IT’S NOT A STRETCH to say that Hamilton changed everything. Lin-Manuel Miranda’s hip-hop inspired opus changed the way musical producers and audiences think — not just about America’s founding fathers but also about the American musical itself. For Will Wells and Scott Wasserman, members of the show’s musical staff, the sheer novelty of Hamilton meant taking on jobs never previously seen on Broadway.

Wasserman, whose background is in musical composition and orchestration, now works with software previously used primarily by DJs. His official title on the Hamilton staff is Ableton programmer. He met music director Alex Lacamoire during the 2012 Broadway revival of Annie and was brought on to Hamilton when it “was just a couple of songs,” Wasserman says. “Lin was making demos and I was turning those into sheet music and figuring out how to teach them to an ensemble. We realized using the piano to accompany these songs wasn’t effective and didn’t show off the style of music — that hip-hop and contemporary pop and radio sound. Alex asked me to look into this DJ software called Ableton.”

Scott Wasserman

 Scott Wasserman at work. Photo by Kim Vernace.

Wasserman used the software to create a library of drum loops, scratches, and other familiar hip-hop sounds. “I put together accompaniment tracks for the early workshops, and that job grew into what I ultimately do now for Hamilton on Broadway and for the touring companies,” Wasserman says. “All those electronic sounds and beats that aren’t made by instruments started as stock sounds Lin would find and put together in a software called Logic. We started with that as the base of the idea of what he was going for.”

Wasserman says Lacamoire took those ideas to another member of the show’s music team, Will Wells, who crafted each one into the distinctive sounds fans of the show now instantly recognize. “Alex would send the sounds to Will and say, ‘I want this to be more ’90s hip-hop or more like this artist,’” Wasserman says. “Will’s knowledge in those areas is fantastic. He absolutely transformed each sound.”

Like Wasserman, Wells was involved with Hamilton from its nascent stages. He met Lacamoire, a fellow alumnus of Boston’s Berklee College of Music, in 2011. “I was basically the music department intern on Bring It On, which was just starting its national tour,” Wells says. “At the time, Hamilton was just some demos for what was going to be a mixtape. I always told them [Lacamoire and Miranda] that, whenever this thing was ready to go, I needed to be there. I said, ‘I will drop anything I’m doing and come work on this.’ A few years later, I got that call. I flew to New York in October 2014 to be there on the ground.”

Wells faced the challenge of creating not only sounds that satisfied Miranda’s vision but also another entirely new job category. He served as the show’s electronic music producer. “For a show like this there was a challenge that had never existed before on Broadway,” he says. “These songs were written using the sonic language of hip-hop. With that comes a lot of samples, and that meant I was looking through these huge libraries of sounds and doing quality control. Are they processed? Are they loud enough? It’s basically mixing one individual sound after another.”

“My job,” Wells continues, “was to pay attention to the sonic quality and either enhance and sweeten or find and choose another sound. So I could say, ‘I think this sounds a little cooler, a little more contemporary.’ It wasn’t a small job. There are 50 songs in that show, and the majority of them use samples. There was a whole team — and stacks of spreadsheet — dedicated to this.”

Many samples that ended up in the show came from Wells’ personal library. As a producer, songwriter, and musician who has worked with A-list acts from Barbra Streisand to Wu-Tang Clan, he says he’s got a little bit of everything. “I’ve collected and traded samples over the years, and now I have this vast sample bank that I use,” Wells says. “On tour with LMFAO, I’d constantly be asking people, ‘Hey, you have any kits for me?’ For Hamilton, I used some commercially available samples, but I’d usually end up processing the sound and changing the sonic identity based on what the track required. We didn’t want to use anything stock. Whatever I could do to make it our own, I’d do.”

Once the samples were perfected, they’d go back to Wasserman and his DJ software. “I’d take what Will worked on — say he changed the sound of a snare or a high hat — put them back into the context of the song, and use Ableton to program all those new beats and sounds into place,” Wasserman says.

Part of Wasserman’s job is training Hamilton percussionists, both on Broadway and in the rapidly growing number of touring companies, to use the innovative software during each performance. “That percussionist is very busy in the pit,” Wasserman says. “He’s playing all sorts of drums, keyboard, shakers, and percussion toys. At the same time, he’s playing an electric drum pad that Will and the team have created, using a foot pedal to play the Ableton tracks, and trigger electronic sounds, lighting, and other effects in the show in perfect time with the orchestra.”

Wasserman remains involved with Hamilton, traveling to each new city before the performances begin to act as a rehearsal DJ and train the orchestra. Wells’ work on the hit show hasn’t ended either. “Every time there’s a new Aaron Burr, for instance, I have to do more of that mixing work and process vocals,” Wells says. “Every now and then there’s more processing that needs to be done with other characters, but particularly with the Burr vocals, there’s a lot of delays that happen and samples you hear using that performer’s voice.”

