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Fun with MIDI
So I play Rock Band 3. Not necessarily well, but I play it. If you don't know it, it's a "rhythm game", where you play an "instrument", usually a guitar-shaped controller with 5 colored buttons and a "strum bar". As rock music plays, colored dots stream down the screen, and you have press the same colored buttons and hit the strum bar when the dots reach the bottom of the screen. The pattern of the dots streaming down correspond (loosely) to the notes in the music being played. The rhythm is usually the same, but with just 5 buttons, there's a limit to actually matching the pitch. Shifting up and down the neck of the guitar as the pitch goes up and down is about it. The music the player "plays" gets simplified as the difficulty goes from expert to hard to medium to easy, in much the same way that a folk musician may be told "if it gets too hard or too fast, just play the important notes" to simplify playing a complex piece.

A while back, when I first got into it, I ended up getting a "Pro Keyboard", which is a special controller for Rock Band 3 in the shape of a 25 key "keytar". In the game, when playing in "pro keys" mode instead of going for just 5 buttons, you get to play a perhaps simplified version of the real keyboard part of the song. The promise is made that at expert level, every note in the actual song would be presented and played. If you master the song in expert mode, you can play the song for reals. The reviews I searched out for it at the time said things like "for an $80 instrument, it makes a surprisingly good MIDI keyboard, with features you wouldn't expect for that price". That (paraphrased) review wasn't on a gaming site, that was on a electronic music site, which normally reviews things by Yamaha, Korg, Fender, etc, not Electronic Arts, Nintendo, or Mad Catz. Getting a real MIDI instrument was one of the reasons I went for the Pro Keyboard.

Playing the pro keys mode is hard. Timing seems to be much more critical, and it's easy for me to lose where I'm at on the keyboard. I can't look at both the screen and the keyboard at the same time, so I have to jump my hand blindly across the keyboard at times, meaning that sometimes I end up playing a few keys off, doing the piano equivalent of typing "Mre Uptl" instead of "New York". Frustration sets in easily, and I end up going back to non-pro mode. I like the non-pro guitar.

Mad Catz also made a "Pro Guitar" for Rock Band, but it was close to $150, and while tempting, not really my thing. Instead of strings, it had 17 frets, each with 6 string-shaped buttons, along the neck, for 102 buttons total. It also had six short strings where you strum or pick, so you could press the buttons on the neck, and then strum/pick the strings, and it would register the appropriate notes in the game. Again the reviews said things like "For a $150 MIDI guitar, this is surprisingly good, with features you wouldn't expect for that price". Again, that paraphrased review was from the same site as the keyboard review. The guitar was styled on a Fender Mustang electric guitar. The idea of getting a guitar-based MIDI controller was intriguing, but not worth it at $150.

The craze for rhythm games like Rock Band 3 has faded, and Harmonix has stopped making the games, and stopped producing downloadable songs for it in April (the last downloadable song: American Pie by Don McLean). That means the price of the equipment is falling/fallen because of reduced demand and a need to ship old stock. The Mad Catz Fender Mustang Pro Guitar for RB3 was available on Amazon last week for $30 (Prime eligible, free shipping). So I got it.

Playing the pro guitar mode is hard. Timing seems to be much more critical; either that, or the strings are difficult to get to register properly. I can accept failing the training because I haven't trained my left hand to hit the right frets yet, but I should be able to easily get through the "play an open E string at the right times" lesson.

I also picked up a USB MIDI interface for my computer, which is a $4 cable that plugs into the USB port and gives me two MIDI cable ends (one IN, one OUT) for connecting to an instrument, sound module, etc. I don't know if this was a piece of crap, or if there's something wrong with the MIDI instruments I have, for I can't get either of them to talk to my computer. I might have to splurge on a more expensive one. Unfortunately, the price break is considerable: similar no-name cables are in the $5-10 range, a highly regarded one from E-Mu costs $27, and one from Yamaha costs $48 (marked down from $80), with a Roland one costing $59. M-Audio makes a more rugged one that's more than just a cable with some lumps in it (it's got a box, with real female MIDI ports, 1/4" jacks, XLR inputs, and meters and everything) for $100, but that's a bit overkill for me. I'll probably try the E-Mu one, eventually.