Recently, we got the chance to chat with composer Petri Alanko, Remedy Entertainment’s go-to for a number of years now. We talked to him about his working with Martin Stig Andersen on Control, why burning instruments was an important part of the process, and which GPU company ended up leading to his scoring video games. Let’s hop on in!
Push Square: Where did the core sound for Control stem from? Was there a main theme you built around? Did this theme come early in the process? While conducting these interviews, I’ve noticed a trend where the “pitch piece” winds up playing a major role in the final score. Was that the case here?
Petri Alanko: I would say the initial six-note motif, a leitmotif of sorts, appeared very, very, very early on. I guess it was there from my first concept demo, and was again a result of a brilliant presentation given by Mikael Kasurinen and Sam Lake at some get-together. The pictures and the concept art spoke WITH CAPITAL LETTERS and I couldn't escape the theme that appeared.
The pitches were supposed to live a life of their own, and some human choir voices were treated to escape their tonality almost totally, which is why there is a lot of background "hissing" or "whispering" going on, as it was derived from a choir recordings I had made throughout the years. Since Hiss affects everything, the leitmotif gets a beaten tune, and thus the note doesn't "keep its tune" and bends like it is in the close proximity of something that has a huge gravity.
It's interesting to think something or someone had such that kind of force it affects soundwaves. Hiss has. Also, all the out-of-tuned (as "counter-autotuned") notes tend to catch your attention despite all the mass around them. Think something like having a massive choir, all dressed in white, all stationary, standing still - and one of the tenors starts moving like a contortionist. I guess you'd pay attention to him. A similar thought was applied here, plus the fact that Hiss has its ways to allure people by just pointing out something subtly and then throwing all its powers at you, a little like some flesh-eating flowers do to flies.
Remedy’s always had a penchant for blurring the line between media, TV shows, movie motifs, etc. Does this convergence of media have an impact on how you score for their titles? Does it make things trickier? Easier? A unified vision within one medium is tricky enough, let alone several!
Right from the start I've felt this actually to be really pleasing, as some of the storytelling aspects - especially strong narratives and fluid dialogue - tie everything together. Storytelling also provides a lot of tools for the composer, and those really help the dynamic music content creation as well. It can be laborious at times, especially when various different event outcomes need to be taken into account, but usually that is just a matter of good planning.
When compared to "linear" media, i.e. movie and television, it's naturally a little tougher, but since the dynamic sections carry the possibilities of a story, it's really rewarding to find out the ways to carry on. This is never a showstopper nor even a slow-down, it's rather a matter of selecting what's usable and benefitting the storytelling "reach", meaning the goals and effects of the protagonists' actions.
You’ve been scoring Remedy titles for quite some time now. In what ways would you say production on Control differed from your previous scoring work?
It did differ somewhat, actually. To begin with, there were two composers, myself and Martin Stig Andersen. I wanted to score the conversations, cinematics, and some of the original "flavour" pieces, which the dev team used as prototype tracks, and dissecting those into a sound library gave the rest of the team a lot of dough to bake with, so to speak. I knew they'd be using a very elaborate AI playback engine rule system for which a special library was needed, for the gameplay, exploration and combat, and Martin did that. I was definitely very, very pleased when I heard the outcome of us two - we even ended up exchanging our base libraries and mixing up some of each other’s stuff a little, which was adding some fresh ingredients to the soup. Control definitely required a different way to think about the music, and it helped to meet Martin a few times; it's really good to reflect your decisions against someone else's. That was the first time I've collaborated with another composer, and would probably do it again with a similar project.
Where Control really took off was the base concept (which I to this day regret mentioning in the first concept meeting between Mikael Kasurinen, Ville Sorsa, Martin and myself), and when Mikael asked "how would the alien forces affect the world", a brainstorm kicked in, and I think I mentioned something like "…well it could be really cool, if Hiss just f***ed up the tuning and the harmonies, distorting not only the sound, but the basic rules of it…"
That's really easy, if you're working in-the-box, such as with a computer and some plugins, but both myself and Martin are quite hands-on guys, and…well, let's just say squeezing and mangling the natural overtone series of an acoustic instrument or a sound isn't actually the easiest task. With modulars and synths, it's always a lot easier, but here it was intensively laborous, though eventually the outcome sounds really, really, pleasing. I had an old piano soundframe (no wooden parts, no keys, no dampers) and I retuned the strings, then banged and dragged the frame and the keys, separated sections from it, processed and created instruments from that noise - and used those. Then I did the same with other stringed instruments, even burned some of them, just to let the heat expansion do its thing. It's incredibly hard to burn an instrument silently. I became an expert.
