Discussion Review: Beaterator

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Rockstar had a bit of a rough year with handheld gaming in ‘09: the DS and PSP versions of GTA: Chinatown Wars have had disappointing sales in spite of excellent reviews (including ours), for example. At the same time, others have found a gold mine on the iTunes App Store. So, it was only a matter of time before Rockstar brought something to Apple’s iPhone / iPod Touch devices, and for their first entry they chose to port over the PSP music creator Beaterator. For this discussion, Matt is playing the PSP version and I’ll be tapping away on my trusty iPod Touch!

Mike: Before we get to the core features, let me talk about the iPhone release in specific. The initial assumption most will make is that there is no way a $5 app store entry will have all of the features of a PSP game with a list price of $40, and they would be right. One would assume that it took a team of designers and developers many hours with flip charts and whiteboards to plan out how to implement the transition of the core game to the App Store in a way that maintains the optimal user experience while maximizing profitability.

I would suggest that they took a different approach: a few folks to reprogram a couple of parts of the app for touch screen, and one guy with a machete to brutally hack out the overwhelming majority of the features.

Which makes me sad because the basics I got to see are actually very nice. When you start a new song based on a template, you get a grid of sample loops and ‘instrument’ types. They are aligned by the developer of the track to work well if you just double tap a loop to select an entire row to play. Then if you want to change one of the loops to another sample, you just tap a new loop. It is simple, intuitive and works great. Sadly it also represents about half of the entire feature set of Beaterator on the iPhone!

Before delving too much further I wanted to let Matt chime in, since he has played with the ‘real’ version. While I’m interested in hearing your overall impressions, how does the PSP control scheme work with editing and mixing on the fly?

Matt: While prepping for this discussion, the thing I was most curious about was the pricing. With the PSP version launching at $40 — though over the holidays it was dropped to $20, both at retail and on PSN — I was dumbfounded when the iPhone/iPod version came out at literally a fraction of the cost. I was worried Rockstar was somehow cheating PSP owners with a more expensive price for the same product — hey, it wouldn’t be anything new for PSP owners to feel cheated on something — but from your comments it sounds like the PSP actually got the better end of the stick this time.

It sucks to hear that the iPhone version is so chopped down too, because Beaterator on PSP is a mighty impressive music creation app. Yes, folks, that’s right. Beaterator is not a game in any way. Its sole function is that of a music maker, akin to XSEED’s KORG DS-10 synthesizer for the DS.

KORG and Beaterator are indeed very comparable apps for their respective platforms. However, in stark contrast to KORG‘s complex interface and sterile aesthetic, Beaterator is much more vibrantly presented with flashier visual elements and an interface design that is more inviting, accessible and aesthetically appealing. Running on the more powerful PSP, the audio quality is also a notch above.

As a music mixer, Beaterator is one robust piece of software. It’s loaded with thousands of loops created by rapper and record producer Timbaland, and an intuitive song crafter with eight track lines you can assign drum, vocal, keyboard, bass and many other instrumental loops to. Additionally, you can record and edit your own sound loops with a headset microphone if you happen to have one handy, create custom beats with the built-in drum kits, use the synthesizer to tweak settings like resonance, frequency, speed and so on, create melodies with a five-octave virtual keyboard, import/export MIDI files to and from your Memory Stick, and ultimately export your songs to a PC (or Mac) and upload to the Rockstar Social Club to share with other Beaterator artists.

Alongside the main Studio mode, Beaterator also offers a nifty Live Play mode in which you can jump into creating music on the fly in a very streamlined, accessible environment. Live Play also has more of a “gamey” feel to it with a cartoony Timbaland avatar DJing in the center of the screen with four speakers placed around the corners of the screen, each representing a different track — you cycle through the track speakers with the d-pad and tap one of the four face buttons to assign one of four available loops to that track. This is an incredibly easy way to play around and get a feel for mixing your own music, and if you manage to put together a freestyle beat that you like you can record it and jump straight into the full music studio to fine tune everything and put together a complete song.

I’ll dive into more of the finer details on the interface and whatnot next, but first I’ll give you a chance to jump in here. How does the iPhone version compare to what I’ve described of the PSP version thus far? Does it have the split Live Play and Studio play modes, and how does it stack up in terms of loop quantity and creation options?

