Monday, July 04, 2011

The Squier (Last Notes)

I'm moving on after this post, so that we can discuss other topics, but you guys keep sending in such excellent correspondence that I wanted to mention a few more points.

Ian Dorsch, sent in an absolutely terrific e-mail, and it's so good I'm using it in full:
I'm sure you've already had some replies to this but if not: this is in response to James Prendergast's email about the possibility of pitch detection (pitch to MIDI conversion) in the Rock Band Squier.

This is an interesting prospect, because that's the way real guitar synths work. A special hexaphonic pickup is used in combination with some dedicated hardware that analyzes pitch information from each of six strings and converts it to MIDI data. Obviously this is a lot more flexible than the system employed in the RB Squier--it allows for detection of bends and finger vibrato, among other things. However, here's why it's impractical for the RB Squier:

- You need dedicated hardware. Pitch to MIDI conversion for monophonic (one pitch at a time) instruments exists, and is relatively reliable. I'm not sure, but I believe that Harmonix uses some kind of basic pitch to MIDI conversion for vocals in the Rock Band games. However, a guitar is polyphonic. For it to work in the way James mentions, you'd need a solution that capable of analyzing and converting up to six pitches simultaneously, one for each string. Even if there was a practical, reliable way to do this strictly in software with the low latencies and low CPU overhead that would be necessary for Rock Band, it still would be virtually impossible to determine whether the player is creating the pitches by fingering them in the correct way. As mentioned, guitar-specific hardware for this purpose exists, and is reliable, but...

- The hardware is expensive. The most popular MIDI guitar solution is Roland's GK3 MIDI pickup ( which retails for $219. For an idea of the cost involved in integrating this hardware with a mass-produced retail instrument, the Roland-ready Fender Strat, which has Roland's last gen MIDI hardware built in, sells for $799 ( Obviously a cheaper guitar a la the Squier would cost less, but a hexaphonic pitch to MIDI pickup would still add a lot of cost to the unit.

- Tracking can be unreliable. Pitch to MIDI conversion has come a long way, but as someone who has fiddled with guitar synths, I can attest that it's still not perfect. Even with high end hardware, the pickups sometimes just get confused, and you end up with glitches in the MIDI output. This would be unacceptable in a game controller--you need as close to absolute 1:1 conversion as possible, or the player would rapidly get frustrated with the controller. The last thing you want is for your expensive high end game controller to be responsible for outbursts of nerd rage.

- Harmonix would have needed to program an entirely different way of interacting with the Squier. As it is, the Squier functions like the pro guitar, and can be seamlessly integrated into the game. A vastly different way of interpreting player input would require some serious additional programming man hours. I imagine that it would add a prohibitive amount of expense and additional development time for a part of the game that is designed to appeal to a very small niche.

Two more notes before we put this to bed. First, David Carlton noted that the feedback given by the Squier in terms of finger position is invaluable, and here's what he said:
In regards to some of your recent Squier posts: while I agree that having pitch detection as an option would be great, I'm not convinced that using pitch detection would work as well for learning guitar from Rock Band as the current guitar does. My main obstacle in learning guitar is being able to reliably put my fingers down in the correct place, and I really like the fact that the game can give me feedback as to whether or not I've done that correctly before I strum. Once you get to the difficulty levels where notes are coming at you fast and furious, then you really don't have any choice but to learn how to put your fingers down in real time, but I thought it was great having easy/medium as a bridge where I could take a guess, have the game tell me (without my having to look at the instrument!) whether I was doing it right and, if I wasn't, how to adjust, and being able to correct in real time.

That's an excellent point, and it was one of my favorite features of the Squier as well.

Second, many of you e-mailed about "Rocksmith", Ubisoft's game coming out this fall that allows you to use your own guitar. I'll definitely buy it, if it works, but right now, I'm very skeptical. They've been very, very vague about the tech involved, and as Ian explained so clearly, there are significant technical issues involved in making such a product at a reasonable price point. I expect for it to "kind of" work, so like I said, I'm skeptical. However, there does some to be quite a bit of enthusiasm for a product that lets you use your own guitar.

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