September 19, 2011

Ion Drum Rocker Review

It’s hard to believe I linked to first review of the premium $299 Ion Drum Rocker almost three years ago!

Although I’ve been happy with the Rock Band 3 Pro drumkit (with cymbals), I finally decided to take my drumming to the next level and adopt the Ion Drum Rocker kit. One advantage of waiting this long, at least — the kit that was originally $299 is now only $249.

The Ion Drum Rocker, although super premium by gaming standards, is extremely low end in the real world of drums. I knew that, and I wasn’t expecting much when I unpacked the (zillion!) boxes. But my first reaction to the Ion Drum Rocker was “wow, this thing is rock solid”. It’s a huge step up in quality, construction, and feel from a stock Rock Band 3 pro drumkit. Consider that you’re going from this:

rock band 3 pro drumkit with cymbals and dual pedals

to this:

It is, in a word, beefy. One of the reasons I upgraded is because our 2.5 year old son enjoys whacking on the drums with us, and I wasn’t convinced the stock kit could continue to survive his tender mercies for a whole lot longer. Well, there’s no way any toddler can harm this Ion kit; it’s all ridged aluminum frame and multi-point bolted joints.

It’s also way, way more complicated than the simple Rock Band 3 kit. Check out the assembly diagram, below (click through for a larger version):

Here’s a full visual inventory of all the parts in the box. And after building it up, you’re not done — you still have to connect everything together, and that’s one distinct wire for …

… eight wires and eight connections all told, as you can see in this visual diagram.

Alesis, the underlying manufacturer, is known for inexpensive but good quality electronic drum kits; the Ion Drum Rocker is effectively their most inexpensive electronic kit. Given the heritage, it is every bit as reliable and satisfying to play as you might expect. That part didn’t surprise me. What did surprise me, however, was how ridiculously configurable this kit is.

Apparently not all real world drum kits are arranged in the layout of a Rock Band 3 drumkit! I’m sure this is totally obvious to any real world drummer in retrospect, but drum kit positioning is often a matter of preference, musical genre, even song! On the Ion drum kit, the frame, the pads, the cymbals — all can be adjusted, tweaked, and arranged in an almost infinite number of ways. (Not to mention that some drummers can have literally dozens of drums and cymbals in their kit.) This was a whole new world for me! If I’m going to spend the dough on a fancyish kit, I want to do this right — I want to learn something approximating real drum motions and proper standard drum layouts. But then I belatedly realized I have no idea what that is. So I asked a question on music.stackexchange to determine what the “standard” or “typical” drum kit layout is.

I’ll save you all the angst and give you the short version: the Rock Band 3 layout is fairly close to a typical drum kit, but the biggest difference is that the snare (red) drum should be under the first tom (yellow) and lower, between the drummer’s legs. And really there should be a pedal under each foot, too! As you can see in this diagram:

I’m still tweaking my layout, but the snare positioning and the general layout pictured above is what you want to shoot for. Bear in mind that most drum kits have four cymbals, which means two crashes (green cymbals) on the left and right. So at some level having just one green cymbal is kind of fundamentally incorrect, and you may feel it’s on the “wrong” side depending on the song. In a perfect world you’d have a duplicate green cymbal on the left, too.

It’s been a much more substantial upgrade than I ever expected; not only does it work great (and it’s surprisingly quiet, arguably quieter than even the Rock Band 3 Pro drumkit in play), but the kit has encouraged me to learn more about real world drumming. The only thing you give up is the wireless connectivity, and any semblance of easy portability. Neither of these are very important to an avid drummer so I heartily recommend the Ion Drum Rocker.

I have a few more tips for new Drum Rocker owners based on my experience:

  • Once you get the kit, prepare to spend the first few days tweaking the layout to taste. Trust me, that little adjustment tool they include will be your best friend for a while. Just like a real drum kit, all those knobs and adjustments are fascinating — do not tie anything down until you’re absolutely sure you’ve got the layout just right!
  • Use a silver sharpie marker to measure and mark intervals on the frame crossbars, so you can get the alignment just right. And if you don’t have a silver sharpie yet, for shame. Go get one! Silver sharpies = awesome.
  • Only the foot pedal cable has a color band; I thought that was really clever and matched the colored inputs perfectly, so I bought some Scotch Vinyl Colored Tape in red, green, yellow, and blue to mark both ends of all the cables so I always knew which pad or cymbal it was going to.
  • Rather than using the supplied zip-ties, I found it was simpler and faster to wind the extra cables around the frame.

I’m enjoying these baby steps into the world of real music and real musicians tremendously. In the end, with the Ion Drum Rocker you’re paying ~$300 (once you factor in that important 3rd cymbal) to get a reasonably complete, good quality basic electronic drum kit. It’s only a little more than 2x the price of the default Rock Band 3 pro drum kit ($129), and what you get is way more than 2 times as configurable, reliable, and realistic. That’s a great deal in my book!

