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Interview with Alan Wake composer Petri Alanko

RickDamigella
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Posted August 7, 2010 - By Rick Damigella

Alan Wake

The Feed recently caught up with composer Petri Alanko to talk about his soundtrack for Alan Wake.  This being Alanko’s first foray into the videogame music realm, we wanted to find out what his music background is and what inspired him in the creation of the aural atmosphere of Alan Wake.  While The Feed wasn’t suffering from writer’s block like Alan Wake, we didn’t want to spend time alone around Cauldron Lake either, so The Feed abducted a few readers to help with interviewing Alanko.  Click and come inside to see if your question made the cut.

The Feed: For your new listeners, please tell us a bit about yourself and some of the other projects beyond Alan Wake which you have scored for?

Petri Alanko: Well, due to my background as a hired gun and specializing in combining electronics with orchestral colours, I've done quite a few one-off gigs for advertising agencies - but nothing very specific, though.  Alan Wake is probably the only one heard all over the world, whilst the others have been territorial, or local (Finnish).  There have been sound library projects, music bank stuff, literally everything one can imagine.  Alan Wake was the first from the gaming field, and I enjoyed the experience very much.  I'd hate to see that remain my only game score gig.

The markets in my country are very, very small and the TV/movie sector has been badly oversaturated for years now, so I decided I'd rather try my very best in expanding outwards, to see whether I've got the guts for that stuff.  We'll see, I hope for the best.

Alan Wake composer, Petri Alanko

The Feed: Tell us about what went into composing the score for Alan Wake.  Were there inspirations or preconceived ideas you started from or did you let the muse of the game speak to you?

Alanko:
Heh, sort of allowing the muse to recite, I'd say.  It's been natural for me to "dive into a picture", to feel and to dissect things from it, analyzing the minor details in order to build a big picture.  I always link a picture to a sound or a theme, melody, atmospheric background etc.  I do believe everyone has some of that in them, in different amounts and flavors, there's nothing extraordinary and it's just a matter of practicing.

In the beginning we did have a discussion of possible styles, but the end result was a bit different.  A lot of the score depended on the raw material, as I felt the long trees needed some scale of distance, length, air, space, and everything around the Bright Falls was more or less surrounded by mountains, bathing in sunlight.  That's an easy view to compose to.

The Feed: What was the most challenging thing about creating Alan Wake’s music?

Alanko:
The sheer amount of work - I did it all by myself, composing, arranging, some sound libraries, programming, mixing, recording a few quite esoteric instruments.  Thankfully, I didn't have to deal with setting up the orchestra microphones and recording stuff, as we had only 2.5 weeks to deadline when the orchestra sessions started.

I love facing the challenges, though.  I've got a pretty high stress threshold, I can take a _lot_ before I stress.  Having been a touring musician with analogue synths and fragile computers before the age of laptops has taught me quite a lot!

Composing-wise, the most difficult thing was to keep it believable (as in "real life scale") and touching, at the same time maintaining the suspense and desperation.  It would've been easy to just Hollywood it to the max - don't get me wrong, there are a multiple Hollywood-esque colours, but I'm willing to insist we did it with a northern twist - which was also the reason to minimize the size of the orchestra as well.  The smaller section doesn't necessarily make a smaller sound, instead you can hear the individual instruments more thoroughly, the individual vibratos, the bows, everything.  Even though there was a lot of stuff going on underneath, the sound of vibrant sections was on top of it all.  There were many "how am I going to fit THIS in" moments, most of them I managed to solve with carving some space to electronics with an EQ - I never touched the orchestra.

The Feed: Our reader Andrew would like to know how you decided to balance the line between emotional and mysterious/spooky themes and sounds when writing the score?

Alanko:
I trusted my guts, literally.  I kept a numbers chart (an OSX application), which had all the themes chronologically, so I always had a clear picture what was put where.  I did a lot of "music bank" stuff, i.e.  generic themes that were meant to be put inside the action scenes as loops, and those had certain qualities as flags ("dark", "forest", "city", "day", and levels 1 to 5, marking the amount of action).  Also, I had made a lot of memos about the relationships and tensions within levels - and I'm pretty sure nobody else really understands those markings, as they were just symbols and quite abstract words.

