A long-time member of the MIDI establishment, Jeff Rona is a musician who gets more mileage out of computers than most. Scott Wilkinson listens in on Mac, PAN, digital editing and Jon Hassell's latest LP.
Computers are playing an increasingly important role in music of all kinds. Composer, performer, and synthesist Jeff Rona is one musician who takes full advantage of these new musical tools.
TRADITIONALLY, MUSICIANS HAVE WINCED at the mention of computers. With all their training in the aural arts, how could they possibly be expected to understand and deal with high technology? Having struggled with maths and science at school, computers threaten to rekindle the academic hell they struggled to escape. Not only that, there is also a common perception that computers and synthesisers are threatening their very livelihood by replacing them in the recording studios. This only serves to increase the resistance many musicians feel towards technology.
On the other hand, there are those musicians who embrace computers as the new tools of their trade. Some find a deep, intrinsic interest in technology, recognising the intimate relationship between music and mathematics. Others recognise that the increasing influence of technology on music-making will remain unabated no matter what anybody does or says. Those who can accept this inevitability and adapt to it will continue to work as musicians. Those who can't - won't.
American musician Jeff Rona is among those who can (and do) make heavy use of computers in their musical endeavours. Starting on the flute, he discovered a deep and abiding love for music of all kinds. His wide-ranging interests and intense curiosity have also led him to explore the use of technology in composition and performance, often in highly creative ways.
Rona currently works as a composer, performer, synthesist, and sound designer on a wide variety of projects with such diverse artists as Tina Turner, Philip Glass and Maurice White of Earth, Wind & Fire. He has just finished contributing to Jon Hassell's latest Land Records LP, City: Works of Fiction, where he is credited with playing keyboards and sampled percussion as well as co-production and writing. The album is typical of Hassell's unique writing and playing style - ethnic electronic rhythms provide an intriguing backdrop for his tortured, treated trumpet. Where much new age music is a poor substitute for silence, Hassell's music diligently explores the rhythms and harmonies that mainstream pop consistently neglects.
Rona has also contributed his specialist expertise to the film scores of Basil Poledouris and David Frank, in addition to working with Dennis McCarthy on such American television shows as Star Trek: The Next Generation, The Twilight Zone, and McGyver.
Never one to remain in the realm of commercial music exclusively, Rona has also worked in the fields of modern dance and performance art for over ten years. In fact, his keyboard skills were primarily acquired while accompanying dance classes given by the Bella Lewitzky dance company. This led to several commissioned works for the company and other dance troupes around the UK and US.
Like Brian Eno, Rona has produced a series of "sonic environments" for a variety of sculpture exhibitions. While Eno's recent Contemporary Data Lounge and Rainforest installations represented him in London, and a forthcoming installation will take him out to Tokyo, Rona's work has concentrated on galleries throughout Los Angeles.
"I created a sound montage using multiple tape loops of different lengths with various kinds of sounds", Rona explains. "The tapes would run for several weeks, and they would always synchronise in different ways, producing unexpected results. The patterns would never repeat themselves exactly at any time during those weeks."
One installation of particular interest was produced in 1983: "I was invited to participate in the Technology, Entertainment and Design Conference, which focused on the technology of media. I did a piece that played in the lobby of the facility during all four days of the conference. I used very high technology for the time, which was pre-MIDI. I used an IMSAI 8080 CP/M computer (one of the first microcomputers available to the general public). This computer was sending voltages to a Roland Jupiter 8 and a trigger signal to an E-mu drum machine and receiving information from two Polaroid sonar detectors. These were range finders used for focusing cameras.
"I wrote some software that would trigger these sonar detectors to read the proximity and velocity of people in the lobby, process this information in the computer, and use it to generate and modify phrases of music that I had pre-composed. As people walked through the room, they were processing a composition in real time - in essence, creating a composition. If somebody walked in one direction, the computer would play a melody forward. If they walked the other way, it would play the melody backward. In both cases, the melody would play at a tempo determined by the rate at which they were walking. In addition, other aspects of the program were improvising a sophisticated musical accompaniment."
Sophisticated stuff, for 1983. But how did Rona get into the musical applications of small computers so early in their development?
"I was attending music school at California State University and, in 1976, the university got a prototype of what was to become the Synclavier, which used an astounding new technology called FM synthesis. Even the people teaching how to use it were essentially at the same level as the students.
"Sometime later, I met one of the chief computer scientists at Jet Propulsion Laboratories, Dr Ray Jurgens. I met him at a concert one night, and overheard him talking about using personal computers for music. He invited me to his studio and showed me his system, which used a CP/M computer much like the one I would later use at the TED Conference. He was working on a language that could teach computers to improvise and process music. He'd built some custom interface hardware so that we could send information between the computer and the synthesiser.
