Thursday, March 03, 2011

Initial Impressions on the Squier Rock Band 3 Pro Guitar

It's a Guitar!
Here's a quick and dirty flash snapshot with some even quicker and dirtier Photoshop masking, showing (Left to Right) the Rock Band 1 Strat, the new Pro Rock Band 3 Squier, an actual Stratocaster, and the Rock Band 2 Strat. The Squier's built in string mute takes the place of the neck pickup, but the bridge pickup is indeed functional when plugged into that Fender Deluxe amp that all these instruments (real, fake, and hybrid) are posing in front of.

The Guitar Pickup
So far, I've only banged out a few quick chord progressions and simple riffs. The pickup is a little noisier, and not as "hot" as either of the single coils or the humbucker in my trusty hot-rodded Strat (or the humbuckers on an Epiphone Dot Studio semi-hollow body). You have to keep the volume knob set much higher on this guy to get similar output SPL levels, because it's just naturally quieter than its cousins. I'll have to come back at some other time to figure out how to properly comment on the tone -- it wasn't offensive by any means, but it does seem a little bit "flatter" and "less interesting" than the other pickups and pickup combinations at my disposal. The pickup is passive, and you really don't want to turn the switch for the active electronics (MIDI, etc.) on when this thing is amped, unless you want an irritating fixed-rate metronome and extra noise to come through your amp.

Fit and Finish
When the UPS guy handed me the box, it seemed light to me. Upon further subjective review, this axe is indeed noticeably lighter than the Strat, but it seems extremely real compared to the 3/4 scale plastic toys. The other thing you'll notice is the sensor package on the fretboard -- it sticks up above where the fretboard would normally end, making for an interesting architecture between the nut and the tuning keys (compared to the Strat, below). The body is apparently a little bit thicker, as things at that end look fairly normal.

I haven't exhaustively tested the out-of-box intonation by playing open - octave - harmonic with the tuner in line, but it wasn't obviously off. What will require some tweaking is the string profile. To me, the strings were unnaturally aligned in a plane out of the box, making it a little more challenging than it should be to hit the 3rd and 4th strings accurately without peeking when playing the in-game tutorials. There's normally a slight arc to the strings, and because this was absent, it felt wrong trying to play riffs. Mercifully, the saddles are adjustable, and the allen wrench is included, so this should be a reasonably straightforward operation. The action is not as low as the Strat, but is not unreasonably high by any means.

The included strings feel like they may be .010s -- pretty comfortable, and they were wound very cleanly (better than I did on the Strat, for sure). As expected, the tuning keys aren't as precise as the higher-cost units I've grown accustomed to. They remind me of my first electric guitar that I had as a kid; they get the job done, but you can feel the minor spacing and slop in the gear train when trying to dial in the tuning.

It's a Game Peripheral!
The version of tablature that Harmonix came up with will take some getting used to before I'll graduate to higher difficult levels, but the fact that it tells you what you currently have fretted is already proving useful. The aforementioned super-planar string profile threw me off a couple of times, and I think it will be easier to accurately jump between strings when playing single notes once I do a little bit of adjustment. (Playing the same "riffs" from the tutorials on my Strat seemed easier.) Even in Easy Pro mode, I can tell that getting good scores at higher difficulties will require actually learning parts of the song, particularly the less-predictable solos and bridges.

I've grown used to sight-reading in 5-button Expert and Hard modes, and haven't practiced a song in a long time. It will take discipline to actually repeat sections, use practice mode, and learn songs if I want to ever play them in the harder difficulties. For single notes, the tablature is easier to try to sight-read than the Pro keyboard track is, but I haven't done much with their chord notation yet...

My normal playing position is just far enough away that I'll probably stick a USB extension cable in line with the 9' cable on the Mad Catz MIDI Pro adapter so it's not laying on the floor. The buttons on the guitar can handle all of the navigation, and the select button and accelerometer can kick off overdrive. So, you don't have to use the buttons on the MIDI adapter for much of anything in-game. The guitar shipped with a 2m MIDI cable, which would be a little long if you were clipping the adapter to a belt or the guitar strap (also included). All of my Guitar Hero and Rock Band controllers have always been wireless, so it's a little bit of a bummer to have to string the MIDI adapter across the room to use the Pro Squier.

Slides are pretty natural in the game, but there's no tremolo so folks who love their whammy bar are going to be disappointed... Also, if you try to bend a held note, the sensors will register that you're on a different string, and you'll break the note. So, no embellishment! It will be interesting to see how the game handles bends (maybe I will have to upgrade that Stevie Ray Vaughn song).

It's a MIDI controller!
Sorry, I haven't had the chance to try this yet.  Maybe over the weekend...