Traditional hands‑on training gave Leslie Ann Jones the skills she needed to head up one of the world’s most advanced scoring stages.
Recording engineer Leslie Ann Jones has won four Grammys and been nominated another four more times. She’s also been inducted into the TEC (Technical Excellence and Creativity) Awards’ Hall of Fame. The daughter of big‑band sound innovator Spike Jones and singer Helen Grayco, she grew up immersed in music.
“My first impulse is always to listen to music to see if I enjoy it — to see if it moves me,” she says. “It’s really always about what my first visceral reaction to it is, and that has nothing to do with the way it sounds.”
However, her years of listening have led her to realise that sonics often have an unconscious influence on this immediate response. “Sometimes, though, I find if I’m not liking it or if something is getting in between me and my enjoyment of the music, it could end‑up being because somebody left pops on the vocals, or because it’s bad vocal editing where somebody could not have sung that part in their lifetime. Maybe it’s because I grew up with a mother who was a singer, but I certainly understand singing and phrasing. And even if in my work I might be editing the crap out of a vocal take, I always make sure that the performance is something that I feel that person could have actually sung.”
Starting her career in 1976 as the first female assistant engineer ever hired at ABC Studios in Los Angeles, Leslie Ann went on to work at San Francisco’s Automatt, where she ran sessions with many well‑known artists. Her next stint was at Capitol Studios before she eventually landed at George Lucas’ Skywalker Sound, where Leslie Ann is currently the Director of Music Recording and Scoring.
Returning from San Francisco to LA was, at the time, a big wrench for Jones. “As much as I loved my time at Capitol Studios [1987‑1997], it was very hard for me to leave the Bay Area and go back to Hollywood, where I was kind of born and raised. I really had come to grips with the fact that it’s such a company town that, you know, you can be in the gym and in the locker room and hear women talking about what script they read or what part they tried out for. It was kind of a strange experience because I realised that everything in my hometown was based on the entertainment industry, and depending on the next phone call you were going to get told whether you were worth anything or not. Everybody’s self worth was based on whether they were picked for something or not.
“And that was so different from my experience in the Bay Area, where your self worth and advancement were totally dependent on what you actually did and how good of a job you were able to do and how much effort you put into it.”
The thorough training that Leslie Ann Jones received as a tape‑op and assistant engineer is, she feels, something that the current generation of engineers are missing out on. “While people like Finneas [O’Connell] can be successful recording his sister, Billie Eilish, in his bedroom and get lots of Grammys, I think that is the exception not the rule. The biggest difference today is you can watch lots of YouTube videos, but it’s not the same thing as being in a room and seeing how people work and how they do things and being able to ask them questions. So online things end up being more about self‑discovery than being able to learn from someone. I am very grateful for the time I had working with great engineers, and I wouldn’t be where I am today if it wasn’t for people who wanted to be my mentor and wanted to see me succeed.”
One of the most important skills Jones learned from her mentors was the lost art of preparation. “With newer engineers, probably the biggest mistake I see is somebody coming into the session and they’re not really prepared. They failed to do any pre‑production planning. They don’t kind of know what they want. They’re just making judgments at the time while the clock’s ticking and while the client is paying for it. I think that’s probably the biggest thing I see.”
Jones has worked with artists as diverse as Con Funk Shun, Kronos Quartet, Holly Near, BB King, Alice In Chains and Herbie Hancock, as well as being road manager and front‑of‑house engineer for groundbreaking all‑female, early‑’70s rock band Fanny. She states that flexibility in methods is critical — and a necessity — in both the technological and the ‘people skills’ aspects of engineering. But, other things being equal, Leslie Ann prefers to record musicians live, whether they’re a symphonic orchestra or bebop trio.
“When people are playing together in the same room, their dynamics are inherent in their performance. If I’m doing my job right, I should be able to put all the faders at zero and you should be able to hear a relatively decent mix without me turning anything up or down. If I know a solo’s coming up, I’ll intentionally record it louder so that I don’t have to ever turn it up again, you know?”
It’s a preference that sometimes goes against trends in modern production, however. “As much as I like to record live if I can get away with it, unfortunately, over the last 10 or 15 years people are so used to being able to fix things in post‑production that isolation has become more important than it used to be. Not just due to the sound of bleed being considered good or bad, but simply to have the ability to make corrections after the fact.
“It really depends on how much isolation is needed. Obviously, you need more isolation for a loud rock band than an acoustic jazz quartet or something like that. But I also think one gets a much better performance when people are in the room at the same time and can look at each other and take cues off of each other.”
Working with large ensembles to capture live performances also brings other changes that can affect engineering decisions. “With an 85‑piece orchestra, you have a lot of bodies soaking up the sound and a lot of air moving around. You might be able to afford using fewer microphones, and more tube mics than [solid‑state] condensers.”
The Covid crisis has, of course, made orchestral recording challenging, so Jones has had to use the flexibility that she’s learned over the years. “Because of Covid, we have had to record orchestras in sections. In some cases, every musician is in their own room. Since they’re not hearing everybody in the same room, their sense of dynamics is a little off kilter because they’re not with a group. So I’ve had to make up for that lately by creating the dynamics with certain sections after the fact.”
