Monday, January 30, 2012

A Rocksmith Review by a Drummer

As a drummer who has owned a guitar for nearly 35 years, I love Rocksmith. I bought an XBox 360 just so we could play Rocksmith at our house. That's how much I love Rocksmith. My kids, neither of whom have ever had a music lesson, also love Rocksmith. It's an absolute blast for a wide range of ages and skill levels. Even if you're already a Professional Guitar Player, this game could be good fun.

And, contrary to what a lot of know-it-all's have spouted on forums all over the Internet, you WILL learn something. No, Rocksmith will not show you how to finger pick or teach you music theory. Yes, Rocksmith gives you the latitude to pick up bad habits. But, if you want to major in guitar performance at Julliard or Berklee, you should be taking lessons from Joe Satriani or Stevie Vai. The rest of us can relax and enjoy playing, knowing that guitar greats like Eric Clapton and Stevie Ray Vaughn taught themselves to play by listening to records. Rocksmith is like playing along with a record (CD for those of you under 30, MP3 for those of you under 20) with tablature - or something like it - streaming simultaneously across your TV.

My kids played Rocksmith at a music retailer before we bought it. When we got home that night, my 11-year old son picked up his guitar for the first time in over a year and played exactly what he had learned from playing RS at the store (Satisfaction by the Stones). When we got our own set-up, I picked up my guitar and - for the first time in over 30 years of guitar ownership - actually learned a song from beginning to end. In about a month, I've learned 15 songs. A few of them I'd be comfortable playing on stage from memory. Anyone who says you won't or can't learn to play guitar from playing Rocksmith is just being an ass.

The premise of the Rocksmith game is that you are starting out on your Journey to become a rock star. Rocksmith creates editable Setlists of three to five songs each for you to learn from a library of about 50 songs. Once you reach a minimum qualifying score on each song in a Setlist, Rocksmith unlocks an Event for you to play at some fictional venue. You start your Journey as an Amateur and advance by increasing your overall score. Venues get bigger as you climb toward the 11th and highest level of achievement - Rocksmith. (I'm currently a Local Headliner, the 4th level, in Rocksmith Land; in the real world I'm still pretty much a hack. But, I'm getting better every day.) 

If you just want to play some songs on a your guitar, you can do that. The entire song library is stored in a big alphabetized list under the main menu and new DLC is added to the on-line Store all the time. You don't have go on "the Journey" at all, but I personally find that the scoring system and unlock incentives make it challenging and fun to practice.
Scoring 70,000 or higher on a song will unlock a new effects pedal which you can actually use to modify your guitar's sound within the Amp portion of the software. (You can also unlock new guitars, but these are nothing more than achievement "badges," which - unlike the armor upgrades in Halo - you can't even actually see in the game itself.)

I've played more guitar in the past month than probably the previous 3 years put together. I continually find myself saying, "OK. Once more through this song and I'm quitting for the night." And, then I play that song again. And again. And again. The Riff Repeater lets you learn songs piece by piece before you ever try playing through the entire song, or you can use Riff Repeater to drill the hard parts of any song. There are Technique Challenges with olympic-medal style incentives. And, there are Guitar-Cade games to which make boring stuff like scales more fun. So, there's a considerable amount of flexibility in how you use Rocksmith. Much more fun than sitting in a room by yourself running scales for hours at a time.

Qualifying a song for an Event is often pretty easy, but really getting it down is a different story. When you do get good enough, there's a Master Level where it's just you, the backup band, and a thousand screaming fans. You have to play the songs from memory. To unlock the Master Level, you have to score at least 100,000 on a song and max each phrase or section of the song. As of today, I still haven't made it there.

There's a multiplayer feature which lets two people play at the same time - without being on the same skill level. My son and I can play at the same time, either playing the same part or splitting rhythm and lead. Doing something creative with your kids or friends rather than sitting on your ass shooting aliens? That alone makes Rocksmith worth every bit of $79.99 - even if you DO have to read the set-up instructions and run analog audio cables. (For multi-player mode, you will need an extra Real-Tone cable which will cost you another $30. Still well worth the price.)

