I love music, and not only its consumption. My parents were kind enough to get me started with the guitar quite some time ago, and since then I’ve continued my musical journey with a few other instruments. Yet despite all this, I still love Rock Band, despite playing the real versions of each of the included instruments.
Then, the Rock Band 3 keyboard happened, along with the announcement of a pro mode. I actually own an 88-key electronic piano that collects dust in my bedroom, remaining ignored thanks to so many other obligations. Yet, suddenly, Rock Band 3′s pro keyboard mode comes around, and I’m given hope again that my fingers will grace its keys with something sounding like, you know, music.
But I needed to try it first to see if, indeed, this is just the tool I need. Luckily, E3 gave me that chance, and I had a go at the pro keyboard courtesy of Harmonix. It was all at once a wonderful experience and a miserable failure.
Though most people at the Harmonix booth chose to test drive the keyboards on regular mode, I went ahead and elected for pro mode, not through any self-created illusion that I’d find any success in it, but to see just how close it felt to playing a real set of keys (I have at least enough proficiency of piano to play some simple songs).
Let’s jump back a little but in time first, though. Shawn Evans already told us a lot about the Harmonix event, so I’ll try not to repeat what he said, but I do want to talk a bit about how the keyboard will work. Essentially, Harmonix gave us a brief walkthrough of the differences between regular and pro mode, and how the screen will handle all of those damn keys.
As for the keyboard itself, it comes equipped with 25 keys that range from notes C3 to C5, buttons appropriate to the console you’re playing on, a MIDI jack for use as a MIDI controller, an overdrive button, and what Harmonix is calling an expressions bar, which functions as a sound manipulator. The keyboard can be played either on a stand or with a strap, though I imagine playing on the stand will be the way you want to do, as that’s how it was set up both in the demonstration and the stage.
When playing keyboards on regular mode, you’ll feel right at home looking at the screen. This mode uses only five of the keys, each one assigned its own color and position on screen, just like guitar or bass. You’ll of course find yourself playing single notes and chords, and from the looks of the demonstration, the difficulty will follow the same trends as with guitar or bass: choose easy and you’ll just use a few keys and single notes; choose expert and watch notes and chords fly at you at breakneck speed.
The pro mode is far more complicated. The on-screen interface actually doesn’t represent the entire keyboard at once, but instead shows the section of the keyboard that you need to be playing on. Even still, it shows a lot of notes at once. If you do need to move your hands to another section of the keyboard, you’ll actually see the note board shift on screen, telling you where your hands need to move to.
You may be thinking that all this sounds a bit difficult to follow, and that’s exactly where my thoughts wandered to during the demonstration. So when it came time for me to get my hands on the keyboard, I went straight to pro mode to see if I could even get close to following it. But I’m not a maniac; I chose easy mode, in which you’re still playing actual notes in the song, but you’re just playing very few of them. The rest of my makeshift band chose a song I didn’t know (which was also awful), Combat Baby by Metric, and we got started.
Before the song started, I just started pushing random keys to get a feel for the keyboard. It definitely has a high-quality feel to it, as the keys have an appropriate spring to them, both for the white and black keys. You won’t mistake it for a top-tier weighted keyboard, but I could immediately tell that this isn’t some shoddy product that will break the very day you buy it.
After a long break of nothing to do in the song, I saw my first note. Immediately, I had no idea where to put my fingers. The top of the keyboard shows a colored line over an octave, which correspond to the colors on screen. It all seemed really straightforward until the notes started flying at me and I found that there was just too much to look at, especially when one note was a natural note (white keys) somewhere in blue, and the next was a sharp (black keys) in yellow. In essence, there was a lot of looking at the screen, then at the keyboard, and missing the note by a good three seconds.
I eventually got a little better, but not much. I got better at quickly identifying naturals vs. flats, which are set apart both in the size of the bar on screen and its color. In addition, it’s easier when you recognize that simple songs are going to use most of the same notes and chords, so even in pro expert there’s no way you’ll use every key.
Still, even by the end of the song, I felt pretty lost, and my 21% on pro easy mode was clear evidence of that. But at the same time, I felt a challenge from Rock Band that I haven’t felt since the original game, and it was incredibly refreshing. Pro keyboards is going to take non-pianists quite some time to get used to, and a whole lot longer to master. Yet I can’t help but think that the payoff is going to be worth it. If I can rock out to some “Sister Christian,” and take what I’ve learned back to my full keyboard, I imagine that Rock Band 3 will be a game that I’ll be playing for a very, very long time.
When it comes down to it, Rock Band 3 is not going to be a game you can resist, and the keyboard is a large part of that. It’s a truly huge addition to the series, and even if playing it is the only new joy you get out of this third entry in the series, it will absolutely be worth it. I truly cannot wait to start yet another musical journey in the world of Rock Band.