Article by Sam Hughes
First of all, I really appreciate you taking the time to answer these questions, thanks for joining us!
It’s a pleasure, really. I love chatting, although I can travel sometimes pretty far from the main issue… sorry in advance!
So how did your journey into music composition began?
It’s a classic one, really, and dates back to when I was a young boy. We used to have these trips to the city with my grandmother and sometimes, we’d visit an acquaintance of hers, who happened to have a piano and quite a large vinyl collection. One day, when they were talking in the kitchen and drinking coffee, some collection album of Maria Callas’ arias was playing, and she hit the high notes… and I banged the piano keys, reaching for the note she was singing. I got it, then Madame Callas descended, and I followed, catching the notes. My grandmother’s acquaintance told her to “take me to piano lessons and soon”. So, the technique honing begun there, but the idea of composing was in me maybe even before that. My mother told me about a discussion we once had, when she was cooking. There was a radio on, and I told her “I wanna do that.” “What, music?” “Yes, that.” I have a faint memory of this myself, and I particularly remember that I meant making music. I had no idea how it was made, so in the evening my surprise was even bigger when I realised my father could play a guitar! And from there, little by little, it all started to come together.
My first “compositions” were really poor pop song-ish noodlings, which didn’t see much daylight, really. They were childish in a way that only a 12-year old could make them. But, I was an observant little guy: I noticed most pop songs had a certain “structure”, parts, and so forth so I used my music theory background to interprete and recognize the overall structure and then I tried to copy that with something I had done myself. That led to better results, but… nothing memorable. Then, pop music elements got mangled with some more progressive material – not prog rock as such, but, say, Jean Michel Jarre’s concept albums Oxygène and Équinoxe, Tangerine Dream…and my pop structure went out of the window for a while, only to return when I moved out of my parents’ house and moved to study theoretical physics and musicology – always a deadly combo for employment. I was a bit shocked, and since my funds were low, I went to a music shop and asked whether they’d need a synth guy to sell stuff there. I got the job and was there on studying days, working afternoons, until one day, a guy came in, we talked, shared some views about music and synths in general. It so happened we listened to the same genres and he asked me whether I’d take a job in his studio, doing arrangements and production, maybe songs…Well, did I? I called it quits a mere 20 minutes after his entrance, and later that day I had already transferred all my gear (there was “plenty” to say the least) to his studio. I was doing synth stuff, house, dance pop…and soon after, compositions, too. So there, dedication and a happy accident!
Were there any turning points in your life that launched your career would you say?
Yes, definitely. One of them was moving to Helsinki and meeting two other guys by accident. One of them later became heavily involved with various Finnish gaming companies, but back then they connected me to a certain Tapio Hakanen, DJ Orkidea, with whom I later on co-produced some of his tracks, even did some co-writing as well. That was one part, the other being a connection with the IT and gaming business. Thanks to Finland’s past years as a communication device manufacturer haven and its offsprings, pretty soon I had quite a decent clientele, consisting of multinational record companies, a few hotshot DJs, one very hotshot trance DJ, plus about a dozen or so IT/game companies. Orkidea, who used to work as Sulake Corporations’ (pre-Facebook Habbo Hotel and its sister services) sound designer, brought me there, too, and soon after I was doing a project for Nokia as well.
And, of course, The Event, or should I say The Turning Point of my career was a phone call from Remedy that led to Alan Wake and its soundtrack. They treated me really well, I felt respected, accepted and part of the family right from the start, and I have learned about a million things since my gig with Remedy began. The Remedy University (heh) has now taken 11+ years, and I feel I’ve merely scratched the surface. The more I know, the more I want to know. I know why they do what they do and how they’re able to make that one last push that turns a good product into a great one.
What has been your biggest challenge as a composer up till now?
