How System of a Down inspired Stephanie Economou’s Grammy winning Assassin’s Creed score

Fresh from her Grammy win for Best Score Soundtrack for Assassin’s Creed Valhalla: Dawn of Ragnarök, L.A based composer and BAFTA Breakthrough Artist Stephanie Economou explains how she turned to System Of A Down for the score’s inspiration…

Congratulations on your Grammy win! How was the ceremony? Was it a surprise to win?

Yes! I am still recovering from the hangover [laughs]. Emotionally, it was a big day and I'm still reeling, truly! I really did not go in with very high expectations. I think I was certainly the underdog in that category, because I am newer to games. 

I did not expect to win – my fellow nominees in that category are titans in the video game music industry, so I was just happy to be there. I was insanely surprised to be nominated! Especially because Dawn of Ragnarök is technically a DLC or an expansion, so it's a smaller game compared to some of the other ones that are in there. 

I'm thrilled and super honoured. When I won, I think I blacked out a little bit. I couldn't remember anything that I said or what happened. You can tell how surprised I was given how far back in the auditorium I sat, because I was like, ‘I'm not winning, we should just sit back here – there's more space.’ 

When I was backstage and I had a moment to myself and I was like, ‘What the hell happened?’ It was very surreal.

The internet is ruthless; you just have seen the videos circulating of presenter Randy Rainbow’s very own John Trivolta ‘Adel Dazeem / Idina Menzel’ moment when he mispronounced Valhalla: Dawn of Ragnarök when revealing you as the winner. Were you aware of this happening in the moment?

I feel for him! I didn't realise that any of that happened until much later and someone showed me a meme. I think I just heard ‘Assassin’s…’ and that's when I blacked out [laughs]. I went to a fugue state, but watching the videos after – it was very, very funny. 

The Internet…God, they're ruthless, but also hilarious. I think his reaction was great – he just totally owned it. It was the third category of the show so everybody was still getting their footing. My name is hard enough to say as it is and I think he probably saw the collective syllables in the title of the game plus my name and just panicked – understandably so!

This year the Grammy Awards introduced a brand new award category, the ‘Best Score Soundtrack for Video Games and Other Interactive Media’, which you won for Assassin’s Creed Valhalla: Dawn of Ragnarök. Considering that the gaming industry is bigger than the film and the music industry combined (in 2021 the global games market made $180BN in revenue and in 2022 video games outsold music and film in the UK for the 11th time in a row), why do you think it took the Grammys so long to catch on and formally recognise game composers?

It's wild how many people I've spoken to who are basically like, ‘Oh, that's so cool that there's now a separate video game category – it's really a sign of the times.’ A sign of the times? It's been decades and decades that this music has been a big part of people's lives! 

It means a lot. I don't know what took so long – there's still just one visual media category which lumps in film and TV soundtracks together, which I also think could benefit from being split up, because truthfully, the mediums are different and the approach to music is different.

How so?

There's more music in TV shows. So there's an opportunity for possibly more musical development and thematic development. I think we could do with a bit of separation, because they each deserve their own platform, in my opinion.

But in particular, video games operate very differently on a musical spectrum. They're interactive, they're responding to a player, they're immersing a player on a totally different level. 

So to have those soundtracks recognised on their own just validates that we have a big part in connecting with people in a visceral way. All over the world the impact of games is staggering, and music plays a big part in building those worlds and establishing those memories for players. 

We're all thrilled as game composers to be recognised and it means a lot to gamers too, who have loved this music for so long, to see it on its own on the stage.

I was the underdog in that category because I am newer to games.

Where is your Grammy award?

They are very specific about taking it away from you as soon as possible when you get backstage! It was a day of people within the Recording Academy in white gloves taking a Grammy away and then handing it to me for photos and then taking it away again. 

They said I’ll get it in the summer once it's engraved. I can't wait to bring it into the studio. I think it's gonna go on top of my piano. That's where she belongs.

Fans appreciate gaming soundtracks as a piece of content in their own right; are you a fan of gaming soundtracks yourself?

When I came into game music from doing mostly film and TV, I had an awareness because I have played games my whole life too. I worship those soundtracks and I always want to look into them outside of the game – these gamers really listen. 

They really, really listen. Personally, there's just something that happens when I listen to the music from games that I love that does not happen with other forms of media. It's this indescribable thrill that washes over you because it's tied to a moment in time where you were playing the game, where you were living and breathing these stories. It transports you; that's a really special thing about game music.

Do you ever look at the comments from gamers online?

