CAMBRIDGE — Harmonix Music Systems audio lead Eric Brosius makes his living playing with the soundtrack to your life, and he’s never had more fun than with Beatles Rock Band.
We talked to Eric about crossing Abbey Road, the fleeting nature of fame and the tyranny of two-track recordings.
- Oct. 30, 2008: Blast reports Beatles Rock Band under development
- March 5: Beatles Rock Band gets 9/9/09 release date
- June 3: Blast interviews Harmonix CEO Alex Rigopulos at E3
- June 10: Blast ranks Beatles Rock Band among the best games seen at E3 2009
- Aug. 18: Most of the track list is revealed
- Aug. 25: TV Spot
- Sept. 9: Beatles Rock Band released
Blast’s Ben Lindbergh: When you sat down to select the songs initially — I don’t know exactly who was involved in that — how much weight was assigned to the popularity of the song of the song or the success of the song, versus how much fun you thought it would be to play, or how easy it would be to represent with the notes?
Eric Brosius: We definitely considered both of those things, like we always do. Actually, that’s pretty much what we do in all of Rock Band, there’s always this balance between playability and how popular it is, and some songs are in there for different reasons. But yeah, we wanted to find”"pretty much all the Beatles songs are famous, outside of just a few. They’re one of the rare bands where like 80 percent of the catalog is completely famous, and 20 percent is lesser known. So, it was pretty easy to find songs that we thought everyone would just love playing, but that were also giant hits.
But we definitely looked at that, for sure. We also looked out for — you know, we wanted to grab songs from their entire career. From the beginning, and have roughly an equal number of songs from the different periods, just to make sure we hit all of their major albums and all of the time periods, and stuff like that. So it was just balancing those things together. There were some tricky things in the early songs, because some early songs were maybe harder to get, just because of the limited number of tracks that they had. So, we were always balancing that, and then we were talking to Giles Martin, who did all the actual mixing for us, because he knew the track layouts for every single song they’ve ever done, and he would always go, “ËœOh yeah, that’s problematic because of this, but this one I think we could do instead, because there’s some an extra tape of other stuff on here that we can use to make the song work.’
BL: So he had some sort of software that would be able to pick out the instruments individually when there was only a two-track recording, and then separate them somehow?
EB: Yeah. And sometimes with a two-track recording, it also depends on even what was on the tracks, because some things are easier to separate, and some things are not, just depending on how it was mixed. If it’s a two-track recording, and they had some things panned to one side, that’s easy to separate from stuff that’s in the middle or on the other side. If it was a two-track recording where the whole thing was a stereo wash right down the center, that makes it a lot harder. So he kind of knew, not just the number of tracks of each song, but kind of where things were, and whether we would have an easier time separating them. Because yes, you can separate stuff, but it’s not a perfect solution. Some songs are kind of easy to get nice, clean separation, and some songs are harder, so we used all of that knowledge together.
BL: So then he would do all the work in Abbey Road, with some assistants, and then someone would come over here with a briefcase chained to his arm?
EB: Well, he knew all about the Beatles stuff and mixing, so he and his guy, Paul Hicks, were in charge of actually recreating the mixes. Because the first step is just to like bring up the tapes, transfer them to digital, and then recreate the mix. Because what’s on the raw tape doesn’t usually sound like the raw mix in music. So, they spent a lot of time doing that, just making sure it came out, and they can recreate all the effects if there weren’t effects. Because sometimes effects weren’t printed to tape, right, they were this old gear, so they spent a lot of time doing that. And then we would usually fly over there and spend like five days there when we were going to pick up a batch of songs, and where they would bring up the mixes they had, and we would do some further editing, deciding which parts are going to be our playable guitar part, and which parts are not.
And then while we were at the studio, we’d bounce out the actual stems we needed for the game, and then we’d encode them into the final version that the game ships with right there, which was encrypted and high-security and all that kind of stuff. So we did everything there, and then we just brought the finished game assets back with us, because they were pretty keen on leaving all the original assets at Abbey Road, because they’re somewhat protective, as they should be.