To survive the time between projects, heh! I know vacations and freetime are important, but I feel so damn useless if I’m not doing something! I know this sounds like the case of a workaholic, but it’s not that. I just need to connect with a project and its people, to do a project. I usually chain my projects so that there are not two long projects intertwining – or overlapping. Some crossfading is very much possible, yes, especially if the projects proceed at different speeds and phases, but I’d never take two composing gigs exactly at the same time. (Nobody should, really. Where’s the exclusivity in that?)
As I’m known to keep to my schedules and budgets (despite being a one-man show), the main challenge is usually the letting go phase of a project. I’ve got two sides, the creative and the quality control, and when the latter kicks in, one can quite surprisingly and profoundly dissect something into a pile of mere molecules, but luckily the two rotate – like Jekyll & Hyde – taking turns and never appear at the same time. But, letting go of your darlings, be that due to script changes or due to finalizing a product, is always cause for an open wound.
Would you say you have a proudest moment so far?
Well, a “so far proudest”, yes. It’s Quantum Break, as the project was HUGE in every aspect. In Finland we only have one company capable of producing AAA games, and it’s Remedy but even in AAA terms, Quantum Break was an enormous machine and entity. Surviving that and delivering in time felt incredibly satisfying, and now that the first reviews of the soundtrack have started to appear and the reception has been great, it feels even better – if that’s possible.
A good #2 is Alan Wake. Its final mixing phase was a tour-de-force, something only Quentin Tarantino would understand. I got run over by a car, in a parking hall, it reversed over me – and the next day I was supposed to be in an orchestral session, the only one we had scheduled. However, since my back was locked and cramping, I had to buy ativan online seek medication and care from a nearby doctor station. The waiting queue was about two-plus hours but lo and behold, I was made it to the session in Leipzig/Halle, albeit a bit heavily medicated. Then the files didn’t arrive quite exactly when I had hoped, and when they did arrive, we only had a stereo stem file to work with. I was expecting I could do my own edits and maybe raise/lower some sections here and there, but no – they were just stereo files. So, Celemony Melodyne to the rescue! DNA algorithm had just arrived, so I used that. I had to mix 55 cinematics in 5 days, ranging from 20 seconds to 5’24”, but eventually I delivered 117 different mixes and stem files since the cinematic director required some additional versions.
Surviving that makes my narrow survival from the Northridge (Los Angeles) earthquake in 1994 look like child’s play. Remember that my back was literally in pieces during the mixdown.
If you could go back in time and give yourself one piece of advice, what would it be?
Never give up, just never, ever give up – and keep on practising the scales. Try learning to conduct properly, and never buy a Kurzweil synth. That’s three, but pretty well put into one sentence.
And if I may add, concerning one’s private life – never try to please someone against your will.
Do you have a regular workflow, at least at a basic level, or do you vary your methods completely with every project?
Well, I’m a bit hesitant to even mention this backstory…but I am ambidextrous. When I was very young, I wrote with both hands and did that until school, when I was told to turn into a rightey, or smudge my palm forever. I switched, but never really forgot that. When I later broke my right hand pinky knuckle (I “intervened” in a family violence event, unknown people to me, but the guy had taken something and the kids were in danger, clearly), I had to rework my way back to using my lefty again, and when the transition happened, something else happened in my brain. Later, after the cast was taken off, I tested myself again and I noticed I was sharper, much more alert and somehow thinking more clearly – this happened each time I switched the mouse from right to left – or back. So, I started researching that a bit, and noticed that if I changed something important in my workflow on a bi-yearly basis (approximately), my brain never goes into a lazy comfort zone. If I deny myself the usage of, say, Logic ES-2 synth or Omnisphere, how am I able to reach the same results with others? Or, if I don’t use Prophet-6, how am I able to recreate the lush poly-mod roar it creates? That’s very revealing and at the same time very liberating, as I’m not really tied to gear or code, it’s about thinking and ideas, not products. And, another plus, I force myself to really use gear, not just own it.
Now Quantum Break is a very unique title, how did it differ to working on this project compared to others such as Alan Wake?
