Nope, you’re not hallucinating.

Whatever line there was between playing Rock Band as a game and playing Rock Band as musical instruments has now more or less evaporated with the release of Rock Band 3. Yes, there’s a keyboard, and yes, you can add a strap to it, if that makes it a keytar for you. But there’s more to it than that.

For the gaming world’s take on the ratcheted-up difficulty and actual music making functionality, Joystiq interviews Daniel Sussman at Harmonix.

The keyboard parts are real keyboard parts. The only difference between Rock Band / Guitar Hero parts and traditional score notation, aside from rotating the whole score 90 degrees counter-clockwise and having it come toward you, is that you don’t get a full range of notes. The keyboard changes that – while not as extreme as my faux mock-up in May, you do get the full range of black and white keys. There’s actually an octave and a half up on the screen, and two octaves on the controller. In other words, while you’re not quite learning to sightread, you are learning actual keyboard skills. There’s also a touch strip on the neck of the instrument, in a nod to keyboard history.

MIDI output. The keyboard accessory supports MIDI output, as confirmed in the Joystiq interview. So you can plug the keyboard into your computer – good fun for Xbox-using electronic music geeks, and also a nice bridge for people new to music who want to get into production after using Rock Band.

MIDI input. Here’s the other surprise: Sussman tells Joystiq they’re working with Mad Catz to do a MIDI input accessory, so you can plug your Roland JUNO-106 into your Xbox 360, if you want. (Side dream: if such an accessory supported XNA titles, you could have elaborate indie music games to play with real controllers, too. CDM Hero?)

Guitar with strings and frets. This is a bit more elaborate, so it tops my questions for Harmonix when I talk to them, but suffice to say Harmonix is finally adding strings and frets to a six-string model made by Fender.

Consider this a teaser, as I’ll be talking to Harmonix later this month. But why does this matter?

MIDI in, baby. Now you can play Rock Band with some insane homebrewed controller, if you like – or your Nord Piano. The upcoming RB3 adapter.

It makes gaming even more of a gateway drug for music. CDM’s own Jaymis, known better on the visual side of things than music, has started playing drum kit after getting hooked on Rock Band. And statistics worldwide show uptick in interest in buying and playing instruments, even as music education has been under economic pressures. At some point, there may have been a debate about the validity of music games. It’s tough to continue that debate now: games get more people into music, period. And while the games aren’t exactly creative or improvisational, they introduce people to more communal, more musical experiences in surprising numbers.

It makes a game musicians might actually want to play. Here’s where I think there might be a surprise. Lots of tech-loving musicians and producers are avid game system owners, but it’s hard not to feel a little silly picking up anything but the mic on the music games. Oddly, RB3 could bridge the opposite direction.

Rock Band Network just got a lot more interesting. I’ve been singing the praises of Rock Band Network, the tool that allows artists to author songs for the game platform, for some time. But now with keyboard input and real musical parts, I think RBN might finally be more tantalizing – including for electronic music. Now, could we please, please, please have some on-screen visuals in the vein of Harmonix’s earlier, visually-brilliant Amplitude or Frequency, and not just people in leather pants? (Okay, so maybe there are still some lingering obstacles for electronic music.)

Got questions for Harmonix? Stuff you’d like to see? Want to register for my Bring Back Frequency campaign? Let us know in comments.

  • markthemakr

    OMG hahaha I love this! Rock band and guitar hero have always been a great way to trick people who have 'no musical talent' to enjoy music in an interactive way; and now this… I can't wait!

  • Never been a guitar hero or rock band fan… but this seems like great news!

  • This is revolution for self learning!


  • I love Keytars!

  • Mudo's right, it seems a fun way to practice. I'll hope they will make a PC/Mac version at some point, I would definitely play it!

  • Mini-keytar with MIDI? Must have!

  • Stij

    Oh man, this might be the first RB game I'm actually interested in. 😀 Can't wait to see what keyboard-heavy songs they include.

