Rock Band Network: Updated Impressions

We get an updated look at Harmonix's tools for immortalizing your music in Rock Band.

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Whether you're in an established act or an up-and-coming band looking to make a name for yourself, you'll have a chance to get your music heard and played (quite literally) with Harmonix's latest musical endeavor, the Rock Band Network. Back in August, we got our first look at how the system of translating your tools from raw audio to plastic guitar and drum gameplay works, and yesterday, Harmonix reps dropped by GameSpot HQ to show off improvements to the RBN since then and give us a peek at the creators corner of Harmonix's Rock Band Network-specific Web site.

Before you get started turning your musical masterpieces into game-ready songs in Rock Band 2, there's a checklist of items you'll need to have:

1) An XNA Creators Club membership, which will allow you to upload your created songs via your Xbox for peer review by fellow Rock Band Network users and, eventually, for sale in the Rock Band Network Store. XNA membership runs $99 per year (or $49 for four months).
2) An account on creators.rockband.com, the Web site run by Harmonix where your projects will live after being uploaded. It's here that your songs will be played and peer-reviewed by other members of the RBN community before being approved for sale in the Rock Band Network Store.
3) Reaper music production software, which is available for $60 and will be where you take your audio tracks, convert them into MIDI format, and lay out the individual drums, guitar, bass, and vocal tracks. Harmonix has worked closely with the developer of Reaper, Cockos, to create handy plug-ins that make the authoring of Rock Band tracks easier.
4) Magma metadata packaging tool, which lets you label and price your individual tracks, add album art to your upload, and compile all the data together.

The costs for getting started with the Rock Band Network aren't just financial. There's also a serious time commitment, because authoring a song from its audio roots into full gameplay is a time-consuming project. The first step is simply mapping out all of the notes in your song for each of the instruments and vocals (you start authoring with expert level in mind, then copy and paste the MIDI gameplay tracks, and then simply remove or modify sections for hard, normal, and easy difficulty). It's a process that, depending on the length and complexity of your tune, can take up to 40 hours or more. Then there's the process of deciding what you want your song to look like when it's being played. The beauty of the Rock Band-specific tools in Reaper is the insane amount of control you have over practically every aspect of presentation: Do you want the camera to focus on the bass player during a harmony vocal part? Should your bandmates initiate a sweet stage slide during the chorus? You can do all of that and much more here.

Powerful authoring tools are great, but authoring efficiency is also important for the folks at Harmonix. To that end, developers have created a number of Reaper templates that you can use to get your project started quickly. Harmonix developers also demonstrated little plug-ins and tools that speed up the authoring process--one tool makes it easy to connect the text of your song's lyrics to the MIDI note path of your vocal melody; another plug-in lets you preview and test your tunes in Reaper using the same note highway players will use in the actual game.

Once you've created your song, you'll use Magma to label the track and album, add additional information and any art you want, and decide on a price you'll sell the song for: 80, 160, or 240 MS points ($1, $2, or $3), which is a slightly higher maximum price than we saw in our previous look at RBN. As part of the XNA program, you'll be paid once per quarter for your efforts, with 30 percent of the proceeds going to the song creator and the rest split between Harmonix, Microsoft, and others. You can then compile and upload your songs to the creators.rockband.com Web site, where it will then be peer-reviewed by RBN community members. The peer-review process seems to be fairly rigid--a song must pass review five times before it can move on to the Rock Band Network Store.

Updated tools make getting your music easier, if still time-consuming.
Updated tools make getting your music easier, if still time-consuming.

During peer review, you'll get extensive feedback on every aspect of your song's gameplay--including notes on button sequence logic, difficulty, and more. Harmonix producers told us that they're hoping that the community will embrace the peer-review process in order to make sure as much submitted music makes it through the process as possible. That said, both community members and Harmonix employees will be on the lookout for copyrighted or objectionable material, and that content will be summarily rejected.

Still in private beta now, the creators.rockband.com Web site will be entering its public beta phase in the coming weeks. After that it won't be long before the Rock Band Network store is made available in Rock Band 2 and you'll be able to download songs from bands throughout the world. To help you make your choices, you'll be able to download playable samples of RBN songs for free--players will also be able to rate songs they've either sampled or purchased, making sure that the cream of the Rock Band Network rises to the top. With major labels like Sub Pop committed to converting its entire catalog (including Sonic Youth and early Nirvana) into playable songs via Rock Band Network, it seems like it won't just be your garage band that will be getting in on the action. Stay tuned for more on Rock Band Network in the coming months.

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