Interview: How Alan Wake composer Petri Alanko established Control

Image: ChrisinSession

BAFTA-nominated composer Petri Alanko (aka Lowland) has been a regular Remedy collaborator on games including Alan Wake. He talked us through his approach to scoring, recording rusty gates, and bringing tango to 2019’s Control

By Thomas Quillfeldt

At the time of writing, Remedy’s supernatural third-person action game Control has walked away with the Critics' Choice Award at the 2019 Golden Joysticks; the title has also racked up eight The Game Awards nominations.

Even more so than usual, an integral part of the game’s atmosphere-building can be ascribed to its immersive audio, including an exceptionally unnerving music score. Finland’s Petri Alanko is probably best known in the gaming world as the ‘Remedy guy’, having composed music for many of the developer’s uniquely stylish, brooding games including Alan Wake and Quantum Break. To create Control’s score, he was joined by co-noise architect Martin Stig Andersen (Limbo, INSIDE.) 

In stark contrast to the Remedy sound, Alanko provided music for Ubisoft’s Trials Fusion; and he has worked on numerous projects under the artist moniker Lowland. It’s well worth checking out the Classical Trancelations albums and live shows, which see trance hits turned into rich orchestral and audio-visual tapestries. 

Alanko kindly answered our questions during a furiously busy period of touring.

Alanko: Origins

Petri Alanko Photo: Ville Juurikkala

Photo: Ville Juurikkala

As musical starts go, Alanko’s is adorable: “[I remember] a moment playing in the sandbox with my pals, aged three or four. Our moms were listening to the radio nearby, and one of my friends took a plastic shovel and started playing air drums. Someone else mimicked playing the guitar. Me? I grabbed a tree branch and started conducting them. Soon after, my grandma got me a piano and I took lessons.”

By a stroke of luck, Alanko’s local elementary school was transformed into a special institution that emphasised music and creativity, and it was here that he met a lot of future musical colleagues. Lessons in orchestration and conducting followed. “At some point I was preparing to become a concert organist, but, luckily, I was saved by [a love of] Kraftwerk, Depeche Mode, and Ultravox.”

In the late ‘80s, a “happy accident” in a music studio where he was trying to sell some keyboard gear to pay for student life meant that young Petri avoided going too far down an academic path. These days he’s conscious of the roads not traveled, and is thankful he followed his intuition which led him in the “correct” direction.

Game theory

Remedy's Control Image: ChrisinSession

Image: ChrisinSession

Game composers are, more often than not, ardent gamers. As a mid-’80s kid, Alanko started playing games like Sabre Wulf and Jet Set Willy II on a Sinclair ZX Spectrum — at a time when video game music genuinely was restricted to bleeps and bloops. 

“My first real gaming revelation came thanks to the Commodore 64. At some point my parents were seriously worried about how my life would turn out if I spent all my days playing games. Even though I didn't do much homework, I was lucky enough to get good grades at school, in part thanks to a good memory.”

As with so many C64 fans, he discovered the early British chiptune pioneers including Ben Dalglish and Rob Hubbard, whose work is still celebrated today. 

After trading up for an Amiga 500, an electronics whizz friend helped set Alanko up with a MIDI interface — “thanks, Pirkka!” — so that he could start making music using a sequencer: Dr. Emile Tobenfeld’s (aka Dr T) ‘Keyboard Controlled Sequencer, Level 1’ (KCS for short.) 

“I tried my best to bang the most out of the computer's sound chip, and some of those sounds I still use to this day. Commodore's trashy, yet nostalgic and classy graininess is somehow very pleasing, especially when combined with more refined elements. Even Alan Wake has something from C64 during the dam scene [OST track “Water Pressure”.] The low bass roar has a layer of good old C64 in there (doubling the contrabasses); and the strange, low, bell-like gamelan instrument is actually a combination of Oberheim Xpander and two filtered C64 square wave patches.”

Ever interested in game scores, Alanko continued to collect consoles and video games, amassing an impressive 500+ PlayStation game library.

“My ‘hobby’ (really a part-time obsession) eventually turned into something more thanks to several early Adobe Flash/Macromedia Shockwave game projects. These later led to my collaboration with Remedy Entertainment. 

“[In the early-mid 2000s] nobody on the planet wanted the opportunity to score Alan Wake more than me. I suspect I got the gig through sheer self-confidence more than anything else, and I threw everything into the initial demos — one of which ended up as the main theme, to my great surprise. 

