Microsoft Audio Production Director – Mike Caviezel

As anyone under the age of 30 should know, the new generation of video game consoles are upon us, with the Xbox One arriving shortly. Being not only electronic music enthusiasts, but avid gamers also, I racked my brains for a way to do some coverage on video game-related music content, and after a short while the answer was clear: just talk to the audio department of my favorite game companies. Mike Caviezel is the Audio Production Director at Microsoft Studios, and was kind enough to talk to me about a number of things within his line of work, such as making music for games, how things work at Microsoft Studios, and much more!

Hi Mike! Thanks for talking to me. For those who don’t know, can you tell me about your background and how you got into music?

Sure. I was a tuba and guitar player from elementary school through college, and double majored in tuba performance and audio science at Indiana University. After I got out of school, I went to work as a recording engineer in the Seattle–Tacoma area, making indie recordings for bands during the early to mid 90′s.

I had a friend from high school who worked for a game company, and he needed some help doing sound for a game that his company was working on. I was one of the few guys he knew who did stuff like that, so I ended up doing some sound effects, music, and dialogue editing for him. That’s how I got into doing sound for games. I ended up doing so much work for this company, which was called Sierra Entertainment, that they brought me on full time.

How long did you work with Sierra Entertainment?

For about four and a half years. I was their one-stop shop for a lot of stuff like writing the music, sound effects, as well as engineering, and even directing VO sessions, which was pretty important for my team at the time. I also developed my skills doing things like sound design, which is a big part of my current job.

Nice. And how did you transition from Sierra to your current job at Microsoft?

Sierra got bought by this huge company called Vivendi, who went on to purchase Activision, Blizzard and other big game companies. But about 3 years after they bought Sierra, Vivendi shut everything down. They closed all the offices, laid everyone off, and said “go home“. At that point, I went back to freelancing for a little while, and worked out of my home studio. One day I got call from an Audio Director at Microsoft, who was looking for someone to work on a game called Forza Motorsport.

During my time as a freelancer, I had been part of a sound effects company, where I had made a CD-set of car sounds. It was literally 20 different cars, and each car had it’s own CD. We recorded every possible sound that each of them could make. So my background in designing sound effects for cars led me to be contracted to work on the very first Forza Motorsport game for Xbox. After that, a full-time position opened up on the Forza development team and I went out and got it. I’ve been with Microsoft ever since then, which was in 2005.


(Above: Mike Caviezel)

With 8 years at Microsoft, it seems that you’ve developed quite the history of good work with them.

Yeah, Microsoft is unlike any other place I’ve worked at. It’s really fun to be able to work on games dating back to the original Xbox. I was an audio lead on the Forza team for a long time, before I transitioned to SoundLab, which is the main production facility for Microsoft Studios. Now I head up a team of sound designers, and we touch just about every game that Microsoft publishes.

Interesting. So what does that kind of workflow look like, as an audio production director?

Most days it’s about coordinating with my team. I have a staff of about 10 – 15 people at any one time, depending on how many games we have in production. We’re very busy right now, since we’re trying to finish a lot of launch titles for the upcoming Xbox One. We usually have 6 or 7 titles in development concurrently. So part of my job is to help co-ordinate the schedule, and match the skills of my staff to the game we’re working on. I also pitch in on a day-to-day basis, making music and sounds wherever I can.

Does Microsoft Studios only work on games developed in-house at Microsoft, like the Kinect series, or do you work on third party games that other developers create as well?

We have a hand in some 3rd party projects. Microsoft has two business models: we have our internal game development studios which we own outright, like Turn 10 and 343 Industries, which makes Halo. They have their own teams, but they might approach Soundlab when they need additional sound resources. Then there are games that Microsoft publishes, which are made by other developers.

Right now, one of our major launch titles is “Ryse“. It’s set in gladiatorial Roman times, and was made by a German company called Crytek. Since Microsoft is publishing that game, Soundlab can chip in as part of the publishing team, and assist with things like sound design and implementation.

That’s cool. It sounds like a good way for Microsoft to be involved in what the companies that they work with do.

Yeah. We see many different types of games pass through our doors, and it’s really cool to be able see how 3rd party companies make their stuff, in addition to how our own development team works. So it’s the best of both worlds, where we have a wide-ranging impact by getting to work on so much cool stuff.

Having worked within audio both as a freelancer and salaried employee, can you tell me what you prefer: freelancing or working in a fixed position at Microsoft?

