July 4, 2011

Rocksmith: More Real Guitar?

At this year’s E3, Ubisoft revealed a new guitar game — Rocksmith. The twist here is that the game only works with real guitars. There’s a special USB adapter provided with the game that plugs into the standard output port of any six-string guitar.

So buy the game, add a real guitar … and start playing.

Now, this isn’t exactly new, since Rock Band 3 has a fantastic pro guitar mode which also allows you to play on a real guitar, so long as it is one of the special MIDI capable ones supported by the game. Rocksmith is the first to focus exclusively on real guitar and the first to work with any guitar you happen to have lying around.

This IGN preview does the best job so far of showing off what the game is, and how it works. I definitely recommend checking it out.

The Wired preview has more details on the required tuning prior to each song (?) and some of the freeplay amp modes.

Only a handful of tracks have been revealed for the game so far, but it does include some fairly major artists, and all original master tracks; it’s no slouch in the soundtrack department:

  • House of the Rising Sun – The Animals
  • Sunshine of Your Love – Cream
  • High and Dry – Radiohead
  • Rebel Rebel – David Bowie
  • (I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction – Rolling Stones
  • Vasoline – Stone Temple Pilots

There’s also this clever viral ad for the game with a vaguely creepy baby guitar prodigy showing off his chops:

Rocksmith will be available on Xbox 360, PS3, and surprisingly enough, even on PC. Not sure what that means for any DLC plans, but it’s certainly convenient for a PC gamer like myself; the last “modern” rock gaming title that runs on the PC is moldy old Guitar Hero 4.

Interface wise, it turns the fretboard on its side — literally. So instead of strings pointing up, ala Rock Band 3 Pro Guitar mode, we get strings pointing to the side.

Pretend you’re playing guitar in front of a mirror, and you get the idea. It’s an interesting design choice, and I suppose it might make it easier to see some hand positions on the neck of the guitar this way.

Rocksmith’s 100% focus on real guitar out of the box, and the nifty dynamic difficulty scaling mechanism as you play, are welcome additions to the genre. (And the skill building guitarcade mini-games are genius!) But I have some serious concerns about the choice of analog guitar input to control the game, which means:

  1. Your guitar must be perfectly in tune for this to work at all, by definition. Not really a problem, just means you have to tune your guitar before playing. Guitars should be in tune anyway, right? Absolute worst case scenario the game ends up being a glorified $80 guitar tuning software package. Hardly the end of the world.
  2. The note detection absolutely, positively has to happen in real time. That is, when the game converts what’s coming over the USB cable from raw guitar sounds to “the user pressed these strings”, if there is significant lag, this is a dealbreaker. In music, timing is everything. Lag is a serious enough problem with existing digital 5 button guitars in Rock Band and Guitar Hero; input lag on an analog guitar would be absolutely brutal.

Worryingly, the lag issue is specifically called out as a problem in the IGN preview, with vague promises that they’ll fix it up before the October release. It’s not like Ubisoft is the first company to ever dream up the idea of a simple analog to digital real time note conversion. This has been tried before with little success. I can’t help wondering if there is a reason Harmonix used far more complex digital detection for Rock Band 3 pro guitar mode.

There are also some murmurings about a $199 Epiphone Les Paul Junior guitar + game bundle, but there’s no place to order it yet. Until then, Rocksmith is $79 with the USB cable included, and will be available for Xbox 360 and PS3 this October, and PC later in the year.

July 1, 2011

Fender Squier Pro Guitar Tips

Although it is a bummer that the Rock Band 3 Fender Squier won’t be produced any more, there are still plenty of them to be had through Best Buy.

Squier® – Rock Band 3 Game Guitar – Black

 

In fact, I own two of ’em!

If you are truly interested in playing a real guitar in Rock Band 3 and haven’t bitten on this deal yet, you should before they run out of stock, because once they’re gone — they’re gone forever. Don’t worry, the guitar will be supported indefinitely in RB3 and future pro guitar DLC, and presumably Fender will honor any warranties on them, so it’s safe.