“Remedy’s games are just so easy to score. Everything is thoroughly considered and written out; all the concept images are so well-honed; and the atmosphere is there from the start. Some previous client briefs I’ve received are just a few words before we plunge into a process of iteration. [The clarity of] Remedy’s goals invites a thorough dialogue, which greatly benefits the project.”

Remedy: Control freaks

Remedy's Control

Also based in Finland, Remedy Entertainment continues to benefit from the writing talent of co-founder Sami Antero Järvi — aka Sam Lake — the lead creative (with varying job titles) behind Max Payne, Alan Wake, Quantum Break, and Control. As well as being a meticulous and visionary games writer, Lake is a charismatic presence.

Sam Lake and Petri Alanko jam out in the highly entertaining presentation “The Role of Music in Remedy’s Video Games”:

Alanko recalls: “I'd gladly sit down and listen to Sam telling stories. He presents a huge amount of ideas and possibilities with open storylines; and, although some of them don’t get realised, they contribute to the believability, the palpability of the story and characters. I feel like sitting in front of a fireplace, listening to ancient stories become real. That's my fuel.”

When it comes to the working relationship between Alanko and Remedy, the process varies significantly depending on the project: from a straightforward back and forth on 2010’s Alan Wake; to a more integrated workflow on 2019’s Control. 

“I don't submit [a draft of a piece] unless I know exactly what the Remedy team wants. Sometimes, when everything is hectic during rushed periods, there are a few cues where I have a go, submit, and wait for feedback — but infrequently. 

“With Alan Wake, there were thorough briefs. Occasionally notes came back such as ‘too fantastical and elven’ or ‘too heavy and mechanical’, but even then, instead of ditching the music, we’d find a different place in the game it, or make a few little changes of cuts.” 

Remedy's Control Image: ChrisinSession

Image: ChrisinSession

“With Control it was more strict, hueing closely to the concept, and delving into [unusual] tunings and scales — even a harmonic series.” Sit-down meetings and ‘coffee talks’ kept the composer extremely well-informed about the details of the world and story, and helped him feel closer to the wider development team. That said, vis-a-vis another of his projects — motorcycle crash-um-up Trials Fusion — Alanko insists that a composer can still produce “good stuff without knowing the emotional background story of the motorcyclist. With emotional material, however, the background story is the main building ingredient.”

He admits: “I've never been an integral part of any development team. But, to be honest, I've always wanted to belong somewhere where I could push the products much, much further, and make them much better than they would otherwise be. That's what makes me tick. Sometimes people underestimate the necessity and the purpose of music [in media], and forget it’s essentially a vessel of emotions.”

Recording rusty gates and capturing coffeemakers

Remedy's Control Image: ChrisinSession

Image: ChrisinSession

For every project, Alanko indulges in a preparatory phase of gathering a set of intriguing sounds, which can come from literally anywhere in the physical or digital realm. “I create an elaborate library of raw sounds for the basis of [digital] instruments or sample sets. I gathered a vast set of sounds and sonic palette materials for Quantum Break, and, in most cases, the material I produced early on remained in the game — the same applied to Control.

“The more preparation I do in this way, the easier the actual composition becomes. It’s a bit like studying in order to answer quiz questions. As long as it’s up to me, I’ll do it this way every time.

“Sometimes a sound will dictate composition right from the start. This has happened quite a few times during my career. One of the strangest times was during Quantum Break's early stages when I was recording a 200kg rusty iron gate (the kind that restricts cars from driving into a field.) I had just placed some contact mics onto it and hit record when a gust of wind caught the gate and opened it slowly verrrrrryyyy slooooowwllly.” 

“The resulting sound was a howling tone, and the melody based on the natural overtones was fluctuating a little. Somehow, it felt perfect for the project, but required a somewhat less haunting instrument. Later on it was replaced by a grand piano set-up ‘una corda’ (i.e. one string per key only), but the melody was caught on that ‘skqueeeaaaeeeaaawwwwk’ recording.”

For Control, Alanko shared composition duties with fellow sonic wizard Martin Stig Andersen (Limbo, INSIDE) of Playdead fame. The two worked separately but in parallel, sharing various sounds and digital instruments across the whole audio team. Alanko and Andersen’s shared love of strange sound sources and extreme sonic processing — as well as the strength of Remedy’s aesthetic vision — enabled an appropriate level of homogeneity across the score and sound design. Alanko says: “I value Martin’s creativity greatly, and he’s got a unique way of turning stuff into sounds. Between us, we created a perfect balance for Control’s soundtrack.”

