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Behind the Music - Petri Alanko Interview

We had a chat with the composer Petri Alanko about his impactful soundtracks in Remedy Entertainment's games through the years.

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Music in video games has, since the dawn of the specific medium, played a major part in immersing the player, with some soundtracks going the extra mile and evoking genuine emotion in its audience. Specific tracks even have such an impact on the game's players that they end up linking them to a specific moment in their play-time or linking a track to a game or even entire franchises. A composer who has helped create some truly effective, impactful moments through his compositions is Petri Alanko, the multifaceted composer that has given Remedy Entertainment's games an extra layer of depth through music for close to a decade.

We had a chat with Petri Alanko just recently about how he views working within the video game medium and about working with the Finnish cult studio.

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We've certainly felt the immersion (and the hairs on our skin) rise with the help of your compositions for many years now, but for those who have yet to get a glimpse into the world of composers, tell us about yourself and the spot you take up in the industry.

Firstly, hopefully, the hair raising on skin happened because of something I've done has sounded good... thank you, it feels absolutely great to hear this! My goal has always been to find a twist in each of my scores (and sometimes the individual tracks too) that provide something that touches you deep inside. We're all different, so there are no clear common rules, but we all react to a certain "lift" or "change" and when decorated appropriately, the results of that transition could reach most of us...causing physical effects.

I sort of fell in love with soundtracks long ago, as a really little guy, I remember seeing a lot of movies as a kid, and although the cinemas were rather...well, equipped with poor sound systems, I still remember the gasping and grabbing feeling I got from the combination of screen events and music. One of my all-time favourites - think about this, (I was probably 6 or 7 when I saw it) was Parapluies de Cherbourg. I didn't understand French (I still lack in that area), but was able to read the subtitles, and the music; I had no idea it dealt with such adult themes, but the music took me away, which Star Wars did too. I saw it with my dad when it was possible to see in Lahti, Finland, in the late seventies. Back then the globalization hadn't spoiled each corner of the world, so we probably got Star Wars there years after, say, compared to London.

I knew very early on I definitely wanted to do this as my profession, but back then it seemed there was no possibility. I had been running to the local music conservatoire almost on a daily basis, playing the piano, practising church organs, trying to learn to how to conduct, how to arrange, how to orchestrate... everything was going rather smoothly, but something was lacking even though I loved it. After hearing Kraftwerk on the radio, I knew what was missing. Kraftwerk led to Vangelis and Jean Michel Jarre and Tangerine Dream and Ultravox and Depeche Mode...I've always felt I belong to both worlds...and none at all. Lately, I've learned I'm not the only one feeling this way, as most of my colleagues have had similar feelings in their childhood. Lahti was a major sports city, winter games world championships, so a 100% musician was (despite the emphasized music teaching in our school) an oddity. I wasn't a nerd as such, just an odd guy. I never ran into trouble, as I had practised judo and taekwondo, so ... Yeah, it was intense training, and it got even more intense it got after I was able to gear up a little. It took a long while, especially, as the prices of the most awful second-hand machines were extortionate. But, after some heavy saving, stuff started to appear, and I loved each moment. There was no literature in Finnish and in Lahti, nobody to ask advice from, and those who were years older didn't actually know a thing - or didn't want to say. Turned out years later all the so-called "pros" had not the faintest idea what to do with gear. So, I spent my years from 12 to 14 reading manuals with a thesaurus and occasionally trying to understand something I had gathered from foreign music magazines: luckily the school had a subscription to Keyboard Magazine.

When I managed to acquire a drum box and a 4-track cassette multitracker, THAT was cool. I learned how to sync the machines up; my dad built a very strange box for translating the sync signal into a sound and I was able to use it for arpeggiator/early sequencer multitracking. He also built a tempo display off a multimeter: with certain voltage the drum machine plays at 122 bpm, and so on.