Wasserman still takes on traditional orchestration and composition work, but he’s also taken his Ableton expertise to other Broadway stages. “The role of an Ableton programmer has now become its own thing in the Broadway community, and more and more shows are starting to use it,” Wasserman says. “We use it for Dear Evan Hansen and Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812, but the way we’re using it in those shows is so different from Hamilton. Whenever I arrange things now I’m thinking about how I can use Ableton to enhance what I’m doing.”

Dear Evan Hansen incorporates distinct elements of video and projection, and Wasserman uses the Ableton software to meld the visual and musical components of the show into a singular experience. “The set on that show is primarily these moving screens and TVs that project and playback video that morphs as the show goes on,” he says. “What the director wanted to accomplish was to connect what’s happening in the music to what’s happening on the set, and I was able to use the software to make sure things are happening in tandem.”

On The Great Comet, Wasserman’s Ableton programming allows the sound designer to create a cutting-edge sonic experience. “That show is performed basically in the round, and the speaker system is complicated,” Wasserman says. “Ableton sends the sound through another system that can put different parts of tracks in certain speakers. We can even swirl the sound around the theatre.”

Technological innovations like Ableton software, Wasserman says, have fostered more collaboration among the different teams involved in creating a Broadway experience. He sees a shift from profit-driven jukebox musicals toward more avant-garde concepts. “I think that with Hamilton, and some of the shows that have been developed since, there’s a larger emphasis on deeper and more poignant storytelling,” he says. “There’s a move toward meatier content. Audiences are interested in complicated and challenging material. People aren’t afraid of that anymore. I think that’s made producers more focused on making art, and Ableton brings the different departments — music, lighting, set, choreography — together in a way that allows them to be more ambitious with the things they’re creating.”

Wasserman recognizes the rare opportunity he’s had to originate a tech theatre role. He sees limitless potential for theatrical innovations as long as producers remain responsive to new software, programming, and other technologies of the digital age.

“The first piece of advice I wish I’d been given when I was younger is that you don’t need to do one thing,” Wasserman says. “A lot of teachers tried to encourage me to focus on one set of skills, and that’s certainly good advice at specific points in your life. But overall I say just don’t limit yourself. I’ve benefitted so much from having experience across lots of areas. I never set out to be an Ableton programmer — a few years ago I didn’t know what Ableton was — but it’s turned into one of the most rewarding opportunities I’ve ever had.”

Wells emphasizes the importance of versatility, which he says comes from diversity of experience. To gain this, he suggests being open to a wide variety of entry level positions. “Be willing to do the simple jobs, like transcribing,” he says. “Sometimes it takes time to prove yourself, but that’s how you build trust. From there, just figure out how to keep adding value to everything you do. At the beginning, I didn’t know what Hamilton would end up being, but I wanted to continue to add value to it. That meant meeting challenges with an open mind, trying different things and listening to feedback. It allowed me to be surprised by the work I did at the end of the day.”

Wasserman also notes the importance of networking, especially in creative fields. “It’s about making connections and talking with as many people as possible,” he says. “You really never know which person you meet is going to be your collaborator on the next show. Never burn a bridge, because you’ll probably get a call out of the blue offering you a job.”

And according to Wells, in his fledgling field, when that job offer does come, the best preparation is organization. “Priority number one is get your archival skills up to par,” he says. “You should always be able to find what you need very quickly. There should be no downtime because you’re disorganized and can’t find a sample or a sound or a file. If you’re organized, you’re immediately more valuable as soon as you start a project. When you’re organized, you can get the job done and move on to the creativity quicker.”

In terms of specific skills to hone, Wasserman says aspiring Ableton programmers, or anyone who wants to work with music on today’s Broadway, should be comfortable in front of a computer. “My suggestion is to start by learning Finale, the music notation software that’s standard in the Broadway community,” Wasserman says. “Another big skill set is learning to transcribe music. You should be able to listen to a recording of a song or vocal line and write down the notes and the rhythm. It’s something you can learn in school, but it’s also a skill you can learn on your own.”

Wells suggests devoting time to ear training, using smartphone apps like Tenuto. “Instead of looking at Instagram, use your downtime to train your intervals and make your ear better,” he says. His biggest piece of advice, though, is much simpler. In his opinion, the most important thing for an aspiring creative professional to be is humble. “Be open to criticism,” he says. “Even if it’s your most precious creative baby. If you’re working on a project that requires multiple levels of input, be willing to make changes, adjust, and compromise. Remember that the work always wins. Your ego doesn’t win. The music does.”

This story appeared in the May 2017 print issue of Dramatics. Subscribe today to our print magazine.

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