Alan Silvestri on using Cubase and Dorico to score "Avengers: Endgame"
By Daniel Spreadbury
Alan Silvestri is the composer of some of the most memorable film soundtracks of the last three decades, from his incredibly fruitful collaboration with director Robert Zemeckis that began with Romancing the Stone, to his recent work with Steven Spielberg on Ready Player One, and dozens more besides. Now his work across four films with Marvel Studios culminates in the release of what will surely vie for the title of biggest blockbuster of 2019, Avengers: Endgame, which is in cinemas worldwide now.
Landmark score after landmark score
Silvestri has always been an early adopter of technology, from his very first film score, Romancing the Stone (1984), which was among the first Hollywood scores to use Yamaha's iconic DX-7 and which required the use of two 24-track desks chained together to record the full ensemble. That first collaboration with Robert Zemeckis was followed by his first full orchestral film soundtrack, Back to the Future (1985), with its memorable and instantly recognisable main theme, and which heralded the arrival of an assured composer whose work in the years since has put him in the company of the greats, including John Williams, Jerry Goldsmith, James Horner, and others.
He has written landmark score after landmark score, from dramas like Forrest Gump and Castaway, by way of science fiction with Contact and Ready Player One, family films like The Polar Express and the Night at the Museum series, to action blockbusters like the G.I. Joe series, The Predator, and more besides. His long career is testament to his versatility, and he shows no signs of slowing down.
Avengers: Endgame is Silvestri's fourth score for a film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and the themes he has created for Captain America in Captain America: The First Avenger (2011) and for the Avengers in three of their four films – The Avengers (2012), Avengers: Infinity War (2018) and Avengers: Endgame – have become indelibly associated with the characters, to the point where even a half-statement of The Avengers theme at the conclusion of the most recent film in the franchise, Captain Marvel, scored by Pinar Toprak, can raise a cheer from a film audience.
Welcome to the Abbey Road Studios
When we meet Alan Silvestri, it's at the end of the last of a series of long days recording for Endgame in the legendary Studio 1 at London's Abbey Road in January 2019. As he usually does, he has been conducting the orchestra himself, leading 90 players through the cues that he has been working on for months.
After we greet him, he is whisked away to the control room for a playback session with the directors of the film, who are at the studio in Los Angeles, and want to discuss the day's recording. As we wait for him to return, we watch the technical staff start to reset the cavernous studio for the next day's session, when another ensemble will be assembled to record somebody else's music, and reflect on the music that has been recorded in that room over the years: it's a space that seems almost to vibrate with the energy of the thousands of musicians who have played there, and the unforgettable music for film and TV they have recorded.
MIDI Keyboard No. 2
When the playback session finishes, Alan shows us his working space in the lounge directly above Studio 1's control room, where he has replicated as far as possible his home working environment so that he can work efficiently while on the road. He has an Apple iMac with two extra displays, monitor speakers behind, and a MIDI keyboard behind his computer keyboard. To the left of his workstation is a second MIDI keyboard, so that he can simply turn away from the displays and try out ideas on the keyboard.
As we take some photos, he talks enthusiastically about how much time he is saving using Dorico and Cubase together. He has used these two tools to compose the whole of the score for Endgame. He shows off some of the macros he has developed to fit his particular workflow needs, including the way he handles markers for hit points. Dorico 2.2 introduced a feature to import the tempo track from a MIDI file, allowing Alan to build the map for a cue in Cubase and then bring it over to Dorico.
"I could be hitting 20 separate cuts in one scene"
"I could be hitting 20 separate cuts in one scene. They're all there in Cubase," he says. "The markers would come over to Dorico, but they would be attached to SMPTE, and that wasn't always going to work for me. When I start editing the music, if you don't have the right version of the film and the timecodes adjusted, the markers are like on page 97 but the cue is only four bars long…"
So instead of bringing in the markers as dedicated marker items, Alan simply brings them in as system-attached text items, which was an option added by the Dorico development team at his request, which he can quickly edit and move around as needed. He shows a macro that allows him to switch to Engrave mode and nudge the marker to the precise position he wants it to appear, and then automatically switches back to write mode when he's done.
"Cubase and Dorico just feel comfortable and forward thinking"
Alan is all about finding ways to work more quickly and efficiently, and this is where Cubase and Dorico really shine, particularly in comparison to some of the many tools he has used over the years before settling on Steinberg's solutions. "When you when you work on a film where there is an hour and a half, or even two hours of music, and this process between the DAW and the notation program is there for two hours of music, every little task is going to be performed thousands of times,” he explains. "You start to put a time factor on a certain process. You develop a macro view of even the smallest elements, so, absolutely, the only reason for me to go one place rather than another is time."
After we finish taking photos in his work area, we move down into Studio 1 itself and Alan sits on a chair on the podium to record an interview. He talks warmly about how Cubase and Dorico feel like they were made for him. "I've just found a kind of resonance with Cubase and Dorico," he says, "they just feel comfortable and forward-thinking, and made for what I'm trying to do."
As we wrap up our interview, he tells us, "I can say great things about Cubase and Dorico all night." But much as we would like to listen all night, Alan needs some time to decompress after an intense week of recording, and the team at Abbey Road need to finish preparing the studio for tomorrow's session. Alan will soon be back at home in California, writing a few more cues for the film, using Cubase and Dorico every day to bring his musical creativity to the screen.
"Behind all of this," he says before we finish, "is this horrible pressure to get it done: get it done beautifully, but get it done quickly. There can be grave consequences for a problem. And yet, when they talk about music, they say one 'plays' music, and that's ultimately what has to happen.
Everyone has to be so proficient that they actually, in the midst of all of this pressure, and all of these consequences, they can actually play: and they do. And it's breathtaking, i's magical, and you really can't think about it too much, or you couldn't stand up: you'd just faint."
As we leave the studio on that cold, snowy January night, we reflect on the role in this process of the tools that we build at Steinberg: they need to be powerful and intuitive enough that they disappear, allowing the composer to focus on the music, so that the musicians can work their magic, and transport you completely to the world where Earth’s mightiest heroes fight their epic final battle against the mad titan, Thanos. We wouldn’t want it any other way.