And then one day MIDI arrived. I had upgraded my Commodore 64 so that it had a cartridge sequencer from Sequential. I waited three months for it to arrive, post and customs were rather slow back then. That changed how I perceived the music production, and eventually, the computer was upgraded to a Commodore Amiga, for which a friend of mine built a MIDI interface. It was cool to have such a super nerd as a friend. He, by the way, went on to become one of the founding members of F-Secure cybersecurity.

Gear kept seriously piling up and I spent every dime on equipment. When my grandmother died, I put a ton of resources into gear I knew I needed, and when I graduated from high school and it was time to move to a town where I had found a place to study in university, a whole car was filled with only instruments. Studying theoretical physics and musicology was back then - and still is - a very strange combo, and luckily, I realized it myself early enough, went into a shop to work as a synth salesman and luckily some odd fellow entered the premises and we started to talk about gear. He had a studio, but not much gear. I had gear, but not much of a studio. I called it quits a mere few hours later, and started doing studio production: adverts, arranging, production, remixes, session work...I specialised in sample mangling and synth programming, and I would say I was rather fluent with my vocoders, so...yeah. That's the foundation. Of course, a lot had to happen in order to enter the world we're now in, both technically and communication-wise. Remember, I started this before MIDI, and the internet appeared during my university years. A friend showed me a web browser after I had been studying for some years...Yes, I know. I had a pet dinosaur outside our cave, yes yes....

Control

Tell us about the process you have in place when creating a soundtrack for a game specifically, how is a Petri Alanko score conceived?

It starts with stories; I love to listen to them. I want people to first tell me a draft, maybe start with the main storyline, maybe adding some spice with a few shocking twists, then fill out the blanks by sharing the history...Just a few things are enough for me to start the rocks rolling, but the hunger grows, and I love listening to people. Sometimes I even get them to speculate something off-storyline, the other aspects that don't end in the game or are never seen by a player in the end - maybe things like that never reach the script, even? When I get the imagined picture moving in my head, I love seeing some concept pictures or even early preview videos, whatever is available - and this is where I usually start hearing ideas one by one. Some early themes stick in my head, and I meticulously test them by not writing anything down...actually, I do, but only if there's some technical or mathematical reason for doing so.

But THEN comes the most interesting part: getting myself a sound library for the project. I use commercial stuff, too, of course - no need to invent the wheel entirely, when someone has a shop filled with different wheels. But there's always something quirky and odd that I love to put into good use, be that whatever noise or dirt I come across. I've spent hours quantizing plywood splintering, only to use the result as a convolution impulse response once. Of course, most of the material is in actual use all the time, but that's where OCD people end: doing odd stuff for hours, just to be able to use it for a second, heh! That's quite an extreme example, and of course, I don't usually spend that much time for a single sound. For Alan Wake's American Nightmare (a sidequel for Alan Wake) I burned a few CDs with material I had planned to use on the project, then physically scratched the surfaces of the discs, played them back on a cheapo CD player, when I kept short bussing the components, trying to make it glitch naturally...then sampled the outcome - and used the glitchy results VERY heavily on that DLC/sidequel soundtrack. Some of them turned into convolutions after removing the tonal component. It's cool to experiment a lot if you have time. I usually try to include "playtime" into my schedules - because it helps the project greatly and produces a lot of usable material, material for sample playback plugins or some Reaktor/Kyma algorithms. Some of the sounds start guiding you into a certain direction, which, if the direction meets with the original concept, feels like magic: it's one of the best feelings to realise the sounds and to hear the concept click and connect.

As mentioned, some sounds lure out some harmonies and melodies, and especially on Quantum Break, a surprise happened. I had been longing for something flowing, a melody or an arpeggio or an ostinato, something that would sound slightly ambivalent, not actually connected to a personality, but still being able to describe one character - which happened to be Jack, the protagonist. He felt like an outsider, and had been away from his brother and friends for a long time...why? Anyway, he required his own theme, and the theme arrived in the form of a rusty gate, which opened up slowly, pushed by the wind. I luckily had my field recorder on, and I immediately knew that sound would benefit from time stretching - and when I tested it, the natural overtones played a series now heard as Jack's piano ostinato that opens Quantum Break in the taxi scene.

