"Timbaland knows the way to reach the top of the charts / Maybe if I work with him I can perfect the art."
So sang Weezer on their 2008 single, Pork and Beans. It's a piece of advice that Rockstar has taken to heart, working alongside the lauded producer to create Beaterator - the brand new music creation tool for the PSP. You might have doubts about whether a handheld console is really the best platform for a tune-making program, but as it turns out this one of the best mix-em-ups we've seen in quite some time.
Beaterator kicks off with a sublime video in which Timbaland himself explains the various modes on offer, introducing the entire package via an a cappella mix of beat-boxing and rap. It's an unbelievably cool start to proceedings, to the extent that I found myself sitting through the whole thing every time I started up the program ("game" would be a bit of a misnomer). As it turns out, this intro is also fairly indicative of Rockstar's overall approach to presentation - both in terms of its slickness and in its willingness to explain the various features and options that are on offer.
In broad terms, there are two experiences available here. During Live Play you choose a pre-set collection of audio loops (samples that can be played over and over) and use them to mix music on the fly. The player is presented with eight mini-menus, one for each of the eight audio tracks that can combine to make a song. Every menu is associated with a different musical element - one might be basslines, while another might be a lead melody - and within each category you have four loops, one for each of the PSP's four face buttons. When you activate one loop it'll start to play in an endless cycle, allowing you to go off and activate another one: you might start with some drums, add in a bit of synth and some bass, then pull the synth away and replace it with some strings.
There are several different song templates to choose from, each focusing on a different musical genre, and you're able to record your creations, but to be honest this is the most limited part of the Beaterator package. Live Play is just a quick and easy way to play around with samples; it's largely just a spot of fun, a point emphasised by the cartoon Timbaland who dances about in the background during play. That's all well and good, but the meat of Beaterator lies in its more creative toolsets.
The other two modes on offer are Studio and Song Crafter, and each is designed to work with the other. In the Studio the player can manually select a collection of elements for each of their eight tracks, plucking each loop from a library of thousands, or they can set about building their own loops from scratch. You can do this in different ways, but in a nutshell you pick an instrument and then either "play" the new loop by using the PSP as a sound pad, or else you manually arrange the notes by setting them out on a timeline. It sounds complicated, but as with everything else in Beaterator, there's a help video that clearly explains everything you need to do. You'll be offered this assistance every time you enter a new editor, and Rockstar allows you to pause and rewind these instructions - so you can go over something a few times if you're having trouble understanding it. When you know what you're doing you can turn these tutorials off, but they're a massive help in the early days.
Once you've gathered together the loops you want to use, the final step is to jump into the Song Crafter. Here you're presented with a horizontal timeline, divided up into musical bars, with each of your eight tracks listed down the left hand side of the screen. Loops are now represented as coloured blocks that can be dropped onto a snap-to grid; when you play the song, a vertical bar moves across the timeline, triggering each loop that it moves across. It's a system that'll be familiar to anyone who's used music creation software before, but if you're a newcomer to this sort of thing you should find it relatively easy to understand.
If, on the other hand, you're already well-versed in the art of digital music, you may be pleasantly surprised by the detail of the tools and variables here. You can record samples by plugging a mic into your PSP, use the FX menu to apply things like gates, compressors and overdrive, and when you're done with a track you can export it as either a .wav or a Midi file. Naturally there are a few limitations: you're forced to use a 4/4 time signature, and a song can't run for a longer than 240 bars, but on the whole Beaterator seems to be a surprisingly flexible little system. All audio runs in 16-bit stereo with a sample rate 22.05kHz; to be honest this information is a bit beyond my level of understanding, but Seb, our local tech guru, tells me it's acceptable.
This last point illustrates what may be Beaterator's major weakness. It's a very solid piece of kit, but I'm not entirely sure who it's for. If you're already serious about making music, you've probably already got a hefty computer and set of tools to do it with. If you're just starting to learn the trade, it seems strange that you'd want to do so on a PSP. As a rule Sony's little console runs the software very well, but occasionally you do run across an unexpected delay - it's quite irritating that you have to wait a second or two when previewing samples in the library. Still, from what I've read online there are quite a few people who like the idea of using Beaterator as a sort of portable test bed while away from their home studio; I'm no musician, but I can certainly see it being quite useful in this regard.
In terms of other shortcomings, Beaterator seems to be far more suited to making hip-hop and dance music - whether it be house, d&b, or, conceivably, dubstep - than for rock and pop. Still, this has always been the case with programs like these, and in any case I'm confident that most people who buy this product will be more interested in the first set of genres. There's an undeniable sheen of quality about Beaterator: it's helpful, it does its various jobs well, and the whole thing feels very well put together. On top of all this there's a swathe of online support via the Rockstar Social Club, including the option to share tracks or to download those created by other users. If you're considering picking this up, it might be worth logging on to the RSC so you can listen to what other people have managed, as it'll give you a good idea of what you might be able to do.
On the other hand, I'm sure that the quality of the community's output will only get better as time goes on. Beaterator works simply because it provides a decent set of audio tools, and clear instructions on how to use them. At first you may feel a little overwhelmed by all the menus and libraries, but ultimately its sheer user-friendliness, the common controls, and omnipresent video tutorials win out the day. Of course, it's fair to say that all the help in the world will be for nothing if you lack the right creative juices, but if you reckon you have what it takes to be the next Timbaland - or perhaps just the next Scooter - then Beaterator could be well worth a gander.