One of the pros of being a freelancer is that you get to be you own boss, which is nice from time to time. But you also have to be just as good of a salesman or PR person. A big part of your job is that you always have to be hustling work. Sometimes you’re lucky and the phone just rings. And if you work on big enough game titles, people start coming to you. But generally, you’re always thinking about that next gig. When you’re in-house, you don’t have to worry about that. You don’t think “What will I do 6 months from now?”, you just sort of know cool things will always be coming down the pipe.

Also, a global company like Microsoft, has tons of contacts, and we have access to lot of resources. We partner with tons of different companies, which gives us options that other places just don’t have.

Based on your time at Microsoft, would you say that Microsoft has a high amount of focus on incorporating music into their games? Is that a priority for them?

Microsoft is very hands-on with its music. All of our games have an audio director who supervises the project. We’re the guys who help pick the composers and design the interactive music systems. We’re at the recording sessions, making sure that everything gets tracked correctly. We often do mixing too, since there are composers whose strengths aren’t necessarily mixing or production. Other times, when the game doesn’t need a ton of music, we just take the gig ourselves and do all the music in-house. But we have so many things going on that a lot of our time involves managing multiple projects.

The music scope of AAA games are huge. For one of the last games Microsoft finished, Forza Motorsport 5, they recorded a full string orchestra at Skywalker Sound, and did choir overdubs at Avatar Studios in New York.

What would you say are some of the most extensive music projects that you’ve had to do at Microsoft Sound Lab?

Forza was a huge one over the last few months, we just finished mixing their soundtrack at Soundlab.

More than Halo?

That’s an interesting one, because 343 have their own in-house music team and composer, Kazuma Jinnouchi. 343 has always been very hands-on with their music. A game score of that size is a huge undertaking, and we help them out whenever we can.

We actually have a few unannounced things right now, which we’re planning these some big orchestral sessions for. Last year, we re-scored the original soundtrack for  the first Halogame, which we re-released as “Halo: Anniversary“. That was a huge undertaking for our Central Media team.

We also did another game called “Kinect Disneyland Adventures“, and recorded the full orchestra for that at Skywalker Sound. So projects like that are quite extensive. When we had games like “Kinect Star Wars”, we worked with 5 quite a few different composers.

Does working with multiple composers become difficult to co-ordinate, since each one will have his own musical taste and style?

That can get a little tricky. We’ve actually brought on a guy called Paul Lipson, previously of Pyramind Studios down in San Francisco. He’s a super-talented game composer, who started working at Microsoft as an Audio Director and Music Supervisor. He’s very much involved with the composer unions, and is probably one of single most connected guys in the game industry that I’ve met. He helps co-ordinate with the different composers.

Microsoft licenses music from artists and labels for some of it’s games, correct? How does that process look like?

Yes, we do. When we’re prototyping games, we might grab regular music from people’s iPods or record collections, in order to find an initial aesthetic of what works. We’re making a game right now called “Sunset Overdrive“, and the punk-rock genre seems to fit that. But then there are other games that cry out for more orchestral things. So in the prototype stage, we play around with throwing a bunch of different styles in, and see what fits.

After that, when we realize that we might need a specific type of music, we think “Who’s good at that?“. Or we might want to talk to a record label that specializes in a certain genre of music. We might be able to come up with some sort of licensing deal to use a bunch of their artist’s music in the game. We’re open to all options.

Have you had any experience with licensing electronic music?

Yeah. We’ve licensed a lot of music from labels like Ninja Tune, and we actually licensed a ton of drum and bass stuff for Forza Motorsport 4.

The last couple of Forza titles, 3, 4, 5 were very EDM-friendly. Electronic music lends itself well to being remixed. So if you’re an electronic artist who wants to pitch your music to a game, make sure that you have your individual stems available, so that if we ever would want to create alternate mixes or pull out the drums in the middle of a racing game, we can do that on the fly. That’s very important for us.

Also, we look for good music first, and then we figure out the functionality. So the main thing I can say is that artists should make the best music they can. If I’m listening to a band and their music isn’t doing it for me, it won’t get a 2nd listen. It’s like the old record label mentality of, “you’ve got about 10 seconds to draw me in“. Another thing about EDM is that if you’re sending out demos to game companies, we don’t need necessarily need 3 or 4-minute long intros before the drop hits.

What kind of budget exists for music licensing? Is Microsoft generous with that?

