Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Interview: Steve Pardo of Harmonix

By Kirk Hamilton

When we look back at the Great Music-Game Wars of the late 2000's, everyone will remember where they stood. Was it with with Activision, owners of the "Guitar Hero" brand and creators of the party-friendly Guitar Hero 5? Or was it with Harmonix, pioneers of the full-band music game, creators of the original Guitar Hero, true lovers of music, friends of mankind, and servants of truth and justice?

Okay, I guess it was never really that tough of a decision. Hell, it's not even fair to compare a development studio to a publisher, but for whatever reason, that's the way the narrative went. Regardless of the amount of money Activision's franchise rakes in, there can be little doubt as to which side won the battle for the hearts and minds of gamers worldwide.

After creating Rock Band and its incredibly well-made sequel, as well as the niche-but-lavish The Beatles: Rock Band, Harmonix is pretty much batting 1.000. And with their incredibly deep, constantly updated online store filling out their games' libraries (current number of tunes available is nearing 1000), and the just-announced Rock Band Network making it possible for any band to get in on the action, things are looking pretty rosy for the future of the Boston-based developer.

Harmonix composer and sound-designer Steve Pardo and I went to music school together back at the University of Miami. We were both jazz saxophone majors, so we followed similar paths - we worked with the same professors, took the same classes, and played in many of the same groups. And, it turns out, followed similar paths after graduation as well. I moved to San Francisco and started to sing, play guitar, and write songs, and he moved to Boston and... started to sing, play guitar, and write songs.

When I found out he was working for Harmonix, I thought it was pretty cool - he sent me a note after an enthusiastic piece I'd written about the future of music games got sent around the Harmonix offices. After the Rock Band Network launched, I saw that his (super awesome) pop group Steve and Lindley Band had coded their own song "Backyard Buildyard" for the launch, and figured it was a good time to reach out and see if he'd be down to chat a bit.

He was, so over the next week we chatted via email about his role at Harmonix, the process of coding his own band's song for the RBN, and his favorite Rock Band instrument. I also tried to get him to elaborate on the cryptic statements that some folks have made about the future of the Rock Band franchise. (Spoiler alert: I failed.)

He is a groovy, super-talented dude, and I really appreciate him taking the time to chat. Our full interview is after the break.

GM: Howdy, Steve. Congrats to you guys on the Rock Band Network - it's something that I've been really interested in ever since Harmonix announced it last year. Could you talk a bit about the role you played in its development, and your broader duties at Harmonix?

SP: Thanks, Kirk! We're all really excited about the launch, as it's been months of incredibly hard work by many folks here. Although I wasn't directly involved with the RBN development team, I was active as an early adopter in the internal beta, helping put together the authoring tutorials and debugging our tailor-made version of Reaper, our go-to DAW.  I work in the audio department as a composer/sound designer, transcribing and programming the playable guitar and bass parts, and creating sound effects and samples.

So, you're the guy who makes the "clank" sound when people make a mistake?

Good question, and I'm not sure exactly.  Our audio department is a good size and we all work on sound design for all of our projects.  It could have been any of us!

Steve and Lindley Band coded a song using the network, and it's one of the first ones available on the store. Could you take us on a brief walkthrough of the process?

Sure.  Before anything, make sure you're a member of Xbox Live and the XNA Creators Club Online and own the rights to the song you’d like to author. From there, the process is fairly simple for anyone with basic MIDI and DAW skills.  You take individual recording stems from each song, author them and the vocals into Reaper for each difficulty. The folks who really want to get into it can also author events, cameras  and lights in Reaper as well. You then put this file in Magma, which creates a Rock Band-readable package from your stems and your MIDI file that will be playable and testable in the game. This is also where you enter information about the track, like the genre, the album art, the band difficulty, etc. Once you've corrected any errors that Magma detects and are happy with your parts and your presentation, you submit the track to the creators site for peer review and playtest. You'll get feedback from the community, and if it passes it'll show up in the Rock Band Network Music Store!

How many tracks are optimal for making a decent-sounding RB track?  For example, do you need individually-miked drums, or is there a way to work around that?

The system we have in place allows for a number of different drum stem situations.  For Backyard Buildyard, I used the best option, which is to have a kick stem, an overhead stem (cymbals and toms), and a snare stem.  If you only have a stereo drum kit stem, the option is available, yet it won't provide as much separation when missing individual drum gems in gameplay.

How exactly did you code the vocals?