September 4, 2011

Printable Rock Band Library Setlists

If you have a big Rock Band downloaded song library, it can be difficult to decide which songs you want to play in a particular jam session.

And who doesn’t have a sizable song library, now that there are over 3,000 DLC songs available, plus the opportunity to import the on-disc songs from older Harmonix games like Rock Band 1, Rock Band 2, Lego Rock Band, and so on?

Yes, Rock Band 3 made huge strides in sorting, filtering, and selecting songs from big song libraries, but how can you possibly communicate the breadth of your enormous song list when you can only view 12-15 songs at once?

That’s where Rock Band Karaoke List Maker comes in! Instead of scrolling through page after page of songs on screen to figure out what song to play next, you can present people with a high bandwidth printed list, like so:



It’s a fantastic way to get a “bird’s eye view” of your entire library so you can better decide what to play next. The layout is simple: just a list of songs, grouped by band, in multiple configurable columns and font sizes.

Even better, because it is printed, you can have upcoming players select songs from this menu while they’re waiting their turn to play — so they’re ready to hit the ground rocking! This paper stuff, it’s miraculous!

You can check out my list of DLC as of today, which is (almost) every non-RBN track ever released to September 4th 2011, in this public Google Docs PDF I shared. The awesome part is that this is thousands of songs (literally!) and the whole shebang fits on 5 pages if I use the maximum number of columns and the “small” font … and it’s still quite readable, because printers are extremely high resolution!

The service supports creating these PDF printable song lists from DLCQuickplay.com and MyRockBandSongs.com, so you must start by creating your DLC library on one of those sites first. Personally, I recommend DLCQuickplay as I had the best results there and prefer the simpler UI. It also has convenient “click once” checkboxes for bringing in full-disc DLC imports and collections.

One tip — make sure you properly indicate which platform and disc games you own when signing up, otherwise you won’t be able to select the correct songs under Songs | My DLC at the top of the page. The “Imports” tab is kind of subtle, and I didn’t find it initially, so be sure to look for it where I’ve highlighted below.

Of course maintaining an inventory of your DLC isn’t just useful for printing your song list, but also for comparing songs with other potential online players and bands, too!

So thanks to DLC Quickplay for making their site such a pleasure to use, even for people with monster DLC song lists like mine — and kudos to Troy Davis for putting together such a slick printable PDF song list creator that works with it, too!

I’ll be doing what I can to support both these services, but participation is the best way to begin!

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.

June 12, 2011

The Original Guitar Hero Songs: Where Are They Now?

Hard to believe it’s been almost six years since the release of the original Guitar Hero. Remember struggling to complete your first songs on easy? Remember how mind-bendingly impossible hard difficulty seemed, much less expert difficulty? Remember hitting that last Bark at The Moon solo and failing instantly? Ah, memories. Now we get to marvel at how difficult Dragonforce’s Through the Fire and Flames is on a REAL FREAKING GUITAR.

The original Guitar Hero soundtrack is a true classic. But short of booting up the original 2005 game on a Playstation 2 — can we experience these 30 classic tracks in a modern rhythm game? Let’s see:

Song Available in …
I Love Rock And Roll – Joan Jett and the Blackhearts Rock Band 3, Guitar Hero: Smash Hits*
I Wanna Be Sedated – The Ramones Rock Band 3
Thunder Kiss ’65 – White Zombie Rock Band DLC, Guitar Hero: Smash Hits
Smoke on the Water – Deep Purple Rock Band 3, Guitar Hero: Smash Hits
Infected – Bad Religion none
Iron Man – Black Sabbath none
More Than a Feeling – Boston Rock Band DLC, Guitar Hero: Smash Hits
You Got Another Thing Comin – Judas Priest Rock Band DLC
Take Me Out – Franz Ferdinand Rock Band DLC, Guitar Hero: Smash Hits
Sharp Dressed Man – ZZ Top Guitar Hero 6
Killer Queen – Queen Rock Band DLC, Guitar Hero: Smash Hits
Hey You – Exies Guitar Hero: Smash Hits*
Stellar – Incubus Guitar Hero: Smash Hits
Heart Full of Black – Burning Brides none
Symphony of Destruction – Megadeth Guitar Hero DLC
Ziggy Stardust – David Bowie Rock Band DLC
Fat Lip – Sum 41 Guitar Hero DLC
Cochise – Audioslave none
Take It Off – The Donnas Guitar Hero: Smash Hits
Unsung – Helmet Guitar Hero: Smash Hits
Spanish Castle Magic – Jimi Hendrix Rock Band DLC
Higher Ground – Red Hot Chili Peppers none
No One Knows – Queens of the Stone Age Rock Band 3, Guitar Hero: Smash Hits*
Ace of Spades – Motörhead Rock Band 2, Guitar Hero: Metallica*
Crossroads – Cream none
Godzilla – Blue Öyster Cult Rock Band DLC, Guitar Hero Smash Hits
Texas Flood – Stevie Ray Vaughan Rock Band DLC
Frankenstein – The Edgar Winter Group none
Cowboys From Hell – Pantera Guitar Hero: Smash Hits
Bark at the Moon – Ozzy Osbourne Rock Band DLC, 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 30 songs in Guitar Hero, that’s …

7 songs only playable by booting up Guitar Hero on a Playstation 2
14 songs playable in Rock Band 3
18 songs playable in a Guitar Hero game

Here’s hoping we eventually get to play all these classic songs in one form or another without being anchored to a PS2!