It depends on the need of the game. One of the biggest challenges in game music is repetition and interactivity. So with a game like Grand Theft Auto, where you might have radio stations playing music all the time, you need to license a ton of music, due to the jukebox-style playback. You’d license a couple of hundred songs, which go into a pool, and then every time you tune into a station, you’d get the 40 songs in that particular pool. So for the GTA-like games, the licensing budget could well be into the tens of millions of dollars. But for orchestral recordings, sometimes you can get away with it for around $200,000-$300,000. And there are games that have been composed for far less. The budgets can range pretty wildly depending on the needs of the game.

A big part of the Xbox experience is Xbox Live and downloadable games, which have less scope than AAA games, but are really fun nonetheless. So the game might have one hour’s worth of music, and could cost around $50,000.

Given that it might be a challenge for smaller, less popular electronic and indie artists to get game placement for their music in triple A titles like Call Of Duty or GTA, do you think that it’s a good idea for to target smaller games? Are there any opportunities there?

Absolutely. There are so many indie games being made. The indie community is huge, and they always need music. After all, there are game companies out there that are made up of 4 dudes working out of a living room at night, but they need music too. So there are lots of opportunities for composers and artists to get in with the companies that are making games for the Windows phones, for example. Games for tablets are also a far less risky venture.

Also, composing music for games can be a bit tricky, because there are a lot of requirements that are different than film, records and linear media. Like I said, one of the big things about games is interactivity. It’s never the same experience twice. For instance, take a racing game; we want to break out all of your songs into stems (drums, bass guitar, orchestra, etc), so depending on how a player is doing in the race, we can bring those parts out. And since you never know how long the race will take, songs have to be composed in a looping format sometimes. Maybe the race could take 5 minutes, or if I’m screwing around, it could take 9 minutes, and the music needs to cover that.

The same goes for a shooter game. The music will be different if I just discovered an area and am sneaking around, versus me being detected and getting into a huge firefight. So the music has to react to those kinds of scenarios, and that can be tricky.

Is that kind of music interactivity something that your programmers are responsible for handling thing, or composers?

It’s a combination of tech and artistry. The composer works with the game developer to make sure that every scenario is covered, and that transitions are smooth, so that the music is seamless and heightens what’s going on in the game. If you have a big open space in the game, you might want it to feel lonely, and trim your orchestration way back, and then maybe make the music busier as you approach more populated areas.

How do you think artists should go about communicating with a company like Microsoft, in order to get music into their games?

We have a music licensing team here at Microsoft who are always on the hunt for stuff like that. They’re like our A&R guys. The main is that the music has to be appropriate for the game. So if you’re a death metal band, you may not want to pitch your music to Fable. But if you feel like the music you’re writing could work for a game you know about, then you should absolutely hit up game companies. Find out who the audio directors are at these places.

343 held a remix contest for the Halo 4 soundtrack, which KOAN Sound, Sander Van Doorn, Julian Jordan and more partook in. We thought that was pretty cool. Do you think that Microsoft will be looking at doing things like that with future game titles?

Absolutely. We’re kind of nerds in the sense that we love the publicity that video game music can get, and we always try to advocate that. The audio experience in general is a huge part of the entertainment and gaming experience. I would fully expect stuff like that in the future.

It does kind of feel like the electronic music media tends to overlook the kinds of music that have more functional purposes than standard label releases, like video game and film soundtracks. The creators of these types of music use many of the same production techniques after all.

Yeah, composers have to be up on the most music styles, and EDM is a huge one. Forza Horizon is another game that had a ton of electronic songs on there, like Skrillex, Miike Snow, Santigold and that kind of stuff. The game was really interesting because it was set in the context of a music festival, that you’re racing around in. We had various radio stations that you could tune into, like Bass Arena Station, which had things like Benny Benassi, Modestep, New Order, and Wolfgang Gartner. The Pulse Station had some cross-over stuff things like Friendly Fires, Hot Chip, and Phoenix. We also had rock channels with Arctic Moneys and Black Keys.

Are there any interesting audio specs for the upcoming Xbox One that you can tell me about?

Yeah, the possibilities are quite bit bigger, since we have more memory and CPU at our disposal, and can pack more music on it and can do more interesting things with it.

When will the console be dropping?

November 22nd is when it drops worldwide.

Are there any titles that you’re still working on for the release, or are they all done?

Most of the stuff for the launch day is just wrapping up at the moment. We’ve got a bunch of stuff that I can’t talk about that we’re working on right now to make sure that the Xbox One is as big a hit as it deserves to be, as it’s a very cool console, with a ton of cool games.

I’m pumped for the release, and hope to lives up to all the hype I’ve heard. Thanks again for taking the time to speak with me. I’m sure that people have learned a lot from it. Make sure to keep your eyes on the Xbox website for the release!