A beginner bassist's foray into the unknown

Rocksmith Bass

Rocksmith, a game which I wrote a little about last year, released its bass upgrade as downloadable content on August 14th. Apparently, this is 2.5 weeks earlier than scheduled. I learned about the upgrade on Friday last week (3 days after the release) and decided not to wait until October for the PC version to come out. I went out and bought a Playstation 3 and the game on Saturday night, after returning from a funeral and following it up with a birthday party. Strange times.

I’ve not been much of a gamer since the late 1990’s. The last console that I played regularly was the original Playstation. Wifey and I have a Wii that we grabbed for Christmas two years ago. We mostly used it to watch Netflix. I’m not too versed on current gaming technology or trends. With this in mind – I’m impressed. The PS3 is a fantastic piece of equipment. I chose it over the Xbox360 because Microsoft charges a monthly fee for gamers to go online, whereas Sony’s online network is free. Rocksmith is equally impressive. The physical interface is ingenius, to me. Its a cord with a USB interface on one end and an audio jack on the other that plugs right into the bass.

So, anyway…

Setup

Setting up the system was not difficult, but fine-tuning it to work with the game took some extra time. The PS3 came with component cables (red, yellow & white) for audio and video. I plugged these into my HDTV and had the system up and running in about 2 minutes. Once powered on, there are configuration screens which can be set up to let the system go online to update itself. This is important to complete so that Rocksmith can later update itself and add bass compatibility.

It was late when I got home and set up the system, and I work on Sundays, so I only got to look at some of its network capabilities and set up an online account before bed. The next day, after work, I installed the game. Once it was installed, I connected to the Playstation Network and downloaded the bass upgrade for the game. It cost $30 (payable online via credit card) and was about 1.2 GB in size. Downloading took less than 15 minutes.

After it downloaded, it took me a few tries before I installed it. I didn’t realize that it has to be installed outside of the game, so you can’t have the game running during install (you can have it running during download, if you want to look around at its guitar capabilities, but I didn’t bother with that since I don’t own a guitar). This is a standard criteria for upgrading PC apps. I should have realized that the PS3 could be similar.

After installation, I started Rocksmith and was greeted with: the same guitar-centric intro as usual. I’d love it if they made an alternate introduction which focused on bass, but its not really important to the game’s functionality. The system prompts you to plug in the cable and connect it to your instrument. Once that’s done, you select whether you’re playing a guitar or bass. Next, you choose the type of headstock (tuning keys all on one side or on both sides) and if I remember right, you’re ready to go.

Fine tuning

I had read on the internet that the game was laggy with some configurations, and it is. There’s a “sound room” option that lets you just use the game as an amplifier. I think it was actually called Amp mode. Its a very interesting feature to me because I’m not a gearhead yet. I have an old Hartke amp, but I don’t have any pedals, effects boards or other gear. Apparently, as you progress in the game, you can unlock pedals and other equipment virtually and use them in-game. The sound room is one place that they can be used to just noodle and experiment in. Its a great concept.

Anyway. I found that when strings were played, there was a noticeable delay before sound was output from my TV’s speakers. Previous research on the web basically explained it as the result of sending a digital signal from the PS3 to the TV. The digital signal is processed, which slows down its execution, and results in noticeable lagginess when playing. I think its somewhat similar to playing through a distortion pedal.

The fix for this is to set up the PS3 to output sound to an analog device. I ended up getting a little adapter from Microcenter that takes the left and right RCA speaker jacks from the component cables and converts them so that the other end is a little 3.5 mm headphone jack. I then plugged this into an old set of computer speakers (a nice set I’ve had for years with subwoofer) using another 3.5 mm female-to-female adapter. It worked perfectly. There’s no noticeable lag when I play.

Once I did that, I also took an old HDMI cable and connected the PS3 using it. There’s an option in the settings that lets you use the HDMI for video and the component for audio. It works beautifully for the game.

This would have worked perfectly to let the PS3 connect to my powered computer speakers if Microcenter carried it.

Instead, I bought this to adapt the RCA audio cables so that they’d fit into a headphone jack.

I then coupled the adapted RCA cables to the audio-in headphone jack going to the computer speakers. Analog audio. It worked like a charm!

Initial Experience

The game has little lessons which you can watch or skip. I chose to watch everything as I went along. It went through a tuning process, which used a headstock similar to the one on my bass and then I was able to go through a basic lesson that had me play notes within the first 5 frets on the E and A strings.

