At some point, every Rock Band player says, "Wow, that song is amazing. I wish it were in Rock Band!"
But then there are the players who take it a step further. Instead of saying, "I wish that song were in Rock Band!", these players declare, "I'll put that song in Rock Band."
These are the proud, the few, and the possibly insane. These are the people who convert songs into playable tracks on the Rock Band platform (a process we call track authoring). And if you load any Rock Band Network song and look under "Track Author", you'll see who was responsible for authoring that song.
Many RBN authors started out as Rock Band players - very, very good Rock Band players. For example, the members of Rhythm Authors started out at ScoreHero.com, where they drew official interest from Harmonix before the RBN had even launched due to their enthusiasm and skill.
Other authors found the RBN as a natural extension of their own music or software-related endeavors. This was the case for companies such as OffBeat Entertainment, which was originally a subsection of the gaming studio 21-6 Productions, and for Craigman Digital, which decided to add Rock Band Network publication to their regular profile when an interested client inquired.
Still other authors started out in the RBN as playtesters. Noble Larimer of That Authoring Group was a Rock Band enthusiast, but he didn't get into the RBN to author. He dedicated himself to playtesting other people's songs for about a year before a label reached out to him to ask about getting music into the game. "Knowing a lot about the rules but not a lot about the actual authoring programs, I quickly realized I was going to need some major help to pull this off," Noble explained. "I scoured the rhythm gaming community and assembled the initial TAG team, which has since become the core members, and we've been at it ever since."
What's it like to be an RBN author? From top to bottom, the experience of releasing a song in the Rock Band Network looks something like this:
1. Get your tools together. To author a song for the RBN, you need: - a Microsoft App Hub premium membership, - a program for mixing audio and editing MIDI (we strongly recommend REAPER), - and the MAGMA packaging tool (free at creators.rockband.com).
2. Get the master stems for the song you want to publish and the rights to publish the song. This involves contacting the band or the label (depending on whether or not the band is signed) and working out a business deal.
"We’ve run into plenty of instances where the artist wants to put a song in the game, but the label isn’t interested. Or the label is interested, but the publisher isn’t. Or everyone’s interested but the masters were destroyed in a fire." - Miguel Molinari, RockGamer Studios
"We've lost so many bands to that stage that it's really a shame.... [N]o matter the cause it can be really frustrating." - Rob Witko, Fairwood Studios
3. Using REAPER, mix your tracks for Rock Band.
"It's surprising how much of an art it is to get a song sounding reasonable in the game. This is made even more challenging since all playable parts need to be clearly audible, even if they aren't in the original mix. No matter what, you want the song to sound like it does on iTunes, but often you are forced to make small changes to levels for sake of playability." - Matt Greig, Gamer Beats Inc.
4. Author the audio. This is the meat of being an author, and it involves going through each of the applicable audio tracks one by one as you translate what you hear into a MIDI track that can be converted to run on the game. For a song with all supported parts, this involves authoring for guitar, bass, vocals, harmonies, drums, keys, and Pro keys. Once Expert tracks have been authored, you need to create reduced versions for Hard, Medium, and Easy players (except for the vocal part, which is self-reducing.)
"Transcribing music is the best part of the gig. It’s a blast learning how to play each song and then transposing it to the 5-lane instruments. The addition of Pro keys and vocal harmonies recently with RBN 2.0 has been fantastic, allowing us to incorporate even more of the song into the game experience!" - Justin Miette, OffBeat Entertainment
"From a technical standpoint, the work isn’t particularly challenging as much as it is time-consuming. There are very few shortcuts you can take when authoring a track. Every once in a while there’s the occasional edge case, for example if a client delivers a guitar stem with three guitars in it, all playing at the same time, and the author is expected to pick out one of those guitars and transcribe it by ear. Or we might get a song with unconventional time signatures that throw everyone for a loop." - Miguel Molinari, RockGamer Studios
5. Author everything else. There's more non-audio authoring than people often realize. The non-audio authoring this includes placing Overdrive and drum fills, designating practice sections, character animations, and venue authoring, which refers to the crowd animations, the cameras, and the lights.
