Anybody going to buy this?
August 16, 2009
While My Guitar Gently Beeps
By DANIEL RADOSH
... Martin stopped the playback. “If that was your version of ‘Paperback Writer’ in the game,” he said, “you probably wouldn’t be that happy.” Instead he took the studio version, layered on the crowd noises at a less-intrusive volume and grafted on the final chord of the live performance to replace the studio fade-out. Listening to it again now he decided that the drums sounded too “squashed” for an arena show. That compression, in which the loudest parts of a song are turned down while the quiet parts are untouched, results in an artificially even sound — an effect of Abbey Road’s 1950s equipment that is treasured by Beatlephiles. But Martin planned to rerun the original tracks through the compressors again — or rather, through software emulations — with the settings readjusted. He described his remixes as the opposite of what that word usually connotes. “My approach is actually to make things less processed,” he said, “so you hear the band playing as opposed to people in the studio working.”
Martin is one of the few people trusted with such artistic decisions. People who have professional dealings with Olivia Harrison, Yoko Ono and the two remaining Beatles refer to the foursome as “the shareholders.” Each one has veto power over any aspect of any project that goes out under the Beatles name. “They are deeply concerned about how they are perceived, and rightly so,” Martin said. “I think people’s perception is that they would go: ‘O.K., you want to do a video game of us? It’s going to cost you however many million dollars, yeah, fine.’ But with Apple it doesn’t work like that. They form a partnership. They go, ‘If you’re going to do this, we’re going to do it with you.’ ” McCartney told me that his role in the project was “executive tweaker,” but the better title might be watchdog. “It’s not open season on their music,” Martin said. “I can’t just go, ‘Well, I thought this would be cool.’ ”
In many respects, Martin and the Harmonix developers obsessed over creating an accurate portrayal of the Beatles. (They were never without teacups in the studio!) But they also made changes that polish the Beatles’ mythology at the expense of realism. “Paperback Writer” live really was a mess. That’s not trivial, if you want to understand the Beatles’ legacy. Difficulty playing their material live is a reason that they stopped touring. But Martin is adamant that an accurate depiction of a mid-’60s Beatles concert would be a mistake. “This isn’t an archival project, it’s a game,” he said. “It’s entertainment. That’s what they were doing here in the first place. Later, people attached all sorts of significance to it, but they’d be the first to tell you that what they wanted most was to entertain people.”
So for all the painstaking work that went into, for example, making sure the pockets on the Beatles’ matching suits were properly placed, quite a few of the more complicated facets of the band’s career have been smoothed over to project what Martin calls a “fantasy version” of four lads who were always in harmony. You won’t see Eric Clapton playing on “While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” or Paul playing drums as he did on some of the White Album when Ringo went AWOL, or any of the band recording their parts separately as they did frequently during their troubled years. Not to mention that the virtual John does not wheel a bed into Studio Two for a virtual Yoko. In the hermetic, idealized world of The Beatles: Rock Band, the Apple rooftop performance isn’t an emotionally fraught grasp at a vanishing past; it’s just a gig — despite the unique opportunities a video game might present. (“Well, there is a death match,” Martin joked. “It’s the breakup. They push each other off the roof.”)
DHANI HARRISON, who is George Harrison’s son and the lead singer and songwriter of his own band, thenewno2, was one of the first people to see the potential for a Beatles video game. Harrison was 28 in December 2006, and like many gamers he spent much of his vacation that winter glued to the just-released Guitar Hero 2. At a holiday party he found himself sitting next to Van Toffler, a top executive at MTV, which had recently acquired Harmonix for $175 million. Harrison began telling Toffler about his idea for a game like Guitar Hero but with more instruments. Toffler told him, “I think you should meet Alex.”
Alex Rigopulos and Harmonix were already working on the game that would become Rock Band. When he did get together with Harrison, it was inevitable that the idea of a Beatles version would come up. Harrison became instrumental in selling Apple on the project. One factor that helped win over the company was the way the game requires players to make a commitment of time, effort and energy. It demands attention in an era when music has largely become sonic wallpaper. “Record labels have allowed music to become this lifestyle accessory,” Paul DeGooyer, an MTV Games executive, told Apple executives in an early meeting. “The iPod is more important than the songs on it.” Younger generations, he said, “are missing out on the experience of what, for example, the Beatles meant to me.”
