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Rock Band Instrument Prototypes & Insider Stories

Here's another video in honor of Rock Band's 4th anniversary. In this one, we give you an inside look into what was involved in the mammoth task of building all of the hardware for Rock Band. Lots of great info here, some of it never heard before.

Four years ago on November 20, 2007 Harmonix unleashed Rock Band on the world. Jumping into the world of hardware was an exciting step for Harmonix and we sat down with the fearless members of the team. HMXers including Daniel Sussman, Matt Boch, Jim Toepel and HMX Alumni Matt Reineck & Derek Enos each met up with us to share some of their adventures in China and the rigors of testing the original hardware prototypes.

The hardware shots are each original prototypes and the photos are from the personal collection of Daniel Sussman who provides commentary for each.

How did you get involved with the Hardware team at Harmonix?

Daniel Sussman: I got involved as the producer assigned to working with the contract engineers who were working on the preliminary RB controller designs. At the time, we had an internal design group staffed by a bunch of senior folks, and also had two contractor engineers: an ID guy and a manufacturing guy. My title (a very classic HMX title, and, in retrospect, a title that should have had me running for the hills) was "producer for external relationships".

As we moved from the blue sky design phase to the manufacturing phase, we quickly realized how woefully understaffed we were and how ambitious our plans were. About a month after taking on the job of managing the design and manufacture, i took my first trip to China. Over the next year we staffed up a group that evolved into one of the most agile, and talented, peripheral development teams in the world.

Fender Stratocaster Golden Sample - Notice the original whammy bar position different from how they shipped

Matt Boch: I was a production assistant at Harmonix around the time we began manufacturing hardware. One of my jobs was to track all of the prototype hardware we were using to test the game. We had about 6 drum controllers and 2 guitar controllers. Given that this was prototype hardware, it would often break down. I had some experience with electronics, as I had just completed my thesis for my art degree, which involved building custom arcade cabinets with custom controls. I busted out my soldering iron and began fixing all the drum controllers, thus earning my role as the 2nd member of the nascent HMX hardware team, later formalized as the "Creative Designer" of hardware.

Jim Toepel: Long time HMX fanboy (I bought a PS2 to play Frequency) I was on the forums "critiquing" some RB design decisions when I noticed there was an opening up in the hardware department. Space Shuttles were so last year and mass production was something interesting to me. [Ed. note: Jim used to work for NASA.] I wanted to see where all of our consumer goods came from!

Mustang prototype - smaller version for scale studies and what we could get away with

Derek Enos: Living in Providence, I was friends with a number of Harmonix employees. Everything that I had heard from them about the company sounded amazing, but prior to Rock Band, Harmonix was primarily a den of softwares, which is no place for someone with an appetite for hardware as healthy as mine. I learned about the Hardware department's genesis one night over dinner at a restaurant with Paul Lyons and Ryan Lesser. Sparkles erupted in my eyes - I grabbed my bindle stick and headed North.

Matthew Reineck: I started my time at HMX on the hardware team after being a guitar and musical instrument builder for about 4 years prior to that.

What were your goals in designing and developing the hardware?

MR: My goals were always to bring the reality of playing an instrument into the realm of video games.

MB: My goal was constant improvement. From the feel of the strum bar & buttons, to the responsiveness of the drum surface, I was hyper-focused on improving the existing hardware to make it feel better, play better, and be more accurate. I was also pretty keen on allowing for expansion, adding an Overdrive pedal jack to the RB2 guitar and cymbal jacks to the RB2 drum set. When RB3 rolled around, MIDI became a priority for the whole team; we wanted to see these instruments serve dual purposes: as game controllers and as musical instruments.

Large Mustang prototype - Authenticity rules so we went big and used this one to mimic the size of a real guitar

DS: Our goals were pretty simple - we wanted to design controllers that would complement the Rock Band experience and contribute to the authenticity of the experience. We set out to design and build high performance music gaming peripherals that worked well and looked cool.

