Interview: Minecraft’s Soundtrack Composer C418

Todd L. Burns chats with the German producer behind the mega-hit’s music

Much like Minecraft creator Markus “Notch” Persson, C418 was unprepared for the huge success of the world-building game. The music that C418 created dealt with the limitations of the game’s sound engine adeptly, but he now laments that he can’t go back and change some of the sounds. They’re simply too iconic. That’s not a bad problem to have, of course. And C418 is ultimately fine with it. We caught up with the game composer in Berlin as he prepared for the Ghostly International release of Minecraft Volume Alpha.

C418 - Minecraft

How do you like living in Berlin?

I actually just recently moved here. I lived in a small town. The biggest reason why I moved out is because the German IRS was basically thinking I was hiding offshore money, which I obviously didn’t. It got cleared up. But when one of them said, “You are the only musician in our city. That’s pretty interesting,” I felt like I needed to leave as fast as possible.

Berlin is starting to become interested in video games, but it’s very slow. I think the problem with Germany specifically is that there’s not much funding to be found, so all the video game companies in Berlin are just free-to-play companies or clicker games. Basically games that are sure to make money. If there were funding, I guess a lot more people that would like to do experimental stuff would actually start to emerge. Even though it’s much smaller, the Netherlands has more indie games companies.

How did you get started making music in general? It was your brother that introduced you to it, right?

Yeah, he was always the creative kind but never very good at it. I think when I was 15 I got some software, and said, “Yeah, let’s make terrible music.” And I did terrible music, but it was fun so I didn’t stop and eventually it wasn’t terrible anymore because I learned a few things. Two years in, for instance, I was shocked because somebody told me about mastering. And the concept that different headphones sound different.

I had no interest in chiptune.

When did you first get the sense that you were on to something less terrible?

That was probably when I found this indie games community, in 2007 or 2008 called TIGSource. I like to refer to it as the breeding ground of the modern indies, like Markus. I hung out in that area of the internet because I liked free games and I had no money. Since I liked making music and liked playing games, it was a symbiotic relationship: I had music that nobody cared about, so I was like, “You want some?” I met Markus through that.

Were you making music that sounded like the indie games that you were playing?

Absolutely not. Indie games at that time were like old chiptune, and I had no interest in chiptune. When I was 12, my brother gave me some Aphex Twin CDs, and I was totally into that, so I tried to imitate the more ambient stuff that he made.

Clark - Herzog

What other music has been an inspiration? I saw you mentioned a Clark CD a while ago.

Oh yeah, Chris Clark! Body Riddle was one of my favorites. “Herzog” is basically a song without percussion, but it doesn’t need any. That blew my mind. I usually just obsess over a single song from an artist. Machinedrum always has one song on each album that just makes me go, “Oh my God music can do that?” So yeah, I always obsess over stuff like that.

Did it take a while to figure out what the music for Minecraft should be?

Not necessarily, because even at the very beginning of the game it was a super lonely experience. I kind of like that. Back then they didn’t have the fancy shadows and the geometric shapes. It was kind of... I would call it an ugly game. When I was starting to do the music, I had just recently played another ugly game called Dwarf Fortress. One of the developers was a flamenco player, so he decided to put that in the game. So when you start the game, you have this really odd contrast between flamenco and an ugly DOS window. I wanted to do something similar with Minecraft. I think it really helped, because people have this feeling of “Maybe there’s more to this, I have to play a little bit more.”

You also had the limitations of the sound engine to deal with.

Yeah. A couple years ago if you had two song files at once, it would actually crash. There were so many more weird glitches like that the guys never really fixed because they were too busy with the actual game and not the sound engine.

C418 - Sweden

Did you try to take advantage of those limitations?

Yeah. One of the things that we really can’t figure out is what a player is doing. Is the player in a cave? Or is he in a house that he made himself? So I decided to basically have music that doesn’t really explain anything. It doesn’t say if it’s battle or if it’s night... Generic music, but still kind of unique and different. Then we had that music randomly playing 15 to 20 minutes in, where there’s nothing else playing. If something significant is happening, the player remembers the music associated with it. If the music is playing and nothing really is happening, they’ll just accept it. Originally I was like, “You should probably play the music as few times as possible because it’s probably going to be annoying.” And it turns out the pause in between actually helps.

It has a very weird emotional effect, I think. Can you talk a bit about the sounds of the game?

Early on, I wasn’t that knowledgeable about Foley. I think I’m sort of good at it now, but it’s a little bit late. Now, if I were to replace everything, people would hate me because the sounds are iconic now. Foley is weird because it’s all trial and error. You just make a sound and eventually you go, “Oh my God, that’s it! Get the microphone!” There’s no set way of doing anything at all.

Markus made this hugely complex game where you’re alone in a spaceship and everyone is dead. It was a hugely depressing game.

What I’ve always found so fascinating about it is how doing something completely unrelated to the sound is often a better version of that sound.

Yeah. If you walk on grass, there’s barely any sound that your feet make. It’s better to take a VHS tape and just smash your hand in it. That sounds perfectly like grass.

You’ve always talked about Ableton as being a huge part of what you do, but you’ve also mentioned a couple of synths.

The Moog Voyager, yes. I bought that in 2011. That was the most expensive thing I ever bought. People use the Voyager as a main lead synth, but I use it as a bass synth. The curve filter is like therapy to me. I don’t really use the Moog as much anymore. I’m starting to switch to a very good MacBook. Getting all the stuff I need on it, so that I can basically work from anywhere. Somebody made Moog Voyager VSTs. I don’t think they sound even remotely close actually, because the thing you want from the Moog is the terrible part. The part that nobody really wants to put in a VST. But if you start the Moog Voyager, for example, you need to wait five minutes until it’s in pitch.

0x10c Soundtrack

Tell me about 0x10c.

0x10c was Markus hoping to, I guess in his mind, make a sort of equivalent to Minecraft. Which obviously is never going to happen. He made this hugely complex game where you’re alone in a spaceship and everyone is dead. It was a hugely depressing game. The concept of the game was even weirder, because it wants you to program a really old CPU. That’s how you’re supposed to control the ship and rebuild it. I only made some really creepy sound effects, because I imagined it as a really old spaceship that’s about to fall apart.

The game didn’t happen. I also made the theme song and I was really happy because I had like fake compression in it and stuff like that. I actually had already established a number station in the game too. You were supposed to figure out what it meant.

Was there more music than what was actually released?

Yeah, there was. But I deemed most of it terrible, so I scrapped it. I was actually really fumbling to get that theme song, because I felt like I needed a theme that was interesting. I spent a couple of weeks figuring out what it was supposed to sound like.

What are you working on now?

I’m doing some work on Minecraft again. I also recently finished a house-y album that I could release right now. I don’t know. Releasing an album like that doesn’t feel fun to me anymore. What I’m currently thinking about is making, not really a game, but an experience based on it. Basically, you’d buy it on Steam and you’d get the album and you’d also get the game frame. I’m currently experimenting with that. It’s going to take a while.

By Todd L. Burns on August 21, 2015

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