Harmonix jams at Rock Band Network Panel

PAX 2009: Harmonix talks up its latest addition to the rhythm game world, while singer-songwriter Jonathan Coulton serenades the crowd.


Rock Band
Rock Band 2

SEATTLE--Yesterday at PAX 2009, a few folks from Harmonix got onstage and held a panel about the recently announced Rock Band Network, a service designed for up-and-coming bands to take their own music and turn it into playable songs in Rock Band 2. We've recently covered Rock Band Network in fairly thorough detail, first after taking a trip out to New York for a press event Harmonix held for journalists to get their first look at the service, and then later when we followed that up with an interview with Harmonix's vice president of product development, Greg LoPiccolo.

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Most of what was covered in the panel was thus old news to us, but it still wound up being a pretty entertaining show. Much of that was thanks to the presence of the officially endorsed singer-songwriter of geeks everywhere, Jonathan Coulton. You may know Coulton as the artist behind "Still Alive," the song that closed out Portal and was later released as a free download in the original Rock Band. Coulton seemed like an odd addition to what was a mostly technically oriented discussion of the ins and outs of the service, especially when he took to the stage to play an acoustic rendition of his song "The Future Soon" roughly halfway into the panel for reasons unknown to the audience other than, hey, it's Jonathan Coulton.

But as it turns out, there was a method to this madness. Harmonix audio lead Caleb Epps then kicked off a demonstration about taking Coulton's song and turning it into a song in Rock Band using the various tools available to any musician who signs up for Rock Band Network. The first program is a PC application called Reaper, which is for taking all the instrument tracks and turning them into MIDI files for playing in the game. The neat part about this program is that Harmonix teamed up with with Cockos, the developer behind the software, to create a plug-in for Reaper to preview the songs within the software. Just open a menu, hit a button, and a Rock Band-style note highway will pop up on the screen showing how the song will look when any average joe downloads it and plays it in Rock Band 2.

After taking care of turning the songs into MIDI, artists then uses a tool called Magma to upload their songs from their computers to the XNA service for use in the game. Magma is basically the middleman between the artist's PC and the game itself and served as the basis of one of the worst jokes of the night. "Why did they call it Magma?" asked senior producer Matthew Nordhaus. "Because that's where rock comes from," he quipped. "We actually developed a whole application so we could tell you that joke."

Magma is where artists input all the basic information about their songs, like genre, subgenre (a new classification coming to the regular Rock Band via a patch store to make finding music easier), country of origin, album art, and instrument difficulty rankings. The latter is something that can be changed from what the original artists input after the songs go through the peer-review process.

So Harmonix took Coulton's song, uploaded it with Magma, and then pulled it up in Rock Band 2 using the wizardry of a new tool called Audition mode, which is a hidden corner of Rock Band 2 that's coming soon with the new patch and will be available only to those with an XNA account. In lieu of an audience question-and-answer session, Harmonix allowed three audience members to come up onstage and play "The Future Soon" with Coulton, who would be trading in his real guitar for a plastic Rock Band one. They pulled up a singer, bassist, and drummer, who eagerly rushed to the stage and chose expert difficulty level. Coulton, on the other hand, went with medium and received a lusty booing from the crowd. He gave in and bumped it up to hard difficulty, though he still received a smattering of boos even for that. And lo and behold, the song sounded great, with the exception of Coulton's less-than-perfect pretend guitar playing.

There were also some interesting anecdotes given. Nordhaus denied the claims of a New York Times article that said Harmonix originally called the service Rock Band: Nickelback during internal development to deflect curiosity. He then offered a sort of olive branch by inviting the band to submit their work in Rock Band Network, which the crowd did not like at all. But don't worry, he joked, they still have to go through peer review like anyone else.

They also told the story of a Rock Band forum member named jjdude1, who posted a thread predicting the future of Rock Band DLC by essentially laying out the entire Rock Band Network process step-by-step...while the project was still top secret. Community manager Sean Baptiste said he nearly "crapped my pants" when he read this thread, but his concerns were eased when every person who replied shot down jjdude1's prognostications as too far-fetched and outside the realm of possibility.

Miscellaneous trivia: Artists will get 30 percent of the proceeds from their songs. They get to choose how much to charge for a song, by electing to go with 80, 160, or 240 Microsoft points. While the lead SKU for this program is the Xbox 360, the developers are hard at work getting it to work for the PlayStation 3 and the Wii, though they sounded much more optimistic about getting it working on Sony's console than Nintendo's. They ended the night by offering roughly 100 audience members the chance to join the peer-review team, complete with a free four-month XNA membership.

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