Petri Alanko Interview: Writing a Romantic Score for a Psycho-Thriller Game (March 2010)
After five years in development, Alan Wake is finally about to be released. Originally slated as a PC title, the game has since gone through many design changes and has become an Xbox 360 exclusive. In this immensely in-depth interview, composer Petri Alanko reflects upon his experience of writing the music for Alan Wake, and upon his music career in general.
Interview Subject: Petri Alanko
Interviewer: Michael Naumenko
Editor: Michael Naumenko, Simon Elchlepp
Coordination: Michael Naumenko
Michael: Hi Petri! Firstly, could you give us some information about your career thus far?
Petri Alanko: Well, I may be a newcomer amongst game composers, but I’ve actually done this more or less frequently since the early nineties. I was a hired hand, doing pop production, composing pop/rock songs, all of which were probably too complicated and/or artsyfartsy to be hugely successful. I’ve had a few minor hit-ish songs with some local Finnish groups, though. The last seven years I’ve been closely involved with audio branding and sound design as well. Among my clients are Sulake Corporation (Habbo Hotel + other services provided by Sulake), a certain very big unnamed Finnish mobile device manufacturer (hah, my NDA says I shouldn’t mention the name anywhere) for which I did many things, quite a few record companies (the only missing is BMG, I think), ad agencies... bits and pieces for everyone, it seems.
I’ve always been very interested in the club scene as well, although my clubbing years are practically history right now - but my love for this kind of music still exists. I used to have a studio with one of Europe's leading trance DJs, Orkidea, with whom I had a great time doing music. His Metaverse album, for which I did production in cooperation with him as well as composing and programming stuff, is actually among my favorite productions. I’ve also done some remixing plus other quite odd stuff under the moniker Lowland - check out Orkidea vs. Solarstone, “Slowmotion (Lowland remix)” and also Classical Trancelations, released by Armada in 2008 (available in Amazon or iTunes), on which I’m interpreting the trance classics in a slightly different way - an homage to heroes, so to say. The last five tracks are actually quite good, imho. By the way, “Lowland” is my family name translated into English, given to me by my English teacher in... whaaaat? 1980? Goddammit, time flies.
In short, life has been easy and good, hopefully it’ll continue that way. I like peace and tranquility, being alone with my ideas, letting them grow and evolve. I do have a social side as well, but it seems I’m more or less a typical Finnish Jekyll/Hyde. If I find the time and necessary motivation, I’d like to do an album combining that club scene thing and ambient stuff involving real instruments - not the most original idea, I’m afraid. Usually all the projects heading that way end up being just hideously bad and uncommercial in a way beyond one’s imagination. :-) In pro music world they have a special word for such records: “Crap”.
But: anything works as long as there’s a good melody and it moves something inside your head. Hopefully something else than just a toothbrush. :-D
Michael: Who did you want to be when you were a child? When did you start to study music?
Petri Alanko: That's easy. I wanted to be a composer since - what, age five? My grandmother noticed I had musical tendencies and bought me a cheap electric organ, which soon was sold and we got a piano. I was four then. My parents took me to a local conservatoire in Lahti, Finland (the place I was born and lived in during my first 18 years), which was horrendous as a first experience. I thought they were going to send me away! :-D After the first lesson I didn’t want to leave, I wanted to suck it all in - so I cried coming in and going out. It began there and then: I knew I wanted to play music. The desire to compose songs came a few weeks later, although I was very aware of the patience needed. I probably did my first “composition” years after that, probably at the age of 11 or 12. It was a peppy and ridiculous song along the lines of Depeche Mode á la 1981... oh dear, I’m blushing. It was a really bad song, I have to say, and I knew it already back then.
Michael: Have you had a musical education? Which instruments do you play and which ones do you have in your collection at the moment?
Petri Alanko: I played piano for what seems like ages now, it was an active part of my life from age 5 to 19, until my graduation from high school. I’ve let my technique rot, unfortunately. I’ve also studied classical organs (one of my teachers was Kalevi Kiviniemi, who’s a brilliant and innovative organist) - hey, if there’s ever going to be Alan Wake 2, I want to play some church organ stuff in! (Having said that, the Remedy people would probably ditch me from their buddy list. :-D)
There were only a few guys doing that kind of stuff professionally back then, creating samples and sounds for a living - add songwriting to that and you’ve got a few coins in your pocket. Coins, not notes, mind you. Back in the old days (pre-virtual instrument era) it was for example just a synth or a sampler plugged into a mixer with a dreadful delay or digital reverb in a send channel. You had to learn to be creative - restrictions have been my best teacher. Keyboards are my main instrument and I’ve got a decent collection of analog synths and instruments - all of which are used on a daily basis. I don’t like to keep things just because I want to own something.
My gear (most of them used in Alan Wake):
• Apple Mac Pro (with 16 GB RAM, 8 TB hard disk space) with MOTU 2408 mkIII + 24 i/o and RME FireFace 400 interfaces and CME UF80 keyboard and Logic Pro 8/9
• Clavia Nord Modular G2X (used as an external processor a lot)
• Roland JP-8000, JD-990, XV-5080 (well, not used in Alan Wake. Actually I don’t remember the last time I have had them switched on. I may have to delete a few sentences I wrote earlier... and sell these)
• Roland SH-101 (red), SH-2, V-Synth XT (all of which got used a LOT in Alan Wake. I had a V-Synth GT as well, but its USB midi clock sync was so bad it was beyond my sense of humour, so it had to go during the early stages)
• Sequential Circuits Pro-One (with SynthWood modifications), serviced and fully functional, very prominent during the last five levels of Alan Wake, doubling bass, adding depth, multitracked, doubled, quadrupled - I quite seldom use only one of something, I like layers.
