Saturday, April 26, 2014

Lyle "brilliant" - Rocksmith

As a perpetual guitar-learner, I'm always interested in new ways to entice me to practice playing the guitar.

I bought Rocksmith 2014 three months ago. I had the original game for a year or so and never really got into it. The interwebs said the new version was much improved, so I bought that as well. (Once you have the guitar cable, it's pretty cheap to upgrade.) It is indeed much improved.

Learning rock songs does do away with much of the mystique, though. Like many Brits, I always assumed the chorus to (I Wanna) Rock And Roll All Nite was, "I wanna rock and roll all night and part of every day!" This turns out not to be the case, as I found out when listening to it at 25% speed for a couple of hours while trying to get the riff right. (Also, I hadn't realized it was by Kiss, a band I've never knowingly listened to but apparently have unconsciously listened to.) And, for that matter, Pour Some Sugar On Me has hilarious lyrics when slowed down and repeated. I've always had a soft spot for Def Leppard, but the verses are all like:
Pour your sugar on me, I can't get enough
I'm hot, sticky sweet from my head to my feet, yeah
Which makes you crack a smile however hard you're trying to look like a rock star.

The game occasionally says this kind of thing to me:

You can't fail to use a learning system that gives you feedback like that. (Although, to be honest it more often reads, "OK performance" or the speaking guy in a disappointed voice says, "Needs more practice".)

The upsides of this "game" are legion. It costs a LOT less than sitting in front of a live guy, who would give you the same exercises and the same songs, but is much less likely to be patient with you after you've played the riff from an Iron Maiden song at 25% playback speed for two solid hours and are still missing the same five notes. The game is not going to get bored with you or assault you with your guitar if it takes you All Day and All of the Night to get it right. (That song's not on there - The Kinks are represented by You Really Got Me.)

To teach a song, the game sends notes streaking down a runway that is colored and numbered to match the strings and frets. As the "note" - a hollow oblong shape - lands on the string/fret to be played, it twists. The idea is to play the note as it lands on the string. This is simple enough for single notes, but gets a bit complicated with chords, arpeggios and fast solos. I'm not great with left and right, and up and down sometimes fox me a bit, so after 65 days of this, I find myself still thinking "Okay, if the note is lower on the screen, my finger is on the higher (sounding, i.e. lower near the floor) string, and if my next finger goes to the right of the first finger on the screen, then it goes to the right of it on the guitar...the screen is not a mirror. Or maybe it is. I'm not good with mirrors either." By the time I've worked out the best finger placement for the first three or four notes coming down the runway, the average rockstar has finished his solo, had his groupie, snorted his coke and gone back to his hotel. To simplify things, though, the game manages your effects "pedals" for you. It just tells you which one it's turned on and when.

As well as the songs, there is a studio set up, where you can choose your guitar tone from a frankly astounding array of real-seeming effects, pick a "band" of robot musicians - drummers, bassists, pianists and so forth - tell them what sort of thing you want them to play, how fast and what key, and they follow you, vamping when you're unsure and positively jamming when you have a clue. Unfortunately I'm usually in the first category, but as I say, the game has a lot more patience than the average person and the robots never throw you out of their garage for "artistic differences".

One drawback of the game for me is timing. In regular music notation, each note, as well as having a pitch position, has a shape that tells you how long it should be sounded, and all the notes in a bar have to add up according to a sort of formula I couldn't possibly explain but in practice means that you can count exactly when to start each note and when to end it. The runway concept just has the hollow oblongs, sometimes with a long tail for a sustained note, and although the basic idea seems to be to sound the note when it lands on the fret/string, it doesn't seem to be that simple in practice. Now, I'm not great at counting; the game may have a lag, either in the video card or somewhere in its programming; and the original guitarist may not have been great at keeping time either and I guess we have to copy his exact phrase. But despite all that, the game is a complete stickler for getting what it wants. If you misinterpret it, it marks you down. It's possible to get timing wrong by an infinitesimal amount literally tens of times in a row before it becomes obvious why it wants the note to start at that exact time.

But on the other hand, it's sometimes possible to play the duffest muffed chord that a beginner would wince at, and the game doesn't notice. When I think about what the waveform must look like, which is all it's got to go on, I'm surprised any software can even guess at how well you're playing a guitar chord, so I'm actually impressed at how well it does, but it's still funny sometimes when you screw up with three out of five strings muffled and it waves you on. I get something like 95% on the Ramones' Blitzkrieg Bop - which has four two-finger chords - even though I can hear that I'm not playing them well. (Because it's so darn fast.)

It's structured as a videogame, which is I suppose part of its charm, but also a weakness. Learning a song (as I was before the screenshots above) is fun but supposed learning games such as "shooting" ducks by finding the right fret and the right string quickly can be irritating. The eight-bit sounds and fake arcade tricks rattling around the room at guitar-hero volumes soon get wearing and the simulated eight-bit time-to-add-up-your-score and then time-taken-to-change-the-screen mean that you spend more time waiting for the game than playing guitar. And I still haven't figured out Jungle of Bends or whatever it's called. It apparently wants me to bend a string to a certain note in order to save a jungle character, but in its authentic arcade game way, it won't tell me which string, which fret or which note, so I pretty much just sit there shouting at the screen until the character dies. A bit like real life, really. Maybe that's the point.

At the moment it's telling me that my next mission is to Obtain 14.09% Mastery on Now, which would be great if I had the slightest idea what it meant. (There is no manual.)

Not all the songs are of the Kiss/Def Leppard variety, so I can now play large sections of All I Wanna Do by Splashh (whoever they may be) and Stay In by Jaws (ditto) and can strum through Knocking On Heaven's Door fast enough that the game thinks I'm playing arpeggios...ha ha ha game, I'm cleverer than you! The game keeps track of how many hours you have practiced towards the magic Malcolm Gladwell-approved ten thousand you have to have under your belt to be an expert and right now....carry one, divide by two...I have only nine thousand nine hundred to go!

Back to swearing at Jungle of Bends!

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