How Rock Band Works

rock band screenshot
Lone rockers no more. The Rock Band videogame integrates guitar, bass, drums and vocals.  Learn more about the game systems that feature Rock Band with video game system pictures.

When Bob Dylan stepped onto the stage during his 1966 world tour

wit­h The Band behind him, it started a new chapter in rock 'n' roll history. Sure, he'd already plugged in and shocked his hardcore followers a few months before at The Newport Folk Festival. But playing with The Band, who called themselves The Hawks at the time, cemented Bobbie D's momentous shift from acoustic singer/songwriter to bona fide rock star.


Now, this isn't to say that people who play the über-popular video game Rock Band at home compare to the genius of one of America's greatest musicians, but you get the drift. While Guitar Hero brought out the solo Dylan in millions across the world, Rock Band has given those shredders a backing band.

Before you start hurling your picks at the computer screen, allow us to acknowledge that Rock Band and Guitar Hero are two birds of a different feather. Kind of like the Stones and the Beatles. They share a similar brilliance and lasting influence on today's music, but people will wrestle each other to the ground on who reigns supreme.

­It's difficult to talk about Rock Band without mentioning Guitar Hero because it essentially picks up where the other left off. Adding bass, microphone and drumming peripherals to the guitar, Rock Band takes players closer to actually making their own music. Since the introduction of Rock Band, the publisher of Guitar Hero has released games with additional instruments, too. But Rock Band takes credit for starting the whole-band game craze.

The basic objective of rocking as hard as possible remains relatively unchanged with Rock Band. Only this time, it's a collaborative effort, with anywhere from two to four (or six if you have the Beatles Rock Band game) people jamming in sync. And by taking it from the singular hero to the full band experience, you'll have clashing egos, intraband romance and unrated backstage shenanigans in addition to the pounding notes. Depending, that is, on who joins the group.

How has the public received this change? About as well as Dylan and The Band on that famous tour. In March 2009, a press release from MTV Games, Harmonix and Electronic Arts announced that the Rock Band franchise reached more than $1 billion in sales [source: Beradini].

But we haven't even reached the first chorus of the Rock Band story. Consider the following pages your backstage pass.



Pre-gaming: Rock Band Game Basics

rocker maker
EA The Rock Band rocker maker allows lets you create custom avatars.



New Rock Band Peripherals

rock band
The Rock Band instruments



A Familiar Friend: Rock Band Guitar and Bass

rock band guitar
The Rock Band controller doubles as bass and guitar, but the box only comes with one.

­The guitar and the bass peripherals both work on the same controller. Similar in design to the Guitar Hero controller, the Rock Band guitar/bass looks more like the real thing since the fret buttons are camouflaged with the color-coding along the side of the neck, rather than the top.

As with the other hardware, operating the guitar/bass is all about timing. The fret buttons select the note, and the strum bar executes the timing. The lever inside of the strum bar sets off an electrical chain reaction that communicates to the software the note you just played. For more detailed information about the guitar controller, read How Guitar Hero Works.


The Rock Band guitar also has a second set of fret buttons near the body. These activate during the solo sections of the songs when rockers can wail to their hearts' content. You can also use the whammy bar to add vibrato to sustained notes. Spicing up the familiar Rock Band controller, you also have a pick-up switch at your disposal that can make five different sound effects during solos and overdrive, which you'll learn about later.

­Music data for each of the songs -- broken out into mic, drums, bass and guitar -- are stored as waveform files [source: Yoshitomi et al.]. Waveforms store the music as disparate sections, which is how the game can judge when you've royally missed or hit a note. Depending on the mode and instruments you select to play, the software will pull the corresponding waveform files to allow you to either play solo or with other people.

On the next page, we'll put our instruments into action.


Rock Band Gameplay

rock band display screen

You and your band mates have molded your avatars, selected your mode and respective levels, instruments are in hand, and now it's time to rock.

If you have a full four-person band, the Rock Band screen may look cluttered at first. There's a lot of action to ensure that all members know their parts. Locating the vocals guide is the easiest, since the words slide across the top of the screen karaoke style. Moving down, you'll see three parallel scrolling strips that look like guitar necks. These direct the bass, drums and guitar.


For Guitar Hero vets, the bass and guitar parts follow a similar pattern. The notes are color-coded according to the sets of fret buttons at the neck. When the colored tabs reach the band at the bottom of the screen, that's your cue to strike the note.

Because of the kick pedal, drums work a little differently. The drum pads are color-coded to match up with the gems on the screen, but you'll also notice intermittent orange strands that stretch across the guide. Those strands are your kick pedal cues.

Every band is only as strong as its weakest player. So what can you do if someone majorly sucks wind and fails out of the song? Here's where your star players can step up to the plate. Comparable to star power in Guitar Hero, you can attain overdrive by hitting a succession of white notes. When your overdrive meter fills halfway, you can activate it by tilting your guitar or bass and completing a special drum or vocals solo that the game will cue. Kicking into overdrive will save a fallen person and rack up some extra points. However, you can only save the same person twice.