"My favorite part of authoring is the venues. With the instrument charts, there's not too much creative freedom allowed as I have to just translate the actual notes into game gems. But with the venue, I get to direct a digital concert from all the camera cuts and lighting cues. I've created some fairly complex venues and I hope that people take notice of the extra detail when they play the songs." - Owen Douglass, Ozone Entertainment
6. Package your song up with MAGMA and then test it in the game. It's really important to spot all the bugs you can, because your song will be going through a community-driven playtest and peer review process to make sure that it meets standards. The fewer bugs your song has, the less work you have to do before it's approved. Besides, it's fun!
" If I had to pick a favorite part, I’d say it would be watching the pre-playtesting prototype of a finished song in action. Seeing everything come together like that is a thrill unlike any other." - Paolo Viteri, ChartToppers
"[My favorite part of authoring is] that moment when you get the RBA compiled and watch it all working in harmony for the first time in game. Nothing is more satisfying than seeing the hours of blood, sweat, and tears the group has put into each track materialize into musical nirvana on screen." - Noble Larimer, That Authoring Group
7. Submit your song to playtesting. This means that other members of the RBN community will be playing your song and giving you feedback about how to make it better. While other people are playtesting your song, it's important to spend time playtesting their songs, too. It takes a lot of time and effort to playtest a song, and everyone is hoping for helpful feedback. Most songs go through two or three rounds of playtesting before they're ready to move on.
"[The most challenging part of authoring is] the testing process by far. Not enough testers and too many cooks in the kitchen, though there are some really good ones out there...." - Ronald Renn, Alt-Strum Productions
"The song authoring process is very 'manual' and hence, quite error prone. It’s easy to let something slip through the cracks when you’ve been staring at a MIDI grid or an in-game runway for hours on end. That’s why we’ve been developing internal tools like MIDI compilers and Reaper plug-ins that help enforce the Rock Band charting rules and guidelines for authors." - Justin Miette, OffBeat Entertainment
8. Submit your song to peer review. This is it - the release candidate. If everything goes right, then six community members will sign off on your song and your song will be released into the Rock Band 3 music store. If there are still mistakes in your song, then your song will be rejected from peer review until the mistakes are repaired.
"... Playtesting and peer reviewing the songs is by far the most difficult thing for us. Passing through content and allowing it to hit the official store through us is a really big responsibility, so we have to be really careful about it. Since this involves taking into consideration all of the rules of Rock Band and all the exceptions while finding that perfect blend for the other authors, it's a really complex process." - Shaun Toomey, Red Rock Charters
" ...[T]he entire authoring process for a song is essentially the first half of the project. Testing and peer review are the second half. The rigor and the checks and balances that Harmonix (and Microsoft) designed into the RBN process are what allow us to deliver DLC tracks with a level of quality that the authors, the artists and Harmonix can all feel proud of. But that quality is hard earned. Seriously. There is no BS'ing your way into the Xbox Live Marketplace." - DJ Gryph (John Griffin), Rock Band Relief
9. Your song is published! Give yourself a good pat on the back - and then tell Twitter, Facebook, the Rock Band forums, and everyone else who might be interested. As the YouTube videos and leaderboard scores start rolling in, it's time to get the word out. Work with the band to find publicity opportunities like interviews and contests so that everyone knows about this great song.
And then do it all over again - because you put that song you loved into Rock Band, and hundreds or thousands of people played it because of you. You've become one of the proud, the talented, the possibly crazy few: a Rock Band Network author.
"There is something really cool about loading up a clean session with a new song and diving in. That might be trumped by the first time you get to build the file and play it through. At the same time it is also really great letting the client know that the song is in the store and moving on. I guess it is sort of like that proverb "if you love something set it free...." Even after that though it is awesome to see the response and reaction from the gamers and move on to the next batch of songs." - Clinton Vadnais, The Authority
To join the Rock Band Network, visit creators.rockband.com.
Over the next few months, we'll bring you a detailed profile of two authoring companies every two weeks. You'll hear about which real-life guitarist looks an awful lot like Moosejaw Boudreau, why some songs just can't be authored, and the question Ozone Entertainment never wants to hear again.
We're going to kick this series off in April by profiling Rock Band Relief, a company that authors songs in order to raise money for charity, and RockGamer, the incredibly prolific company that brought you Amberian Dawn, Bang Camaro, and Nonpoint (among many, many others). If you'd like to learn more about current authoring companies in the meantime, check out a community-generated list at http://creators.rockband.com/docs/Authoring_Groups.