I do… I shouldn't, but I do! Some comment sections can really be a cesspool, but I have to say that the Assassin's Creed community has been nothing but supportive. I know that they love the music too, especially the Assassin's Creed franchises, because they're all diverse and have their own signatures.

Even though this was a DLC – maybe just over an hour of music – they still accept it and celebrate it for what it was. I'm glad to have connected with people. That's why I wanted to be a composer: I wanted to connect with people through music. 

More so than any other project I've ever done, with Assassin's Creed I feel like I have connected with people from all over the world, just purely through this album. It's a really special thing and I appreciate all the support that I have in those comment sections. There's not always going to be positive things, but overall, people have enjoyed it, and that means a lot to me.

there's something that happens when I listen to the music from games that does not happen with other forms of media.

You’d already scored the Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla DLC The Siege of Paris before Valhalla: Dawn of Ragnarök. How different was your approach for the latter?

The Siege of Paris was my first game score, so there was a steep learning curve there just for me getting my footing and processing how things were going to work in terms of the collaboration with Ubisoft and the music department there. 

The soundscape for The Siege of Paris was rooted more in the historical landscape of Paris – the fun thing about Assassin's Creed is that it is rooted in a lot of history, so I got to do a lot of research and find out, ‘What did Paris sound like in the year 800?’ – which truly, there's no written record of that. 

So it was very primitive instruments, essentially. But it was still fun, nonetheless, to explore what that instrumentation was.

When it came to Dawn of Ragnarök, that's a story that is purely mythological so there really were no rules – all bets were off.

How did black metal come into the picture?

They said, ‘Let's try something different.’ So in my early conversations with the developers, one of them said, ‘We're listening to black metal. We don't know if that's a thing. Do you want to look into that?’ I was like, ‘Yeah, that sounds amazing.’ I loved metal music growing up, but I never really knew the specifics of black metal.

I did a bunch of research and my first port of call was connecting with black metal musicians. I was connected with someone called Wayne Ingram, who is the guitarist for a band called Wilderun – they are an amazing Viking-esque black metal, cinematic folk band, and we immediately unlocked something with them. We started composing together and I was basically arming myself with this whole toolkit of black metal sounds, like growly vocals and distorted ostinato guitars.

Ubisoft said, ‘This is feeling epic in a different way than we anticipated for this kind of mythology.’ It was really fun and we got to lean into something that I didn't know that I would be able to discover within myself. 

What I love most about working in media music is that someone can just say ‘black metal,’ and then your whole life changes. That's the beauty of it – you're challenged and pushed stylistically all the time.

Headliner saw that System of a Down played a big part in your influences for the game’s music…

Yes! Toxicity is one of my favourite albums of all time. When I think about the music I listened to when I was a kid, I went from Bach to Blink 182, to Led Zeppelin to Backstreet Boys; Christ in heaven, what was happening? [laughs] But it's all part of it. It's what shapes us. 

System Of A Down creeped its way into this album, and Ubisoft said ‘This is sounding a little bit too much like System Of A Down. Can we bring it back to black metal?’ I was like, ‘Oh my God, that's a huge compliment!’

When it came to Dawn of Ragnarök, all bets were off.

What were the challenges of scoring Dawn of Ragnarök given that there are so many possibilities based on the player’s choices?

As game composers, we always have to have an understanding that the player is driving the narrative, and your music is reacting to that. The people who are implementing the music need as much material as they can for all of these permutations of things that can happen in the game – you always have to have an awareness of all of the possibilities and you want to be able to design these shifts in the music.

Often there are going to be layers on top of layers for the same track of music, like you could have a more ambient, exploratory bed with a layer that comes in on top – that can be a tension layer when that player happens into a danger area. 

Then if they happen upon a fight a little bit later, you have a fight layer that comes in that's maybe more percussive, double time or something like that.

If you're in a boss fight, you have a lot of layers of intensity that you give to the music supervisors who are implementing the music and they're building the layers of intensity as the player gets closer to beating the boss. Then maybe you have a rewarding layer on top of that when they get really close, and that gives them a bigger harmonised version of the theme.

It's all of these building blocks and puzzle pieces that need to fit together, depending on what the player is doing. There's a lot of foresight: you have to make sure that it's going to be impactful for every single player, regardless of the choices that they make. 

It's tricky and there's a lot of designing involved in that to make sure that the music is not just loopy, but to give it shape and contrast, have these different colours and these themes that are developing. It takes a greater awareness of how these games operate in order to do that successfully.

someone can say ‘black metal,’ and then your whole life changes.

