Ari Pulkkinen: Walking on Shadowgrounds (November 2008)

Interview Credits

Interview Subject: Ari Pulkkinen
Interviewer: Michael Naumenko
Editor: Michael Naumenko, Simon Elchlepp
Coordination: Michael Naumenko

Interview Content

Michael: Greetings, Ari!

Ari Pulkkinen: Hello Game-OST staff and readers!

Michael: Tell us a bit about yourself - how and when did you manage to break into the video game industry, and how did you become a composer?

Ari Pulkkinen: I'm from a musical family and my father was a talented all-around musician and a singer. I trained classical piano until the day I found out that Amiga had a MOD tracker software. I wasn't exactly a piano virtuoso and I always liked to play my own tunes anyway, so the digital environment fitted me perfectly. I mainly did MODs for my own delight, from dance music to folk and experimental music. I recently counted that I have done over 280 unfinished and 70 finished MODs.

So, the story how I got into the game industry... Back in 1997 I was at a LAN party near my summer cottage, held by local buddies and other comrades. There I met this odd geezer who turned out to be the creator of the StarFight game series, Jukka T. Paajanen (JP-Productions). What are the odds? While fragging each others in Duke Nukem 3D, we discussed that StarFight VI: Gatekeepers could need some help with the soundtrack. Back then it was a huge project - even my MOD files were over 40Mb. Starfight VI: Gatekeepers became the biggest and the most ambitious freeware game out there - and it was also a huge success. There I was, at the beginning of my game audio career.

Michael: You're well known within the demo scene and apparently you've also won some awards - could you tell us more about this?

Ari Pulkkinen: There was this competition called Fast Music compo, where you had 1.5 hours to make music with any tracker software. I won it three times and one time I came second... I personally found it a very fun and interesting competition because of the time pressure and the crappy instruments that were given. You just had to make the most of it. Four years ago, they changed the rules - now there are pre-defined chords that need to be used. I wonder if this was done because of me... ;)

Michael: Currently you are working as in-house composer for developer Frozenbyte. How did this come about?

Ari Pulkkinen: After StarFight VI's release, I did various indie projects and participated in demo scene parties. In 2003, Frozenbyte Inc. got in touch with me about making music and sound effects full time and I went for it - no steady salary in sight and no other benefits than free meatballs with French fries every day. Oh, those were the days! At first, we were first making this RTS game, but we eventually axed it and changed the design to a top-down shooter, Shadowgrounds. I've been doing in-house game audio and music ever since.

Michael: Have you ever thought of going freelance? In your opinion, what are the advantages of being an in-house composer?

Ari Pulkkinen: This is a subject that I could talk about for hours, but I'll try to be brief. I have been an in-house audio director for over four years now and I've also done audio outsourcing for different game companies through Frozenbyte, so I've already been a 'semi-freelancer' as well. As for the future, I'm starting my own company called AriTunes. AriTunes is focusing on game music and audio design & production - and other services like consulting and lectures about game audio.

From a productivity point of view, being an in-house composer and audio designer however is a very good situation compared to freelancing - you just have much more time to polish everything and more dynamic and active resources (storywriters and designers are always next door). Let's keep in mind that the average game should keep players interested for about 10-20 hours - and if the game has an audio solution that ain't interesting and gets onto players' nerves, the developers have just messed up the cheapest way to improve the game's quality. By cheap, I really mean that the best audio money can buy is ridiculously more affordable than the best graphics out there. In my opinion, too many games have their audio done in a hurry and it really vibes badly and disturbs the overall feeling - too few audiospheres and music tracks that make you numb after a few hours, not enough alternative sounds, annoying UI sounds and what not.

Big game projects are usually somewhat bloated, and these games need lots and lots of attention in every way. Even the planning is a huge project in itself and requires much attention and resources. The scale is such that time estimates are given in months and weeks, not days. Time schedule overruns are to be expected and there's always something that would be nice to implement in the game...

