First, the unit itself. The keys are a nice size -- not huge, but enough to accommodate my overgrown gamer thumbs without too much trouble. As you probably saw, the peripheral contains about an octave and a half of black and white keys (going from C to B and one extra white key for the orange section), along with the usual D-pad and controller buttons. On the "neck" part of the unit, there's both an Overdrive button and a little touch-pad section that's used as the keyboard's "whammy bar," tweaking the sound of held chords as they're played.
That touch pad is a new trick for Harmonix. I asked if the company had thought about bringing it back to any of the other instruments, but was told that the devs preferred actual buttons just for the tactile feedback. It works for the keyboard, though -- the pad is sunken in a bit, so you can easily find it without looking and swipe your finger across it to change the sound as you see fit.
I hadn't played much with the keyboard the first few times I saw the game, so this time I really focused on trying to get better at it, and actually turned the difficulty up and down multiple times during a song (which is possible now, thanks to the new overshell feature). I found the same old terrific Rock Band difficulty curve -- on Easy, you're keeping the same five fingers on the same five keys, but as you go up the difficulty settings, the game expands to make more use of the keyboard, eventually spanning all of the black and white keys as the notebar on screen shifts back and forth.
The biggest difficulty is in lining up your hands with what's coming down the bar on screen. To help, the keyboard has sections of notes marked with colors, so as an onscreen note rolls down, you'll mentally mark it as "the second green note from the left," and then find that appropriate key on the keyboard. Harmonix told me that they expect even experienced keyboard players to take "about twenty or thirty minutes to get acclimated" to the locations of the colored sections (and there are two raised bumps on specific keys to help out a bit). After that period, I found that I started to learn where the keys are in relation to what's showing up on screen, and it became easier to hit chords or do runs of sharp or flat notes in a certain key.
If you're not already a trained pianist, the game has a surprisingly full trainer mode. Harmonix has created almost a whole game's worth of original songs ("There's probably another like 60-80 songs in there," Project Director Dan Sussman told me) specifically designed to teach you how to play. The trainer presents a series of lessons (from simply playing certain finger patterns to actually learning scales and chord structures), and each one has its own original
song, designed and recorded specifically by Harmonix to teach interactively. Some of the trainer music, which runs the gamut from rock to metal to jazz, is pretty good, too. "We've talked about putting that stuff up through the Rock Band Network," said Sussman, "but right now it's only in the trainer.
An example of the types of lessons available: you're given a goal (of playing five or six notes in sequence), and then that pattern runs down the screen towards you. Play it right and you're rewarded; play it wrong and you get some extra hints and the chance to play it again. "We really approached it from a mechanical perspective," Sussman told me, "where these are the things we're trying to teach, now come up with a riff and an orchestration that's towards that riff. The music really pushes the gameplay, and it's written to support the gameplay."
The trainer was developed in conjuction with Harmonix's music staff (many of whom have actually taught these instruments before). Aside from simply teaching you to play the game better, it will even teach you some music theory. Off to the side of the trainer screen, there are little boxes that will tell you how the notes you're playing correspond to middle C, or what a whole or a half note is. Additionally, you can slow down the trainer songs, or even add a metronome to get the timing right. "
There's another reason you'll want to go into the trainer as well: finishing the trainer levels give you rewards that unlock items in other areas of the game. Harmonix wasn't completely clear about this (and promised more details on the Career mode soon), but Sussman gave the example of "a player who's obsessed with making characters and they desperately need that cowboy hat for their character. And the only way to get that cowboy hat is to do the Pro Keys trainer, so they're doing that. And doing that, we're hopefully pushing them into an experience that we hope will be compelling."