It’s a blast playing Pro Guitar mode with a real guitar. But don’t take my word for it — listen to this guy. Please!

Of course, the MIDI interface specific to your platform is required to use the guitar in Rock Band 3:

These Midi adapters may be platform specific, but they aren’t instrument specific; you can also use them to hook up Midi drumsets and Midi keyboards for play as well.

On Wii and PS3, the built-in controller buttons on the guitar also function, but not on Xbox (due to controller licensing restrictions). Fortunately, the Midi adapter can be cleverly mounted on the guitar itself so you don’t have to go digging around on the floor for it to push the green button. Flip the little plastic adapter on the back around, and it hooks into the strap peg for the guitar, like so:

Based on my experience, in addition to the guitar and the midi adapter, you might want a few other things to maximize the guitarpocalypse.

Since the Midi adapter and the Midi port are so close together now, it’s best to use a 1 foot Midi cable to connect them; the default Midi cable included with the guitar is far too long. A real guitar is heavy and wired enough without 6+ feet of unnecessarily long looped Midi cable hanging off your guitar as you play … or should I say try to play.

The pro guitar tutorials do a fantastic job of easing you into being a totally awful beginning guitar player. One word of warning: you will get blisters on your fingers. You’re pressing those tender digits against unforgiving steel braided wires, and something has to give. There’s a reason Ringo mentioned this, and boy, will you ever know why.

As far as strumming goes, I recommend playing with a pick. Some folks like using their fingers, but I found I had better accuracy with a pick. The guitar comes with 2 starter picks so you can decide for yourself. There are also some nifty aftermarket picks available on Amazon. They come in thin, medium, and heavy — and a variety of colors, including this beautiful celluloid abalone.

Also, there is some hidden adjustability in the guitar; remember this is a fundamentally analog instrument pulling some clever tricks to appear digital, so calibration might be necessary. Both of mine worked fine out of the box, as far as I can tell, but for completeness, here’s how to adjust:

In the battery box, there are two very small phillips head screws. Unscrewing will give you access to 6 gold on blue sensitivity potentiometers. Turn them counterclockwise to increase the sensitivity and clockwise to decrease. This means if you feel like the top string is not being picked up, “loosen” the potentiometer (and if you feel the bottom strings keep ringing, “tighten”).

You can also use a screwdriver to adjust the bridge height; bringing the pickup closer to the string can improve responsiveness if you are having issues.

Once you get your feet (er… fingers) wet (er… with blood), you should be itching to hear what your horrible guitar skillz will sound like when properly amplified. While playing in Rock Band 3, you must use the mute for detection accuracy, but there’s no reason you can’t unmute and take those same awful, hideous, terrible guitar licks and pipe them through an amp.

Since my amp probably won’t get a ton of use — I am planning on sucking at guitar beyond all human comprehension for the forseeable future — I did some research on small or mini amps and came up with the Roland Micro Cube Guitar Amplifier. I like it a lot!

Nicely compact, has a lot of neat amp simulation modes and a handful of effects, and can also optionally run on batteries — but the power adapter is, thankfully, included. It’s also available in red or black. You’ll need a standard 1/4″ instrument cable to hook your guitar up to the amp, too. I wouldn’t go fancy here, so anything in the appropriate length will do.

If you decide to go the real guitar route in Rock Band 3, your neighbors are totally going to hate you, man. Oh, and if you’d like some great starter guitar lessons to go with the in-game pro mode training, give justinguitar.com a shot.

April 11, 2011

Rock Band Pro Mustang Review

Green, Red, Yellow, Blue, Orange … sound familiar?

Remember the feeling of playing Guitar Hero or Rock Band for the first time? Remember how you didn’t care if you recognized the song you were playing? You just wanted to play and have fun. Move your skill level up on the ol’ 5-button axe and feel like a rock star for a while.

