Minecraft's Composer Explains Why the Music Is 'So Weird'
While working out the final details of the Ghostly release, Rosenfeld recently spoke to Motherboard about composing for Minecraft.
Image: Ghostly International
Before the release of Minecraft, the building block game that has become an international cultural phenomenon, composer Daniel Rosenfeld never imagined he'd have the ears of millions. By his own admission, he was imitating Aphex Twin by creating experimental albums that "made no sense."
When Rosenfeld, who records under the moniker C418, met Minecraft creator Markus "Notch" Persson, that all changed. Rosenfeld was given the greenlight to make any music and sounds that struck his fancy, but in the context of a voxel-based game about structures and landscapes. So he ditched the Aphex Twin sounds, opting instead for mutating ambient electronic music that calls to mind Brian Eno and Vangelis, as well as the looping experimental sounds of Steve Reich.
When Minecraft got its full release in 2011, Rosenfeld music was suddenly the soundtrack to many a gamer's block-building fantasies. And because Rosenfeld owns all rights to the music, he is able to build upon the sounds of Minecraft's world as a solo artist. This freedom allows Rosenfeld publish the music as he pleases, which will include vinyl and CD releases for Minecraft Volume Alpha via Ghostly International on August 21.
While working out the final details of the Ghostly release, Rosenfeld recently spoke to Motherboard about composing for Minecraft, as well as how he records and structures his Minecraft-related albums.
Motherboard: Did the fact that Minecraft was an indie game allow you a degree of compositional latitude that you just wouldn't have had if you had been composing for a AAA game?
Daniel Rosenfeld: Oh, absolutely! Let's just say it's 2012 and Ubisoft comes to you and says, "We need background music, but it needs to be dubstep, so please make so much dubstep." With indie games you often don't get that. Markus basically gave me complete freedom in what I wanted to do, and I think that helped a lot because the music is weird. It's the most popular game in the world and the music is so weird. [laughs]
An interesting byproduct of the game's popularity is that you've sort of infiltrated minds with this experimental music, some of it electronic, some of it looping minimal music. How do you feel about that?
Yeah, isn't that crazy? I bet some kid is like, "I totally want to listen to Steve Reich now!" We never intended the game to be for kids at all. We wanted the game to have blood, physics and exploding bodies, but that was in 2008.
What was your first instinct when creating music for Minecraft?
At the time I was interested in games with music that takes you completely by surprise. The best example of this is Dwarf Fortress. It's probably the ugliest game in the world because it's in MS-DOS, but it's the most complex game you could imagine. It's like a simulation of an entire world, and the goal of the game is that you have this fortress of actual dwarves with unique minds, and they can go crazy if you don't tend to them.
The first thing that happens when you start the game is you see this ugly ass DOS window and there is flamenco guitar music playing because one of the developer's probably liked it. But it put me off because it makes absolutely no sense: this game is so ugly but it puts out such normal music. It was so weird to me that I kind of wanted to experiment with contrasts.
The first time I saw Minecraft, people wanted to have 8-bit style video game music. But I wanted to go around that and make something organic and partly electronic, partly acoustic, and see if that would be interesting.
What instruments and tools did you use to record the album and the game's music? Was it a combination of hardware and software, digital and acoustic instruments, and so on?
There's this weird game called Blueberry Garden. For that game an artist recorded some piano music, but evidently he only had a really terrible microphone on top of the piano, and I really liked it and wanted to experiment with that. So, I made piano recording and really mangled it, and kept experimenting with the technique. I'd say that it's about 80 percent electronic and 20 percent acoustic.
Production-wise, I've always stuck with Ableton Live and there's really no reason to switch to something else at this point. I don't really use anything that's inside Ableton; I just use a shit ton of VSTs—a lot of Native Instruments, for instance. I'm also a big fan of FabFilter these days. I also use a Moog Voyager, a Dave Smith Prophet-8, and an Access Virus TI donated by my brother.
For Minecraft Volume Alpha, did you create new songs or were they basically extended versions of tracks that appear in the game?
I like to add more stuff to the songs that are in the game because I feel that players are probably not as interested in buying music that's already in the game. So, extending the album into a more cohesive piece that can be played on its own feels better than just taking all of the sound files and slapping them onto an album.
I have a good friend who is really into video game soundtracks, and I asked him what I should do. He said, "Don't touch the source material, but if you want to attach something else to it you can make it like a second song type of thing." So that's what I did. I would extend the songs into some new territory, then render them as two songs even though they're the same song with a short pause in between.
The music in the game is generated randomly, but the beauty of an album is its structure and narrative. It's fixed: there's nothing random about it. How did you settle on the structure of Minecraft Volume Alpha? Did you create a narrative for the album, or just limit yourself to making it sonically flow?
There's definitely a narrative to it, but I don't know what the story is now. The way I structure the album is that I first render out all the songs and make sure they're all nicely mastered. Then I slap them into one project file and basically see it as a jigsaw puzzle, putting them next to each other to see if they work. If they do, I usually like to put something in between so it makes sense that these songs are on there, but you wouldn't even know if you listened to the album because it sounds like one whole thing.
The fact that you're releasing Minecraft Volume Alpha on Ghostly International is really exciting. It's great that they're recognizing indie game music. They're known for both both experimental and pop electronic music, but also a strong sense of aesthetics in their physical releases. Did you have any input on the vinyl and CD design processes?
Let's say I made 90 percent of all of the visual designs, like all of the cube stuff. Ghostly basically came in and cleaned up the formatting on the text, because I'm not really good at that stuff. [For the limited edition release], I wanted the lenticular print of the iconic Minecraft block—the grass block with a little bit of dirt on it—to be more 3D, so the cubes are way more 3D than they are on the normal release. I'm really happy with the way it looks.