May 16, 2011

MadCatz Pro Cymbals Expansion

What did the drummer say that got him kicked out of the band? “Hey guys, I wrote a new song!”

Har. Har.

Drummers never get any respect.

They’re usually in better shape than the rest of the band from beating the skins all night long. They have to carry all of the pieces of their drum kit to and from shows and have the muscles to prove it. Sure, they’re not usually the brightest crayon in the box, but their job isn’t easy.

It seems like guitar players get all the recognition in real bands and Rock Band bands. I mean, there seem to be a lot more options for guitars and aftermarket gear you can get to complement them. Where’s the love for the drummers?

BAM.

The Madcatz Pro Cymbals Expansion kit is here. Well, actually it’s been here since late 2008, but its full potential wasn’t revealed until Rock Band 3 was released. If you’ve had reservations about spending 40 bucks I’m here to tell you to go ahead and pull the trigger. You owe it to your band’s drummer. Or, if you’re a drummer you owe it to yourself!

The closest you will get to playing real drums in the Rock Band universe is the Ion Drum Rocker Premium kit, of course. But if you’re on a tighter budget then this expansion kit will work like gangbusters! This cymbal kit fully enables your existing Rock Band drum set for the Pro mode in Rock Band 3. You won’t look back.

This three cymbal expansion features color-coded Crash, Ride and Hi-Hat cymbals. They are easy as pie to install and feel plenty sturdy when you’re playing on them. The cymbals clamp to the base of your Rock Band kit and plus into the the three 1/4″ jacks on the back of your drums. There are three color-coded caps you screw on to the top of each cymbal. The jacks are also colored for easy reference. The cymbals sit at about a 10 degree angle and their individual heights are adjustable. (See our previous review of the Rock Band 2 Cymbals for an installation overview, but do note that the “Pro” cymbals themselves are substantially improved.)

Sitting at the kit with the cymbals installed gives the entire drum kit a “complete” feel. It looks and feels a lot more serious than sitting down to pay the traditional four pads and a foot pedal. I felt like a serious drummer sitting behind the kit. Now, if only I had any serious drum skills to go with it!

I’m a huge advocate of Rock Band 3′s Pro modes. Luckily for drummers, upgrading the standard kit to Pro kit only costs 40 bucks. This is probably the cheapest jump to Pro from any standard instrument and improves the experience by leaps and bounds! As with the other Pro mode instruments, Harmonix’s goal seems to be helping create musicians by charting Pro songs the way they are played on the real instruments, and they claim that if you can play the expert Pro mode charts than you can carry that over to those real instruments. I can personally attest to this! With the three cymbals simulating a real drum kit’s Crash, Ride, and High-Hat cymbal positions, you should feel comfortable sitting down at a real drum kit and jamming out some funky beats!

With these cymbals installed, your 4 drum pads no longer pull double duty as cymbals and toms/snares. In Pro drums mode, the chart will present the traditional color coded square drum gems, while adding the new color coded cymbal gems on top. It’s the same physical setup that you have in front of you as is on the screen. Your yellow cymbal will come down the note highway on the left, blue in the middle, and green on the right.

It takes about 1 song to get comfortable to recognizing the new icons on the screen. As far as getting used to their physical placement and accurately hitting the cymbals when prompted, that takes a little longer!

The only negative is that sometimes my sticks would catch the underside of the cymbal when I was lifting from the last pad I hit in order to hit the crash or ride cymbal. It would have been great to have some sort of adjustable distance to go along with the included height adjustment. I think I’m just being picky, and after altering my technique a little I was able to cut down on getting hung up on the cymbals. After spending some more time on these I’m sure it will be a non-issue.

If drums are your main instrument for Rock Band then you really should buy this expansion kit. I consider myself an occasional drummer on hard or expert Pro levels and after installing the cymbals found myself enjoying the drums more than I ever had before! I had a blast and am looking forward to making more time to play on them. It makes drums both more realistic, and more challenging — and it just feels way more “Rockstar” to play with the cymbals towering over my drum kit! I can imagine that someone who plays drums exclusively would get much more enjoyment than even I have so far.

Remember, all songs in the Rock Band library were written with cymbal support from the very beginning. So if you’re looking to unlock the full drumming potential of your entire song library — don’t hesitate to add the Rock Band 3 Pro Cymbals Expansion Kit!

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