Making Mythic Music

We talk Minecraft music with composer Gareth Coker

A lot of the way we talk about Minecraft focuses on things you can see: massive builds, inventive texture packs, slick new skins. But just as important is what you can hear. Step into the world of the Chinese Mythology Mash-Up Pack and its vivid landscape of cherry trees and mountain forts is made all the larger and more awesome by the swell of music that accompanies it.

That’s down to composer, Gareth Coker (pictured above left, along with legendary scoring mixer, Steve Kempster). Gareth put together the score for both the Chinese Mythology and Greek Mythology Mash-Up Packs and, more recently, composed the energising music which soundtracks your scuffles in Console Edition’s Battle mini game. All three of these soundtracks were released digitally at the end of last year. You can have a listen here:

There’s also a selection of tracks available free on Gareth’s Soundcloud!

“I’ve been doing video game music for about six or seven years now,” says Gareth. “The big break for me was Ori and the Blind Forest - I started work on that in 2011 and it didn’t come out until 2015. They gave me access to the game very early on, which is I think why the music ended up feeling like such a big part of it. With narrative-led games even more than film it helps for the composer to be on early.

“In June 2015, I got a message from an audio director at Microsoft, asking whether I’d like to write music for Minecraft. And of course I thought about that for half a second and said yes.”

Writing music for Minecraft was quite a bit different from scoring Ori and the Blind Forest. With narrative-led projects - particularly in film - you will be scoring “little bits and pieces”, Gareth says, that are designed to sit alongside a series of fixed events or visual encounters. In Minecraft, you can never really predict what the player will be doing or seeing moment to moment. Mining in the dark depths of a cavern, maybe, or soaring through the skies on elytra. Perhaps they’ll be facing down a horde of decomposing pig-men, or fine-tuning an elaborate mechanism that catapults chickens.

“The tracks for the Mythologies have to reflect the potential scope of the visuals you might be encountering in the game,” says Gareth. “It’s more like creating an album. With Chinese Mythology, we basically wanted an hour’s worth of Chinese-themed cinematic music - and what that means is a bunch of nice tracks that ebb and flow and are good to listen to independently of the game. They need to sound like complete pieces of music. All of these tracks can loop, but if they sound like a loop, you’re not doing your job.”

“The Mythologies’ soundtracks are not about accentuating what the player is doing - but about enveloping them in the world.”

With the music for the Battle mini game, it was a little bit different again. “That’s more closely tied to the gameplay,” says Gareth. “Especially the Tumble mini game which is just tremendously, ridiculously fast-paced. All of the tracks there are a minute long because most of the rounds are over in less than a minute. You have to write a lot of music - just in terms of the number of notes - just to make it sound really busy and exciting. With the Mythologies it’s more like a grand picture - not really accentuating what the player is doing - but about enveloping them in the world.”

An interesting challenge for Gareth was to score something set in the world of Greek legend: how do you evoke the sense of a such a long-dead era?

“There isn’t that much Ancient Greek music to listen to, but you can get an idea of what scales they used,” says Gareth. “Without wishing to get too technical, music today is made up of lots of different scales that are different to the ones used 2000 years ago. So between the scales and the types of instruments these cultures used, it’s not too hard to zero in and get reasonably close to the feel.”

An orchestral recording session gets underway at Ocean Way Nashville Recording Studios.

“The first piece on the Greek Mythology soundtrack - the Song of Seikilos - I actually didn’t write; it’s the oldest surviving musical composition [including musical notation] in the world. I thought it’d be interesting to do my own spin on that. So I got a singer to do the vocals and did a mix of ambient sounds and a couple of Greek-sounding instruments. My goal wasn’t to recreate authentic Greek music, but to give a flavour of it while making it accessible. Which is why we used the full orchestra on Chinese Mythology - you get the best of both worlds.”

What’s his process for putting together such large orchestral pieces?

“Usually I get soloists in pretty early,” says Gareth. “They’re doing a lot of the melodic stuff so they help sell the piece. But when it gets to the large numbers of players - the strings section on Greek had 25 players, and Chinese Mythology had an even larger group - that all has to be approved in synthesiser form first.”

“My goal wasn’t to recreate authentic Greek music, but to give a flavour of it while making it accessible”

“The first two weeks are spent writing, composing and planning things out - maybe recording a couple of soloists. Everything you hear is take two or take three. The players have never seen the music before - there’s no time to rehearse. Take one is usually good. Take two is usually very good. Take three is usually the one we use - if we have time for a third take. That’s standard for the film industry. They’re such talented musicians, and you’re on the clock in the recording studio - every second is valuable. Luckily, the players are brilliant at sight-reading."

After the soloists there are four or five days when Gareth writes all the parts out for the orchestra. “Then we record, then we mix, then we deliver!” he says. “And all of that takes place over a month-long period. It’s very intense! But I’ve proven I can do it now, so I guess it’s going to be the status quo going forward! It’s also a fun process, though. I wouldn’t be doing it if I wasn’t having fun.”

Chinese violin virtuoso, Karen Han, works her magic on the Chinese Mythology soundtrack.

Karen Han again, recording her solo performance at The Village Studios, in Los Angeles.

Wind instrument expert, Rachel Mellis, contributed heavily to Ori and the Blind Forest's score.

Along with Song of Seikilos, Gareth picks Poseidon as one of his favourite tracks from Greek Myhtology: “Without wanting to blow my own trumpet - I think I kinda nailed the sound and feel for this one,” he says with a laugh.

“On Chinese Mythology, I really like the first track on the album, Xuanzang. It’s this big epic, thematic thing, but it also ebbs into folk music in the middle. There’s this very reedy sounding instrument called the hulusi - it makes you feel like you’re on a Chinese farm. But my favourite track on the album is Zhu Baije. It’s very upbeat, but it’s still a combat piece. The Chinese violin player, Karen Han - who’s played on Kung Fu panda, and lots of other Chinese-themed movies in Hollywood - does an amazing job on this track. Particularly the last minute: what she’s playing is incredibly difficult and she pulls it off with ease.”

Click the track names above to listen to them on Soundcloud. Alternatively, just take a moment in between mining blocks to appreciate the majesty of Gareth’s music - the ideal soundtrack to your own feats of minecrafting legend.