Composer Profile: Petri Alanko | Finland's Finest

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Petri Alanko: “If one could have been inside my head, it would''ve been a very busy Michael Stearns-ish time-lapse moment from the Chronos IMAX film.”

Sometimes, it''s not a bad thing when you get a song stuck in your head. For composers—and any artist, really—the project starts with a few notes strung together that form inside your brain until a more cohesive structure appears. At age 12, Finnish composer Petri Alanko began such noodlings, letting the tenets of his music flow from brain to fingers on a piano. “I had a great piano teacher back then,” he says. “I guess he sort of realized I was more into creating than interpreting others'' stuff.” One thing led to another, and soon Alanko was filling table drawers with score sheets and, later, 3.5-inch diskettes and hard disks. “I''ve got this habit of not writing everything down at first sight or hearing; I like to wait a week or two, and if I still remember the basic motif of a melody, I''ll start considering whether there''s something to it.”

Alanko''s attack to composing is also mirrored in another interest: club and dance music.

Does remixing mold how you attack composing projects?
I can easily put an existing song into a new dress, so to speak. Sometimes the origin of a song is so clear and dependent on certain tracks only that they transform into new pieces. It''s not just adding beats to a melody or changing instruments. Sometimes, it''s a question of revamping the harmonic structure and taking down everything that was keeping the original track together.

Alanko recently finished the original score to the highly anticipated Alan Wake videogame.

What are you mixing on?
I haven''t used a mixing console since 2000; I sold my three Yamaha 02Rs and two 03Ds and acquired an [Avid] Pro Tools HD3 setup. I love mixing in the box. The idea of connecting everything to your interfaces appealed to me. Shortly afterward, I sold the [Pro Tools] system and bought the MOTU 2408mk3 x2 + 24 I/O system. I''ve just upgraded the PCI connection card when I upgraded from Power Macintosh to Intel-based Macs.

I''ve been a Logic user since days of Notator Logic on an Atari. I do have licenses for [Steinberg] Cubase and [MOTU] Digital Performer somewhere, but haven''t updated them since I don''t know when. I''m also a fan of Ableton; their latest 8.1.4 [version] has been rock-solid and virtually indestructible. For certain types of tracks, it''s the only tool that can be used. The idea of separating time from pitch and vice versa was revolutionary back when it came out, and they still don''t have competition.

What is it about mixing in the box that helps you do your work?
It has to be configurable, fast, and transparent to use, and shouldn''t bother your workflow. Unfortunately, the updating process is sometimes very time-consuming and even uncomfortable. Bugs restrict your creative flow, which is unforgivable. More important than the software or tool is how your skills are honed and what you keep on your hard drives and how the data is cataloged. One can have every sound library imaginable, but if you don''t have a clue what''s where and how the libraries sound, there''s no point in using them.

Are you using any outboard?
I''ve got plenty of plug-ins, but slightly less outboard: a [Focusrite] Liquid Channel and some hardware synths. I think it''s pretty basic except for my [Symbolic Sound] Pacarana/Kyma system and the analog modular synth in a Eurorack monster frame. Moog Voyager; Oberheim Matrix-12; Oberheim Xpander; Sequential Pro One; Roland SH-101, JD-990, V-Synth XT, JP-8000; Open Labs MiKo LXD; Nord Modular G2X; Access Virus TI; Korg DSS-1; several stomp boxes.

NI Reaktor is an incredible product. I''m also using Audio Damage plug-ins. I have a Universal Audio UAD-2 with lots of plug-ins: Their SSL and Neve stuff is just incredibly good-sounding.

I''ve got about 20 sample libraries from Tonehammer. ProjectSam Symphobia is a nice wakeup-call library when you need one. Fabfilter, Arturia, PianoTeq3, as well as [Synthogy] Ivory. Hollow Sun''s Novachord library—I wish I''d gotten my hands on it a bit earlier. It was simply an amazing time-travel to the ''30s and ''40s, an instant eerie halo all over the strings. My string library nowadays is Audiobro''s LA Scoring Strings. Their update to 1.5 with real-time division sections is way beyond my words.

You recently finished up the score for the Alan Wake videogame (Xbox 360).
If one could have been inside my head, it would''ve been a very busy Michael Stearns-ish time-lapse moment from the Chronos IMAX film. I focus on what''s happening onscreen: the surroundings, the weather, time of day (or night), people involved, movement, gestures. I try to inject myself into the space and moment, and understand why the character is doing what he or she is doing.

The first video clip I saw just had a landscape and a flying camera all over it—an autumn afternoon. The camera flew over until it settled right next to Mr. Wake standing next to his SUV, facing Bright Falls. “An SUV in a back-forest town like this? Wake has clothes like that? Why is he looking at the town? Why hasn''t he driven into town?” I saw the clip several times, and every time a suspicious melody based on my astonishment grew stronger and stronger—and every time the camera settled next to Wake, I heard a conclusion for a flying theme in my mind: the eight notes, later known as Alan Wake Notes, something strange will happen and will leave everything unconcluded. It had to start low, with an elastic yet realistic instrument: a cello. The camera takes off. Hmm, a leap upward. A minor sixth? Yes.

The key to Alan Wake''s ambient musical environment was layers and coloration. I created a lot of short, early reflection convolutions in my then studio corridor and backyard and processed some white-noise samples with stereo filters of my analog modular, then truncated and enveloped these filtered noise samples and loaded them in [the Apple Logic plug-in] Space Designer in several buses, throwing things through the buses. Turned out the busing and convoluting sped up the ambient track process a great deal, and it sped up even more when I created a special tool for tuned ambiences for Kyma using several methods. Also, putting UAD-2''s LA-2A plug-ins after the Space Designer helped the molding process somewhat.

After the initial idea is put in there, I allow myself to play. I usually grab some Reaktor granular or grain cloud patches I''ve done or play a little with my Kyma or Nord G2X. I''m modeling the orchestration with some simple patches, either made in Kontakt 4 or Spectrasonics Omnisphere. Sometimes these base layers stay there to the very end.

What are you working on now?
Slusnik Luna''s The Sun 2010 is finished and coming out on a major trance label. There was also a remix for which I played some additional keys and mixed; it was a collaboration with one of my favorite co-dudes, Orkidea. He made a remix of Solarstone''s “Touchstone” track and asked me whether I wanted to add a few noises. I''ve got a sound library in the making. I''ve got heaps of very odd stuff recorded at 192/24 and I''ve been pre-processing some of it into a more accessible form.