This November, the musically inclined among you will be able to turn any music into playable Rock Band music, for profit, in under a month. The game's developers showed me how, unafraid their populist invention would cost them their jobs.
Here comes Rock Band's public option.
Launching on the Xbox 360 in November and coming later to the PlayStation 3, the Rock Band Network is one of those grand creations that just maybe could change how everything works in its corner of the video game kingdom.
The Network will empower anyone with about $160 to spend and decent music and computer skills with the ability to turn a recorded piece of music into a Rock Band song available to anyone who has an Xbox 360 version of Rock Band. This is what the game's developers at Harmonix have been doing for years and they're now ending their monopoly.
The ambitious program will require a community of amateur and professional song coders to take several steps — some probably too technical to interest the average gamer — to bring a song through the process.
"This is a project that's geared towards musicians," Harmonix composer and sound designer Caleb Epps told Kotaku during a demo of the tools and service at MTV's offices in New York earlier this week. "The boon for gamers is they're going to get access to a ton more content. It's far more content than we can do [ourselves.]"
If this all works, gamers will gain the ability to purchase countless new songs from a broader selection of music styles than any video game has offered before. And they'll be able to do something with them they've not yet been able to do with Rock Band music: Try it before they buy it.
At the MTV offices in Times Square earlier this week, a quartet of Harmonix employees demonstrated how Rock Band Network works.
The process begins, hopefully, with honesty. Harmonix and MTV Games are opening their platform to anyone who has rights to pieces of music. Those with such rights can get underway by purchasing, for a $60 non-commercial license, the PC and Mac audio program Reaper, a version of which has been modified for Rock Band. The program allows the user to edit multiple MIDI tracks, associating hits of a drum, licks of a guitar or words in a song with colored-button Rock Band cues. That coding makes it possible for a piece of music to become the stuff of Rock Band: Audio that plays if players tap, strum and sing using the game's drums, guitars and mic, in time with colored icons that scroll down a note highway.
Manipulating a song in Reaper looks, at a glance, like working on a song in ProTools or other popular sound-editing software. "We're fully expecting people to come to the program with a little bit of musical knowledge," Harmonix sound designer Caleb Epps told me. If you don't have that expertise, then coding songs for Rock Band Network is probably not for you. But if it is, the Harmonix reps say that Reaper will feel comfortable for people who use digital audio studio programs. Features specific to the Rock Band version of Reaper include a preview pane that shows how the part of a song will look as it scrolls through the game's note highway.
Some shortcuts are built into the system, automatically syncing mouth animations of characters to vocals. Drum parts can be automatically rendered for those who don't want to code one. For those who want depth, they can manually craft each part, even including a track for animations in the venue. Manipulating the same system that Harmonix coders use, Rock Band Network programmers can specify how a a drummer will animate and hit each drum throughout a song.
The next step involves the computer program Magma, a transferring tool that brings the music file from Reaper to a user's Xbox 360. This program allows a little more tweaking of a song's levels, but is primarily intended to allow the song coder to test a playthrough of their song, using regular Rock Band instrument controllers and setting as many or as few parts to auto-play as need be. Testing can only be done locally, not with other people networked online.
During these stages, a song coder can apply any cover art, upload the text of lyrics, incorporate overdive cues, assign a difficulty level and any other basics that would be involved in setting the song up for purchase and playability.
Harmonix estimates that these coding stages will take about two days for a user comfortable with the program to complete. What follows is a process of mandatory play-testing and peer review on the Rock Band Network's creators website.
Uploading a song for playtesting and participating in such tests and peer reviews requires membership in Microsoft's XNA Creators Club, which costs $99 to join.
A submitted song will have to be reviewed by at least eight other people and will be checked manually and by software for quality and copyright infringement. Play-testing last a week and peer review runs at least two days or as long as two weeks. A two-day quarantine follows. After that, a song will be published to the Rock Band Network Store, a separate store from the familiar Rock Band marketplace, also accessible through the game. Publishing will happen within an hour of the song clearing those hurdles, not at an assigned weekly or monthly release time.
The whole process from song creation to publishing on the store would therefore take a couple of weeks, minimum.
Once a song is on the Rock Band Network store, gamers will be able to download and play a demo version of the song, which will last a minute or 35% of the way into a song, whichever comes first. Song quality can be rated with one to five "lighters," though Harmonix attests that there will be measures taken to ensure people can't unfairly vote down a song for spite.
Songs can be sold for 80, 160 or 240 Microsoft points, the equivalent of $1, $2 or $3. Songs can range from 30 seconds to 10 minutes. Albums are not supported and, while there will be a Harmoinx Picks section in the store, no special treatment is planned for bigger labels. Users will be able to search by song author, label, genre or even just find a random track. The person who put the song through this whole system, the song "submitter," will earn 30% of the revenue generated by the sale of the music.
The Rock Band Network is in beta test on the Xbox 360. When the service launches to the public in November, Harmonix expects there to be songs already pushed through and available for purchase.
Epps said the song-coding tools that this service makes available are "98.75%" the same as what Harmonix used to code songs for Rock Band. Amatuers and the pros will be on a nearly level playing field. But he doesn't fear for his job, he said. "I think there's always going to be a market for premium content." He's coded many, many songs himself. "I think we're the best in the world at this," he said.
Dear public, can you do better?
(A release of the Rock Band Network Store is also planned for the PlayStation 3, though Harmonix has no date specified. As the PS3 lacks the Creators Club amateur development infrastructure, song creation and submission would still occur through the XNA Creators Club. Harmonix senior producer Matthew Nordhaus told Kotaku that a subset of the songs available to 360 owners would be available to PS3 users. As for the Wii, Harmonix would like to make the store available but is uncertain how to do it but is trying to find a way. Support for the Rock Band Network requires a software patch, and Wii games currently don't support patches.)