Even though I had those magnificent charts and sheets and memos, I still reviewed everything about a million times and went with the flow.  I listened to everything all over again, adding and subtracting things, replacing instruments up until the last minute.  I knew how to stop, though: every time I had the "now THAT'S the right one" moment, I knew I'd gotten to a point where a theme was done. 

Of course, a lot of the decisions were reviewed by (Alan Wake developer) Remedy as well and we'd discuss a lot of the motivations behind the scenes.

The Feed: Our reader Ray is curious to know what difficulties or challenges there were in matching the mood of the game play action in a game such as this.

Alanko:
The only problem was to find the right levels of suspense and action, people tend to overact and put too much into too little a bit too soon, so we kept the aforementioned action levels 1-5 quite separated from each other, action-wise.  Levels 1 and 2 being quite easy and more on the subjective side, a "discovering mode", whereas levels 3-5 were emphasizing the action, all the way to the Rambo territory.

As the game was literally a subjective trip into something dark, we had to keep everything quite close, only releasing the full scale when it was needed - for instance, during a multi-Taken attack.

The Feed: Readers Marlon and Christian point out the game was in development for nearly five years and wanted to know how much time you had to put the music together for it.

Alanko:
Actually, only a few themes were done before the last year in production.  Most of the subjective, moody ambient tracks were created in the first year, but I was constantly concentrating on the stronger themes the last 12-14 months.  I didn't work all the time, though, there was an odd month here, another there when I was just experimenting, building some of the sounds.  We could've done the whole score in a much shorter time - in less than one tenth, if needed - but I did enjoy the longer production time.  It's a rare treat nowadays.

I didn't actually count the hours spent working on Alan Wake, as it was more or less prominent in my life all that time.  Sometimes I'd open a rusty, squeaky metal gate somewhere and go "Hmm, this could make a nice pad sound if I record it in 192 kHz and slow it down..." - which I did, very, very often.  Then I'd transfer the file onto my laptop and start processing the hell out of it.  I've got a huge library of such sounds now.

The Feed: Andrew asks if you were inspired by other horror/thrillers for the melodies of the pieces in Alan Wake.

Alanko:
Heh, nobody's going to believe me, but as a small kid the Finnish television broadcasted a lot of old back and white horror movies during the summertime in the 70's and 80's and there were a lot of really cool tunes in them - such as The House Of Ushers, for instance, a prime example of grade B horror quality - and they also had a good spree of Angelica movies broadcasted as well...  among others, European films etc. 

I'm afraid I cannot point out any real titles, though.  I've got a lengthy list of soundtracks in my iTunes, and I like to listen to stuff usually without knowing where the particular piece of music was from.

One thing that's going to haunt me forever is the theme of The Exorcist.  It's a prime example of something relatively innocent put into a sinister surrounding, a highly effective theme.  The odd meter and the simple percussive notes combined with dark scenes of that film seen by a kid a bit too young - and a month's worth of nightmares were the result.

The Feed: What is your reaction to have your work from Alan Wake get the full CD release and digital download treatment?

Alanko: I'm very, very delighted for the opportunity, although I realize the sales figures might not be overwhelming - I've got a Google Alert setup sending me stuff daily, and the amount of torrent sites advertising "The Complete ALan WAke SOunDTraCk" is astounding. 

It's a good selection, a sort of "the best of the best", which creates a solid album.  No fillers, I think, as the tracks were selected based on the composition.

The Feed: What is your take on traditional orchestration in soundtracks versus using primarily electronic instrumentation?

Alanko:
They augment each other, rather than distract.  Used together wisely they create something previously unheard, but doing that takes some effort.  If you just put in some synth stuff, you'll end up having a track of, well, just that.  Just some synths added to strings.  If they're processed and treated similarly, they start to merge and glue together in a new way, creating more than what their sum could be aesthetically.  At times I felt like an alchemist. 

I like to do FFT-based stuff, but I'm also a fan of analogue processing.  I do similar things with both the contemporary instruments and virtual instruments, just to maintain the integrity - and nothing's done because it has to be done per sé, it's done because I hear a sound in my head that cannot be created in any other way.  It's got nothing to do with cost, effectiveness or having the string players play their violins with electric toothbrushes in the name of eccentricity...  no ego-tripping, here, so to speak.  Just hunting for a right sound.

