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Rock Band 2 Instrument Evolution

Check out how Harmonix evolved Rock Band 2's instruments.


On the surface, Rock Band seems like a regular music rhythm game, albeit one with several different input devices. The game may seem as simple as timing your button presses, drum beats, or vocals to the onscreen prompts, but Rock Band's highly interactive nature pushes the game beyond basic rhythm matching once you actually start playing. As corny as it sounds, you really do feel like you're the one making the music. A large part of the feeling emanates from the controllers--the tactile feedback from the controller adds as much to the game experience as the acoustic response.

Strumming on the guitar, beating on the drums, and singing into the mic all give the game its distinct feel. The original Rock Band instruments worked well enough, but they certainly had their flaws. Pedals broke, strum bars failed, and buttons just didn't respond as well as they used to with the passage of time. The folks at Harmonix know very well that these instruments can only take so much punishment. The Harmonix designers learned a lot from customer experiences with the first instrument set and went back to the drawing board to improve upon their original designs to make Rock Band 2's instruments even better.

Rock Band 2's instruments represent a major step forward on numerous fronts. The corded microphone remains largely the same, but both the drums and the guitar have gone wireless. The instruments also received numerous usability upgrades. The changes range from aesthetic design choices all the way up to highly complex auto-calibration features that make the game easier to set up and play on LCDs. The new instruments are also fully backward compatible with the first Rock Band and will be forward compatible with future Rock Band games as well. Harmonix doesn't aim to add features that require users to purchase new instruments with each new game.

The Drums

We all know people who've mangled their existing Rock Band drum sets. Whether it's from beating on the drum heads too hard or slamming on the foot pedal, if you hit something enough times, it will break. Harmonix can't make an indestructible drum set yet, but it did do a lot to improve upon the original design.

Drums Controls Foot Pedal Side of Pedal

The new drum heads have silver rims and a black center area, which provides a visual target for drummers to hit. Of course, it doesn't make any difference where you strike the pad to register a hit, but now you something to aim for with the target. The new pads also come with velocity-sensitive drum pads that have vastly improved hit detection in terms of its sensitivity and accuracy. Light taps and all-out drumming actions register equally well. The velocity-sensitive pads will also produce different levels of sound in-game, depending upon how hard you hit them. Light taps will illicit soft drumming, while hard hits will sound like you're bringing down the house.

The new drum heads are made of a blend of silicone and plastics. The change in materials gives the drum heads a much better bounce back that makes them more like real drums. The pads also emit a much deeper sound when struck, producing a tone that's closer to an actual drum, which is much better than the sharp sounds that the old drums made. Matt Boch, creative designer at Harmonix, explained that the original drum kit emitted far more "noys" than the new kit. In the professional sound world, noys are a measurement of how much annoying sound is emitted from an object. Sound preferences may seem purely subjective, but some sounds just aren't pleasing to the ear. The goal for the Rock Band 2 drums was to minimize sound in the 3,000 to 6,000Hz range. The designers went through a variety of heads trying to find the right material mix. Some test heads were completely silent--great for low noise environments, but--just like driving an eerily silent electric car--they didn't feel right. Ultimately, the designers settled on a drum set that's considerably quieter, provides better tactile response, and gives better acoustic feedback.

We're sure many users will be happy to hear that the foot pedal has received a massive upgrade. The pedal itself now has a metal surface, which essentially makes it impossible to snap in half. The pedal movement now transfers force onto two new, nonslip pads that prevent the entire drum structure from sliding away as you mash the pedal.

Pedal Stays up! Cymbal Inputs Slip Pads Cymbals

The new drums also come with support for a new set of cymbals to add realism for hardcore players. In a nod toward backward compatibility, the cymbals are basically extensions of the existing Rock Band control scheme. Hitting the blue drum pad or the blue cymbal will both register as blue hits. But you aren't just hitting the cymbals for show; Harmonix told GameSpot that even though the hit registers under the same color, a cymbal strike will emit an in-game cymbal sound. There will be three color-coded cymbal inputs on the back side of the drum set. You'll have to purchase the cymbals separately though. Cymbals will be available from Mad Catz, and will be sold in sets of three for $30, or one for $15.

The drum set is also easier to set up and move. The set now has height markers to make it easier to adjust the drums to different height levels. The set also has a new pedal-retention mechanism that prevents the foot-pedal structure from falling off when lifting the entire drum set off of the floor. The guide button is also much harder to accidentally strike and requires a prolonged press to register.


The Rock Band 2 guitars received countless upgrades ranging from major to minuscule--all for the better. Cosmetically, the new guitars sport a fancy sunburst paint job and a faux-wood neck. Wireless functionality is huge step forward in reducing clutter. The guitar also has a new auto-calibration feature that makes the game much easier to set up and play. The auto-calibration system consists of two components: the photo sensor and mic. The two devices work together to determine how much lag is present in your TV and accurately compensate for it automatically. The original Rock Band setup had a manual calibration method that was error-prone due to user interaction. Harmonix indicates that the auto-calibration should make flat-panel TVs as easy to play on as CRTs.

The new guitar Controls Strum Bar Buttons

Harmonix upgraded the color-coded buttons on the guitar to reduce their sound output. The new buttons are practically inaudible compared to the click and clack emitted by the original guitars. Boch told to us that he regularly tested out button variations at home while friends watched movies in the same room. His friends couldn't even tell he was playing the guitar during the movie when he tested the new controller.

The designers gave the guitar a new strum bar to increase responsiveness and reduce mushiness. Harmonix also reduced the travel distance of the bar to make strumming quicker and more accurate. Interestingly enough, the folks at Harmonix swear by playing the guitar controller with an actual guitar pick.

Headstock Textured Neck Battery Cover

Harmonix also made a ton of small changes to make the guitar easier to use, as well as feel better in hand. Starting from the top, the headstock is now removable with the press of a button, which makes it easy to dismantle for storing and moving. The guitar's neck has much stiffer internal ribbing to prevent flexing, giving the controller a feel that's decidedly less toylike. The back of the neck now has light texturing to prevent slippage. Designers also removed the screw closest to the headstock on the neck because product testing showed that many people got their fingers stuck on it while playing. The battery door no longer requires a screw and is now thumb-operable. New tilt sensors make overdrive much more accurate and left-to-right movements no longer accidentally trigger overdrive.

Harmonix certainly went far out of its way to improve the instruments in Rock Band 2. All of the new changes will make the instruments much more durable, usable, and, ultimately, more fun to use. Harmonix also acknowledges that having one instrument design isn't going to satisfy everyone. That's why it has licensed out high-end controller reproduction to other companies. Mad Catz, Fender, and Ion are all in on the action to make even higher quality equipment for those who demand an even more authentic Rock Band experience. The official Rock Band 2 instruments are going to be great, but be on the look out for third-party full-sized drum kits, guitars, and full-featured mics in the future.

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