The music of Quantum Break – Petri Alanko interview

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Brief list of credits

Quantum Break, Nightwish’s Imaginaerum The Movie, Alan Wake

Hi Petri, thank you for taking time to do this interview. Let us start with the basic questions first. Tell us a little bit about yourself and how did you get your start as a composer?

It was a longtime dream I nurtured since I was young. I actually didn’t know anything about composing when it all started, really, I just knew – based on what I heard from the radio, that “mom, I wanna do that”. “What? The music?” “That. Yes.” Shortly after I was conducting “my band” with a dry branch fallen off a tree, so the signs were there at a very young age. It took some time though, to really understand what it all was about.

Now, most piano lessons or music teaching always include a short Mozart section, and each pupil is sanctified with a story of Mozart creating his first compositions at the age of four or five, so you immediately feel like an underachiever… or have something to aim for. Anyway, I felt classical stuff was great, but I was really interested in slightly different material, electronic music. Back then, in my youth, there really were no synths on the radio, but the occasional Kraftwerk or Jean Michel Jarre pumped my blood pressure to three-digit numbers, and soon after I had developed a synth fever. I made my first pop songs at…was I 12? 13? Something like that. The first songs were created with a Roland SH-5 and Juno-6 and a Boss DR-55, recorded on a Fostex X-15, the four-track cassette recorder. No effects, all dry, but that was all I had then.

Some of my then garage bandmates didn’t think highly of the songs, but since we were lacking some repertoire, some of them were put on the set list. Our audience was mostly the neighbourhood girls and the bass player’s little sister. On top of that, we had no singer. The first commercial compositions were produced when I moved away from home to study, and whilst working in a music shop as a sales rep (I had run out of money) I met a guy there who owned a studio. Luckily he was drowning in work and needed a trusty and capable guy to handle the arranging and production. I had quite an arsenal of gear then, and for years I had put all my money into gear – unfortunately, the same applies still today. And, in a flash, I was doing my first record, a remix album of a band I later joined. It sold pretty well, and soon after, a long tour began. The Tour brought some money, money brought gear, and gear was then used in other productions… eventually, some friends I had made found their way to IT and gaming companies, and little by little my phone started to ring more and more and I soon realized, I had a new career outside the pop world.

“Quantum Break” is a revolutionary entertainment experience and new IP from Remedy Entertainment and Microsoft Studios. Its part hard-hitting video game, part in-game live-action show, both featuring a stellar cast, and is full of the vivid storytelling, rich characters and dramatic twists Remedy are renowned for. Choices in-game will affect the outcome of the fast-paced fusion between game and show, illustrating one story perceived in many ways for a completely unique entertainment experience; play the game to understand the heroes, watch the in-game show to discern the villains.

How did you get involved with Remedy Entertainment and Quantum Break?

We had a mutual history since I worked on Alan Wake, and when they asked whether I was interested in doing another long-term project with them, I immediately volunteered. I knew it would be good, and so much better than anything else. It was almost right after one of their smaller projects, Alan Wake’s American Nightmare, I think, when Saku Lehtinen (Remedy’s Art Director) called me: “We’ve got something cooking here, want to see?” So he arrived at my studio, showed me a presentation for which they needed some short music pieces, and after that, another visit brought me a cinematic file as well…and it looked phenomenal.

I was really enthused, and there was a strange aura to it; it felt really important. I knew they wouldn’t let themselves go easily as their quality threshold is extremely high, but I had no idea back then about the graphic elements, such as all the time related shards and fields, the environment reacting to sound, etc. Nevertheless, the cinematic demo was cool: agent stuff, sneaking, exploration, heavy battle, huge explosion. Kaboom, library gone. Zoom into a female protagonist, cut to black. Cliffhanger. A short while after, something started ringing in my head, and I decided to try fitting it in, into the zooming in scene in the ending. It felt good, it felt heroic, it felt liberating, promising, yet it kept the tension going. A perfect cliffhanger theme.

I’m on quite uncomplicated terms with Remedy, they just ring or email or text me, arrange a meeting, and we’re good to go. Those are the benefits of a long-term relationship – right now 11+ years – as well as the micro gesture interpretation; I guess we both know what each other likes and dislikes. And the pauses between the projects are just perfect. The breaks help us charge our batteries.

How did you prepare to score Quantum Break and what do you think were the main obstacles?