The shareholders were intrigued. But the real draw was not “carrying on the Beatles music” for a new generation, Yoko Ono told me not long ago. The music would see to its own immortality. Rather it was the possibility of stretching creatively, something the “Love” show had given them a taste for. Ono liked how the game would give the Beatles’ music a dimension of physicality. “It’s like dancing,” she said, or even “a very strong active meditation.” Olivia Harrison was drawn to the graphics that overlay the game, and she knew that if the game was successful it could define how an entire generation saw Beatles music in their heads, just as anyone who has seen “Yellow Submarine” associates the songs from that film with the imagery attached to them. McCartney also knew better than to underestimate a new medium’s growing influence and potential. “I’ve seen enough things that should never have become art become art that this looks like a prime candidate to me if ever there was one,” he told me. “Rock ’n’ roll, or the Beatles, started as just sort of hillbilly music, just a passing phase, but now it’s revered as an art form because so much has been done in it. Same with comics, and I think same with video games.”
After the deal was sealed, Apple invited members of the Harmonix staff to the New York premiere of a documentary film about the making of the “Love” show. Josh Randall, who would oversee The Beatles: Rock Band as project director, watched with increasing terror scenes of the shareholders tearing into the Cirque du Soleil directors as they struggled to live up to the standards and specifications of Beatledom. “I’m going to be that little French guy crying in the corner,” he thought.
SIX-TWENTY-FIVE Massachusetts Avenue in Cambridge is not, even among gamers, a cultural landmark like Abbey Road. Fans of Rock Band do not scrawl messages of peace and love on its wall or photograph one another walking barefoot across the street out front. One of the hippest game developers in the country is headquartered in a characterless brick building above a Walgreens.
Inside, the space comes to life with the chaotic energy of a company that in two years has expanded from 80 employees to more than 300. The haphazard décor is an appropriate fusion of rock and geek, and there is a full-scale tchotchke arms race on. At every desk, shelves spill over with anime figurines and vintage sci-fi toys. Electric guitars, real and plastic, lean precariously against amplifiers.
Alex Rigopulos studied composition and computer science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he met Eran Egozy, with whom he founded Harmonix in 1996. “Everyone comes into the world with this innate desire to make music,” Rigopulos said, “and almost everyone tries to learn an instrument at some point. And the overwhelming majority of these people quit after a few months or a few years because it is just too damn difficult. They spend the rest of their lives loving music, and listening to music, and playing a lot of air guitar, but not having any outlet for that innate urge they feel.”
Where many people would conclude that having that outlet is a privilege to be earned by not quitting music lessons, Rigopulos and Egozy didn’t think that was fair. They devised ingenious tools that allowed people with no training to compose music on the fly and discovered a principle that would guide future development of this nascent medium: Most people don’t want to compose their own music. What nonmusicians want, it turned out, is a sense of what it’s like to perform the music they already love. Rigopulos and Egozy hit on the idea of using a game interface to interact with prerecorded music. Critics were impressed, but the public found these early games too abstract. Harmonix finally found success with a series of karaoke games, and then with Guitar Hero, in which the addition of the guitar-shaped controller was transformative. A musician himself, Rigopulos is familiar with the feeling that comes from performing. “A game like Rock Band,” he said with satisfaction, “gets you maybe 50 percent of the way there with 3 percent of the effort.”
Where some might have seen a gimmick or a fad, Rigopulos saw the next link in the chain of music history. “When there were no record players, what you had was the people or person in the house who knew how to render sheet music into music on their pianos,” he said. “I actually on some levels see what we are doing now as a massive historical throwback to the time in which the way people experienced music that they loved was as active participants in the music.”
