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Rock Band Network, Music Conversion and More With WaveGroup's Will Littlejohn (Part 1)

March 20,2010

Rock Band Network, Music Conversion and More With WaveGroup's Will Littlejohn (Part 1)
By Louis Bedigian

"We occasionally need to work with the artist to make a song more playable in Rock Band by modifying the tune in some way ... We're hoping to work with artists in the future to produce Rock Band-exclusive versions like this, only available in the game."

We've all heard the stories, good and bad, about the licensing process for getting music into Rock Band, Guitar Hero and other music games. But have you ever wondered how a song is converted into a playable track?

WaveGroup, whose current project is the Rock Band Network, has the answer. "We're all very enthusiastic music and sound people and as a group try to bring that passion to the world in a constructive and positive way," said WaveGroup President and CEO Will Littlejohn. "It's tremendously gratifying to know that we've played a part in bringing lots of great music to a new audience through the games we've worked on, and we're continuing that tradition with our involvement in the Rock Band Network.

"It's a bit ironic that our original role in music games was to create the music, and now we are helping artists we used to cover bring their recordings into music games, but we couldn't be more excited by the prospect. It's a natural progression for the genre, and we're looking forward to the challenges." 

Start by introducing us to WaveGroup, which is touted as a global leader for audio production in the music game genre.

Will Littlejohn: Sure! WaveGroup is an audio company based in Fremont, California. We're a collective of 16 musicians and studio professionals with the common passion of sound, and do our best to be working in it every day. Most of the WaveGroup people are also musicians, so we have that in common as well. We started in post production audio, so there is a strong technical background in our crew and I think this shows in our work. We've been in the music and sound business for 16 years, and love what we do. We're also lucky enough to be great friends, and have a blast working together.

When was WaveGroup founded? Were video games a part of the original business plan?

WL: WaveGroup started in 1994 as the audio post production team for the ABC Saturday morning stop-motion animated series "Bump In The Night." We spent two+ years cranking out half-hour episodes on network deadlines, including some crazy music segments. Video games weren't part of the original plan, but we did do sound effects creation for a few games during this time and as we got better at it we kept getting hired. Subsequently we became much more involved in video games, and have created lots of dialog, music, and sound effects for dozens of projects. It was a natural fit for our skill sets.

As if the Rock Band series wasn't impressive enough, Littlejohn's story shows how incredible the series is

With regard to the Rock Band series, WaveGroup announced that it will work with artists' original recordings and transform them into playable Rock Band tracks. How does this process work? Tell us all that's involved.

WL: First of all, we need to work with the artists and prepare submix stems of their songs. This means we need all of the instruments separated into individual audio files, such as the lead vocal only, the lead guitar only, etc. This can be a tricky process, but we have lots of experience in creating these stems from all the music games we've worked on over the years. Think of it as layers in Photoshop.

After we have the stems prepped, we create very detailed maps of each instrument in workstations that represent the gems and vocal note tubes in Rock Band. This is essentially a very musical process, as our job is to bring the feeling of actually playing the real instruments in the song to the Rock Band environment. The timing and position choices made are really critical, and can make or break the final Rock Band track. I think our crew are among the best in the business at doing this.

After mapping out all of the instruments and vocals, we create a series of instructions that direct everything from lighting cues and camera shots to the hand positions of the guitar and bass players as well as the movement of the drummer.

When all of this work is done, we wrap it all up in an encrypted package, test it to death, then send it to the store!  

How much editing has to be done before a song is ready to go? Do you ever have to trim the length of a song? Or reduce or expand the length of time that a particular instrument plays?

WL: We occasionally need to work with the artist to make a song more playable in Rock Band by modifying the tune in some way. Usually this means an edit of some type or the creation of an ending. Back when we were producing the recordings for these types of games, we would occasionally lengthen a solo section or even create one from time to time. We're hoping to work with artists in the future to produce Rock Band-exclusive versions like this, only available in the game.

How long does it take to convert a song for Rock Band?

WL: It varies somewhat, but I'd say the average actual production time is around 80 hours, including the creation of stems.

Do the artists ever want to be personally involved in the process? And if they wanted to be, could they be?

WL: So far, we haven't had an artist express the desire to be involved, but we'd love it!

Stay tuned to GameZone for part two of our interview with WaveGroup.

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