For a very long time it has been a wish to interview one of the key figures behind the Alan Wake and Quantum Break games. During a random discussion via Twitter the moment finally revealed itself. I was given the opportunity to interview Petri Alanko, the composer of the soundtracks for the last few Remedy games. Another life goal achieved! Alanko is a great guy with a very good sense for the Remedy community. Without a doubt, he agreed to answer my plethora of questions.
While I might be familiar with your work and some of your history, I suspect a lot of readers probably aren’t. Please introduce yourself to the readers, who’s Petri Alanko and what drove him to score a Remedy videogame?
Well, Petri Alanko is just a guy who has always dreamt of making music for his living, and has had melodies in his head since the earliest toddler years. Somehow things evolved into a certain direction, and he got a gig from a gaming company in the early 2000’s. There’s a lot involved in between, but the main point here, I guess, is that I worked very hard to achieve something – this is not my finish line, not my goal, this is just a waypoint towards that “something”. Back when I was a little kid, there was no “gaming industry” as such, as we now know it, unless someone invented cassette tapes for board games, and I’ve seen the whole industry get together and grow from a few little obscure labs into a heavyweight armada of spaceships – and I was thrilled to be able to get on board a few of them. From a very early age on, I had pictures in my mind, pictures that moved and made sound – and music. My early clumsy compositions (or clumsier, actually, heh) were done “to a picture”, and I realised it much, much later. It didn’t feel odd back then, I just felt “well, I guess everyone’s doing it this way”. The same applied to pop music as well – the stuff I did in the 90’s just to stay alive, heh – each piece was done to “a scene” in my mind. I’m driven by visuals, and the feeling I get from them.
A soundtrack is something that heavily contributes to the general atmosphere of an entertainment experience, whether it is a videogame or a movie. Realizing the amount of influence you have on someone’s experience, how do you cope?
Well, for starters, I need to be very careful with what I do. Sometimes just the action/reaction/whatnot on the screen is enough, and doesn’t need embellishments, and usually each note is carefully put in its place – but it’s not planned, it comes out naturally. I trust my gut feeling there, the tiny twist inside, that leads me thinking. If I find an event in a storyline – or moving picture – I carefully inspect what I’ve heard there, and why. That usually works as a starting point for a musical scene or action cue, whatever is needed. Since the “gut feeling” is there, my feeling is probably very much in line with a gamer’s (or movie viewer’s) feelings, and I need to grab that and emphasize it. Not painting with actions, but reactions. I keep on questioning myself and what I’ve done all the time, but there’s no endless iterating, I know very well, when the scene or an event is coherent and – well, ready.
“Zimmer’s “Interstellar” was hugely important to me during a certain really hard phase in my past. I sort of made it my safe place for a while..”
Inspiration and creativity to create a certain sound must be key in your line of work. What are your favorite soundtracks, movies or composers you’d like to take inspiration from?
Lately I’ve been very enamoured by several really odd things: I’ve been listening to a lot of underground pop and indie rock – I got a few cds from Poland the other day, and they’ve been playing in my car a few days now. In addition to that, I’ve got a sweet spot for NIN, Depeche Mode’s earlier works (pre-Ultra era), Cliff Martinez, Muse, Ryuichi Sakamoto (his score for The Revenant… OH HOLY HELL!), Geoff Barrow & Ben Salisbury’s “Ex Machina” was great, Recoil (Alan Wilder’s solo project), Reznor-Ross, and I loved the score for “Gravity”. Zimmer’s “Interstellar” was hugely important to me during a certain really hard phase in my past. I sort of made it my safe place for a while, and I had the soundtrack before I saw the movie. I love black & white photos, and my shelf is full of photobooks of all kinds, and if possible whilst traveling, I always check out the galleries around my hotel. Architecture is important, too, and I _love_ finding out medieval bits and pieces in the cities I visit. Musically, I’m a bit hard to please, as if there’s no substance enough, I’ll leave myself thinking “okay, that was done with that and this plugin” etc., so if I’m not listening to the music, I’m dissecting the production…
The creation of a soundtrack tends to happen more and more behind a desk, rather than with a fully-fledged symphonic orchestra. Do you still work with instruments or is everything digitized? How do you make sure your work is unique sounding? With what gear do you work?