• Oberheim Matrix-12 and Xpander (you can hear these in level 15, for example), my favorite analogue all-in-ones. Those two midied together = damn! It’s like with sex, if it’s a bit dirty, it’s right. :-D
• Access Music Virus TI Polar (if there’s distorted noise or dissonances, it’s this one)
• Open Labs Miko LXD (with Hartmann Neuron VS + Nuke controller, used as a substitute for my Neuron, which was malfunctioning badly at times and now it’s gone)
• Waldorf MicroQ Rack (mostly off all the time)
• UseAudio Plugiator with all plugs - I’m searching for a nice Odyssey instead, by the way. Or the Creamware Prodyssey module with knobs.
• Unitor 8 mk2 and AMT8 MIDI interfaces
• Kenton Pro 4 MIDI/CV interface for the analog machines
• Line6 Pod XT Live
• Eurorack Modular (9 oscillators, 7 different VCFs, 8 ENV generators, 4 LFOs and loads of other modules... it’s a black hole, actually. Sucking in all my time right now as I’m doing analogue noodlings to be used as building blocks for later use)
• Symbolic Sound Kyma/Paca with a TC Konnekt interface (ADAT pipe to 2408mkIII)
• Focusrite Liquid Mix and Liquid Channel
• Universal Audio UAD-2 with Neve and SSL plugins as well as Roland stuff and “the usual classic things”, Harrison EQ... a workhorse, this one.
• Yamaha D-85 Electone electric organ from late 70’s (also not used in Alan Wake)
• Yamaha VL-70m for some woodwind-ish things and esoteric breath instruments - I’d like to have a VL-1, though.
• Korg DSS-1 sampler (which has its fifth disk drive right now - it just eats them alive, I’m afraid)
• A brandless cello, a trombone and a nice acoustic guitar (Martin, if I remember correctly), which my father uses a lot - oh, and a beaten-up huge upright piano which sounds like a grand piano because of its tuning. A friend of mine tried his best to tune it and it just sounds great. Unfortunately I don’t have space for it in my studio, so I have to grab my mics, laptop and FireFace 400 everytime I need something real.
• Haken Audio Continuum (I sold this over a year ago, but I did some nice background pad things with it and with Kyma’s Stinger/Atmospheric Machine, which I created for this project)
Michael: How did you land the composing gig on Alan Wake? Did you have any experience creating game or movie soundtracks prior to working on Alan Wake? Were you working as a freelancer or as developer Remedy's in-house composer?
Petri Alanko: A mutual friend of mine & Remedy’s people introduced us to each other. I was and still am a freelancer. I had done quite a few classical-ish things during the years and Remedy asked this fellow if he knew someone who could deliver a catchy theme for an early teaser trailer. Well, obviously they liked my output, considering the current situation. It’s actually quite flattering, because they could’ve chosen any other top name from their list, but these things are more a matter of chemistry than of fancy titles and Curriculum Vitaes. It just “happened”, so to speak. The first clip I saw was so full of believable atmosphere that the theme practically wrote itself. When I saw the first picture of Alan Wake (with a gun in his hand, the other holding a flashlight), that was it. I sort of knew what it needed. Things come out easily with me, though. I’m not sure if this is the right way to put it in words, but it seems I’m sort of a synaesthetic person as I “hear” what pictures are craving for.
Maybe I just wanted this job so bad they decided to surrender and let me do it. Maybe I had the right spark in my eyes.
MIchael: What's the very first thing you do when you start writing new music? Could you give us an estimate of how long it took you on average to create one composition?
Petri Alanko: Considering Alan Wake and its cinematics, I set some dogmas for scoring, some sonic boundaries which I knowingly refused to cross. The boundaries were level-dependent and I never set the same rules twice. I carefully studied the environment, people involved, time of the day, weather... oh dear, people will probably think I’m just another seriously anal control freak knobhead. Which I probably am! :-D
Usually it began by staring in awe at the raw cinematics cut by Stobe Harju (if he ever makes a movie, I really, really, really want to score that - a nice fella with lots of attitude, vision and experience) and after the tears settled, I started analyzing what moved me. I need to have an anchor around which the rest of the music is created. Usually it’s a very tiny thing, I’ll call that a trigger. It can be something as simple as Alice’s pose on a ferry at the beginning of the game, or the way the Remedy people had managed to create a “sense of weather”. In that same scene (arriving in Bright Falls), the whole setting is very believable, very tangible, every detail’s in its place.
Some things come out easily, such as the “Eight Alan Wake Notes”, which I heard in my head the moment I saw the first picture of him. Actually, that’s a variation of Johann Sebastian Bach’s B-A-C-H, for which I have a weak and soft spot in my heart. Bach is something I really enjoyed playing and listening to when I was young. Also, the same notes hold the illusion of suspense and thrill, them being quite dissonant when played together. Again, this 8-note thing has an echo from the 70’s and 80’s, as almost every TV action/thriller series had a “to be continued” at the end of an episode, and Alan Wake’s supposed to be an episode-based thriller game, so... of course I had to find something along those lines. And it just came out, by accident.
I sometimes used different tunings for these notes, to have them stand out from the wall of sound. I usually tune everything to 443 Hz, so I really had to vamp my tunings at times. I also managed to insert these eight notes into practically every cue in the game - sometimes all eight together, sometimes they appear one note per bar... it’s like the whole score’s breathing those notes over and over again. Luckily, it doesn’t sound like I'm repeating myself, heh! Note also, A L A N W A K E = eight letters... I even had an old keyboard which had the letters A L N W K E written on every key starting from C1, then starting again at F#1. I wanted to see what I could get out of the sequence. Sheer lunacy. (By now it should be obvious I’m interested in layers, riddles and numerology.)