There are some things about the design that I'd change if I had the smarts to write game software but overall it works fine like it is. Most of the songs that come with Rocksmith are pretty good. There's only one or two that I would delete. You can download new songs for about $2.00 each through XBox Live. Not sure how DLC works for PS users. At Christmas, the folks at Ubisoft gave away three free Christmas songs.

To play, you need a guitar (just about any guitar with a pick-up on it will do) and a game console, currently either an XBox or PS. A release for PCs is due out this Spring. You don't need an expensive guitar, but it's helpful if your guitar will at least stay in tune. Otherwise, it'll be very hard for you to make any progress in the game and you'll sound horrible.

You'll also need some way to run analog audio from your game console to some speakers or headphones - through a home theatre receiver, for example. This game is unplayable if you insist on ignoring the very clear on-screen directions for hooking up your system. The audio delay that you'll get using HDMI cabling or your TV speakers makes Rocksmith virtually impossible to play. This issue is already widely known and Rocksmith addresses the issue right on the screen before you ever play the first note. As with most things in life, if you read the directions first you'll have no problems with audio latency.

Overall, Rocksmith rocks. The detractors are entitled to their opinions, of course, but I wouldn't give their opinions much weight. Unless you already think you are some kind of guitar god, you will really, really enjoy Rocksmith and also learn quite a lot from playing it, kids included. Best $110.00 (with extra cable) I've spent in a long, long time. And, when you consider that you can use Rocksmith as a practice amp - with a whole bunch of effects pedals built-in - even the additional $299 I spent on an XBox makes Rocksmith look like a very, very good buy.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

First Month of Rocksmith - Events 1 - 4

Exactly one month has passed since Santa Clause left a new XBox and Rocksmith game under our Christmas tree, but we've really only had access for a few weeks. First, we went out of town for a week the day after Christmas. Then there was the latency issue, now mostly resolved. So, we've really only been playing Rocksmith for something like two weeks.

We may still have some minor adjustment to do on the audio-to-video latency. If I watch the video while playing, I seem to be "off" just a bit. If I don't watch the video part too closely and just listen to the back-up music and vocals, I do fine. Of course, I can't do that until I've learned the song somewhat. I'm sure we can tweak this using the adjustment provided within the game, but it's livable as is.

I've got an industrial-strength callous on the tip of my left index finger that goes down to the subdermal layer. I've even got a pretty good callous on my left pinky finger. In short, I've played more guitar since Christmas than I've played in the combined 35 years since I bought my first guitar. Say what you like about whether Rocksmith is an effective teaching tool. It's a darn fine motivator to pick up a guitar and play, which is ironically what many detrators of Rocksmith advocate as "the only way" to learn.

In 35 years, I've never been able to do much more than strum a rather limited selection of chords. As of today, I've worked my way pretty well through a dozen whole songs - chords AND single notes - to a point where I'd play them in front of people. As I indicated, I've owned and played at the guitar for many years. But, my son has not and he's also learning (with a few often ill-received pointers from me). So, it works for young beginners as well as adult learners who half-way know their way around the frets.

Bottom line: Rocksmith is a ton of fun and will teach you to play songs on your guitar. Will it prepare you for Julliard? Probably not. But, keep in mind that most successful rock musicians never formally studied music - at Julliard or anywhere else.

Here's the status so far:

Local Support Act (Level 4) with roughly 1,600,000+ RSP (Rocksmith points, I assume).

Played 4 Events so far, two with 2 songs each plus an encore or two and two with 5 songs plus another couple of encores.

Quite a few of the fifty or so songs that come with Rocksmith are songs I've never heard before. For that matter, most of the artists represented on Rocksmith were completely new to me (indicated with *'s below). Artists shown in italics are ones I'd never heard of, either. Before you say, "There's no way he's never heard of The Black Keys," keep in mind that I'm well over 30. I haven't even heard of most of the artists on RS's song library. I still think of Green Day as a new band.

