You might be tempted to think a title like Beaterator, from game publisher Rockstar and sporting the image of celebrity producer Timbaland, isn't a real piece of music software. And, for reasons that matter to techies (like low sample rates and songs being restricted to 4/4 time), you'd almost be right.
But when it comes to creating music using the same methods as "real" software like ACID and Fruity Loops, there's no question about Beaterator's ambition, and no arguing the fact that it does almost everything it attempts quite well.
Beaterator is really two pieces of software. One side is the creative side (Studio), where a surprisingly complex sequencer allows you to build banks of loops using either bundled samples or your own sounds imported from a PC via Memory Stick. The b-side is a live performance mode (Live Play), in which you can assign clusters of four loops to eight different patch banks and quickly compose and "play" a song by turning the loops on and off.
Music games that focus more on song creation than actual gameplay frequently don't satisfy hardcore or passive audiences. But the Live aspect here is more game-like in that it features a clear, intuitive interface. In general, Beaterator is as approachable as can be expected from a music studio shoehorned onto the PSP, but the Live side is so easy to use -- a couple of flicks of the d-pad and face buttons are all you need to play -- that I wish the creative half of the game were a bit more transparent.
Because the PSP's input set isn't built for this sort of thing, the sequencer's controls are necessarily complex. In that respect, Beaterator is fairly amazing, because it doesn't dumb things down at all. OK, having to flip the analog stick down to select a bank of knobs, then flick the d-pad to select one, then hold X and tweak the analog stick to "turn" the knob, all just to change volume on a track, is a pain in the ass. But not a crippling one.
Knobs and effects are labeled just as they would be on a "real" piece of music software, and consequently as they would be on a physical piece of gear. They all behave the same way, too. Get past the fact that the sampler/sequencer is quite menu-heavy and you'll find a lot of power within. Once you've got samples selected and placed on the eight tracks within any one loop, actually creating a drum track or melody is only as difficult as your inspiration and talent (or lack thereof) make it.
The question, then, is whether I should get past all the interface stuff and really dive in. Because I don't typically carry my PSP around, and there are much better options available for the laptop I do always have with me, the answer is no. I'm not here to push that angle, though, because as long as you're OK with the limitations of hardware and software, this is a solid, impressive toolset.
So what are the limits? For the tech heads: The game engine uses 16-bit stereo sampling at a rate of 22.05 kHz. Songs are limited to 4/4 time and 240 bars, with a maximum 9 MB of sample memory per song. Realistically speaking, though, given the platform, the only letdown there is being locked to 4/4 time. I always want to compose in off-time signatures, and not having that option feels like a real loss.
This may be the "game" that proves the UMD to be fully outmoded: Loading samples to build loops can take more time than the duration of the actual samples. After hours and hours of use, you might have a good idea of what all the different samples sound like, but you'll spend a lot of pointless time waiting for samples to load from the disc. Pulling from a Memory Stick takes a lot less time, which is one good reason to use your own sounds. (The best thing Rockstar could do here is pack in a download code that allows buyers to download a package of all the game's samples to their Memory Stick.)
Another reason is that some of the samples sound terrible when taken as representative of the instrument for which they're named. A lot of the string sounds -- guitar, bass, etc. -- are broad abstractions at best of what a real guitar sounds like.
But improvisation is the heart of loop crafting (no matter how deliberate the process may seem), and part of that is learning how to use any sound at all. Extend that to learning to use any tool available to bring sound out of your head and into the world, and Beaterator is a pretty good deal.
This review is based on a retail copy of the "game" provided by the publisher.