Then there were action cues, which require a horrendous amount of data. Just doing the percussion tracks could easily take a day. The song itself is seldom very complicated in an action scene, but just the sheer amount of control data and notes... oh dear. Luckily, the string library I’m using enables me to do some complex things quite easily. Alice’s theme cue was five minutes, by the way. Five minutes and I’d done the whole piano track. There’s also a character who I’d like to call “Diver”. After hearing the character’s history it was like, what, half an hour? As I said before, I need a mental trigger to get things done. Diver’s a really tragic character, by the way. Odd and tragic.
Michael: Did you work with any session musicians?
Petri Alanko: When I did Alan Wake, I worked alone. I tried to get people involved in ambient cues etc., but the prices they were asking were horrendous. “Ahha, they got rich with Max Payne, I want 10.000 euros for a guitar track”. That was probably the best offer I heard.
I always heard a slide guitar - or a dobro, or a lap steel - blended in with the more ambient stuff, á la Daniel Lanois, but I never managed to find the right guy to work with. Well, maybe one day. (sigh) Hmm, I wonder if Remedy would like to do an Extended Edition: Alan Wake The Redux -Complete Re-imagined Experience... nooot. Again I hear them erasing my name from their notebooks. :-D
Michael: You wrote on your Twitter that you went to Leipzig to do orchestral recordings for Alan Wake. Does that mean that all symphonic parts of the soundtrack were performed live, or did you use samples as well?
Petri Alanko: Not all were done with the orchestra, unfortunately, only something like 45 minutes, perhaps. Most of the time there’s a lot of stuff underneath the orchestra, including a serious amount of samples, some of them done by myself, some of them from different libraries. I really love Audiobro’s LASS (Los Angeles Scoring Strings) library, by the way - no, this is not an advertisement, I’ve paid dearly for the library. During January 2010, when I did the mixing, I replaced some of the more synthetic stuff with Novachord samples or Nord Modular G2X model, in order to increase the eerie vibe needed for the unique atmosphere in the game. You can almost feel the autumn chill in the picture. The guys at Remedy are frighteningly good in details, especially Mr. Saku Lehtinen [Art Director and Music Producer on Alan Wake], who was my main contact at Remedy. I miss the analyzing and the discussions with him. If only we had been able to enjoy a bottle of decent wine whilst discussing, it no longer would have been work. ;-) His verbal input was one of the key elements of my scoring: telling stories, opening the backgrounds of the characters, etc. It all helped me a lot.
The sessions in Leipzig were about as smooth as one can imagine. No glitches, no hickups, nothing, just sheer professionality and quality output. I can recommend both the orchestra and the fellows arranging the sessions. As I mentioned earlier, time was an issue, so we had to choose which cues to record with the orchestra and which had to survive with samples. I think we ended up making the right choices.
Michael: Tell us how the orchestra recording sessions went. Maybe you can remember some funny moments for us?
Petri Alanko: It was a really fast-paced session. One particularly funny moment happened the day before the sessions: my back practically got stuck - after having sat still a few days, I was unable to move and it hurt like nothing had ever done before. I was forced to visit the local health center to get an injection just to be able to sit, yet alone fly to Germany. Ok, there was me laying on the operation bed, with my pants down, on my stomach, in full agony - I was almost crying because of the pain - and an older nurse opened the door before dragging the curtains in between myself and the waiting lobby... “Nice ass, Mister” was heard from behind, with some whistling. Thank you, audience...
The doctor gave me five painkiller and relaxant injections before I could move again, and in addition to that I also got a healthy (well, not really) dose of prescription medication to be taken with me to Germany. A real party pack, so to speak. I’m not a fan of pills or medical substances, but that just had to be done. Anyway, the next morning I was supposed to be at the airport at 5 AM in order to catch the plane - which, eventually, took off 90 minutes late. I thus missed my next leg, so I had to spend time at Frankfurt Airport with my sore back. I couldn’t take any of the pills, as they made me feel a bit... well, so not me. And of course there was an unhealthy amount of bumpy air from Frankfurt to Leipzig. More pain and agony.
I’ve never stopped being amazed at how painless the whole string recording session was. The orchestrator, David Christiansen, had done a beautiful job listening to my stem tracks and interpreting them in the most incredible resolution. I had no time to prepare my pre-scores, so we had to use only mp3 files - which turned out to be a killer solution. We also shared one indulgement: we both happen to like quality marzipan, which we found out by accident. :-D After the first day we all had a dinner and a lengthy discussion with some gulasch and fish. I really enjoyed that day.
After the sessions the next day I was hurried back to Leipzig Airport and the chauffeur who drove me there literally stepped on it. 185 km/h just before the curve, then pedal to the metal, braking and full throttle again. I almost shat my pants during those few minutes it took to drive from Halle to Leipzig. I’m not a slow driver myself, but that guy was easily the fastest cab driver on this side of the Earth. He even had Recaro seats in his car - and I still don’t know whether this was a practical joke or not. I mean, I should’ve seen this coming, since he had driving gloves on. I closely managed to avoid puking. Out of
I was a bit anxious to hear the tracks as they were sent to me one day later. My fears were wiped away after hearing the first recordings: incredible work. Just 100% pro stuff. A big thank you to everybody involved. There’s a lot of stuff going on in the cues: most of them had well over 100 tracks of audio or virtual instruments, the record being 172 discrete tracks going to 12 summing buses, if I remember correctly. The longer the cue, the more tracks there were.
