Jeff Rona: The Interview
Recently, Kris sat down with composer extraordinaire Jeff Rona in his studio and picked his brains about life, the universe, and everything, as you’ll see in this post. Once those two get going, there’s no stopping them. [ed. note: shut up, that is my hair after I brushed it.] Big thanks to Jeff for having us over, and to Jeff’s assistant Alec Justice for doing all the filming!
Jeff’s CV is long. He’s done a lot of things in his reasonably short life, including some things that we’ve all heard of, including being a key founder of the MIDI protocol and the Midi Manufacturers Association. And as if that wasn’t enough, he’s also an incredible composer. He’s worked with people like Hanz Zimmer, Philip Glass, and George Martin, to name just a few of many. And along with working with industry greats, he has his own solo career scoring for film, TV, and video games, including God of War and the recent Devil May Cry 5, alongside an astounding number of others.
The full interview is at the end of this post, but we’ve summarized some of the highlights here. We also get a peek into Jeff’s workflow using modular with a patch breakdown and DAW production overview. Let’s go!
A lot of current music technology relies on one standard in particular: MIDI. While this is a somewhat foreign concept to a lot of us modular-heads, its impact on music tech in general and its unification of instruments throughout the decades can’t be denied. Jeff was instrumental (pardon the pun) in creating the MIDI standard, founding the MIDI Manufacturers association (and running it for many years), and pushing the adoption of MIDI as a standard. He also gave the first TED talk on music technology. The most impressive part of all of this? No money was made from MIDI! It was made completely free to implement, and because of this, technology from 30+ years ago can still talk to devices from today. It’s an impressive standard and has served musicians for generations.
"There's a difference between good and right."
As we mentioned, though, Jeff isn’t just an influential tech developer. And while being an extremely accomplished composer, his ideas on composition are humble and inspiring: separating the “good” from the “right” in art is difficult but an important step in the creative process. And when creating something, the process isn’t the important part: be ready to find something that sounds right, but you’ll make a lot of things that aren’t in the process. This is hard to learn as an artist, but very freeing once realized (I definitely learned a lot from watching this interview myself). Jeff also uses a lot of interesting techniques that keep things from repeating identically: he’s developed software instruments that work on audio looping concepts that, while repeating, never play the exact same thing over again (more on that in the full interview).
“The instruments are starting to get really clever, and interesting, and a little bit more out of control.”
Jeff’s relationship with technology is interesting, and different from a lot of people’s today: he’s almost always preferred working in the box. Even though his collection of music tech (and other types of instruments) was extensive (check out the clip below to hear about one of his most astounding acquisitions), he gave up on hardware almost completely up until a few years ago, finding virtual instruments easier to use, better sounding, and more inspiring. New developments in the available technology slowly drew him back, though, and he’s using modular more and more in his compositions, integrating modules from now with his vintage Arp 2600 and Moog. He also integrated a patchbay in his studio for his synths so that, once patched, he can interact with them much more easily from his workstation.
Speaking of modular…
Jeff also ran us through how he uses his modular system in his compositions. He breaks down an awesome patch (featuring a bunch of NE modules!) and shows us how he creates interesting, semi-random melodies and countermelodies and integrates them into a session. Again, he has some awesome ideas about workflow (like not printing audio until he’s almost finished composing) and the way he uses hardware makes it almost seem like another virtual instrument when it’s patched together. And, on top of all that, he’s a master of making simple sounds interesting and engaging. Melody and harmony is everything, and this is a great example of his philosophy of composition being a process of filtering out things until you find something good. Check out this awesome workflow overview he and Kris recorded at his studio.
The whole enchilada
The clips above are just a teensy sampling of some of the awesome things Jeff talked about with Kris. Want even more? Check out the full interview below.