I would love to work with an orchestra, maybe of varied sizes. I’ve lately done a lot of arrangements involving anything from a quintet to a bull-blown shebang – all in one song – but it’s really refreshing after a four-plus-year stint behind the synth stacks. Most of the demos are usually digitized stuff, based on the ready-built libraries, but I like to step away from those often, and the plugins are replaced with real instruments or hardware synths, modular things, whatnot. I feel the plugins are good for one thing, but sometimes the synth plugins are a bit onedimensional and lack something… Depth, I guess? They mostly sound flat and unimpressing. Maybe it’s about noise and crosstalk between channels that’s missing. Listening to a plugin synth feels like you listen to a technically perfect singer that doesn’t breathe at all. I usually dig deep into processing stuff when the main lines are done and recorded, and the processing isn’t always mangling everything, destroying stuff, instead it’s just running something through something to give it depth, character (mostly that) and dirt. The plugin picture has no flaws, and I like to make them real by adding “just a bit of something” with my outboard gear.
My gear’s not actually anything special, but one thing that leads towards the source of “my sound” is that I’ve got this saying “oh, it’s got led indicators, let’s burn them all”. I like keeping the signal hot, almost saturating, since the preamps and other gear seem to like it that way. I had a lovely Neve mixing thing, which I used for coloring a lot, but I sold it before QB soundtrack was finished – it was just obscenely expensive to keep it alive, as the spare parts weren’t that common. I replaced it with a 500 series lunchbox set, with Neve stuff in it. I also used a Neve summing mixer for synths, plus the plugin eqs I love are Neves, too. I guess the sound of “me” is a combination of everything burning bright red. I love my analog synth collection, too, although a few pieces took a lot of damage about a week ago in an accident at a rental storage company. I’m looking for a Macbeth M5 right now, again… A white one would be cool. My Prophets and Moogs are something I love tremendously, and the modular synth just got some 10+ new modules. It’s actually really a nice piece of gear now. My favorite piece.
Talking about a unique style, while replaying Alan Wake I noticed quite a few cues that are comparable to the sound of Quantum Break. Is that something you keep track of, trying to settle on some sort of artistic trademark-style? Or is it something of an evolution of your skills? (Like Tom Holkenborg’s heavy drum soundtracks for 300 and Mad Max).
There are a few knowingly done things in there, indeed, well spotted! There are a few occasions of mathematical constants in both scores, by the way… I guess my “trademark” is the bass and the atmospheric together, plus I almost never use triad chords in 1-3-5, instead I’m using different voicings and inversions, and very seldom the chords are just pure major or minor, I like to soil them with added notes. Nothing too jazzy, I hope. Most of the trance stuff I’ve done or been involved with can be recognized, too – the same applies there. I didn’t use much percussion in QB, but I’d seriously like to do something with the next soundtrack in the percussion section and how they sound like. Let’s see…
I often wonder how a soundtrack is conceived. How much creative freedom do you have? For movies it’s often the director who already has a strong sense of how the music should sound like. Is this the same case with a video game? Or are you responsible for pitching the right sound?
There’s a surprising amount of freedom involved with the compositional side, even production, and only seldom there’s any need for changes, and in those cases, they’re usually based on the plot changes, screenplay edits, cinematic changes, technical issues or similar. Pitching the right sound is a bit like having a dialogue, making a few demos early on, then honing the instrumentation and harmonies in the right direction according to conversations had with the production team. The art directors and writers have a certain point of view in the beginning, and it’s usually my task to find out what they’re thinking about. Of course, the production team has also a set of feel tracks, something they feel might connect with their idea – be that a harmony, sound, production, and those feel tracks are used for creating an audio guideline library – or an audio bible – but they’re definitely not “have to be like this”, they’re more like “might be suitable to have something like this or what do you think”. Nobody has ever suggested me do a copycat job, by the way, all the developers I’ve worked with have had their heart and pride intact.
“I can’t really catch the first feeling, but since I was (and still am) a big, big fan of Max Payne, I’d love the idea of a remake..”
Let’s continue on this subject. You’ve started working with Remedy after the release of Max Payne 2: The Fall of Max Payne. Without a doubt, by now you are familiar with the game series and their characters. If you would’ve been given the opportunity to score the very first Max Payne game. How would it sound like? How would your approach to a project like this look like?
I think the score might have been a bit more darker. Emotional, darker, more human. I’d search for the sweetest spot in the screenplay and use that as a ground zero. I would’ve loved to find out the minimum and maximum inside the storyline and tie them together musically. That would’ve been the saddest moment combined with the utmost fiercest action part, and between those two pillars I would’ve built the remaining tracks. It’s an interesting idea, actually, since the “first peek” of that project went by long ago. I can’t really catch the first feeling, but since I was (and still am) a big, big fan of Max Payne, I’d love the idea of a remake… But they don’t really do much remakes or reboots in gaming world, do they? I’m quite sure I’d use a lot of string instruments there, but not just the basic orchestra stuff. Bowed stuff, yes, but not necessarily doublebass-cello-viola-violin. I did a lot of bowed piano string library stuff for QB myself, from scratch, and I would’ve loved to extend the idea into the other instruments as well.