"I started working for Roland Corporation in 1982, waiting music software for the Apple II and Commodore 64 computers. I also helped develop the software for the MPU401 MIDI interface, which has become the industry standard interface for the IBM PC and compatibles. After that, I worked for a company called Digital Music Services developing music software for the Macintosh."
Quite an impressive career. And yet, making music led Rona away from the world of computer programming to follow the call of the muses. But of course, he still uses computers as musical tools.
"My computer is really the focal point for all my endeavours", he explains. "Ninety per cent of the time, I'm writing music in front of the computer, using a sequencer program.
"I use a few different sequencers, depending on the kind of project I'm doing. I'm primarily a Macintosh user, and I use either Opcode Vision or Mark of the Unicorn Performer. I tend to use Vision when I'm working on pop music, but on film scores, I tend to use Performer. It was the first sequencer for the Macintosh that I ever used and I'm still more comfortable with it. And it allows me to do certain things on the fly a little easier than Vision.
"But Vision takes a more modular approach to music, as well as offering the ability to slide tracks in real time while the music is playing in order to 'fine tune' a groove. You can make the hi-hat a little later, make the snare drum a little earlier, do things like that to adjust the feel of each part. Any sequencer can do that, but to do it while you're listening in real time is very important. That's pretty critical when I'm working with pop people."
What about music notation?
"I've used Passport's Encore for a couple of things, but I also write by hand. I can write by hand faster than the computer can transcribe. For big orchestral scores, it might be worth it just for the extraction of parts. However, when a piece of music is transcribed by the computer, it's not 100% accurate - more like 75-80%. Getting it up to 100% takes as much if not more time than just writing it out and being done with it.
"I worked extensively on the soundtrack for a fairly successful syndicated cable TV series called Zorro with a composer named Jay Asher. Synthesis-wise it was orchestral simulation, but we also embellished the sound track with a small ensemble of live players. In addition to creating all the sounds, one of my jobs was to do score preparation. The parts for the musicians all came out of an Atari ST. The composer gave me sequencer files on disk from Notator, which is a very good program and its first guess is really good, but it's not enough. My job was to tweak the files and print them. Tweaking the parts - making them legible and meaningful for musicians - was an arduous process.
"Another type of software that I use quite a lot are the so-called 'interactive sequencers' from Intelligent Music called Upbeat and Jam Factory. They can be wonderful springboards for initial ideas. You play music into them as if they were a normal sequencer, but what they play back are endless variations of your material. In essence, they're improvising on your music.
"For example, you can play something into Upbeat, and it plays your part over and over again with constant variation. You can control the way in which it will improvise - specify rhythmic resolutions, densities, potential note variations, potential rhythmic variations. Sooner or later, something unexpected comes out. I can capture that in a MIDI File, transfer it into a regular sequencer, and incorporate it into a larger piece.
"You know, so much of science is based upon surprise. Something will surprise a scientist during an experiment. It may not be the result that they were initially looking for. An unexpected result happens, and that ends up becoming the goal. The goal wasn't anticipated before the process was determined. The same thing is true for these interactive composing programs. They don't replace what you do with a sequencer and your own creativity, but they do provide you with an unexpected beginning or unexpected results that can be used in a number of ways."
From Rona's comments, it seems that computers can help the composer a great deal. It's a safe bet, then, that his work as a sound designer is also being facilitated by silicon and software.
"I use either Opcode Vision or Mark of the Unicorn Performer - I tend to use Vision when I'm working on pop music, but on film scores, I use Performer."
"I use Alchemy for processing and editing samples. It allows me to siphon samples out of my sampler, manipulate them, and put them back in the sampler. Besides getting clean loops and edits for traditional sounds, I've also used it for doing strange manipulations to create weird scary sounds.
"For example, I did a TV show called False Witness. We kept seeing a close-up of the villain's hand in different scenes, and the composer needed a really evil sound to go with it. I brought the composer and the music editor over to my home studio, sampled their voices just saying nonsense syllables, put these samples into the computer with Alchemy, sliced them up into little bits, rearranged them at random into new unpronounceable syllables, ran them through some signal processing, and resampled the output. That became the sound of this evil character."
Given such power to create and manipulate new samples, organisation is a familiar problem to the composer. But being resourceful, it's one he's managed to solve.
"There isn't a commercially available librarian for samples", he agrees, "however, I wrote my own sample librarian with HyperCard. I'm able to siphon just the names of the samples from the sampler into the computer via MIDI and break them down into 11 categories. Things like drums, percussion, basses, synthesiser sounds, sound effects, brass, winds, strings, guitars, other plucked instruments, and miscellaneous.