  • @Darren: I'll bet you aren't alone. 😉

  • Well, whether it has velocity sensitivity is still up in the air. If all it is is a game controller, then there's no need for it. But if EH decide they like the idea of making it useful beyond the game…


  • As an established Bay area musician and educator I watch the progression of this software and shake my head. The term Big Ears goes out the window. As we make it more and more "fun" to practice we lose what we are doing. Practicing to click or transcribing a hot solo is gone with this invention. You aren't using your ears; you are using your eyes. Thank you for listening…

  • MORE…

    There is a pride to learning a Herbie, or Guillermo solo. Then taking that knowledge and building your own riffs and developing your own voice. Making each note count and knowing why? Working with tensions and 3/7s and different time signatures. This builds intelligence. You don't need a video inorder to play. Turn on your turntable or CD player and get out your pencil. -z

  • @Zack: Well, as a musician and educator, you've missed the point. People who weren't buying instruments by the game. They run into the limitations of the game experience. They buy an instrument. Then they can practice however they (or you) think they should. No one is using Rock Band as a practice tool. All the stats bear this out. Rock Band and Guitar Hero have helped boost music sales. That's the reason serious production tools and instruments are now found next to the games section in stores like Best Buy, which previously didn't carry music stuff at all. (Likewise, reality shows, vapid as they may be, seem to have help boost sheet music sales.)

    But, I have to say, I think this attitude is part of the problem. Music used to be a communal activity in which everyone participated. Not everyone was a legendary jazz soloist. (Indeed, it's part of the proud tradition of jazz that players were often elusive if you asked for help – but that's fine; it was part of the culture.) You have to look, however, at the bigger context, in which people would get together and sing in groups on a regular basis.

    Games as a cultural entity seem to have this power to get people over their fears. And fear is the one thing that seems more than any other to be an obstacle to people being musically expressive.

    Also, fortunately, by the time you rotate a score by 90 degrees, then along the x-axis so that it recedes, then remove the flags and bars so you can't tell any duration, you *have* to use your ears. You can't play Rock Band by sight beyond the most basic level. It's one of the somewhat amusing things about the game. The visuals are there as reinforcement, but it's effectively teaching the songs rote.

  • The three states for mastering an Art.

    Inital nature non-organized and full expresive.

    Sticking form (or style) for learn a rule system.

    Drop that form an recover inital expression with self control in the right way.

    Most of practicers remain at second level building wonderful mind jails.

    The Tao of Jeet Kune Do by Bruce Lee.

    Let people play like childrens and learn like olds then you have intellingently nature or naturally intelligence.

    Jm2c of the day.


  • I was jsut omplaing to a freind about wanting an sh101 style keytar.. make it happen harmonix!!

  • Peter. I'm listening and you bring up an interesting point. And maybe you and I will help boost musical equipment sales just by really breaking down what is going on. I see your point tantamount to Ken Burns shining light on jazz. The video game gives you the itch and you go find a teacher. I step back on this and applaud this but as for communal aspect the ol fashion garage jam is still the shit. A video experience will never replace this. Now if its a two step process you play video then you shed kool. If RockBand gives the itch to pursue music great. I agree there is an elite attitude with jazzers with the hidden message better go practice some more which contains a pride and history. So if a video game subliminally increases the itch to pursue music. Kudos… I guess it’s the same concept as the revolutionary digital whiteboard that classrooms are now using in FL, NY, NV, If one is excited to hit the books BRAVO…

  • @Zack: No, that's exactly the idea. You know, we had this sort of legacy in the 20th century in particular of a greater level of musical specialization. It's a wonderful thing, but it also meant that the resulting level of virtuosity frightened away more casual musicians. To me, now it seems we need to get some of the middle ground back. I'm not sure games represent that, but they could be a doorway into music that didn't exist any more. Beyond that, it seems we need more autoharps and not just trumpets. (The autoharp is an amazing instrument, and one I can't believe isn't more widespread – you pick it up, you learn to play quickly, and it always sounds great. And you can sing along, so it can still be personal.)

    To look at it another way, game systems didn't have a hand in making people play less music, because they were far too late — recorded sound had already done the job. The music game phenomenon is the record album turned on its head, so that it rewards someone playing along.

    Oh, and I *do* wish the Ken Burns Jazz would have gotten further into the avant garde. 😉

  • MORE…
    The other amazing phenomenon of music or arts is it replenishing your spirit and more often than not you are guided by “it”. It challenges and replenishes at the same time. Now the video game is too rigid as your video discussion professes namely there is no wiggle room. You are a slave to the game. The improvisational aspect is missing. YOUTUBE Learn to Dance on the Keys. Much like what happened with the advance in audio technology and the birth of Logic Audio which truly encompasses an artist’s newest wants and needs. At first it was rigid and you were a slave to the start and stop button but it progressed and was a skill set all its own. Playing video or mastering RockBand 3 isn’t a skill set. BTW having fun with this discussion sir…

  • Keats Handwriting

    @Peter – Thank you oh thank you for this post. Also for thinking *logically* about technology and music, eschewing knee jerk emotional reactions against things to which we aren't yet accustomed.

