Guitar Status: November 11, 2012

Nov 11 2012

We had a busy weekend coming up, so I didn’t think I would have any time on Sunday to practice guitar; which raised the question, should I play Rock Band 3, Rocksmith, or both on Saturday? I ended up going with Rocksmith, out of curiosity/novelty, and it was a very frustrating experience that turned out well in the end.

I decided that I would reserve one of my guitars for Rocksmith playing, to avoid having to worry that the muting would screw up its tuning. And I started the practice by going through more of the technique challenges: I tried the bends challenge again, and got a little better, but still didn’t do as well as on the other challenges. Then on to a couple of new techniques, namely palm muting and harmonics; both interesting to experiment with, I’ll have to work on them in game. And, finally, power chords: that was actually pretty frustrating, because I’ve spent a lot of time playing power chords in Rock Band 3, and I know my fingers were in the right place but Rocksmith was claiming that I was doing something wrong.

I’m still not sure what was going on there: maybe I really wasn’t doing something right (e.g. I might have only been strumming two strings at times), maybe the guitar was a bit out of tune, maybe there was something funny with my timing. Which is a problem I’ve already seen several times with Rocksmith: when the game claims you’re doing something wrong, it’s very frustrating trying to figure out what is actually going wrong. And there was an hour or so in the middle of my practice yesterday when that was happening all over the place, enough so to get me to consider giving up the game completely.

Eventually, I figured out one of the issues: the game was accurately reporting that I was out of tune on some of my notes, and it wasn’t an issue with the guitar not being tuned properly: it’s just that, when playing the first fret, if you don’t put your finger on the fret (or immediately below it), instead putting it significantly higher than that, then the note is noticeably sharp. So once I put my finger in the right place, then all of a sudden I started getting credit for notes. Which was good to have learned; I just wish the game could have somehow been more explicit about that. And, after that realization, the game got somewhat less frustrating to me.

Which raises some interesting questions. How much rounding should the game do on notes? Should it round all notes to the nearest fret, on the theory that your fingers are probably basically in the right place, that if the note is out of tune then it’s frequently a sign that your guitar is out of tune, which you can’t do much about in the middle of a song? If it can’t do that, could it give you guidance on improving your pitch? Should it try to infer a model of how out of tune your guitar is and how out of sync your audio and video is, and try to act accordingly, giving you guidance on areas where you aren’t matching the model?

I tend to think it should be smarter; I’m less sure about the “round to the nearest fret” issue, but to some extent I lean towards doing that as well. Which would make it more gamey, more mechanical; but in this instance it seems like the two sweet spots are either an easy-to-understand mechanical model or a more complex model that acts like a human teacher, and right now the game is in a bit of a grey area. (I feel that way about pitch bends, too.)

I’m still thinking about Rocksmith versus Rock Band 3. My current guess is that I’ll spend most of my time on Rocksmith for the next month or so, and I’m certainly getting something significant out of it, but I’m not at all sure that that’s a sign that it’s the better game. It’s by far preferable to be able to hear what you’re playing, and somewhat preferable for the game to try to teach a wider range of techniques; but, if I want to really hear what I’m playing, I can play Rock Band 3 with the guitar plugged into the amp. The issue there is that Rock Band 3 will detect false strums; Rocksmith, in contrast, will let you do whatever you want when it’s not telling you to play, so actually maybe what I want is Rock Band 3 without a penalty for false strums? Which I can get a reasonable approximation of by just not caring about my score and turning down the crowd noise.

And if you set that aside, then what are the other differences? I’m not nearly far enough into Rocksmith to understand what learning a song is like in it; my suspicion is that adaptive difficulty is kind of fun but ultimately not what I want, that I’ll miss Rock Band 3 picking out of specific sections to focus on (maybe that’s there in Rocksmith?), and that I won’t care about Rocksmith‘s video games at all. I definitely think Rocksmith‘s idea of having multiple guitar parts is a good one; but Rock Band 3‘s music library is far superior. (Though I appreciate Rocksmith reminding me that I should listen to the Rolling Stones more…) Either game’s notation is fine. (For guitar; Rock Band 3‘s lack of ambition for keyboard parts is not so cool, though of course Rocksmith doesn’t have that at all.)

There has to be some sort of conceptual synthesis possible going forward. I’m not sure what, though, and I also somewhat suspect that neither company is going to do another iteration refining either game beyond the valiant first attempt that each is. Maybe I’m wrong about that; maybe I’ll have to wait another five or ten years for somebody else to take a swing at the problem and for technology to catch up with these issues. (I wonder: is there a homebrew scene around the Rocksmith guitar to USB adapter?)

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