Click through to see YouTube videos of any song, if you’re not familiar with it. There’s also DLC planned, of course. Two DLC tracks have been pre-announced, Free Bird and Radiohead’s Bodysnatchers.
A good song list, but a bit … obscure at the edges. Some of these artists I’ve honestly never heard of, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but probably reflects the licensing difficulties they had. On the other hand, picking up not one but two Muse tracks stings a little because of the running “more Muse please!” joke within the Rock Band community for the last year.
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:
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!
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.
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 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.
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:
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):
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.
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!
After writing about Rocksmith back in July, I was invited to the Ubisoft offices in San Fransisco for a hands-on preview of the game. How could I turn that down?
I took the opportunity to invite a friend of mine, Martín Marconcini, who happens to be a decent novice guitarist, far far beyond my meager guitar skills. Together we spent about an hour playing the Xbox 360 version of the game.
The official Rocksmith bundle guitar, the Epiphone Les Paul Junior ($129 MSRP) was the guitar we used to play the game — you can see Martín holding it in the picture. Remember, this is a 100% real guitar, no game elements whatsoever! (In fact, the game comes with fret number stickers to place on the top of the fretboard, and our guitar had them applied.)
I was a bit skeptical going in, but I have to admit: Rocksmith definitely works as advertised!
Rocksmith truly does reliably detect what you’re playing on an analog guitar, and in real time. Both Martín and I agreed on this; at no point did we think the game was screwing up, any time we made a mistake it was clearly us playing the wrong notes. There was no real compromise that we could see with the analog detection approach. Even subtle little mistakes like being off by one fret or one string were displayed correctly.
Because of the analog approach, you get a significantly different and arguably more musical experience compared to Rock Band 3 Pro Guitar mode:
You can’t even play the game without begging, borrowing, buying, or stealing a real electric guitar. Everything starts with putting that electric guitar in your hands and plugging it in to the provided USB interface. It feels good!
Every time you touch the guitar, you are making actual guitar sounds. This is in stark contrast to almost every other rhythm game where if you play correctly, you get the original audio track, and if you get it wrong, you hear generic guitar mistake noises. What really, really struck me when playing was that I was learning to hear when my notes sounded wrong. I wasn’t just learning about finger positioning, there was a very direct correlation between what my ears heard and what my hands were doing. Once I got a good basic pattern going, I could tell when I screwed up because I heard it before I saw it. That’s HUGE!
(Also, I was concerned that tuning the guitar, which is required before each new song, would be a tedious chore. But I was fascinated to discover that these pre-song tunings were kind of, dare I say, fun? Or more like … something I needed to learn to do properly because as a musician, of course you want your guitar to sound in tune!)
I was very worried about latency going in, and I’m happy to say that latency of note detection was not a problem. But there is a latency issue — it’s just not what I thought it was. When you play electric guitar in Rocksmith, the console is your amplifier. That is, the signals have to go from the guitar, to the console, and then back out through your sound system. It’s no different than the latency problem in vocals in Rock Band 3 which have to go through the same path: out of your mouth, into the mic, through the console, then back out of the speakers. This takes time, and you’ll notice a bit of lag between “playing a sound” and “hearing the sound you played”. But the advantage is that your console is in some ways the ultimate super flexible guitar amp in Rocksmith. You can apply effects, pedals, different guitar sounds, etcetera. It’s really cool and it even works during loading screens in the game, you can noodle around on the guitar while you’re waiting. Great stuff.
One permanent workaround for the audio latency is to get a real amplifier and hook it up, like for example the Roland Micro Cube Guitar Amplifier I have. Maybe not for everyone, but it’s definitely authentic, will solve the audio playback latency completely, and heck — shouldn’t you have a guitar amp anyway for your electric guitar?
Another thing I was very interested in is the automatic difficulty scaling in Rocksmith. That is, the more notes you play correctly on the guitar, the more notes it will give you — if you’re totally nailing the song on beginner mode, it will eventually scale you on up to medium and hard and beyond completely automatically. This also worked seamlessly for me, as I mastered the very simple beginner phrases they slowly got a tiny bit more complicated and more representative of the actual song. This did not last, because I truly suck at guitar, but the scaling up and down of difficulty was very gradual and smooth; not disruptive at all.
Now, not everything I saw in Rocksmith was great. For example the navigation UI in the game was pretty darn abysmal in my opinion, and the track list was solid, but can’t possibly compare with the hundreds of Rock Band 3 tracks available even if you just limit to the Pro Guitar capable tracks. There’s definitely enough room for improvement that I can see a Rocksmith 2 in there already. But the important bit is that Rocksmith does what it says it does and it is a very satisfying experience when playing the songs. For any music game, that’s really the only thing that matters in my book.
I also learned a few nuggets of news worth mentioning:
Two player guitar will be supported though I didn’t get to see it; it will be a splitscreen top/bottom sort of affair and will of course require two real guitars and two USB interface cables. Definitely looking forward to that.
An aggressive weekly DLC schedule is planned, though details on specifics were scarce. That’s very encouraging to hear.
The obvious where’s the bass guitar support? question came up. Apparently they have special plans to deliver bass guitar support through DLC and this may include unlocking bass guitar charts for the existing songs in the game.
I was already tentatively excited to play Rocksmith and had it pre-ordered before I got hands-on time with the game. But now that I have, I went back and pre-ordered the full guitar bundle, which is now available for $199. (That bundled Epiphone Les Paul Junior we got to try is a surprisingly solid axe, and the game is $79 alone … so I figured why not.)
Bottom line, Rocksmith rocks! It offers a uniquely musical, hands-and-ears-on approach to the rhythm genre that we haven’t seen before. It isn’t perfect, and it’s no party game, but it totally works as advertised for learning guitar and having fun while doing it, too. I have no problem recommending it highly to anyone who has an electric guitar gathering dust somewhere in their house — or anyone who is serious about learning electric guitar in general.