MIchael: If it's not a secret, could you tell us which sample libraries and VST plugins you use in your work? Also, what hard- and software do you use?
Petri Alanko: Hollow Sun Novachord library (it’s the most definitive one, easily), while Audiobro’s LASS string library was the main thing, with a very little bit of Vienna and EastWest Quantum Leap Orchestra thrown in - the latter two are a bit too much in the “laminated teeth” or “rubber boobs” department, a bit unreal. There’s one cue which was done only with EWQL and I regret I didn’t have time to replace the strings with either LASS or Vienna. Project Sam Symphobia was in there as soon as it came out, it’s used much in conjuction with real strings and in action cues. Also, some Omnisphere “unreal” string patches were used. I really like the granular engine in it. Ivory’s Italian Grand and the main package saved my ass many times. I also used PianoTeq3 - or misused. A few sounds have nothing in common with pianos, but were still great. Percussion stuff is almost 100% Tonehammer, their range of products is just unbelievable and the playability of the libraries is beyond words. I don’t have endorsement deals (hint, hint, hint, damn you), everything is bought, so I think it’s safe to announce my favorites without guilt. :-)
Soniccouture’s Glassworks provides some eerie whistling here and there, and I love their bowed piano as well, layered with pretty much everything. The Audio Damage plugin stuff is great, very unique and of the highest quality. Their EOS took care of the longer reverbs in the ambient cues, with multiple instances. I think I’ve bought every single plugin they’ve ever made. Just absolutely fabulous stuff. And their customer support really works, unlike many others’. Unfortunately, during the scoring I ran into some problems, contacted a few customer support addresses and I’m still waiting for their answers - after almost two years. I’d like to name the two companies, but I think everyone knows the leading library manufacturers... ;-)
Fabfilter plugins were also used, especially in level 5 and 13. Arturia’s soft synths are my soft spot, I have to admit - and without Native Instruments’ Kontakt 4 the whole project would have been an impossibility. Logic Pro eats your RAM alive, so Kontakt’s memory server function (which allows one to use the RAM memory outside Logic) really came to the rescue. I’d like to buy a nice bottle of single malt for the guy who invented that. Oh god, how I wish Apple made a similar memory server plugin for all AU plugins used inside Logic... that ridiculous 4 GB limit is used up a bit too soon with Logic 9.1. UAD-2 and Neve 1073 and 1081 EQ were used all over the place, I really love their high end. Also, Izotope Alloy and Ozone 4 are used in every cue. Earlier I mentioned EastWest. I use their EWQLSO Pro XP, but with Kontakt 4. Their Play plugin is virtually unusable due to constant bugging and memory issues. If that’s not the real case, sorry, but that’s what I’ve been told.
Oh! Audiofile Engineering’s Sample Manager, Loop Editor and Wave Editor... a trinity no sound designer with a Mac can live without. I like to do a lot of atmospheric stuff, so looping comes in handy - and Loop Editor really saves time. Celemony Melodyne was used a lot in some of the musical stingers. I resampled several stinger samples, combined them, then used Melodyne Editor to tune the components and harmonics, then I totally redrew them into a new shape. A cool trick, a very musical one. Or, you could tune everything to octaves or unison, then loop the whole thing and - voila - you have an organic pad, with an orchestral quality. Reaktor, Kyma, Neuron VS... the usual shit. I did create a stinger/atmospheric machine for Kyma, which cross-vocodes etc. all sorts of strange samples. I later ported it to Reaktor, using its granular engine, which eventually allowed me to “bow” things back and forth with Haken Audio Continuum or midi controllers. I also made a grain cloud-based subtle doubling effect for Reaktor, as I miss my Eventide... It turned out to be a really nice and smooth sounding widening effect, and since then a friend of mine has been using it on every vocal track he’s mixed ever since.
Oh, one thing one mustn't miss: Expert Sleepers did a really nice plugin for connecting and controlling your old synths’ CV ins and outs via an audio interface, the Silent Way. Actually, there are many similarities with MOTU’s Volta, but this one is much cheaper and their customer support’s just fabulous. Also, the development cycle seems to be shorter as they’re a smaller and therefore more agile company. It’s not as much eye candy as Volta, but hey, sexiness comes from the inside. :-D
Michael: We saw some guitar processor on your Twitter photos. Does that mean we'll get to hear guitars in Alan Wake?
Petri Alanko: Unfortunately, no guitar. It’s used in conjuction with my Mörkö (the modular synth). I used several tape delays and cabinet models with eerie stuff, utilising Pod Farm. I have to admit that I really enjoy destroying sounds, tearing them to pieces. There was one theme which was in 7/8, 143 BPM in the beginning, the melody played by a dobro and there was a Norwegian fiddle playing the haunting melody. The theme eventually became a bye-bye ballad, in 4/4, about 65 BPM.
Sometimes I chain things in a really complicated way. Everything is patched into my interfaces, so I can use Logic as a patcher and feed signal into Kyma/Paca, send it to Mörkö, add some diffusion or delay with PodXT and then have everything chopped up by Audio Damage’s more esoteric plugins (Replicant, Automaton, Dr. Device), or Reaktor. I’m quite interested in programming my own things, but I’m still much more into composing and playing instead of coding. There are a LOT of feedback samples, though. Most of them were recorded by yours truly with guitars or bass and amps, but several more unorthodox methods were also used: two iPhones feeding each other, recorded by an Edirol R-09 and a pair of OKM in-ear microphones. Cheap stuff, great results! Also, I recorded a few megaphones feedbacking, then lowering them by several octaves, processing, cleaning, processing again...