We know there are cliches in horror film music; does that factor in at all in the same way with epic fantasy games? Are there things that are expected of the genre, or things you try not to do?

When I read the story synopsis for Dawn of Ragnarök, I was like, ‘Oohh, mythology. Cool. There's all of these realms, it feels very fantasy-driven.’ My first stab was too fantastical. It was too mystical, and that wasn't right. That was the wrong direction. 

They were basically like, ‘Yes, it's mythological but we want to keep it grounded…and big…and personal.’ So, back to the drawing board. I found something that works better, and that was black metal and the more Nordic folk side.

How easily did these two genres mesh together?

The marriage of those two things really seemed to get that scale, sense of wonder and the beauty of these realms, but also the danger and the fact that this is a very heartbreaking story for Odin. It had all those things baked in. 

Honestly, Nordic folk and black metal – there's so much overlap between those two genres. I ended up acquiring and collecting a bunch of instruments, one being a Tagelharpa, which is a Scandinavian box with a couple of strings on it, and they're floating. That ended up being a big sound in the score, even though it's nearly impossible to play! 

I was like, ‘How the hell am I ever going to squeeze a sound out of this thing?’ I also used some other string instruments which gave it a nod to Nordic music, and those great, catchy melodies – in a primitive way, coupled with these distorted guitars and punchy drum kit. That brought the whole environment of Ragnarök into colour.

It transports you; that's a really special thing about game music.

How did Ragnarök allow you to discover a different side of yourself as a composer?

I unlocked a lot of creativity that I didn't know was there, and I think that's due to having a collaborator like Ubisoft, who were always telling me to go bolder, go in a different direction, don't do the expected. 

Even one person in one meeting saying ‘black metal’ was enough for me to be like, ‘Yeah, I want to try that.’ It's an excuse. It's a motivation to do something out of your comfort zone, and that's always what I'm striving to do. I think this kind of music was always inside of me; the palette is part of the music that I love.

In terms of the music production kit you use to record and edit these scores, what couldn’t you do without?

I have been using Steinberg’s Cubase as my DAW for about 10 years. I started using Cubase when I began working with composer Harry Gregson-Williams, who has been using Cubase pretty much his whole life. I saw the way that he was harnessing the technology and that this is the most intuitive tool for composers. It just makes sense. 

When you're writing music, especially in this industry where you're up against crazy deadlines all the time, you just want a tool with no hiccups where you go, ‘I have this idea. How do I get it down?’ 

With Cubase it just comes out. It's the most natural workflow, in my opinion, for any creative person. I've been using it for about a decade. There are lots of tools in there that I really, really love. I'll never compose using anything else – truthfully. It's like I'm not looking at a screen. 

For some people, composing just comes out right on sheet music. For me, it's sometimes sheet music, but really I'm just sitting in front of Cubase and that's how I'm expressing the music. 

Most of us would be nowhere without Cubase and it continues to evolve to great places. I love Steinberg because they really listen to their users and they create things that they know are going to be groundbreaking for the composers that use the software. I'm a big fan!

I'm mixing as I'm composing to make it all sound how it should sound; the cubase workflow allows for that.

The Ragnarök score was very collaborative and you intertwined different soloists with layers of guitars, drums and strings – how did Cubase help with this?

I love the audio manipulation features in Cubase. I am pulling in a tonne of soloists from everywhere. There's so much to be done and bringing it all under one roof in Cubase just made it so easy. 

When manipulating audio, it's fantastic. Their VariAudio feature is one of my favourites, whether it's going in and timing a performance of a guitarist or something to make sure it's spot on and really tight, or if it's manipulating pitch – it's something that I could never live without, and they just make it so easy. It's so visual, too. It's all crucial. 

For me, mixing is not a separate thing. I'm mixing as I'm composing to make it all sound how it should sound and the workflow allows for that. I also often use the Steinberg plugins that come with Cubase to harness the sound and make sure that it's how I want it to be, so it encourages a lot of exploration and experimentation, but also, you can be very precise with all of the tools that Cubase gives you.

What is your next project?

I am working on a couple of films at the moment. I don't have any games in the pipeline right now, but I'm hoping that I'll always be able to keep that balance of film, TV and game work. 

I have a film coming out on Memorial day weekend called About My Father starring Robert De Niro and Sebastian Maniscalco. That was a really fun one to work on. I actually had never done a comedy score before. It has all of these Italian flares and inflections; it was a real blast to do.