The Career Chose Him: Ron Steele, I Dig Music (Chicago)

Composer Ron Steele of Chicago’s I Dig Music was practically born into the business. His father, Ron Steele, Sr., was a session musician and recording studio owner, and because of this, Steele says his early exposure to the Chicago music scene helped him naturally progress through his career path.

Steele says he officially broke into the business of creating music and sound design during the SAG strike of 1988. He explains that, when the union went on strike he was getting a decent amount of vocal work singing for commercials. When the strike ended, work became scarce because music producers, who were also SAG members, began hiring themselves again.

“When I realized that’s how it worked, I started a music company,” Steele says. “At that point jingles, in their traditional form, took a nose dive to post scoring and sound design. This is where my knowledge of traditional music recording, early synth and sampler technology really helped me to break in and evolve to where it’s at today.”

As far as composing music to coincide with visual media, Steele says the approach to this has changed drastically over the years. He says, “Years back, [composing for visuals] used to be about scoring every cue and hitting anything that moved in the visual with a particular music-driven style.”

He says this has gotten to be a lost art compared to the way visuals are scored today. “You still have to catch some nuances in the visual, but it’s more about marrying the overall vibe and mood of the spot and letting the creative concept drive the visual.

“Things are way more free and progressive than in the past,” he continues. “Music and sound are still extremely important, but today I would have to say the right groove and atmosphere are more important than a clarinet cue.”

Steele says that to be able to compete in today’s marketplace, a composer must be able to turn over any request overnight and be available to answer the phone 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

He also says interpreting clients’ requests is where his years of experience come into play. “Get a note pad out and write down everything a client says,” offers Steele. “Look at the picture and concept and see what makes sense and what doesn’t…Sometimes there is no clear direction and only a hint. This is what becomes the abstract element, and you can usually bet that they are not looking for a clarinet cue.”

At the end of the day, composing for commercials and visual media involves collaborating with an audio mixer, tweaking files and posting them online. “Basically, whoever is closest to the mouse before the final mix is printed gets the final say,” says Steele.