Wii Music Review

Category : Wii

As a general rule I am trying to keep my Wii LoopMachine blog and this Amazing Rolo blog from overlapping too much, but this is a topic I feel very strongly about, and so I must apologize for cross-posting! What follows is the review of Nintendo’s Wii Music that I just posted on the LoopMachine site. enjoy!

Do you kind of vaguely enjoy music? Do you want an inoffensive way to entertain your family, without the embarrassment and discomfort usually associated with video games? Do you want pretend to give yourself (or your children) a musical education? Do you have £50 to spend? Well, the newly released Wii Music is for you!

I’ll let Nintendo’s official website speak for itself:

“Musicians in your band jam by simply playing their instruments to the beat of a song or by improvising to their heart’s content. Play faster. Play slower. Skip a beat, or throw in 10 more. No matter what you do, Wii Music automatically transforms your improv stylings into great music. There are no mistakes—just playing for the pure joy of playing.”

Creating a system that allows people to easily play music is a noble aim, of course, but this rhetoric turns farcical when compared to the actual gameplay, which revolves around forcing unnatural movements on the user to create something like music, all within an educationally dubious framework. It’s a shame, really, since the Wii is a console that could potentially lend itself to exciting musical software.

There are several ways of playing Wii Music, including Jam Mode, Improv, several mini games, and a “Lessons” section. In Jam Mode you can pick an instrument and play along with a preprogrammed song, either with friends or with an automatic backing band. However, using Jam Mode for the first time is also your introduction to what turns out to be the maddeningly repetitive use of “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” throughout the game. In order to unlock any other songs you must play through this song, and the same applies to the minigames. In addition, virtually any time a feature is demonstrated, the demo song is…well, you get the idea.

Putting that to one side, what about making music? Surely you can rock out and play anything you want just by moving the controller about in an intuitive way, taking advantage of the unique capabilities of the Wiimote! Well…no. Playing an instrument, for the most part, involves shaking the controllers just enough to trigger a note, the pitch of which you have no control over. To “play” a piano, for example, you are told to “move your hands up and down as if you were playing a real piano”. This translates as “hold the controller however you want and shake it”. No matter how you hold or move the controller, the notes are preprogrammed and will simply trigger based on when you shake it. So much for creativity. Playing a violin or cello involves an unintuitive series of jerky movements and button presses, all to produce a horrifying General MIDI soundbank string tone. It sounds an awful lot like browsing the internet in 1997.

Of course, many of these faults can be attributed to the inherently inaccurate motion capture data from the Wii remote. Accelerometers are tricky things, and it would be impossible to make a good emulation of a piano with a Wiimote right now. It begs the question – why did they even try? What is the point of a half-assed instrument simulator, particularly when the upcoming Wii Motion Plus promises much finer motion control?

But back to the music – performing a song is mildly entertaining for a minute or so, once you get a hang of the controls for your instrument, but the song choice and styles are so bland it defies logic. It seems outlandish that a game that has skimped on so much (graphics are standard Wii blobs, there are very few levels, sound quality is low, etc) only offers only 52 songs, ranging from “Yankee Doodle” to “Jingle Bell Rock”. Even these are not available all at once – you have to work through endless soft rock muzak renditions of “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” and “Daydream Believer” before you get to the good stuff – yes! I can finally do a jazz version of “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go”! What’s more, there is an odd insistence on creating “music videos” of every performance. After each Jam you are asked to create album art for your creation, and then you are forced to watch through your performance – in a fit of frustration I started mashing buttons on the controller, only then discovering a hidden way to escape that torture.

Perhaps the most redeeming mode of play is the handbells mini-game, which challenges you to swing your remotes at the correct times in order to play the melody correctly. Playing with several other people is quite fun, like Guitar Hero for church music. It’s challenging and fun, and the Wiimote/Nunchuk system works very well for ringing bells.

