You might not think you know Daniel Rosenfeld (aka C418), but it’s more than likely you’ve heard his work.
Rosenfeld had been tinkering with music from a young age until, serendipitously, a friend on an indie dev forum showed him a game he’d been working on and asked him to add a soundtrack. Rosenfeld was young, bored, and in a dead end job so he agreed.
The soundtrack was a subtle ambient soundscape. The game was Minecraft. The rest is history. And with 70 million copies of the game sold, it’s become the third biggest selling videogame of all time, and – by proxy – makes Rosenfeld one of the world’s best selling artists.
Ahead of the vinyl release of Minecraft Volume Alpha, FACT caught up with Daniel from his apartment in Berlin to chat about about Minecraft, terrible music and how to make a spider screech.
“I never assumed making money and making music was the same thing.”
When did you first get into making music?
That must have been when I was 15. Essentially, what happened is, my brother, who was always creative but never really successful at anything, was like, “Dude, there’s this music software. Even idiots can make music with it.” I perceived myself, to be an idiot, so I was like, “Let’s download that and see what happens.” And I was like, “Yeah. This is fun. I’m gonna make a shitty song.” And then I made another terrible song, and then I was like, “This is still fun. I’m gonna keep on making terrible garbage.” And I just didn’t stop making music and eventually, it turned out, it became actually sort of decent [laughs] It was basically just a natural progress to keep on making stuff, because it seemed fun.
So was there a point where you thought, “This is what I’d like to do all the time”?
Yeah, definitely. But I guess I never thought that this would be the thing that I would do for the rest of my life, because I never assumed making money and making music was the same thing.
And then Minecraft came along. How did you get involved?
I was kind of a cheap shit. I liked video games, but I didn’t want to spend any money. So I was drawn to indie games, because a lot of game devs would like to just upload free stuff, y’know, little experimental games and stuff. So, I got into the TIGSource community and Markus (Notch the creator of Minecraft) was on there too. Both of us were nobodies, he’d show me a game prototype and I’d show him my terrible music. Then one day, he asked if I was interested in making music for his game and since I felt like I had nothing else going on, I said yes.
Did Notch give you any guidelines? Or was it just a case of “Do whatever you want”?
No, I had complete freedom. That’s a common thing in indie games because most of the time, it’s such a small team – and sometimes there’s no team at all – that nobody gives you guidelines because they hope you know what you’re doing.
So how do you go about constructing a soundtrack to a game that’s entirely randomly generated?
It’s tricky. Minecraft specifically is just so random; you can’t predict anything at all, ever. For example, I can’t make music that makes any sense to the environment. You might go down into a cave. And I could make ‘cave’ music for that, ’cuz you’re in a cave. The problem is, I don’t know if it’s a cave, I’ve just assumed that. For all I know it could be a player-made house. So, I make music that doesn’t really have a theme. Basically, you can interpret whatever you want from it because it all shares the same sort of melancholy.
Do you have a narrative in your mind when you’re making this music, or do you work just as randomly as the game?
I think the narrative I had in mind was the kind of loneliness that the game exudes. I mean, even if you play with friends, the game is so big and so open-ended that you often just walk out of it lonely, and there’s nothing really to do for you except to punch wood and stuff like that.
Speaking of punching wood, you did all the in-game Foley work as well. I’m guessing that’s something you haven’t done in the past, how did you come up with original effects?
Foley’s an interesting thing, and I had to learn its subtleties. It’s a whole trial-and-error process. It turns out that to make grass sounds you don’t actually walk on grass and record it, because grass sounds like nothing. What you want to do is get a VHS, break it apart, and just lightly touch the tape.
It’s a game full of memorable sounds, what was your favorite to create?
I like the spiders. Recording that was a whole day of me researching what a spider sounds like. Turns out, there are spiders that make little screeching sounds, so I think I got this recording of a fire hose, put it in a sampler, and just pitched it around until it sounded like a weird spider was talking to you.
Well, that’s new for me. I didn’t know spiders screamed.
Yeah. But it’s okay, they’re still tiny spiders.
“There’ll probably be another album. In fact, it’s gonna be more ambient”
Minecraft Volume Alpha is coming out on Ghostly. Were you familiar with label before they got in touch with you?
I wasn’t, really. I mean, I’d listened lot of artists that are on Ghostly, but I never questioned which label they are on. I first really took notice of them when some friends of mine worked on the soundtrack for a game called Hohokum and decided to work with Ghostly, because they were really friendly to indie devs. Plus, they made this beautiful vinyl for the soundtrack, and that really stuck with me.
They’ve made a really beautiful vinyl package for you too.
Yeah, I think so. Especially the lenticular cover that Ghostly came up with. I was scared it was gonna look terrible [laughs] but it turns out it looks really, really nice and it’s confusing because it actually looks like a three-dimensional thing. It’s only once you put your hand on the cover that you realise that the packaging isn’t in 3D.
Obviously, you’re widely known for an ambient sound. Is that something you want to keep pursuing? I mean, I’ve listened to a couple of your other albums, and it’s quite an eclectic mix of styles. Where do you see your music going from here?
I’ll still work on Minecraft, so there’ll probably be another album. In fact, it’s gonna be more ambient than the other, just as an experiment. I’m interested in seeing how people use music as sleep aid, so I think on the next album I might put a bonus track on there that’s just 15 minutes of complete ambience and see what people think. Other than that, I actually finished another album, which is kind of like a house-y, drum & bass-y, kind of thing. But now I’ve finished it I’m thinking I don’t really want to release it as a normal album, so I’m currently considering hiring a couple friends to see if we can make interesting games based around listening to albums.
Sounds interesting, do you think you’ll ever perform live?
I have before, usually at video game conferences. I have Ableton Live on my laptop and Lemur on my iPad, and it’s a perfect remote controller. So I can jump into the crowd and just play with them and dance around. It’s really fun, but it’s really exhausting. [laughs] And I’m not the fittest person in the world, so, I don’t publicize the fact that I perform, I just do it when people ask me.
So, with the album coming out and more Minecraft stuff in the works, does the enduring popularity of the game surprise you? I mean it’s the biggest game in the world.
Yes. It does, and I can’t actually think about it in my head. I think about it like the distance between earth and the moon. I can see the number; I just don’t know what that number means.
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