Michael: Shadowgrounds made you a well-known composer. The game's soundtrack is a mix of electro-symphonic elements with heavy guitar riffs by Lordi guitarist Amen. Tell us about the creation of Shadowgrounds and how Amen got involved.

Ari Pulkkinen: Heh, Amen is a cool fella. I met him when Lordi and Frozenbyte were talking about a possible collaboration, before Shadowgrounds' release. And yes, Shadowgrounds would have had Lordi songs in it, if it hadn't been for their record company and the Finnish Composers Copyright Society TEOSTO. It's a shame. We even had game design suited for Lordi - remember that concert hall scene in New Atlantis in Shadowgrounds? Well, let's just say Lordi cancelled their Universal Monster Tour and Rtzon King took their place. Hmm... maybe that's why the aliens really attacked Ganymede. I actually did ask for Lordi himself to ask Amen to perform on the Shadowgrounds soundtrack, and Amen was really interested and came to play.


Michael: What was it like to collaborate with Amen? Were there any difficulties or funny moments?

Ari Pulkkinen: It was pure awesomeness. We actually didn't have to do many takes, because Amen really handled my riffs quite easily and made them even more bad-ass. Well, there is this one song called Prey On This - and the riff there is pretty kinky. Funny thing is that I can't play guitar, I'm all keyboards with Guitar Rig. You can imagine how hard some riffs can be if the timing and the notes aren't optimized for the guitar...

 Back then, Amen's guitar was recorded in my crappy office-studio on two weekends with just one pre-amp, Marshall and one microphone. Authentic indie feeling you know. We also had fun with the blues song that is heard in the first Shadowgrounds in-game cinematic. I think deep down in his cold, heavy metal infested heart, Amen is truly a blues man. Amen visited my studio this spring and we talked about their jolly adventures after the Eurovision song contest and the possibility of future soundtracks. He's interested.

Michael: Your new soundtrack for Super Stardust HD is again a mix of symphonic and electronic elements. Is this mixture your unique style? What can you tell us about your method of writing music?

Ari Pulkkinen: My unique style… I think it has a lot to do with strong melodic themes combined with different electronic genres. I usually prefer electronic styles, but not always. Everything depends a lot on the project too, but I see my music somewhat 'unstandardized' when it comes to genre. I like it somewhat edgier. General Midi instruments aren't the only choices on my list, that's for sure! I take much inspiration from feelings, situations, stories and overall atmosphere. It's important for me to thoroughly know what I'm doing, so that I can perfectly create the right feeling. I like to find the right kind of instruments and samples and have a little fun with them. I've researched a lot of chord combinations that bring the right mood and work seamlessy together. It's easy to bring the melody in. If I'm doing a more traditional song, I'll usually just play my vision on piano first.

Michael: What equipment do you use and which instruments do you play?

Ari Pulkkinen: My basic instrument is a USB keyboard hooked to a PC or a Mac. Then there's a sequencer, a multi-track program and sh*tloads of virtual samplers and instruments. Native Instruments, East West and other Kontakt-featuring samplers are really nice. I do however have some nice 'real' synthesizers and hardware samplers which I occasionally use when I need the sound. My new Mobile Music Station is on Mac.

If I need live performances or more professional mastering, I'll outsource it. I'm not much of a tech geek when it comes to sound quality, I still prefer melody over sound. Actually, there's lots of over-compressed and over-mastered pop and rock music out there that makes you wish it was the 60s-70s again. And it's not just the sound quality, some producers now tend to use everything they've got in one fricking song. Oh..! Back to the question… I can play the piano and keyboard, and some drums too. If I'm a bit drunk and in the right mood, I'm good with bongo drums as well.


Michael: That brings us to our favourite question: have you ever tried to write music under the influence? :) 

Ari Pulkkinen: Hah, who hasn't? ;) My big beats, blues and rock side comes out when I'm taking some booze. My clients however have said that I'm more efficient when I suffer from a hangover. Go figure.

Michael: You're also holding lectures ongame music - could you tell us a bit more about this?

