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Composer Petri Alanko on ‘Quantum Break’ & the Art of Scoring Video Games


Petri Alanko B+W
BAFTA-nominated composer Petri Alanko’s impressive work includes the hauntingly beautiful hybrid orchestral arrangements of Alan Wake, a survival horror game, and the epic classical arrangements of Imaginaerum, a fantasy film based on an album by symphonic metal band Nightwish.

Alanko’s latest project involves a stunning and immensely creative electronic orchestral score for Quantum Break, a blockbuster cinematic video game developed by Remedy Entertainment. Alanko’s score is the key to unleashing the necessary moods, atmospheres, and actions in a world where time is broken and where the hero’s time-manipulation skills are his weapon of choice.

S&P: For Quantum Break, your instrument of choice was your beautiful collection of synthesizer modules. Could you describe the pros and cons of modular synthesis in modern music composition?

Petri Alanko (PA): For starters, if anyone’s going to jump onto the modular train, be prepared to invest many hours right away. The whole environment is a tame black hole, and if unprepared, it can easily take up much of your resources. Using one is both a pro and a con, really, since getting into the essence of sound can be very rewarding. You usually come up with something extraordinary, but at the same time, especially during the first few sessions, it can be extremely daunting, consuming, and tiring. How I see the whole picture is the fact that the instrument can be configured into whatever comes to mind, depending on the modules. But, unlike some menu-driven digital synths, you’ll develop an ear for each module, and the more you use the instrument, the easier it is to hear the sound in your head beforehand, even before any cables are patched in. That’s the same exact thing that happens with much simpler synths with enough buttons and controls. You “see” the sound in your mind. It’s a bit like looking at a palette of colors and knowing which to use where in order to be able to paint a landscape.

The absolute advantage is that you’ll most likely end up with original-sounding material, and with something that’s carved solely by you. The essence of the sound is you, and with some great patches, there’s a moment of pride when you hear the outcome. The problem with most ready-built sound libraries is that you start composing on top of them, not with them. The outcome is usually a hybrid between your style and someone else’s. With modular synths, it’s only you and you alone. With unlimited access to numerous parameters of sound, you can finally get the filter opening and the amplitude attack just right, and not according to someone else who decided on it for you for this library.

Just prepare a meal and drinks, as it’s going to take a little time. Of course, if you keep your modular pre-patched — that is, some modules are always connected in your way — everything’s much, much faster, but if you’re like me and pull out pretty much each cable, it’s going to take some time to get results. Luckily, with Quantum Break, I had lots of time throughout the whole production run. Also, since my setup is controlled by Expert Sleepers’ Silent Way software and their hardware, achieving precise results quickly was easy. And I never detach the control cabling, so I know what is going through which cable.


S&P: What are the most important elements of gameplay for a composer to capture while creating a score for a video game?

PA: I would say the crucial moments that pinpoint the storyline twists, but it’s not only those moments, it’s the events before them. You’re able to plant cues well beforehand, a bit like “mind readers” do: They make you think of the three of hearts, and you’ve already seen both the heart symbol, the color red, and the number three about ten minutes before he points the microphone at you. Quantum Break was composed in such a way that you’ll recognize the key cues immediately when they arrive and things click together. Having those reds and threes and hearts audible was a long time in planning, and it meant sharing some short theme motives here and there, making them intertwined, tying them into each other. It sounds like it really was the plan from the very start, but I only realized it halfway through, that I had been “planning” it almost subconsciously. Once your brain kicks into a sneaky mode, in order to plant cues, you don’t have to think it, it’ll just happen, much like with the modular synths.

I found it extremely important to let the music breathe. The gamer is already holding their breath during the busiest scenes, and making him or her hold their breath even more didn’t accomplish the goal alone, it had to have an emotional layer, it had to connect, and without the emotional pieces, it wouldn’t have had the glue, the cohesion to accomplish that.

If you’re seeing an outcome of something that might make you cry, like people hugging and crying in a movie, but you’re seeing it out of context, then usually you’ll just watch it and not be able to connect with the people crying on screen. But if you have seen the whole context and the events leading up to the hug and the crying, then you’re more likely to feel the emotions, too. It’s the emotional arc one has to find, which is what I try to do, even with the action. Action must always have a purpose, and it can be found through the emotions.

Genre and gameplay affect your direction a lot, actually. In third person perspective games, the closer the protagonist is to the camera, the more likely you will connect directly, through actions. It’s the deviation between movie perspective and direct first-person/actor perspective: the closer you are, the more solid the connection with the environment and the less music you need, and vice versa, of course.

Petri Alanko widescreen

S&P: How much time do you spend finding the perfect sound, compared with your time spent creating the right musical arrangements?

PA: I’d say it’s even on both sides. Most of the time it starts with the melody idea, maybe a harmonic transfer section leading from one place to another, but right after comes a sound or the idea of a sound. In some cases, I envisage the whole thing in my head, and if it’s been there a long time, I’ve got more room to play with the arrangement. Usually, when I fire up my gear, the whole scene is already well planned, and I spend a good deal of time getting the cornerstone sounds just right. Then I proceed further with the pieces that make the final arrangement. Sometimes the movement in a sound file already produces a part of an arrangement. For example, some sequencer-driven modular effects are rhythmical by nature, and thus they direct the thoughts in a certain direction as raw sounds. I like using controlled randomness in my music, with arpeggios and other similar ostinatos, so a certain “living” aspect or “automatically altering” aspect is present there. All sorts of static is poison to me. There has to be some change going on all the time.

