Scoring Award-Winning Soundtracks with Cubase
By Hollin Jones
Stephanie Economou is a Grammy-winning composer and violinist. Seamlessly blending orchestral and electronic themes, she recently won the Grammy for “Assassin’s Creed Valhalla Dawn of Ragnarök” in the inaugural category Best Score Soundtrack for Video Games and Other Interactive Media. She also won the SCL David Raksin Award for Emerging Talent for her work on the Netflix series “Jupiter's Legacy” and has composed for movies including “The Martian,” “Live by Night,” and “The Meg,” as well as for numerous games titles. We chatted to her about her working process and the benefits of learning on the job.
Hi Steph! Can you tell us a bit about your early experiences of music?
Growing up, my parents were both very creative people and we always had classic rock playing in the house. My older sister was learning the viola, so when it came time for me to pick an instrument, I picked the violin so we could play duets together. From there, I fell in love with orchestral repertoire — my school had an intensive music program which focused on theory and composition. Later, I went to the New England Conservatory in Boston where I was composing for different ensembles. At that time, I started scoring short films and something about that process really clicked with me. I loved the possibilities of interaction between music and another medium. Then after moving out to L.A, I got my Master’s degree in Scoring For Visual Media.
And how did you get into the industry?
I met Harry Gregson-Williams, a prolific composer who at that time was rebuilding his team. He hired me to be his composing assistant and I ended up being there for six years!
What were the most important things you learned from working with him?
Kind of everything I know now! This craft is very hard to teach in a classroom. The best way is learning on the job. It was just myself and my colleague, working from his home studio, so it was quite an intimate setup. Harry was a true mentor to me. When I first started out, I’d sit at the back of the studio and watch him work and absorb as much as I could. He’d always throw me in the deep end with various tasks to see if I would sink or swim. I really thrived on that kind of learning. Those early days were when I used Cubase for the first time; being able to watch Harry harness the software and see how he was able to bring his visions to life with it.
What was his process?
He’s always playing back his sequences and going through tracks and muting things. If he mutes something and realizes it wasn’t adding something considerable to the mix, he gets rid of it instantly. It doesn’t matter what the element is. He’s always self-editing and that’s one of the most best lessons I learned from him. It’s about not being precious about your music and always being willing to change it if it contributes to a better end result.
Was there a breakthrough project that you worked on where a career as a composer suddenly seemed like it could be a reality?
It sounds nauseatingly romanticized, but the first short film I worked on, I just felt like the scoring world was really for me. Writing to picture gave me license to experiment in a way that I wasn’t allowing myself to when writing concert music.
How did you navigate the transition from the orchestral world to the world of synths and soundscapes?
I actually started writing experimental electronic music when I was in grad school at UCLA, so I was using synth palettes even in those early short films. I was really getting into it at the time I met Harry and he’s obviously one of the premier hybrid composers. He’s done a lot to define that sound world. So seeing what kinds of sounds he gravitated towards and how he manipulated them led me to think of the two things as being intertwined. My music is electronic and acoustic all in one; it’s rarely one or the other.
For me, it’s AudioWarp. It’s amazing, I use it constantly for timing parts, stretching and manipulating sound, and adjusting the timing of multiple audio tracks all together. I’d be pretty lost without it.
You’ve scored a number of TV series as well as movies. At what point would you typically become involved in the process?
Usually in post-production. I did a Netflix show called “Jupiter’s Legacy” and they hired me after I’d read a couple of scripts and had a meeting with them. I wrote a demo based on the scripts — they’d not shown me any footage at that point. So, then you’d have spotting sessions, go through an episode and talk about the themes, the shape of the music, and what they want to accomplish with the score. On that show, I got to have a lot of fun because stylistically I was stepping into a lot of different genres; from industrial to orchestral.
How do you begin the writing process?
The first thing I’ll do is create a unique template for the project. I like to find a theme, whether it’s a character theme or an overarching theme for the show. I might write that on piano or jump into programming it. Then from there, I’ll flesh it out, seeking out new sounds, plug-ins, and libraries, just to have new tools at my fingertips. I also like to record musicians as I write, often remote recording from people all around the world. Then, if I’m able and the circumstance allows, I might record an orchestra nearer to the end of a project. On “Jupiter’s Legacy,” all the orchestral music was done in the box — another thing I learned from Harry is paying close attention to programming.
Is there a particular tool in Cubase that you couldn’t live without?
Yes! For me it’s AudioWarp. It’s amazing, I use it constantly for timing parts, stretching and manipulating sound, and adjusting the timing of multiple audio tracks all together. I’d be pretty lost without it. I use it for time correcting a lot of the audio I have recorded and locking it to a grid.
What’s coming up for you this year?
There are a couple of things I’m excited about, but sadly can’t discuss yet, which sounds horribly obnoxious. But, I am just finishing up a Lionsgate film called “About My Father” with Sebastian Maniscalco and Robert De Niro. It’s a comedy and I haven’t done many of those so it was a blast to work on. It’ll be in theaters in May.