The scope in Quantum Break was huge compared to the already-larger-than-life Alan Wake. Also, since Alan Wake was mainly about one’s inner ghosts and events partially happening in your imagination, Quantum Break took its hell and made it visible to everyone, so nobody was safe. The bad events touched everyone everywhere, and thus the scale of emotions had to be somewhat more profound, too.
Since we decided that orchestra would be a no-no this time (to take a departure from Alan Wake), I considered for a while how I would be able to achieve the same “weight” and “air” with my music that we had achieved with Alan Wake. The orchestra’s role is now conceived with analogue synths, of which I happen to have quite a nice collection. I haven’t kept each synth I’ve owned, but the ones that have a character – they stay.
Also, Alan Wake was a psycho-thriller, this was action sci-fi, with an emotional side. Whereas Alan Wake was subliminal at times, Quantum Break is in-your-face pretty much all the time, and even the more emotional cinematics are a bit dense. Somehow the two manage to sound like they belong to the same universe, although in different corners – but they could happen in the same universe, in the same dimension. Jack has one extra weight on his shoulders, though: he must quite literally save the whole world as we know it. Wake’s sacrifice was willing and knowingly made, Joyce’s was made by accident – and it seems to take its toll later in the game, towards the end.
With the manipulation of time being involved this must have given you a lot of room to explore creatively, in terms of the music?
I built a few software instruments – or pieces of code – that I used first for testing purposes only. I had an idea where one could walk through frozen soundwaves and hear backwards or forwards, wave after wave, what someone says. However, that proved to be a bit hard to realize throughout the game and even a little gimmicky (one could use it one or two times and that’s it, old news) so I decided to test the Reaktor patch with some of my orchestral samples – and hot damn, how good were the results. I even added a barberpole filter/phaser/modulator to incorporate an amount of infinite movement into an otherwise frozen sound, and the end result is practically everywhere where pads and atmospheric pads were used. I called the instrument “Shepherd Rissel’s Cloudmaker” – it was based on grain cloud synths, bowable back and forth via a modulation wheel or any X/Y/Z axis on my alternate controllers. So, I explored a lot – and sampled a lot of artifacts, lots of tinfoil, glass, metal, empty buckets, crates, trash cans, as well as lots of material from Remedy’s audio crew and so forth. I was in an audio wonderland for about six months when the development cycle started. It was heaven. I love to conceive new sounds and find new ways to process things.
Was there anything particularly interesting that this project enabled you to do overall?
Well, sampling. Building a huge library of original sounds, raw and processed, for the instrument sets and sample sets I’d use for composing – and using my synth arsenal. Those are processes that schedules rarely allow. If possible, I like to play around a lot, and that involves research and recording. Just in my hardware synths alone there are literally hundreds of sounds I created for Quantum Break. I don’t know if those exact sample sets or synth patches are ever going to be released, but at least they’re feeling fine on my hard disks!
What approach did you decide to go with in terms of processing and instrumentation, and what influenced your decision?
It was clearly analogue first. A lot of material was processed with my modular synths. I’d heard about a dozen soundtracks that were just the same: orchestra oom-pah, battle elephant drums, large choirs, staccato strings…and I kept thinking each time, “there’s not enough music in this, this is just embellishment and decoration”, which led me to think about the essence of storytelling: a plot, a story. There’s nothing without it, except effects – and that’s where most game and movie soundtracks were going, they were just mere sound effects without any true content, there was no “story” in video game or movie soundtracks. And the ones that disappointed me the most were those that really need a musical story.