    Unfortunately, I have a Wii, not an Xbox. Peter, do you know if the keytars and midi interfaces will be used in the Rockband III for Wii? Using the Wiimote in Rockband could be interesting…

  • Shoot, I’ll take one of those controllers and just use it as a controller.

  • velocipede


  • Drutski

    Hahaha, for all those musicians who manage to shake their games habit with the excuse of being able to spend more time making music. The games industry are drug pushers of the most cunning caliber, they got you when you were a kid and they are not letting go. You'll justify the time to yourself in saying that your 'practicing music' on Rock Band. Then your 'doing research' on Chime. Eventually your on Battlefield 2 cause 'you know, um, there's sounds innit'.

  • griotspeak

    jaw genuinely dropped.

    is this midi in console specific?

    i really thought i was over buying video games this time.

  • Drutski

    @Zack – Doing anything that requires skillz develops skillz sets. Even playing games! :O I have played both games and music to an obsessive degree for most of my life. I have found that the skillz sets I have learned from each are much more transferable that you would think. The left / right brain to hand co-ordination used for geometry wars is exactly the same as that used when playing the piano or guitar. The planning reqired to play Sim City effectively ( or any management game for that matter) is applicable to the work I do in preparation for a new track. The communication skillz developed in MMOs's? Exactly the same as running a tour bus. Need I mention how much Singstar has helped my vocal technique? Or even how spending any amount of time immersed in a 3D envinronment teaches the importance of a well considered sonic stage?

    I highly recommend that you put your preconceptions aside and play some games. Treat it as a critical listening exercsise and I asure you that you will be pleasently surprised.

  • Well, for the record, usually when I'm playing games / watching TV, I have no intention of being productive or having any justification whatsoever. I'm not on duty 24/7. 😉

  • Drutski

    @Peter – Of course, it sounds like you've got a healthy work / play balance on the go. I know however that many of us have gone through the decision of making a conscious effort to cut down on the games in order to be more productive. Thus the guilt that comes when you sit down at the computer to make some music and the mouse cursor drifts from Cubase to Civillisation and another 3 hours slips out of your grasp.

  • You know what this means… Theremin Hero must be next!

  • Koratanu

    As being in a band where our drummer learned much of what he knew from Rock Band, I can testify that the games to music jump does happen frequently. I do think the guitar controller is the farthest from the real thing (DDR being the closest? haha), but even still, the basic motions are quite similar and sparked the interest in a lot of people. If anything, we've all heard of electronic musicians eating these controllers up, and this keyboard one will (as I said before) jump into many live sets.

    As far as transcribing solos, why? I was taught to just snake the couple licks I've really liked and moved on. Music isn't about the academics. Its about the music (and girls) and how it makes you (and hopefully your audience) feel.

    @ Drutski – True, I learned how to drive on ice from Grand Theft Auto.

  • As a band director /teacher, I wish my students would spend the same amount of time practicing their instruments!

    Tom Patterson
    Round Rock

  • Wow, this is amazing. One of these games has finally made the transition that I've been hoping would happen.

    Real instruments!

    I read some other articles around the place, seems like they'll have 2 guitar "pro" options – one is a controller with strings, but buttons on the fretboard (17 frets) – the other is a stratocaster which is a real guitar you can use with it.

    I like the controller with buttons on the fretboard, it's like a ztar, but it'll probably be much, much cheaper.

  • experimentaldog

    Supposedly it takes 10,000 life hours of dedicated practice to be a pro. I'm not that worried where Rockband is headed fun wise. But for any gamers who are also musicians, you probably already know how much practice time you need to get better at actually playing, and that's for any genre. What drew me into Rockband originally, was how basic the setup was and how fun it is to have a few brews over a few tunes with a few folks. Rockband feels like a fun toy to me, but I personally may not get into the pro controller area. At some point it will feel to much like I'm trying to do the real thing and it would become less of a game for me. I can see some merits of Rockband 3 encouraging deeper music skills based on complex instrumentation. But I can't fathom practicing a game for that long. I'd rather practice the real thing. Besides practice is like meditation for me and there's something fun about learning a song or two on a piano or guitar and sharing with your friends. When Rockband encourages kids to pick up the real thing it's a good thing. But at some point if they really want to play, they'll have to manage practice time done on the real thing not the pseudo thing.