Similar experiments happened on Control, many times, in the form of dragging a piano frame on a concrete floor, recording the screaming all the moaning and splintered, violent soundboard ringing. I spent a few long days recording materials in my garage, and time just passed by. Some really abrupt low-end screams and "drangs", rumbling low notes, were put into a Reaktor algorithm, and I was very pleasantly surprised - and somewhat surprised when the Genelec subwoofer almost jumped off the floor. I had recorded these sounds in 192kHz, with a really good mic made for recording the wide spectrum (a Sanken CO-100k) and when I took the soundbits down a few octaves, they really started to roar. Roars into my Reaktor patch and I think the whole neighbourhood was shaken that day.

Okay, so that's the sound library development side of my approach done. The next thing is to load up a few early cinematics or gameplay videos and it's time to start to look at the scenes and game in motion - if the thematic ideas I had been originally imagining in the previous phases were anything usable, they usually pop up again here; if they do, they are worth exploring, and if they don't... even better. That's how I found the leitmotif of Control, by the way. Each time I saw Jesse entering The Oldest House, I kept hearing the same thing. I knew vaguely how the story would end, so I knew what would be awaiting her - there's a good, clear reason why the six-note theme sounds a little demented, yet ends up forming a major third: everything will be okay, in the end. She was rather shaky, yet determined in the beginning, and she had to face her fears in order to find out what kept drawing her into the building. Then I think to myself maybe I should find out what had happened to her long-lost brother, too? It's all about conquering one's insecurities, no matter what would be the outcome. Sacrifices might need to be made.

From there the ideas slowly start growing. It usually happens in waves, actually. Sometimes nothing seems to click, but it usually means I need to investigate a little further, and it usually helps to try to keep the pace similar in every cue, if possible. That way I can bring in similar ideas, developed from a common timeline - and suddenly the locks open. I've learned to trick my mind into "completion" to avoid a total block, so the experience comes in handy.

Control

Leaning in to the previous question; you've been working with Remedy for a long time and created fantastic, memorable scores for games like Alan Wake, Quantum Break and Control with them - how much of a free rein have you had when creating music for Remedy's games?

Of course, the basic ideas need to be cleared out first. On Alan Wake, for example, we decided not to use woodwinds ("they're fantasy-ish, sorta") or brass ("too pompous, too Wagnerian") and even stayed away from drumloops. In Quantum Break I tried to avoid orchestral colours altogether, as it needed to be sonically very different from Alan Wake...I actively try to make a departure from the previous job, stylistically, trying not to repeat the same trick and so on, but there are only so many actual stylistic choices one can make before entering the realm of total noise.

With Remedy, they very rarely try to hinder my choices, and I feel they trust me. There is a lot of development going on at once, so ideas change, and some of the early demos may sound a little dated towards the later development phases. But on Control, the score remained the same pretty much throughout the whole project, which also happened on Quantum Break as well.

I'd love to insist it's about the initial meetings and coffee talks that allow things to work well. It's really helpful to have that kind of communication going on with the dev team, and especially with the storyline people, such as Sam Lake. Concept artists and Sam built the world into my head, and I love to display a few concept pictures to forever reside on my wall, to remind me of how things clicked into their places right from the start. In other words, their concepts, story-wise and graphically, are at such an incredibly high level, that it's almost impossible to screw up. Or if you do, you've succeeded in something impossible, and that alone is worth bragging about.

How did the relationship between you and Remedy form to begin with?