BL: Was the fact that the remasters were being developed simultaneously, was there any work that was able to be saved or shared there, or was it just two separate processes?
EB: It was pretty much two separate processes, because on things that we’re doing, we’re going back to the multi-tracks. I’m not sure what was done in the mastering process, but usually remasterings are just, you go back to the two-track mixes, and then you use modern mastering techniques. So it was kind of separate, what they were doing was totally separate. I mean, it’s nice that they’re going to release them at the same time, which kind of shows how enthusiastic Apple and the Beatles are, which is cool, but it was really two separate processes.
Blast editor John Guilfoil: Can you kind of run our readers through the process of taking a song and putting it into Rock Band?
EB: Sure. So, for old songs like this, a lot of them are stored on magnetic tape. So the first thing to do is to transfer them to a digital format like Pro Tools, which is the standard that everyone uses. So you digitize all the tracks, and then the next step would be to take those and remix the song so it sounds like the original. Once the song is sounding good, with all the effects and levels balanced, then we bounce out stems, according to our specific needs, the ones we need in the game. Because we have one guitar player in the game, so if there are several guitars playing, at every given moment through the song, we decide which one is going to be the part you’re going to play. And that ends up being a composite of, maybe a little of John’s guitar here, maybe a little of George’s here, and that kind of thing.
And we bounce out the stems that we actually need for the game, then we basically encrypt them, interleave them into a single file that our game reads. So we have that, and that’s the audio part of it, it’s fairly straightforward. And then we have a team of people here that kind of transcribe all the music, putting down all the gems that you see, laying down all the tracks and putting the lyrics in. And that’s basically kind of like transcription using MIDI files, basically.
BL: So for someone who grew up listening to the ’80s pressings of the CDs, or compressed .mp3 versions of the songs and hasn’t heard the remasters yet, would this be the cleanest and the best they’ve ever heard the Beatles, even though it’s meant for playing as well as listening, and so there are compromises that have to be made there?
EB: I think so. And the thing that’s going to — yes, because part of the thing with Rock Band is, we’ll sometimes make some changes to the mixes. Sometimes, if there was a guitar part that was pretty buried in the original mix, but we want that to be the playable one, sometimes we’ll boost it a little bit so you can hear it more, because you want to hear the notes that you’re actually playing. So we always try to walk this line between — we don’t want to change history or anything like that, but with Giles’ approval, we would sometimes alter things. You know, “ËœLet’s bring that up a little bit, because that’s going to be the playable part.’ So there are some things like that.
And the other really cool thing about the game is that, because most of our game is kind of featured around live stuff, most of the songs, we don’t have fadeouts in them, usually. And many times they went back to the way they actually played it in the studio, that usually had a proper ending. Because they’ll usually do the fade-out later, right in the mix. So in our game, a lot of times you get to hear the proper endings, which is really cool. So it’s like a little bit of extra material in most songs. And probably the biggest one is in “ËœHelter Skelter’ we don’t do the big fade back in, so you get to hear the way they played it through, which is pretty cool, and I think Beatles fanatics will love that stuff.
BL: Did you sit down initially and say, “ËœWe know we’re going to have forty-five songs’ and then get a list of the catalog and cross things out, or did you start with a blank page, and say, “ËœWe have to have this one, and we have to have that one?’
EB: Well, we knew that we were going to have roughly forty to fifty songs, but we didn’t know exactly until the whole deal was worked out. So basically, everyone wrote down sixty or seventy of their favorite songs, and it was a bunch of the higher-ups at Harmonix, and the people at Apple, and Giles, and everyone, and we all kind of got together and came up with about forty-five, and then once in a while Giles would say, “ËœOh, I know this one can’t work, because this was actually just recorded on one track’ and we would just kind of work it out.
