Things That Go Boom In The Night

By • March 17, 2011

Ron Aston is a Los Angeles based music programmer who specializes in contemporary drums/percussion programming, as well as sound design for motion pictures and television. He began his music career as a drummer and toured extensively with various artists and later became a full-time studio musician. He was one of the first drummers in Los Angeles to make the move to include electronic drums, percussion and programming to his world of creativity. He has also written and produced music for TV and radio commercials and written or co-written, songs that have been recorded by various artists. Among the composers he has worked for are James Horner, John Debney, Mark Snow, and Danny Elfman.

Jay Asher: Hi Ron, Thanks for doing this. I know you from many years ago when you were primarily a very good drummer. Are you also trained with classical percussion?

Ron Aston: Early on, at the age of 10, I began playing drums and started taking drum lessons in the public school system at that time, as well as private lessons. Around the age of 18 or so I began taking private drum lessons, as well as mallet lessons at the Hartt School of Music in Hartford, Conn. The mallet lessons ended early on when my instructor took off to play with the Ice Capades. Soon after that I moved to Los Angeles and did not pursue mallets any further, unfortunately.

I first remember seeing you work with electronic percussion using a Yamaha module that was like 8 DX7s in a rack?

Oh yeah, I was using a couple of Yamaha TX 802s. It was FM percussion and it was great. That was just one of many new sound elements that I began using at that time. FM percussion was different and unique.

How did you get started doing electronic drums and percussion? What lead you to the conclusion there was market for it and got you interested?

During the time that drum machines started coming into fashion, like the Linn drum and such, all of a sudden there wasn’t as much work for regular drummers on recording sessions, whether they be for records, film and TV dates, or demos. They thought this new Linn drum machine was all they needed and it worked for them. I have to give full credit to Steve Schaeffer for my decision to pursue this new direction, as well as Nan Schwartz for telling me to “think like a percussionist” when I first started working with her on the TV series ‘In the Heat of the Night’.

I was thinking “What can I do to be different” and I saw a picture of Steve on the cover of Modern Drummer magazine sitting at his drums with this rack of electronic devices behind him, and I have always been electronically inclined, and suddenly the light bulb went off in my head and I said THAT’S what I’m looking for. I started with a Linn drum thinking who could program a drum machine better than a real drummer and then I got Simmons drums and it went from there. I started getting work from film composers who wanted that ‘new’ sound for their scores at the time. I think Joe Conlan was probably to first one to hire me when he was doing the TV series “Simon and Simon” and some TV movies he scored during that period of time. He liked to experiment with sounds and was always encouraging to me in that regard. Steve Schaeffer was the first call for ‘Simon and Simon’ and I eventually became the first call sub, because Steve was very busy at the time, because he was “the king.” (Jay laughs) Steve was the pioneer for integrating electronic drums and percussion into film and TV scores in Los Angeles and I owe my career from that point on to him for introducing composers to this new dimension in sound and for the new opportunities it provided for drummers like myself.

At that point in time sequencers were primarily MIDI so were you already working with MIDI files?

No, not then. In those days guys like me and synth players, would be given written parts, sketchy as they were and we would arrive to the session an hour or so earlier than the others and do most of the required programming then and in between cues during the session. It was very frustrating for me, especially with the Linn drum as it was all pattern based programming, like 2 bars or 4 bars. I didn’t like working that way, it was too mechanical. Worse than that, whenever the composer had to make changes during the recording session, you had to know which ‘step’ was bar 34, and I hated it. That is what eventually led me to using a sequencer to do all of my programming. I was one of the first guys in LA to actually play the parts I was given into a sequencer rather than the pattern based drum machine method. That, to me ,made way more sense, especially because now the meter and bar map in the sequencer matched the score. If a change need to be made at bar 67, it was simply a matter of going to bar 67 in the sequence and not having to think about what ‘step’ it was like in the LinnDrum

So you would actually play your stuff on a live date into the sequencer?