The scope was one thing. The game was dealing with probably one of the most important inventions of humankind – time travel – if it were true. If we just think about it, what happens in the game would be the eighth miracle; it would change the course of histories and futures. How would that sound when put into melodies and harmonies? Also, how would sound behave when frozen? I made several rough tests quite early on, testing so-called “still sound waves” using granular engines in many applications, plugins and hardware. I had this feeling that when “frozen”, sound waves would stop mid-air, and could be “heard” only by walking through them. I could approach the situation by using two instruments I made myself, the other running in Symbolic Sound Kyma, the other in Native Instruments Reaktor – I was able to “bow” the sound forward and backward with a modulation wheel, and it worked really smoothly. For a while it looked possible to use such an effect real-time inside the game, but it felt slightly gimmick-y and too tricky to implement. However, when I changed the used soundfile into an orchestral or pad instrument raw waveforms, the “bowing instrument” was brought to life. I used that instrument (which I named Shepherd Rissel’s Cloudmaker due to an infinitely moving filter effect I added to it) in each cue I made, using feedbacking as raw sound, for instance.

But that was just one corner of the problematic square, tackling the obvious time-related issues. However, the thematic issues quickly became much more important. The game would be almost entirely made up of industrial/urban area exploration, so the raw sounds had to be created in a certain way. And since there was going to be a huge amount of action, I had to rethink some aspects. Which is when I started considering whether the story told by the soundtrack should be slightly different from the “usual” action sci-fi games. In the end, the soundtrack was created to accompany the characters’ changes throughout the events, but during the gameplay, I was keen on concentrating on the sci-fi side, which I was able to draw from the stems I had bounced from the main pieces.

Of course, one obstacle was the long development time. Lots of changes were made to the music during the four years. The script and story were modified, some character aspects were honed and polished, and sometimes the changes affected my music writing. Let’s say a character was changed, the actor, that is. The previous one walked his hip first, whereas the new actor used his shoulders. Their height was different, and that affected their walking speed as well as the step length. All that affected how music interpreted them. It was important to “write” the appearance into music, to really feel Jack and Beth that way.

Your credits say that you also worked as a sound designer for Quantum Break. What was your role as a sound designer? Did sound design influence music?

Yes, it did. Also, some raw material for my library (from which I created the instruments and sample sets with which I composed the music) came from Remedy’s audio team; they had a brilliant, very thorough set of metal and glass smashes, for example, which I employed with great joy. Heck, they even ruined about a dozen or so cars at some car wreck site outside Helsinki. I think there’s a video clip of it somewhere. It looked so cool, the dudes I know standing there with their expensive equipment, and BOOM, a car lands in front of them – and nobody blinks an eye. Coolness factor: infinite.

The sound design which I created for Quantum Break included some really abstract process elements, glass and metal effects for instance. But since the amount of raw sound design data in Quantum Break is simply gigantic, there’s a lot of that stuff happening, and only the audio team knows what they used. I also made some concrete assets, too, sometimes quite literally: concrete smashing and breaking, by crushing sugar cubes in my hand, recording it at 192 kHz, slowing down and so forth, but again, there are so many assets in the game. Since my main job was, from the beginning, to compose music for Quantum Break, I stayed in that field gladly. There was enough work in that alone, especially since I’m used to working alone. No engineers, no assistants, no ghost writers. At some point, I lost my voice by trying to vocalize a time monster creature. It was interesting, especially as I had a meeting later that day, and my vocal cords were literally bleeding!

Did you write a specific score for the main protagonist Jack and how did the score introduce the character?

Well, all the characters have themes. What is perceived as Jack’s theme can be heard in the beginning, when Jack’s in the cab, casually sitting in the back, and the percussive keyboard-like theme keeps tinkling nicely right until the demonstrator scene. That’s something that is almost omnipresent and could be mixed in pretty much with everything else. I loved to mix it with Beth’s theme (which, interestingly, is the one that also ends the game, and one of the first themes I wrote for this project back in May 2011) which blends in with Paul’s/Serene’s ominously feedbacking, slowed-down guitars.

I also composed a theme for the Time Machine – it being The Invention in my opinion, and that theme also connects to Paul as well…and Will’s Time Machine too. They all appear every now and then, and they’re all modular – all stackable, that is. It was very rewarding to be able to mix the pieces and still be able to find something new from each of them. Everybody seems to have fallen in love with Beth, and her determined, destiny-fulfilling character is probably the most touching in the game. For me, Quantum Break is about personal changes, and Beth was probably the character that changed the least. Paul turned into his monster self, Serene, and Jack became a turbulent force for a while, but settled back into his former self towards the latter scenes. But since Beth had no change as such, it didn’t mean she’d be the silent one. Pretty far from it. On the soundtrack, tracks 9 to 12 (“You See Me In My Dreams” to “Goodbye…Again”) are actually her story. A Beth suite, so to speak.

