June 13, 2012

Rocksmith vs. Rock Band 3 – The Pro Guitar Showdown

A quality chess tutorial could have you moving pieces within minutes. A smart guitar lesson could have you playing Smoke on the Water in nearly the same amount of time. However, one does not simply sit down at a chess board and become the next Kasparov, or pick up a guitar and become the next Eddie Van Halen. The path from beginner to expert is a long and winding road, and we stay the path because of the journey; we do it because it is fun.

Can learning to play guitar be turned into a game, and can that process be made fun? That’s what Rock Band 3 by Harmonix, and Rocksmith by Ubisoft both attempt to do.

The Tools

For Pro Guitar mode, Rock Band 3 lets you use an 112-button Fender Mustang controller, or the Fender Squier, a controller that looks, feels, and acts like a actual guitar. (The Squier is, sadly, no longer commercially available, but can still be found used in some places.)

While the Mustang controller is smaller, lighter, and not technically a real guitar, the Squier is absolutely passable for the real thing. In fact, if it weren’t for its neon blue power light and suspicious d-pad, an untrained eye could easily be fooled into thinking it was just another electric guitar. There is no secret to how the Mustang functions; combinations of button presses equate to guitar fingerings, which then register in Rock Band 3. The Squier is a bit sneakier. Since it is an actual guitar that uses real guitar strings, it communicates your command of the instrument in an ingenious way. When you press various strings down against the fret to form a chord, you close a circuit — the equivalent of an on/off switch. By playing the Squier as though you would a real guitar, your fingerings are sent back to Rock Band 3, allowing you to interact with the game by, basically, playing a real stringed guitar.

There is a side-effect to this form of “closed-circuit” playing. The heightened frets prevent the player from physically pushing the strings all the way down to the fretboard. This works against both the beginner and the expert. An amateur could be conditioned to develop bad habits, inadvertently muting all chords, which wouldn’t be audible until plugged in to an amplifier. A novice may also fail to develop the finger strength necessary to play correctly, once with real guitar in hand. Meanwhile, a professional player probably would try to push the strings all the way down to the fretboard, and while doable, it is not easy…and hurts a lot. After only a few minutes of playing some songs on the Squier (especially with barre chords), your fingertips — even calloused ones — feel like they are on fire. This fingertip pain is a side-effect of pressing too hard on the strings. Once you discover this nuance of the Squier, you can adjust your grip accordingly. Unfortunately, the concept of grip, posture, pressure on strings, muted chords, etc., isn’t taught to the player by Rock Band 3 at all. Fingerings are either on or off.

The hardware for Rocksmith, in comparison, involves no controller. Instead, a USB “True Tone” cable is provided with the game, which plugs directly into the output jack of any electric guitar. You can purchase any electric guitar you wish, and it is automatically compatible with Rocksmith. No special fingering tricks are required. The magic is in the cable, which sends the actual tones produced by your guitar to the game. Rather than expecting a multitude of on/off switches and translating them into chords in game, Rocksmith actually listens to the music you produce when you play your guitar.

The result is more natural gameplay than in Rock Band 3, but there’s also a catch: Because Rocksmith detects tones, there is a degree of latency ever present in gameplay. When you strum an F-Chord, Rocksmith must analyze, on-the-fly, if you’ve struck the appropriate strings, and produced the appropriate tone. Since that analysis happens in real-time, there are often noticeable delays. At times, you may feel compelled to play a chord early, but since the game adjusts your scores based on early/late chords strumming, this strategy is often futile — and not a good habit to get into, either.

Which way is better? Both styles have their strengths and weaknesses, but after trying both, I favor Rocksmith’s approach, which removes the need for specific (and, in the case of the Squier, discontinued) guitar hardware in favor of a simple cable that works with all guitars. It’s worth mentioning that the Rocksmith USB cable additionally works with a PC via ASIO4ALL*, which in turn, integrates with popular effect processing software like Guitar Rig, the value of which is quite significant considering the cost of amplifiers, pedals, cabinets, mixers, and their ilk.

