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By Dan Neil

September 29th 2010 at 8:00AM

AUDIO SPECIAL: How the DJ Hero team mixed turntables, bpm and scratch into their game

The creation of DJ Hero has been a history of mixing together the seemingly unrelated worlds of DJing and video game development. This process has generally produced a harmonious blend, but sometimes the familiar thud of two records slipping out of sync. After many broken record needles, scratched vinyl and late nights fuelled by energy drinks, we reckon we’ve cracked it. Here’s a quick rewind through the history of how the music for DJ Hero came about.

Switching on the turntable
DJing and Hip-Hop has always been a passion for FreeStyleGames and so after the 2006 release of our break-dancing game, B-Boy, a DJing title seemed like the logical next step. There had been pure button-tapping, rhythm-action games like Beatmania before, but we wanted to make a different game. We wanted to capture the heart of what DJing is about; cross-fading, scratching, remixing and DSP effects. A game where just like a DJ, the player gets to manipulate and play around with classic records.

We’ve also always been crazy about mash-ups, and they seemed like a great basis for a video game, with their balance of the familiar and fresh, and the fun in blending two records together – the music and vocals playing off each other to create new genres, melodies and lyrics.
However, simple mash-ups weren’t quite right for a DJing game. A smooth blend of two songs doesn’t include the DJ performance element required to provide the exciting interaction of a game, so we needed to build a team who could create the action-filled music the title would need.

Put the needle on the record
We pulled together the best talent from the various musical worlds that we wanted to collide. We brought together mash-up DJs, DMC scratch champions and glitch-edit remixers with the aim of blending scratching, live DJ techniques and mash-up musical aesthetics. We put them in a studio in the east end of London for a few months, and watched what happened.

Exciting mixes with the musical selection and sensibilities of mash-ups started to emerge. This was a sonic style and reproduction of DJing that we were able to build game mechanics around – an interface, and a controller.
Music was driving the shape of the game.

Mixes are gameplay
Our next key breakthrough was an understanding of the extent to which we’d have to learn to craft the mixes to meet the needs of the game. When Metallica wrote Enter Sandman, the way that the guitar riff might look if translated into dots sliding down a TV screen wouldn’t have been a major consideration. The game-play in Guitar Hero is driven by the development team choosing songs with great guitar lines, and then finding a compelling visual notation for them.

The game-play in DJ Hero is the scratching, the edits, the samples and the interaction of the two records. Every game-play action had to be first crafted musically, and so the DJs weren’t just creating mash-ups full of clever audio manipulations, they were entering into the world of video game level design. Now the two records slip a little out of time.

Making mixes that feel completely connected to the player, are at the correct difficulty for the career mode progression, have fun and unique game-play without compromising the flow of the music, and are musically strong enough to be approved by artists who have never approved a mash-up before, proved difficult. Very, very difficult.

The mixes were being created and notated in two different worlds. DJs made the mixes and game developers notated them and integrated them into the game. Communicating and balancing the complex requirements of both the gameplay and music at times seemed impossible.

The breakthrough came when we understood and embraced the dual nature of the DJ’s role. With lots of help from the design team, the DJs took on this role, and learned to notate their own mixes for the game.

The music informs the gameplay, but crucially it was able to feed back into the music creation process in real-time, so that the music could be shaped to play as we wanted. We’d closed the loop between music and gameplay. The edits, scratches and musical choices were now being heard in real-time, but also played in-real time on the controller, and the music morphed and twisted by the DJs to make the best game.

Building a DJ Army
With the support of Activision, we were able to build a dedicated facility in London purely for the creation of DJ Hero mixes.

Internally, and with our wider network of external music producers, DJ Hero now pulls in music from over 50 contributors, from unknown but hugely talented producers, right through to massive names like Tiësto & DJ Shadow. All of the DJs working on DJ Hero had to grasp the duality of their role, using their own musical skills to explore new ways of driving the player interactions and game-play.

Playing out
We were amazed by the reaction to the music of DJ Hero. Winning the Develop Award for Audio Accomplishment, the Spike award for Best Soundtrack, and being BAFTA nominated for Use Of Audio was a massive honour.

We’ve just completed our second album with DJ Hero 2, and can’t wait to see the reaction to the mixes that the DJ team have cooked up this time.

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