Coding vocals is the closest thing to a literal transcription.  If you're interested in specifics, we have tutorials on our website that goes really deep into how we here at Harmonix code a song in it's entirety.  Something I like to do for vocals is to take a close look at the waveform of the dry vocal stem, making sure I get an accurate placement of the attack and release of each note.  Choosing where and when to have scoops and falls is a bit difficult, but in the end it's all about whether or not it's fun to sing.

How did you approach creating different difficulty levels for the song?

It's actually a pretty intuitive process that we have nailed down and explained in our tutorials.  It's always a balance of musicality of the part, making sure you still feel like you're playing the real thing, and of course, fun.

Is the user-interface really that similar to the one you guys use for note-tracking?

The interface in strikingly similar to how we do it in-house.  The only difference is the packaging software, Magma.  Everything else is exactly how we do it, although it's a one-man job instead of an entire team working on one song.

How was the user-feedback portion?

The feedback is very helpful, although more playtesters to help move songs through the pipeline would always help. The system we have in place is pretty brilliant, and the feedback people are giving is very strong and lives up to our standards.  The community of people we currently have, internal and external, are very excited about this and are really putting a lot of effort into ensuring a high quality output.

Do you think it'll hold up as more and more people get involved?

As more people join and submit songs, we think the number of people playtesting and approving songs will make up for it.  If someone wants their song playtested, they'll playtest other artist's music, and it'll (hopefully) be reciprocated. The Rock Band Network is always looking for more peer reviewers. Any music fan with Rock Band 2 for the Xbox 360 and an internet-connected PC can join the Playtest and Peer Review processes by purchasing an XNA Creators Club Online Premium membership. Once they have all that, they just head over to the creators site to sign up!

So, when you're playing Backyard Buildyard on Rock Band, how close does it come to actually playing the song live?

To a certain degree, it's the band experience that will feel the closest to actual thing.  Vocals and drums are pretty much literal transcriptions while you get accurate rhythm matching in the guitar and bass. It's pretty darn close, especially with the volume cranked!

It must be pretty cool to get to perform your songs alongside your friends who don't play instruments.

Yeah, it can be pretty entertaining.  I love hearing people belt along with Lindley. There's actually at least one video on Youtube with a dude FC-ing on vocals.  It's amazing, and equally hilarious for me.

I'm guessing that Harmonix sees the Rock Band Network as something that will support all versions of Rock Band - RB1, RB2, and, I'm assuming, RB3. Is that the case?

Our song, along with the entire catalogue of RBN, is available within Rock Band 2 on the Xbox 360. I know that the Rock Band Network team is working hard to bring over a subset of songs to the PlayStation 3 and Nintendo Wii versions of Rock Band 2, and we haven’t currently announced anything regarding Rock Band 3 beyond its release window of Holiday 2010.

Speaking of the future, there have been some cryptic, promising statements made about the future of the franchise. Dhani Harrison went rogue and said in the Chicago Tribune that the third game will have controllers so real that "people can actually learn to play music while playing the game." Care to elaborate?  

We have announced that Rock Band 3 will be coming in time for Holiday 2010. It’s going to be great, but for any more details about that, stay tuned to

Okay, okay, fine. I'll just make some stuff up. Rock Band 3 is going to have Keytar! And feature the music of Miles Davis!

Really can't elaborate, sorry!

Heh. That's okay. Moving along - what is your favorite instrument to play in Rock Band?

I author guitar and bass and always enjoy playing them, but naturally, I'll fight for the drums.  I guess I enjoy them the most because it's the closest thing to the real deal without having to embarrass myself on vocals.

Word. I find myself practicing drums with the game turned off, just to learn tough parts. And your favorite song?

The Beatles: Rock Band gave me my favorite band, so if I had to choose, it'd probably be George Harrison's "Something" or the "Sgt. Peppers/With a Little Help" medley.

Last question - what's your favorite game of all time?

It will always and forever be Super Metroid.  It's the closest thing to a perfect game as far as I'm concerned.  I've probably played through it at least ten times in my life, not to mention how the score has influenced me, musically.

Thanks for taking the time, Steve. Good luck with everything!

Thank you, Kirk!  It was a real pleasure.

Steve Pardo is a multi-instrumentalist composer and songwriter in Boston, and is one of the songwriters behind The Steve and Lindley Band. He also is a composer and sound-designer for Harmonix. Steve can be reached through his website,


Anonymous said...

great article!