Well, it might sound odd, but I like to think they entrusted somebody they didn't know, which was very un-Finnish. I, however, did have a trustworthy person on their inside circle talking good things about me, so that's why they probably believed I could deliver for their project. Of course, I had to audition back then and obviously cleared the clouds with that, as I got the gig: Alan Wake. My friend had been working in a company that was partially owned by Remedy, and they had some get-together or a sauna-swim-in-a-lake-drink-beer relaxation day, and they started discussing who in Finland could create modern orchestral music, ideally with a tech background and capability to deal with deadlines effectively. I had built a rather good name among the "daily pop pro people", so...yeah. I got a call, made a demo, and was welcomed into the Remedy family. I'm forever thankful for that. My first visit to the studio was easily the most awesome trip I've ever done professionally, and I learned so, so, so much during and after the project. It was such an unbelievably positive experience all the time: I got to see how the development worked, how the cinematic team functioned, how pros made coding, animation, marketing, business development, audio...I guess needless to say it was the best and the deepest learning experience, I was so happy to be a part of it, and I only hoped I could help them (and have them teach me) in the future, too.

In this sector of the entertainment industry, it is always about trust. I've bragged about zero missed deadlines and zero blown budgets and so on and so forth, but in reality it's all about trust and the results in the end: whether one's able to deliver emotional and meaningful content for a product that's requiring it, and do it on time, and throw in some meaningful and bright ideas, to maybe enhance the story too.

I value Remedy's existence in my professional life a lot. The learning-teaching vector has probably been in use for both of us, for a greater good. I've always said it's important to know where the company is coming from and where it is heading to, in order to be able to support them in an appropriate way. Knowing the objectives help you understand the "eyebrow factor", which develops only in the longer run. With this, I'm referring to what some might call "reading between the lines". Words are one thing, but they don't tell everything. Sometimes it truly helps to know the people across the table, as it cuts out any unnecessary idling from the development schedules, and you can concentrate on the main thing: music and sounds.

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The impact that soundtracks have on a game, be it a single moment or throughout, is massive and the music of Alan Wake is a great example of that. While the music in the following two games felt more fluid and woven into the game play-experience as a whole, the Alan Wake score drew out emotions in us we didn't know were there prior to the tunes hitting our ears. What goes into creating these high-impact moments?

I appreciate your way of emphasising the importance of music as a carrier for emotions - I couldn't agree more! To me, the most important source of inspiration is others' inspiration, and how they have been able to deliver that wash of passion into the raw work. Alan Wake's score was sometimes used in places where someone else might have inserted just a few mere booms or drones, and sometimes I was very pleasantly surprised after seeing the results: back then, the preview clips were usually either really rough resolution, slow frame rate clips or even just wireframe videos, not even white boxed so I had to imagine a lot, and rely on the story being told. It also helped a great deal that the cinematic director took some chances by exchanging two cues.

To me, Alan Wake was a perfect source for writing - he had his demons and his dreams, and how he was prepared to fight for a positive outcome was obvious. During the first demos, I tested with a more direct approach, but it all felt too predictable. That wouldn't work, and to me, music without any character-based future motivation (and past roots) would be a missed opportunity. Of course, there's nothing wrong with the direct approach and underlining, but relying solely on that turns music into an environment paint - or sound effects. At its worst, things may end up sounding comically choreographed. We have always tried to prevent a short-term effect, and in Remedy's games, the story moments reach much further in the future - which must be taken into account with the music too.

During composing, I want to be moved, moved by the picture, by the story, by the character acting. I love it, when I burst into tears, and even the cold turkey chills down my spine are good fuel.

We've always been intrigued by your work with Remedy and even more so after realising just how multifaceted you are in terms of creating. While the three main games you've worked on with them have had very different soundtracks, they all feel similar in a way that's hard to explain, like they're woven into each other. Is this your unique style at play or has it been a conscious choice?

I think it's just a case of "old ape learns no new tricks"! No, but seriously I think it's about a certain blueprint I've developed during the years. Although I try to avoid doing the same trick all over again, there's something "obviously me" in, say, the feel of the chords, for instance. I like to add a 2nd (or 9th, depending on how you see it) to some chords, even include some off-scale notes, and sometimes I throw in some scale tricks by changing from minor to, say, Dorian or Phrygian, and then return to the original. Those tiny "fill-ins" I seem to do subconsciously might bring in something one identifies as "yep, this is Alanko at it again". To me, my choices sound like someone smiling at you, but with sad eyes - or someone crying, longing for something, but filled with hope; it's about dualism, I guess.