Event 1: The Mouse Hole

Satisfaction - Rolling Stones
My Next Girl - The Black Keys *
Go With the Flow (encore) - Queens of the Stone Age *

Event 2:

In Bloom - Nirvana
Higher Ground - Red Hot Chili Peppers
Boys Don't Cry (encore) - The Cure

Event 3:

Vasoline - Stone Temple Pilots
Slow Hands - Interpol*
I Can't Hear You - The Dead Weather*
Surf Hell - Little Barrie*
Use Somebody - Kings of Leon*
Angela (encore) - some guy with a vaguely familiar last name *

Event 4: The Red Velvet Room

Unnatural Selection - Muse*
Outshined - Soundgarden
Number Thirteen - Red Fang *
Playing with Fire - Rolling Stones
Where is My Mind - Pixies *
I Want Some More (encore) - a dude who looks to be about my age *

Encores are sort of like bonus songs that get thrown at you at the end of an Event if you don't totally suck. In my case at least, the encores were songs I'd never played - or even heard - before, so my encores didn't add much to my Event scores.

Which brings me to my first major gripe with Rocksmith. It's not a deal-breaker, but it does tie into the navigation issues I have with the game.

There is no E-stop. No way to quit something once you've started it. No do-overs. Once you hit Perform, you're on it. No turning back - no matter how bad you screw up the intro!

This week I was presented with my fourth set-list (above). By some twist of fate, I managed to qualify two of these songs for my 4th Event on my very first play. In fact, these were not just the first time I'd played these songs but the very first time I'd ever heard them. I qualified the remaining 3 songs within 3-6 plays. Qualifying is one thing. Actually knowing the song and being able to play it well is another thing altogether.

So it was that I ended up accidentally playing Event 4 (The Red Velvet Room) after having played - and heard - about half of my setlist only once in my whole life. As I've pointed out previously, once you qualify a song for an Event, it no longer appears under that event. In order to practice it, you have to scroll through the whole song library in the main menu. I don't like this quirk. All songs on a setlist should stay in the Event until the event is done. On top of that, I'd prefer it if the game at least kept a record of your Events, setlists, and scores. I do this myself in a notebook, but it would be nice to have that feature in the game.

Somehow while attempting to practice for Event 4, I accidentally clicked on my Event when I just wanted to look at the songs in the setlist. Once I clicked A, the show was going down. There is simply no way short of a cold shut-down to stop an event or even a practice run through a song once it begins. Thus, as you can imagine and since I didn't play at all Wednesday night, Event 4 did not go too well for me. Frankly, the fact that I got an encore song makes me suspect that you ALWAYS get at least one encore no matter how bad you suck. Maybe not, but I wasn't exactly shredding it and I still got an encore. Just makes me wonder. Sort of like my wife telling me that I'm a good looking guy.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Rocksmith Audio Latency Problem Solved!


My XBox came with just the plain, old composite AV cable (not HDMI), so that part of the audio delay issue was resolved for me. I never had an HDMI output from my XBox console to cause a delay. Still, the latency issue in my setup was so bad that we pretty much abandoned Rocksmith for a week or so. It was just unplayable.

Fortunately, this is really easy to fix. In a perfect world, you could buy Rocksmith, load it on your XBox (or whatever console you have), plug in a guitar and go to town. But, it would appear that this latency issue is unavoidable. It's just physics; electrons can only move so fast and sound is slower than light. That's just how it is. The audio output is addressed right in the "game," so I have no beef with Ubisoft/Rocksmith about this and neither should you. They could perhaps include some actual written documentation with Rocksmith that explains this and includes some specific setup tips, but apparently I'm the last person in the world who still prefers hardcopy manuals/directions over "readme" files and online help.

After consulting the many forums already addressing this issue, I tried a few of the most commonly posted solutions, including setting my TV to "game mode" or the closest audio setting I could find in the setup menu. My Hitachi LCD TV doesn't really have a "game" setting for audio, and my next best guess at the equivalent setting didn't really help the audio latency issue at all. I was a bit discouraged at that point, but I still had the option of running my audio out to some computer speakers.