Michael: Alan Wake likely contains a lot of music. How long did it take you to write all the cues and what difficulties did you face while working on this soundtrack? How much music was written and how much of it will appear in the game?
Petri Alanko: Time needed for writing? Five years. Nooot... Actually, if everything would have been ready when handed over to me, I’d have done the whole thing in 3-4 months, but I’m VERY thankful for having had more time. It really helped me to see what’s rotten and what’s not. I had to “kill many darlings” during the process. There were no fights nor were there any rows between myself, Saku and Stobe [Harju, Cinematics Director on Alan Wake], but some of the things just hurt a bit. My main philosophy is comparable to a coder’s job: if your customer wants to have something changed, there's usually something that bothers them. If there’s a bug it’ll have to be fixed.
Easily the most difficult part was Mr. Wake’s "inner development" during the progress of the story. How do you manifest primal fear and denial of factual happenings with music so that it’s understood by most players? I’ve feared for my life several times, so I’ve got quite an insight, one could say. Some of the cues are trying to reflect and emphasize the cycle of thoughts leading towards what we recognize as fear, just provoking the player's thoughts and feeding something existing inside your head, not on the screen or the shiny disc the game comes on. I tried to steer away from the most obvious - and at first we thought we’d only need 70 minutes of music, but somehow we ended up having 243 minutes of music...
I had a lot of time to think about the characters and did my best to avoid the usual trappings . Mr. Wake, for instance, could have easily been considered an action hero, whereas according to my judgement, he’s a reluctant anti-hero, guilt being his main motivation. Having said all that and having faced all the difficulties, I seriously do hope every single minute of music gets used. If that’s not the case I’m going to break a few bones around here. :-D
In short, I enjoyed this project very much. After having to “enjoy” the regular music scene for quite some time, it was a breeze and a rare treat to encounter a company which was a) able to communicate their ideas accurately, b) had same personnel in every meeting, c) had a clear vision, d) always returned my calls, e) had loads of great people working there and finally f) were determined to generate a 100% quality output. Oh, and g) had created a flawless plot and a huge amount of believable characters, that’s the key. Everyone I spoke to at Remedy had a spark in their eyes, no matter how tired they were towards the end. You just cannot have quality output without that spark: intensity and passion produce the best results. (sigh) I have to mourn alone in the darkness now that it’s done. I really, really miss the development stage.
Michael: Does the game have interactive music and if so, how is the music tied to the gamer's actions, the locations, the day-night cycle etc.? Did you also write cut scene music and themes for each character?
Petri Alanko: Most of the action scenes are more or less dependent of player’s actions, but no interactive music as such was created. Almost every action cue was disassembled into its components (percussion, fx, instruments) and practically every component fits in with other components. Of course there are harmonical issues, but I’d say almost 50% of the material is more or less “modular”, fitting in with the other components. I wasn’t closely involved with the audio engine development (although I wanted to have time for that and had a lot of ideas), so unfortunately I’m not much of a help here. I’d love to have my say if there will ever be a second round.
All of the cues were “daytime/nighttime” categorized - this had been a must right from the start. The instrumentation changed from a medium-sized group of strings and a grand piano to pretty much everything else and their ugly neighbour as well, heh! At one time I had small contact microphones taped and glued to my studio chair and the mouse pad when I needed low-end thuds for the night scenes. During the daytime sequences I very rarely used doublebasses - the lowest instrumens were probably the celli, but in the nighttime ambient scenes the violins in their highest registers were used only as an effect. The action scenes were an exception, of course. Also, the grand piano was doubled with all kinds of strange things in the night scenes, and a good dose of dissonant and feedbacking samples were lurking in there all the time. I created a set of stingers using only a piano and bowing its strings with a guitar string, treating them with Mörkö and Kyma... although I really don’t know whether they were used at all. :-D
Michael: There are some rumours regarding the car in Alan Wake, which you use to travel from location to location. Will there be a car radio that players can listen to?
Petri Alanko: Er, I think someone else at Remedy could give you a much more precise answer to this than me... I had no connections with in-game devices and functionality and whatnot - I was merely a monkey watching gameplay and cinematics, composing to them. I’ve heard a rumour, according to which they have a selection of licenced music tracks, so they must be used somewhere in the game, I think. Maybe in the cinematics? ;-)
Michael: Generally, how would you describe Alan Wake's soundtrack? Can you tell us about key compositions and your personal favorites?
Petri Alanko: It’s a sad, moving, dramatic, very, very touching soundtrack to unfortunate and unbelievable incidents experienced by a writer, who lately has gone through a rough patch and is now looking for a new direction. It could be described as a “romantic score for a psycho-thriller game”. A somewhat unusual choice, I’d say. Since what's happening in a game or movie is usually tied to the present, the observer/player doesn’t have any idea in which way the main protagonist will evolve - and thus the composer must emphasis both the current time and the future repercussions and reflections, without giving away too much. And THAT is the hardest thing.
To select a favorite track is a choice of which ones to love and which ones to reject. A tough one, this question. My favorites are the first cinematic scene, a flashback in the middle - and probably the most moving cinematic in the whole game scene ever: the ending. Stobe Harju and his team made me cry a lot during the making of Alan Wake, not because they’re rough (ha!), but because their output was so touching. I’m not willing to spoil anything, but if there are no tears seen on the player's chins, I’ve failed. Mr. Wake’s agent, Barry (who’s my favorite character in this game), also has a very memorable theme when the time comes. If I had to choose one, that would be it.