DE: My most basic goals were to ensure that everything functioned as expected, that correct function would be maintained despite extensive abuse, and that the physical interfaces (buttons, strum bar, drum heads, etc.) were pleasing to my delicate tactile sensibilities. For RB3, I also tried to pack in as much MIDI functionality as possible. I almost managed to add arpeggiated MIDI output mode to the keyboard, and I would've gotten away with it if it wasn't for those... pragmatic adults.

Were there any crazy designs or hardware proposals that didn’t make it to reality?

DS: We were pretty focused on the stuff that got into the bundles. We did get a lot of interesting design ideas from other folks in the China manufacturing business. Our hotel housed professionals from all sorts of industries - we got a few ideas based on merging the sex toy industry and the music gaming industry. Use your imagination . . .

JT: We had this AMAZING folding drum kit that would fit under a couch. It had removable heads, integrated cymbal options and custom inserts that allowed to to change the quality of the strike sound so each pad sounded a bit different. It supported 3 pedals, a completely adjustable kick location. This thing was boss (and also would have cost over 200 dollars at retail).

There were SOOOO MANY strum bar prototypes. Clicky strums, spinny strums, smushy strums, stringy strums, clacky strums, invisi strums. We tried everything.

Another crazy idea we has was to attempt to modularize the wireless equipment for each console into a small box that could be plugged into any RB3 instrument. We wanted a way to reduce the total number of models in production, but at the volumes predicted for the RB3 launch and with all the legacy hardware already in the market, we couldn't justify the additional cost of the Wireless Module. A lot of the tech/design made it's way into the MIDI box, though.

Rock Band Drums wood prototype - on this one the red and blue heads swiveled before we picked the final angle to surround the player

MB: We tried all sorts of crazy things to improve the strum bar, going so far as to create a strum bar with a toggle-able click (it worked with a 9 volt battery and a relay). We were also obsessed with trying to make the instruments more compact and collapsible, and had plenty of foldable/collapsible/bendable designs that never made it to manufacture.

We had a stage kit 2.0 in the works at some point, with brighter lights and a mic-stand mounted controller. We also entertained the concept of a box that could control DMX lighting systems using the stage kit protocol, so that you could control club/stadium lighting rigs with Rock Band. We also made a couple prototypes of a light-up drum set that would light up each pad as you played it. We worked on a prototype for a new drum sensor that could actually tell where on the pad you hit, so that we could more accurately model drum sounds during fills.

We had this idea of the “bridge module” circa RB3; the idea was you could just slot in a little box to switch which console the hardware worked with. At some point we considered adding capacitive sensing to each key on the keytar so that you could see your hand position on screen.

Basically the team had tons of amazing ideas, but when push came to shove, a lot of them were just too bizarre or too expensive to justify manufacturing.

MR: Hard to remember at this point, but I think we pulled off something pretty crazy while cooperating with Fender on the Squier guitar.

Everything you need to make Rock Band Drums - Warehouse key for all the parts needed for the RB & RB2 drums

DE: Speaking to the sound vision of Harmonix's leadership, little time was wasted on unrealized designs. The few that there were, failed for reasons lesser than worth. The RB3 drum kit prototype, for example, was so sweet. It was a complete redesign that added a folding mechanism to substantially reduce the physical footprint for easy storage, a completely new kick/hi-hat pedal that added velocity and position data, user-replaceable/upgradable drum heads, mounts for,147 cymbals - just pure unadulterated magic. Unrealized things that I personally developed include an in-game guitar tuner for the RB3 Squier, a real kick drum pedal accessory that functioned splendidly and various other boring peripheral interfaces and features that no one wants to read about. Did I mention the RB3 keyboard MIDI arpeggiator?

What was the hardware testing process like?

DS: The testing process was incredibly rigorous. There was testing for every component as it entered the factory, testing for each sub-assembly as it was put together, and then functionality testing for every single peripheral. On top of that, we had constant stress testing to make sure our designs held up to the rigors of normal gameplay. We did environmental tests to see how stuff worked at extreme temperatures and humidity - it was crazy.

