Why mastering the DJ Hero soundtrack requires a new kind of developer

Heard About: DJ Hero

Developer: FreeStyleGames
Publisher: Activision
Platforms: Xbox 360, PS3, PS2, Wii

There’s a special air of excitement surrounding the release of DJ Hero, and the level of support for it from artists and celebrity DJs is striking. Watch the promo videos featuring Grandmaster Flash, Z-Trip and Jazzy Jeff and you will find real connection and energy from a bunch of world-class DJs. And with support from top-ranking artists like Jay-Z and Eminem, the game has been seriously hyped.

Music guru Dan Neil has overseen all music selection and production. “DJ Hero has a scratching and mash-up aesthetic, blending different genre tracks to sit together tonally, rhythmically and lyrically,” he explains.

“Here at FreeStyleGames, we have a group of 16 amazing remixers who created many of the mixes. I had to establish benchmarks, quality control and a good review pipeline, working closely with the design team to constantly improve gameplay – all the while making sure the mixes rocked.”

The game includes a broad range of 102 songs, whose accappellas and instrumentals are mashed-up to create 93 entirely new mixes. Add awesome scratching and FX, and you have something genuinely special where fans are already asking for standalone versions of these bespoke mixes. DJ Hero goes a significant step further creatively than Guitar Hero, by combining tracks in completely new ways for an impactful celebration of turntablism and DJ culture.

Neil’s team is responsible for defining gameplay using MIDI information written alongside the audio construction in Ableton. It’s then interpreted by the game engine into visual player prompts seen onscreen.

“It’s a really interesting process because unlike Guitar Hero, if the gameplay didn’t feel quite right we could actually go in and change the music to suit gameplay objectives – it only takes two minutes to iterate a mix and put it back in the game using our custom export tools,” says Neil.

“Eventually, our staff remixers were thinking about how their music choices would deliver MIDI gameplay patterns right from the beginning of a mix, effectively wearing two hats – music producer and level designer.”

It’s no surprise that the existing reputation of the Hero franchise opened the doors of sync departments worldwide but, nevertheless, asking artists to sanction the re-purposing of their music to the extent DJ Hero demands is a big ask. According to Neil, an atmosphere of respect and am experiential recognition of the team’s bona fide DJ skills have been key.

“We did a lot of taking the game to artists so they could see it was going to be fun and could hear examples we’d already created. When they realised their content was in safe hands they came on board. Obviously we had to wait until we had a decent version of the peripheral. You can’t take a wooden prototype knocked up in [creative director] Jamie Jackson’s garage into Jay-Z’s office and say, ‘Hey look at this weird contraption. Want to be in this game?!’”

As momentum grew, the emails from Activision Santa Monica’s licensing team got more exciting, Neil admits. “You’d get emails – ‘Oh by the way, Black Eyed Peas are in’ – then the next day, ‘By the way, Daft Punk want to be involved too.’ It was amazing – although tough to schedule, especially later on.”

An undoubted highlight of Neil’s role was working with celebrity DJs, explaining to them the gameplay criteria and instructing them on how to create mixes that would make full use of the game’s feature set, all the while not hampering their creativity. For some DJs, this activity happened over the wire with mixes going back and forth for comment. For others, the work took place at Neil’s office or in the DJs’ own home studio.

“Jazzy Jeff came to us – and there he was, right across the room, cutting up LL Cool J – it was very cool. The most unforgettable time for me was with legendary Grandmaster Flash. There I am in Flash’s house, in his studio, asking him to do another take. I definitely had to pinch myself – it was very surreal.

“DJ Hero’s pretty much taken over my life for the last three years but it has been an amazing journey. At the E3 launch party I watched FreeStyleGames’ own Jamie Jackson open the promo show which featured Jay-Z and Eminem. To my right was Usher and to my left was Leonardo DiCaprio. That’s when you really double-take and realise you’re on the inside of this massive whirlwind. And yet, the weird thing is I get the feeling we’ve hardly even started.”

John Broomhall is an independent audio director, consultant and content provider

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