So, when I had made the decision with the style guideline watchmen at Remedy, I turned to my synth setup and booted up quite a few machines that had just been sitting there for ages, without any real good use for them. I have always been a fan of layers so I started noodling around with different but very simple lightweight pads on top of each other, one from Prophet-5, one from Matrix-12, something from Roland and there was something magical in those layers, it sounded really deep and lush, but not in a “Hello, I’m an analog synth!” way, but more like an orchestra, con sordino. I transferred the signal over to my modular synth, and I put on a rhythmic gate controlling a set of filters and effect modules…and it sounded even better, more real. So, eventually, pretty much everything sounded a bit “dirtier” or “lightly saturated” after my little treatments, but it also meant things weren’t as quick to do as they were with plugins. Now, since I begun my career at a very early age (got my first synth before MIDI had appeared), I’m very, very quick with my gear, but there’s a clear gap in workflow when you have to “bring the sound in” from external gear instead of just playing it in with mere plugins. I did that, too, but for demo/sketch/draft use only. I used to have a small working room at Remedy, where I laid down some demos and did quick edits with my small setup (that I take to clients’ offices if needed), but most of the plugin sound patches were replaced with the synth arsenal.
Having spent my youth listening to synth pop and electronic music has clearly had its effect on my sound taste, I’d say. All the years spent listening to Tangerine Dream, Jarre, Ultravox, Depeche Mode, Nitzer Ebb and later on acid house, industrial music, Nine Inch Nails and so on… let’s just say I can clearly trace my style into two branches: classical music and electronic synth.
Vinyl OST available to pre-order here: http://store.iam8bit.com/products/quantum-break-vinyl-soundtrack
Did you find anything particular challenging with this project?
The amount of data and its survival, heh! I had a really close call some summers back, in the middle of the development cycle, when a thunderstorm got really, really bad, and lightning hit between two houses. One of my neighbours lost all of his electrical gear…there wasn’t even a lamp in his fridge alive after the storm had gone. I had an industrial-grade UPS trying to smoothe the roughest peaks, but it got fried badly, so did my server – as did my backup server in my garage, so for a short while I was in the middle of a data black hole. The only viable data was on my studio computer’s hard drives and RAIDs. That was very scary. Unfortunately, not everything survived that episode, and the remaining two years I came across the same issue every now and then: “We need this and that file, but it should be a minute shorter and stems, please…” “…er…let me check if there’s something like that, which survived…” Luckily there were only a couple of true losses, both of which I could re-do, but that experience was nevertheless really scary. I had yet another backup at Remedy, but I hadn’t been there for two weeks, so their physical backup there wasn’t up-to-date.
And no, cloud backup is not okay. Whoever thinks that’s viable and a usable way has clearly some loose screws. Why? Think of all the compromised photos of celebrities, safe in a cloud, backed up there, behind a password. Or should we reconsider our thinking: now everyone has a backup of their photos, so the security has been increased? That would be a good marketing speech: we’ve externalized our backups! You can have it! And you! And you! Everyone can have it!
Nope. Just…no. Anyway, the other challenge was the length and keeping the road straight, the starting point and the finish line visible at the same time. Sometimes, on a long project, something happens along the way and the project ends up sounding drastically different compared to the beginning. Luckily, this wasn’t our first large project together, so we knew what to do. There were long pauses sometimes and some tracks weren’t heard almost for a year until they resurfaced again but we never had any problems with style issues that way.
What did you hope to capture in the music for Quantam Break?
The persons behind the sinister, unavoidable events, that’s something that’s important to me. It brings them closer, makes them more alive, more real. If you manage to bring something about the character’s past into a cue or a piece, and add a glimpse of his/her future, you’re about to head into the right direction, in my opinion. The trick is to make unbelievable events believable through those who observe the events: the protagonist(s) and their opponents. Now, I don’t believe in absolute evil – nor the absolute good – rather there’s something from both camps in each of us. The same applies to these characters as well. They can be fragile, even brittle, yet they survive through incredible events.
And love. I wanted to write that in there, too. Sadness, for lost friends and loved ones – and although Paul becomes “Serene” through his time machine disappearance, there’s still something human inside, battling against the change, although he’d been succumbed to the monster long ago…but still, there was conflict. Disappointment is in there, too, and so is revenge – and the last one’s the most definitive. Usually people don’t change “just like that”, it requires a profound change, a trauma, a set of unfortunate events until they really manage to alter their direction. Love can be a good outcome of trauma, too, by the way, so it’s not necessarily negative every time.
How did the story of the game influence your decisions?
