Interview with Jeff Rona
Tell us a little bit about your musical background- and influences? How did you get into the business?
I've been making music in one way or another most of my life. I grew up listening to classical and some jazz music, and for a period I thought I would go into jazz. But that interest went away. I became very inspired by artists trying to do something new, something unique. I was a huge fan of Steve Reich and Philip glass. I spent years working with dance companies and learned that non-musicians listen to music differently than trained musicians. This was a huge thing to me. It was about energy and weight. Very inspiring. I performed and collaborated with trumpet player Jon Hassell - one of the pioneers of ambient and experimental music who was a big part of Brian Eno's musical world. I dod some concerts with Eno and recorded an album with Hassell. A very mind expanding experience. During college (before dropping out) I had a roommate who turned me on to the world of filmscore. He was a true fanatic which a huge collection of soundtracks. This was pivotal for me.
Even when I was very, very young I had a fascination for sounds and noise. I used to do crazy experiments with any electronics could find to see what kinds of weird sounds I could make. I was among the first people to use desktop computers to make music. I spoke at the first TED conference about this. For a little while I worked for Roland, designing instruments, software, being involved in the introduction of MIDI, and working on their first sample libraries. But I felt very restless creatively. I wanted to write and produce music. So I quit and became a studio musician and synthesizer programmer. Although I did a lot of work on pop albums, I found most of my projects were with film composers. That lead to a lot of learning experiences from some amazing composers, and I did a lot of ghost writing as well as programming. This was my real school.
Working with Hans Zimmer must have been an interesting experience. How did that come about?
We met through a mutual friend in the electronic musical instrument world. And we became close very quickly. He was always interested in pushing the boundaries of what technology could do in film scoring, and that was right along with my own love as well. He was instrumental in getting me some of my first projects as a composer. I worked on several of his scores as well. I shared a studio with him for about seven or eight years. It was an intensively creative environment with so many fantastic composers, filmmakers, musicians and artists all in one place every day. You couldn't help but learn a lot, and we really did so many things for each other. The main thing I took away from it was learning what it takes to be a really good producer as well as a composer. Because Hans comes from the pop music world, he knew a lot about very high-quality music production. And it's a big part of how he gets the sound that he does. He's also someone that does not get blinded by technology in lieu of simply writing good thematic music. It's such an important thing to know.
You have done music for games (God of War 3) and movies (Phantom, Traffic, Exit Wounds, The Fan, etc.). Do you see a difference in writing for different media?
I don't see there being a fundamental difference between my writing for film, games or TV. There are some obvious ones (schedules, budgets, some of the logistics), but they're inconsequential in relationship to simply sitting and writing music. What really makes a difference is when you get to work with people who are truly passionate and believe in what they are doing. That's what makes one project better than another. They are all forms of story telling. In film you become very linked to the pace of each scene. You have to learn the skill of writing to picture. - of flowing with edits and dialog. It's not easy to do that and stay musical. In videogames you're given a lot more freedom - in some ways it's more purely musical since there is no sync with picture to deal with. Your music can be structured more like traditional musical forms. Because of the fantasy element of video games in general, there is a bit more room for the music to be bold. But I must admit I get a true rush every time I write to picture. It just excites me to see how a scene changes so much when music is added to it.
What changes do you foresee in the world of Movie/TV/Game Music within the next 10 years? Have you noticed any recent changes?
Diversity. More diversity in the people making things. More diversity in the kinds of projects out there. And more diversity in the types of music heard in all this new media. Just like it was only a matter of time before somebody would do it hit song in GarageBand (I think Usher may get that distinction), it's only a matter of time before there's a blockbuster film done on a laptop on YouTube. Same with video games. There willll always be a place for big-budget spectacles, but now the world is filled with so much more. It's incredibly exciting.
This also means there's more and more need for a diverse span of music. Music that distinguishes itself and differentiates itself. Is well written and well produced by people who know what they're doing and are brave enough to do it better than anyone else. We've seen music go from being something that could only be made in big studios with unbelievable amounts of equipment and budgets, to being done on a laptop, some great software and a good idea. That's the important thing to remember for all of us.
Of all the projects you’ve worked on so far, which is your favorite and why?
It's always whatever I'm working on right now. I really don't like looking back. There's a reason our eyes are in the front of our heads.
If you could pick any film ever made … which one would you have loved to do the music for?
Anything by Alfred Hitchcock.
How do you normally go about scoring a project? Do you normally have a sketchpad of melody ideas or chord progressions that are readily available or is it generally on the fly writing?
Something like that. Whenever I start a project I usually begin by creating a sketchbook - a dozen or so ideas to begin with which I present to the director before putting any of it to picture. This way, before anything gets structured to fit a scene or a game level, I can think in purely musical form. I think of it almost like a laboratory for experimentation. This is when I try to create the sonic pallet for the score. I'll develop or choose sounds from my library that will be used throughout the score. And that becomes the springboard for my musical inspiration. Once I've played my sketches for the director and they've picked the ones they like - the real work begins. I try to get as organized as possible. I'm somewhat list driven. I need to write down everything I will need to do. in films, this is the "spotting list" of start times of each cue. In games, it's a to-do list of levels and cutaways. They are pretty much the same thing. On films I start from the beginning and go somewhat in order. But once themes are established, I may jump to reoccurring moments for that theme.
