Interview with Mikko Tarmia (April 2009)
Mikko Tarmia is a composer from Finland. He is best known for composing the Penumbra series of horror games, though has also worked on projects such as DeepTrouble and Rally Shift as well. Furthermore, he recently lead the innovative album project AIKA: A Unique Soundtrack for a Unique Story, which accompanies a short science-fiction story.
In his first interview, Mikko Tarmia discusses more about the inspirations and production of the AIKA. He subsequently recollects his musical influences and tracker days, as well as his thoughts on the game industry as a whole. He also exclusively reveals an incoming Penumbra soundtrack release and finally discusses the next three games he will score, including a working survival horror title.
Interview Subject: Mikko Tarmia
François: Mikko Tarmia, thank you for taking time to talk with us. Last autumn you released your first album titled AIKA. Could you describe it briefly and tell us what were your goals, inspirations, and expectations?
Mikko Tarmia: Thank you as well. Shortly said, AIKA is a soundtrack for a short story. Tom Jubert wrote a custom sci-fi story for the album's booklet and four Finnish media composers (me, Paul Houseman, Michael Law, and Ari Pulkkinen) produced music for each of its scenes. The booklet also includes illustrations by Tuija Fagerlund.
AIKA was also my graduation project, and that partly explains why I did most of its music. I think the concept of creating music for written stories is fascinating. Stories gives composers guidance for creating music for something you can imagine visually and I am one of those composers who get their inspiration from visuals. Another benefit is an almost complete freedom of content although you must think a story as one piece of music, with a structure. This freedom is something you don't have if you make music for movies or video games.
Although certain movies gave us much inspiration for the content of AIKA, the biggest influence for making a soundtrack for a written story was Star Wars: Shadows of the Empire. It's a soundtrack made for a book, with fantastic orchestral music created by Joel McNeely. Another influence was the Merregnon soundtracks, which are quite similar productions to AIKA concept-wise. I don't know if these kinds of productions are popular or if they sell well, but the form of media itself is quite unusual so I knew it wouldn't be like walking in a golden path. Fans of literature and soundtrack music should most enjoy them, but I hope the entire format will open up for the big public so people could consider it as a nice alternative to watching movies, for example. They read books, they listen to music, so why not combine these two!
François: The music is mostly atmospheric and orchestral in style, with a few electronic elements inserted sporadically. Why did you choose this approach?
Mikko Tarmia: We decided to bring electronic instruments in for creating a more futuristic mood for the music; it is a sci-fi story after all. Making an orchestral soundtrack was quite obvious because most of us are orchestra-orientated composers. That doesn't mean we can't do anything else, but this was our approach for the story this time. Even if it's done with samples, the symphonic orchestra gives plenty of expression and colors for music, and with electronic instruments mixed in we have an even wider palette to explore.
François: While you handled the majority of tracks, you invited three other composers to be part of the project. What did influence the decision of not making it a solo album?
Mikko Tarmia: I actually wanted even more collaborators for AIKA, but two composers decided to drop off from the project due to their lack of time. I'm not mentioning any names here, but we had to share their part of the work and it naturally affected the content. I wanted it to be a collaboration project, with music specifically from Finnish media composers. Now as a result we have a more interesting album, with a wider variety of styles.
François: The story was written by Tom Jubert, whom you have worked with on the Penumbra series. What made you want to work with him again? Also, did you have any input in the story?
Mikko Tarmia: The collaboration with Tom was certainly fascinating. I did have a story for the album and I first asked Tom only to polish it, but then he had these wonderful ideas for improving the story and so I let him do it. While I'm not saying the original story was an absolute piece of crap, Tom's output was about a thousand times better and it gave us more inspiration for writing the music. Tom deserves all the credit as the writer for AIKA.
François: How long did it take for AIKA to be completed? Did you encounter any difficulties?
Mikko Tarmia: It took about three years to complete the project! In autumn 2005, Paul, Michael, and I had our first discussions about making an album around a story. The project slowly started to develop and most of the production occurred in 2008. The goal was to have the album finished for autumn 2008 and it was released in November. So we managed to keep up with the schedule.
Like I mentioned, two composers left the project and that caused us some minor problems… well, not actual problems but some changes we had to deal with. We pushed the album's production into its last six months and everybody seemed to be busy with doing other projects back then. The album mastering sessions were booked for September and I received the final audio files only a few days before that time, so that was quite thrilling.
François: Among your compositions, which are you most proud of?
Mikko Tarmia: I think it's "Rewind" (track 7). Though I tried to add lots of variation in my own tracks in the album, this one separates from the rest in my opinion. I guess it's the simplicity which makes that track more special to me.
François: Can we expect more original albums similar to AIKA to be released on your label, The Sound of Fiction?
Mikko Tarmia: Oh yes, and hopefully we will get some voice acting next time. An original idea for AIKA was to make some scenes with spoken dialogue and sound effects in-between compositions, like having real movie scenes without the picture. But because of the lack of time and other resources as well, we had to bury the idea. So perhaps next time…
François: The next release listed on TSoF website is a Penumbra soundtrack. Will it include all tracks you composed for the series or only a selection? Any exclusive material? Also, when will it be released?