After a few years with Rock Band’s ever-expanding library of DLC and import options, some of us have fallen into the comfort zone of only playing the songs we like and know. Rather than learning and mastering new songs we may have just gotten a little lazy. A bit complacent.

Enter Pro Mode

Pro Mode is a whole new challenge on a completely different scale. It brings the excitement back. It makes you want to play the same song you’ve never heard before over and over again until you can ace it. No more worrying whether you actually know the next track in the setlist, but the attitude of “I don’t care what song I play, I just want to play and have fun doing it!” Funny thing is, you usually end up liking the songs and expanding your personal taste in music! Remember that feeling?

Do you play:

  • Rock Band Drums?
  • Rock Band Lead Guitar?
  • Rock Band Bass Guitar?
  • Rock Band Keyboard?

If you answered yes to any of those choices then Rock Band Pro Mode is for you!

It’s a Gateway Drug

Rock Band Pro Mode bridges the gap between plastic instruments and real instruments. Rock Band Pro note charts are nearly 100% comparable to the actual notes played by musicians. Harmonix claims that if you can conquer the Expert Pro tracks on your plastic instrument of choice, then you are prepared enough to play the song on a musical instrument. Rockstars, I couldn’t agree with them more!

If you can shred Ozzy’s “Crazy Train” on Pro Expert guitar or bass then you can recreate the guitar parts on a real electric. If you can master the Pro Drum charts on expert on Rush’s “Working Man” then you can beat the skins on a real drum kit. The Pro Keyboard Expert Pro charts are the notes that just your right hand plays, so that will only get you halfway to becoming a Piano Man (or woman)…but still, all of this is enough to impress your friends, and even learn some music theory along the way! Rock Band can now teach you how to play real instruments.

Rock Band’s pro mode is very thorough and will pay back what you put into it. It features the four standard difficulty levels: Easy, Medium, Hard, and Expert. The higher the difficulty level, the more notes you will have coming at you. There is an excellent tutorial mode built into the game, and every song in your library that is Pro instrument capable — and remember every song on the Rock Band 3 disc is Pro guitar and bass capable — features a training mode that breaks down main riffs or passages of the song for your learning pleasure. There is also the standard practice mode for practicing the whole song at once. One minor gripe here is that when learning sections of a song the game will only let you slow the passage down to about 60%. This makes it difficult when there are a ton of notes coming out you.

One possible alternative is to obtain song tablature for the song that you are learning. Guitar tablature is a numbering system that tells you what notes to depress on the fret board and what string to strike with your picking hand. This is essentially the musical notation that Pro mode utilizes, but with a few tweaks. Kids, don’t expect to pass these songs on the higher difficulties by sight reading. Just as when you are learning new music — memorization and practice, practice, practice develops that all important muscle memory! No joke about it, the learning curve for Rock Band Pro mode is steep.

Did I mention that real electric guitars have 6 strings and 21 frets? This gives us a possible 126 “buttons” that our left hand is responsible for and 6 strings that our right hand is accountable for.

From 5 Buttons to 12 Notes

There are 12 notes on a guitar, which is quite a jump from our old 5 button guitars.The majority of songs that Rock Band covers use guitars with “standard tuning”, which means the open strings are tuned to certain typical notes, and that’s the context of this lesson.

The guitar is a great instrument because it takes the same 12 notes and lets you play them on different frets on different strings. So, I can play a low sounding E note or a high sounding E note. They are the same note, but the octave has changed. Technically, I can play the same E note at different physical areas of the fretboard, but they will sound slightly different.

When holding the guitar in your lap you could play an E note by depressing the A string on the seventh fret, then strumming the A string. There you go, an E note. Or, you could depress the B string on the fifth fret and then pick the B string. Technically — an E note, audibly — a higher pitch E note than we first played with our fretting hand in a different position than the first note.