Movies and games are vastly different entertainment mediums, yet is the latter is becoming more and more a cinematic experience. How does this influence your work? Knowing that game soundtracks nowadays consist out of many layers, your music must be suitable for both heavy on screen action as well as intertwining exploration of the game world.
The line between different media is indeed blurred, and thus the differences are getting rarer. However, since the game media is not linear, and is actively controlled by the gamer himself, it creates a few problems. If not prepared properly, the tracks get easily very boring. There’s a great need for quick reactions, as having something change suddenly on screen makes it all very fragile: if music doesn’t change in conjunction, the feeling is gone. The amount of layers is a difficult question. I, for instance, would like to think silence is needed, too. Sometimes the amount of sound effects is so high it clutters the audio scene totally – and the difference between the roles of a game player and a movie watcher is important: the first is “acting”, the other “looking”. Due to that role difference, there’s a difference in music and its “richness”, too. In games, sometimes less is more – and this has been a trend, really. Think about MGS or Fallout or Uncharted – the latest versions have very little music, and sometimes even the combat scenes are empty. In my opinion, something’s missing, but maybe they reached for a more realistic approach there: there’s no PA system pumping next to your ear on the battlefield, is there? Again, in my opinion, they lost a suitable slot for their audio branding in any case. Silence is a weapon of choice.
Soundtracks for games are, in my opinion, transcending those of film in terms of quality, atmosphere and uniqueness. In your own words, how come?
I think it’s the amount of love put into the music. Also, the amount of time put into it is a bit different. You can’t really do an AAA game in a year from zero to a final product, whereas with movies it’s perfectly possible – and the composer is stepping in very late. Also, since the production cycle of game development is indeed cyclical, the composer’s role is important not only in the last phase, but also in the middle, in various tasks – and sometimes the music opens up some levels or stages or acts or parts in a different light, allowing the composer to affect the game development with his output. I’m referring to my first sentence here: with the studios I’ve worked with, everyone has had a tremendous amount of love towards their love child, the game. Even the most basic level coders just love their product. There’s a lot of emotions and passion put into games, and you can really see (and hear) that. For instance, QB’s audio team did a marvellous job with the sound effects and how the world in QB reacts to the time powers. It’s a genuine work of passion, and I love working with people who have that burning in their eyes. It gives me fuel and makes everything easier.
“There’s that certain feel I’d like to describe as “putting a period after the sentence”. You just know it’s there..”
I bet we’ve all had this experience – You are working on something big, and you are very proud of what you’ve accomplished so far. However, you keep tweaking and changing your work in order to improve it even more. Sometimes you take one step forward and two steps back. How and when do you decide your work is ‘done’?
I trust my gut feeling. If the track gives me goosebumps, it’s ready. No, really. There’s that certain feel I’d like to describe as “putting a period after the sentence”. You just know it’s there, or you didn’t have any idea what you’ve been doing in the first place. If your vision is blurred, you can’t see the details. If you feel you’re not getting it “just right”, let it sleep a little, if possible. Days, maybe weeks even, but distance helps with the blur – but only, if there’s time for that clearance. When I see a picture, I hear a sound, a song, an orchestra, a track ready, and my physical job is transforming the inner view into reality, and when those two match, it’s done. I guess one might just as well say “you gotta know what you’re doing to announce it done”, but it sounds a bit obnoxious, I think.
Sometimes during interviews actors or directors often say they don’t dare to touch a certain project because they feel they are not the right fit. How do you think about this? Would you turn a project down because of this? I bet every composers would be drooling to score the next Star Wars or Uncharted game, right?
I would, definitely. For instance, I would’ve never been able to do soundtrack to a My Little Pony movie. I’ve got a certain amount of playfulness in me, but it, too, requires a heavy graphical input, and in this case a very demanding background story, too. You need to have depth in your stories. I wouldn’t score a Star Wars. I love the genre, and I love the movies, but it’s not my lunchbox. However, Uncharted feels much more “mine”, but the original composers have done a marvellous job, so I’ll let them have their gig, heh. I’ve said “no” quite a few times in my life, and each case has been after a very thorough thinking. It’s not about money, it’s about how much I can offer to a certain product, and if my output seems a bit shallow in the first place, I rather leave it to be than even start demoing anything. One thing I wouldn’t touch either, by the way, is Fallout series. It’s perfect as is. Or should I say, it depends on the money…