Within seconds, it's clear that Rock Band Network isn't for amateurs. The tools being offered by Harmonix are fully-featured, professional programs that are meant for artists serious about getting their content into Rock Band and, yes, making money. With Harmonix admitting that first-time users will take 20-40 hours to finish a single song "all the way," it's clear that this isn't meant for the average gamers that have a bit of spare time on their hands.
There are four main steps in getting a song onto the upcoming Rock Band Network Store. The most important (and most time-consuming) part of the process is creating the note tracks. Harmonix has partnered with Reaper to create a Rock Band-specific plug-in that allows music producers to start creating Rock Band tracks. Caleb Epps demonstrated the program to us, noting, "what you see is what we use at Harmonix."
For anyone that's produced MIDI music, the interface should be incredibly familiar. What makes the Rock Band version of Reaper special is how everything is already clearly laid out and labeled: each color of each instrument has its own specific track. Producers simply add notes to each of the tracks, and a separate playback window will show how it will look like in-game. It's a time-consuming process made even more complicated by the fact that new tracks must be created for every difficulty: you won't be able to upload an Expert-only song, for example.
Reaper also allows for deeper audio manipulation, allowing producers to splice, mix and sample as in most professional audio production suites. There are a few automated scripts, however, to make the translation into Rock Band a bit easier. Harmonix joked that there's a "make it loud button," a macro that applies customized normalization across the song that adjusts levels to make the interactive sections more recognizable while playing.
Once the tracks are laid out and aligned properly with the music, the next step is to import the track into Magma. Magma converts the audio and note information into a playable Rock Band track, and automates the various interactive elements of a track. Magma will choose appropriate camera angles, placing in markers to have the game focus on the guitarist or vocalist during a solo, for example. However, those that want total control over this process can export this information out of Magma back into Reaper, and make additional tweaks as they please. There are a few things that Harmonix won't allow you to edit, though: lip syncing, which is rendered automatically, and access to the Rock Band fog peripheral. (Harmonix was concerned that creators would abuse this meta information by overwhelming the fog peripheral to activate every second, for example. Considering the limited use and availability of the peripheral, there was little insurance that the community would be able to properly test for abuse.)
Magma also appends all the meta information required to upload the song to the Rock Band Network, such as author, cover art, price, genre, sub-genre and difficulty. Free songs are not allowed on the Rock Band Network, so bands will be required to charge 80, 160 or 240 ($1, $2 or $3). The number of sub-genres has greatly expanded in Rock Band Network, allowing artists of all kids to show off their goods -- whether it's trip rock, or nu-jazz. When all of the information has been input, Magma converts the file into a .RBA (Rock Band Audition) file and prepares it for use on Xbox 360.
The process of compressing the various audio info and preparing a playable Rock Band song takes about three minutes, depending on the user's computer's processing speed. There is one important restriction to keep in mind, though: because Magma is based on Games for Windows Live, there's no Mac support at all. If you want to get your song into Rock Band 2, you'll need to use a PC.
Once the song is uploaded to the Rock Band Network servers, it will be playable from Rock Band 2's to-be-patched "Audition Mode." While the option will be visible for all Xbox 360 players post-patch release, only members of the XNA Creator's Club will be able to access the service. Here, all in-production songs will be displayed to play and review.
Playing an original Rock Band Network song will look like playing any other Rock Band song. However, there will be a few changes specific to "Audition Mode." For example, players will be able to use the D-pad at any time to slow down a song, almost to a standstill. This will allow creators to make note of any microscopic errors they might discover in the note map. Additional information on the screen, like the MBT, indicates the song's position in Reaper, so producers know exactly where to go when editing their songs.
The Rock Band Network community is already available as a closed beta, but an open beta is scheduled to launch in mid-October, about a month after Audition mode is patched into Rock Band 2. Then, the Rock Band Network Store will be available in November for both Xbox 360 and PS3 users to enjoy. All artists will be paid through XNA, and will receive 30 percent of their chosen selling price. (The remainder will go to Harmonix and the platform holders.) While this may seem like an unbalanced cut, Harmonix notes that this is the same deal that everyone gets when entering the Network: Your band is agreeing to the same terms as a major record label; keeping all artists on equal footing.
In addition to the 30 percent share, publishers on the Rock Band Network must also meet a minimum sales threshold, which wasn't quantified beyond "small," before earning income. Should your song reach that number, the checks will come automatically every month. It's an exciting, but unproven, business model that might provide a new revenue stream for up-and-coming artists. The cost of entry is relatively low for what is, essentially, a new avenue of music publishing: a copy of Rock Band 2, an Xbox 360, a $99 Creator's Club membership, and the $60 license for Reaper. For dedicated enthusiasts and professionals alike, that's an easy price to swallow.