The guitar, in essence, repeats 12 notes over and over again … it’s just up to you where to play the notes. This is why there are so many “buttons” on a real guitar. Of course, when you’re playing Pro mode, you will need to hit the notes on the fretboard that Rock Band tells you to because they are the boss; I’m just trying to explain why we’re going from 5 to 126 buttons! But you will develop some musical knowledge and technique if you decide to take on the challenge that is Rock Band’s Pro mode.

The payoff can be extremely satisfying, but don’t expect to master an instrument that’s been around for centuries in a week.  Half of the fun is learning, and the other half is being able to play guitar to impress that hot chick at the party. But enough music theory, let’s play some video games!

Mustang vs Squier

There are two Pro guitar controllers available for Rock Band at this time: The Fender Mustang and the Fender Squier. There is a review on the horizon for the Fender Squier, but we’re going to focus on the Mustang for now.

Now, the Squier is a real guitar in every sense of the word. That is, the Squier is fully functioning electric guitar with Rock Band guts. You can plug it into your favorite guitar amplifier, turn the volume up, and keep your neighbors up all night, or fire up your video game console and take your video game band on tour to Europe. Sweet! The Squier controller is for you rockstars that will spare no expense in creating the most realistic Rock Band experience! The flagship guitar of Pro mode!

The Mustang, on the other hand, is a plastic replica guitar with faux strings and an all-button fretboard. It’s close to being a full size electric and much lighter. After hearing about the Squier you may be wondering what this plastic axe has to offer, but if you don’t want to spend the money, or prefer more of a “Lite” Pro mode experience, this guitar satisfies. It’s less than 1/3 the price of the Squier, and it’s a good barometer of how much you will enjoy Pro mode. If you enjoy playing on the Mustang, then chances are you will eventually move up to the Squier controller. And if you hate it, or find it too challenging to realistically make any progress … well, you just saved 250 bucks compared to starting with the Squier.

Playing The Mustang

The Mustang features all of your regular face buttons for navigating menus depending on what console your guitar is for, and also features a midi port — which I have never used, but can function as a midi guitar controller with the proper equipment. The Mustang is wireless and runs on 3 AA batteries, comes with a guitar strap and two guitar picks.

Remember when we said that guitars generally have 126 “buttons”? Well, the Mustang has 102. The Mustang has 17 frets and 6 strings. This isn’t as many frets as the Squier, but provides every bit as much of the Pro experience as the Squier does.

The “touch-sensitive” fretboard provides visual cues in relation to what buttons you press in real time. This helps in not having to take your eyes off the screen to look down at your finger placement too often. When you press down on any of the buttons on the fretboard the corresponding fret number will show up at the bottom of the note highway. It’s the same as pressing down the green or red button on the standard controllers before it’s actually time to play the note- you can see where fretting hand is by noodling around on the buttons in between charted notes. You won’t be penalized for this unless you strike one of the strings.

The 6 strings on the guitar run only the length of the strumming area which is around five inches. The strings themselves have a good responsive feel to them, but don’t feel strung as tightly as a real guitar does. For some they may have too much of a “rubber band” feel to them, though I think they are more than satisfactory in providing physical feedback as well as a sizeable area to strum.

Sliding up and down the fretboard isn’t as smooth as sliding around on real strings on an electric guitar, but the buttons do not require a lot of pressure to depress and I found I could still get around rather quickly.

So long 5 button Plastic Rock

The Fender Mustang body style isn’t very appealing to me, and overall the entire guitar isn’t visually impressive, but the real bread and butter is pairing this guitar with Rock Band Pro mode. It may not be the prettiest, but the Mustang just works. The buttons respond fantastically, and the only times I missed incredible amounts of notes and failed songs was due to my own silly mistakes, not the hardware.

The Mustang delivers in every single way as a gateway controller into the Pro world of Rock Band. The only fault I can find with it is the fact it has only 17 frets. For songs that have guitar notes that would go higher than the 17th fret on a real world guitar, the Rock Band engine detects the Mustang controller and modifies note placement to account for the lack of frets 18 through 22. This won’t affect the majority of players and if you happen to conquer the solos in Crazy Train or The Beast and the Harlot on the Mustang, when you transition to the Squier controller or other full size electric guitar, some of the notes you’ve memorized may not be technically correct. Again, this isn’t even close to being a dealbreaker.

