Interview with Panu Aaltio - Apache: Air Assault soundtrack composer
Not every game receives live symphonic soundtrack. Not every live soundtrack recorded in Seattle by well-known Northwest Sinfonia whose works (World of Warcraft, Dragon Age: Origins, Halo, Gears of War, Medal of Honor) are known to every gamer. And not every helicopter game receives such kind of soundtrack.
We thought you might interested in how this happened with Apache: Air Assault so, take a seat and fasten your seat belt!
Hello! I'm Panu Aaltio, I was born in 1982 in Nurmijärvi in Finland. I compose music for film and video games. I grew up basically glued to a computer ever since I got my granddad's old VIC-20 when I was four years old. Fortunately these days I’ve picked up going to the gym as well, since my back wasn't doing too good from all the sitting!
When did you decide to compose music? What urge you to become a composer?
The first time I tried to compose something was when I was around six. My parents had bought an Amiga 2000 and it had a notation program called Deluxe Music on it. I think the end result of my first composition experiment with that was a pretty random mess, but there was something quite hypnotic about moving notes around and listening to it play. So I started looking more into different programs for doing it. When I later got into programs like Scream Tracker 3 and Impulse Tracker on the PC, that's when I was making stuff daily.
I also had done a fair amount of programming (x86 ASM, C, Pascal), and in high school I was pretty sure I would go for a computer sciences degree. But I realized what I really had enjoyed all along much more was the composing, so I dropped all that and focused entirely on music. In hindsight it was an absolutely crazy move to abandon a pretty sure way into a monthly salary and go for a career with as little guarantees as music! Haven't regretted a minute of it though.
What was the first musical experience you remember?
My mother is a pianist, so there was always a piano in the house. When very young I would of course annoy everybody by going and banging on the keys. Not sure that counts as a very musical experience, but I think I tried to claim I was playing music, so maybe that is the first. The first actual tune that I tried to play on it later was the theme for MacGyver. It didn’t come out very right at all.
«The specific reference for the main theme was to make it a big orchestral thing like Pirates of the Caribbean or The Rock, the latter of which was one of the reasons I got into film music because it made such an impression on me back then»
Do you have musical education? What instruments do you have in your collection?
I started playing the cello in the local music school when I was five. I was a pretty lazy student though, leaving practicing to the last minute. Later on when I was composing, I’d do that all week instead of playing. The music school curriculum included music theory as well, but it never really connected with my own composing at all.
However, when I got into Sibelius Academy in 2001, I started taking voice leading, counterpoint and orchestration lessons and suddenly it started to really click for me. These were things that you could really use to build your musical toolkit and make your music sound better, it wasn't just a bunch of boring rules and labels.
Finally I went to University of Southern California in 2005 to study film scoring. That was great for among other things being able to work with real orchestras, since we were able to record our work, and for some of us like me it was the first time doing that.
Still playing the cello occasionally, but I tend to play the piano more, since I use it as a compositional tool to flesh out ideas.
Tell us about your studio hard ‘n soft.
Due to having to travel, I've been trying to keep my rig centered around my laptop, which is a MacBook Pro with an RME interface and Genelec monitors. I don't want to feel like I'm working on a laptop, so I'll just have it shoved somewhere behind the desk and connected to an external screen, keyboard and mouse. But it's great to be able to just pick it up and work on the go if I need to.
I'll have other computers in the studio as well to play more samples, which are Windows PCs connected via Ethernet and using Vienna Ensemble Pro for plugin hosting.
The sequencing I'm doing in Cubase, the scores for orchestral recordings in Sibelius. I'll also use Pro Tools for setting up templates for the orchestral sessions, and editing the recordings, because all the recording studios handle their sessions in that format.
How were you able to get into gaming industry?
I wish I had a good answer for that! The same way it happens with all my projects is that someone hears something I did and decides to ask me to work on something new. I'm terrible at self promotion, so it can't be that...
Now, let’s take a closer look to Apache. What kind of music did you need to compose?
Besides the main theme we needed to have suspense and action tracks divided by the geographic regions of the game, Middle East, Africa and South America. The idea was to make the regions feel different, but not force ethnic elements to them. The score should feel cohesive, and just have a touch of a distinct sound for each region.
Stylistically we were going for an aggressive and high energy feel for the majority of the tracks, although with a subtle suspense for each region as well. Finally there’s specific chase music I did for the end of the game, which ramps up the pace even more.
How were you interacting with Gaijin Sound’s Pavel Stebakov?
We were able to work over the Internet, with Pavel sending me comments and links to reference materials and me sending MP3s of ideas I had back. Very simple, but worked great.
Did you have creative freedom?
Absolutely. Although of course, as always, the subject matter and the genre of the game place some limits to where you can go stylistically. But within those limits, I had a lot fun trying out different things with both the orchestral and electronic sides of it.