Let’s follow this avenue of the weirder stuff you did to get the score where you wanted it. What other weird techniques or instruments did you use when crafting the score?
Well, Hiss induces tuning degradation and harmony distortion - er, not distortion as in a heavy metal guitar (although there's plenty of that as layers), but rather just beefing up the harmonic content. Hiss takes on people, it poisons the surfaces and objects. Its counterforce, Polaris [a mysterious entity that helps Jesse out in the game], brings back the natural harmonic series as well as soothing the events back to normal. Jesse, being the medium of sorts here, works as Polaris' tool - or is it vice versa? There are a lot of feedback sounds here and there and none of those were done with guitars (as they tend to sound like "what they usually sound", despite the processing). Instead I did some whining and screeching sounds by just dragging heavy wooden objects on a concrete floor, recording everything in 192kHz with contact mics and a Sanken CO-100k, then slowing it all down, bringing the Sanken's extreme high-end back to life (and audible as well), and taking it off from there.
I found a rather surprising expert-level dragging artist within myself and after a brief time, I started looking everywhere whether dragging something on a concrete floor would turn into a usable sound…and pretty soon the kids didn't want to visit the shops with me anymore.
I've never used an accordion on a score - or actually, never even recorded one, but Control was the first time there, too. I bought an old accordion from a pawn shop, opened it up and bent the pipes to make it sound like it was dying, then played back the instrument, used some Zynaptiq Pitchmap on it - to "occasionally" turn a bad note into a good one; with appropriate settings the pitch started to fluctuate, flake or sparkle really quickly and kept changing from a bad tune to a better one - and this was repeated throughout the scale of the instrument. And then I diffused the hell out of the instrument with some old convolution IRs I had made back in 2011 or 2012. I recorded cheap CD players playing back specially recorded CDRs that were scratched to provide some stuttering and clicking, and removed the tonal component of those glitchy things with Izotope RX7, and the resulting digital "sparkling" turned into a series of processing material. I'm planning to release the outtakes at some point, but as always…time's an issue.
A major success of Alan Wake - and Remedy games in general - are that the locations wind up feeling like characters in and of themselves. Music absolutely plays a part in this. In what ways did you want to make sure the location got its due in Control? How does that creative process differ from if you were writing for, say, a character? Or does it differ?
In Jesse's world, a handful of serious events had occurred in her past, and her brother had gone missing years earlier. The moment she enters The Oldest House can be compared with Alan Wake entering Bright Falls, the former being only openly alien and even confidently malicious, compared to the latter's sublime evil. However, The Oldest House was only a New Yorker, a no-bulls*** entity, not malicious as such. The grumpy old building hid a lot of stuff - a world and a whole dimension, actually - and it seemed to reach much further away from our concept of time and space, up to the point where there's not really good and evil, it's all the same… except there was a war going on between the two. The melody connecting Jesse to The Oldest House is alluringly positive-ish, and the leitmotif's last note bends the motif into a pale bloodless, slightly positive "well, okay, you can enter and not be killed right away". A little like a monster having a good day after a nice cup of coffee.
When Jesse finally accepts her fate and, sort of, becomes a superhero on her own, accepts her force and the inner companion - that's when the theme plays as a major theme for the first time, in the last cinematic. It's a little like Clark Kent allowing himself to be whoever he really is, passing the sound barrier for the first time, and the descending theme appears as is for the first time cleanly. Jesse is a superhuman. She allows herself to take control, lets herself to be "something else", after having experienced quite a few really profound changes in her life. If that's not a place for a fanfare, I have no idea what would be.
Brutalist architecture has a specific look and evokes a specific feeling as well. In what ways did you want to utilise this when it comes to traipsing through the halls of the Bureau of Control? Were you interested in harmonising that feeling? Or did you want to go against the grain as it were?