Mike: Well … my section is going to be pretty short this time. Because, while there are enough features to make this a nice little curiosity, when it comes down to it why should you pay $5 for what is essentially a heavily stripped down demo for a $20 PSP game? You cannot perform sound editing in any way or do any loop customization. There are purportedly “more than 1000 loops,” yet creating truly unique songs based on what is included felt more challenging than learning to navigate the obviously chopped-down interface. Studio Play? Live Play? Huh?

Suffice it to say that all you get with Beaterator on the iPod is a cut-down loop connection app. It is a half-rate demo for what is an excellent PSP music creation tool based on my short experience since buying it. I see Beaterator as a different sort of tool from the KORG DS-10 as an old analog synth fan, but with the limitations of the iPhone app I would never have even been compelled to make the comparisons you did. Beyond being inadequate, I felt Beaterator actually does a disservice, as some folks I’ve talked to were put off trying the PSP version (I was reluctant until the price drop) because they felt like they were fleeced at the $5 price. There is so much more content on the PSP version I’d rather just sit back and have everyone read your thoughts on that rather than waste another second on this – Rockstar didn’t put in a reasonable effort, that is for sure!

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Pros:
+ Nice sounds
+ 8 tracks to mess around with
+ Fun to play with the variety of loops

Cons:
– Way too cut down from PSP version
– Might actually put people off of getting the good version
– Too few options
– Too little content

Matt: Wow, that is really sad to hear. I’ve never been all that high on many of Rockstar’s games, but I’ve also never known them to do such a half-ass job with a game, so I wasn’t expecting to see such a gimped iPhone port.

But enough of that, I guess I’ll wrap things up with the apparently far superior PSP version. I mentioned chatting about the interface earlier, so I’ll pick up there.

While I imagine an app like this would be easier to control on a touch screen (or with a stylus like KORG on the DS), I am quite pleased with the interface Rockstar came up with for the PSP Beaterator. Placing loops is as easy as moving them around on the song crafter grid with the d-pad and placing them where you want with the X button, and when you need to access the different volume and effects knobs you simply flick the analog nub down to the highlight the knob panel, cycle through with the d-pad, hold down the X button on the knob of choice and turn it with the analog nub or d-pad. Tweaking the different dials this way can feel a little clumsy, but I don’t have any major complaints and can’t think of a better way the interface could have been handled.

At any time you can also hit one of the shoulder buttons to pop open the main menu interface to load up new loops, open extra song tools, save and import/export songs, jump back and forth between Live Play and the Studio, and so on. From this menu, you can also access the helpful tutorial videos, glossary and reference guide Rockstar built directly into the studio, that way help is only a couple button clicks away if a particular tool is giving you trouble or you can’t seem to find your way around. Beaterator is pretty accessible whether you have experience mixing music or not, but there are a lot of complexities to learn if you really want to get serious with it, so it was wise of Rockstar to provide a good reference system.

There really is a lot you can do with Beaterator if you put the time into learning its capabilities, and as I’ve said already, it is also very accessible if you just want to tinker with the basics. Synthesizers and drum kits and effects editors can be intimidating, especially if you’ve never worked with them before, but Beaterator presents everything in such a way that you can instantly jump in and begin mixing beats without fear. If you’ve been searching for a powerful portable music studio, search no more – Beaterator is where it’s at!

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Pros:
+ Robust selection of music creation tools and options
+ Intuitive, detailed interface
+ Helpful tutorials
+ Deep but still accessible
+ Great audio quality

Cons:
– Adjusting effects dials is a tad imprecise

Game Info:
Platform: Reviewed on PSP and iPhone
Publisher: Rockstar Games
Developer: Rockstar Leeds
Release Date: PSP – 9/29/09, iPhone – 12/7/09
Genre: Music Maker
ESRB Rating: Everyone
Players: 1
Source: PSP review copy and iPhone code provided by publisher

About the Author

I have loved technology for as long as I can remember - and have been a computer gamer since the PDP-10! Mobile Technology has played a major role in my life - I have used an electronic companion since the HP95LX more than 20 years ago, and have been a 'Laptop First' person since my Compaq LTE Lite 3/20 and Powerbook 170 back in 1991! As an avid gamer and gadget-junkie I was constantly asked for my opinions on new technology, which led to writing small blurbs ... and eventually becoming a reviewer many years ago. My family is my biggest priority in life, and they alternate between loving and tolerating my gaming and gadget hobbies ... but ultimately benefits from the addition of technology to our lives!