Ten years later, I still consider Minecraft to be one of the scariest games I've ever played—due in no small part to the lonely melodies that fade in and out of an otherwise quiet game and the dreary moans of monsters that echo through its pitch black caves. Minecraft's original soundtrack, created by Daniel "C418" Rosenfeld, is an iconic companion to the sandbox survival game, but I've never seen the same attention paid to its bizarre and unmistakable sound effects.
That's exactly what the latest episode of Twenty Thousand Hertz (opens in new tab), a podcast exploring the origins of the most recognizable sounds in the world, set out to do. Host Dallas Taylor spoke to Rosenfeld about his early work on Minecraft (way before it was a global hit) and how he made some of the game's most ubiquitous sounds.
At the time, Rosenfeld didn't consider himself a sound designer. He sourced sounds for Minecraft from Freesound.org (opens in new tab) wherever he could. Whenever he hit a wall with the limitations of the free library, he'd have to make them himself. And some of them, as it turns out, are pretty weird.
Listen to the full episode above.
Like, did you know that the spider's maddening screech is actually Rosenfeld's water hose pitched up in a synthesizer? "I was originally like, 'What do spiders sound like? They don't sound like anything,'" Rosenfeld said. It turns out there is one spider, the Camel Spider (opens in new tab) native to the Middle East (and apparently isn't technically a spider), that makes a rattling noise when threatened. Rosenfeld wanted to use that noise, but in "middle-of-nowhere Germany" he wasn't about to get a microphone near the real thing. So he made one up by sampling his hose, and now we have the sharp screech that makes me want to swing a sword whenever I hear it.
I was especially interested in Minecraft's distinctive dirt digging sound. That "crunch" you hear as the block finally breaks apart was originally the player's default footstep. "They were awful footstep sounds. Walking on grass sounded like eating Cheerios." You can hear this unpleasant old version in the episode. Eventually, the sound was sped up and shortened to produce the crunch effect and Rosenfeld found a less aggressive stepping sound. Digging still kinda sounds like you're chewing on rocks, but it's immensely satisfying.
It turns out the sickly moans of Minecraft zombies are more accurate than you'd think. "I had a horrible flu, my throat was shot. So I just gurgled into a microphone." Is this what it's like to be a sound designer—constantly thinking about how you can use the weird sounds coming out of your body? Well, it worked out. Zombies sound pretty gross as they meander by my front door.
Oh, and Creeper explosions (opens in new tab)? Those are pitched-down gunshots. "I didn't have explosion sounds, but a thing you can get on the internet very easily is gunshot sounds," he said. This one really threw me for a loop, but it makes total sense. Creeper explosions do sound pretty strange compared to a traditional kaboom. It has more bass, like you can tell it's not producing some big fireball. Gunshots are themselves micro explosions, so it's really an inspired solution.
I came away from the episode with a stronger appreciation for how hard it must be to make a game sound distinct when you're an independent creator with limited resources. Ironically, Rosenfeld's DIY workarounds for more traditional sound effects resulted in a unique soundscape that has stood the test of time. A decade later, there's still no game that sounds like it.
The episode is a pretty fun time, so I encourage you to give it a listen. Rosenfeld also goes in-depth into Minecraft's soundtrack and the awkward audio bugs that limited how it could be used in-game. Sprinkled throughout are extremely correct assessments on the game from Taylor's seven-year-old daughter, such as, "It is a world of squares totally."
Could not agree more.