“Ah ha!” says Nintendo, “but look at what differentiates our product from those silly Guitar Hero games! In Wii Music you can improvise on any instrument you like!” Sure enough, you can pick from a range of instruments and play your heart away. But once again, you have little to no control over the pitch of the notes you play, so any improvisation quickly turns into random shaking and button pressing. The possible exceptions are the percussion instruments, who of course lend themselves to just that kind of movement. You can even bring a Balance Board into the mix to play a drum set, which more or less works. With a bit of practice you can play some fun beats, although having to press different buttons to trigger the cymbals, tom toms, and snare is rather confusing.

Strangest of all, though, is the choice of instruments. They range from the obvious (guitar, piano) to the “exotic” (sitar), to the absurd. This last category includes Dog and Cat Suits, allowing your character to hop around yapping and meowing, Cheerleader, where you can indulge your strange adolescent fantasties and dress up in pom poms and a miniskirt, and best of hall – hand clap. Yes, video game technology has advanced so far that we are able to clap our hands virtually, simply by swinging Wii remotes! All that is missing is a flying car, and we will have reached the Future!

All of this is harmless, of course, or at least it would be if it wasn’t all placed within a framework of supposed musical education. There is a “lessons” section, where you can develop your musical ability by learning how to play different styles, and miniature games with listening and playing tests. In these sections, of course, the supposed freedom of musical expression that is touted throughout the marketing of Wii Music goes completely out the window, in favor of a subjective and punitive approach. Conduct the orchestra however you want, but of course if you conduct incorrectly you will get a lower score, and your poor little character will sag his head. In Jam Mode you can “improvise to your heart’s content”, but there is an obnoxious ticking metronome coming out of the Wii remote speaker, making sure you don’t deviate too far from the party line. And the hearing test contains such insanely pointless questions as “Which tune fits the feeling of ‘I’ll never get my homework done?’” It’s an ethnomusicologist’s worst nightmare!

This approach truly terrifies me, since I am sure it will do more to discourage potential musicians than anything else. There is very little allowance for creativity in Wii Music, and a truly tenuous link between movement and sound creation. The emulation of the instruments is tacky and the sound quality is shocking, and any attempt to describe it as a musical educational tool is simply disingenuous – at no point in the game is any connection made to the world outside of cheap graphical representations of instruments. Never does Sebastian Von Tutte, the irritating guide that helps you through the game, suggest “you’ve done really well, have you thought about trying a real piano?” No, rather the game is designed to give you incremental rewards such as new songs to play along with, thereby keeping you from actually applying any interest you may have gained in music to an actual instrument.

To be perfectly clear – the concept of Wii Music certainly does not bother me, as it does some gamers. In fact, I think music software for gaming consoles is only going to get bigger. However, Wii Music represents a massive disappointment, and even a step backwards. The future of music games is in creativity, and the motion control of the Wii offers a particularly good way of allowing for that creativity. However, Nintendo has not only put no thought into how motion can and should be used for making music, but also created a “music game” with extremely limited and low quality music, and a hypocritical approach to education and improvisational freedom. What a shame. Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to get back into my Cat Suit.

Wii + Video = Fun

Tomorrow night I will be doing a performance at the launch event for the new issue of Yuck n Yum, a publication by a group of pretty hip artists in Dundee.

This show is going to be a bit of a departure for me, as I will be doing some new things that I have not yet tried in public! Hurray! Because of this, I thought it would be fun to give a sneak peek of just what exactly I will be doing. That’s what blogs are for, right?

This picture shows most of what I will be using, conveniently labeled for you (click to enlarge).
The equipment list is:

  • 3 Wii remotes with Nunchuk attachments
  • Laptop
  • one-stringed guitar, fitted with ultrasonic and light sensors
  • Arduino microcontroller
  • mixer, preamps, etc
  • projector

I’ve set out a process for creating sound out of all of this mess, with video as the starting point (another first for me).

