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3rd February 2024
Markus "Captain" Kaarlonen Returns With Second Behind-The-Scenes Audio Exploration of Alan Wake 2's We Sing

In early January, kicked off 2024 with a post from Poets of the Fall's Producer and Keyboardist, Markus "Captain" Kaarlonen, who explored the editing process of Alan Wake's 2 incredible track, Herald of Darkness. This time he's back with a second part, addressing some of the questions sent in by fans on Instagram and Facebook. 

Along with a new screenshot of the editing process, Captain explores the intractability of the We Sing chapter, and creating "reset pieces" that play as the player moves through the experience to ensure correct pacing. It's a really interesting perspective into how the chapter was structured.

You can check out the Facebook post below! If you're using text-to-speech, we have a friendlier version of the caption for you underneath...

Text-To-Speech-Friendly Caption. 

Old Gods of Asgard - Herald of Darkness (from Alan Wake 2): Behind the Scenes Secrets & Trivia, Part 2!

Diving a little deeper into producing interactive/dynamic songs. [Alert Emoji] [Nerdy Face Emoji] Geek content warning: This might increase your knowledge of how these things work.

Check out Part 1 here:
https://www.facebook.com/markus.kaarlonen/posts/10230838247921003

[Fireworks Emoji] Picture: Assembling the 13 minute album version of Herald of Darkness from pieces. This is also a pretty good visual approximation of how the interactive song plays in the game.

[Arrow Emoji] We recorded the first demos of Herald of Darkness in 2020. At that point it was still more of a "regular" song with a fixed structure, and while it was still very much a demo and missing a lot of material we added later, it already contained many of the now familiar themes. I worked actively on the final production and interactive implementation for about a year and a half. During that time, the gameplay of the musical level was still evolving, and it happened several times that more music was needed in a specific spot in the song. For example, sometimes it took more time than anticipated for the player to get from A to B, and we didn’t want the music to get too repetitive. So it became my regular routine to go to Olli, ask something like "hey, we'd need six new 8-bar guitar solos in A minor?" and he'd go "sure, gimme a minute!". Later that day I would already be adding those solos to the main project. 

[Arrow Emoji] As I mentioned in Part 1, the song consists of about 130 separate pieces. Each of those has three main parts. There’s a (mostly) empty bar in the beginning, which contains anything that happens before the actual downbeat, like risers or cymbal crescendos, or some instruments hitting the first note slightly before the ”perfect” one. Next is the actual music (let’s call it the ”active” part), which is usually 8, 16, or other musically sensible number of bars long. Finally, after the active part ends, there’s a tail section that contains any instruments with a slow decay, reverbs and delays, and sometimes a lead instrument that plays slightly past the end (like the vocal oooh’s after each chorus). Without the tail, the transitions between pieces would sound abrupt and unnatural, so it's important to let everything decay naturally.

[Arrow Emoji] I added several segments that I call "reset pieces" in the song. These would play if the game ends up blasting guitar solos for a long time, while waiting for the player to progress. The reset pieces usually slow down a bit and don't have a clear melody or lead element, and allow the ears to rest for a second. After that, it (hopefully) sounds nice and fresh again to go back to the shredding!

[Arrow Emoji] In the 45 min master project, I left enough room between each piece to allow the reverbs etc. to decay to complete silence before the next piece starts, plus some extra, just in case. To optimize the length of the final audio files, my script that splits the master file into separate pieces also trims away any silence from the end of each piece, so you can thank this little feature for the game taking slightly less space on your hard drive. [Grinning Face Emoji] 

[Arrow Emoji] To make the transitions between pieces as smooth as possible, the game plays each piece to the end of the active part before triggering the next one (or rather it must trigger each piece exactly one bar before the end of the previous one, because of the empty bar in the beginning). However, sometimes we need the music to cut to the next piece quicker, usually when the player decides to move just at the wrong moment, and the music also needs to move on asap. In those cases the game waits for the next "good enough" transition point, which is usually every two bars or so. The piece currently playing then stops with a very short fade out, and an additional drum fill or riser is played on top. This means you don’t hear the natural decay of the first piece, which on its own can sound a bit abrupt, but the additional fill helps masking the cut. Usually it also works and sounds just fine in the context of the game, since a lot is happening anyway (and there's handsome guys on the screens to distract you).

[Arrow Emoji]  Sometimes a small inconspicuous detail can make the transition between two successive pieces sound too obvious and unnatural, and these are pretty hard to spot when listening to the pieces in isolation. During the song production, I often bounced out all the pieces, brought them back to the DAW, and arranged them in various orders (simulating how the interactive playback works in the game). I then listened and tried to catch any less than perfect transitions. I made notes, opened the main project again, and adjusted whatever I thought could make the transition better (like slightly lowering the volume of the first note of a guitar solo or vocal line). I think I managed to make most cuts pretty smooth, but of course part of the charm of the dynamic / semi-random playback is that there can always be transitions you have never heard before...

[Arrow Emoji] Based on my short experience with producing interactive songs, there's three things you'll generally want to avoid, unless you really like extra problems:

1. Key changes: Key changes are cool and interesting and fun. But when a song consists of separate pieces that can play in a different or random order, key changes require some extra planning, or you can end up with strange results. HoD mostly alternates between two keys (A and F minor), which fortunately didn't create any major issues, but there were a couple of tricky key-related situations we needed to solve.

2. Tempo changes and strange/fancy time signatures: Take Control did have a few tempo changes, and it took some effort to make sure the pieces are always triggered correctly in the game, as the audio engine needs to know exactly where we are on the timeline to get the timing right. With Herald of Darkness, we fortunately managed to get away with a single tempo and 4/4 time through the whole song, which made things slightly easier, considering it's already a pretty massive and complex project.

3. Overlapping lead elements: Lead vocals and guitars that start before the downbeat or extend past the end of the active part can be problematic, especially when combined with key changes. You can end up with a note or melody that plays over a completely wrong key/chord, or two overlapping lead elements, which can sound like anything from hilarious to horrific. In Herald of Darkness, we mostly tried to confine all guitar solos and vocals inside the active part of each piece to avoid problems with the dynamic playback.

[Arrow Emoji]  My goal with interactive songs is that no matter how a player plays through the level, the version of the song (s)he hears could very well be the one and only released version. In other words, the song should always have a good and natural flow and arc, and there should never be any strange cuts or obvious repetition/looping or other oddities. Also, especially with "band" songs like Take Control and Herald of Darkness, I don't think the music should do too much Mickey Mousing, meaning it shouldn’t try to work like sound effects and accompany every action on screen in perfect sync. In fact, the player probably shouldn't even pay too much attention to the fact that the song is somehow dynamically following the gameplay, at least not right away. Ideally, only later in the level (or when replaying the game) there would be this realization that the way the music progresses is actually based on the gameplay. Of course in real life, it's next to impossible to make everything work 100% perfectly both in musical sense _and_ as an interactive game soundtrack. Also in HoD, the song and lyrics are tightly connected to what happens on screen, and there are some obvious breaks and false ends in the music on purpose, so the interactive nature is made clear right from the start. But still it's a good goal to have!

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