Rock Band, Guitar Hero, and Musical Convergence

21 Feb

rock-bandThere is a debate raging on craigslist music boards across the country fueled by posts as passionate, juvenile, and troll-tastic as any XBox 360 vs. PS3 fanboy forum-war.  It centers on a single question: Are DJs musicians?

It always starts when someone posts a “DJ for Hire” post in the Craigslist music section, and someone else posts a response: “Hey, this is the musician’s thread, you should post in Services.  DJs are not musicians.”   Defenses, retorts, and rebuttals are posted. Trolls jump in. Slurs and epithets fly. A flame war is born.

There is a similar discussion going on about the fundamental nature of Rock Band, Guitar Hero, and other interactive music games. Is there a possible artistic component to these games?  Are they in any way comparable to playing an actual instrument?  And, most interestingly to me, even if the answer to those first two questions is “no,” yet another question remains: Is there potential for that to change?  In other words, even if they’re not there yet, can these games evolve and become modes of artistic expression?

As both a musician and an avid fan of these games, I have been thinking about this for a while. Mitch Krpata recently wrote a couple of posts over at his (excellent) gaming blog Insult Swordfighting that got me thinking about it anew.  I went to write some comments on his posts and found myself writing and writing (and writing, and writing), and I quickly realized that I’d need to come back here and organize my thoughts into a series of posts.

The Debate

It’s tough to get this kind of debate into an objective space, but it’s a shame to leave it to the forum flame-fighters, because it is actually a very relevant and interesting issue.  As it gets easier and easier to take art out of its primary role (in this case, a completed recording) and, by manipulating it through a secondary medium (in the case of a DJ, turntables and a sampler), turn it into something else, where does the line between “listening” and “creating” get drawn?

Of course, this type of Meta-Art (and the accompanying “is it art?” debate) is nothing new. Taking someone else’s painting, re-painting it entirely beige, and breaking the frame may or may not qualify it to hang in the Postmodernism wing of SFMOMA, depending on your point of view.  Whether or not art is art is decided by the intention of the artist, but let’s be honest – whether or not it is hailed as art depends pretty significantly on the beholder, as well.

I’m gonna go ahead and say that, as it stands, Guitar Hero is not an artistic medium. Yes, this sentence requires a big fat “YET,” and that’s for later in the post, but at the moment, as Mitch said:

In other words, there’s a relationship between the artist and the listener, one that doesn’t really change when the listener happens to be strumming along on a plastic guitar. As when you bop your head or hum, you’re engaging with the artist’s work when you play a music game.

The Grey Area

True though Mitch’s statement may be, the fervor with which we attack this current debate indicates that we are already entering a bit of a grey area.  When Danny Johnson, at 13, becomes the first player to get 100% on “The Devil Went Down to Georgia” in Guitar Hero, is there any question that, on some level, we are witnessing something more profound than mere button mashing?  I certainly don’t think so – I’ve played these games, and the the thought of pulling off something so monumentally difficult boggles the mind.  It may not be creative art, but there is an aesthetic quality to such perfection, nonetheless.  It’s mesmerizing to watch.

I think it’s for that reason that game forum posters across the internet are constantly raising the following question: If you are a master at Guitar Hero, why not pick up a real instrument?  I think that this question, on its face, is a purely facile conjecture – there is no real similarity between mastering the movements necessary to match notes on a screen and sitting down with a guitar to conjure those same notes out of thin air.

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Yay for music!

But that’s not to say there’s not more to the question.  While they are not yet creative outlets, there is a performance component to these games.  A recent experience of mine comes to mind – my buddy Dan and I, he a rocking singer with a powerful voice, me a drumming powerhouse (in Rock Band, anyway), took the game over at a recent party.  And, man, we rocked.  Our musical ability translated into our performances – not only was my drumming loud and in the pocket enough to get everyone going, but his vocals wailed above everything, giving an amazing rock energy to the proceedings.

But the best part about it was that the other two people who played bass and guitar were non-musician friends of ours, and it allowed us to share a moment of genuine performance-bliss with friends with whom we’ve never shared it before. Everyone in the room was cheering and singing along, and it was honestly like getting to take those friends on stage with us.

So no, we were not truly performing music together, but it felt so great, and so real, that I couldn’t help but believe that the potential is there for something more, some truly unifying, creative experience.

The technology underpinning these games is young, and what’s more, the software is nowhere close to the audio processing power in even the most inexpensive home digital recording studios. As the peripherals continue to become more complex and flexible while remaining easy to use, the game software will become closer and closer to that of its pro-audio counterparts, and the sky will be the limit.

