"Guitar Hero" RocksWAVEGROUP CARVES ITS NICHE IN INTERACTIVE MUSIC VIDEOGAMES 2/01/2008 7:00 AM Eastern
It's two days after Christmas, a time when many companies are closed for vacation or coasting lazily into the new year. But at the headquarters of WaveGroup Sound in Fremont, Calif., just north of San Jose, there's work being done in nearly all of the facility's studios and editing suites, much of it centered around recording and mixing tunes for a Latin music/rhythm game called Samba de Amigo being published by Sega for the Nintendo Wii platform. “It's a casual Wii game, originally released in the late '90s for Sega Saturn,” explains WaveGroup owner/president Will Littlejohn, who's giving me a tour of the facility. “With all the interest now in interactive music games, this is a natural.”
It's also a “natural” that WaveGroup would be working on the game. During the past five years, the company has established itself as the undisputed leader in producing tracks for the new generation of wildly successful interactive music videogames: Nearly all of the music tracks for Guitar Hero, Guitar Hero II and Guitar Hero Encore: Rock the '80s were produced, recorded and mixed by WaveGroup, and even on games such as Guitar Hero III and Rock Band, where the emphasis has moved to using recordings by the original artists, WaveGroup still contributed numerous cuts to each (as well as all the crowd sounds for Rock Band). Additionally, WaveGroup has been part of a number of hot karaoke games and the phenomenally successful Dance Dance Revolution.
“It's funny to do the math on the exposure on this material in these games,” Littlejohn says. “The Guitar Hero franchise has sold over 10 million units and we've produced so many of the songs — we figure we're up to something like 250 million individual recordings that have been acquired through the Guitar Hero franchise alone. We're really happy, too, because it's exposing the artists who wrote these songs and the bands that performed them originally, attracting a new generation of people to their music. You've got hip hop kids playing David Bowie songs.”
For those of you not familiar with Guitar Hero, it's a videogame (available on multiple formats) in which the controller is a small plastic version of a Gibson guitar, except instead of strings and frets it has a fixed row of color-coded push buttons for “fingering” and a raised lever where the pickups would be for “strumming.” Once you choose the animated guitarist you want to be in the game — anyone from mohawked punks to rocker girls to Slash himself — and select a song, the screen depicts a view down a guitar neck (as well as your animated band playing). Then, different colored “notes” corresponding to the fingering buttons come rolling toward you on the screen, and it's your job, as a totally awesome rock guitar god, to reproduce the “notes” as they come speeding at you — red-red-blue-blue-blue-red-green-green-red…gotta keep up! — and supply the rhythm/time with your other strumming hand. Any note you miss is greeted with a clank, and if you miss enough of 'em (trust me on this one), the crowd in the video starts to boo and then the music screeches to a halt because you have failed so miserably! It takes quite a bit of skill and dexterity, and there are different levels of difficulty that allow you to go from competent picker to shredding whammy-bar-slamming maniac.
The more recent entrant into the field, Rock Band, expands on the Guitar Hero concept by adding other instruments — from drums to vocals, allowing up to four people to play (or sing!) at once. (Guitar Hero III also allows guitar and bass duels.) They're both great party games, completely addictive, and when played well do have some of the feeling of actually playing music.
WaveGroup got in on the ground floor of this phenomenon, but has been involved with music, games and other media productions since the mid-'90s. Not surprisingly, Littlejohn originally came from the music world. “I was on the road as a keyboard player for 10 years in the 1980s. In the '90s, I spent four or five years as a real estate broker, but on the side I was doing studio work out of my house in Sacramento. Then, to fill in some gaps in my audio education, I took a bunch of courses [at Sacramento City College], and I had a teacher there, John Altman, who turned me on to an internship doing post for the ABC-TV series Bump in the Night.”