Navigating the Game

You can navigate Rock Band 3’s interface using your game console controller. If you have the PS3 version, the d-pad on the two Fenders work well; for XBox 360 owners, the intermediary MIDI Pro-Adapter provides navigational control. In Rocksmith, navigation is handled via your console’s controllers, since you are already working with an actual electric guitar. Both systems work as well as they can. It’s awkward to be reaching for a game controller with a guitar slung across your shoulder, so players will have to learn to avoid accidentally driving the arm of the guitar through their TV while bending over to pick up a game controller when switching songs.

Choosing a song in Rock Band 3 is easy; you can sort your library various ways, and quickly jump from song to song, either by difficulty, artist title, song title, or one of a handful of other options. Additional filters to remove specific songs from the list (such as ones that are not Pro-Guitar** compliant) make the navigation a breeze. Unfortunately, Rocksmith song navigation is not as flexible. Players must scroll horizontally from one end of the song list to the other. One might have had the foresight to add a “wraparound” feature, letting us press left once, which would hypothetically jump to the end of the list…not the case. The years of work Harmonix poured into refining their games is evident in the Rock Band 3 UI polish, and sadly, Rocksmith suffers mightily in the UI department. But on the plus side, this gives them lots of room for obvious improvement in Rocksmith 2.

Rocking Out

Rock Band 3 and Rocksmith have two vastly different delivery methods for rocking out. RB3 utilizes the traditional, familiar “scrolling highway”.

Players watch multi-colored bars of light scroll toward them, strumming when they cross a line at the base, close to the bottom of the screen. In Rock Band 3, the scrolling highway now displays all six strings of the guitar, and the multi-colored bars of light are replaced with aqua blue “mountains and valleys”. These aqua-colored blobs don’t convey their meaning as concretely as the multi-colored bars did. The player is forced to spend time in the lessons and tutorials to understand their true meaning. Ultimately, the aqua blobs represent a combination of fret placement, finger spacing, strings to strum, and direction to strum (up or down). The benefit of Rock Band 3 is that, when strings are pressed down, the number of the fret lights up in-game on the scrolling highway, telling you where your fingers currently reside, so you can adjust without having to look back down at your guitar.

Additionally, names of chords will display along the side of the vertical guitar arm, so seasoned guitarists can see chords like “Em7” and “Csus4”, and know immediately to play an E-Minor 7th, or a C-Suspended 4th, respectively. The visual chords are immensely beneficial, especially as a learning tool, teaching new players what chords sound like as they are being played. However, there is one important caveat: RB3 only cares about the one specific way the chord should be played within the context of the current song. Experts beware: when the game asks you to play a G chord, make sure you pick the correct one of nineteen different fingerings. Choose the wrong one, and Rock Band 3 logs it as a miss.

Learning what the strange aqua “mountains and valleys” represent takes some getting used to. Harmonix was clearly constrained by trying to fit real guitar into the existing scrolling highway visual interface of previous Rock Band and Guitar Hero-like games, trying their best to come up with an intuitive way of describing fingerings. True, the numbers denote fret placement, but the blobs’ girth only provide generalizations of how far apart your fingers should be. And unfortunately, Rock Band 3 is not a game about generalizations, but pinpoint accuracy. Play the wrong fingering — even if it’s the right chord — and it’s counted as a miss. So, while the tutorials provide the necessary mechanism to learn each song, complete with every specific fingering, the aqua blobs racing toward you in-game are less than adequate to convey the same information. Players will have a very hard time “jumping in” to new songs without first spending significant time in the song’s lessons.