Also, we had this very funny mix of advanced automated testing (testing wireless range, clean room PCB testing, etc.) and other seemingly archaic tests (the drop test was this great test where an engineer would hold a peripheral at waist level and then drop it on the floor). The testing process evolved over the years as well - with hardware testing, you aren't ever satisfied with the status quo - you are constantly searching for better, more reliable methods.

MR: Sometimes structured, but from my perspective mostly unorthodox. A lot of playing the instruments, a lot of swapping in and out membrane switches or tweaking sensitivity, but always fun to see a peripheral go from an idea that kind of works to a full blown controller that becomes a reality in the game.

Building Rock Band drums - One of about 70 plus assembly lines building The Beatles: Rock Band instruments

MB: It started off pretty crazy, and improved as the team grew. Circa RB, Daniel and I would spend hours on the factory floor playing the same song over and over again with tons of differently tweaked instruments.We’d each found a song we could play perfectly and would stick to that song so we could ensure that any issues were with the hardware, not our play style. We then built up a rigorous automated process with machines built to play the instruments, and other machines that just brutally beat the instruments over and over again. Eventually the whole company got involved as we deployed prototypes to QA and the game dev teams. We even built custom software, affectionately referred to as PANDA, to test each controller.

JT: Insane? We'd either be on the ground in China testing fresh-off the presses models with a 2-week old unstable RB build or we'd be at HMX trying to test the new software build with a prototype that was over a month old. Occasionally we'd get updated micro controllers that Derek had to hard-wire into the prototypes, creating barely functional Frankenstein models.

Fender Telecaster wood prototype

DE: New designs were carefully verified for correct function and durability using specialized in-house test software, through normal RB gameplay, and through abnormal and abusive RB gameplay. There was a joke that we should use a set of hammers to test the drums for durability. I often used hammers to test the durability of the RB Strat. The results were not encouraging.

The first Rock Band boxes - Mike Dornbrook, Daniel Sussman & Johnny Ma - 200,000 boxes in the background for shipping on the boats

How does hardware development differ from regular game development?

DS: This is a dumb question. Hardware development is completely different from regular game development in almost every way. They only thing they have in common is that they come in the same box.

MB: The waiting, oh the waiting… Having gone from hardware design to game design, I almost got whiplash when the Dance Central prototyping team had something playable in a week. I was used to hardware prototyping, where you settle on your ideas in a few weeks, and then spend the next year trying to make them a reality. Game development can be much more iterative, as it’s a much more flexible and responsive process. Coding up some logic is a completely different type of investment than cutting steel.

Mold for the Höffner Bass- These are high grade steel and weigh a few thousand pounds each

JT: The lead times are SO much greater. We basically had to have the shape and features defined 6 months ahead of Beta. Once we've cut the steel for the molds, there is no going back. Additionally, when you are making a piece of software, QA testing is "simple". You know that under certain conditions, a piece of software, by definition will always produce the same result. Working with consumer-grade electronics is a different story. There is a human element of randomness in each solder joint, board placement and lubricant application. It's hard to find a set of controls that are robust and cost-effective. Mistakes are expensive. Due to the seasonality of the product, we made everything in short, giant batches. There was little room for continuous improvement.

MR: I wouldn't know, never developed a video game really!

What was your first experience seeing the hardware out in the wild?

JT: I picked up an RB box at the Merritt Island, FL GameStop and went home and played it with a bunch of drunken rocket scientists. I remember writing a note to myself that Harmonix had done something very, very special. These relatively reserved and "proper" folk totally let loose and were screaming the lyrics of "Run To the Hills" before running off to jump into the surf. It was an crazy night.

MB: We got the first RB bundles into the hardware department at Harmonix before anyone else at the company had retail software. I took one home (surreptitiously) and had the first Rock Band party in the wild. It was great! Mike Verrette, Dan Brakeley, and a few others were playing and yelling lyrics at the top of our lungs. John Drake lived upstairs at the time. He had been fast asleep, but came down to see what the ruckus was.

