What an awesome job Giles Martin has!
BTW - moderators, any way to "paperclip" the three parts of this awesome article together?
August 16, 2009
While My Guitar Gently Beeps
By DANIEL RADOSH
GILES MARTIN WAS conjuring spirits, or perhaps summoning gods. The tools for this ritual included a pair of omnidirectional microphones, a digital mixing console and a hastily-procured set of teacups and saucers, but the magic was in the room itself. Studio Two at Abbey Road in London has changed very little since 1969, when Paul McCartney, John Lennon, Ringo Starr and George Harrison recorded together for the last time. The Steinway upright McCartney played on “Lady Madonna” still stands in one corner, its middle keys worn to the wood. Sound-absorbing quilts hang in wide stripes down the whitewashed brick walls. The view from the control room on the second level is much as it would have been for George Martin, Giles’s father, who oversaw the creation of nearly every Beatles album from this room. Giles held a slender finger to his lips, which turned up into a playful grin. He handed cups and saucers to three people nearby and mimed a sip. The others followed his lead, and a few feet away the microphones captured the small clattering sound of four people drinking tea.
The odd recording session in March was one very small contribution to what Apple Corps — the company still controlled by McCartney, Starr and the widows of Lennon and Harrison — hopes will be the most deeply immersive way ever of experiencing the music and the mythology of the Beatles. The band that upended the cultural landscape of the 1960s is now hitching its legacy to the medium of a new generation: the video game.
The sound effects Martin recorded are not anything most people who play the game will notice consciously. The Beatles: Rock Band, which is to be released on Sept. 9, involves playing ersatz instruments in time with the band’s original music. Between songs, players will hear the group warming up and bantering in the studio. Martin combed through hundreds of hours of tape to find these clips, but the chatter, recorded directly into microphones, lacked the subtle echo and ambient noise you would have heard if you were actually in the studio at the time. So after laying down a sound bed of background noise, Martin played the original clips through a set of speakers on the studio floor and rerecorded them through his mikes, this time with all the ringing acoustics of the room. Through the control-room window, Martin stared into the empty studio as if his mind’s eye could put physical form to the disembodied sounds. Across the decades a guitar was tuned, a snare drum rattled and John Lennon warmed up his voice for a new song called “Come Together”: “He got teenage lyrics, he got hot rod baldy.’’
Martin is a youthful 39, with his father’s patrician accent but also a rakish demeanor that more recalls the young Lennon. “When they first approached me, I thought, Do I really want to do a plastic-guitar Beatles game?” he said. He was persuaded to do so, he told me, after seeing how the games intensify people’s engagement with music. “In the same way we listened to records over and over again,” he observed, “because I don’t think kids do that anymore. They’ve got too much other stuff competing for their attention.”
THE EVENTS THAT The Beatles: Rock Band recreates and reimagines are not just stepping stones in the career of a band but transformational shifts in the history of popular music. “I Saw Her Standing There” at the Cavern Club in Liverpool put a cheerful spin on the sexual swagger of American rock ’n’ roll. A 1964 “Ed Sullivan” appearance drew a larger audience than any television broadcast before it. That same year, “A Hard Day’s Night” pioneered the visual style that would later define MTV. The Shea Stadium concert in 1965 was at the time the largest rock show at an outdoor stadium. And then there were the years of experimentation at Abbey Road, when the Beatles rewrote the rules for what rock ’n’ roll could be.
Nearly 20 years after their breakup, the Beatles helped kick the compact-disc era into overdrive in 1987, as their reissued catalog again climbed the charts. The band’s remastered CDs coming next month will most likely be the last important milestone for that technology. In the current era of downloadable music, financial disputes have kept the Beatles conspicuously sidelined. That’s one reason so much care is going into the new video game. While over the years there has been no shortage of Beatles merchandise, some of it crass, the decision to release the game on the same date as the new CDs is, as well as an irresistible marketing tactic, a signal that the game is meant to be an authentic part of the band’s canon (as is McCartney’s decision to show footage from the game during his current American tour). The Beatles are positioning themselves to once again play a significant role in the evolution of popular music — this time by embracing interactivity.