The first step, then, is the video. I made a patch in Jitter for controlling two video streams independently, and overlaying them. The two videos can be warped, stretched, colored, and mixed together in real time. The output of each manipulated video stream is being analyzed, and sent to a synthesizer which is creating sound based on the visuals. Thus, by manipulating the videos, which are then generating sound, the video manipulation becomes an “instrument” of sorts.

In addition, the audio of each video can also be used independently of the visuals and passed through various effects.

The guitar, meanwhile, is fitted with various sensors that are plugged into an Arduino. These sensors will control sampling and playback of the guitar signal, creating textures underneath all of the sound from the videos.

Finally, the webcam on my laptop will also be activated, using live footage of myself to trigger more synthesis in Jitter.

Where do the Wii remotes fit into all of this? Well, rather than sitting in front of my laptop clicking through my Jitter patch, I will be using several wii remotes to control it all, with the ultimate goal of being able to do the whole performance without touching the computer at all. All of the video manipulation, audio effects, guitar sampling and playback, and synthesis will be controlled with the Wii remotes. The rotation of each video, for example, will be controlled by twisting and turning my left hand, while the playback speed of each video will be mapped to the movements of my right hand. A wii remote will be attached to the guitar, so the angle of the instrument will dictate the pitch of the sample playback.

Does that makes sense? My goal was to try and combine video mixing, Wii remotes, and music. If you’re in the Dundee area you should definitely come along. If not, the show will hopefully be recorded and I will definitely post the video as soon as I can.

Live Wii-mixing in Glasgow this weekend

This Saturday I will be playing a set at the Buff Club in Glasgow. Electrorock duo Any Color Black will be playing a show and taking tons of pictures in order to create artwork for their upcoming EP, and I will be remixing some of their songs with the LoopMachine! Expect some crazy Wii music action, and a generally wild night overall.

It’s free, starts at 7:30 (doors at 7) and you can get into the dance party that follows for free! Check out the event website for details. See you there!

apologies to those who have already read this on wiiloopmachine.com

Rolo + Groanbox in the press

Today’s issue of The Independent features not one but two articles that mention me! I’m very proud.

The first is about Wii development, and discusses the Loop Machine at length. The second is about The Groanbox Boys, otherwise known as my brother Cory’s band. I co-produced their first two albums, and we’re planning on doing a third at the end of the month. If you’re in the UK you should catch one of their shows this month, they’re incredible!

Loop Machinen dra til Bergen!

Category : Amazing Rolo, Wii

I’m writing this from Bergen, Norway, where I’m an invited speaker at the Bergen Interactive Music Conference. I’ll be giving a talk and demonstration of the Loop Machine on Wednesday morning. If you’re in the neighborhood I would love to hear from you!

I’ve heard some amazing stuff and met some really interesting people already, so I’ll write another post about some of that in the near future!

The walls have ears

It’s been a long time since my last post, because I’ve been working on several projects at once. One of these has finished up, for the moment, and I’m now back in Edinburgh. I spent most of March in Paris working on a play called “Ces murs qui nous écoutent” (“The Walls Have Ears”), which was written and directed by Fabrice Macaux (loosely based on the novel by Spôjmaï Zariâb) and featured Delphine Zucker in the lead role.

I did a little bit of acting, wrote and recorded original music and performed the sound design live onstage. I also wrote some Wii software for some wireless motion-based sound control, which I will post soon on the Loop Machine site. We performed at the Lavoir Moderne Parisien and the Theatre Sylvie Monfort in Saint Brice.

The story revolves around a woman living and working in a totalitarian country, where books and culture are disallowed. I played the part of her colleague, who disappears after warning her to stop reading books. If you speak French you can read this rather positive review!

Here is one of the songs I wrote for the play…the set was a giant rotating steel cube with colored movable panels. At several key points I would turn the cube while this music played, symbolizing the passage of time. This song is built from many of the sound elements that were used in the rest of the play, such as flipping through pages in a book, the sound of the work bell, and her heartbeat.

