Rock Band Goes Pro

Making real music with a videogame.

2 min read
Rock Band Goes Pro

In September I profiled Harmonix, creators of the hit music franchise Rock Band, for IEEE Spectrum.  The company was founded by two MIT grads,Rigopulos and Eran Egozy.  Their music videogame franchises pioneered the idea of playing along with popular music using instrument-shaped controllers, and represent a global pop culture phenomenon with over $2 billion in revenues.  

Egozy and Rigopulos met while playing in the school's gamelan orchestra. When they were completing graduate degrees at MIT in the early 90s, they began looking for ways they too could bring out the musicianship of ordinary people.  And what better to engage a new generation than their medium of choice: Videogames.

They began with Joystick Music, a game which allowed people to create sophisticated music simply by maneuvering two Atari style controllers. By later coding a unique pitch analysis program that could grade a person’s voice in real-time, the two created Karaoke Revolution, a sing-along-with-the-music title for the Playstation 2.  But the lingering criticism remains – yes, videogames and sensor chairs let regular people make music, or at least feel like they’re making music, but of course they aren’t making music for real. “I think there is some basis to that criticism,” says Rigopulos, “and it’s something we had the ambition to address.”

Now comes the answer:   Rock Band Pro—a new version of the popular videogame coming this fall that will use new instruments to allow for a more life-like playing experience. “It bridges the gap between simulating music making and making music on real instruments,” Rigopulos says.  I got a chance to play around with the new instruments, and they really are an incredible feat of engineering. 

The Wireless Fender Mustang Pro Guitar Controller has a whoping 102 controller buttons built on to the neck, running over 17 frets.  To play it, you pluck and strum actual strings.  To make real music, you can even use the MIDI output built into the device.  Cool enough.  Then there's the wireless keyboard, which also sports a MIDI port for those who want to jam offline. 

With so many innovations achieved, the challenge to spread the power of music-making is now more a matter of changing perceptions than creating new technologies. “It’s a matter of getting past conceptual hurdles,” Egozy says, “people think music is fixed thing that they just download. We’re trying to break down barriers and get people to think about music in a more holistic way.  Music is not a fixed package, it’s much more than that.”

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Now that recorded sound has become ubiquitous, we hardly think about it. From our smartphones, smart speakers, TVs, radios, disc players, and car sound systems, it’s an enduring and enjoyable presence in our lives. In 2017, a survey by the polling firm Nielsen suggested that some 90 percent of the U.S. population listens to music regularly and that, on average, they do so 32 hours per week.

Behind this free-flowing pleasure are enormous industries applying technology to the long-standing goal of reproducing sound with the greatest possible realism. From Edison’s phonograph and the horn speakers of the 1880s, successive generations of engineers in pursuit of this ideal invented and exploited countless technologies: triode vacuum tubes, dynamic loudspeakers, magnetic phonograph cartridges, solid-state amplifier circuits in scores of different topologies, electrostatic speakers, optical discs, stereo, and surround sound. And over the past five decades, digital technologies, like audio compression and streaming, have transformed the music industry.

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