Hints of What’s To Come

As far as I can tell, we’ve been through two generations of peripheral-oriented music games.  The first one consisted of Guitar Heroes 1 and 2, Karaoke Revolution, and to a lesser extent, Dance Dance Revolution.  The second, and current, generation consists of Rock Bands 1 and 2, as well as Guitar Hero World Tour and yeah, okay, Rock Revolution.  These games brought the experience to a new level by both combining Guitar Hero and Karaoke revolution and adding drums, bringing the group dynamic of the experience to a new level.  The question now is, “What’s next?”

By including a music studio in Guitar Hero: World Tour that allowed users to generate their own content, Activision was the first company to tackle this question head-on.  Their execution was flawed, I believe, as was their concept, but they were at least heading the right direction.  Now that they’d effectively perfected the interactivity, the next step was allowing players more control over their individual performances.

ghwt-studio

The GHWT Studio

In theory, it would seem like the easiest way to go about doing this would be to do just what Activision did, and offer gamers a music creation studio in which they could assign different guitar sounds and notes to different buttons, different drum tones to different pads, and let the kids have at it.  In practice, however, it was a different story.  The sequencing and sampling software was so vastly inferior to the software included even in Apple’s free Garageband, let alone in higher-end home recording solutions like Digital Performer, Logic, or Pro Tools, that the music created was absolutely wretched to listen to.  What’s more, music shared online was subject to strict copyright moderation, and anything resembling infringement got songs immediately pulled.

And oh, did they ever get pulled.  From re-creations of the Mario Brothers theme to full on transcriptions of the finale of Freebird, users spent their energy recreating their favorite musical moments, only to have their creations pulled from Activision’s servers mere hours after upload.  I think that the fact that people used the software far more often to create  covers of previously existing material rather than to forge their own original songs illuminates Activision’s misstep while at the same time pointing towards the possible future of music games.

The misstep was in relying on the people who played the game to actually want to make their own content.  What all of the copyright infringement showed was that actually, most players don’t – what they do want is creative input and control over music that they already know.

The move towards further interactivity with existing material is one that I think that music games should, and will, continue to make over the next few generations of titles. The technology to do it already exists, and its implementation is right around the corner. The peripherals will become both more complex and more intuitive, the software will include more of the processing power we see in high-end digital studios, and the games will be able to read and play back any audio, not just pre-selected, licensed tracks that are included with the game.

The Peripherals

We’re already seeing some of this with the evolution from Rock Band to Guitar Hero: World Tour.  The upgrades to the plastic instruments were minor – GHWT added a touch strip to the neck of the guitar and two raised cymbals to the drum kit – but they were there.  The line between “Game Controller” and “MIDI Controller” has already blurred significantly (The GHWT drums have already been hacked to act as a MIDI drumset), and many third-party game controllers already do, in fact, double as mid-level MIDI controllers.

What should, and probably will, happen in the next generation of controllers is that they will, for all intents and purpose, become fully fledged MIDI controllers, capable of recreating the entire range of the acoustic instrument on which they are modeled.  That’s not to say that that sort of playing will be necessary to play the game – it’s easy to simplify a complex controller for people who still only want four buttons – but as long as the demand remains for a more complex, authentic, and hardcore experience, the hardware will meet that demand.

madcatzdrums2

Not just for the hardcore.

This will allow for a larger range between expert and beginner than just “uses orange button” and “does not use orange button.”  Guitars will have some simulacrum of all six strings and a strummer, the drums will have a greater level of dynamic response and will add a left pedal for the hi-hat.  We’ll probably get some sort of expression pedal for the guitar, too.  All of these extra inputs will help players to control the powerful software upgrades that we’re sure to see, as well.

The Software

Since it seems clear that, when it comes to their music gaming, people are more interested in putting their own spin on their favorite songs, rather than creating new songs themselves, the software under the hood in Rock Band and Guitar Hero titles to come will cater to that desire.

Using a combination of SoundReplacer (for audio substitution) and Beat Detective for on-the-fly rhythmic quantization), it wouldn’t be too hard for a game to create a drum or guitar track that allows significant deviation from the master track without losing the original tones from the recording.

soundreplacer

Soundreplacer in action.

As it stands, the drum fills in both games stick out from the rest of the track because the tones they use are stock drum sounds that sound a bit out-of-place when injected into a master recording.  Imagine if, by sampling all of the drum tones and cymbal hits from the recording, it was actually possible to cobble together a drum fill on “Won’t Get Fooled Again” that matched the original sounds of Keith Moon’s master takes?  By adjusting an option in the game menu, it was possible to do these fills wherever you wanted, letting you play your own parts along with the Who while keeping the sound of the recording together?

The first part of this process is already complete – the tracks already line up with a SoundReplacer grid, but the actual sound replacing is entirely reductive.  That is to say, the only time a sound is replaced is when the player makes a mistake and the master note is removed, replaced by a requisite “clink” or “chunk.”  With a bit more audio processing under the game’s hood, it’s not much of a stretch to make this process additive, allowing players to play their own fills, feels, and hits.