“We’re on the precipice of a culture shift around how the mass market experiences music,” Alex Rigopulos told me recently. Rigopulos is the 39-year-old co-founder and chief executive of Harmonix Music Systems, which developed The Beatles: Rock Band and created the original Rock Band and Guitar Hero games that are its foundations. Although video games are associated more with guns than with guitars, music games are now the second-most-popular type on the market, ahead of sports and not far behind the traditional action category. The first Guitar Hero game came out in 2005. Two years later, Harmonix, now owned by MTV, introduced Rock Band. Together, Guitar Hero and Rock Band (now rival franchises owned by competing companies) have altered the way fans relate to music.
Playing music games requires an intense focus on the separate elements of a song, which leads to a greater intuitive knowledge of musical composition. “When you need to move your body in synchrony with the music in specific ways, it connects you with the music in a deeper way than when you are just listening to it,” Rigopulos went on to say. Paul McCartney said much the same thing when I spoke with him in June. “That’s what you want,” he told me. “You want people to get engaged.” McCartney sees the game as “a natural, modern extension” of what the Beatles did in the ’60s, only now people can feel as if “they possess or own the song, that they’ve been in it.”
Music games are also a serious business. Together, Rock Band and Guitar Hero have earned more than $3 billion. The money comes not just from initial sales but also from a continuing stream of new songs that can be downloaded for about $2 a piece. The Rock Band catalog contains more than 800 songs by bands as disparate as the Grateful Dead and Megadeth. Early on, artists noticed that people were discovering music in games and then buying it elsewhere. On iTunes, downloads of the 1978 Cheap Trick song “Surrender” tripled after it appeared in Guitar Hero 2, and sales of a 1994 Weezer song from Guitar Hero 3 increased tenfold. Increasingly, games are also seen as a significant distribution platform in their own right. In its first week, Motley Crue’s 2008 single “Saints of Los Angeles” sold nearly five times as many copies on Rock Band as it did on iTunes, and at twice the price. Next month, Pearl Jam plans to release its new album simultaneously on CD and in Rock Band.In perhaps the surest sign that the music industry has started to take games seriously, feuds have erupted over which parties are stealing the others’ profits.
At the moment, the game companies decide which music to sell, and there is a bottleneck of record labels pushing to get their artists into the games. But last month Harmonix announced that it will license software tools and provide training for anyone to create and distribute interactive versions of their own songs on a new Rock Band Network, which will drastically expand the amount and variety of interactive music available. Already the Sub Pop label, which released the first Nirvana album, has said it plans to put parts of its catalog and future releases into game format. The Rock Band Network is so potentially consequential that Harmonix went to great lengths to keep its development secret, including giving it the unofficial in-house code name Rock Band: Nickelback, on the theory that the name of the quintessentially generic modern rock group would be enough to deflect all curiosity. After a polite gesture in the direction of modesty, Rigopulos predicted, “We’re really going to explode this thing to be the new music industry.” People who have never played a video game will buy The Beatles: Rock Band, he said, and once they do, they’ll want interactive songs from their other favorite artists. “As huge as Guitar Hero and Rock Band have been over the past few years, I still think we’re on the shy side of the chasm,” Rigopulos maintains, “because the Beatles have a reach and power that transcends any other band.”
A CYLINDER FITTED with metal pins can be aligned next to a steel comb with teeth of varying lengths in such a manner that when an unwinding spring causes the cylinder to rotate, the pins will strike the teeth in a predefined sequence, producing a melodic ring.
This technically accurate description of a music box utterly fails to convey the charming effect of opening one up and watching a little ballerina twirl around to the tune. Similarly, an explanation of Rock Band and Guitar Hero will leave most people who have never played them perplexed as to the attraction. The games, a hybrid of simplified sight reading and Simon Says, are operated using controllers shaped like undersize instruments — toy guitars with five colored buttons on the fret board and a drum kit with colored pads and a foot pedal. Players watch their TV screens as colored shapes corresponding to the notes or drum beats of a song cascade toward a target. Hit the proper buttons when the shapes reach the target, and the song plays back perfectly. Time things badly or hit the wrong buttons and your virtual band, represented by animated figures, will butcher the music, dropping chords or playing horrible grating sounds. There’s also a microphone, but while you can earn points for singing with proper pitch and timing, any cacophony from failing to do so is entirely your own doing.