Testing the drums - Playing on easy? PSsH! No way to get them to kick it up a notch and they also only had 3 songs "Paranoid (Cover Version)," "American Woman" & "Blackhole Sun"

DS: The first time I saw the RB bundle in a store, I couldn't help but inspect the taping on the box. I was happy it was pretty clean. It was very surreal, actually. We were so involved with the process - we knew how many people are involved with the assembly of each box, each one ends up feeling kind of hand made. I notice the date codes, the placement of stickers, the quality of the packaging materials, all sorts of details that most people don't care about (or even notice).

MR: A very memorable experiencing seeing a piece of hardware I developed was at the Toys R Us in Times Square. It was great to see the keyboard there in one of the most visited stores in the world. I also saw RB peripherals in France which made it a lot easier to explain to my in-laws what I did (they live there).

A glimpse into the thousandss of Rock Band bundles - Each box has two Rock Band bundles, 350 fit in a shipping container.

Can you share a crazy story about your time in hardware development?

JT: China. Nate told me, "your first trip to China will age you 7 years." He wasn't lying. It's a different world and spending weeks at a time across the world is exhausting. We'd spend days moving back and forth between factories, riding in the back of vans, going through customs checkpoints and eating very strange, exciting meals. It was some of the most excitement I've ever had at work. I was always excited to go, and always excited to come back. I'm so thankful to have gotten that experience.

DS: There's a photo of me riding a horse with a handmade t-shirt that reads "I don't speak Chinese" written in Chinese. We got into some pretty weird s**t.

Descending into shipping containers - a conveyor belt set up outdoors for loading cans heading into the port

MR: I think there are quite a few that happened on our adventures to China. Some I can share, others not so much. I recall setting off fireworks in the parking lot of our hotel, the illustrious Hyatt Garden. I recall strolling the streets of Chang An with a fellow bearded hardware member and being stared at by the locals. I played basketball a lot with the staff of the hotel while I was staying there and was always happy to see them on each return to China. We really developed a lot of great relationships with our partners abroad and when I think of those times I'm sentimental. It was often hard work, often long hours, but we always seemed to have fun and it's an experience I'll always cherish.

MB: China was absolutely crazy. I went from a naïve college student to a Scotch drinking old man over the course of a month. You¹re working 20-hour days, driving around the countryside, going back and forth to Hong Kong, eating food that you couldn't identify (or KFC, which everyone in China assumed we'd love), and then singing Karaoke every night with all your coworkers. I never imagined when I boarded the plane that I'd end up singing the Bee Gees with Daniel Sussman, my boss at the time. Dude's got a mean falsetto.

There was also that time I had a day off, alone in Hong Kong, and ended up being the only person in Hong Kong Disneyland

Solo fun at Hong Kong Disneyland

If you could bring any instrument to Rock Band, what would it be?

DS: I think we covered all the right instruments, but I wish we would have been able to do more with special finishes and custom colors for the Strat.

JT: I'm pretty bummed that the folding drum never had a chance to retail. If you're asking about new instruments? I think a digital tambourine would be fun. Everyone loves hitting stuff. That and the upright bass.

MB: I think I’d rather see improvements to existing instruments rather than brand new instruments. But, if I had to choose, I’d go with the saxophone, so we could play “Careless Whisper” by George Michael. That song was playing EVERYWHERE ALL THE TIME in China.

Getting on a boat - A mish mash of cans filled with Rock Band bundles for the holidays

What do you see as the next step in music gaming hardware?

JT: Does VidRhythym count?

MB: I think touch experiences are pretty awesome, but nothing’s ever going to feel quite like buttons, pedals, and pads. I'm excited to see what people do with the Mustang and the Fender Squier. I think the ability to simultaneously send MIDI signals and standard guitar signal has yet to be fully explored.

DS: As I see it, the next step is for people to get into interesting creative applications of the existing RB hardware. The fact that they work as MIDI instruments belies applications that transcend console gaming - the fantasy for us is that people would get into music through Rock Band, learn to play through RB Pro and then compose their own songs and push them back into the system through RBN. I want to see a continual blurring of the line between simulation and the real thing.