I actively and consciously try doing "something else", which in my opinion has worked quite well. Comparing Alan Wake, Quantum Break and now Control seems like the three scores belong to different universes - but do they, really? The carrier frequency - or the undertow, let's call it that - ties them together, which is more than likely to tie the "Remedy Universe" together too. There's a good chance all the aforementioned games could happen in a certain universe/dimension, looking back at the strange content in them. It's more or less natural: really odd events occur, and they have become the new normal. Or, in Remedy's case, The New Weird!

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Remedy has had a seemingly great relationship with not just you, but also with the band Poets of the Fall. Have your paths ever crossed when creating music for the same project, like with Alan Wake and its Old Gods of Asgard?

Unfortunately, no. They have a few tracks in Remedy's games which have a certain verse or a riff that has really pointed me towards asking them whether I could possibly try doing a remix, but that is yet to happen.

What would you say is your biggest source of inspiration when creating a soundtrack?

The atmosphere and the character's emotions and his/her motivations combined. Without them, it's a tough ground to go hiking. I sometimes run into a dead end, but luckily that rarely happens. If it does occur, usually it is a sign that I might be looking at the view a little too close, which is when I try to force myself into a further off position. I've tried my best learning tricks to overcome the lock, and fortunately, so far, I've had no problems with it. Easily, at this very moment at least, my favourite source of inspiration is reading, the second-best option is movies - and if I need to totally disconnect myself to find some new air, I go out. I live slightly away from a city, and there isn't too much housing nearby, lots of wildlife and a few lakes, so... my inspiration often comes from simple things. I like Scandinavian modern design, so simplicity is the best source to me; clear forms, cool pale colours, form and function combined. I tend to enter each new situation or space with my ears first, so I guess the most inspiration is drawn from the sounds and the spaces. In Control, the vast power plant hall, for instance, was a source of amazement, thus a source of inspiration. I like when "air moves in a picture", as that is a good sign.

Talking about pictures, I like paintings with colours, but prefer photos usually in black and white. I've been a fan of photography for ages, and I've noticed that I've become increasingly interested in more colours within them. What gives me a feeling is the light in both cases: how light has been "captured" by the lens, film or the canvas and the paint.

Most of us know you mainly for your work on video game soundtracks, but you're a multifaceted composer. If you had the option to create anything you wanted for anything you wanted, what music would you create and for what?

I'd love to do a collaboration album with, say, seven to ten collaborators. I probably would refrain myself from a 4/4 beat and prefer more textural material, but I could just as well do that by myself, too. I haven't yet decided, but whenever I find there's enough spare time in my schedule, I'll use that wisely: first relaxation, then hobbies. That philosophy has kept me from going totally nutcase the past two-three decades.

An album I released well over a year ago had a working title of "Soundtrack for a movie that never was", but as the stylistic direction increasingly leaned towards club, 4/4 and trance, the title was dropped pretty early on and became "We've Been Here Before". Maybe, someday, the working title becomes reality and I concentrate on the more cinematic side.

A word of truth: the music industry is severely saturated, though, and it requires rather special stunts - usually commercial - to enter the markets and the charts. It may seem impossible to penetrate through the multinational marketing mumbo-jumbo some hot artist record companies tend to create with their guerrilla marketing or social media crews, but there are enough positive examples every now and then, that, sort of, revitalize my faith in music itself. There's still a possibility for good stuff to break through without any stunts, but the crest of that wave is really, really sharp. I consider my usual style being "off-school, non-school electro-acoustic with occasional epic moments and maybe some vocals, with some luck". If record shops still exist in the future, my albums could, at least, be in their own genre slot....

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