I knew the upcoming events very early on, there really were no surprises in the manuscript drafts so I could plan to write something already in 2012, when I got the first draft. What influenced me the most in the first place was Jack’s first transformation, from a laidback guy into someone who’d suffered a major shock. He was, after certain events, in a similar state in which I was after my ill-fated trip to LA in January 1994…anyway, all the Jack-related themes until about halfway through the game are more or less open-ended, and the true endings as such appear only when Beth is more prominent in his life. Beth sort of completes his circle, and tracks 9-12 (on the OST album) are sort of “her themes”, with some Jack flavors. In a way, Beth transfers something from her into him, and that felt beautiful when I read the scripts and listened to the writers’ stories. It was like looking into a fire, on a campsite, listening to the elder telling a story.
In what way did the interactivity side of writing for games, and this game in particular, influence your considerations when writing for Quantum Break?
I had to take the playback engine requirements into account very early on. Now, usually cinematic files are pre-directed – not pre-rendered, directed so they have more of a movie-like, linear approach, but the in-game music was more of a challenge to do. Since the action on screen could depend on your (the gamer’s) actions, the changes had to transition very quickly so as not to detach the player from the game, it had to be as immersive as possible. I solved this by bouncing a lot of stem tracks (say, percussion low, percussion high, noise percussion, bass, pads1, pads2 and so forth), and those were edited and put into the playback engine that was complying with the pre-set rules made by the audio integrators. Eventually all that enabled the system so that each time the player transitions from exploration into full action, the change comes in at a natural place.
Of course that meant most of the in-game music had to be harmonically compatible with everything. In the beginning I had a HUGE spreadsheet on my wall with colour coding and everything (I’m very good with charts, heh) to keep me on track with everything, and I used keys that were compatible with some known dissonances. It was almost like some Sherlock Holmes project, “this goes with that..a-ha!”
If you could change anything about your work on Quantum Break what would it be?
I’d use more brass! Heh. This is almost a joke now. Brass isn’t a big favorite amongst the Remedy cinematic directors, but somehow I managed to put in about four times the amount of horns and tubas and trombones I’d normally use…No, but really, I’d use more guitar. Not acoustic, though. I used guitar quite a lot in there, but I still feel some sounds would have benefitted from a more “immediate” touch – not so mechanical between the finger and the string. Also, I could’ve used more drums. I played a huge Kumu kit (a Finnish premium drum manufacturer) in “You See Me In My Dreams” which I borrowed from a friend of mine, and how that track eventually formed into its current state was very much due to the drums and the guitar. You get a huge sound from a drum set with just three mics.
Harmonically and melodically? No, I wouldn’t change a thing there, and the current synth orchestration sounds very fitting to me, I’m happy with the soundtrack that way.
A lot of people want to write music for games, it’s a highly competitive field. Is there anything you would advise for people wanting to succeed in this industry?
Competition is where people are when they do the same thing. Don’t go there. The world is not about copying or redoing, concentrate on finding your own voice, your own world that you decorate. Make sure you create your own sound with the colours you like. If it’s done with enough passion and precision, you’ll be seen and heard, eventually. If you manage to pull together memorable, hummable melodies that bring either smiles on the faces or tears in the eyes, you’re approaching something important. Now, personally, I’m not much of a fan of “Disney’s Bambi On Ice” pieces and arrangements, but I appreciate those who are very good at it and there’s no competition between myself and them. Also, try to hold back a bit. Sometimes a gesture is enough, no need to punch all the time. Be patient. I sound like a self-help manual…heh! And last but not least: don’t stupidly underline, try to remember where the character came from and how and where they evolve in the narrative, otherwise you’ll just be doing musical sound effects.
So a fun question we give all our guests to finish off with. If you could have a drink with anyone, alive or dead, who would it be?
If I could down a bottle of good single malt with Trent Reznor, Alan Wilder and Hans Zimmer and record the result, I’d be happy. I’m easy that way.
Awesome, thanks again Petri it was a pleasure chatting with you!