Rather wonderfully, Alanko recorded his beloved espresso machine with special microphones designed to pick up frequencies beyond human hearing. He then pitched down the results in order to bring those higher frequencies into hearing range, generating ethereal droning sounds. 

Remedy's Control

He didn’t stop at coffee-making equipment: “I recorded a washing machine, light switches, and splintered plywood; I burnt a piano; I drilled holes in cymbals and bowed them; and I put contact microphones onto literally everything I came across. 

“I created a few algorithms within [computer audio software] Native Instruments’ Reaktor and Symbolic Sound’s Kyma, so that whatever sound one feeds into the algorithm, it comes out as a ‘ROAAAARR GRRRRROWL’ — this in particular helped me define the malformed and twisted sound of Control.”

“In Control's pre-production stage, I managed to catch some piano harp mellow tones [piano harp = the metal frame of a piano that anchors both ends of the strings] that immediately gave me the idea: ‘oh, if I stretch these sounds to tenfold the play length, it'll result in a marvelous sound.’ A set of those can be heard in the beginning of "Intro - Portam Ad Inferno": the first 30 seconds or so are almost solely drawn from an old piano frame, one way or another. Some reverb-sounding effects are from a piano harp too. There’s a lot of custom sounds and processing in the soundtrack.”

Hello darkness my old friend

Remedy's Control Image: ChrisinSession

Image: ChrisinSession

Remedy’s games aren’t exactly about fluffy bunnies and sunlight, and the main part of a composer for media’s job is to help establish, then emotionally inhabit, the world of the game, film, show, etc. Over Alanko’s career working in games, he’s had to keep finding original ways to communicate a ‘dark and moody’ atmosphere — to create 50,000 shades of grey. 

He comments: “My friends say I'm actually in my most easy-going mood when a project is at its heaviest, likely down to me treating some projects as a form of therapy! There’s a weighty burden on my shoulders during a project like Control, but I find creating a strange soundtrack like that is somehow a form of purification, a of way cleansing myself. Identifying what spooks me and capturing it in an audible form is one way I’m able to relax.”

“I’ve experienced some heavy events in my life: being in a strong earthquake; fighting off a mugger who had a knife at my belly; finding a suicide by hanging. I have material to burn. It’s only an interpretation [shaped by my unique life experiences], but I can imagine what this or that character or situation feels like. My experiences and personality somehow click with the stories Remedy creates. Another composer’s interpretation will sound different.”

To avoid being drawn into the darkness, Alanko stays connected with natural surroundings: “There's a load of wild animals walking past my yard, and mushrooms, herbs, and berries all around where I live. That keeps me grounded.”

The oldest sound

Remedy's Control Image: ChrisinSession

Image: ChrisinSession

Control is set in a mysterious space, nominally identified as the Federal Bureau of Control’s brutalist, skyscraper offices in New York City. But, as the player discovers over the course of the game, this is not a space that humans (let alone a government agency) controls at all. It is The Oldest House — a Tardis-like, infinite, constantly rearranging interior that connects to alternate dimensions.

(Control’s setting is explored within the context of haunted houses and Mark Z. Danielewski’s novel House of Leaves by video essayist and friend of the blog Jacob Geller in “Control, Anatomy, and the Legacy of the Haunted House.)

Naturally, such a distinct and aesthetically rich setting influenced the game’s music a lot, says Alanko. “[The aforementioned] ‘Intro - Portam Ad Inferno’ has a short section where I imagined a slow-motion picture where sounds reflect from empty concrete walls (2:25 to 3:00), almost as if you could see the sound waves. 

“The brutality itself is like stripping the walls clear from the clothes, so you're in touch with the basic frame itself; and that, in a way, delivers the raw truth to the listener, as well as the observer of the visuals, too. We tried to stay away from your average tricks in every possible way, and some of the sounds just rely on increasing the pressure and adding weight without actually releasing — instead, it changes shape and form, but the pressure reappears in other forms.”

“It's more challenging to represent clear danger by creating a slowly shifting sound field or harmony, rather than maintain the usual crescendoing ‘war elephant drum set’. I especially enjoyed the truly vast spaces inside the building, and some of the reverbs used in the soundtrack were the longest I've ever had heart to put in — in some cases the reverb tails were approaching 30 seconds! I'm known for my use of reverb [a la JJ Abrams’ reputation for lens flare] but those lengths were ridiculous. I loved the idea of walls trying to warn you, yet invite you in, which is why there is a lot of whispering here and there amidst the audio.”