If we're talking about doing a synth-only score versus an orchestral score, instead of orchestral libraries versus orchestral, I'd say they both have their pros and cons.  However, due to the recent development in virtual instrument area, one's willing to think that a synth-only score belongs to the 80's and is more or less Jan Hammer-esque a la Miami Vice.  Or more TV stuff than game/movie material, X-Files comes first to my mind.  I saw a movie called "Sorcerer" as a younger fellow, and was thrilled due to the fact the score was done by Tangerine Dream - and it worked like one well-greased engine. 

Unfortunately, that's not always the case with synth scores.  Sometimes they're so filled with preset sounds and off-the-shelf material that even calling them "cheap" would be an overstatement. 

Recording real instruments requires certain decades old techniques that almost constantly provides a certain contemporary sound, and sometimes it just doesn't fit in with the picture.  For instance, the brilliant remake of Solaris has a score by Cliff Martinez, which I simply adore.  It just works and boy, does it sound good! Anything else put into the orbit of a star helping dead people born again would sound...  inadequate?

On the other hand, The Last Samurai would've suffered from overwhelming synths.  :-D

It's all about taste and structure, about bringing something extra to life, creating a true audio entity speaking in believable sentences, that's the beauty of a functioning score.  That entity must have a similar direction with a visual entity, or otherwise they'll start arguing and both would probably collapse.  If they're not communicating to each other, they both will be forgotten and perish.

The Feed: What would be a dream soundtrack project for you? It can be any genre from Film, to TV or Games.

Alanko:
This is always a tough question.  I'd LOVE to do anything with Chris Nolan, but he's already got Hans Zimmer in his phone book, heh. 

Oliver Stone has touched my heart more than once as well.  Robert Rodriquez manages to create unique, very believable worlds and his movies have that strong sense of character to sonically build onto - also, his way to interpret stories is more "real" than "bubble gum", which I prefer.  Also, I'd love to score Alan Wake 2 if there ever will be one, as I feel I could bring it forward sonically.  I've got a _LOT_ of ideas for Alan Wake 2, but I'm waiting for their phone call.  If it happens, great!

Also, I've noticed I've enjoyed the works that George Clooney's been involved with as a producer - a man with a lotta style - so that's been a surprise addition to my list lately.  A pleasant surprise, I must add.

I feel I'd be very confident with all subjects dealing with psychological aspects, be that movie, TV or games.  Something based on action only would be less interesting to me.  No fighting games, so to speak. 

Back to the question: My dream? A psycho thriller, definitely.  With some epic flavors.  Real characters, love, desperation, resolutions, decisions that turn your world upside down...   Yes, that would be it.

By the way, I'd also like to do a collaboration with some other composer as well, a bit like "this is my idea, build onto that, then send me some of your stuff".  I wonder if I'll ever have the chance to do that, though.

The Feed: Is there anything upcoming you are working on now that you can share with us?

Alanko:
I've got a meeting next week.  ;-) Also, I've managed to find a good candidate for an agent as well, so hopefully he'll help me forward outside of Finland. 

After Alan Wake I did the two DLC soundtracks as well, so they kept me on their list, thankfully.  :-D

In addition to that, I've been building my sound library and tools, done a few remixes, wrote quite a few pop songs and had a vacation, a real one, first in a long time.  We've done a track with Slusnik Luna as well, "The Sun 2010", soon to be released through a major European trance label.  Also, as a father of one (soon two), I've had a lot of interesting moments with my son, you know - worms, bees, plants, birds, cars...  it's a world of surprises.  My son is, by the way, really good at finding interesting sounds, so I've been following him literally to every gate, stone, fence, flower pot and whatnot with a handheld recorder.  Also, before my son showed me, I didn't have the faintest idea how hard one can punch a toy piano _without_ breaking it.  He'd make a good one man test field for just about any manufacturer.

 

Check back here next week for the Feed’s full review of Petri Alanko's Alan Wake soundtrack album, which is out now from Sumthing Else Music Works.

If you want to help The Feed interview a game music composer for a future article, follow @BeOnG4 on Twitter and watch for your chance to ask a question!

Interview with Alan Wake composer Petri Alanko
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