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Behind the Title: Game Composer Petri Alanko

By Randi Altman

While Finnish composer Petri Alanko (Alan Wake, Quantum Break) mostly works on games, he does, from time to time, branch out to other genres and other job titles. “In addition to being a composer, I tend to be involved with sound design and creating sound libraries, so you could call me a sound designer too,” he says.

While Alanko is a freelancer, he has had a 10-year relationship with Remedy Entertainment, which is the game company behind Quantum Break, an action-adventure third-person shooter video game that is set at around a fictional university where a time travel experiment has gone wrong.

Let’s find out more…

WHAT SHOULD WE KNOW ABOUT YOU RIGHT OFF THE BAT?
I specialize in really tough jobs, either by their theme or the amount of work needed for the project — or both combined. Back when I was still doing pop music (right after my classical period), I was known to fill a huge SSL desk, plus a few Pro Tools running Macs, so nothing has really changed.

I like layers, and that’s something that can be heard in my compositions. I don’t mean layers as “let’s add yet another pad here,” but rather emotional layers. I’m usually brought in when the plot is more meandering and the themes require some contrast; both in darkness and in light, but also in action interpretation. Sometimes, silence in the middle of mayhem is a beautiful moment and emphasizes the destruction even more.

WHAT TYPES OF PROJECTS ARE YOU WORKING ON, AND IN WHAT CAPACITY?
I work on many different projects, mostly in production, composition and mixing, but I’ve also been involved with audio branding and creating special “audio bibles” for start-up companies. I am currently involved with a project that consists of merging three companies together — how their sound entity and audio signature is going to evolve after the merger.

The term “branding” has become almost a curse word, so I like to call it an audio signature instead. It’s not about a “let’s get this old classic and put it all over your ads” approach, it’s much more profound and goes as deep as their ringtones, their presentations… everything. It’s about studying their past, discussing their future plans and building it from there. These types of projects feature little composing or none at all. I like to save my composer chops for more emotionally wider cases.

HOW EARLY DO YOU GET INVOLVED IN PROJECTS?
I start by having conversations with the project’s writers, directors and artists. For example, with Quantum Break I wanted to know why Ville Assinen, Remedy’s concept artist, created all the details in his exquisite concept pictures and why the writers made their narrative decisions. I talked with almost everyone on the team about the universe of Quantum Break — about the characters, their backgrounds and motivations — and suddenly the world built itself.

After that it was easy to follow each route, each person and each storyline. I started creating sounds first — about a million raw sounds — and then refined them into something more moldable. Usually, when dealing with raw material, some ideas already emerge, as some sounds tend to have a certain alluring quality to them. The set of exaggerated overtones in some metallic samples I created pointed me in a direction of something that sounded fitting for Quantum Break.

My output tends to be quite a bit on the darker side; so considering how much I’ve laughed during the production cycle of Quantum Break, it is simply amazing.

WHAT WOULD SURPRISE PEOPLE ABOUT YOUR ROLE AS A COMPOSER?
Sometimes, I seem to be a part-time psychologist. Actually, that was one of my favorite hobbies when I was in school. Nothing deep, just behavioral sciences and concentrating on how people perceive things — how hearing works and the psychology behind it and the possible synesthetic paths each of us may have. All that has actually helped me throughout the years, both in business and in my professional life.

I also read almost all the time and let my brain make the music. I know it sounds a bit funny, but forcing yourself to work — to compose — produces mostly meaningless pieces of music.

WHAT’S YOUR FAVORITE PART OF THE JOB?
The very end, but I like the beginning, too. The ending’s more important, and you see and hear the work of your hands, realizing it, in front of you. It’s almost like living two different timelines at the same time. This was very much thematically correct in Quantum Break’s case, as some of the themes were done early on. Opening an old project file takes you back in time, and you remember the day it was created, even the weather, the people, the discussions… everything.

WHAT IS YOUR PROCESS FOR SCORING?
I’m very meticulous. The initial phase requires a lot of discussions, and then I start building raw sounds, or synth patches, and playing around with the idea of having an orchestra, or maybe recording it in a different way or in different formations. It’s a phase of what-ifs first, but when I hit the master switch in my studio, and I’m good to go.