Rocksmith, on the other hand, doesn’t force the player to sit in song tutorials first. The gameplay interface is a new horizontal bar which reflects the arm of the guitar. Using this horizontal representation, every fret can be shown at once, allowing the player to accurately see the exact placement of their fingers for a particular chord. The guitar arm intuitively zooms smoothly in and out during the song as necessary. Every 3rd fret is numbered, matching up with the dots on the physical guitar arm held by the player. This unique interface, once the player is accustomed to it, becomes a joy to work with. It makes matching fingering a cinch. There’s never any guesswork, because it’s clear exactly where each finger should be placed on the fretboard. Rocksmith also displays real chord names alongside the fingerings, too, so as you play you can begin to associate certain hand positions with proper chord names.

The beauty of the Rocksmith interface isn’t just the switch from vertical to horizontal but the constant feedback loop it provides. In Rock Band 3, when you have practiced The Hardest Button to Button to the point where you feel like you’re ready to step on stage, if you botch certain chords or notes, all you get is a “miss” in-game. Your bonus multiplier resets and your score is impacted. That’s it. You have no way of knowing what it is you truly messed up. Did I pluck the wrong strings? Did I have the wrong fingering? Was I too early or too late? Is the game just being a bitch?

In Rocksmith, however, you constantly get feedback from the game on what you’re doing incorrectly as you play the song, so you can repair the damage on-the-fly. Here comes a fifth fret E, but you accidentally play a fourth fret E. In-game, the E string glows bright and an arrow flashes to the left, indicating that you need to move your finger down a fret. If you’re lucky, and it happened to be a sustained note, you might actually be able to fix the note quickly and get a partial score. In Rock Band 3, there is no concept of “fixing” a mistake — you either hit or miss. You’re either amazing … or completely inept. In a game built around the incredible complexity of playing a guitar, something that takes a lifetime to do well, and lots of practice to get better at, Rock Band 3 provides no gray area whatsoever. You either play the song exactly as described, or you get booed off the stage.

The Verdict

Rocksmith is fun to play because its gameplay is completely built around the steep inherent complexity of learning real guitar. It dynamically eases the player into the songs in its library; no one particular song is too difficult to start with, and it provides an interface that is both intuitive and precise. While Rock Band 3 provides multiple levels of difficulty to the player — albeit via a far greater library of titles — there are some songs in the library that an amateur (or even an intermediate) player has absolutely no business starting with. The “easy” versions of the RB3 songs are definitely easy, but even stepping up to “medium” or “hard” is often a massive undertaking that requires concentration, patience, and repetition. The game interface is imprecise, forcing you out of the game and into lessons just to learn new fingerings. Every Rocksmith song you play improves you without the need for separate tutorials or lessons; the gameplay is the lesson, and that’s what you are judged and scored on. Conversely, when you play Rock Band 3, you’re playing a game for a full band that just happens to include great — but not perfect — real guitar support, too. You’ll be judged on how accurately you pluck every string, and play every chord. Though it provides the tools necessary to learn guitar, integration into RB3 gameplay is awkward, and the result often forces you to dump out of the song, restart lessons, pause for correct fingerings — all of which add up to an experience that isn’t nearly as fun as it could be.

* ASIO stands for “Audio Stream Input/Output”, and is a digital audio protocol which accesses audio hardware directly.
** Detailed tutorials on how to play a particular song only exist for Pro-Guitar songs, and only a subset of songs in the RB3 library are Pro-Guitar compliant.

February 13, 2012

I’m not a Guitarist in Real Life (but I play one in Rock Band)

When a co-worker recently found out I was a southpaw, the first thing he said was, “I imagine you also play a number of instruments.” Well, I did take seven years of band in school, focusing mainly on the trumpet, but I was one of those students that was always pushing the teacher to give me more instruments to try. I ended up bringing home a valve trombone, a flugel horn, a french horn, and even a clarinet. I know, I know… I was kind of a badass. Let’s not kid ourselves here, the real cool kids in band were the ones on guitar. There was something always appealing yet terrifying about the possibility of picking up a guitar. It seemed like everyone in my family could play one, notably my grandfather and father, both having played guitar for years. It was something that has always been in the back of my mind. As luck would have it, my passion for video games finally managed to cross paths with my love of music and learning instruments with the advent of Rock Band 3. What better way to learn a new instrument than by playing a game in the process? Let me relay to you the first four weeks of my experience, and what level of play I managed to reach.

