An Inside Look At RBN Tools With Damian

Damian Boyar is an operations associate at Harmonix. For fun, Damian likes to learn his coworkers' deepest fears, and then he invents fake news stories about the objects of their fear just to see their reactions.

When I first heard that they were looking for people at Harmonix who weren’t in the audio department to try their hand at authoring songs for the Rock Band Network, I jumped at the chance.  I mean, come on, it was a sure-fire chance to get my band into Rock Band, with the huge added bonus of being able to write the note charts for our songs exactly as I had envisioned them (1).  And hey, I figured it turned out to be a lot of work. Let me tell you something: that first time you get to play a song that you wrote (or a friend’s band, or a band you really really like but never thought would be in Rock Band) is unbelievably wicked (2) cool (3). To help you along the path towards being able to play one of your own songs in Rock Band, I have compiled a list of things that I learned through the process of authoring my first song that I would have loved to have known when I started. And, because I love you kids, I’m going to share this knowledge with all you lovely people out in ‘Zine land right now.

Unless you are a one man/woman band, sit down with your bandmates and watch them play their parts.

Look, let’s not mince words about it. You’re a self-absorbed artist, I’m a self-absorbed artist, we’re all self absorbed artists, and it’s ok to admit that you have absolutely no idea what the rest of your band is doing at any given point during one of your songs.  While this is (usually) acceptable (4) behavior onstage (it’s ok, I understand that you need to concentrate on majestically flipping your hair to the beat (5)), it is much less fine when you’re trying to author songs. I know that some of you out there are saying that you know what your compadres are doing, but I promise you this: Even if you know what their part sounds like, you have only a vague idea of what their fingers/arms are doing, and trust me, knowing  exactly how they are playing something will help you a ton.

 Unless you are the lead vocalist, sit down with the singer and find out what exactly they are doing as well.

Just like above, except with words. Words that I’m sure you either a. don’t know, or b. think you know, but are in fact, not even close. For further reading on this subject, see the Hellion’s article in 52 Weeks to Rock.

If you’re an Expert Rock Band player (6), you are completely out of touch with what the easier difficulties should look and feel like.

Some of you don’t even need to look at the difficulty selection screen. Yes, you people are just that awesome (trust me, we can detect it), but that awesomeness only helps you so much during the authoring process. For me, it felt really strange at first trying to reduce the difficulty of my authoring from Expert down to Medium and Easy. Here’s my best advice: go fire up the old Rock Band and choose a song that is similar in Expert difficulty to your own, and play through each part on Easy and Medium. This will give you a much better idea of how your own song should play on these difficulties.  Also, having a friend who plays on Medium or Easy take a look at your song couldn’t hurt either.

Damian fretting over his notes

Venue authoring is totally unlike anything you’ve done before.

I come from a semi-recreational music-tech background, and while instrument and vocal authoring made sense to me from the get go, venue authoring took some time for me to get the hang of it. Trust me though; don’t skimp out on it if it doesn’t click at first. The amount of control over how your song looks offered by venue authoring is incredible, and a good venue track marks the difference between a song that’s fun to play and a track that looks polished in the game.

The first time you try to compile your song, it will fail.

Your authoring is not going to be perfect on the first try, and I guarantee that you will have missed something that causes your song to fail. The Magma tool is not very forgiving of sloppiness, and it will force you to fix any squirrelly thing you did before it lets you create your song file.

Failure Example #1: When you author Unison Phrases, the phrases need to be exactly the same length for all three instruments. If one of the phrases is a millisecond long or short, Magma will kick your file back at you with an error message.

Failure Example #2: In vocal authoring, you need to make sure that every lyric has an associated note (and vice versa) and that the lyrics and notes are lined up perfectly. If they are not, Magma will kick your file back at you with an error message.

Don’t freak out or get discouraged though. It happens to the best of us, and it will continue to happen for as long as you are authoring. And don’t worry, the tools you will be given for RBN make it really easy to locate and fix whatever dumb thing you did.

The second time you try to compile your song, it will fail.

Third time’s the charm…right guys? Just like above, go back and fix the new batch of errors you have, and try again. It may seem daunting at first, but the more you practice authoring, the fewer errors you’ll have in the end.


When your song finally does compile, have your friends (and bandmates) play it.

By the time you get this far any song you author is going to be awfully close, and, as they say, “love is blind”. Have your buddies try it out, and try not to punch them in the neck if they find something wrong with it. Their casual feedback is super helpful in fine tuning your song, and besides, these are the same yahoos that will be first in line to buy your song when it hits the RBN store.

Like everything else, it gets easier the more you do it.

I spent a lot of time on my first song. Probably close to twenty-five hours. But the second song took only maybe eighteen, and my third song even less, and so forth. Don’t get discouraged if you feel like you’re sinking a lot of time into a song and you’re not seeing huge amounts of progress at first. There is a learning curve, but that’s how you end up getting really good at something.

So that’s it. Feel free to take my advice and run with it, or throw it away and struggle through the first song the same way I did. Either way, I’m sure you’ll have a blast. Happy authoring, and I can’t wait to see your songs up there this fall.

  1) Even before I knew about RBN, I had envisioned what our songs would look like. I also have envisioned how our paparazzi shots will look, and how our MTV unplugged special (do they still have those?) will sound. I have a wild fantasy life.

2) For all you non New-Englanders out there, “wicked” (pronounced “wickit”) means “very”, but is much stronger than “very”. Example: “Why are you wearing shorts in January? It’s wicked cold out guy!”.

3) *Begin Self Promotion* Other people at Harmonix keep telling me to mention the fact that I was the first non-Harmonix-Audio person to author and finish a song in Rock Band. The name of that song is “Give” by my band The Cold Goodnight off of our Werewolves & Red Lights EP, which will be available in its entirety for your playing pleasure when RBN launches. *End Self Promotion*

4) Unless you have gotten to the point where you are playing a different song than the rest of your band, in which case I would suggest laying off of the sauce for a bit.

5) Or in our case, doing what our singer affectionately refers to as the “Rhino Smash Headbutt Stampede”.

6) Like me!