Sound Byte: Meet the Composer - Ari Pulkkinen
We talk extensively with the Finnish composer on the music of Angry Birds, Outland, and Trine 2.
Update: We've corrected Ari Pulkkinen's name in the article. We humbly apologize for this error.
If you've played the mobile phenomenon known as Angry Birds, chances are you've had the game's main music theme stuck in your head once or twice before. You can thank Finnish composer Ari Pulkkinen for that. In addition to his contribution to Angry Birds, Pulkkinen has composed pieces for heavier gaming fares, specifically 2011's platform titles Outland and Trine 2.
GameSpot got to interview the eclectic composer.
GameSpot: How and when did you get started in the music-making business?
Ari Pulkkinen: I've made a lot of music tracks just as a hobby using tracker software since I was a kid. Back in 1999, my friend was doing a freeware PC game and he needed music and sounds. I instantly volunteered.
When my music got really great feedback from players, I decided that I could pursue this further. A couple of years later, I was hired as an in-house audio director for a game company called Frozenbyte Inc.
I worked there for over five years. After that, I started my own company: AriTunes. Now I have been doing this professionally over eight years. I never dreamed of being a professional composer, but I did have aspirations about composing something really great and memorable outside of gaming. Somehow I always knew I would be involved in video games; even though the Angry Birds theme is a successful and popular tune, I am certain that it will not be the last.
GS: Who are your main influences when you compose music?
AP: I have dozens. I listen to, as well as make, almost every genre and style; I am truly a cross-genre fan. My favorite tunes come from movie soundtracks and game music from the era when I had time to play more often--Monkey Island, the original Fallout games, Turrican 2, and the Warcraft and Diablo series. Currently, I've enjoyed Shatter and Skyrim's soundtracks. I do have many favorite movie music soundtracks, but there are too many to list here. I also have a very extensive catalog of music that I've been building up: blues, jazz, rock, electronic…you name it.
GS: One of your memorable tracks is the main theme for Angry Birds. How long did it take you to create something this catchy?
AP: It was clear from the beginning that Angry Birds needed something silly but memorable. I thought that it would be great to have a song that reminded players of birds singing combined with a crappy trainee band. The "Tidi-did-di, tidi-did-di" bit was the first part I composed (and nowadays the most recognizable one), and it took about four days to complete the whole song.
Artistically, I think the most important thing was creating the song while in my summer cabin, relaxed and free of stress. You really can't take compositions like this too seriously.
GS: How did the main theme come to be? Did you draw inspiration from theme songs of old European cartoons or Western ones?
AP: The theme has some Eastern European influences. I did not research the style before I composed it; this theme just happened to come to my mind when I was thinking how silly the birds are. If I were to draw comparisons, I think the closest would be old European or even Russian cartoons. I've now done eight variations of the Angry Birds theme for Angry Birds: Seasons and Angry Birds: Rio. That is proof on how long the Angry Birds theme can last.
GS: Let's talk about your more recent compositions, starting with Outland. How did developer Housemarque approach you for the project?
AP: Outland was a very inspiring game for me to design music for. The aesthetics are unique, like an ancient spirit dreamworld. The goal was to capture the same feelings from the visuals and story, as well as capture the essence of the ancient struggle between good and evil. We wanted Outland to have a very distinct and unique soundtrack.
GS: What was the thought process behind creating music for that title?
AP: I searched quite a lot of references for this one; I wanted to find the right feelings for the setting. The closest examples were from Apocalypto, The Passion of the Christ and Planescape: Torment. After I had established that feeling on how Outland would sound, I started the composition process. I needed to find lots of fitting ethnic instruments and sounds to make interesting melodies for it.
GS: What kind of tribal instruments do you use for Outland's OST? Which style of tribal music did you draw influence from?
AP: I use a lot of tribal percussion, flutes, and rare instruments--think Apocalypto and the Mayan atmosphere--but also a bit of Middle Eastern sounds. I didn't want it to sound too tribal or too Mayan since Outland was based on a nonspecified dreamworld. I also brought synthetic ambient sound to the mix. It's a combination of tribal and ambient styles, but it also has more epic melody that is heard in the main theme, the boss battle themes, and final level themes.
GS: Which track took the longest to create?
AP: It has to be "Trail of Tears" that is played in the final level. It is over seven minutes long and it has many different parts. I wanted the final level to have this "the world is going to end soon" feeling on it, and this composition almost tells a story about it without words.
Incidentally, "Trail of Tears" is also my favorite. It has echoes from the main theme and the boss theme, and it certainly brings the essence of Outland to the listener's mind. It's also a very long track and nice to listen to out of context. Other tracks that took a while to create include "End of All Things" (boss theme) and the main theme.
GS: What elements of the first game's music did you bring back for the sequel?
AP: The first Trine's music design was a softer and tender high-end fantasy theme. I wanted to keep the melodies fun and lively, but because we now had goblins and more war-oriented atmosphere, I wanted Trine 2's music to be a bit more massive and percussion heavy. I also brought a couple of original tracks back for Trine 2 because I liked to make new versions out of the compositions.
GS: What are the main instruments used in Trine 2's music?
AP: Main instruments include flutes, clarinet, piccolo, pizzicato strings, a string section, and also some more rare ethnic instruments. This time I also used singing voices, which brought [a] very nice touch to it.
GS: What are the major differences between the OSTs of Trine 1 and Trine 2, if any?
AP: Trine is lighter and softer, while Trine 2 is heavier and darker in tone (but not too much). The key difference is that Trine 2 has lots of percussions. Trine 2 has much higher production values as well; we even made a few full orchestral versions of the main theme and epic boss battle!
GS: Which tunes were the most fun to compose and why?
AP: For Trine 2, the most fun compositions were the main theme, "Waltz of the Temple Forest Elves" and "Searock Castle." They are very melodic and memorable themes, and I've had much joy just playing those. For some composers, there are songs that you can just play endlessly; I sometimes figure out how I could play some of Trine 2's compositions differently. They fit to the world perfectly too; I really like the levels where they are played.
GS: With works like the OST to Super Stardust HD and Angry Birds, you seem to handle dealing with multiple song styles. Among all the games you've worked on, which OST was the most taxing for you?
AP: I think the most difficult project for me was Dead Nation's OST. The game's music is very dark and grim, and the world is without joy. The style is very demanding if you're composing it for a long time; it's filled with pure chaos, anger, and sorrow.
I also used a very advanced interactive playing system for it, as it changes tension levels for a track dynamically. It worked out really great in the end, but I was relieved when I changed projects to compose Trine 2!
GS: What future projects will you be working on in 2012? Care to share with us what's in store on your side?
AP: I'm working on a game called Splot, the Trine 2 DLC, and [a] couple of other smaller things. I'll be working on big stuff also, but I cannot reveal anything at this time. I will, however, start making my own music this year, too.
One of the reasons I make my own music is there have been cases where my music is not published or released as a separate soundtrack after a game is released. I really like to have my music out there for fans to listen to--not just lying there on shelves!
You can check out more of his music on his site AriTunes.com. Outland's music was also showcased on Sound Byte's 2011 Year in Review feature video. For more updates, check out Sound Byte's Twitter feed (@gs_soundbyte).