"I do have an editor/librarian program for each of the synthesisers that I use. The librarians help me organise my synth sounds into categories similar to the samples. Patch editors can be a real time saver, even with easy to program synthesisers like the Korg M1. I can really zip around very quickly when I have things like graphic envelopes on the screen of the computer to see the relationship between the amplitude and filter envelopes of the same oscillator."
ANOTHER COMPUTER APPLICATION OF growing importance is hard disk recording, and Rona has wasted no time getting into that as well.
"I've just started playing around with hard disk recorders. We used the Dyaxis system on the Macintosh for the Jon Hassell record. We actually mastered the CD at my house. We dumped the two-track master onto the hard disk and saw the music visually as waveforms on the screen. Without doing anything destructive to the original music, we were able to chop it up, rearrange it, repeat sections, and do very sophisticated edits and crossfades that would have been impossible with a razor blade.
"Hard disk recording is a wonderful thing if you're doing something that requires post editing of any kind, or if there are sound problems. For example, the music might need some sophisticated EQ to get rid of a problem, or there's a balance problem, things like that.
If you're just doing straight mixing, you need a two-track recorder, and the worst one you could get would be a hard disk recorder. For one thing, you lose your Macintosh to it, and there are no discernible advantages. When you're done with it, you have it on a hard disk. You need a whole Macintosh just to play it back. You'll have to transfer it to master tape anyway, so you might as well start there. But if you need to go in and do some tricky editing, there's no replacement for it. And the sound quality is pretty good."
One of the greatest differences between the opportunities available to American musicians and those working in Britain is the practicality of networking computers. While it's comparatively expensive and unpopular here, the Americans are quite fond of it. As you might expect, Rona finds the communications aspect of computing to be extremely valuable.
"I'm a member of a service called PAN, the Performing Arts Network. It's a global collective of musicians from all over the place doing all kinds of things. It's an electronic bulletin board that allows musicians to interact with each other by sending each other little notes, posting them on a bulletin board and reading the other notes that people have put up.
"For example, if I'm having a problem, if a piece of equipment that I'm using isn't working the way I expected, I'll put up a note saying, 'Hey, I'm doing such and such and this is the result I'm getting and it's not what I want'. Undoubtedly, somebody on the network will have had the same experience already, and they'll say, 'Oh, you need to do such and such', or 'Yeah, that's a bug, it's not you'. And I've been able to return the favour. You can also download synth patches, samples, and software through your modem. It's also a hotline to some of the manufacturers. If you're having problems with a company's product, you can post a note and get some kind of technical response. It's a very cool, very useful thing.
"I also use telecommunications to send files back and forth to people I work with. I once needed somebody to play a solo on a piece that I was working on in my home studio, and I modemed my sequenced rhythm parts to a friend. He set up something in his studio that would make it sound about the same, sequenced the solo, and modemed it back to me about an hour later. I recorded it about an hour after that."
Of course, Rona must also manage the business side of his activities, and his computer is instrumental in this respect.
"I use a small accounting package to keep track of all my income and expenses. I'm self-employed, so it's really important for me to keep track. Instead of getting a regular pay cheque from one employer, I get pay cheques from many different employers. At the end of the year, I can just push a button and out comes a report that I can hand to my accountant.
"I've also written a program for myself in HyperCard that's my phonebook and invoicing system in one. For example, when I give a concert, I can generate mailing labels from my mailing list. When I do a job for a client, I can go to that client's listing in my program and ask for a new invoice. It pops up a little form and I indicate what my services were and what the bill was. It prints out an invoice and it says this invoice is due in the computer. When that cheque comes in, I mark the invoice paid and transfer the information over to my accounting package. My program also allows me to write short letters and generates a letterhead. I have all of my billing, correspondence, contacts, mailing list names, everything in one program."
It begins to sound important for musicians to understand not just the musical applications of computers, but computer programming itself. Are we all destined to become mathematicians rather than musicians?
"Not at all", comes the reassuring reply. "I don't think of using HyperCard as programming in the traditional sense. My programming experience has made it easier for me to learn how to use HyperCard, but it's a very simple system. It could also be done with other commercial programs, databases, spreadsheets, and other similar programs."
Clearly, there are a plethora of possibilities for computers in music. But there must also be certain developments that Rona would like to see in the future.
"It would be nice to see interactive composing programs mesh with traditional sequencers. Maybe one possibility for the future would be to link programs such that tracks one and two are being generated by one program and tracks three and four are being generated by another program, and they're all playing at the same time. You can sort of do that now with Apple's MIDI Manager, but it's just a bit unwieldy."
Food for thought - which will undoubtedly require some time to digest. So it's just as well Jeff Rona's off to perform a piece he wrote for his ensemble in collaboration with Loretta Livinston and her dance company at the Los Angeles Theater Center. I think I'll go and catch the show. It should be fascinating - if not, I can always play "spot the computer".