Oh yes, brutalism! It's surprisingly pleasing due to its scale and the effect it's trying to achieve through vast au natural spaces and surfaces. That's a writing ground right away. It asks for diffusion and reflections, and sometimes it induces anxiety and anticipation, both in a positive and negative way. It's not coincidental that past communist leaders used brutalism and constructivism as a basis for their personal cult build-up and the propaganda. The measures and the scale can lead the thought, and with some easy seeds, the viewing brain picks up just the correct thoughts and attitude. Using those similar "brain seeds" one gets from the looks, it was easy to fill the space with mean and ominous tones. Empty walls seldom speak, they rather radiate continuously, and their "whispers are long", as my past church organ teacher used to say. That "radiating" was sometimes spiced up with some malicious tune errors, or Werckmeister scales [an unusual system of tuning pitches in relation to one other] combined with 15-tone scales, just because I wanted to make clear there's something really disturbing affecting your reality.
In what ways has Remedy returning to the PlayStation had an impact on your end of things? Remedy has only developed on Xbox for a number of years, and in the greater scheme of things, the return to PlayStation is a big deal. But I’m curious what changes that meant on your end, if any?
Well, it didn't have an effect on my work - but on a personal level it was very reassuring, knowing that some of the aspects we had dealt with in the past were eliminated in that decision. I know the insides of both console families, their audio capabilities, and how they treat the middleware, so really there were no differences concerning the way I worked or prepared my output. I'm sure this applies to Martin as well, as he provided a sound set for the middleware, WWise, which was then implemented by another Martin (Bussy-Paris, from Remedy) and his colleagues into the AI system.
Now that you mention the years… I was surprised noticing "oh, what the hell, it's already done?" And, though I love longer projects due to project immersion - I really like to swim deep into the story – I think it was a good decision to keep it short and simple, compared to all the previous projects they had done. The company has changed their philosophy from one-project-only to multiple development lines at once and whilst doing that, they've also honed thoroughly their methods. They're very streamlined, just like a high-tech company.
In what ways did seeing the game alongside its development influence the score? Did it reaffirm the direction you were taking things? Did anything come from this you might not have thought without that influence to create a spark?
The most cherished moments were the in-company meetings or show-and-tells, as the core team members demonstrated the current development stage and changes they had made, as well as all the new cool features. Each element has its own effect, and every now and then I visited the show-and-tells, just to keep track of what was changing. I was thoroughly thrilled to witness the weekly and monthly honing, and how the team's efforts really paid off. However, the original idea behind the "mother themes" (which I always compose first in every project) didn't change, as the concept was really polished right from the start.
I actually would like to see that happen with other clients, too: give the composer as much as he wants, as many stories, the whole history, details about the places and the environments, and if there aren't any - well, go back to your chambers and goddamn invent some. That's what inpsires our writing, the stories and the character development, not just on some shotgun blast. That's just boring and doesn't really carry any story forward. The reason to have music within the game is to emphasise the immersion and help the emotions cut through - whatever they want you to feel, but the point is: us composers, we live on the stories and the histories, we're the people around the fireplaces, we're the ones that sing your stories and heroic events, so write them that way. Not just an average "well, John went to a shop and bought a cabbage".
I like to listen to stories, and I mentioned earlier one presentation Mikael Kasurinen had given. The striking effect of just the sheer and pure "wow" factor defined the whole cinematic music style right there, right then. It's really easy to write stuff - even the oddest stuff - if you give the composer a clear vision, story and pictures.
As a rule for myself, I always like to close a first-time interview by asking how you found yourself scoring for games? What brought you to the industry? Was it something you sought out specifically? Happenstance?
I was brought in by a good friend of mine, who, at that time, was working with Futuremark - a company originally founded for GPU card clocking and rating, who then, later on started doing their own games. They were at least partially owned by Remedy back in the day, and in some get-together, Remedy's Petri Järvilehto and (I think) Saku Lehtinen asked this friend of mine whether he knew anyone capable of composing modern orchestral music. I had quite a long career already established by then, and was willing to make a change (you know, the CD sales were plummeting and the budgets and Napster and all that stuff), so he gave them my number. I thought they'd never call, but they did. I created my first and one of the few demos I've ever done (I don't like doing those, as you never get enough info on the project for your work) - and just forgot about it. And then they called. The project was called Alan Wake. After that I've been involved in quite a few projects, even performed in front of 9,000 + crowds in an indoor arena, but that period of my life was the one during which I learnt the most. I think our mutual relationship is benefitting us both. Don't correct me if I'm wrong…
And there we have it. The soundtrack is currently not available digitally, as it was an exclusive pack-in for Amazon UK. It is out there though, so we can only assume it’ll be on it’s way at some point soon! We'd like to thank Petri Alanko for taking the time to answer our questions.