You have also worked on the Alan Wake series. What do you think was the main difference in your creative process between Alan Wake and Quantum Break?

Probably the most important was to omit the orchestra. I was able to bring in some of my old recordings I’d done throughout the years and some other libraries (Symphobia, LASS, V8P, Spitfire and 8Dio stuff mainly) but they only provided the lush colour in the background, in addition to my analogue synth collection. Also, none of the piano sounds in the Quantum Break are “clean”: there’s a huge amount of saturation and effects on them, reversed delays, reversed everything…also, many sounds were slowed down in Quantum Break whereas most things were in their original pitch in Alan Wake. The slo-down created a certain slow motion, dream-like shroud over everything, and made everything more solemn, yet stern and almost unforgiving, and especially with Beth’s themes the feeling caused by slo-mo, the “bending, not breaking” felt very appropriate, suddenly.

The creative process itself and its pacing, however, didn’t change. Both projects had a similar phasing, and since their development times were almost identical, my pacing was surprisingly familiar! Lots of themes created in the beginning and the end, concentrating on sound/instrumentation issues in the middle. That same approach seems to apply to all my past pop projects as well.

This one is for the gearheads. What tools and technology are you currently using and why?

Oh damn. Heh! Well, to start with, I’ve got three Macs, two Mac Pros (the trashcan shape models) with “as much RAM as can be”, both have 1TB flash drives. Also, my laptop, a MacBook Pro is connected to the system. Their resources are shared via lightpipes and ethernet, using Vienna software. Two 4k displays, three Apple thunderbolt displays, three 20TB thunderbolt RAIDs for keeping the main data on, “quite a few” network drives off premises, safe from whatever should ever happen to this building. Lots of analogue synths: Oberheim Matrix-12, Oberheim Xpander, Dave Smith Prophet-12, Prophet-6 and until recently, I had Mopho, too. Tempest was employed for the score, as well. Arp Odyssey, Korg MS-20, MiniMoog Voyager, Moog Sub37, Access Virus TI, Studio Electronics SE-1 and Omega-8, Roland V-Synth XT and GT, Roland System-1 and System-1m, Roland TR-8, Roland JD-990, a heck-of-a-load-of modular synth, eurorack, that is. Nord G2x, Haken Audio Continuum, Symbolic Sound Kyma (with Paca hardware). And my trusty old Yamaha Electone organ, a three-manual D-85, which played a crucial role in the arpeggios and some occasional string machine washes. I loved to triple-and quadruple-track it. What else? A Yamaha DX-7, the Centennial model, with golden buttons. Macbeth M5, too. I also used John Bowen Solaris for one track, but it was a challenge to interface with Macs through USB – when I used it, the computer keyboard ceased to function. So I sold it. A most surprising and pleasant addition to my setup was a Roland Boutique JP-08. It’s in “Goodbye…Again” and several other tracks. I made some last-minute overdubs about an hour before mastering.

Oh, and lots of plugins, among them a Hartmann Neuron VS, which I used through Plogue Bidule. U-He (Zebra, Zebra HZ, Diva, Hive, ACE, Bazille), NI everything (but mainly Reaktor and Kontakt), Plogue, Madrona Labs Kaivo and Aalto, Arturia’s CS-80 and Matrix plugins (the latter actually replaced my Matrix-12 and Xpander), Camel Audio/Apple Alchemy, Glitchmachines effects and plugins, Izotope-pretty-much-all-there-is, but especially their Iris2 was a breeze to use (now, if they only did a few structure changes)…I replaced simpler plugins with analogue synths but since I’ve compiled quite a vast library for the plugins, I kept those that I felt were crucial. So, although I had a bit of a dogma vibe there, I wasn’t stubborn. Usually Logic’s internal stuff had to go, but I kept the Alchemy and the occasional Sculpture. All the analog synths go in through either a Neve pre-amp set or a Neve analogue summing mixer. If synths use EQs, they’re Universal Audio’s Neve EQs or DMGAudio stuff. DMGAudio’s compressors and EQs…hot damn, they’re good.