That show was created from top to bottom in Brisbane, just south of San Francisco. The audio post was done in a one-room facility run by James Allen, whose small company was called Wave-Group Sound. Cool as the show was, it did not survive ABC's purge of programming when the network was gobbled up by Disney, so the crew at WaveGroup had to look for other post opportunities. Not long after, the company moved down the road to Santa Clara, Allen left the business and Littlejohn took over. As their reputation spread, WaveGroup attracted many corporate clients for post work (still one of the company's big revenue streams, along with telephony jobs) and increasingly expanded into videogame music and sound design.
“We worked on a ClayFighter game in the mid-'90s, doing sound design,” Littlejohn says, “and we've been involved ever since. We've probably worked on 40 or 50 titles at least, and all kinds — from shooters to sports games. One of my favorites was the Blade Runner game in the late '90s, which we did for Westwood Studios. That was a sound design job where our specific assignment was to create the ambiences and effects from the movie.
“Then, when the consoles hit [PlayStation, Xbox, etc.] a few years ago, with more memory and higher resolution for audio assets, that's when it really got fun. These advances really played into our post experience.”
As the business grew, WaveGroup moved again, settling into its current warehouse location nestled in a nondescript business park close to both Silicon Valley and the Bay Area's larger metropolises. The 6,000-square-foot “mother ship,” as Littlejohn jokingly refers to the Fremont facility, is based around a good-sized tracking room and a control room originally built for the hard-rocking band Y&T many years ago, but which has been completely revamped by WaveGroup.
“We gutted the building and re-engineered and rewired the entire thing,” Littlejohn remembers. “We redid the acoustics, working with ASC on the main room, and moved the old machine room, which was placed behind the control room, out to a more central location in a corridor and created more of a star configuration with other smaller rooms [interconnected]. We have six Pro Tools rooms — three HD rigs and a bunch of 002s, and various other workstations. We also have a couple of HD rigs in a San Francisco satellite facility.”
Two rooms — the main Mix A and one of the editing suites — are equipped with Sony DMX 100 consoles: “We bought two of the first ones to hit the West Coast, and they've been great,” Littlejohn notes, “even with the transition over to all the digital stuff.” Mix A is equipped for surround mixing (5.1 or 7.1, with Genelec monitors), offers a nice complement of both traditional outboard gear (Avalon, Eventide, etc.) and digital plug-ins, and has a unique feature: WaveGroup's Sue Pelmulder, who has a background in both civil engineering and sound engineering, designed the main work desk in the control room to move on dolly tracks and be modular, “so the producer's desk can pop off, we can move the board into the middle of the room and the Pro Tools rig becomes a support station. Or you can have the console off to the side as a monitoring station,” she says.
On the day I was there, Santana lead singer Tony Lindsay was in Mix A preparing for a vocal session with producer/bassist Darryl Anders for the Samba de Amigo game. (Anders also played on numerous tracks in the Guitar Hero games.) Down the hall, in what's known as Edit B, Scott Dugdale — an Emmy-winning composer and musician who played in the band Leo Swift with Littlejohn during the '80s, and has been with WaveGroup for four years — sits at a Pro Tools rig surrounded by keyboards and a monstrous percussion setup. “I'm sketching out a little tune I'm writing for the [Wii] game,” he offers. “It has a nice retro-samba feel to it. I've got a scratch-chord progression in it, Nick [Gallant, another staff musician and engineer] is going to lay down some nice acoustic guitar stuff over it, and then I'm going to put in some nonlyrical vocal lines, a lá the old Sergio Mendes sort of sound.” Meanwhile, across the building, Gallant himself, who is also the music producer for the game, is in another edit suite working on a different tune.
“We all bring different things to the music,” Gallant says. “We might take a straight-ahead Latin pop song, add surdu drums and whatnot, then add breaks to it that make it more fun [for the game players]. We'll take it from the idea stage through all our levels here, [which might include] Scott down the hall doing a bunch of piano and percussion work, and then sending it down the hall for me to do some bass and guitar and vocals.”
