Panu Aaltio Interview: On Symphonic and Electronic Wings (March 2011)
Interview Subject: Panu Aaltio
Interviewer: Michael Naumenko
Editor: Michael Naumenko, Simon Elchlepp
Coordination: Michael Naumenko
Panu Aaltio: Hello! I'm Panu Aaltio and I was born in Nurmijärvi (Finland) in 1982. I compose music for film and video games. I basically grew up glued to the computer screen ever since I got my granddad's old VIC-20 when I was four years old. Fortunately these days, I’ve picked up going to the gym as well, since my back wasn't doing too well because of all the sitting!
Michael: When did you begin to compose music and what urged you to become a composer?
Panu Aaltio: I first tried to compose something when I was around six years old. My parents had bought an Amiga 2000 and it had a notation program called Deluxe Music on it. I think the end result of my first composition experiment with that was a pretty random mess, but there was something quite hypnotic about moving notes around and listening to them play, so I started looking more into different programs for doing this. When I later got into programs like Scream Tracker 3 and Impulse Tracker on the PC, that's when I started making stuff daily.
I had also done a fair amount of programming (x86 ASM, C, Pascal), and in high school I was pretty sure I would go for a computer sciences degree. However, I realized what I had really enjoyed much more all along had been composing, so I dropped all that and focused entirely on music. In hindsight it was an absolutely crazy move to abandon a pretty sure way to a monthly salary and go for a career with as few guarantees as music! I haven't regretted a minute of it though.
Michael: What's the first musical experience that you remember?
Panu Aaltio: My mother is a pianist, so there was always a piano in the house. When I was very young I would of course annoy everybody by banging on the keys. Not sure if that counts as a very musical experience, but I think I tried to claim I was playing music, so maybe that is the first. The first actual tune that I tried to play on the piano later was the theme for MacGyver. It didn’t come out very right at all.
Michael: Have you had a formal music education? What instruments do you have in your collection?
Panu Aaltio: I started playing cello in my local music school when I was five. I was a pretty lazy student though, leaving practicing to the last minute. Later on when I was composing, I’d do that all week instead of playing. The music school curriculum included music theory as well, but it never really connected with my own composing at all. However, when I got into the Sibelius Academy in 2001, I started taking voice leading, counterpoint and orchestration lessons and suddenly it started to really click for me. These were things that you could really use to build your musical tool kit and make your music sound better, it wasn't just a bunch of boring rules and labels. Finally I went to the University of Southern California in 2005 to study film scoring. That was great for among other things being able to work with real orchestras, since we were able to record our work, and for some of us like me, it was the first time doing that.
I still play the cello occasionally, but I tend to play the piano more, since I use it as a compositional tool to flesh out ideas.
Michael: Tell us about the hard- and software in your studio.
Panu Aaltio: Because I need to travel a lot, I've been trying to keep my rig centered around my laptop, which is a MacBook Pro with an RME interface and Genelec monitors. I don't want to feel like I'm working on a laptop, so I'll just have it shoved somewhere behind the desk and connected to an external screen, keyboard and mouse. But it's great to be able to just pick it up and work on the go if I need to. I have other computers in the studio as well to play more samples - those computers are Windows PCs connected via Ethernet and using Vienna Ensemble Pro for plugin hosting. I'm doing the sequencing in Cubase and the scores for orchestral recordings in Sibelius. I also use Pro Tools for setting up templates for the orchestral sessions and editing the recordings, because all the recording studios handle their sessions in that format.
Michael: How did you get into the gaming industry?
Panu Aaltio: I wish I had a good answer for that! It's the same as with all my projects: someone hears something I did and decides to ask me to work on something new. I'm terrible at self promotion, so it can't be that...
MIchael: Let's take a closer look at Apache: Air Assault. What kind of music were you asked to compose?
Panu Aaltio: Apart from the main theme, we needed to have suspense and action tracks for each of the geographic regions of the game: Middle East, Africa and South America. The idea was to make the regions feel different, but not force ethnic elements into the compositions. The score should feel cohesive, and just have a touch of a distinct sound for each region. Stylistically we were going for an aggressive and high energy feel for the majority of the tracks, although with a subtle aspect of suspense for each region as well. Finally there’s specific chase music that I did for the end of the game, which ramps up the pace even further.
Michael: How did you interact with developer Gaijin's music supervisor Pavel Stebakov?
Panu Aaltio: We were able to work over the internet, with Pavel sending me comments and links to reference materials, and me sending back MP3s of ideas I had. Very simple, but it worked really well.
Michael: Did you have creative freedom?
Panu Aaltio: Absolutely. Of course, as always, the subject matter and the genre of the game place some limits on where you can go stylistically. But within those limits, I had a lot fun trying out different things with both the orchestral and electronic sides of things.
Michael: What materials (videos, artworks, alpha version) did you receive when you started working on Apache: Air Assault?
Panu Aaltio: At first I was just working based on a rough plot description and early screenshots, and then later on there were some videos as well, so I could test the music a bit with moving images. But I mostly worked with conceptual materials.