Every character in this game is having some issues, so there was a lot to write onto, so to speak. I thought of Alice being a willowy, bending-not-breaking type of a character, so her theme is a fragile twine of her strength and will to love. Her love is obviously a choice, Mr. Wake being such a typical artist, a writer with issues. Of course, seeing her face for the first time signed the whole deal. She’s not your usual size-DD-breasted chick heroine with pointy ears, daring clothing and a sword that shines and plays meandering flute melodies whenever hobos are around - instead, for once in gaming history, a protagonist’s wife is a believable human being, believably cute and nice-looking. I’m sure the guys at Remedy were so in love with Alice’s “face and body”, the original actress/model. At least I was and I haven’t even met her in person, so how the other guys are surviving, I don’t know. Poor fellas.
Michael: The influence that David Lynch's Twin Peaks has had on Alan Wake is quite obvious. We won't ask you about Angelo Badalamenti, but what other soundtracks, movies or books gave you inspiration for Alan Wake?
Petri Alanko: Well, being a European, I went through my childhood watching Finnish TV, everything the broadcasters could afford for the Saturday evening slot - which were French, Italian, Swedish, Finnish and Russian films. And the usual early black-and-white and Technicolor US films as well - there were no Grease or Saturday Night Fever on our telly back then. In the early 80’s everything started to change and all of a sudden American TV series weren’t seven years late anymore. The change continued throughout the 80’s and 90’s. Twin Peaks was an eye opener for me, I have to admit.
I've always admired the guys who did The Perfume (Tom Tykwer, Johnny Klimer & Reinhold Heil). It’s a brilliant work, so tied in with the picture, full of secondary layers I’m so fond of - secondary layers being the motives behind actions, not the actions themselves. Also Cliff Martinez could be mentioned among the minimalist geniuses, his Solaris score was unbelievable and otherworldy. It’s been on my iPod/iPhone playlist since its release. During the last season of the Battlestar Galactica re-make I had to hold back tears a few times, thanks to Bear McCreary's score (”Gaeta’s Lament” almost killed me). I had never been a fan of James Horner, until I saw Avatar, and all of a sudden I had to buy a few soundtracks of his.
One could mention Hans Zimmer as well - but who could NOT mention him: his Gladiator score is a masterpiece. Everyone always speaks of his epic scoring (well, him being Mr. Epic, heh), but there are lots of brilliant, more subtle cues in the movies (Angels & Demons / The Da Vinci Code: “503”/”Chevaliers de Sangreal”; if I could create such an uplifting halo around any piece of music, I’d be thankful. Another prime example from the Angels & Demons soundtrack is “Election by Adoration”). His writing style has adapted a certain eerie vibe lately, which I happen to like very, very much. Among other references, there are Nine Inch Nails and all their side projects (Mr. Reznor is a bright fella, I’d say), Depeche Mode during the 1983-1995 era, Ultravox, Swedish thriller books by Jens Lapidus and Stieg Larsson, two shelves of rock biographies, Rammstein, Daniel Lanois (Acadie’s been on my playlist for ages as well), Johnny Cash, Top Gear (the car show on BBC), Brian Eno, Recoil, Peter Gabriel Passion: Music for the Last Temptation of Chris - and a Finnish metal group called Kotiteollisuus. Wow, now that I see all that I've written down it’s a miracle I’ve managed to write anything at all. :-D
Michael: What references did Remedy give you when you started writing the score?
Petri Alanko: Not too much Hollywood, no woodwinds, no brass, reduced string section. Be close, be believable, represent the subjective fear, don’t step over the fear/horror line. That was it in a nutshell. Apart from that, I felt I was given free reign - there were only a few second calls or retractions, about 5-7 minutes of music worth in total. Some electronic/orchestra combinations were ditched completely though. I stopped experimenting quite quickly, somehow. :-) The electronic side lived on, though, and was used in the action scenery.
Remedy also showed me A LOT of pictures taken during their trip to Northwestern USA, with pictures of the ground, woods, trees, moss, weather, cities and tiny towns, buildings, everything. I’ve got a strong connection between my output and what I see, so that practically cast the foundations of the score. There was a similarity between the woods here on our latitude and over there, so reflecting the fundamentals became easy. I had seen almost every cinematic in its early storyboard phase, so I was also given the opportunity to enjoy seeing the development of those. And what a development it was! The pace of the cinematics was there already in the beginning (so, obviously, Stobe had thoroughly planned it all from the start), they lived and breathed and were only “decorated” later with mo-cap and graphics. I did one piece involving a “travel piano” (Saku’s fitting term for an ostinato motif) in the very early stages of development and it stuck, as is, till the end. That motif later became the Bright Falls theme. To be able to find something like that at the beginning defined most of my path and made it all easier.
I would like to say this whole project has been among the easiest, if not THE easiest ever. It took a long time to accomplish this, but there was never a sense of “ohshitohshitohshit ohfucketyfucketyFUCK”. Not even close. I have quite a high stress resistance and I’m not stressed easily, if at all, but my Worry-O-Meter really didn’t show a sign during the making of Alan Wake. I like things to be built on a no-bullshitting-and-merry-talks-then-backstabbing idea, so I wanted them to tell me immediately in their own words if something wasn’t satisfying. Either they were easy on me or didn’t use their “down the drain” card often, I don’t know. I hope they’re as satisfied with the score as I am.
Michael: The song "War", which will be included on the new Poets of the Fall album Twilight Theater, was used in Alan Wake. Where will the song be used - as the main or end title music? Will it be incorporated into the soundtrack?