Week 1

I had already taken it upon myself to learn the drums via Rock Band, investing in the entire Ion Drum Rocker kit, and after playing through hundreds of songs across Rock Band 1, 2 and 3, I was ready to explore new territory. The weapon of choice: a Mad Catz wireless Fender Mustang pro-guitar controller. Now, just in case you’re still getting caught up, this isn’t the Guitar Hero controller of yore. Gone are the five colored Simon buttons along the neck. In their place are 102 buttons along the length of the guitar neck, allowing you to completely reproduce finger positioning for guitar chords. And you don’t strum a bar-button–you pluck the actual six strings at the base of the guitar. For all intents and purposes, it is a perfect representation of a real guitar, though won’t necessarily make much music if you try to play it outside of Rock Band (unless you hook in to its MIDI interface). This controller would be my gateway into the world of playing guitar. The question was, would RB3 be an appropriate tutor?

The Mad Catz wireless Fender Mustang Pro-Guitar Controller

Right from the main screen in RB3, the game immediately knows I have a Pro-Guitar controller, and it takes me directly into a series of lessons. The lessons are very basic: perfect for someone who has never picked up a guitar in their life. Within minutes of watching the introductory videos, I’m playing my first chords: E5, A5, G5; simple chords that only require two fingers. I spend about 10 minutes going over the initial tutorials, which are a breeze. By the fifth tutorial, RB3 begins to start having me move back and forth between two finger fingers, and plucking individual strings. It takes a little longer to adapt, but I eventually get it. Twenty minutes in, I’m through the first section of tutorials and am ready to play my first song: The Hardest Button to Button by The White Stripes.

I actually don’t do half bad on my first go around, scoring 3 of 5 stars, having practiced a few play-throughs first. Learning a song in RB3 is extremely convenient, because it has a built-in tutorial for every pro-guitar song in the game. This allows you to learn fingering, slow the song down (if necessary), and focus on the key parts of the song one step at a time. After a 2nd attempt of another 3 stars, I’m convinced I can improve. On my 2nd day, I complete a few more tutorials, and return to the song in “Medium” mode, thrusting myself back onto stage. Again, 3 stars, but barely. Each song is divided into four levels of difficulty: Easy, Medium, Hard, and Expert. As you choose higher difficulties, more and more chords are expected. By the time you reach Expert, you should be playing the complete song as if the original artists themselves were playing up on stage. I give it five plays at “Medium” before I decide to crank it up even further. At “Hard” mode, it’s now expecting a lot from me. And this is where my wrist begins to ache. I get 3 stars on Hard mode and call it a night, granting my wrist some relief.

Rock Band 3’s in-game Guitar Trainer

The third day I come back to Rock Band, I’m determined to play the real song, taking it all the way up to “Expert”. After a couple of Hard mode completions to warm-up, I enter the song’s tutorial for Expert. All at once I realize this is not going to be easy. I slow the tutorial down and very carefully focus on every individual string and chord that must be hit, and I play them again and again. My kids ask me how many more times they have to hear the song. “Until I can do it,” I reply, hoping they pick up on my dedication. With my wrists aching, I exit out of the tutorial and get on stage. I complete the song twice, once with 3 stars and once with 2. I can barely feel my wrist at this point. I want to go again but decide to take a break and let what I’ve learned sink in.

By the fourth day I’m executing tutorials with much greater accuracy and am ready to explore new songs. The next ones on the list are: I Wanna Be Sedated by The Ramones and The Beautiful People by Marilyn Manson. I get through them without much trouble on “Medium” but keep pushing myself to crank up the difficulty. On days 5 and 6 I continue working through the tutorials and songs, and by the 7th day, I’m able to complete the tutorials and get through the songs at “Expert”, earning a suite of achievements. The first week of guitar is a success.

