First Glance: Rock Band 3 Wireless Fender Mustang Pro Guitar Controller

I finally got to spend some time with my new Rock Band 3 Pro Guitar controller last night. While it is certainly not a real guitar, it translates surprisingly well – even for someone who actually plays guitar. 

There are a few little niggling differences. The strings are all the same width, which sometimes makes it hard to find the correct string with one’s strumming hand. The fret buttons are also all identically-shaped (the string-shaped buttons don’t get narrower as they decend), which causes similar left-hand confusion. Lastly, unlike a real guitar, your fret hand can’t feel which strings are vibrating, which also removes a point of orientation.

One other difference from for-reals guitar slinging is that the game uses its own unique notation to display your finger and chord position.  For those more familiar with tablature though, this isn’t such a stretch.  The notation is relatively clear, and admittedly easier to sight-read during a play session.

Still, most of my fumbling is likely due to the fact that I haven’t played much at all for, say, 1.5 decades.  Regardless, I quickly plowed through many sets of lessons, and was already able to learn two songs on Pro Hard difficulty in one evening.   (One step up – Pro Expert difficulty – would be playing the song note-for-note, and I think I could probably have managed Expert on the two tunes I learned as well.)

Pretend-guitar confusion aside, Mad Catz has done a fine job constructing this controller.  Previous to slapping down my plastic, I had been worried about the build quality, but this is actually a fairly sturdy contraption.  For those of you on the fence, I think the unit will be sufficiently durable if treated well.

It’s pretty obvious that there aren’t many folks using the Pro Guitar feature yet, as I’m already in the top 25% of the global leaderboard.  Trust me – I’m not a top-25-percentile kinda guitar player. 

In all, this is a very, very damn fun way to learn some new songs, and a way more fulfilling way to play Rock Band for my dollar.  I’m extremely excited to get my hands on the real RB3 Fender Squier Strat, which ships in early March.

Note that Rock Band 3 also features similar trainers for bass guitar, keyboard, and drums.  There are extensive how-to-play lesson sets for each instrument, plus three coaching sessions for every Pro-enabled song (a list which includes all 83 songs on the RB3 disc and most DLC going forward).   Harmonix actually worked with the Berklee College of Music to develop all the teaching and training scenarios, and the quality shows.

While it may sound like there’s not much tutorial content per my earlier comments, keep in mind that I played guitar for 15 years (before taking a hiatus when Zack was born), and was able to breeze through a lot of it.  You literally could learn to play an instrument using this game.  I keep finding myself saying this, but we really do live in the future, kids!

Sonic Breadcrumbs

I’ve become quite a soundtrack fanboy over the past year or so.  My responsibilities at work have shifted such that I’m spending much more time in my office and less in the lab.  That said, my brain is wired in a fashion where music with lyrics is very distracting when I’m writing or reading.

To me, lyrics are as integral to the experience as the music itself, so I’ve never been much of an instrumental music fan.  As such, I’ve had to augment my library to accommodate my new position, as no music at all would probably cause me a similar productivity hit (and/or psychological break).

Enter the video game soundtrack.  To some extent, this pursuit started with the excellent computer RPG The Elder Scrolls III:  Morrowind.  Friends will recall that with the purchase of this title, I practically dropped out of society during my off hours in feverish and sleep-deprived exploration of this ashen and wind-blown virtual island.

Part and parcel to the consentual Morrowind hallucination, however, was composer Jeremy Soule’s incredible, atmospheric soundtrack, which happened to be included on audio CD with my collector’s edition box.  I found myself listening to that disk frequently during my commute and off hours, and I found it to be very evocative of the game experience, and always filled me with the serene wonder I’d felt wandering the isle of Vvardenfell.  This album still remains my go-to piece when I’ve had a stressful day at work and need to wind myself down.

Flashing forward to recent months, game soundtracks constitute a large slice of my on-the-clock music consumption.  Much of the work is really quite amazing.  Granted, as the gaming industry continues to grow, projects become more monumental, and production budgets inflate by orders of magnitude, it is no surprise that the quality of soundtrack composition has evolved as well.

The Halo series is a perfect example.  Marty O’Donnell’s work on Halo 2, Halo 3, and now ODST is really some great music for the workplace.  Both energetic and evocative, and the perfect compliment to spreadsheet slaying and inbox immolation.

Another fantastic album is the Mass Effect soundtrack.  Jack Wall and Sam Hulick’s compositions are an amazing atmospheric tableau, and so reminiscent of 80’s sci fi movie soundtracks, including some crazy, frenetic John Carpenter-esque keyboard work.

Of course, I can’t discuss video game soundtracks without mentioning Blizzard Entertainment.  These folks’ quest for quality is understood among game geeks, and their audio has always been a step ahead of the industry at large.  The Burning Crusade and Lich King soundtracks were fantastic, as well as the Echoes of War compilation courtesy of Australia’s Eminence Symphony Orchestra.

