When Rock Band debuted in 2007, developer Harmonix stressed that the series would be a unique platform for expression. While the upcoming The Beatles: Rock Band is an example of one direction the franchise can take, the Rock Band Network is another intriguing option. The recently announced network promises to give just about anyone the chance to get their music into Rock Band. We got a chance to get a run through what it's going to take for you to go from air-guitaring along to other people's music to getting some of your own tunes in Rock Band 2.
Before we dive in to how the Rock Band Network is going to work, let's go over what it's not: It's not the equivalent of an in-game user-generated content tool like a Little Big Planet level editor. Instead, think of the Rock Band Network as a collection of tools that will let the interested and dedicated masses import their songs and sell them to Rock Band owners. While this is obviously not for everyone, the process is pretty straightforward.
Before prospective Rock Band stars of tomorrow get to work on uploading their songs, there's some prep work to be done. The first step is creating an account on the official site, creators.rockband.com, to ensure that you can upload your music to the Web site for peer review. The next key step is signing up with Microsoft's XNA Creator's Club, which will let budding musicologists get paid once per quarter as the money pours in from their downloads. Next up is grabbing two PC programs, Reaper and Magma, which are core to the whole process. Last but not least are the master tracks of the song or songs being imported.
If it hasn't become clear by now, we'll spell it out: Technically savvy musicians with a working knowledge of professional PC music programs (sorry, no Mac support) will be fine with what comes next, but everyone else will probably want to sit this out and just enjoy the neat content that's likely to come from the Rock Band Network. So, once the prep work is done, the process breaks down into four basic steps: creating MIDI gameplay, compiling the audio and MIDI content into a song file to audition on your Xbox 360, uploading your song to the creators.rockband.com Web site for peer review, and uploading your creation to the Rock Band Network store.
Creating the MIDI gameplay is done using the shareware program Reaper, which has been developed by Cockos. Harmonix has been working with Cockos to make some tweaks to the system to offer enhanced functionality so it will be easy to get songs prepped for Rock Band. Once a master track is fed into the program and broken up by various instrument tracks, the program will lay the tracks out and create a tempo map to ensure that all the music stays at a consistent beat, which is key for the gameplay. The next, fairly work-intensive step is charting the notes for the various tracks, which will lay the jewels that correspond to the buttons on the guitar or pads on the drum set. While the program has a number of helpful features designed to make the process easier, there are no shortcuts for time or for handling the layouts for each of the different difficulty levels separately.
A custom plug-in for Reaper will be available on the creators.rockband.com Web site that will allow any part of the track to be previewed as it would be seen in the game to give you an idea of how it's shaping up. In addition, you'll be able to adjust a song's visual presentation by tweaking camera cuts and assorted effects. Sadly, it appears as though support for the Rock Band fog machine--part of the stage kit accessory that's available for the game--isn't integrated, given the potential smoky shenanigans that could happen.
Once the song is entered, the next step is compiling everything and trying it out on an Xbox 360, which is where the Magma program comes in. The program creates a file that Rock Band 2 can read, and it allows a variety of information to be entered, including band information, art files, author name, and pricing. Once it's all sorted, Magma can send the song across a home network to an Xbox 360 running Rock Band 2, which will be patched to support song auditioning so that the song can be tested.
There will be three price options available for your created tunes: 80, 100, and 160 XBL points or $1, $1.25, or $2.00 on the PlayStation Network. For those considering supporting themselves on their downloadable-song income, the split will be roughly 30 percent for the author and 70 percent to be divided between Harmonix and Microsoft. In addition, the Rock Band Network system will automatically create a free demo of the song, which folks can use to check out your song before downloading it.
Once a song is ready for its debut, it can be uploaded for peer review to creators.rockband.com. When the song is up, anyone with a Creator's Club account can download it to review it and offer feedback. Harmonix will keep a close eye on all the content initially, but as the community grows, the expectation is that it will start to moderate itself. Some of the big hot-button topics are the expected copyright issues around samples, songs, and the like.
When a song makes it through the peer review process and is given the all clear, it will be uploaded to the Rock Band Network store, which will be added to Rock Band 2 in an upcoming patch. This means that if things take off, content could be hitting the store daily, in addition to the regular weekly updates. An interesting side note is that at the moment, the whole process applies to both the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 versions of the game with folks working to figure out a Wii solution. To add further excitement, the music on the Rock Band Network store will have a window of exclusivity for the Xbox 360 version of the game.
Based on what we saw, the Rock Band Network represents a landmark moment not just for Rock Band and Harmonix, but for musicians and creative types. If the network flourishes, it will offer another platform for aspiring musicians to reach an audience. The network will also offer developers and publishers some ways to extend the life of their games, not to mention the effect it will have on game and music communities. Anyone with the chops and skills to make this all work will want to go to creators.rockband.com to sign up for the upcoming open beta due to start in October. Folks hungry for some new music or looking to support their friends can expect the Rock Band Network store to hit this November in the US.