Musicians sometimes split culturally between tradition and technology, with advocates for each giving each other the side-eye. Roman Molino Dunn is a master of both. Earning both a bachelor’s degree in music theory and a master’s in composition in just four years, he has become a one stop shop for the film and TV world because he composes, arranges, and mixes. He’s also a Billboard-charting electronic music producer (as Electropoint), owns Mirrortone Studios in Manhattan, and developed The Music Transcriber series of plug-ins for Avid’s Sibelius transcription software. Antares plug-ins often pop up in his work—usually in unexpected and highly creative ways. He shared several of those with us while discussing recent projects ranging from scoring the HBO film Huracán to producing a viral hit for a Howard Stern “Wack Pack” reality star.
Let’s begin with your transition from classical training into the world of creating music with technology.
I studied counterpoint and was very into early music. At its root, counterpoint is essentially algorithmic composition. It’s trying to find beauty through math and science. The next step from there is composing through coding. I started coding Sibelius plug-ins to help me write counterpoint. That led to me doing a lot of arranging work, which brought me into recording studios, which eventually led me to all the technology and producing. When you’re in the studio a lot, let alone when you open your own, people come to you who need songs. People come who want music for commercials. I’d say it was a pretty organic trip.
The score to Huracán is a blend of orchestral and electronic instruments, and it really grabs the ear. Would you say it’s a reflection of that background?
Huracán is about an MMA fighter coming to terms with dissociative identity disorder. The film mirrors his literally being a fighter with his inner struggle. To portray that, I wanted a hybrid score. Now, I was also mixing because, well, wearing both those hats is what a lot of productions want. The intonation between, say, string players and a synthesizer is going to be different, so to get those two elements to speak together properly in the mix, I used Auto-Tune®. (Editor’s note: The soundtrack for Huracán is available for streaming here.)
Do you have any other favorite non-vocal sources you use with Auto-Tune or AVOX?
I love Aspire on violin, especially sampled strings. They’ve usually been recorded from far away enough that you lose some of the bow noise and the intimacy. What Aspire does to simulate breath can put a lot of that life back. Choir and Duo are super cool on guitars as well. Producing for artists, it’s amazing how many dry guitar tracks I hear.
That’s different from the typical vocal uses many people think of.
The same goes for the AVOX plug-ins. I would use Duo or Mutator to give an orchestral instrument a synthetic quality. I also love using them in mono-to-stereo mode, to give something more of a stereo image. A great example is that for fight scenes where the guys are just pummeling each other, I had these huge, 808-style bass dives. I wanted them fat but also out of the way of any dialogue. Duo in mono-to-stereo mode achieved that. That film is AVOX’ed up! You wouldn’t think so because at times there’s a full orchestra, but I didn’t mix it like a Hollywood composer. More like an EDM producer lucky enough to work with a great orchestra!
Your studio also does a lot of sound design. Perhaps tell us about getting a result that was very different from where you started?
That happens often in horror movies when you need to create the sounds of monsters. The last one I did was The Unborn . We used Articulator, the talkbox/vocoder plug-in, and what’s really cool is that anything can be a sidechain input. We recorded dogs barking and put that in the sidechain, to make people sound like dogs. Then we fed it through Auto-Tune EFX+ and got even more wild. Mutator would have achieved something similar in fewer steps but the director was very hands-on. When you have more plug-ins in a signal chain, you can offer your client more fine-grained control during the revisions phase.
Speaking of horror stories, do you have any of your own? How did you save the day?
The biggest “oh shit” moment I’ve ever had also might be the most heard song I’ve produced. I do a bunch of songs for reality TV stars and “Wack Packers” on Howard Stern. One was a tabloid star called Tan Mom, who was arrested for taking her five-year-old to a tanning salon. They had asked for an instrumental, but then Tan Mom came into the studio and just sort of ad libbed. She didn’t sing. I was tasked with song-ifying her speaking. I had to edit, quantize, and string together phrases to make lyrics that made sense. I was doubling her vocals, creating layered harmonies … the plug-in chain was just bonkers. That became “Free 2 Be Me” and it went viral. SiriusXM went nuts and wanted more. If I didn’t have Auto-Tune and AVOX, that project would not have been a hit.
Unlike your film work, that’s almost a cartoon of what people think Auto-Tune is for!
In the producing world, the use cases are more typical — celebrities who aren’t singers and need a song. More importantly, though, I use Auto-Tune for harmonies in order to make people more confident. I dig Harmony Engine, but in Auto-Tune Pro’s graphical mode I can write very tight harmonies. This can actually get a better performance out of non-singers.
Do you ever use the AVOX plug-in Throat?
Yes. It’s dramatic how much a small brushstroke makes a difference with that plug-in.
I sometimes work with transgendered artists, and when they want to change their voice to sound like their chosen identity, I use Throat. That’s a powerful and very socially positive use of the tool I think we’re going to see a lot more of.
Coming into film scoring and pop production from a classical background must provide an incredible advantage, but did you have to unlearn anything?
For the most part it has helped, because I can decipher what clients want when they might not have the vocabulary to express it. I’d say if I had to relearn anything, it’s that complexity is not always the key. I’m working on a children’s YouTube Original Series right now called Kid Correspondent, and I’ve realized that I can’t make 20 layers of counterpoint work in that context!
What would you say to former teachers or classmates who might consider using Auto-Tune, sequencers, or other technological assists to be musical cheating?
I was probably one of those people! [Laughs.] When I was composing music on paper, I was missing out on the movie and TV gigs because I didn’t know how to mix the music I was writing. It wasn’t until I embraced those tools that I empowered myself. One of the great things about Antares is that if you don’t have a music theory background, you can still be a-okay. But if you do, Antares gives you flexibility to kick ass in so many different ways. Traditional music training is largely performance based. In the film world is, it’s not necessarily about how virtuosic a musician you are. It’s about the clarity of the musical statement. If we remove the ego, which is difficult for anyone, we can see what these tools are really helping us to do, which is to create art.
Learn more about Roman Molino Dunn
Note: All of the Auto-Tune and AVOX plug-ins mentioned in this article are available with Auto-Tune Unlimited, the complete collection of professional vocal effects from Antares. Download a free, 14-day and fully featured trial of Auto-Tune Unlimited to start exploring what you can do with the most essential software for producing professional quality vocals.
About the Author: Stephen Fortner is the former editor in chief of Keyboard magazine. A lifetime keyboardist and self-described gearhead, he now blogs and reviews equipment at musicplayernetwork.com. Operating as Fortner Media, he also provides original content for the music technology, automotive, and healthcare industries.