music with keyboard parts? are they missing an opportunity or did they product test and discover that people had negative reactions to a keyboard? (if they did, i'd love to see the results/comments/reactions!)

  • I'm guessing the reason there's no keyboard:

    a) cost

    b) demand / the ability to standardize the ensemble

    c) this thing grew out of Guitar Hero.

    d) Keyboards can't be simplified — suddenly, you're talking chords, polyphony, how to visually represent staff notation… you get the point.

    (d) is probably the deal-breaker. It doesn't fit into their game format. It's absolutely possible.

  • Keats’ Handwriting

    @Peter – Thanks for clarifying that it’s not just on Xbox for 30 days.

    A few comments to the naysayors- I think having an additional revenue stream for artists is HUGE! With fewer people buying CDs, artists have to recognize that we are in the age of Music 2.0 and that there are new distribution models upon us. It’s not one way communication anymore- fans want to be involved- they want more than just passively watching. Sure, you can Pooh Pooh the game play and say it’s not really playing real instruments–but I don’t think that’s the point. People are really learning rhythm (for guitar) and they are actually playing the drums.

    People are getting excited about music in a new way with Rock Band, Guitar Hero, Band Hero, DJ Hero– I think that is good news for music makers everywhere!

    BTW, speaking of new music distribution models, my entertainment law prof said a recent report predicts that half of all music will be streamed via cell phone by 2013. I take that to mean- make sure your music is on and Pandora!

  • I'm quite sure that the concept will be moving to more complicated, and "real" instruments very quickly. Sure, Rock Band and Guitar Hero are designed as games that even a "casual" gamer can pick up, but I'm certain their success will cause other developers to develop "serious" games which train people on "real" instruments.

    There doesn't _need_ to be a "Keyboard Controller", there are already hundreds of them on the market! Hell, when someone releases Sax Hero, I'm sure I'll be able to play it with the MIDI sax I've owned for 10 years.

    Right now, you can plug a full midi drum kit in via MIDI DIN in the Guitar Hero World Tour controller, setup the note assignments on your kit, and play the game with a "proper instrument".

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  • lemmy

    The 'guitar' is basically a keyboard controller.