Week 2

The next week I spend exploring a few more songs in “Warmup” (the easiest in RB3), such as In The End by Linken Park and Personal Jesus by Depeche Mode. None pose a real threat, and by now, having spent about 30-40 minutes. a night practicing, my wrist has toughened up. However, this comes to a crashing halt when I try Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots, Part 1 by The Flaming Lips. The culprit? A low barre F chord, requiring all five of my fingers in place on the neck of the guitar. The positioning is painful; I have to physically move my fingers on my right-hand (remember, I’m a lefty) with the help of my left hand, into their proper placement. I think to myself, there’s no way I’m going to be able to switch to this chord as the song plays. On top of the regular wrist aches, I’m now getting pain in my thumb, more than likely because of how I’m barring (holding) the chord in place. This is where RB3 could do a much better job of explaining how you should hold the chord; showing the fret fingering on-screen is vital, but doesn’t speak to your grip or provide best-practices. This is essential for learning guitar, because as it turns out, you can develop a lot of bad habits early on if you learn the instrument wrong, and eventually, you’ll have to unlearn those bad habits.

The painful barre F chord

I get into a rhythm of practicing a set minimum amount of time each evening, hoping it pays off like it did years ago when I was in high school band. Each night consists of warming up with a few of the tutorials, practicing scales, chords, finger exercises. From there, I move to the songs I know (but never in the same order), replaying them, practicing them, trying to improve a little bit each time. I continue to work on broadening the scope of songs I can play, adding such classic to the list as Blue Monday by New Order, and Get Up, Stand Up by Bob Marley and the Wailers. I knock these songs out of the park, but The Flaming Lips song still haunts me, the barre F chord preventing me from completing the song with any degree of proficiency.

I also develop a pet peeve with the Mad Catz controller; at times, I notice that one of the 102-fret buttons stays partially depressed, long after my fingers have left the chord. This, of course, eats into my accuracy, and I usually don’t realize it until I notice my score plummeting and the crowd booing me off the stage. It doesn’t happen a lot, but it happens enough to force me to review the controller between songs–and can be solved by dragging my finger up the length of the neck, resetting all the buttons in the process. As the 2nd week of playing guitar ends, I’m able to play through six songs at “Expert” difficulty.

Week 3

Week 3 introduces me to my first guitar solo, complements of the infamous grunge track from the 90s, Smells Like Teen Spirit by Nirvana. The solo kicks my ass. I’m not pleased with my performance. I end up spending an exorbitant amount of time in the RB3 trainer, playing the solo over and over. I repeat this process for extended periods of time over Week 3. The solo is unrelenting. Each time I think I have it down, I get on stage, and it completely unravels, missing nearly every note. One of the contributing factors to this “fail-out” of the song, is due to the design of the Mad Catz controller. Since I am a lefty, I hold the guitar so that I strum with my left hand, and provide chord fingering with my right. When the controller is flipped over, the directional game pad, start button, back button, and XBox power/sync button are at the top of the guitar, rather than the bottom (well out of the way). So, when strumming, the meaty part of my thumb is constantly brushing up against these buttons, often pausing the game and bringing up the XBox menu, completely throwing my concentration off. With concerted effort, I can improve my posture and avoid touching these buttons, but as songs become more difficult, it becomes harder to focus less on “complete the song accurately” and more on “avoiding pressing buttons accidentally”. This is a depressing design flaw of the controller, and is something I simply have to learn to live with.

The perils of being a southpaw

Frustrations aside, I’m determined to continue practicing, with the knowledge that, over time, I’m going to improve bit-by-bit. This proof comes on the 3rd day of Week 3 when I surprise myself and earn consecutive 4 of 5 Star completions in “Expert” mode on We Belong by Pat Benatar and Edge of Seventeen by Stevie Knicks. This gives me the boost of courage to get back into Nirvana, and bust out the solo, which ends up earning me the Pro Guitar Streak (100) achievement.