Plugin-wise, as regards effects, I was shocked a few weeks ago. I usually keep a book on what I use, since I’ve got this “you need to change your ways every now and then” dogma, switching from right-handed to left-handed and so on, but I also sometimes leave a plugin or a set of plugins away for a while – and try to get the same sound otherwise. It keeps me fresh that way. Anyway, the amount of Zynaptiq PitchMap in Quantum Break was a huge number, but it was everywhere, and I used it as an instrument, too. It found its way to effect sends, pitching the reverb tails according to notes I held down, etc. Their Morph was used here and there a lot as well. Michael Norris plugins, SampleSumo, SineVibes (brilliant cheap little plugins that do miracles), ValhallaDSP’s everything, Soundtoys, Illformed, DMGAudio, Eventide, Audio Damage, Cableguys…

Monitoring is being done with four sets, three Genelecs (G One, G Two 5.1, 8260A) and one Amphion. The Amphion set is by far the easiest to get a balance right. I don’t feel they’re precise enough to carve the sound into what I want it to be, but using them for balance build-up and final insert chain effect, check…they’re perfect. The larger two Mac setup has two Universal Audio Apollos chained, the smaller one has one Apollo – and both sets are connected. The analogue-digital world certainly creates some challenges, but since I got this space up and running, I’ve been very, very happy with the results.
However, having dropped that amount of gear, I’d say my favorites are my Prophet-6, Roland V-Synth XT, my laptop and little Genelecs. Leave me on an island with those and I’ll never return. I don’t need much to do about 70-80% ready material, so I call that my portable office.

What was one most memorable moment for you while scoring games?

This is easy: hearing Alan Wake’s theme in my head and waiting for it to fade. I never write stuff like that down, I let it mature and boil, and if I remember it after two weeks’ time, it is something worth remembering. The moment I heard those notes made my skin itch, it just felt perfect. Another one was “Welcome to Bright Falls”, the sun in your face, the air, the water’s edge…it’s all there so clearly.

The ones I cherish most at the moment, due to their recent past, are Quantum Break’s “A Whisper” and “Dodging Bullets”, both being very different, but energetic in their own way, the other physically, the other emotionally. Time will tell how they assign themselves into my top list, but I’ve got a feeling they’re going to be relatively high.

Some things just keep you awake at night, and ring in your head every day, and it’s the events and the characters’ destinies that make the melodies, not the melodies as such. I must be somehow synaesthetic in some way, as I see colours and shapes, and some storylines appear as a series of drawn arcs, in different shapes and colours. One could say I’m interpreting a series of coloured shapes with my music, if that makes sense.

When you are feeling creatively blocked, what do you do to get back in the creative flow?

I run, I walk, I cycle…rent a fast car and drive a few rounds on a race circuit or in a safe surrounding. Or practice yoga, make food or a cup of coffee. Whatever makes me think of something very different, whatever requires my full attention. Luckily writer’s blocks are rare for me, and sometimes just by continuing doing what you’re doing opens them up the best way. You have to let the mediocre ideas out to make room for the good ones.

What are you working on right now and can you tell us more about that project?

A concert, which, this morning, was sold out in 15 minutes after the tickets went on sale. It’ll be held in Helsinki Music House on August 26th, and I’ll be on a grand piano, playing reinterpreted trance classics (I have a clubbing background, so it’s natural for me) with the Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra during the Helsinki Festive Week – that’s very important to me, and it’ll take up most of my attention this summer, at least partially. In addition to that, I’ve got an album in the making, consisting of new tracks plus some that were left over from Quantum Break…or rather, no leftovers, but left-outs, due to manuscript changes, plot changes etc. I’ve set no deadline to complete it, but I’m hoping it’ll have syncable material for games or TV or movies – you know my style, so I cannot escape my true nature, heh. But I’ll be concentrating on the more vibrant and beat-driven side of my writing. I’ve got a concept theme for it – long live the concept albums, but I’ll keep it under the lid until it’s ready.

Any hints, tips or motivational speeches for the readers?

One good one, at least: NEVER give up. Never. If anyone is able to hum your tune after one or two listens, there’s hope. If you manage to leave a memory print, even better, but that sometimes requires some luck and the right atmosphere. If you do demos, don’t do demos, finish them. There’s no use for “I did this for some game, I dunno, but there’s no strings and the drums are not live and…” No. Don’t. Only deliver finished songs, give out only ready-made material. The listeners’ imagination isn’t going to think like yours, so he or she is not able to hear what you imagine. Create a sound of your own, create your own sounds, try to stay away from presets and libraries, or if you use them, make sure they’re not the main focus and attention-catcher. Instead, make sure your tune is what counts. If I sound like a preacher, trust me: I’ve committed all the aforementioned mistakes. But trust me in this too: there’s always hope. NEVER give up.