And then there would be a little bit of back-and-forth, of course, about, “ËœLet’s make sure that we have a good balance of Paul and John songs, so that we don’t just by accident have too many John songs and too many Paul songs’ and “ËœMake sure that we include the important George songs’ and all this balancing. Same thing we do when we select songs for Rock Band. You balance out a bunch of things”"we want to have songs from different decades, different styles, different things, so the same kind of process went through. And then we presented what we thought was our song list to the shareholders, who were Yoko and Paul and Ringo and Olivia Harrison, and they would give us their two cents on it, and we would make some adjustments. The song list was fairly easy to do.
BL: So they weren’t dictating anything, like “ËœThis song has to be in there, this one’s off-limits.’
EB: No. And the good thing is that Giles has worked with them before. He did the “Love” show, which is the big Cirque du Soleil thing in Las Vegas, he’s already kind of gone through this process with them, and he knows them very well, and they trust him. So that was one of the best things. Because we could kind of make all of our musical decisions, and if we got them blessed by Giles, then we were pretty confident that he could get them blessed by the important people. So, it made things very smooth.
BL: Were there any specific challenges that you faced as a result of the Beatles’ experimentation in the studio, or using somewhat exotic instruments that might not conform to the four-instrument mold? I know you have songs like “ËœBecause’ or “ËœShe’s Leaving Home’ coming out soon”"how do you face those challenges, or how do you conform to this set-up?
EB: Well, in some songs”"in the Beatles game, one of the cool things is we’re doing the harmonies, so that’s a big thing, because there’s so much importance on that. On other things where they had, maybe not a prominent guitar, but they had different instruments, we would probably swap them around, which we do in Rock Band once in a while. Like in, I think in “ËœStrawberry Fields’ you might end up playing the string parts a little bit on the guitar. And in a song like “ËœBecause’ which has no drums, right, that would be a song where the drummer just kind of sits out and relaxes for a while. We’re not going to add anything to it, because we don’t want to change the song.
BL: I know you wanted to span the whole career and represent each part accurately”"was there any thought that maybe the early Beatles or the late Beatles would appeal or connect to the modern audience more? Your first three downloadable albums coming out are from the middle-to-late period”"is there any consideration given to emphasizing that period?
EB: We didn’t really think about that too much. I think that we wanted to”"different fans have their different favorites, of course. So we really just wanted to tell the whole story of their career, so we wanted to just do that. As far as the downloads go, we know that technically we have an easier time with the later albums, because they tend to be cleaner, on four-track, where it’s easier, and harder times on the earlier albums. So it would be difficult to do Please Please Me as a full album, because while we could probably do a lot of the songs, it might be difficult, there might be some there that we’re just like, “ËœI don’t know how we’re going to get the separation.’
But that being said, if we choose to do more albums, I’m sure we’ll do some early ones too, because we want to do as much as we can. It just also happened that I think the first three albums that we picked are three of the pretty big, iconic ones”"Abbey Road, Sgt. Pepper’s. And we were going back and forth between Rubber Soul and Revolver, because we wanted something from that period, but we were debating back and forth.
BL: Would most of the team working on the game have described themselves as Beatles fans coming into it, or just sort of passionate music fans who came to appreciate the Beatles more during the process?
EB: Well, everyone’s a passionate music fan. I don’t think we had everyone was a passionate Beatles fan — certainly a fan in some ways — but we have a few people who were just obsessive. And so we set those guys on all the research. They’re the ones who spent hours poring over things, and making sure that the right person was playing the right guitar part, and they would look up, “ËœOkay, is John playing this lick, or is George playing this lick?’ And they would try to figure it out to make sure the animations looked right, because we can kind of control that. So we had at least a half a dozen Beatles fanatics, which was really good.
John M. Guilfoil and Marc Normandin of the Blast staff and Blast correspondents Steve Bagley and Darcy Hofmann contributed to this report.