Here’s to hoping that Gearbox deigns to release the OST for their recent bazillion-gun-laden title Borderlands – some of the driving tracks that cue during big combats are quite catchy.  The title track in particular caught my – well, ear – and after a quick Google, I immediately snagged the Cage the Elephant album from Amazon’s MP3 store.  Happily, these guys have become my favorite new rock act for the year.

I’ll leave you with an obscure one.  The Frenchman Cristophe Heral’s soundtrack for the original Xbox sleeper Beyond Good & Evil is some amazing stuff.  Quirky, whimsical, upbeat, and featuring some truly interesting vocal work, this one is worth the efforts you may have to expend to obtain a copy.  I’ve been enjoying this album for some time, and to be honest have only finished the first couple chapters of the game itself.

If you find yourself enjoying the soundtrack for the latest A-list Xbox release, or your favorite sci fi TV show, get out there and look for the soundtrack.  I’m certain you’ll find them a great addition to your commute or workday audio.  The Jason Hayes’, Derek Dukes, and Bear McCreary’s of the world are out there working their tails off to spice up our games and shows – buy a few CDs and support their exemplary efforts!

George Hrab *is* Mur Lafferty's Man in the Boat

Our huge home town annual event, Musikfest, has come and gone a few weeks back. My friend Jon turned me on to an amazing musician and lyricist, George Hrab, with his excellent philosofunky band the Geologic Orchestra in tow. Awesome night – instant fan. Geo’s show was the highlight of my Musikfest 2006, even considering the fact that I got a chance to see Brother twice and the return of the mighty Alice in Chains, virtually in my own back yard.

In seemingly unrelated news, I recently downloaded show #75 of the Wingin’ It podcast. I’m not a regular listener, but I am a fan of Mur Lafferty’s Geek Fu Action Grip ‘cast. Ol’ Mighty Mur had explained that this Wingin’ It episode had been taped live at DragonCon, and that the antics weren’t to be missed.

Imagine my suprise when, only seconds into the show, Mike and Evo announce their musical guest, George Hrab! George busts into a live accoustical rendition of Cruel Spines; the crowd goes wild in drunken hilarity.

Not to be outdone, Mur soon launches into a fervent reading of her essay on the clitorus and associated male incompetance, written on the spot only several minutes before. Laugh out loud stuff, and the audience is totally eating out of her hand. The whole nutty performance is capped off by, at the request of an enthusiastic male audience member, a show-and-tell how-to, complete with a large scale model constructed from a jacket and starring George Hrab’s bald pate as the man in the boat. Unbelieveable!

Mike and Evo wrest control back to a degree, do their thing, and the show ends with another tune from Geo, this time Brainsbodyboth.

So, be sure to check out Wingin’ It Show #75, whether you’re a fan of Mur, Geo, or just want a good laugh.

Edit: I just found out that George Hrab actually lives in central city Bethlehem – got to be a short walk from my house. I’d thought he was a Philly resident, seeing as he’s the drummer for the Philadelphia Funk Authority and all. Just makes the coincidence even stranger in my mind.

Spiff's WoW-based Jonathan Coulton Music Videos

Using captured and choreographed World of Warcraft footage, Mike “Spiff” Booth has created some great music videos for a few of Jonathan Coulton’s funny, geek-centric songs, including “Skullcrusher Mountain” and my absolute favorite, “re: Your Brains”. Check them out on Spiff’s YouTube page, and be sure to visit Jonathan Coulton’s site as well of course, if you haven’t already.

Dali's Dilemma

Last night, my wife and I were watching the first season of Battlestar Galactica on DVD. We’d only seen the miniseries prequel so far, and holy cow! This show does *not* disappoint, or pale in any way compared to all the hype. Give me more!

I digress though. While watching said delectable sci-fi goodness, I was working at importing the rest of my music CD’s into iTunes for eventual transfer to my beloved iPod Photo. I’d only had about 1/3 of my library on the iPod to date, and so at work today I had access to a lot of beloved tunes that I hadn’t listened to for a while.

I’ve got to turn you on to one album in particular: Manifesto for Futurism by Dali’s Dilemma. These guys only ever made one album from what I can tell, but *wow* what great stuff. If you like progressive rock – Dream Theater and the like – even a little, I highly encourage you to check this great CD out! Absolutely vibrant tracks, anywhere from blistering to beautiful. Great, great stuff. My good friend Mike had turned me on to them a while back, and so I’m passing on his great recommendation – thanks Mikey!

Here’s a link to the album on Amazon, and another at their label Magna Carta. Both sites contain audio samples that you can check out.