Presence is a new series looking at how music and sound design works in conjunction with different media. For this instalment, and to celebrate the recent vinyl release, I spoke to composer Daniel Rosenfeld about Minecraft.

It was 2008 and a young Daniel Rosenfeld was fuelling a passion for independent video games by frequenting forums where both developers and fans gathered to discuss projects. It was an exciting time with a vibrant, experimental community creating games for the sheer joy of it and Rosenfeld was about to become an important part of this world. One of the many members that Rosenfeld had been chatting to online was a Swedish programmer called Markus Persson, who at the time was working on a game that would become a world-wide sensation and go on to be purchased by Microsoft for $2.5 billion.

"It wasn't really anything special," Rosenfeld tells me during our Skype conversation, "because back then none of us were anything interesting. We were just some dudes, having a couple of ideas and that's it." Rosenfeld and Persson began talking through TIGSource.com, an indie gaming forum, with both men sharing work with the other. A mutual appreciation of one another's work was formed and eventually, Persson asked Rosenfeld if he'd like to make music for the game. Minecraft was in a very rudimentary form when Rosenfeld came on board. He describes the game as consisting of three blocks, the ability to spawn things that run around and a world generator. Persson meanwhile had no brief for Rosenfeld, deciding instead to trust the composer's instincts.

"The thing about indie games, in general, is that everyone trusts each other," Rosenfeld says. "So there's no real leading - like you would see in a bigger game like Far Cry where the producer comes and says 'you need to make dubstep'. That really doesn't happen in indie games." Chiptune was all the rage in indie game soundtracks at the time and Rosenfeld was keen to avoid following that trend. "I decided to do something acoustic instead, something that would contrast the visuals," he says. "There's this game called Dwarf Fortress. It's the ugliest game in the world, but it's also one of the most complex. One of the programmers [who worked on the game] is really good at playing flamenco music, so he recorded [himself on] guitar and put it in the game! It is just the funniest contrast and literally the only reason that I kept playing game. I kind of wanted to achieve something like that too, because back then Minecraft really didn't look very good. So instead of scaring people away, maybe the music might help."

The music that Rosenfeld created for Minecraft was atmospheric, beautiful and somewhat haunting. Whilst the world that Persson and Mojang created was proudly digital, with big, pixellated blocks to build with, Rosenfeld's score was compared to the work of artists like Erik Satie and Brian Eno. Synthesised strings, piano loops and percussive flourishes made for a rich, varied soundtrack that proved to be a perfect counterpoint to the surface simplicity of Minecraft's visuals. Of course, both he game itself and the music are incredibly complex, and that's perhaps the joy of Rosenfeld's soundtrack work, it make that complexity more apparent.

Despite the plaudits Rosenfeld has received for his largely ambient soundtrack, this wasn't familiar territory for him as a producer. "I actually made drum 'n' bass," he tells me. "But ambient music turned out to be very fun to do, and seemingly easy for me, because it's all about experimentation. Like, how many notes can you reduce a thing to until it doesn't sound interesting anymore? How many more do you add to make it interesting again?" At one point Rosenfeld compares his method of creating music to that of players in Minecraft; each instrument was another building block and as a producer it was his job to take things apart before building back up again.


"I like to describe [making music] as like playing guitar hero. You start at the beginner stages and they seem hard, but then you start to understand it. Then eventually you're really not satisfied with the easy mode anymore, so you go to medium and the same thing happens again."


One of the most appealing elements to Minecraft is the fact that the game is non-linear. Players are encouraged to approach the game however they want, build whatever they want, much like Lego - a common comparison - the only limit is your imagination. Unfortunately this means the game lacks scripted moments for which to soundtrack. Whilst certain things are to be expected - days will pass, night will fall and monsters will appear to torment the player - much of the game remains unpredictable. "I basically decided to make the music somewhat generic - not generic sounding but generic in themes. [The music] doesn't actually tell you, this is a battle theme and this is the jungle theme, it just has a general theme that [communicates] the atmosphere of the game, rather than whatever you were doing."

Rosenfeld also decided to add an element of unpredictability to his soundtrack to match the gameplay. At random points during gameplay no music at all is present. These stretches of silence can last up to almost half-an-hour at a time, with only player triggered sound effects creating noise in the game world. This produces two interesting, but significant effects on the gameplay. Firstly it helps to heighten the ambient nature of the soundtrack, sometimes players won't even recognise they are playing in silence and in combination with the soft music, actually creates a calming atmosphere. Secondly, as Rosenfeld describes it, "whenever the music is actually playing, there's a high chance that the player is doing something that seems significant to them. Because of that the music is so much more memorable to [the player] because they've built up to something and the music [plays] as if it's actually predicting what [they are] doing."

As Minecraft progressed and became more "complete", Persson added the ability for players to teleport to hard to reach areas. "One is something like 'Hell' and the other one is literally called 'The End' because that is where you can see a credits screen and think you've finished the game," Rosenfeld explains. "'The End' has a 15 minute piece that is essentially drone music, with a lot of mangled sound effects reflecting the old songs you heard previously, but they sound broken. And of course, 'Hell' has very creepy music, which was a nice change, because I could say, 'hey, I can actually write music where we can predict that you are in Hell and not in a building that you built yourself'."