Week 4

By week 4 my confidence with the guitar is building, still having never actually picked up a real guitar. Out of the 25 songs in the “Warmup” category, I’ve completed 13 in Expert mode, with 5 at 90% accuracy (or better). I still have one major speed bump, however: That damn song with the barre F chord. I continue going through the tutorials and trainer, practicing finger exercises, trying desperately to program my brain to place all my fingers on the chord at once. Then, during one session through the trainer, I have an epiphany: as I am playing the D-minor chord (which precedes the barre F chord), I figure out that I can pivot on my middle finger, leaving it on the fret board, as the middle finger’s position for both chords is the same. I try this technique out, and am amazed to see the results; it boosts my accuracy from a measly 32% all the way up to 79%. At last, I finally feel like I am getting it, and find my thoughts wandering throughout the day, contemplating the possibility of actually buying a real guitar.

I have a long to way to go before becoming the next Eddie Van Halen, but the first four weeks of learning how to play guitar with nothing but a video game and a massively buttoned guitar-shaped game controller has proved surprisingly successful…and fun! The Mad Catz Mustang is a convenient toy that works very well as a learning tool, and aside from a few of the aforementioned pet peeves, I have to say that it has made the experience an enjoyable one, and provided me with the necessary motivation to explore a real guitar at some point in the future. I recommend it to everyone with any interest in music and guitars, and have a love of gaming.

Shawn Holmes is an avid gamer, programmer, and connoisseur of music. He can be reached at shawn.a.holmes@gmail.com or on XBox Live by his tag “Hanzo55″.

November 28, 2011

Rock Band’s Fourth Birthday

The original Rock Band was released four years ago on November 20th, 2007. Do you remember this 2007 demo video of a super early beta version of Rock Band, with the HMX team playing “Welcome to the Jungle”? That was the exact moment I realized OMIGOD I HAVE TO HAVE THIS.

(by the way if anyone from Harmonix is listening, we’re still waiting for that song to appear as DLC..)

How time flies when you’re rocking, eh? In commemoration of Rock Band’s fourth birthday, Harmonix put together a ton of behind the scenes retrospectives and commentary. Hear the untold story of the original Rock Band, as told by the people behind the game!

Hear how the guitar, drum, and keyboard hardware almost never made it!

The companion blog post is Rock Band instrument prototypes and insider stories, where we learn what could have been:

We had this AMAZING folding drum kit that would fit under a couch. It had removable heads, integrated cymbal options and custom inserts that allowed to to change the quality of the strike sound so each pad sounded a bit different. It supported 3 pedals, a completely adjustable kick location. This thing was boss (and also would have cost over 200 dollars at retail).

There were SOOOO MANY strum bar prototypes. Clicky strums, spinny strums, smushy strums, stringy strums, clacky strums, invisi strums. We tried everything.

Another crazy idea we has was to attempt to modularize the wireless equipment for each console into a small box that could be plugged into any RB3 instrument. We wanted a way to reduce the total number of models in production, but at the volumes predicted for the RB3 launch and with all the legacy hardware already in the market, we couldn’t justify the additional cost of the Wireless Module. A lot of the tech/design made its way into the MIDI box, though.

It’s also a little scary to think what the Rock Band logo could have looked like:

Harmonix employees reflect on their first Rock Band experience in Rock Band Fourth Anniversary Harmonix Stories, Part One and Part Two. And Harmonix podcast episode 56 focuses entirely on sharing their first Rock Band experience.

I distinctly remember waiting outside Best Buy at midnight to get my Rock Band 1 full game kit — and how deliriously fun it was to play as a full band for the first time.

What was your first Rock Band experience?

October 13, 2011

Guitar Hero II Songs: Where Are They Now?

A few months ago I looked back on the original Guitar Hero songs. Only seven tracks were totally MIA.

