The new generation of game consoles are upon us, with the Xbox One arriving shortly. 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, and much more!
Hi Mike! Thanks for talking to me. 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. 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 voice-over 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 Vivendi, who went on to purchase Activision, Blizzard and other big game companies. But about three 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 a 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 series of car CD packs. It was literally twenty different cars, and each car had it’s own CD. I had recorded every possible sound that each of them could make. So my background in designing sound effects for cars led to me being to contracted to work on the very first “Forza Motorsport” game for the Xbox. After that, a full-time position opened up on the “Forza” development team in 2005 and they hired me for that. I’ve been with Microsoft ever since then.
(Above: Mike Caviezel)
With eight 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.
So what does the workflow of the audio production director look like?
Most days it’s about co-ordinating with my team. I have a staff of about ten to fifteen 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 six or seven 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 third 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: Son of Rome“. 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.
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 six months from now? ”.
Also, a global company like Microsoft has tons of contacts, and we have access to a lot of resources. We partner with tons of different companies, which gives us options that other places just don’t have.
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 also help pick the composers and design the interactive music systems, and we attend the recording sessions to make 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 SoundLab?
“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 some big orchestral sessions for. Last year, we re-scored the original soundtrack for the first Halo game, which we re-released as “Halo: Anniversary “. That was a huge undertaking for our 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 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 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 its 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 were very EDM-friendly, and 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 second 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 necessarily need three-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, you might be able to spend only $200,000 – $300,000. But there are games that have been composed for far less that that, so the budgets can range pretty wildly depending on the needs of the game. For example, 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. A game like that might have one hour’s worth of music, that only cost around $50,000 to make or license.
Given that it’s a challenge for smaller indie artists to get AAA game placement for their music, do you think that it’s a good idea for them to target smaller studios instead?
Absolutely. The indie game community is huge, and they always need music. There are game companies made up of four guys working out of a living room at night, but their game needs 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 from film and other 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 prefer to have a song in stem format (drums, bass guitar, orchestra, etc), so depending on how a player is doing in the race, we can bring those parts in when we want. 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 five minutes, or if I’m screwing around, it could take nine minutes, and the music needs to cover that.
Is that kind of music interactivity something that your programmers are responsible for handling, or is it the job of the 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 by trimming your orchestration back, and then 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 thing 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 a game like “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.
Are there any interesting audio specs for the upcoming Xbox One that you can tell me about?
Yeah, the possibilities are quite a 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. It’ll released worldwide on November 22nd.
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.