If you haven’t tried Rock Band Pro mode then now is the time! Rediscover the feeling of mastering a new controller and interface by advancing from 5 button rock to the 107+ buttons and real guitar hand positions of Rock Band Pro. The transportation is here for your journey: The Fender Mustang!

March 14, 2011

Experienced Guitarist Reviews Fender Squier Pro Guitar Controller

For those still on the fence, here’s a great review by an experienced guitarist from the band Rose of Jericho that goes into detail on the Fender Squier, both as a game guitar and as a real guitar.

I own two Squiers, plus the Mustang. I’m not ready to review them quite yet, but I have messed around with the Squier enough to verify that it performs as advertised in every way. That is, it’s a totally credible pro guitar game controller … and when plugged into an amplifier, it’s a respectable real guitar, too!

This is hands down the best review I’ve read so far of the Squier. If you enjoyed it as much as I did, check out the author’s band, Rose of Jericho.

March 7, 2011

Fender Wooden Stratocaster Replica Review

Fine.  Be a plastic rock star with your little plastic guitar. That’s cool with me. But some of us need a little more than that.

Sure we’ve all played the Rock Band 1 & 2 plastic Stratocaster. With one of those slung around our necks we looked like some rock n roll giant who had equipped the comically undersized, plastic guitar after looting a small child’s bedroom. We stood there, shredding our favorite Rock Band songs with a child’s toy. Don’t shred too hard — the strum bar may begin to fail! Don’t throw your guitar across the room after failing Freebird again (guilty as charged, senor) — it may snap in two!

I didn’t know Rock and Roll had rules

The average lifespan, from my experience, of a standard Rock Band controller is about 5 months. I’m not even talking about smashing the guitar, or even mistreating it outside of normal usage. I’m talking about the “Trust Factor”. This is simply how much my trust will fluctuate for my Rock Band Strat between the moment I unbox it and 3-5 months down the road when I’m missing notes I’m not supposed to be missing. The Trust Factor is jeopardized because of one glaring issue: quality. After normal wear and tear the Rock Band Strats hardware will start to fail ever so slightly until it has reached unacceptable levels of..um..well, “fail”, and at this time we just buy a new one.

The decline in the Trust Factor is a product of strum bar misses or double strums, fret buttons not registering (or requiring more than modest use of force to press them down in order for the game to register), whammy bar breakage- internally or externally, and star power tilt sensor failure. This is in no way the fault of Rock Band or companies that produce these peripherals. I mean, if they made an everlasting guitar, they wouldn’t make nearly as much money because we wouldn’t ever have to buy a replacement guitar! We need something more reliable than a plastic axe that that will take a nosedive in the trust department twice a year. Would you buy a car that would degenerate over an incredibly short period of time until it was practically undrivable? Of course not! So whether it’s a $60 investment, or a $35,000 investment, we all want our expectations to be met.

I’m all for giving away money every 5 months, but …

Frankly, the Rock Band Stratocaster has not met my expectations. Aside from the quality issues we covered it just feels like a toy in my hands. Rock Band is all about having fun and pretending to be a Rock star. Ultimately, Rock Band itself is just a big toy -granted, but with so much cool Rock Band stuff on the market right now you can come close to making it one heck of a simulation! If you already own (or want to own) the Rock Band Stage Kit or Rock Band Ion Drum Set then you consider Rock Band more than just a toy and have already began moving down the “Rock Simulation” path. Welcome!