This kind of interactivity won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, but I can bet that there are enough hardcore players out there who would love a crack at it that it’ll be included in games to come.  The final piece of the puzzle will involve blowing open the games’ song selection.

The Music Library

This last one is going to be the longest time coming, but will also represent the biggest revolution for the medium.  As it stands, games are forced to license songs from artists in order to include them in their playlists.  It’s very lucrative for the artists (Aerosmith made more money off of Guitar Hero : Aerosmith than any of their albums), and at the moment, licensing is a necessary hurdle for the gaming studios.  If they want access to the master tracks from these songs (in order to do the coding/note tracking/sound replacing), they need to pay the artist for the rights.

tap-tap-revenge-iphone

"Tap Tap Revenge" for iPhone

This won’t always be the case. In fact, this won’t really be the case for much longer.  The technology to identify the guitar, vocals, drums, and bass parts in a summed stereo file (like a .WAV or an .MP3) on the fly already exists, and there is absolutely no way that in the future, music games won’t be treated just like any other media player.

We’ll be able to import playlists from iTunes and have the game create note-rolls to play along with on the fly, making it possible to spend an entire party playing Rock Band instruments along with Of Montreal or  Liars, not just Bon Jovi and Boston.

And I can’t stress this enough – this is an inevitability. The only thing holding it back will be the reluctance of artists and record labels to relinquish the huge stream of income that comes with licensing these songs, and of the publishers to give up the revenue garnered from offering additional songs as paid downloadable content.  But those two forces alone cannot stop it from happening – in the words of Mr. Universe – “You can’t stop the signal.”

There are already iPhone games that can note-track on the fly, and it is only a matter of time before home console games open themselves up in a similar way.  The minute that no additional work is required to get a song “Guitar Hero Ready,” why exactly should I be expected to pay for rights to play a song through Guitar Hero when I already own the song as an MP3?  To put it in a different perspective – if iTunes has a better visualizer than Windows Media Player, should I have to pay to listen to my MP3s on that program if I already own them?  Of course not. And we will not, in the future, be required to pay to use Guitar Hero to playback our songs simply because doing so allows us to interact with the music.

Picture This, If You Will

It’s 2015. America is in recovery from the great recession of 2008, President Obama is coasting through the home stretch of his second term, and the world is gearing up for another summer Olympics. Half Life 2: Episode 3 is going to be released any day now.

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Unchanged.

A group of friends comes together to play Rock Band: Reunion Tour on the XBox 5000.  The controllers they use are quite advanced – the drum kit has three cymbals, two pedals, and an adjustable frame, the guitars are equipped with touch-sensitive fretboards overlaid with nylon strings.  The microphone is still just a microphone.

After streaming their favorite playlist into the game, the group tears into a set of their favorite tunes, performing along with the track in a combination of mimicry, original performance, and reinterpretation.  There is no high score, only the performance, but for their purposes that’s enough. The bassist isn’t very good at the game, and has opted to play with only his first four frets acting just like the buttons from the old Guitar Hero games of 2008.  The guitarist uses all six strings, overlaying his own parts on top of the existing guitar tracks, remixing the part on the fly and creating his own take on the song.  The drummer is familiar enough with the tune as to be able to invent his own parts and re-imagine the entire groove.

Their performance is some kind of an amalgamation of gamers playing current-gen Rock Band, a DJ remixing, and a cover band performing a faithful rendition.  The line between performer and songwriter, between game-player and musician, has blurred almost to the point of obsolescence.

I swear to you that this future, or something quite like it, is going to happen. The idea of playing Rock Band along with strictly-controlled master tracks will seem positively quaint.  I know this sort of “world of tomorrow” stuff can get people in trouble, and I’m equally certain that some of my predictions are way off the mark as far as the specifics of their implementation.  But I do believe that the general direction I’m describing here is inevitable, and it’s going to lead to an exciting redefinition of our entire concept of artist/listener.

And on some level, I think that most people know this, and that’s why the debate rages as it does.  No one can argue that as things stand, Guitar Hero is actually a valid form of musical expression, or, as Rob Horning stated in his odious post in Popmatters, that it is encouraging musical dilettantism. The technology is just not there yet.

But as I watch these games grow in popularity and strength of concept, it seems clear to me that the brave new gaming world that I’ve spent this post describing is not that far off.  And I, for one, am excited as hell to see the playing field between artist and consumer not only level a bit, but maybe even change its shape entirely.

So, I’ll watch the gaming news with bated breath, ready to dive into the next incarnation of Rock Band, and the next after that.

And in the meantime, I’ll be off playing a REAL instrument.

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Not "real" yet, but soon.

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9 Responses to “Rock Band, Guitar Hero, and Musical Convergence”

  1. David February 21, 2009 at 8:00 pm #

    Our drummer actually works for a company developing guitar hero controllers that are real guitars… where it all ends, who knows… but there’s no question that playing video games doesn’t make you a musician…

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