Once your band has its moves down, there are a number of ways to blow out your score. You want to look for chances to boost your score multiplier. Drums, guitar and vocals can get up to a four on the multiplier, and bass can reach six. Why can the bass get more? Many Rock Band reviewers see the bass as the most lackluster of the instruments. To compensate, bassists can enter into a bass groove by hitting a series of notes where they reach that holy grail of score multipliers.

You can also do this through the unison bonus. During random sections of the song, your individual score multipliers will get a jolt if you play in perfect synchronicity. You'll know when this happens because the words "Unison Bonus" will pop up on the screen. There are also solo bonuses, which are your times to shine as an individual performer. A percentage will show up on the screen over your instrument to let you know how accurately you're catching the notes. For guitar and bass players, the second set of fret buttons at the base of the neck don't require strumming, so take advantage of them to snag all those riffs.

Then there's the big rock ending. This is your band's chance to tack on additional points near the end of the music. Before reaching the final notes on some songs, the note gems will disappear and the guides will fill in, resembling a rainbow. Scream, pound and burn up your fingers on the second set of fret buttons for a score explosion. But make sure to hit that final note in the song because failure to do so will erase any earnings from all that jamming.

Up next, we'll take a look at the financials and see how many gold and platinum records the Rock Band and its developer Harmonix have achieved.



Rock Band Management

eran egozy
Eran Egozy, Harmonix co-founder and vice president, and Greg LoPiccolo, vice president of product development.
Ethan Miller/Getty Images

The Rock Band video game developed by Harmonix Music Systems made its first appearance during the 2007 holiday season. If Harmonix rings familiar to you, it should. These were the developers of Guitar Hero, Guitar Hero II and Guitar Hero Encore: Rocks the 80s. As enthusiasts may tearfully recall, Harmonix and publisher RedOctane broke up and went their separate ways post-GH II. Gaming giant Activision snapped up RedOctane in 2006, followed by MTV's acquisition of Harmonix for a handsome sum of $175 million. What resulted was a very literal battle of the bands.

Guitar Hero cornered the market on music games and incited what many considered to be a revolution in the industry. But when splitting with RedOctane, Harmonix left with some aces in its back pocket -- patents for the underlying technology that the series is based on. Cha-ching!


Harmonix Music Systems founders Eran Egozy and Alex Rigopulos are today's Big Boi and André 3000 of the video game world. Together, they have a Midas touch it seems, in spite of the split from Guitar Hero producer RedOctane. Egozy and Rigopulos' roots are firmly grounded in rhythm action games, starting out as fellow students at MIT before building titles including Karaoke Revolution, Frequency and Amplitude.

Although now owned by Activision, the Guitar Hero franchise surpassed $1 billion in North American sales in January of 2008, setting an industry record [source: Berardini]. Rock Band has held its own as well since its November 2007 release, reaching more than $1 billion in sales by 2009. Parent company Viacom's first quarter financial report for 2008 also cited Rock Band as a main driver in the company's 33 percent revenue boost [source: Associated Press].

What are people buying besides the $140 retail game? The game's Web site hawks merchandise to soup up and protect your instruments, including drum bags, guitar/bass faceplates, mic stands, straps, stools and drum silencers (so your neighbors won't call the cops). For the high-end rockers who want to take it to the next level, there are $200 cuff links, $2,400 jackets, piles of T-shirts and actual playable instruments for sale. But before you go on a spending spree, remember you can't pay for your gear with that cool cyber cash you earn in the game.


Then there's the downloadable content, or DLC. The video game has cut deals with musicians to place these songs and albums online. Harmonix adds new songs each week to its in-game store and the Xbox and PlayStation 3 marketplaces. By allowing players to continually download and learn new songs, Harmonix is extending the life of the game. Rock Banders have definitely taken that cue, buying 10 million songs as of May 2008 [source: Sliwinski]. Harmonix has also released expansion discs containing dozens of tracks in genres ranging from blistering heavy metal to twangy country music.

Artists are chomping at the bit to get in the Rock Band mix as well. As with Guitar Hero, the game has opened up a new forum for musicians to gain cred and coin. Motley Crue got wise to the idea and released a single exclusively on Rock Band. Not a bad move considering that sales on the video game exceeded those on iTunes and by almost four times [source: Kohler]. Individual songs range from 99 cents to $2.99 [source: Snider]. Full albums from Metallica, The Pixies, The Cars, Judas Priest and more are also going for upwards of $15 a pop.

Independent bands can get in on the action too. In January 2010, the Rock Band Network went into open beta. Rock Band Network is a collection of professional tools allowing artists to convert songs into Rock Band tracks. While the technical process may be challenging for some, people with programming experience may find it easy to submit songs to Rock Band. Players will be able to purchase these songs with a portion of the fee going to the band.

Rock Band competes with games like Band Hero and Guitar Hero World Tour. But Harmonix has a reputation for innovation in music-based games. Perhaps the Rock Band Network will give Rock Band the edge it needs to dominate living rooms disguised as rock arenas.

To stay tuned with Rock Band and other hot titles, check out the links on the next page.


Lots More Information

Related HowStuffWorks Articles

More Great Links

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