Yes. I got an Octapad and a Mallet Kat and I would play whatever sound modules we were using at that time from one of those percussion controllers, as well as a midi keyboard, into the sequencer one part, or one track at a time, eventually creating a ‘Wall O’ Sound’.

What was your first sequencer? Mine was a Roland MC-500?

Yes, me too, the MC-500 was the one that I had at first. Then I started using a Mac computer and MOTU’s Performer to do all of that. It gave me a much bigger window to work in when compared to the MC-500’s little LCD window. It was also the first time I could actually visualize the whole score from a sort of bird’s eye view.

So you had to deal with of playing live into a sequencer while other, you’ll pardon the expression, real instruments (Ron laughs) were being recorded at the same time. That must have been a lot of pressure.

It was, but usually I’d play the parts in during the first rehearsal of a cue. They would hand you the music for the cue and there wasn’t a lot of time to actually program these things in between cues, so guys like me, Steve and Mike Fisher started getting to the recording sessions at least an hour early and program the cues that needed to be programmed and then one by one, we’d start running them down when the session began. A good chunk of the time, I would still be playing live drums while there would be a sequence running at the same time in the background and that was a whole other thing, making sure that everything was synced and locked to click or time code. We all had devices like a thing called the Dr.Click and we had to make sure that we hit the button at the right time during the countoff, like after the first 4 of 8 warning clicks. Often the composers were up late the night before the session writing and the first time they would hear what we did was at the session when we ran it down with the whole orchestra. If they didn’t like something they would ask for changes and that was not fun. It was an interesting time, to say the least. I’m glad those days are over. When think back to that time it seems like we were all at the mercy of ‘Flintstones’ technology compared to what is possible today.

In a way though it probably gave you more creative freedom than nowadays when every composer has all these libraries like Stormdrum 2 and Stylus RMX for example, and you are more hands on about this, right?

Yes. I also use some of the same sound sources, libraries and even some loops, but the way that scoring to picture has evolved over the years, composers use these sounds as they’re writing and start out with their own parts. The people I work with will give me what they’ve done and then ask me to ”make it better.” A lot of times I will end up using at least some their original parts and ideas, as you can tell the cue was written around these elements. If necessary, I’ll add another element or layer to strengthen their original part or idea.

Do composers then however ask you to come up with ways to use what they have given you and make it sound different? After all, no matter how inventive the composer is with these tools there is a danger of everybody starting to sound the same.

Exactly. If somebody calls me I’m grateful for that because obviously they want something more than just using loops in Stylus RMX or what comes out of the box. Most composers don’t have the time to spend coming up with a lot of unique sounds. Usually they want me to add my take on their ideas and music and that’s what I do.

As I said, back in the day when you were using FM percussion with the Yamaha TX modules, your stuff really did sound different from anyone else’s.

Thanks. I’ve always enjoyed experimenting with new sounds. I still do.

Much as we composers like to think we write equally well for all sections of the orchestra, I think percussion is where commonly we understand the least.

A lot of times it does seem that way. I guess that drums, percussion and rhythms are a different animal.

Even with traditional percussion, the notation can be more vague. You look at a score like Luciano Berio’s “Circles” with all the percussion, mallets, and harp, and you can see he was making up new ways of notating what he wanted. He had to find his own way to do it. I think contemporary film composers have adopted some of that approach to percussion notation. Composers perhaps write and then have to explain to you “when you see this squiggle up, it means a shimmering kind of thing, etc.” Do you see much of that or is it pretty much all MIDI files?

I used to see things like that and sometimes I still do, but at this point, composers now seem to have so little time to complete a score that they don’t always have enough time to give me more details as to what they actually want me to do in certain situations.

Even on well-budgeted films? I know you were working on one of Danny Elfman’s projects recently and he is one of the most ‘A’ level of ‘A’ level composers so I would assume he can get a fair amount of time.