Minecraft was the first time Rosenfeld had to create sound effects, and it was a challenge he relished. "I didn't know how to do sound effects so Minecraft was basically my learning curve." He says that much of his learning came through trial and error, with some of that still remaining in the game to this day. So how did he teach himself sound design?

"You take a tomato," Rosenfeld says, "and you smash it against a wall and realise it's absolutely not the sound you want to have." At first Rosenfeld tried taking freely available audio files from the internet, but after finding what he describes as "the shittiest grass sound" he'd ever heard he tried to make his own. "It's really weird, because if you actually walk on grass it doesn't really make a sound at all," Rosenfeld tells me. What he discovered was that the work of a foley artist is one of experimentation and exaggeration. To make the grass sounds for Minecraft, he took an old VHS tape, destroyed it and then recorded himself touching and moving the plastic film. Other sounds came from even unlikelier sources - the game's spiders for instance were recorded using fire hydrants, which were then fed into a sampler and pitched around to produce a creepy, squeaking sound.


"[Originally] I imagined that breaking blocks would be melodic, because there was no waiting period, so every time you would break a block it would just go up the scale."


The biggest challenge for Rosenfeld though was actually implementing the sound effects within the game. Minecraft used a fairly basic sound engine, which came free with the game engine being used, which worked fine at rendering the game world and playing the music Rosenfeld had created, but when it came time to add sound effects they discovered a glaring flaw. "If you loop a sound file and put another looping sound file on top of it, it crashes," Rosenfeld says. For a game world with environment effects, player interactions and more, this presented a huge problem. The only solution - at the time - was to go as minimal as possible. "It turned out that this wasn't much of a problem, because people didn't mind the quietness so much," Rosenfeld continues. "Because every time there's a sound happening it is so much more [terrifying], especially if it's a monster, and that's really fascinating to me. I really didn't actually expect that the limitations we had would actually turn out to be more interesting."

Rosenfeld's work as a composer and sound designer for Minecraft has been incredibly well-received, with gaming site Kotaku selecting his work as one of the best video game soundtracks of 2011. Recently, electronic indie label Ghostly International announced that they would be releasing Minecraft: Volume Alpha, Rosenfeld's first collection of soundtrack music, on vinyl. The demand for the deluxe edition (lenticular sleeve with transparent green vinyl) was so high, that Ghostly are now producing a second run of this package, this time featuring black vinyl.

"I was always thinking about maybe making a vinyl, I just never really got into talking with labels, because I come from quite a different world," Rosenfeld explains. He had originally heard of Ghostly thanks to friends working on another indie game - Hohokum - which had seen a vinyl release on the label after Sony, who were supporting the developers through a new initiative, got in touch on their behalf. It wasn't until another of Rosenfeld's friends put the composer in touch with Sam Valenti (the founder of Ghostly International) that plans for a physical Minecraft release began to take form.

Minecraft: Volume Alpha was first made available to the public in March 2011 via Bandcamp. He was encouraged to do so by another video game composer, Danny Baranowsky (whose credits include Super Meat Boy and The Binding of Isaac) who told Rosenfeld to simply publish what he had at that point in time, rather than strive for completion. The game itself was still in it's beta release, so Rosenfeld struck on the idea of naming his soundtrack release like versions of software, suggesting a collection which will continue to grow and develop as time goes on. Sure enough, Volume Alpha was soon followed by a second release in November 2013, Minecraft: Volume Beta. Both albums feature music that's largely unedited - Rosenfeld was instructed to not cut anything away from his music and if he wanted to add something should create a new track for it - as well as a few extra tracks which don't appear in the game. "I feel like if you release an album that's video game based, it should have more music than what's in the game or else it seems a little bit too greedy - as if it's just ripped out of the game's music folder."


"I really like things that repeat themselves, like themes - it turns out that is really good for concentration or just calming down."


Despite Minecraft's sale to Microsoft in 2014, Rosenfeld remains involved with the project. From his understanding, Mojang is treated as a subsidiary of the tech giant, with full control over what they want to do. "So as it stands right now," he tells me, "Mojang is the same company, just with a bigger budget." His main task recently has been fixing Minecraft's sound engine problems, which has encouraged him to rethink his approach to audio in the game. Aside from removing the quietness of the game, now that he can have multiple looped audio files playing, Rosenfeld is working of the acoustics of biomes within the game.

Whilst Minecraft still takes up a lot of Rosenfeld's time and attention, he's also busy on other projects. At one point he was due to work on another of Persson's games, 0x10c, a sandbox sci-fi game inspired by the TV series Fireflyand legendary space sim Elite. Unfortunately this project was aborted as Persson wanted to focus on smaller games in the wake of Minecraft's success. Rosenfeld composed and released a theme song, which he subsequently released on his Bandcamp. Rosenfeld also revealed that he'd just finished work on a new album, one which he described as a succession to a house record he'd made. Always out to challenge himself, he's devised a unique way for listeners to experience the album, and hopes to make his vision reality soon. "What I want to do - and maybe I'm going to fail at it and release the album eventually - I want to make a game around it. Not necessarily a game, because there's no fail state, but I want to have this music player where you create the visuals for the music." If the plan becomes a reality, he'll release the album as a bundle on Steam. "I'm not really sure on it yet, but that's kind of what I'm interested in right now - combining normal albums with a visual aspect that you can control yourself."