When I play Rock Band, the world around me fades out as soon as the venue lights up on my TV. I am whisked away from my everyday concerns and for a few precious songs I imagine being inside my favorite movie, Purple Rain, to perform at First Avenue and see the audience go wild. I get caught up in the photographic look of the venues and sometimes I pay more attention to the camera angles than the notes coming at me. At that point I totally fail out of the game and get booed by the audience.
Rock Band has a look like no other music game out there; it has a carefully choreographed cinematic quality that people often overlook while paying close attention to the gems flying down the track. In the early days of Rock Band, Harmonix composer Arthur Inasi & artist Noah Berkeley became the dynamic duo responsible for authoring all of the tracks for the flagship title. We sat down with them to reminisce those early days of authoring tracks for Rock Band and talk about how it started a three-year collaboration outside of work to create a wildly creative music video for Arthur’s "Mouse & Friend" track from his recent album Time Boxing.
Fish McGill: Back in 2007 you two worked closely together on Rock Band in the early days of in-game cameras & lights choreographed to music tracks. Was that your first project at Harmonix?
Arthur Inasi: I started doing QA for Guitar Hero & Guitar Hero 2 as my first project and later Rock Band was my first audio project.
Noah Berkley: I started interning in the art department doing facial animations in the Guitar Hero games and working on unreleased projects.
A scene from Rock Band.
FM: All of a sudden Rock Band came around and the rest is history.
NB:And MTV saw that and they snatched us up!
FM: I remember visiting my friend Joe Kowalski who worked here with you guys and he showed me an early version of the drums when they were still perfecting them. The office was wild looking like an inventor’s laboratory with wires everywhere and people playing games of all kind after work.
AI: Yeah, back then we had people working in the hallways.
NB: It was a real relaxed time.
FM: Were you guys overlapping at all in Rock Band with your work?
AI: Big time, half way through the project they moved us to sit next to each other in the venue pit because we were working hand in hand. Noah was making the cameras and directing the shots, I would edit it together with the cam and lights system that we had back then.
Explosions galore in the Moscow Venue of Rock Band.
NB: It was real interesting because at the beginning of Rock Band we had a camera system, but all of the cameras randomly generated shots (during the songs). We did an early test of some sequenced shots and everyone agreed it looked so much better even with all the awful placeholder models & venues because you can control so much of the visual flow. There was this looming question out there of, "Who is going to author all of these songs?". Our audio director Eric Brosius actually did the first authoring pass, but I don’t know where it went from there.
AI: I was mixing stuff in the audio department and I was brought on to try doing this authoring/cams & lights. Now we have everything split up by instrument, but back then it was done completely top to bottom by one person. All the lighting, instruments, Overdrive phrases - everything was up to one person.
FM: Do you remember any particular songs working top to bottom?
AI: No, it’s a blur. Actually I think I remember one of those emo songs? I can’t remember what it was; we’ve done so many since.
NB: Was it "Dead On Arrival"?
AI: Yes! I remember that one was a beast to work on, it was so complex. Cams and light was fun [for that song]. We pretty much did everything for a fifty song game and it was a lot of work.
Rock Band tattoos by Noah.
FM: For context, how many people did authoring on the follow-ups for Track Packs, Rock Band 2 & Rock Band 3?
NB: It took three to four people to do Arthur’s work authoring all of the songs with the same number of songs on those games. Arthur was still doing cam & lights authoring for RB & RB2 DLC, too.
AI: Then I had to put my foot down.
AI: Yeah "Cam & Lights" (from Oxytocin) where I ripped into it HARD.
"Presenting Oxytocin, a fresh compilation of some of the more exotic music to come out of Harmonix"
NB: Really?! I never heard that.
AI: I bitched about that, I am glad you brought that up. Most people don’t know that I just ripped about that whole process on that track.
FM: That was a cool project coming together to work on a hip hop album after work with people across the company. How did you guys get to the point three years ago where you said, "Let’s make a video together"?
NB: We had been assigned to sit together. We both were working in a void so we started visiting each other’s desks all the time giving suggestions on how to fine tune the system for authoring tracks. Pete Mac [Pete MacDonald, Senior Artist] said we should sit together for the last three to four months of the project when we moved to the other building.
AI: I think I had an early idea of a song for "Mouse & Friend." I approached Noah, "Dude we should make a video for this", and you were into pixel art at the time.
NB: That’s a lie.
AI: Ah, no way! You tell it.
NB: You gave me the song and I listened to it. "Wow, I am really impressed", I thought to myself and I am not often impressed. It was the first time I heard a track from a personal friend or a co-worker where I was like, "I want to make a music video for this." I had thought of working with other people in the company on a project, but this was the first time where I brought up the idea of making a video with someone I knew.
AI: I didn’t even bring it up! I didn’t give you credit…
NB: I believe so, it’s OK. I forgive you
AI: We started brainstorming about direction and how it would look like.