He probably could, but the funny thing is, it doesn’t always happen as you would think. I worked on his “The Wolfman” score that he did for Universal and that was an interesting, as well as technically challenging project for me. Danny had already completed the score when it was decided that it needed more ‘energy’. I wasn’t involved with the movie at this point so I’m only repeating what was told to me by others who were involved at the time.

It was decided that a new, more contemporary sounding score should be done by a different composer, keeping in mind that Danny gave them exactly what they asked for. But then they (Universal) thought the new composer’s score might’ve gone too far the other way, and about 8 music editors later, a music editor that I know named Jay Duerr became involved and suggested they they use Danny’s original score and maybe add some additional percussion to it. He presented a temp to the producers that he put together using Danny’s cues, but Jay added some temp percussion and low drum elements of his own, just to get the idea across and that was enough for them to say “OK, well let’s try that.”

At that point I was brought in to add some active drum-percussion programming with an emphasis on big low drums. I also added a number of eerie FX here and there, as well as some sound design in a few spots. As I mentioned earlier, Danny did exactly what they wanted him to do in the beginning. Then they changed their minds and it went through a lot of evolutions. I should also mention that at the time I was brought in, Conrad Pope was also brought in to write new compositional material to bridge together the cues where basically the music editor took bits and pieces of Danny’s score and reworked new cues to accommodate more recent picture changes, whether the music was written for these scene or not. Jay did as he saw fit and Universal was happy with the final product which included additional music by Conrad Pope as well. Conrad, Jay Duerr and myself worked as a team. We spotted a lot of the movie together and I added my elements where they felt that they were needed throughout the score.

Because most of the final score was created from editing together various parts of Danny’s original score, the most challenging part of this project was that there was written music for me, no tempos, no meter maps, no anything so what I had to do first was take the picture and guide tracks that I requested and create a Pro Tools session for each reel. I normally try and get picture and guides if possible because I find it very helpful to actually see what’s happening on the screen as I come up with my sounds and parts. This was particularly a technical challenge because I had to go through and create tempo and meter maps, beat by beat in Pro Tools for each cue of the live orchestra tracks and it really got challenging where there were tempo changes. Not to mention that there were a lot of mixed meters as well. After that process was done, I just went through each reel and did my programming, cue by cue.

That’s an awful lot of work! I hope you were well compensated.

They took care of me. (Ron laughs)

Would you say that typically now the composer sends you a stereo mix including the percussion they’ve done and one without, along with the tempos and a click or do they generally send you the whole project? And either way, what do you prefer?

That’s seems to be the $64,000 question. Composers who want to hire me say, “Well, how do I work with you?” and this is what I tell them: I would love to get 2 audio mixes of their cue that they written in Logic, DP, etc if possible. One with everything but their percussion elements and another of JUST their percussion that they’ve done. That way I have the option of muting things, or parts of things if I need to and then add my parts accordingly. Then I also ask for a MIDI file for the meter map and tempo info. And if I really get bold I’ll ask them to write a part for me, but as I said earlier, in recent years they don’t always have the time to write out parts for me. I’ll ask them if they can at least put some information in the markers track of whatever DAW they are using. Just some kind of brief description of what they’d like. Most of the time, that is pretty much all I need unless it is something very specific that they have in mind.

I would think most composers are pretty confident about writing timpani or timpani-esque type parts where we do not want a timpani but a sound that fills that role that a timpani would fill. Or mallets, because most keyboard players have a basic understanding of what they do so they are not going to screw that up (Ron laughs) but speaking for myself with more contemporary sounds I might be at a loss as to how to notate it in a clear way so I am more likely to provide an example or say “ like hi hats but a more interesting sound than hi hats.”

Yes, that’s perfect, but also mention if they have heard it on a particular score and even better than that, if they could send me an mp3 of the actual section and say “I want something LIKE that but NOT that. So it’s always great to have an audio example because a lot of times it’s just hard to explain.”