Sometimes I had to figure out how the cinematic director had edited the music after the last cut. In some cases, there had been a cut of 2/3 bars or two-sixteenths or just about anything arrhythmic. Always a good thing to notice, especially with everything printed into audio files, with no plug-in instruments there. However, with the modern day tools, I could survive about 95 percent of such cases with relatively little labor, thanks to pitch-altering tools and spectrum-altering tools, such as Melodyne or Zynaptiq’s Pitchmap. Also, with a few cases, iZotope’s RX and its Ambience Match function came in really handy.

S&P: Could you describe your workflow for game scoring in contrast to composing music for film or TV?

PA: The basic workflow in my case is pretty much the same for each medium. I hear or “see” the final scene in my head and then sit down and sculpt the sounds and turn an idea into a composition. It’s the details of each medium that are somewhat different. For movies and TV, it’s much easier to compose, and I always try to remember a few details separating them from the games. In TV and movies, the viewer is indeed an observer, looking at the moving picture from a clear, sometimes distant, third-person point, and so you aren’t directly tied to the action. That affects a lot of elements – the sheer amount of music alone, for instance. In some cases, there’s a lot of space to fill with music to support the emotions and events, and since you’re not actively trying to change the pace of the events, the lushness of the music, the number of layers that is, can be much richer. Due to its non-linear form, game music needs to be modular, preferably in a most musical way. Each piece must fit one another with ease, unforced — or otherwise it’ll damage the immersion — with minimal effort, and one has to prepare a myriad of pieces and the pieces connecting them.

Sometimes having a huge Excel sheet in front of you can help, but if you’re using multiple stems in addition to main stem files, each stem file must fit with something else, so the number of sheets is quickly doubled, quadrupled. On the other hand, the further I got into Quantum Break, the less I needed any sheets, as most of the tracks I wrote became modular compositions — heh, in every way — subconsciously. I only kept a “key” sheet with all the tempos and keys with their relationships coded with colors.

In both cases, it begins with a picture, and with games, I sometimes rely on the motion capture video clips, anything that can be used for placing a movement or a look or how they look at each other. When the idea hits, it’s very clear and precise, and pretty soon after I’ll do a quick timing chart with a tempo calculator. Sometimes my first score sheet is just a plain squared paper with some lines drawn onto it, two squares of 4/4 122 beats per minute, and then 3/4 of accelerando heading to four squares of 5/4 128. Luckily iPhones and iPads have quite a few really nice SMPTE calculators, but I use those only occasionally, to check out something I’ve picked out by ear. I guess I am old-school that way.


S&P: Are you a gamer? Do you enjoy playing games youve worked on?

PA: Yes, I am a gamer, indeed. I divide my man-cave time between work (which feels at times more like playing around), games, and watching movies and TV series. Lately, I’ve been really digging Quantum Break. This is the first time I’m playing it through, and it really impresses so far. I’m taking the long course, reading and watching every piece of memo, paper, clip, TV…everything, and it’s nice, to say the least. I really love the first/third-person sections, and I can really feel what the studio had in mind. Although I knew most of the scenes from Quantum Break, I never personally played through the events connecting them. I’ve seen someone else play through those sections, but this is my first hands-on experience. Also, since Alan Wake was on the Xbox, I’m playing that through for the third time, and it is still a very extraordinary piece of entertainment. Very atmospheric, very moody, very immersive in the pitch-black woods. Okay, yes, I’m a Remedy fanboy, but I enjoy well-written stories with believable characters.

On my game shelf I have close to 350 titles. It’s nothing too spectacular, especially when you consider the fact that I have all of the consoles since the original PlayStation (except Wii U). But all the titles are important to me, and most of them are still in rotation on a monthly basis at least. Game developers build worlds and I want to explore each of them.

S&P: What would you recommend for composers who want to explore creating for the world of game music for the first time?

PA: Prepare to spend a lot of time with the music. Don’t think it’s easy because “It’s just game music.” It’s definitely not easier to write for than TV and film. Gamers can tell if it’s done properly and whether or not it’s crafted with love for the medium. They’re very educated in their own field and expertise area, and most gamers have years of experience playing games and hearing the game music. And one should never, ever underestimate the audience. The main thing to remember, in my opinion, is to talk with the developers, the writers, the artists. Just talk and ask questions, and then develop your own sound — be that compositional, harmony based, production, or all three in conjunction. If you’re using ready-built libraries, take your time to get the music done the way you hear it in your head. Don’t let the samples dictate the phrasing, and be patient. It takes years to develop even a small network of people, but if you spend your time with the project wisely, the circle will certainly expand in time.

It’s easy to say this, but actually, I face the same challenges all the time, so I practice what I preach. Luck has nothing to do with this, really. It’s all very, very hard work and it takes a lot of guts and discipline to stay on the right track. Also, what I would do differently now is team up with someone. That’s something I’ve been missing a lot lately. Find a suitable writing partner, and you can divide the tasks. And okay, you might think that you’ll make half the income. But two people can work on multiple projects at the same time, so essentially you’d be able to compensate for that. And nothing beats the conversation in the studio. An important consideration, however, is that team members must have alike minds. There’s no use bringing together two or more composers or producers who don’t enjoy the same genres. You have to be compatible.


The Quantum Break vinyl soundtrack is now available for pre-order and is scheduled to ship in October 2016. Click here to learn more.


Photos courtesy of Remedy Entertainment


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