Once my pieces are heard and approved, I am in production mode: working with musicians, booking sessions, working with my engineer, orchestrator, etc. It's a lot of work to go from sequence to final recordings - even on all-electronic scores. This is when the perfectionist in me kicks in to question everything, and figure out how every piece can be polished and improved. I'm lucky to have some great talented people to work with on all this. Objective opinions can make a huge difference.
Midi orchestration generally requires a lot of resources. What is your DAW rig made of?
It keeps getting simpler. Right now I have one Mac Pro running Logic. It's my main machine, and it's the hub of everything aside from my orchesteal pallet. Another Mac Pro serves as a sample farm for the orchestra, and it feeds all the orchestral elements back into Logic. A third Mac runs ProTools for monitoring, printing stems and it's also my video player. I use MAX and an iPad for some special custom OSC and MIDI functions as well. Cool stuff.
But the real "secret" to a great sounding sampled orchestral is knowing how to write for orchestra. Well orchestrated sequences sound so much better, even with poorer samples. Working with great samples, like 8Dio, only sound their best when you know at least the basics of good orchestration. It's really worth taking a class or getting a couple of books on orchestrating for film.
How do you integrate samples and sample libraries into your work? For example, I saw in a recent interview with you that you did a lot of sampling work for the score for “Phantom”. You actually went into a submarine and recorded quite a bit of material that you then implemented into the score, is that correct?
In general the orchestra stays very static. It's a sound we all know, so there's no need to make many changes there. That's why I can use an external machine for the orchestra, it's the same in every piece. But from there I'm going to want to be as adventurous as possible. While I believe any score lives or dies on the merits of it's musical themes, I also believe in using sound as a tool for expression. So I'm virtually every project I do I spend some amount of time at the beginning programming new sounds on synthesizers, and going out and doing some sampling as well. I've sampled just about everything it seems! In the case of Phantom, a thriller that takes place in a Soviet submarine, I got the idea when I went to visit the set (which was an actual Soviet era submarine) to use the hundreds of metallic valves, tubes, pipes and hydraulics as part of the score. I brought a small handheld recorder and some drumsticks, mallets and hammers, and "played the submarine." I brought them all back to the studio and edited them into a big set of really unusual melodic, ambient and rhythmic instruments. I used them to create music by pure experimentation. You can hear the results all through the film, and even better on the soundtrack album.
Which is your favorite 8Dio sample library and why?
There is no way to say! I started with the Requiem choir, and they are mind-boggling. But now the orchestra sections are sounding incredible. And so many new things are coming. I've used Rhythmic Aura and Hybrid Tools many times in scores. When I get a new sample library I like to take it for a very detailed spin to see what happens organically. If something interesting starts to come out, I hit record and it becomes the beginning of something new. Good sample libraries like 8Dio, are inspirational. They give me new ideas for pieces. It's important to be open to how a sample "tells you" how to play it. There's really no such thing as a generic sample. I do like to get in and tweak sounds for myself. It's important for me to customize their sound and performance capabilities. I frequently look into creative ways to use effects to take samples to a new realm. Quite often they end up in very new places that are purely my own.
What do you do to relax and recharge your batteries?
I paint, I do photography, I cook. I live near the ocean, so I go for walks to calm down and think.
What are you currently working on? What’s next for Jeff Rona? Where do you see yourself in 10 years?
I just finished scoring a massive video game in China of all places. Now I'm starting in on two films. One is a documentary from the producer of Pumping Iron, the other is a very cool thriller from Brazil. I'm mixing the soundtrack for another film I did recently called Revolution. It will be out in the US later this year.
Any last words of wisdom you would like to share with upcoming composers- and musicians?
If you want to be successful in any art you need both great ideas and great tools. Ideas are of no value if they are not well executed. Composers who employ any amount of technology need to learn how to use their studios just the same way Yo-Yo Ma learned to play the cello. Practice, practice, practice until you are amazing at it. The studio is your instrument. Dig as deeply as you can into every facet of the technology in front of you, no matter how little or much you have.
Another key element of success, I believe, is maintaining an almost childlike open-mindedness. Learn to be a sponge for all kinds of art and culture. Not just music. And apply all of it to everything you do. Begin as fearlessly as you can, but then be willing to throw away anything that doesn't work. There is a difference between "good" and "right". Successful artists figure that out pretty quickly. I like the way Brian Eno describes his function as a record producer. He refers to himself as the "filter". He starts with everything as an option, and then filters away everything that doesn't belong in the song. That's how I like to look at what I do whenever I'm sitting to write a score.