Petri Alanko: I don’t want to spoil anything, but it’s going to be a hilarious and very uplifting moment. It really is, believe me. :-D No cuddling and kisses, though.
Michael: There will be DLC released for Alan Wake in the future. Will the DLC use existing music or will you write new cues for them?
Petri Alanko: There could be edits coming my way, but I’m afraid that 243 minutes of music will hold some material for upcoming DLC as well. Me, now being Alan Wake-deprived, I’d LOVE to do more music, but it all depends on schedules and so forth. Remedy does know that if they need me, they can just call and I'll drop everything I’m doing at that moment, immediately. No matter if I’m in the bathroom or having my lunch - or anything more intimate than that - I’ll stop and that’s it. You could say I’m loyal. ;-) But what does a poor man have if not his pride and loyality?
Michael: What plans do you have for the future, now that Alan Wake has been finished?
Petri Alanko: I really don’t know. Right now I’m having a home vacation after a Thailand vacation and am just sleeping off a jet lag (and a production lag), jogging, taking care of my health right now. No issues, just slowing down aging and trying to lose five kilos. Unfortunately, during the making of Alan Wake (such a long time, after all), I had to say “no” to so many calls - a few of them were quite interesting offers - that eventually people probably thought that I’ve already begun my retirement or just that I'm a shithead. Well, I haven’t, I’m not. If you need a game score or a strange club mix - just let me know.
Michael: With which composers, musicians or vocalists would you like to collaborate?
Petri Alanko: I’d like to find someone like Lisa Gerrard, but with an even wider style asset... Also, I don’t know too many good solo string players, they all seem to be a bit limited to one style or are so keen on plain classical music and score sheets that their ability to improvise has degraded somewhat. I’ve noticed I work best and most effortlessly in a group where everyone has their clean-cut roles, which overlap only if asked to. I enjoy exchanging views and ideas, brainstorming. I’ve got a vivid imagination and lots of experiences in my past, so I’ve got my guns loaded.
I would say the Tykwer posse would be one of the me-like groups. McCreary does it all by himself, so he cannot be on my list... hmm, it has to be someone not unfamiliar with electronics. This one’s probably the toughest question ever. There are so few composers giving me chills that I’m running out of names. There are no Finnish names at all on my list. Unfortunately I’ve yet to see and hear a really good score in a local film, it’s all so unimportant and plain. Very Finnish. :-D Hmm, Alexandre Desplat did a wonderful score for Girl With A Pearl Earring... Oh, one thing. If the phone rings, and it’s Zimmer, Remedy goes to second place, but just barely. ;-) That, however, is going to be the most unlikely thing since the Big Bang. I realize there are thousands of people trying to get their foot in the Hollywood door - and I’m not even sure whether I want to be involved with all the backstabbing and yes-men (having encountered such posse enough already in my life) - but it’s a case-dependent thing. I’d say the Alan Wake score’s done in my own style, that’s my calling card. If someone likes it and things click, I’ll go and do my very best. I’m known to work my ass off - not one missed deadline so far, none. Since 1989. :-)
Wow, I’ve forgotten one person who’s been really important to me through all my teen years and beyond: Alan Wilder from Depeche Mode. I owe him big time and he doesn’t even know that. I would LOVE to do an ambient score with him. His influence on European pop music is probably greater than anyone’s willing to admit. I’d like to be the first on the barricades, though.
So, the big name list? In no particular order: Zimmer, Desplat, Tykwer, Wilder, Rezner, Horner. The no-big-name list? Their secretaries in the same order. :-D
Michael: Do you plan to work on any solo albums after Alan Wake?
Petri Alanko: To be honest, I’d be flattered, yes - but unfortunately fame and fortune always bring their bad cousins in as well and I’ve worked hard to be the modest and humble human being that I am right now. I could use a steady income happily, though, as living is pretty expensive in the capital area here in Finland. Just the size of my electric bill is, well, astounding (thanks to my analog equipment). They aren’t using golden envelopes yet, but that will happen next, I’m sure. :-) I’d like to work on interesting scores (that’s as much “solo material” to me as I can imagine, at least right now), it really doesn’t make a difference whether it has to be up, close and personal or Epic With A Capital E, as long as the story and the characters are believable.
Hmm, rock star. They usually get the occasional model chick and money, don’t they? Hmm. I wonder if my wife would let me have rockstardom as a hobby? :-D She’s probably the most understanding person on the face of the planet, but I don’t think even she would be that flexible.
Michael: Many gamers have been clamouring for longer releases of Western game soundtracks, and recently there have been multi-disc albums like Assassin's Creed II, Mass Effect 2 and Red Faction: Guerilla. Still, it often feels like publishers are unwilling to give game scores their due when they release the music on album. What plans exist for Alan Wake's score - will it be released separately from the game?
Petri Alanko: First, I have to agree with you 100%, I’m thinking exactly the same, being a gamer myself. Publishers sit on their scores gratuitously, for no real reason. I’ve signed an agreement with Remedy concerning a possible release of the game soundtrack (which could be heavily expanded, imho), so they’re really considering something.
I wouldn’t want to think this way, but obviously, some game studio bosses don’t seem to consider game music real music, compositions that have value and weight by themselves. Instead, the music seems to be dead weight to them, something that they couldn’t avoid adding. Luckily, it seems (I emphasize: according to what I’m told) that people at Microsoft Game Studios are thinking differently now. The music is not a separate product, but an independent co-product, it’s a promotional tool tied to the original product, a tool which can have an even longer life span than the game itself - which leads to the fact that the game itself could prolong its life through nostalgia created by the music. I’d like to think a good score could sell a few games as well. Plus, you can take the score with you when you go out.