Ari Pulkkinen: In my lectures I start by enlightening people about game music and audio history. I have group exercises where students invent audiospheres for different designs, I show how different game development tools work and how to plan your music and audio. Then I have some hands-on exercises where students can make their own sounds, try to invent something new and use games' unique dynamic environment to their advantage. Although I have lots of raw information too, I want to keep my lectures interesting and fresh - we've seen too many powerpoints anyway. It's real fun - so many interested listeners!

Michael: Would you call yourself a hardcore gamer? If so, what games are you playing right now?

Ari Pulkkinen: I'm more like a seasoned hardcore gamer. I really need the right game to get obsessed about playing, usually an RPG, although I play some casuals games with friends every week. There are games like Monkey Island, Fallout, Diablo 2, Warcraft, Command & Conquer and World of Warcraft that I have played a lot. Currently I'm playing Mass Effect again. I'm more the kind of gamer who wants to explore and make changes to the game's world - a dreamer. I'm now waiting to get my hands on Dead Space and Fallout 3.

Michael: Which groups and composers have influenced you the most? Who are your favourite game music composers?

Ari Pulkkinen: I have always been really interested in games, and I really like games like Monkey Island, Warcraft and Fallout where the music was one of the key elements. But in the big scheme of things, it must be film music that has affected me the most. There are so many big and different emotions that we really haven't seen in games so far. Recently I've really liked James Newton Howard, John Murphy and Steve Jablonsky's work. There's such an amount of good movie scores that I really can't compress them all into one list here. There are composers like John Williams, Danny Elfman, Hans Zimmer, Alan Silvestri, Howard Shore and all the other big ones who should be listed separately, along with their magnificent work. Still, not all movies have memorable soundtracks, and not all movies are memorable.

Although few of the artists listed above have already contributed to game music, there are some particulary good composers in the game industry who I really like - Mark Morgan, Michael Land, Glen Stafford, Matt Uelmen and Jeremy Soule.

Michael: What are your plans for the future?

Ari Pulkkinen: Go big, play big. I want to build my share of the game music industry. I want to create feelings other than fear and agression in games. Since my father passed away last June, I've more and more come to realize that there's a need for complex emotions in games. I have said I like scores bigger than life and deeper than death and I really do mean it. At a certain point in life there are holes in our souls that need to be filled and music is sometimes the only way. I think the game industry and the gamers themselves have grown to accept that you can expect more from games – if you can experience beautiful and memorable moments in a movie, why not in a game where you control the experience you have.

Michael: What are you working on at the moment?

Ari Pulkkinen: I'm working on an untitled game project that will hopefully be out on Playstation 3 in Q1/09. It's a totally different style for me and the soundtrack will not contain any electronic instruments or samples - only classical ones! It's going to be a really interesting soundtrack, based on medieval and fantasy themes. Fans of adventure and fantasy games and movies will be praising this one, I'm sure!

Michael: What do you think the future of game soundtracks will look like?

Ari Pulkkinen: It'll draw more and more attention every year. It'll go 'mainstream' without being mainstream, just like movie music. More and more people will collect the best scores, and more and more pop, rap and rock artists would sell their mother for having just one track in an AAA game. One thing we must get rid off is the issue of soundtrack albums simply not being available – if you like one particular game score, you should be able to buy it, or get it for free if there's no other way. This is the part where publishers should come forward.

Michael: We are sure you would like to say a few words to our community - be it advice for aspiring composers or maybe just "Hi, guys!" Let’s go!

Ari Pulkkinen: Firstly I would like to thank Game-OST for this great website - constantly updated, good interviews and interesting articles. Good reviews too! Websites like this really make a difference in making game music more interesting and 'mainstream' (in a good way) - and people get to know the composers as well! Hell, making someone find his/her favorite game composer through your site and say "Hey, I really like your music" is really worth all of this. :)

For you amateur composers - get into some freeware or indie projects, get yourself recognized and get your fine products online! But be careful what you're releasing - if it ain’t good enough for you, it probably ain't good enough for most other people. Now go and deliver! ;)