While all of this may sound tedious or pointless, the games can perform an incredible alchemy. Olivia Harrison, George Harrison’s widow, who stopped by Abbey Road while Martin was working, recalled her surprise upon first playing Rock Band a few years earlier. “You feel like you’re creating music,” she marveled. “It must engage some creative part of your brain.” McCartney also quickly understood the game’s appeal. “Miming was always fun,” he told me. “When I was growing up, there was always, on TV, people who mimed to records. It was a thing people did. I always admired the way they had to learn every little nuance.”
McCartney’s own musical beginnings weren’t too different from picking up Rock Band and pretending to be a star, he pointed out. “I emulated Buddy Holly, Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis, Elvis. We all did.” The group might have kept going that way, he said, except that they’d find themselves backstage, “and we’d hear our complete set being played by the band before us.” That’s the reason, he said, he and Lennon started writing their own songs. “It’s grown to something so big, but it really just started as a way to avoid the other bands being able to play our set.”
The Beatles: Rock Band follows the group’s career from Liverpool to the concert on the roof of Apple Corps in London in 1969, which marks the band’s end in the public imagination. The first half of the game recreates famous live performances; the second half weaves psychedelic “dreamscapes” around animations of the Beatles recording in Studio Two. By now it has become an almost mythical arc: when the Beatles rose to fame, rock ’n’ roll was a live medium. A rock album was essentially a take-home version of a concert. But the frenzy of Beatlemania overwhelmed the Beatles and their music. In response, the band refocused its talent and energy on studio recordings and created a new paradigm: lush, elaborately produced rock music that not only didn’t try to create an illusion of live performance but also couldn’t be played live at all, and that very pointedly sprung from the artists’ private space without the interference or involvement of fans. In a sense, the two phases of the band’s career are now being reconciled with an interactive game. The fan again becomes an active part of the process, but in the service of teasing out the intricacies of the studio productions.
IN 2006 GILES Martin worked alongside his father to produce a collection of Beatles remixes and mash-ups for “Love,” the Las Vegas revue by Cirque du Soleil. At the time he was mildly alarmed that the Beatles’ original master tapes, while meticulously catalogued and preserved, had never been backed up. Apple Corps’ most precious resources are stored in a vault on the lower level of Abbey Road behind a massive steel door marked only with a sign that reads, dubiously, “Danger: High Voltage.” Martin enlisted Abbey Road engineers to create pristine digital copies of every tape, a task that made his job on The Beatles: Rock Band easier.
To turn classic Beatles songs into the stages of a video game, each song needed to be separated into its several components, so that if the person playing the guitar misses a note, the guitar sound can drop out while the music made by the other instruments is unaffected. Because the Beatles mostly recorded on four-track and two-track equipment, with multiple instruments sharing a tape, Martin had to spend months using digital filters to eliminate sounds at certain frequencies and not others. This work was done at Abbey Road but not in Studio Two. Mainly Martin worked in the less-iconic Room 52 down the hall, next to the men’s room. Apple’s preoccupation with security meant that the high-quality audio “stems” he created never left Abbey Road. If the separated parts leaked out, every amateur D.J. would start lacing mixes with unauthorized Beatles samples. Instead, Martin created low-fidelity copies imprinted with static for the Harmonix team to take back to the States — in their carry-on luggage. They were just good enough to work with until the game coding could be brought back to Abbey Road and attached to the actual songs.
Sitting in front of his Mac in March, Martin explained that when choosing the 45 songs that come with the game, priority was given to the ones that would be most fun to play, rather than to the band’s most iconic numbers. He clicked the mouse and played a snatch of “Paperback Writer.” In the game, “Paperback Writer” comes toward the end of the live era — in a sequence inspired by, but not an exact simulation of, the Beatles’ concerts at Budokan. The 1966 Japan shows were recorded, but there was no thought of using the live versions in the game. Martin dragged in another file and clicked play. Compared with the familiar, crisp recording on the single,“Paperback Writer” at Budokan is a mess — faster but less energetic, as if the Beatles were just trying to get the song over with. The harmonies are off, and the drumming is sloppy. The screaming audience doesn’t help. ...
*****Daniel Radosh is a contributing editor at The Week and the author of “Rapture Ready! Adventures in the Parallel Universe of Christian Pop Culture.” This is his first feature article for the magazine.
See parts 2 and 3 in separate posts.