Michael: How much time were you given to write the Apache: Air Assault soundtrack?
Panu Aaltio: We started working on the soundtrack in March 2010 and the recording sessions took place in May and June. After that it was just some mixing and delivering the final versions in mid-July.
Michael: Where did you get inspiration for your work from and what references were you given?
Panu Aaltio: My inspirations are sort of both from the old C64 and Amiga soundtracks that I love, as well as from modern Hollywood films. So while the music production techniques are what one would use in film scoring, I try to also bring to my own work something of the atmosphere and thematic clarity that made those old game scores so special to me. The specific reference for the main theme was to make it a big orchestral thing like Pirates of the Caribbean or The Rock, the latter of which was one of the reasons why I got into film music because it made such an impression on me back then. So it was a pretty fun reference to have. For the in-game tracks, our references were more on the electronic side, like Juno Reactor's music from Animatrix. In terms of electronic music, I listen to drum 'n bass a lot, and I really like the production styles of artists like Noisia, Apex or Spor. So for electronic sounds I'll often go for something reminiscent of that type of dark drum'n bass, because it's a natural match for me.
Michael: What instruments, samples and software did you use to create this soundtrack?
Panu Aaltio: The orchestral samples are mostly Symphobia and Vienna Instruments, and the percussion True Strike and Stylus RMX. The synth material is Massive and Absynth. I write everything in Cubase, and when I need a score for the orchestra, I'll clean up the MIDI so it looks good in Cubase's score view first, then I export in MusicXML to Sibelius. In Sibelius I’ll add articulations and stuff like that, and make sure the score and parts look professional for the musicians.
Michael: You recorded part of Apache: Air Assault's soundtrack live in Seattle. How big was the ensemble and who was in charge of orchestration?
Panu Aaltio: We recorded brass and strings in separate sessions. I think we had 8 horns, 3 trumpets and 4 trombones, as well as 25 strings. While the brass section had a nice size, the strings were pretty small for this kind of music, so I supported them with the samples. I do all of my own orchestrations as long as the schedule allows it, and that was the case here. For me it's a very integral part of the composition process.
Michael: What did you feel when you listened to the recording of the live instruments? How much of a difference was there between the sampled and the live versions of your tracks?
Panu Aaltio: It's a huge difference, and even after many sessions I'm still surprised how amazing the musicians make the music sound. Even if we ignore just how much more pleasing a real orchestra is to the ear, there's still the additional amount of energy and emotion that real players bring to the music. Samples have come a long way, but I always try to have at least some real players to give that emotion, depth and grit to the music that you'll probably never get with synths.
Michael: What's the soundtrack's duration?
Panu Aaltio: It's a little over 40 minutes of music.
Michael: Do you plan to release it commercially?
Panu Aaltio: This decision would have to come from Activision, since they have exclusive rights. Unfortunately I’m unable to do anything about it myself.
Michael: To close the interview, let's get to some general questions. What artists that you've heard recently have influenced you the most? Who are you favourite musicians in general?
Panu Aaltio: If I think of favorite groups, I'll probably go back to the 90s and all the stuff I used to listen to back then like The Prodigy, Chemical Brothers, Crystal Method, Propellerheads, Nine Inch Nails and so on. This was really before I even thought much about orchestral stuff. Listening to Hans Zimmer was probably the first thing that got me into orchestral music, and of course he's kind of there at the crossroads between those two genres. Still like his music a lot. Then when I really got into orchestral music, there's of course lots of greats that I could name, both in classical music and in film scoring, but in the latter category Jerry Goldsmith really stands out to me, because his use of the orchestra was just amazingly innovative.
Michael: What movie makes you cry?
Panu Aaltio: Honestly, the first thing that comes to mind is Up. I'm not sure I'll dare watch another Pixar movie in a public place again. And of course Michael Giacchino's amazing score seals the deal.
Michael: Would you call yourself a gamer? If so, what games have you played recently?
Panu Aaltio: Oh absolutely. I still play games a lot. I think most recently I spent about 60 hours with Bad Company 2 online, before I had to lay it off for a while due to my projects. I've had Civilization V waiting in the original packaging, because had I opened it, the next thing I'd know it's 4am a week later with “one more turn” and I'd be really screwed with my deadlines. But now of course, with Apache: Air Assault out, I'll be finishing the campaign and will then be online with Civilization V! Can’t wait to jump to it during the holidays.
Michael: What are your next projects?
Panu Aaltio: I just finished the score for a film called Hella W, which is a drama and political thriller. We recorded that one in London. My next project after that is also a film score and a thriller, with some horror elements. Other than that, I can't say for sure, these things keep changing all the time.
Michael: Last but not least, do you have a message for our readers and your listeners?
Panu Aaltio: Thanks everyone for reading. Hope you like the game, and the music as well!
MIchael: Thanks for your time!
Panu Aaltio: Thanks for having me.
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