NB: I left the direction up to you, "You should start doodling stuff" I told him. Arthur would doodle ideas in his spare time. He’s an accomplished artist in his own right.
Arthur's original concepts for Mouse & Friend backgrounds.
AI: I remember bringing in a version of the mouse and a few of the worlds that I drew on Post-Its. Noah went off with it and produced exact pixel versions and it was insane.
NB:The concept was that we were working in our spare time after work on this so I proposed making just walk cycles of the characters side scrolling through backgrounds. I asked Arthur to make some more backgrounds in his style and we went from there. The title was always "Mouse & Friend." Actually I think I added the "& Friend" part.
The original Mouse drawing by Arthur with the ear flap hat.
AI: I think you did, it was originally called "My Mouse" and you added the "& Friend" part. It just stuck.
NB: And you drew the mouse.
AI: I did, and you drew the guy.
FM: Did you draw the mouse big and transformed with the hat or did you draw him little?
AI: I drew him big with the ear flaps hat. I really wanted that hat, it’s a sweet hat. We just took it from there.
Noah's pixel rendition of the opening scene for Mouse & Friend
FM: The title of this album is Time Boxing. Did you name it that partially because you both worked on this in your spare moments outside of work?
AI: The title for the record came way later, but I knew I wanted "Mouse & Friend" to be the single. Time Boxing came less than a year ago; I went to a lecture at Harmonix on structuring work by boxing out chunks of time for pieces of a project. [This practice] kind of made sense outside of work because I had to structure my spare time to work on the record. It’s also the concept for the album because I am actually boxing with time itself complete with Kung Fu style sound effects and little skits throughout the album where this happens.
NB: The actual project for "Mouse & Friend" started with the idea of pixel art walk cycles of characters over backgrounds. We drew the characters together and I have an early concept of the pixelated bedroom scene of the characters sitting in the bedroom. A year later I had some early animation. A year after that I had an animation of the mouse growing into a real mouse dazzled by moon light and when I had it composited in After Effects I showed it to Arthur and thought it would be a great opener for the video.
Noah's pixel backgrounds based on Arthur's sketches.
Meanwhile at work I was tasked with creating 16 by 16 pixel icons for Milo and I got really into researching pixel art. The coolest example of pixel art I came across was for Mother 3 and I could go on and on about that game. The coolest colors, the best design, I love Mother 3 so much. I got inspiration from that so I started making more backgrounds veering away from Arthur’s drawings and expanding the world for "Mouse & Friend" inspired by all the stuff I came across through the work I was doing for Harmonix. It rolled together at once where I was wrapping up the animation around the same time that Arthur was finishing up the album.
FM: Once the animation was pretty much all there I imagine you stepped in to add all of these cool sound effects and aural treatments as "Mouse & Friend" make their way through these worlds.
AI: Yeah, totally! I rewrote the entire song to fit with Noah’s work and it is one of the most collaborative things that I have ever been a part of. Because of the whole process I had to go back and rewrite parts, like the videogame sounding 8-bit music that you hear at the beginning of the piece. I wrote that on the plane to E3 last year. I wrote the end music right at the end when we were wrapping it up. We were always going back and forth. Noah would come in and look at it and give pointers on when to raise or lower the music and add more sounds. I would help him with visuals and he would help me with audio for the finished piece. It was truly collaborative
FM: When I watched it I saw the visuals and thought to myself, "lf I had made this song I would want to add to it and customize it to the video to match all the effort put into it". They both stand well on their own, but it makes them both better to have some back and forth.
AI: That is right, the song on the album is different from the one in the video. That’s its own special cut so it is its own unique take.
Mouse & Friend strolling across the moon.
NB: Whenever I think of the music I always think of this scene of a man walking down the road and the music is coming out of this speaker box. I like the idea of music coming from the atmosphere of what you are shooting. Arthur saw the stuff I was making with the animations and he thought of all these new ideas and changes to make to the song to tie it all together. He started layering all these extra sounds down and when we heard that final audio pass we started working on it more and more towards the end. The bulk of the production was in the final year.
AI: It’s just like the process of building a game I guess.
NB:Actually though, if we were time boxing though this would be the exact opposite!
AI: We would have been bankrupt!
The Mouse & Friend music video.
About M-Cue (Arthur Inasi)
Arthur graduated from The Berklee College of Music with a Music Production and Engineering degree in 2005. He started as a QA tester at Harmonix before he became the Sound Effects Lead. M-Cue has produced and engineered tracks for way too many artists, is the voice of the Boombox in Dance Central, the musical director of Oxytocin. Pick up his new album Time Boxing available here.
Noah has been an artist at Harmonix for the past five years, working as a camera artist (Rock Band, Rock Band 2, Rock Band 3 & The Beatles Rock Band) and more recently as a venue modeler. He likes Mother 3 (Thanks Itoi San!), Cave Story (Thanks Pixel!) and pixel art.