Video drummers hone skill sets on 'Rock Band'

Probably the biggest knock on video games is that no matter how much time you devote to them, the skills you acquire while playing don't much translate to real life.

That's why it's so strange and compelling to pull up a YouTube video of Lee Olson playing virtual drums on Rock Band, one of the class of smash-hit music games — in which gamers play along to real songs with simplified instruments — that's remaking gaming culture and giving a huge revenue boost to the music industry.

His hands are a blur as the drumsticks flash around the pads to nail the beats, rolls and fills in perfect time. And equally difficult to see is the line between this virtual drumming and the real thing.

The idea of Rock Band is simple: The game delivers the notes of each song to the player in the form of a conveyor belt of colored dots. To keep up with the song, players must strike the note on their toy instrument at the moment it's about to fall off the end of the belt.

Think about it a minute, and you realize how well drumming is suited to video game simulation. A Fender Stratocaster has six strings and 21 frets — that's 126 individual notes and tens of thousands of chord combinations, a variety not quite represented by the Rock Band guitar's five oversized buttons.

A standard drum set, however, only has about eight surfaces. The Rock Band set has five. And unlike stringed instruments, horns or winds, you don't need to learn complicated fingerings, or how to breathe, blow, bow, strum or pick. All you gotta do is bang.

Olson, 30, plays on the game's expert setting, where the player has to hit most or all of the notes from the real song. In a metal rock cut like System of a Down's "Chop Suey," that means hitting 1,232 notes in a little more than three minutes.

And that's exactly what Olson does. Flawlessly nailing 100 percent of the notes in a Rock Band song is called an FC — for full combination — and in this game, that's the badge of stardom. Olson, an experienced drummer in real life, has FC'd about half of the nearly 500 songs Rock Band has made available. Many of those performances are archived on YouTube, where Olson's videos have been viewed close to 6 million times.

"There are a lot of really great drummers online — famous drummers," he said from his home in Virginia. "But I'm getting a lot more views than most of them. And that's just the weirdest thing."

Yet it makes sense if you think about it, he said. "It's a deadly combination. People love video games, and they love drums. Even people who don't play are fascinated."

Which about sums up the weird brilliance of Rock Band, a new form of entertainment that plugs into two major culture currents at once — video games and pop music — by giving people who'd never pick up an instrument the illusion of being a long-haired ax-master for a day. It's air guitar turned up to 11.

"It's easy for people to say it's not real drumming — it's just a plastic drum set. But it's a lot more like drumming than most people like to think it is," Olson said. "It really completes a lot of what you'd need to learn how to play for real."

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