A guitar you won’t have to constantly replace

Ladies and gentlemen, let me introduce the Wireless Mad Catz Fender Wooden Replica Stratocaster. Yes, a wooden Rock Band Guitar! The only plastic on this guitar is the pickguard. This fully sized replica of an authentic Fender Stratocaster weighs in at about 7 pounds and is the absolute Cadillac of 5 button Rock Band guitars. Per this excerpt of the product description from Mad Catz:

The guitar neck sports a high-resolution ‘Rosewood’ finish decal, concealing two sets of premium Fret Buttons. The premium Fret Buttons and Strum Bar deliver quiet operation and reliable game play, and have been extensively play tested to ensure that it is possible to achieve a 100% score in ‘Expert Mode’ should the players ability be up to the challenge.

Jeff already reviewed the Sunburst model, but this one is metallic candy apple red. And this guitar, my friends, is built to last. Long after you are inducted into the Rock Band Hall of Fame this guitar will still be functioning the way it was always supposed to. Straight out of the box the Red Candy Apple finish on the guitar was absolutely glowing.  Holding the guitar in your hands you can really feel the weight of instrument. A Fender Stratocaster built for the world of Rock Band! Real tuning pegs on the headstock, 10 low-profile fret buttons in their traditional Rock Band locations, a Guitar Hero style strum bar that gives the convincing “click” feels solid as a rock, 5-way effects switch, the Back and Start buttons disguised as a Stratocasters volume and tone knobs, an authentic metal bridge complete with real string saddles and traditional Fender tremolo system, and an output jack.

If you saw this guitar from far away you would think it was a real electric guitar without strings. Actually, that’s exactly what it is! Take all the guts out and replace with the Xbox electronics, take the strings off, and add a strum bar. BOOM! Now you’ve got yourself a Rock Band guitar you deserve! Every detail just screams quality. This guitar is made to last. It’s made so that you can play your ass off and not have to worry about how it will perform the next time you pick it up. I mean, if you’re not smashing TVs with it or crushing a burglar’s skull with it (I have 100% confidence that this solid wood guitar would win both of those fights). In other words, normal wear and tear will not be a problem for this guitar.

But how does it play?

The low-profile fret buttons allow you to play fast and fluidly up and down the neck. They don’t require much pressure to engage them and don’t make much of a sound when you push them into the neck. The strum bar is not of the mushy Rock Band variety. It’s the Guitar Hero click-click strum device that is louder than the Rock Band strummer, but is much more effective in providing physical feedback when strumming. I prefer the Guitar Hero style strum bar for that reason, and I believe it helps keep my playing accurate. Even when I can’t hear the clicky strum bar I can feel it. There are three ways to engage Overdrive. Just like the Rock Band plastic Strats you can:

Only three concerns worth noting here.

  1. The guitar may be a little heavy for some when having it strapped on for extended playing sessions. The best way to combat this is to buy a comfortable strap. I’ve had the same PlanetWaves locking guitar strap since my band playing days and because this guitar has genuine, metal strap buttons (the plastic Strats have, you guessed it, plastic strap buttons) a real leather or locking guitar strap will work perfectly.
  2. The position of the whammy bar is a bit awkward. Though it’s mounted in the correct position at the bridge, the bar can be fully depressed and touch the pickguard.  When you’re rocking out hard using the whammy bar it’s easy to accidentally press the bar into the select button, which will trigger your overdrive if applicable. The solution to this is to slightly alter your whammy technique. I find angling the bar more towards the ceiling as I prepare to use it so it will clear the Select button and not trigger any ill-timed Overdrive power!
  3. The regular plastic strats have the auto-calibration camera and mic feature onboard; calibration on this wooden guitar is totally manual.

Now go and be a Rock n Roll Giant!

The guitar really plays great and after picking up a few of my old plastic Rock Band guitars I really can’t imagine going back to using them on a regular basis. After playing Green Grass and high Tides on Expert guitar with my old plastic guitar and then this guitar I saw an increase of 3% in my instrument score. BOOM. This guitar means business! If you need a solid guitar that plays better than the stock Rock Band guitars this guitar is for YOU. It will not disappoint — and it’s also on sale for $99 while supplies last from the Mad Catz Store in Candy Apple Red and Sunburst.

The Trust Factor is alive and well!

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