Instead of doing that, I replaced my already dead home theatre receiver with a new one and ran my XBox outputs - all of them - through that. I fully expected that the delay might actually become worse. But, using no effects and just the regular stereo setting got Rocksmith working great. There is probably still some latency because it simply takes a certain amount of time for the electrons to get from my guitar pickups to my TV screen after passing through all those wires, cables, the XBox console, and an amplifier (not to mention the time it takes vibrations to get from my guitar string to the pickups). But, humans perceive anything which happens in less than about .3 seconds as "instant," so I'd say I've got my electron travel time down below .3 seconds. If I've got some latency left in my setup, I can't tell it. And, based on the dramatic improvement in my scores, neither can Rocksmith.

Probably due to the specific model and make of receiver, I also had to run a composite video (RCA) cable from my receiver's video output to the TV even though I have an HDMI cable running from the receiver to the TV for everything else. Apparently my receiver is not able to upconvert an analog composite signal to HDMI, so any analog inputs to the receiver require an analog output to the TV. No biggie. Just something to be aware of.

So, we're back to thinking Rocksmith is the greatest thing since sliced bread. I've got 70,000+ on at least a couple of songs so far and the blisters on my fingertips to show for it! So, now I guess I'll join in the nationwide snivel-fest over what songs should be included next. My vote would be for some Eagles (specifically Hotel California and Life in the Fast Lane) and possibly some Pink Floyd. But, it's not like I've mastered any of the songs that came with the original release, so no rush!

Rock on.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Rocksmith Update - Audio Delay Agony

Got the Xbox set up and installed Rocksmith on it Christmas Day. I have to say, for all its promise, we are a little disappointed. Not in Rocksmith itself. I still think it's great but the delay between hitting a string and having the tone actually register/play through Rocksmith makes it virtually unplayable on our console/TV system. We have to hit a note at least one full beat ahead of what we're hearing to get "points." Eddie VanHalen might be able to handle that, but I can't.

There are some proposed solutions, one of which we tried to no avail. Apparently using HDMI cables is not a good idea, especially for the audio signals. Using RCA-style AV cables didn't help at all.

Apparently our TV is the problem. Too much audio signal processing. So, the goal is to pump the audio signal straight out of the Xbox console. I understand the physics of why this would eliminate the delay between the guitar and my ear, but I don't see how this will improve or even affect the delay between the guitar and Rocksmith's algorithm.

Many posters on various boards have suggested running the audio signal through the cheapest possible speakers (the theory being that cheap speakers are "dumb" and won't provide ANY signal processing to slow the audio signal down). I haven't tried it yet. But, given what I've observed - that every note played on the guitar also seems to be delayed in showing up on the TV screen - I don't see how this would help. Which then makes it seem like the problem is either in the XBox console or the "special" cable that Ubisoft provides for plugging a guitar into the console.

I have tried adjusting the lag adjustment within Rocksmith from 0 to the maximum adjustment of 300. No help at all. I'm not even sure what that is supposed to do. I'd think sliding it 300 units would do something but it doesn't seem to affect anything.

I stopped by The Guitar Center when we had initially played Rocksmith (and where it seemed to work perfectly), but they had already taken down their set-up. No help there. Despite the fact that our Rocksmith game seems to have a commercial tie-in to The Guitar Center built into the game, the guy I talked to at the local store said he wasn't even sure they were going to carry Rocksmith now that Christmas is over. So, no hope of local support.

The Ubisoft website is not impressive, either, in terms of help or tech support with this product. They have a discussion board with a thread for this very problem, but their boards were down when I went to look for answers.

So, like many Christmas toys that look great in the box, this one is sort of just sitting in the corner largely forgotten by my kids and only in my mind because I paid $80 for the damn thing. Hopefully I'll get it working soon and hopefully that will entice the kids to play with it again.