I’m also a big fan of intuition, so the first glimpse of an idea can be the brightest ever; one shouldn’t sneer at hunches or turn them down just because they’re fast ideas. It actually would be destructive to deny yourself the short route into the heart of the beast, or the core of the time machine in Quantum Break’s case.

CAN YOU WALK US THROUGH YOUR WORKFLOW ON QUANTUM BREAK?
At the start of the story, the lead character, Jack Joyce, is fine — it’s late at night and he’s in a cab on the way to meet an old friend (Paul Serene). The feeling is laid back and the only ripple in the pond is an activist demonstration. What’s he thinking when he meets his friend? They’re on good terms, but he’s nervous in a positive way. The friend is not a lunatic trying to control the world; he’s just an average guy making a scientific experiment… with a time machine. Then everything goes bananas. Now, that’s going from 0 to 60 MPH in a second, when the time comes, but it’s really low-key until the time machine is fired up.

Since Jack’s fate is connected with what happens later in the game, I just wanted to test it with a patch I had made for an old analog synth being processed with my modular synth. I just played the chord sequence watching an early cinematic sketch, and… click. That’s the longest musical arc in Quantum Break, consisting of the beginning and the end. I happen to like connecting arcs, so that was it. From that arc came all the rest. The sound set the basis, everything. It’s not much as a composition, as a happy accident.

IF YOU DIDN’T HAVE THIS JOB, WHAT WOULD YOU BE DOING INSTEAD?
I’ve had a diving license for about 10 years now. I would probably be a dive master somewhere warm, but I think I’d still have music as a hobby. On the other hand, I’ve been obsessed with coffee for a long time, and I actually took a barista course, so I could earn my living creating perfect cappuccinos and lattes.

HOW EARLY ON DID YOU KNOW MUSIC WOULD BE YOUR PATH?
I was at a sandbox as a four year old and the kids were “playing in a band.” Someone took a sand shovel and used it as guitar, someone used buckets as drums, and I took a branch of a tree and started conducting. Six months later, I was visiting a family friend who was an avid fan of operas, and he had a huge vinyl collection. He put on some Maria Callas and when she hit the highest note, I banged the piano trying to hit the note with the keys. He muttered, “I think you need to get him a piano teacher and soon.” That’s where my fate was probably sealed.

OTHER THAN QUANTUM BREAK, WHAT PROJECTS YOU HAVE WORKED ON RECENTLY?
I scored Trials Fusion’s soundtrack, plus a couple of other projects for Ubisoft. I did an album, the sequel to Classical Trancelations, featuring orchestral versions of trance/EDM classics, and in the autumn I’ll perform the two albums’ worth of material with the Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra, during the Helsinki Festival week, at Helsinki Music Centre.

WHAT IS THE PROJECT THAT YOU ARE MOST PROUD OF?
I have to say right now it’s Quantum Break, but Alan Wake is a very good second. Both were done with lots of love and attention to detail.

NAME THREE PIECES OF TECHNOLOGY YOU CAN’T LIVE WITHOUT.
My laptop, my Universal Audio Apollo Thunderbolt interface and either my modular synth or Prophet-6. I’ll go with Prophet, as I could carry it to a deserted island by myself.

WHAT SOCIAL MEDIA CHANNELS DO YOU FOLLOW?
Twitter, mostly, plus some LinkedIn.

WHAT DO YOU DO TO DE-STRESS FROM IT ALL?
I walk in the forests, run, ride bicycles, and sometimes I’ll rent a fast car and drive a few rounds on a nearby track. I’m not the world’s worst cook either, so I guess it’s a combination of all these things. I’ve also got a really nice collection of games, so when stress levels go to red, I’ll fire up my Xbox One or PS4, and play some FPS games.

Traveling is also a good way to fade stress, too. I’ve always fantasized about taking my lighter setup with me and moving to Barcelona or Southern France or Northern Italy and working there. Maybe one day!

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