By Sarah Jones
If you’ve spent any time enjoying movies, television, or videogames, chances are you’ve heard Jeff Rona’s music. The award-winning composer and instrumentalist has crafted scores for hundreds of blockbuster titles including films like Traffic, Phantom, and The Lion King; the Brotherhood, Dominion, and Claws TV series; and the God of War 3 and Far Cry 4 game titles; enveloping the drama onscreen in lush layers of ethnic instruments and electronic sounds.
Rona is a technology pioneer: He was integral to the development of the MIDI standard and has developed instruments for Roland and other music companies. And somehow, in the midst of all of his composing work, Rona finds time to operate two business: Liquid Cinema, a music library company; and Wide Blue Sound, which develops software synths.
Rona’s sheer breadth of work is unsurprising given his deep fascination with technology that started when he was a kid. “I used to take apart old amplifiers and tape machines just to see how I could mess them up and see the kinds of sounds that would come out,” he says. “That curiosity is still there in my day-to-day work.”
For Rona, the lines between composing, performing, and producing music tend to blur: “I spend a lot of time designing sounds, and I do a lot of sonic manipulation as part of my composing process,” he says. “I believe it’s hard to differentiate between sound design, mixing, and composition in electronic music. They’re all facets of what it is to be an electronic artist.”
Rona says that in any discipline, tools influence artistic outcome, “whether it’s music, painting, photography, or even using a better word processor,” he explains. “Whether it’s the current level of sophistication in music or audio software, the creative use of samples, the ability to manipulate natural sounds in more and more musical ways, or even the current trend we have of bringing back analog instruments, having a handle on technology is a vital element of creating music.”
As a multidisciplinary artist, Rona considers his studio his instrument: “Like any musician, the better you are at your instrument, the more expressive your music can be,” he says. “Knowing all the parts in the studio I’ve put together is critical to my creative process.”
That’s getting easier as Rona’s studio setup grows more streamlined each year: “I used to have no fewer than 10 computers and racks upon racks of electronic instruments and processors; my studio today is one high-end computer for my sequencer and all my sounds and a second, smaller computer for hosting video.” These days, thanks to screaming-fast CPUs, Rona can have a full orchestra, electronic sounds, and all of the signal processing he needs all in one place, though he rounds out his computer rig with analog synthesizers, electric guitars, and electric cello, plus hundreds of ethnic instruments from around the world.
Rona says he’s been hooked on Auto-Tune since Day One: “I was working with Hans Zimmer on the music for the animated film The Prince of Egypt in 1998, and we brought in several Middle Eastern musicians, including woodwinds. Auto-Tune was the only way we could get those performances to mesh with the orchestra.”
For Rona, Auto-Tune has always offered creative potential beyond basic pitch correction. “It’s become such a ubiquitous part of modern music production, hasn’t it? I think it’s a great thing,” he says. “For me, it’s not about taking a mediocre singer and making him or her seem amazing—though that’s certainly come up a number of times, especially when we’ve needed an actor to sing something. It’s much more about being able to preserve a great performance that has a few blemishes in an otherwise great take.” This process becomes crucial when Rona is on an extremely tight deadline and doesn’t have the luxury of recording numerous takes. “Auto-Tune is always there, always ready to take a 90-percent performance and turn it into a 100-percent performance,” he says. “The same is true with any instrumental soloists or ethnic instruments.”
Rona finds Auto-Tune essential for conforming those world instruments to standard Western tuning, and he’s developed some unique tricks to expand his sound design palette: “The pitch and formant shifting functions open up an entire new world for not only acoustic instruments and voices, but even electronic instruments,” he says. “I will sometimes take drum loops and feed them through Auto-Tune and see what comes out. The result is usually fascinating, and with a bit of tweaking, very musical and useful.”
When Rona aims to apply Auto-Tune with a subtle touch, he often uses sequencer automation to dial in the right amount at the right times. “So the pitch correcting gets more prevalent when I hit a rough patch in the audio, and then I chill it out when I just want a bit less,” he says. “I don’t render it until the work is ready for final mix, so my options remain open.”
He’ll also use sequencer automation to manipulate pitch and formant shifting on other types of sounds to create interesting effects that can be timed to the music. “I use Logic Pro and it has the ability to manipulate plug-in parameters rhythmically in time to the music with LFOs and step sequencing,” he explains. “Some really interesting things can be explored through that.”
Rona likens Auto-Tune to a musical instrument, one that’s used to manipulate other sounds instead of creating sound. “Auto-Tune and other audio plug-ins have such a radical effect on the music that I treat them as more than just effects,” he says. “With Auto-Tune you can be subtle or overt—but it certainly is more than just a fix-it tool for me.”