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The Rock Band Network and MIDI:
Get Your Music In The Game
Rock Band 3: More MIDI

By David Battino

Help: Introduction to MIDI

Deep down, who hasn’t dreamed of being a rock star? Sculpting tidal waves of sound while your fans cling to every note, strutting through stylish videos, seeing your own songs shoot up the charts.... Thanks to two MIT graduates — and MIDI — this dream is now as close as your living room.

In 1995, Alex Rigopulos and Eran Egozy founded Harmonix Music Systems to bring the joy of music-making to everyone, “musician” or not. They did it through video games, combining innovative hardware controllers with interactive audio and graphics. Harmonix’s breakthrough Guitar Hero was one of the top ten games in the history of the Sony PlayStation 2. Time magazine called Harmonix’s 2007 follow-up, Rock Band, “hands down the best party game ever made.”

Rock Band is so well-regarded that even the Beatles’ publishers gave their approval. In September 2009, Harmonix released The Beatles: Rock Band, the first use of the group’s music in an interactive video game format. But what Harmonix is doing now with the Rock Band Network may have an even more dramatic impact on music: Starting in 2010 any musician will be able to create music for the Rock Band series. Here’s how it works.

Here Comes the Sun
As the falling gems hit the bottom of the fretboard in Rock Band, you tap the corresponding color on your guitar or drum controller to score points. Vocalists follow the lyrics at the top; a microphone detects pitch accuracy.

Why It Rocks

The basics of Rock Band are simple. (See the overview video.) You select a song — more than 1,000 are available — and start playback. Colorful gems, representing notes, slide down an onscreen fretboard and explode into stars at the bottom. If you hit the corresponding buttons or pads on your controller at the moment of explosion, you earn points. Simultaneously, animated musicians play and sing in sync. (Behind the scenes, the programmers use MIDI to connect the audio and animations, as we’ll see in a moment.)

The design of Rock Band immerses you in the music, but what makes the game such a party is that four people can play at once, covering guitar, bass, drums, and vocals. In the Beatles editions, you can add two harmony vocalists as well, for a total of six players. You can adjust the difficulty of each part to help everyone have fun. In Rock Band II, there are even “no fail” and drum-trainer modes to get you up to speed.

Online play is an important part of the game. You can jam live with people in other countries and buy and download new songs. It’s this commerce aspect that makes Rock Band Network even more interesting to independent musicians, because if you sell a song through the game, Harmonix will split the profits with you.

Rock Band Controllers
Up to six people can play Rock Band at once, using a variety of controllers. In this YouTube video, a young musician even uses her flute.

Authoring: How To Get in the Game

With Rock Band Network, Harmonix is providing access to the same tools it uses to transform digital audio recordings into songs that will play in the game. In short, you split your master recording into multiple tracks, create a MIDI score file containing performance information, and then package the audio and MIDI files in a new Rock Band song file. Next, you upload your song file for the Rock Band Network community to evaluate. Once the song passes peer review, Harmonix publishes it for the millions of Rock Band players to audition and buy. Songs cost from $1–3, and Harmonix pays you 30% of that.

Here’s the basic authoring process:

tempo map
Creating an accurate tempo map of your recording is the most important step in authoring a Rock Band song. The tempo data will be embedded in the companion MIDI file the system generates. You can also add MIDI events to control lighting, camera angle, and even the roar of the crowd.
  1. Prepare .WAV stems (submixes) of your song, isolating parts such as kick drum, snare, guitar, bass, and vocals. In addition, you’ll need to make some support files, such as a dry (unprocessed) version of the vocal to generate lip sync. Harmonix provides detailed directions on its Mix and MIDI Setup page.
  2. Using Cockos Reaper (a multitrack recording and editing program) and some free authoring plug-ins, create MIDI cue events for the notes in your stem tracks. You can get all necessary software on Harmonix’s download page.
  3. Load your audio and MIDI files into Magma (another free program from Harmonix), add background information such as song name, artist name, and price, and export a Rock Band .RBA file.
  4. Load the .RBA file into an Xbox 360 and test your song for playability. (This requires Xbox Gold and XNA Creators Club Premium memberships.)
  5. When you’re satisfied, upload the file for the Rock Band Network community to evaluate. Tweak as necessary until it’s approved for sale.

For complete details on the authoring process, along with extensive tutorials, visit creators.rockband.com. If all this sounds daunting, you’ll be happy to know dozens of companies have sprung up to convert songs for you.

Play Testing
Harmonix employees examine MIDI events and test songs for playability.

Maximizing MIDI

Clearly, the care a Rock Band file author invests in preparing the MIDI file makes a big difference in how exciting the final track is to play. Rock Band Network program manager John Drake reveals, “The representational charting we explain on creators.rockband.com seems simple enough, but the nuance of making a player feel like they’re actually playing a real-life guitar part through five button-presses is a unique artform. Expert authors will want to read up on how we use MIDI data to control the venue and character animations, as well as the gameplay. With the Venue and Event tracks, we let you direct your performance, controlling the energy of the characters, the crowd, and even the lights and pyro! Effectively, we use MIDI to let you stage your ideal concert for the song — perfect every time.”

Pyro Drummer
The MIDI Event and Venue tracks bring your songs to life on stage.

Asked if there are certain types of songs that work best for Rock Band, Drake replied, “Good music is always enjoyable to listen to, but the best Rock Band songs have to be fun to play. We’ve seen fun songs from metal to blues, prog to electronica, pop to classic rock. The best songs have a good balance of repetition and variety — repetitive enough for players to find a groove without getting monotonous — and great parts for each of the four instruments (guitar, bass, drums, and vocals). When a four-player band really gets going and works together to master a song, that’s when Rock Band is at its best.”

Setting Price
Setting the price in an early version of Magma, Harmonix’s free packaging and auditioning tool for Rock Band songs. The price is listed in Microsoft Points; 80 points = $1. The artist gets 30%.

Come Together

Enabling musicians everywhere to get their songs into the world’s top music game is a bold move. But it fits perfectly with Harmonix’s mission of bringing the joy of music-making to everyone. John Drake explains, “Since day one, Rock Band has been about getting the best music available for our fans to play. With our weekly downloadable content, we’ve now surpassed 1,000 great songs spanning a variety of rock. With the Rock Band Network, we set out to blow the doors off of the current pipeline by making our tools available to all bands, labels, and fans to chart and sell Rock Band tracks. As a company of musicians, we know that there are a ton of bands (ours included) that want more tracks on Rock Band. The Rock Band Network is the best way that can happen: by empowering them to do it themselves!”

Drake also notes the “halo effect” musicians can get by distributing their songs through the Rock Band Network. “When fans play a song in Rock Band, they’re often exposed to that track multiple times and in a deep interactive way,” he says. “When a fan falls in love with a track through Rock Band, they’re likely to want to have that track on their music player, in their car, and in their life. The Rock Band Network exposes you to an existing community of passionate music fans. If bands promote their content well, they could find not only customers, but life-long fans.”

Lucy in the Sky
The Beatles: Rock Band contains songs from all stages of the band’s career.

Rock On

To get your own music into Rock Band, all you need is a multitrack breakdown of your song, and — if you choose to do the authoring yourself — some freely downloadable software, an Xbox, memberships in the developer networks, and some time to craft the MIDI file that syncs up all the action. In a very real way, MIDI is the gem inside Rock Band. Check out the Rock Band Network site; perhaps your music will shine there too.


Additional Photos (click to enlarge)

Audio + MIDI OnscreenStrum BassRock Band Duo

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