What materials (video, art, alpha version) did you receive when works on Apache: Air Assault started?
At first I was just working based on a rough plot description and early screenshots, and then later on there was some video as well, so I could could test the music a little with a moving picture. But mostly it was the conceptual materials.
How much time were you given to write Apache soundtrack?
We started working on the soundtrack in March 2010 and the recording sessions were in May and June. After that it was just some mixing and delivering the final versions in mid-July.
Where did you brought inspirations? What references were you given?
My inspirations are sort of both from the old C-64 and Amiga soundtracks that I love, as well as modern Hollywood films. So while the music production techniques are what one would use in film scoring, I try to also bring to my own work something of the atmopshere and thematic clarity that made those old game scores so special for me.
The specific reference for the main theme was to make it a big orchestral thing like Pirates of the Caribbean or The Rock, the latter of which was one of the reasons I got into film music because it made such an impression on me back then. So it was a pretty fun reference to have. For the in-game tracks we had references more on the electronic side, like Juno Reactor's music from Animatrix. In terms of electronic music, I listen to drum 'n bass a lot, and really like the production styles from artists like Noisia, Apex or Spor. So for electronic sounds I'll often go for something reminiscent of that type of dark DnB, because it's a natural match for me.
What instruments, samples and soft did you use to compose this soundtrack?
The orchestral samples are mostly Symphobia and Vienna Instruments, and the percussion True Strike and Stylus RMX. The synth material is Massive and Absynth. I write everything in Cubase, and when I need a score for the orchestra, I'll clean up the MIDI so it looks good in Cubase's score view first, then export in MusicXML to Sibelius. In Sibelius I’ll add articulations and stuff like that, and make sure the score and parts look professional for the musicians.
We know soundtrack was recorded live in Seattle. What instruments did you record? Who were in charge of orchestration?
We recorded brass and strings in separate sessions. I think we had 8 horns, 3 trumpets and 4 trombones, as well as 25 strings. While the brass section is a nice size, the strings are pretty small for this kind of music, so I support them with the samples. I do all my own orchestrations as long as the schedule allows it, and so was the case here. For me it's a very integral part of the composition process.
What did you feel when you pushed play button and listen to live version of soundtrack? How much the difference between sampled and live versions of your tracks?
It's a huge difference, and even after many sessions it still manages to surprise me how amazing the musicians make it. If we ignore just how much more pleasing a real orchestra is to the ear in itself, then there's still how much energy and emotion the real players bring to it. Samples have come a long way, but I'll always try to have at least some real players to give that emotion, depth and grit to the music that you'll probably never get with synths.
What is duration of soundtrack?
It's a little over 40 minutes of music.
Do you plan to release it commercially?
This would have to come from Activision, since they have exclusive rights. Unfortunately I’m unable to do anything about it myself.
Some general questions to the end :)
What recently heard music/groups influenced you most? What are your favorite groups?
If I think of favorite groups, I'll probably go back to the 90s and all the stuff I used to listen to then, like The Prodigy, Chemical Brothers, Crystal Method, Propellerheads, Nine Inch Nails and so on. This was really before I even put much thought into orchestral stuff. Listening to Hans Zimmer was probably the first thing that got me into orchestral music, and of course he's kind of there in the crossroads between those two genres. Still like his music a lot.
Then when I really got into orchestral music, there's of course lots of greats both in classical music and in film scoring that I could name, but in the latter Jerry Goldsmith really stands out to me, because his use of the orchestra was just amazingly innovative.
What movie makes you cry?
Honestly, the first thing that comes to mind is Up. I'm not sure I'll dare to watch another Pixar movie in a public place. And of course Michael Giacchino's amazing score seals the deal.
Can you name yourself a gamer? If yes, what games did you play recently?
Oh absolutely. I still play games a lot. I think most recently I had clocked around 60h of Bad Company 2 online when I had to lay it off for a while due to my projects. I've had Civilization V waiting in the shrink wrap, because had I opened it, the next thing I'd known it's 4am a week later with “one more turn” and I'm really screwed with my deadlines. But now of course with Apache out, I'll be finishing the campaign and then being online in that! Can’t wait to jump to it during the holidays.
What are your next projects (if you are not chained with NDA of course :)
I just finished a score for a film called Hella W, which is a drama and a political thriller. We recorded that one in London. My next project after that is also a film score and a thriller, with some horror elements. Other than that, can't say for sure, these things keep changing all the time.
And, last but not least, say something to our beloved readers and your kind listeners :) Brutal red-nosed bears with pure 100% vodka in one hand and AK-47 in another among them :)
Decide early on which of the two you’re going to use first! Thanks everyone for reading. Hope you like the game, and the music as well!
Thanks for your time!
Thanks for having me.