Still, the overt selling point of Guitar Hero was less participatory music experience than rock-god fantasy. It leaned heavily on the over-the-top energy of heavy metal and punk, and came wrapped in a cartoonish aesthetic. Harmonix toned down these elements with the Rock Band series and dipped into less-aggressive musical artists like Beck, Bob Dylan, the Go-Gos and the Replacements, taking some risk of alienating the games’ core audience. Rock Band also switched the emphasis from competition to cooperation, further confounding the expectations of some gamers. The Beatles project is an even greater departure from the elements that initially made music games successful. (While the Beatles were godlike, they were not what people call rock gods.) As a reminder of the stakes, several staff members have affixed over their work spaces a color photocopy of Paul McCartney pointing at the camera and the warning, “Don’t foul this up.” (Actually, only one of these posters says “foul,” where the employee, like an editor at a family newspaper, has taped it over the original word.)
For all the subdivisions of the Harmonix headquarters — warrens of cubicles and offices broken up by soundproof testing spaces and conference rooms named for defunct Boston rock clubs — there are two broad elements of The Beatles: Rock Band to which most of the efforts there contribute. The first is the stylized notation that players focus on as they try to keep up with their plastic guitars, drums and microphones. The second is the background animation of the Beatles performing— animation that is not, strictly speaking, necessary, at least not if you believe the purpose of a video game is to score points through technical proficiency. But Harmonix considers itself as much a music company as a game company, and its products hark back to more visual musical eras — the LP cover art of the ’60s and ’70s, or the MTV videos that redefined pop music in the ’80s.Much of the animation is intended less for the people playing than for the family members and friends who are watching or hanging around waiting for their turn.
Like roughly 80 percent of the creative team, Eric Brosius, Harmonix’s director of audio, is an active musician, something the company values and encourages — employees can take time off for tour leave. The audio department’s primary job is to map out which buttons players have to press to play back the music. Drums are straightforward. On the expert difficulty level, every time Ringo Starr hits a drum, the player is asked to do the same. But very few Rock Band players ever reach expert, and the challenge to designers is what beats to take out for the easier levels. Players still hear Starr’s syncopations and fills without having to match them.
Nearby, a sound designer and trained drummer was at work on his computer, tagging each of the colored dots that represented drumbeats with information that would automate how the animated Ringo’s hands should move in order to play them: which drum on his kit should he hit, how hard and with which hand, given his peculiar ambidextrous style? “The big thing is how he leads with his left hand, and trying to figure out how he would have done a roll going down the kit,” said the designer. “We look for footage to see if we can figure out what he’s doing.” Earlier Alex Rigopulos told me, “Ringo is going to earn a lot more admirers when this gets out in the world and people see how sophisticated and challenging some of his drumbeats actually are.” I asked the sound designer if he had new appreciation for the Beatles’ drummer. “Yeah,” he said, somewhat tentatively. “I was always, like, more a Stones guy.”
Because most Beatles songs have more than one guitar part, the audio team created a fantasy guitar line that incorporates all of them, following the part that is most fun to play with colored fret buttons and a plastic strum bar at any given moment. Programming for guitar “just by its nature is more abstract,” Brosius said. “We don’t have strings, and we only have five positions.” His team tried to create patterns that mimic the way an actual guitarist would move up and down the fret board and keep the assignments of notes to buttons consistent throughout a song.As with drums, the audio team codes the guitar and bass tracks with information about which character is playing at that moment, what chord the fingers should be forming on which part of the fret board and which of 10 different strums they should use. (To animate singing, vocals are slowed down, and each discrete sound is identified so that software and animators can determine the facial movement associated with making it.)
Getting started, the art department had weekly viewings of the eight-part “Beatles Anthology” documentary. They created a forum on the internal computer network to post photos they found on the Internet or in the Apple archives and sketches of their own for others to comment on. One early rendering of a chubby-cheeked Paul McCartney was appended with an image of the Campbell’s-soup boy: too cute.
McCartney himself expressed hope that with the technology available, the characters could look hyperrealistic, like figures from the “Star Trek” holodeck. Harmonix came at it from the opposite direction, starting out with cartoony caricatures of the band and then scaling back the exaggerated features until they hit what felt like a proper balance between whimsical and realistic. To make sure the characters moved properly, Harmonix hired Beatles tribute bands and filmed them wearing motion-capture suits.
****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.
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