Mikko Tarmia: There's nearly two hours of music written for Penumbra game series, so I will have to pick just a handful of tracks for the soundtrack. The album will have lots of unreleased material as well, because it wouldn't make sense to make a special edition album and only to include tracks that were used in the games; after all, music tracks can be found in the games' music folders. So there will be some remastered versions of old tracks, many unreleased tracks, and a "Penumbra suite", which is a sort of a tribute track for the game series. The album will be available Q3 this year, but I can't say yet what the exact date is going to be. For more details, you can follow the project's website at here.
François: What made you want to become a composer? And more specifically, working on video games?
Mikko Tarmia: It was 1990 when I saw some of my friends doing techno stuff with MOD trackers. I had an Amiga 500 back then so I tried to make some noise too, with Pro Tracker at first. My first pieces were absolutely horrible, but it was fun and I continued doing it. While my skills were getting better, I started collecting synthesizers and other music equipment to improve the sound in my music. The real change happened when I discovered orchestral music in late 90s. It made me want to learn to play instruments and finally I went to study music more seriously.
I didn't think about becoming a game music composer before I finished my first game project, DeepTrouble, developed by Codeblender Software in 2002. Although I've been playing video games for about 25 years and I simply love 'em, I never had this thought before. I left an "I want to do music for games" message in a game forum and I was contacted by Codeblender. I was really lucky my first project was a commercial one – usually your first project gets cancelled and I've had a bunch of those too. I did a few games for Codeblender and this guy called Jens Nilsson was also working on some of them. Jens is one of the fellows who established Frictional Games and that's how things got connected.
François: Which artists have inspired you the most?
Mikko Tarmia: I listen to lots of different kinds of music and there are many artists who inspire me for getting a certain mood for my own creativity. But as there are loads of names to choose from, I guess I'll narrow it down to game and movie composers and throw a few names here randomly: John Williams, Eric Serra, Danny Elfman, Joel McNeely, Terence Blanchard, Vangelis, Jeremy Soule, Thomas Newman, Tim Larkin...
François: How difficult is it to come up with fresh and original music today? How do you go at writing music?
Mikko Tarmia: It's difficult to reinvent the wheel so it's usually about recycling ideas. I'm not saying I write fresh new music, I'll just do what I'm asked to do, but with my own spice put into it. Game developers usually have some ideas and they say I want to have music like in film X or game Y. Even if it's going to resemble some other soundtrack, you can try to make it sound like yourself and make developers happy even if the result is quite different from what they were first thinking.
I usually start my process by selecting instruments for the project. Even if I'll do it with a virtual orchestra, I trick myself to think there will be people who are going to play it, so I end up with material which could actually be played by a certain ensemble. But if it's going to be more synthetic stuff with effected instruments and such, the situation is quite different. Usually I start writing music by improvising freely with keyboard and things just start to happen. Sometimes music starts playing inside my head when I'm jogging or doing something else and then I'll try to keep it in my head until I can write it down. Creating music goes very fast with computers, but I've also tried the pen and paper method. It's slower but sometimes it's better, especially if you play it with real instruments. It gives a certain mood that computers lack.
François: In regards to the evolution of game music and the many different genres it encompasses, how do you see its future? It seems orchestral music is more and more popular, notably in the West. Do you think this is a good thing?
Mikko Tarmia: I like the fact game music is nearing the popularity of movie music and people have started to respect it as a serious form of art. Orchestral live concerts are organized around the world and they are usually crowded. Also game developers know the importance of music production and lots of the stuff gets done with live players. That's definitely a good thing!
On the other hand, virtual orchestras have made it possible for everyone to produce nicely done orchestral music. It's finally possible, so it's used A LOT! The result is that we are getting drowned by a certain style of orchestral soundtracks in both game and movie productions. Even a grand mama's meatballs advertisement in TV might have this orchestral sound! So having orchestral soundtracks in games is nothing too special anymore. It certainly works, but I wish to hear more variety in styles, more experimentation with instruments and sounds.
François: Besides music, what are your other interests in life?
Mikko Tarmia: Exercising in different forms, hanging out with friends, watching movies, and playing video games.
François: Finally, are you working on any new game projects these days?
Mikko Tarmia: I'm working on few game projects at the moment. Frictional Games' next game, Unknown (working title, is currently under development and it has lots of work also music-wise. Fortunately the game continues FG's line of survival horror games, so it will be easier for me to get inside the game.
Another project is a long awaited sequel for Lugaru, an indie game developed by Wolfire Games. The sequel is titled Overgrowth, and it will have an orchestral soundtrack including some live instruments. The game will be released at some point this year. Then there's Pekka Kana 3, a platformer which has much more cheerful themes than previously mentioned games, so it's a good opportunity for me to catch some breath between more serious titles.
François: Thank you for your time and kindness. Would you like to add anything else before we conclude?
Mikko Tarmia: If you made it this far, thanks for reading the entire interview. And thanks François for interviewing me, I really like your media!