Remedy's Control Image: ChrisinSession

Image: ChrisinSession

“Since the basic idea was to deal with pre-digital era technology (pulse tone telephones, Dia slide projectors, magnetophones) the idea was to refrain from using ideas that were too modern, for instance, digital glitching wasn't okay, whereas ‘analog glitching’ was. The sound for the Board — the extradimensional inverted pyramid that guides Jesse — is a prime example of the pre-digital glitching phone/announcement sound. It was achieved by lowering the audio frame rate — not the sample rate, but the ‘event rate’ at which the changes appeared.”

“It was important to maintain a certain agelessness in the soundtrack. No super-saw trancey pads — in other words, no dubstep. I tried to keep in my mind that the slowed-down action is the most menacing and threatening. You see someone attack you and you can't avoid it — it's raw aggression. There aren’t ultra quick ninjas hacking and slashing, so incorporating that idea [of slow dread] into the pieces felt like [it resonated with the] feeling of the bare concrete walls. 

“‘Nihil Est Simplex’ at about 2:30 onwards has this anticipatory feeling of bad stuff hitting the fan in slow motion and there's nothing you can do about it.”

Play it again, Sam

 

There are a surprising number of actual songs in Control, from the “Sankarin Tango” to the ‘80s homage “Dynamite” (we won’t spoil the context for the latter, but if you’re not spoiler averse, check it out here.) Alanko credits Sam Lake [the creative director] with the idea to include songs in the game, and it was completely down to Remedy’s designers where songs would be placed in order to punctuate the shooting action in fun ways. 

The story behind the “Sankarin Tango” is an odd one, according to Alanko. “One of the characters was supposed to be a Finn (the ‘janitor’ Ahti, played by the marvelous Martti Suosalo, a true living legend.) Us Finns like a tango — it hit our country back in the ‘50s and we never fought off the infection — and some of the most heartfelt, all-time greatest Finnish schlagers [sentimental, catchy pop songs] are actually tangos. 

“We decided ‘hell yeah’ — Ahti the janitor digs tango and we're going to make him sing one! Sam asked for a tango lyric template (i.e. number of syllables per line) and my email went ‘ping’ one Saturday with his attempt. I read the lyrics and the music basically composed itself in my head there and then, as if the melody was already embedded in the words.

“After a break, I returned to it to see if the melody was still playing in my head. It was — fully formed — so I quickly recorded some piano, double bass, and drums, just one take apiece. I quickly [finalised] the arrangement with my painful demo vocal (sorry to the Remedy personnel who were exposed to it.) 

“I had entered a flow state while composing the song. I'm not a mumbo-jumbo paranormal believer, or anything-else believer, so that was truly a ground-shaking experience for me. It was sheer magic. But most of the magic happened when [Ahti the janitor voice actor] Mr. Suosalo sung the vocals. He nailed it on the first take. No autotune.”

Controlling the in-game score

Remedy's Control

There is wide spectrum covering how involved game composers are in actively implementing their music in a game. Some simply deliver what’s requested to the audio team who pull it apart and layer music where they think it works best. In other cases, the composer is the audio team, working with interactive music programmes like Wwise to intricately work tracks into the experience. 

Alanko has worked in several different ways across different projects: “Sometimes I have no involvement in implementation at all; but, in some cases, I'm very, very picky about the exact frame where something should line up.

“I'm after an emotional effect, so timing is an important concern. Human reaction to something visual is crucial — to help emphasise that, one should consider reaction times. Back in the day there were a bunch of old-school film editors that delayed everything by 11-12 frames so that the reaction would be in the right spot. If you put, for instance, a stinger right where something evokes an emotional reaction, it feels comical. Delay it by that 11-12 frames and you can harness that natural reaction time, increasing the effect.”

When it comes to the purely technical side, his involvement with the audio engine was minimal. “The audio programmers/designers had some challenging times with Wwise when they were designing the elaborate audio playback system in Control. It changes the meter and the amount of music being played according to the number of enemies on-screen, and it really adds to the musical atmosphere.”

“It ended up as a well-tuned set of playback rules that trigger a set of sounds and samples within the game — you could say that exploration and combat music was played by an AI. Luckily I wasn't involved with the Wwise project, which was a gargantuan beast — the audio guys did a marvelous job with it!”