If ripping a soundtrack is the only choice given to gamers, it’ll soon lead to a problem: the compositions are rarely in their original form and are heavily edited, usually mastered/limited/eq’d to death, thus being a bad ad for the composer. I know that in Japan there are huge amounts of game soundtracks for sale in department stores and music stores - I really do welcome that trend over here. That and the clothing style. It would be cool to have the score out in the stores over there.
MIchael: Is there any advice you could give to aspiring composers?
Petri Alanko: Well, a lot. But it would be safer to go case by case. There are multiple issues, though:
Are you being paid for the compositions only or is there a “physical work” fee, i.e. production expenses included as well? Make sure every imaginable expense is solved in the contract before you start working on it. If in doubt, don’t sign. You don’t sign if you don’t trust. If anyone tells you “hey, you can trust me, we don’t have to sign anything, we’ve got a spoken agreement thing here”, don’t go there. Agreements and contracts are done on paper because people trust each other. Even though making paper kills trees.
Basics: Know your libraries and tools through and through, be they PC or Mac based, it really doesn’t matter. One cannot pay too much for a good acoustic job, quality interface and great monitors. And a decent chair. Also, buy a tea kettle or a coffee machine. If you stall, make a cup of coffee. Eventually it becomes second nature, and your brain gets accustomed to tea/coffee breaks - and starts solving problems without thinking. A prime example of Pavlov’s dog.
Usually what you hear first in your head is what you’ll return to. Don’t let it fool you, let it grow - if you remember something after, say, two weeks, it’s worth doing. I’ve been through enough of these cases years ago with practically every advertisement company to trust my first gut feeling. Sometimes it’s a tough job trying to pursue your client to do the same (to trust YOUR vision) - but hell, if they’re willing to pay for versions A, B and C through to Z, then return to A, then go and earn a fortune. :-D
Don’t go for the obvious. This seems to contradict #3, but works in conjunction with it. Try to dig deep into the character. What’s driving him/her, what’s the motivation? What are the reasons behind the motivation? Suddenly you have at least three different ways to think about the whole cue.
If possible, use electronics and computers to AUGMENT your music. Just having a great production only leaves everything empty. Don’t let the production style come between you and your song, preventing the music from coming out.
A good tune is something you can whistle or hum, and which you can remember whilst taking a shower. It’s not easy to hum a drum’n’bass beat, I’ve tried that. I’ve seen a certain movie four times now and I still don’t remember one melody, but there are good DnB loops in there. Oh wow.
If you get stuck, take a break and after the break do something else. You could take the original idea apart, mute every second track, listen to effect returns only - one could write a book on “How to survive the writer’s block”. Been there, done that. No block lasts forever, the most important thing to do is to give it time to disappear. If you don’t have time, do the tricks I mentioned. Make tea or coffee, see #2.
Avoid the Movie/Game Trailer Syndrome, which most game music artists are suffering from. When that disease takes hold, every cue starts to sound like the trailer for Star Trek: so full of everything and their cousin as well. And a choir. And stingers. And loads of bass rumbles. And everything’s limited beyond death, rebirth and redeath.
Support the boutique plug & library manufacturers: Tonehammer, Soniccouture, Audiobro, Hollow Sun, Audio Damage, Sonalksis, Fabfilter... ok, Kontakt 4 is the leader, even though NI is no longer a boutique company.
Do not, I repeat: DO NOT update your computer in the middle of a production. I had to do it three times and almost ended up selling every piece of crap I had and shooting myself in the foot. Ten times. Stupid moves, those things. Just don’t go there.
Michael: You now have the unique opportunity to say "Hello" to all Russian people! Bears, KGB agents and hard-drinking, red-nosed brutal men with Russian dolls in one hand and a bottle of pure vodka in the other are among them as well.
Petri Alanko: Heh... that’s one hell of a stereotype you've chosen, I have to say as the representative of a nation that spends most of its time either in a sauna or in a forest drinking, driving old Toyotas to death whilst drunk, trying to woo ladies resembling a genetic hybrid between a cow and a tractor... (I think I’m going to get pretty badly beaten if I ever visit rural Finland again.) :-) To be honest, I love my country and all the quirky stuff here. There aren’t any dolls here in Finland, but I know what you mean.
I'm afraid I haven’t actually addressed a crowd as huge as your readers before, but... Well, hello, y’all! Hopefully something moves inside you when you finally have a chance to play Alan Wake, I really hope so - otherwise I did one hell of a lousy job. I put a lot of heart and brain into Alan Wake’s music and right now I’m a bit afraid of what you’ll think of it. So far my only experiences of Russia have been several flights over your enormous country - and an old Etyde piano (my first), plus a hefty load of pieces arranged for piano and composed by Mussorgsky, Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninoff, Kabalevsky, goddammit, you name it, I’ve probably played it! No matter what you’re expecting from Alan Wake, I’m sure you’ll enjoy the plot and the gameplay, there’s just so much going on in the game. Life is way too short not to invigorate it a little bit with a good game. Recharge your controllers, Alan Wake’s coming.
Talking about vodka: among my favorite drinks is Russki Standart. A friend of mine introduced me to it whilst visiting a local Russian restaurant here in Helsinki and we had a blast... and not hangover at all the next day - it must be either the food or the right choice of booze. As I said: invigorating, the meaning of life. :-D
Michael: Thank you for your time!
Petri Alanko: Thanks to you. :-)