The experienced engineer also needs to be flexible about equipment choices, but again, Jones has her preferences. High on her list is the Neumann M149 large‑diaphragm valve mic. “If I am working with a new vocalist, the M149 is one of the first mics I’ll put up, along with a couple of other things. But I would have to say 75 percent of the time, the Neumann is the mic I end up using. Part of the strength of the Neumann M149 is that it ends up working well on a lot of different singers — male and female. It is hard to find a good vocal mic that works on both men and women.
“The 149 has a very high output, so if you’re dealing with a singer that has a lot of dynamics, it works really well also because you don’t have to drive the preamp so hard because the microphone itself has a very high output. Plus, it just has a really good sound. I mean, I’ve also used them in a stereo pair for solo piano records.”
This high output is particularly valuable in a classical‑music context where mic‑to‑source distances tend to be greater. “If you think about pop singing where you put your thumb and your pinkie out and that’s the distance that you want the microphone to be, you would probably double or even triple that if you’re working with a classical singer. So right away, you’re not necessarily close to the singer, which is another reason why the 149 works so well with its high output.
“I occasionally use a far mic, only to capture the dynamics. Sometimes the tone of a vocalist changes as their range changes or as their dynamics change. More than distortion, it becomes a kind of a bit of harshness in the vocal itself. So I find it helpful just to hang a separate mic, and it doesn’t even need to be the same mic. Like a DPA works perfectly — a foot or more away — and then I record both mics and often times, if there is an issue with a take, I will use that far mic for certain phrases or even words because I can EQ it differently and you’d never even know it was a different mic.”
Jones’ favourite outboard gear includes the Avalon 737 as a preamp for vocals and the classic Lexicon 224 reverb, largely due to it being very compatible with the sound of the room at Skywalker.
When mixing, Leslie Ann’s philosophy is to use reverb and the stereo field to create front‑to‑back depth, and to build the mix around the central element of the song or track. “If there is a vocal or a solo instrument, that always has to be the most important element, and every other element has to support it. I think lyrics are extremely important, because if you don’t understand what’s being sung, then you’re not really getting the point of the story that the singer is trying to tell. So in terms of having the vocal be the most important thing, then you have to be able to build that depth around the vocal so that things aren’t competing with it.
“That’s one of the things I learned very early on: if I was having trouble hearing something in a mix, it was either because the frequencies were competing with something else or because they were not separated enough in the stereo field. So I use panning a lot in my mixing to be able to hear things and separate parts that have a similar frequency range.”
Leslie Ann is also very aware of the fact that tools such as compression can make music less engaging to listen to. “I moved a couple of years ago, and so I’ve been going through my LP collection and also my CD collection just to see what I really want to hang on to. It’s really interesting going back to the vinyl and hearing the kind of mixes and the dynamic range that was present in vinyl that you don’t necessarily get now either on CDs or with streaming services. I think some of the compression is very appropriate for certain kinds of music, but some of the compression really sort of ruins it for me.
“Maybe it’s because I spend so much time recording live musicians in the same room, but that ebb and flow — the space that one gets, meaning the lack of sound, the pauses and lower volume versus the higher volume — that’s all part of enjoying music. And if it’s all on 11 all the time, I think that makes it hard to have that experience.”
Leslie Ann Jones: If I’m doing my job right, I should be able to put all the faders at zero and you should be able to hear a relatively decent mix without me turning anything up or down.
Despite all of her success, Leslie Ann makes clear that selflessness and invisibility are important values in engineers, and she concludes with one parting piece of advice for anyone entering the profession. “I would just remind people starting out, that they are in service of that client. I mean if they even get a credit on a record, they should feel really lucky because many people don’t even get that, right?
“Remember that you’re not the centre of the universe and we’re in a service business. Our job is to make whoever is hiring us have their work sound the best that it can possibly sound.
“It’s not my album. It’s the artist’s album. They’re the ones that have fundraised or gotten a label deal or mortgaged their house to come in the studio. And they deserve as much respect as I can give them, regardless of whether they’re a household name or it’s their first record.”
Leslie Ann Jones has worked tirelessly to promote opportunities for women in the music industry. She was the first female National Officer of the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences (the organisation that awards the Grammys), and she is on the advisory board for the Women’s Audio Mission, an all‑volunteer, women‑run organisation dedicated to the advancement of women in the recording arts.
After many years of hard work, she feels her efforts are beginning to bear fruit. “I am pretty amazed now, actually, when you look at the landscape and the amount of women that are working as recording engineers and producers. I also think it’s a function of the way the music business has changed, where so much more is based on people that kind of do more than just one thing. When I was starting out, you were an engineer or you were a producer. You were not an engineer and a producer and a singer‑songwriter and an instrumentalist. That kind of thing didn’t happen. If it did, it didn’t happen very often.”
Part of Leslie’s influence has been by leading by example. Not only has she won multiple Grammys herself, but she has done so in both classical and non‑classical music, worlds that often remain mutually isolated. “I think I was the first female engineer to win for Best Engineered Album, Classical . In 2014, I was nominated in the Best Engineer category and Trina Shoemaker [Sheryl Crow, Queens Of The Stone Age] was nominated as well. It was the first time that there were two women engineers nominated for Best Engineered Album (Non‑Classical). So I do think that things have changed quite a bit and it’s pretty amazing. Now you have people like, you know, Laura Sisk who is Jack Antonoff’s go‑to engineer. And she does all of Taylor Swift’s vocal work.
“I never really thought I would be a career engineer. But… here I am, 40 years later.”