But what about Guitar Hero II? This was a huge sequel, with so many improvements over the legendary original:

  • Far better competitive two player modes. It’s easy to forget, but multiplayer in Guitar Hero was a tacked-on affair, offering only the oddball “you play a section, then I play a section” tug-of-war multiplayer mode.
  • Cooperative two player mode with bass/guitar and lead/rhythm tracks depending on the song.
  • A significantly larger on-disc tracklist, going from 30 core songs to 40 (48 on Xbox).
  • A few of the songs were original masters, predicting the wholesale switch to all masters later.
  • After a few months, finally available for the first time on a next-gen console as well as the original Playstation 2.

As far as I’m concerned, the “II” in the title stood for the best two player guitar game ever!

The Guitar Hero II soundtrack was killer, too. But it also predates reusable DLC song libraries by two years. So short of booting up the original game on a Playstation 2 or Xbox 360 — how can we experience these 48 classic tracks in a modern rhythm game? Let’s see:

Song Available in …
Surrender – Cheap Trick Rock Band DLC
Possum Kingdom – The Toadies none
Heart Shaped Box – Nirvana Rock Band DLC, Guitar Hero Smash Hits*
Salvation – Rancid none
Strutter – Kiss Rock Band DLC
Shout at the Devil – Mötley Crüe Guitar Hero Smash Hits*
Mother – Danzig Guitar Hero: Smash Hits
Life Wasted – Pearl Jam none
Cherry Pie – Warrant Guitar Hero: Smash Hits
Woman – Wolfmother Rock Band DLC, Guitar Hero: Smash Hits*
You Really Got Me – Van Halen Guitar Hero: Van Halen
Tonight I’m Gonna Rock You Tonight – Spinal Tap Rock Band DLC
Carry On Wayward Son – Kansas Rock Band 2, Guitar Hero: Smash Hits
Search and Destroy – Iggy Pop and the Stooges none
Message in a Bottle – The Police Rock Band DLC, Guitar Hero: Smash Hits*
Billion Dollar Babies – Alice Cooper Rock Band DLC
Them Bones – Alice in Chains Guitar Hero: Smash Hits
War Pigs – Black Sabbath Rock Band DLC
Monkey Wrench – Foo Fighters Rock Band DLC, Guitar Hero: Smash Hits*
Hush – Deep Purple none
Girlfriend – Matthew Sweet none
Who Was in My Room Last Night? – Butthole Surfers none
Can’t You Hear Me Knockin – Rolling Stones none
Sweet Child o’ Mine – Guns N’ Roses none
Rock and Roll, Hoochie Koo – Rick Derringer none
Tattooed Love Boys – The Pretenders none
John the Fisherman – Primus none
Jessica – The Allman Brothers Band none
Bad Reputation – Thin Lizzy none
Last Child – Aerosmith none
Crazy on You – Heart none
Trippin’ on a Hole in a Paper Heart – Stone Temple Pilots Rock Band DLC, Guitar Hero: Smash Hits
Dead! – My Chemical Romance none
Killing in the Name – Rage Against the Machine Guitar Hero: Smash Hits
Freya – The Sword Guitar Hero: Smash Hits*
Stop! – Jane’s Addiction Guitar Hero: Smash Hits
Madhouse – Anthrax Rock Band DLC
The Trooper – Iron Maiden Rock Band DLC, Guitar Hero: Smash Hits*
Rock This Town – Stray Cats none
Laid to Rest – Lamb of God Rock Band DLC, Guitar Hero: Smash Hits
Psychobilly Freakout – Reverend Horton Heat Guitar Hero: Smash Hits
YYZ – Rush Rock Band DLC, Guitar Hero: Smash Hits*
Beast and the Harlot – Avenged Sevenfold Rock Band 3, Guitar Hero: Smash Hits
Carry Me Home – The Living End none
Institutionalized – Suicidal Tendencies none
Misirlou – Dick Dale none
Hangar 18 – Megadeth Rock Band DLC, Guitar Hero DLC
Free Bird – Lynyrd Skynyrd Rock Band 3, Guitar Hero: Smash Hits*

(* indicates the song is exportable to be used as DLC in current Guitar Hero games. All Rock Band songs are exportable with very rare exceptions.)