  • Of course but why to spent time in boring technique and meditation if you could implement first with game play?

    Then if "children" wants to get "pro" you could talk him/her about jamming, meditation, art and so on… but first LET THE CHILDRENS PLAY and Music be Music…

    Music was invented before or after than "theorics"?

    Think on 2001: Space Oddisey and answer yourself.


    PS: all of us are childrens when we start to learn new knowledge.

  • Lol

    the greatest thing about the midi in is that you can now officially cheat with a sequencer. xD

  • BC Thunderthud

    "There’s also a touch strip on the neck of the instrument, in a nod to keyboard history."

    I don't even like ELP much but if this game doesn't include "Lucky Man" I'll be really disappointed.

    I'm curious how the pro mode/notation will work for guitar. I can't really see anyone reading tablature fast enough.

    Also that Jaguar looks a lot like a Casio DG-20 with a bunch more buttons, if this provides me with an excuse to buy one of those I'm all over it.

  • Now I'm wondering, since I just bought a Sonuus G2M, whether I can use my Tele to play Rock Band.

  • Emu

    @Darren Engadget has confirmed that the Keyboard will be velocity sensitive.

  • Emu

    you can check the article, it has a bit more information than Joystiq, including the news that the 102 button guitar has midi out!

  • groovelastig

    what I love about this is the idea that a game like rockband actually focusses on a key element of making music (one that's easily pushed aside when pursuing music scholarly) – which is to play. seriously, the best times I've had making music was when in an naive "now what happens if I do this" mode.

    if the game industry feeds on that idea, and approaches music from the play side of things, who are we to argue? I love the idea that getting an actual small synth (a small korg or a miniak or whatever) and plugging it into a game console can soon enhance your skills in a playful way.

  • Sasha

    Rock Band 3 does just come with the 102 button guitar but it also comes with a real one and here it is

  • Sasha

    for some reason I wasn't able to post the pic so here is the link to the website instead

  • The guitar-with-a-thousand-buttons has Midi-out. Now, HOW do I convince my band's guitar player that he will look WAAY cooler with one of those?

  • I do not know what will bring children back to music the way it might have been before, but that is a lens of a different technological landscape. I have never in my life seen as many tinkerers, coders, musicians, and modders doing things with the range of game gear/controllers that was never envisioned by the developers as today. Not just the chiptune live shows or the touch device djs. It is all across the board. As these same children some of the posters "wish would practice more" grow up they are being infused with this different musical reality.

    I have seen a lot of great efforts in innovating the music programs that schools can afford. Custom cigar box guitars was probably my most favorite example. However, looking at some of these mods across the board with open source software or sourcecode available, there is so much more that could be done. Not as the full load of their tutelage of course, but something these kids can look forward to the year before as they prepare to enter band for the first time.

    I am no musician by any means solely due to the amount of practice I put forth, and have at various instruments over the years. I agree that a solid rigorous structure is needed, but it doesn't have to be bland either. Heck, school-sponsored events for the band members in playing misc music games, karaoke games, whatever could be a great stress reducer and assist in social bonding. I know that for me, my concerts with trumpet (in elementary) were always the worst and I always backed out of my solos. In chorus, we had more of a fun pattern of practices and yearly events, so I somehow managed to do well in spite of my nervousness and physical awkwardness at that age (middle school).

    Music's execution, appreciation, and overall exploration is the focus of planned education in reality, and we all should do what we can to include those technologies that can enhance our messages getting to children and young adults. Whether this be in a classroom environment, or with our own children/relatives. That keyboard might be what makes me BUY into the Rock Band series. I have kept my purchases solely focused on the karaoke revolution/singstar titles, some ddr titles, the tracking/sampler-based music generating apps, and the taiko drum/bongo setups over the past decade. Something finally is going to be awesome enough to invest into! Though I do lack a 360 as of yet.

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  • Can you get an ordinary keyboard and plug it into the MIDI to use it as a controller for the game?

  • Can I use an ordinary keyboard for Rock Band 3?