The Amazing Rolo – Les jours passent avec lenteur

We did a lot of filming, as well, so I hope to post some video here in the near future.

News on the Loop Machine

Category : Amazing Rolo, Wii

I’ve been busy and productive lately! Check out my Wii Loop Machine site for a new video and a free Wii synthesizer. The video is about the sampling capabilities of v2.0 and features some crazy Wii/Piano action, and the synthesizer works on Leopard! The fun never ends.

Wii Loop Machine 2.0 preview

Category : Amazing Rolo, Wii

As I’ve mentioned many times on this blog before, I am currently working on version 2.0 of my Wii Loop Machine. I’m happy to announce that I’ve just launched a brand new website dedicated entirely to my Wii music software. It has all of my previous Wii blog entries, videos, and information, as well as a brand-new forum for questions, comments, and WLM discussion. I will be posted all of my Wii news on there for the most part from now on.

The software is nearly finished, I’ve started Beta testing and I hope to release it in a few weeks! In the mean time I will be making weekly videos showing off the new and exciting features available in version 2.0. Here is the first video, enjoy!

Wii Loop Machine 2.0 :: an intro on Vimeo or YouTube. Here is a direct link to the video.

Hello from up north

Category : Dundee, Theater, Wii

It’s been a busy month! Since late November I’ve been in Dundee, Scotland most of the time, playing in the Dundee Rep’s production of Jack and the Beanstalk. It’s a panto, which for me is a totally new experience. Non-British readers can learn about panto here. It’s a rather silly form in some ways, with lots of audience participation and cheesy jokes, but this production has very good acting and amazing sets and great original music by John Harris. I’m playing piano, guitar, bass, trumpet, and controlling samples and such with my laptop.

In my spare time I’ve been working on the Wii Loop Machine, of course, and I’m happy to report that things are going well. I’m also happy to announce that I am now an EPIS scholar, which means that I have official support from the University of Edinburgh to develop the Wii Loop Machine, and once this show has finished I will be working on my Wii projects full time.

All of this means that my release date for version 2.0 has been pushed to January. Starting in a few weeks I hope to post videos and screenshots of the software in action! I’m hugely excited to get back at it. Thanks to everyone for your continued support and patience!

The Return of the Wii Loop Machine!

Category : Wii

Over the past month I have been working like crazy on the long-awaited Wii Loop Machine 2.0. It is well on the way, and I hope to release it in around three weeks or so.

I will be giving a sneak peek of the new version this saturday the 3rd of November at the Glasgow Science Center, as part of the “Meet the Scientist” programme. If you’re in Glasgow that day I would love to see you and show off the software…I will be there from 11-4.

During the next few weeks I will be using this space to explain why version 2.0 is so much cooler than version 1.0. A small list of new features includes:

– Completely rebuilt from the ground up, making it far more extendable and ready for updates
– Sample accurate syncing, playback, and tempo adjustment
– Far better and more interesting effects, including a funky modulator, multi-tap delay, and a vastly improved granulator/pitchshifter
– all effects, as well as an EQ, available on every channel
– a movement recorder, which remembers what motions you’ve made and applies them to any effect
– real-time samplers on each channel, which run through all of the effects
– ultra-hip new look designed by jonbro
– and much, much, more.

Check back here for updates.

(photo by Alec, i think)

Guten Tag!

Category : Wii

Tomorrow I am going to Germany, where I’ve been invited to speak at the Audio Mostly conference in Ilmenau about my Wii Loop Machine. I will be presenting a paper entitled “The Wii Loop Machine: Musical Software Development for the Nintendo Wii Remote,” which you can download and read by clicking here. I will even be giving a short performance of the Wii Loop Machine on Friday night! I’m rather excited. If you happen to be in the area don’t hesitate to say hello!