Littlejohn estimates that WaveGroup has produced more than 400 songs specifically for games since breaking into the market with Karaoke Revolution five years ago. That game was developed by the Cambridge, Mass — based company Harmonix Music Systems (first known for the “rhythm action” games Frequency and Amplitude), which is also the co-creator of Guitar Hero. The impetus to make that game, Littlejohn says, came from a small Bay Area company called RedOctane (since acquired by Activision), which started out as an online videogame rental service in 1999 but made its mark over the next few years as developers of dance pads for Dance Dance Revolution and other video dance games. RedOctane and Harmonix joined forces to make a guitar peripheral game, “to bring the magic of playing music to the person who's not a musician,” Littlejohn says. “They called us up and asked if we wanted to be involved, and we didn't think twice. We jumped right in.
“In the first Guitar Hero, we produced all the music in the main game — 30 songs — and it was also our responsibility to create the road map: What do you play? What's the most visceral part you would play at any moment during the song, essentially the air guitar part, as there may be multiple guitars jamming,” Littlejohn continues. “So that was the parameter we started to work with. We also helped develop what I think is one of the key parts of the game, which is what happens when you miss a note — it's gone [with a clank]. I was a big advocate for the guitar part dropping out completely because the pay-off is playing it right: Then you hear the song as it was intended to be heard and you are actively participating in the music.”
The Guitar Hero tracks were recorded using a combination of WaveGroup staff musicians and a large pool of outside players (some well-known), who were “cast” song by song, depending on the style, “just like you would in L.A. or Nashville,” Littlejohn says. “A lot of people assume we have these cover bands come in and perform the songs, but that's not how it's done. We approach these songs a number of different ways. We've done full live recordings; sometimes we'll do rhythm sections only; we've done them one piece at a time — it really depends on the song and what we're trying to accomplish.
As for the all-important guitar parts, “The first thing is bringing in the right player,” he says. “Then we basically break down the song and create the solos. In some cases, the arrangement and the solos are similar to the original recording. But in other cases, we'll change the arrangement and add solos that don't exist in the original recording. We like to stay true to the original recording in terms of the vibe and the feel and we put a lot of thought into what a guitarist of this style would do on these additional solos. Obviously, we're not going to put a bunch of '90s grunge licks in a '70s classic-rock song. So we'll talk about that and the general arrangement of the song with the guitarist, and then we let the guitarist come up with their take on what that would be.”
Do they think about the degree of difficulty for the prospective gamers? “We're thinking about that a little more than we used to be. By the second game, we started getting a little more evil,” Littlejohn says with a chuckle. “You're always going to find people who want more of a challenge and will complain that it's not as hard as it should be. There's a gaming mentality with a certain subset: ‘I need something that's literally impossible to play that I can focus on for the next five years!’ [Laughs] But that wasn't what we set out to accomplish — we wanted to help put out a game that gave you the feeling of what it's like to play music. But, yes, we do factor the level of difficulty into our arrangement choices.”
And though some in the mainstream press have suggested that interactive music games will keep people from taking up real musical instruments (as sports videogames supposedly keep many kids, teens and young adults from exercising), Littlejohn isn't buying that argument at all.
“I believe the opposite,” Littlejohn says. “There's a lot of anecdotal evidence that it's driving more people toward instruments. One of our guitarists, Lance Taber, besides being sort of a rock star in the game world, also teaches, and he said he's seen a lot of kids who've played these games coming in and they've already mastered the relationship of rhythm-fingering versus the strum rhythm, and that's a big part of learning guitar. The game engages that part of your brain. Obviously, it's different — you don't have theory, you're not playing real notes — but the rhythm part of it is similar. I really think that in 10 or 15 years, we're going to see big artists who got turned on to playing music by this thing, and in that way I feel honored being part of it. We're bringing something positive to the world. You can't ask for anything more than that.”
Blair Jackson is Mix's senior editor.