Rock Band 3 New Features: Pro Keys

Unless you’re living in a cave, you’ve probably heard by now that Rock Band 3 is introducing a new peripheral – the keyboard! But what does that mean, and how does that work? I asked Sylvain Dubrofsky, Senior Designer extraordinaire, to chat a bit about the work he's been doing on keyboards.

So Sylvain, tell us about yourself!

I'm a Senior Designer at Harmonix. My main focus here on Rock Band 3 has been working on gameplay design. It's my privilege on behalf of all the developers working on gameplay to give you an in-depth peek into a new instrument for Rock Band 3: the keyboard!

Most important question first: What does the hardware look like?

The keyboard in Rock Band 3 is really unique.  It’s a wireless, two-octave keyboard that is playable as a keyboard (on your lap, stand, or coffee table) or standing with a strap.  The performance aspect of Rock Band is important, so we want to give players the ability to stand up and rock if they choose.

Take a look:

Behold The Keyboard!

Built into the keyboard are the console controls.  You’ll also notice that the keyboard has a button to deploy Overdrive and a touch strip to control a cool filter modulation effect whenever Overdrive is deployed.

One last cool thing – the keyboard is a full, two-octave MIDI keyboard.  Just connect the MIDI output to any MIDI-compliant device and you’re set!

So, how do I use the Keyboard Controller to play keys in Rock Band 3?

Keyboards in Rock Band 3 have two main modes of play: "Keys" and "Pro Keys".  Like every other instrument in Rock Band, you can either play these modes solo or play as part of a full band.

The design goals for keys were pretty simple:

  • Needs to be party accessible 
  • Needs to be familiar to people who like Rock Band already
  • Needs to be as simple as possible while still feeling authentic and keyboard-like

Pro Keys, however, had a different set of design goals:

  • It needs to be "Pro." In other words, I should be having fun playing an actual keys part.
  • Every note is always an accurate pitch.
  • Every part is technically possible to play with one hand. That's important if you're playing while standing.
  • Songs can use every key of the two-octave keyboard.

With these goals in mind and after a bunch of time in development, we’ve come up with something really fun and rewarding.

What does the straight "Keys" mode look like?

Basic Key Track on Expert

Looks familiar, right?  

Playing Keys Mode is pretty simple.  Each of the five white keys from the C key to the G key will smash a note on the lanes from left to right. There's also a handy guide on the Keyboard to show you where those keys are if you're not musically inclined.

As you'd expect, players can also pick a difficulty from Easy to Expert.

That looks a lot like the standard guitar track. Can I play guitar and bass tracks on the keyboard too?

You sure can!  As well as Keys and Pro Keys, you can also choose to play guitar and bass parts on the keyboard for any song in the Rock Band Music Library. So if the keyboard peripheral is the only one you have, you can still play different parts in the game!

That's pretty cool for starters, but the Pro Keys mode sounds like it's more up my alley.  How does that even work in a Rock Band game?

Let’s check out the track:

Key Notes

For Pro Keys, we always show 10 white keys (of the possible 15) at a time.  After much iteration with different track sizes and layouts, we determined this to be an ideal range to show in any band configuration.  

To help players understand what key to press, we came up with a color scheme that chunks the two octaves of the keyboard into five color regions.  Additionally, lines extend into the distance from the black keys.  These visual cues are also on the hardware and are important for determining which of the many possible notes are coming down the track.

That's a fair chunk of data.  How do I know where my hand is when I'm playing?

Whenever a key is pushed down, the lane for that key will light up, as you can see here.

Key Held Down

This is a good visual indicator for where your hand is.  It's really handy for making sure you're looking at the screen rather than looking down at the hardware.  This currently held key highlight also serves as a useful pivot for where you will need to press to get the next note.

Speaking of notes, these are what notes look like on the track: 

Key Notes

Notes are either white or black.  Black keys are smaller and are positioned on one of the lines extending from the black keys on the track.  The position of a note on the color region indicates which key needs to be pressed to smash the note. 

How hard is this to pick up?

Just like every Rock Band instrument, Pro Keys has four difficulty levels, from Easy to Expert.  

We've found that jumping right in to Pro Keys on Easy or even Medium is very similar to the experience you may remember from playing guitar or drums the first time.  After a song or two, it becomes second nature.

As you go up in difficulty, the game definitely gets challenging.  Chords, trills, glissandos and other cool keyboard things are introduced as you choose harder difficulty levels.

If youre looking for the next thing to try to master, Expert Pro Keys is definitely a huge challenge! 

You mentioned chords just before. What do those look like when they show up?

Here's a good example of a chord from a song on Medium:

Keys On Medium

In addition to notes existing at the same point in time, chords also have a base that connects the notes.  In this example, the chords are also sustained, which means  the keys should be held down after the notes are smashed for maximum points.  Chords can be two notes on Medium, up to three notes on Hard, and up to four notes on Expert.

Wait, if you're only showing ten lanes at once, how do you fit a two octave keyboard on screen?

See how the track above is showing a different color range from our previous example? Our audio team picks the best range of the track for every song and every difficulty.  On Easy and Medium, the range will never change within a song.  However, when Hard or Expert difficulty is selected, the track can shift to show a different portion of the keyboard while the song is playing!

This is how track shifting works: The four beats before a track shift have arrows on the track that indicate the direction of the track shift.  The track then will shift to the side, revealing a different portion of the keyboard.  Track shifts are important at higher difficulties so we can properly display notes for songs with a lot of range.

This is awesome. Any last words or thoughts you want to leave the audience with?

As a person who posted to before I worked at Harmonix, thank you for your continued interest in the Rock Band franchise.  Stay tuned - we have more really exciting stuff to show off soon!