The game is designed for 4-string basses. I tried it out with one of the 6-stringers that I have (no, I’m not adept enough to really play them well – I just couldn’t pass up the deal as I’m a lefty) in that sound room, and it was pretty cool. It was really like playing through an amp. The interface color codes each of the regular bass’ 4 strings. It shows numbered frets and sends notes down a pathway which must be played on the bass. The notes appear in the color of the string to be played (E is red, A is green, D is blue and G is yellow) and are positioned so that they run over the fret to be held.

Now, I’ve not practiced in months, but I had a lot of fun tonight, which is when I finally got to actually sit and try things out. The game doesn’t seem like it will teach actual notes, but its great for building speed and dexterity. I found it completely different from practicing chords and scales alone, or trying to figure out parts of songs.

The biggest differentiator for me from how I’ve normally practiced is speed. Although it starts you off slow, for someone as out-of-practice as myself, it was fairly difficult – but enjoyable. I started with a lesson that I can’t remember, followed by playing Satisfaction by the Rolling Stones. At first, there are scant notes to play, although you can hear the bassline being played, along with the rest of the song. You’re basically playing some root notes here and there. You’re not penalized for playing additional notes, but you are for missing notes or playing incorrect ones. After a little while, it throws more notes at you, all definately part of the bassline, but not in the pattern that you’ve gotten used to. I had a hard time keeping up with the notes that came down the screen. I would get into a repetitive pattern, it would change, and I would then hit the wrong fret or play on the wrong string. I even muted myself several times with my fretting fingers.

Playing at speed is definately an interesting challenge. Now that I’ve had an initial brush, I’m looking forward to more.

But anyway – I eventually found that I was messing up a bit and really wasn’t getting any satisfaction, so I went to the next lesson. It was about playing the strings using both fingers, if I remember right. I didn’t do too well on the intro lesson again, once strings and frets were switched up a bit, and then I moved on to Where’s My Mind by the Pixies.

Now, I listen to a lot of extreme metal and jazz fusion. This doesn’t mean that I can play a whiff of it. Maybe someday though. I went through the Pixies song and actually did pretty well. I had a much higher score on it than the Stones one. It became fun. I ended up repeating the song several times, just like I did with Satisfaction, only, I made more progress playing it. The bassline that the game wanted me to play began to vary a little. More notes were thrown in as I got more comfortable, which is really interesting to me. Its a very dynamic way to force the player to learn and adapt. I think schools had begun to use this on standardized testing when I was in high school. It was called adaptive testing, I believe.

I messed up mostly on parts where I had to make quick changes in position. This is something I hadn’t really experienced when running scales and chords. I practiced those alone, mostly in one or two positions and moved up or down the neck when I was practicing more heavily. Playing with a song kept me out of an easily-identifiable position and made me use what I think were passing notes quite a bit.

When I practice alone, I know what scale degree I’m on. I know when I’m playing chords in any given position when I’m on the 1st, 3rd, 5th, 7th, and octave. I think my mind was locked into those patterns, and not having them readily apparent in front of me really threw me off my game (well, that plus not actually practicing for so long). Following a groove wasn’t too difficult, because you can hear the song and what everyone is playing. You can somewhat anticipate when to play, if not necessarily what.

Its the what that I have to get under my fingertips. The game doesn’t let you just play a pattern and memorize it, because it adapts and shakes things up. Each time you play through a song, parts of it are a little different. Sometimes, it adds notes for you to play, other times I think it might have reduced some. That might also just be my head wanting to hit notes that weren’t needed though.

I think that practicing theory (getting chords and scales into muscle memory) and learning where the notes are on the fretboard, along with learning to read notation are important, but I think that they’re also separate lessons from what Rocksmith offers. I do think that the game is great just for forcing me to play and making it fun. I actually want to sneak back downstairs and play it more right now, but its late and I have work in the morning. I’m looking forward to seeing my scores go up for each lesson and song, and to unlocking more of the game as I progress.

I unlocked some kind of mini-game that’s supposed to help with learning to navigate the fretboard. I’ll try it tomorrow after work, but I’m also not sure how much of my schedule is going to be upset a week from now when wifey and I become parents. Hopefully, I’ll be able to find time to both practice and post more. I think its going to be a lot more fun.

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