By my count, out of the original 48 songs in Guitar Hero II, that’s …

21 songs only playable by booting up Guitar Hero II
18 songs playable in Rock Band 3
20 songs playable in a Guitar Hero game

For reference, the complete library of songs are officially listed for each game here:

Unfortunately, the tale of the tape in this case is rather woeful — 43% of the Guitar Hero II tracklist is only playable in the original game. Here’s hoping we get a few more of these classic tracks as DLC in the future!

September 23, 2011

Real Drum Kick Pedal for Ion Drums

After finally getting the Ion Drum Rocker, and drumming for a while on it, I realized that the included pedal, while not bad, isn’t quite… right.

Most drum kits have two pedals standard: the hi-hat cymbal pedal, and the kick drum pedal.

All standard plastic Rock Band pedals, and even the fancy metal Roadie pedal included with the Ion drums, are more like hi-hat pedals than actual kick drum pedals. On a real kick drum pedal, there’s a chain pulling a beater which strikes the bass drum.

Drumming is very much about striking surfaces and having a kick drum pedal that actually strikes a surface is every bit as essential as having drum pads that you hit with a drumstick instead of pressing a button on a controller (or keyboard, for that matter). I was never into drum pedal fetishism, but after reading a bit more about it, and spending more time playing on the Ion drums, this important difference finally began to make sense to me. The Ion drums are otherwise quite authentic as a basic entry level electronic drum kit, with the notable exception of the pedal.

So I decided to order the following Ion drum “real” kick pedal upgrade kit from rockbandparts.com for $149:

The Roadie VTI Trigger Box isn’t strictly necessary, depending on your configuration, but it does ensure that whatever drum and pedal combo you eventually use, it’ll work. It offers polarity, sensitivity, and duration tweaks that make most piezo drum trigger pads work with either the Ion drums (¼” connector) or the stock Rock Band 2/3 drums (⅛” connector). And all the necessary cables are included, too.

One thing I didn’t like about the Roadie box is that it adds quite a bit of complexity to the already-complex Ion drum configuration, seeing as how it needs its own power and has two adjustable trims. However, there is a solution — the KickWire.

The KickWire is a bit expensive at $27 plus shipping, but personally it was worth it to me for the much simpler configuration of just a basic wire (presumably with some kind of inline resistor) to connect the kick tower to the Ion drum brain.

The Yamaha KP65 was my choice because it’s quiet — about as loud as striking the Ion pads — inexpensive, reliable, and has a nifty built in sensitivity adjustment to boot. There’s a nice comparison video of the Roland KD-8 and the Yamaha KP65 here, if you want to hear and see it in action.

The KP65 and the pedal can be “mated” together via a clamp on the front of the pedal itself, so they form one semi-solid unit. Here’s a picture of mine:

Having a pedal with a chain driving a beater, striking a kick drum surface, completely changes the feel of the pedal… for the better! For one thing, you can now hear and feel a solid “thwack” when you kick, and actually get a rhythm going on the kick by ear! Compare that with the stock Rock Band or Roadie Ion pedal, where at best you get the sterile click of an electronic switch being pressed down by your foot. It’s a very, very different experience, with a nice organic rebound based on the mass of the beater and the chain pull. Is it slightly noisier? Of course, but at least with the KP65 it is only roughly as noisy as a stick hitting an Ion pad, which is about as good as it gets.

The only downside of the real pedal configuration is the price — considering the Ion drum kit is $300 with the extra cymbal, adding a pedal ($50) and the electronic kick drum ($60) and the wire to connect them ($30) is almost half the price of the entire drum kit!

If you’re enthused about drumming enough to go for the Ion Drum Rocker, then I can definitely recommend a real pedal upgrade. However, it ain’t cheap by any means — you’ll have to decide if spending $450 versus $300 is worth it to you for that final essential bit of authentic entry-level electronic drumming.

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