I will tell you what fascinates me and I am not seeing a lot of it yet. You and I attended a demonstration with the great Emil Richards a while ago where he played everything in the world you could think of that could be turned into a percussion instrument. Do you think there is much opportunity for you to take sounds like this and work with them electronically, keeping some of the properties while changing others or is time and money just too prohibitive for doing that?

The stuff that Emil was doing that morning was unbelievable. I sat there with the trout look…mouth wide open. What he was doing just sounded amazing. I love taking samples of those kinds of phrases or unique rhythmic sounds and manipulating them with FX, or using Melodyne where you can literally change the melodic line completely if desired, or any number of other things you can do within ProTools or the other DAWS. I also do a lot of sound layering in what I do.

My feeling is that as composers we have only begun to scratch the surface of what is possible, within the limitations of time and money. If I were asked to do an unusual score for a non-traditional picture with an open-minded director, it would be great to take a lot of these kind of sounds and morph them into other things with the kind of methods you described. I think that would be really exciting. Much as I love some of the great libraries that are out there I do hear a lot of things that sound the same. I don’t think that is in the composers’ best interest or the filmmakers’ best interest.

Yeah, I agree.

Finally, are there mistakes that you commonly feel composers make that you might now say specifically to them but that you would advise us against? Do we over write percussion sometimes?

Sometimes yes, but I think it is just because as we were saying before, the percussion is sometimes just a foreign thing and they might think that they have to overwrite certain parts where they really don’t have to. For me, less is more sometimes, because I usually don’t need that much info, especially if the composer has given me audio files of their cues or an audio reference, even if they’re just basic parts. But I always trust their judgment in the end because after all, it is their music and I learn something from every composer I work with.

The process of working with me really isn’t that hard. All I need from them are MIDI files, audio guides of the music and a few notes which they can send me by using email, DropBox, iDisk, Digi Delivery, etc. When I finish each cue, I’ll usually send them an mp3 mix of what I’ve done for them to hear. Once they’re happy, I’ll split out the parts onto separate audio tracks and send them back to them using the same method as before.

One thing I worry about with percussion, especially higher percussion, is competing with the dialogue and sound FX because sometimes when we are scoring, we may not have the final version of the FX or dialog may still be being looped, a work in progress, and if we get in the way of those things, we can lose a cue so we have to split a lot of it out.

That’s true, but there is a funny thing about that and I am sure a lot of composers will be as surprised as I was the first time I heard a sound editor say this. During the last few years, I have also been doing sound design and sound editing. I am currently working on a new A&E series called “Breakout Kings” and the sound FX editors feel the same way that music people do. They say, “Well it doesn’t matter about the sound EFX here because of course the music will take over and be louder than the sound EFX.” And I tell these guys, “You’ve gotta be kidding me!” That’s so funny to hear and it’s just not true most of the time. I’m sure it goes both ways but in a perfect world, it would really be great when possible for the music and FX people to work together on the overall soundtrack of the movie. I realize that logistically, this isn’t always possible.

Yes, that’s interesting. For example, you have worked with Mark Snow. When he was doing “Ghost Whisperer”, which I thought he did a terrific job with, there were a lot of whoosh type sounds and I find myself wondering how much of that did Mark put in as part of his percussion palette and how much the sound FX guys did.

Well, I think that composers still add their own EFX, but what I’m seeing more and more and even on the show that I’m working on now, is that a lot of these elements are added by the sound editors and even by the picture editors. I suppose that it all gets worked out at the dub in the end.

I don’t know if I should put them in where I deem them important as percussion or if they will have ones they like better.

It’s probably best for the composer to have all of his or her music tracks separated or split out, to be safe…the dubbing mixer will love you for that. Usually I will give a composer or dub stage a stereo mix of low drums, another of mid percussion, another of just high percussion and another of just FX. That way the FX don’t get mixed in with the music tracks and if somebody at the dub doesn’t like a certain sound or other element, they’ll have more options when the composer’s audio tracks are delivered to the stage in groups of ‘like’ elements.

Thanks again for your time and knowledge, Ron.


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