Have we reached ‘peak Zimmer’?

Remedy's Control Image: Jacob Gellar

Image: Jacob Gellar

Some people have criticised video games over the last few decades for sounding too much like Hollywood movies — simply put, in chasing that ‘Hanz Zimmer sound’, games have lost some of their identity as a quirky, interactive entertainment medium. That said, Remedy’s games are explicitly inspired by other works, including Steven King’s novels, Twin Peaks, the X-Files, Film Noir, Nordic/Scandi noir, sci-fi movies, and so on. 

With the greatest respect to the German film score composer, Alanko agrees that the Zimmer-fication of game scores is real, and something he’s personally resisted: “I could've accrued a small fortune by replicating his tricks. There was a time — a span of about two years — when all work inquiries were along the lines of ‘we need some Zimmer in our game.’ What they didn’t/don’t realise is that it [can end up sounding like] a cheap joke that someone's trying to pull with a set of el cheapo orchestral libraries. 

“I value his approach a lot — he’s the right guy when you need it to sound spectacular, and people tend to bash him without any solid reasoning. He does his own thing; John Williams does his; Giacchino his, etc. All tremendous artists, but very different. The catch-22 is that developers think they need Hollywood emotion in their score [to make it seem more cinematic], but does their game actually require that? 

“If a game sounds so much like a Hollywood blockbuster that it’s a problem, the problem usually resides in the game itself. It’s key to analyse the overall project/product and its particular needs. It might not need to sound like Gladiator or Pirates… — it might actually be of benefit to use Smilla's Sense Of Snow as a reference point.” [1997 mystery thriller, scored by Zimmer/Harry Gregson-Williams.] 

“Luckily, synths came back into fashion with The Social Network thanks to Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross. They did soundtrack composers a great favour, both in film/TV and games. Along with Cliff Martinez (Drive) and Jóhann Jóhannsson (Arrival), they’ve composed marvelously atypical Hollywood scores. 

Alanko studies certain film scores closely, recently preferring “stranger colours.” He admires particular scores including Zimmer’s Interstellar, Geoff Barrow and Ben Salisbury’s Ex Machina, and Mark Korven’s The Witch. Earlier in life, Alanko admired Tangerine Dream and Wendy Carlos (Clockwork Orange, The Shining, Tron), and partly emulated the latter’s approach to creating sounds in his work on Control

He’s also kept up on game music, suggesting that we’re enjoying somewhat of a golden age, thanks to contemporaries including Inon Zur, Jesper Kyd, Jason Graves, and many more. 

“I try to steer away from current trends in case a particular style becomes old news by the time my project released. I'm careful to avoid certain traps and produce anything too obvious. If there are any nods towards other sounds, they're rare and thought-through; and usually included with a smirk, especially in Remedy's case. Sam Lake's always smirking here and there through his writing — why can’t I?

“I'm just being me, all the time; although the means and instruments may differ.”

The sound of the next generation

Remedy's Control

PlayStation 4 and PS5 architect Mark Cerny stated in an interview with Wired that audio had been somewhat neglected with the current generation of consoles, dangling the promise of audio ray-tracing and other technical improvements for the PlayStation 5. 

Alanko anticipates new toys: “I'm eagerly awaiting more AI tools to arrive. They're like booze, or fire: good co-workers, but bad bosses. 

“I'd love to see an integration between an effective AI replay tool and linear audio. What [composers] really need is variance, especially when it comes to gameplay music — not just variance of musical notes, but sounds too, i.e. tonal variance in repetitive pieces. I’ve tweeted a few ideas for the future, including an Exampler or a Mimer. It wouldn’t be a sampler, but something that recreated incredibly accurate renditions of what it was fed to listen to. It would then produce a set of transformed sounds that resembled the original, and those could be used by a sampler instrument. 

“Meanwhile, I'd love to share my workload with one to two extra pairs of hands (and brains), but sadly it’s going to be a while before I'm able to clone myself. I'm very keen on machine learning applications, and have read quite a few whitepapers about using them as composing aids. I'm not convinced yet, but I’m hopeful. I'm pro-tech, pro-algorithm, pro-plugins, pro-code in every possible way, and I can hardly wait for tomorrow to arrive.”


Petri Alanko is a composer for media — www.petrialanko.net | SoundCloud.com/alanko | Facebook.com/LowlandOfficial | Twitter @PeppePappa

Don’t miss Petri’s interview (whilst driving!) with Kate Remington on the Music Respawn podcast.