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Talkback: Leslie Gaston-Bird

AES President, Studio Owner & Lecturer By William Stokes
Published July 2024


Leslie Gaston‑Bird’s CV boasts an unusually broad array of career exploits, from her role as Broadcast Recording Technician with America’s national radio station NPR to recording the Colorado Symphony at the famous Boettcher Hall. “I worked at a radio station while I was at uni,” she explains. “When I got my job at National Public Radio, they gave me a 31‑question exam, which had to do with things like, ‘How does a compressor work?’ ‘What is a preamp?’ ‘What is the input and output impedance of a console?’ And I knew all the answers to those questions. So I got the job!”

Today, Gaston‑Bird is the owner of Brighton’s Golden Reel Award‑nominated audio post‑production studio, Mix Messiah Productions, President of the Audio Engineering Society and a lecturer in Sound Recording and Music Production at City University, London, having completed her PhD not long ago. She’s also written the Routledge‑published book Women In Audio, profiling almost 100 notable female practitioners across eight chapters representing different disciplines.

“You’ve gotta have five jobs at a time!” she laughs. “But now my goal is to just have one job...”

At the moment I can’t stop listening to

Well, at the moment I can’t stop listening to student projects, because I’m marking! I’ve had Thundercat on loop, pretty hardcore, particularly while I was doing my PhD. His album Drunk. And then, Pat Metheny and Lyle Mays did the album ages ago called Still Life (Talking). So I listened to Still Life (Talking) on repeat while I was working on my PhD because it soothed me, it calmed me down. More recently, in the last three days, I’ve been listening to MC Solaar’s Paradisiaque. Lately, it’s been jazz, hip‑hop. I mean, the bass lines... I like that fretless bass sound. As I was listening to Still Life (Talking), I went and looked for a live performance of one of those songs. You know how some people say, “You can’t make it sound like the album on stage”? Well, actually, you can. The Pat Metheny group: my God. To see it performed live only added to it. I had that on loop. I was calling my son, like, “Look at this! Look at the marimba player! Look at the guitarist putting down their guitar to play the marimba! Oh, my God! That’s amazing!” I found out one of the guitarists passed away, but I would have loved to get to know the guy. He sang, played guitar and marimba. All in the same song!

The project I’m most proud of

Well, I would say that it was [2023 movie] Publish Or Perish, which I did the sound for. We just got back from Los Angeles, where we were nominated for a Golden Reel award. So I’m very proud of that Golden Reel nomination. Especially given that we had such a small crew, and we lost out to The Last Kingdom, which had a huge budget! But you know, we were in that same category. And I’m very proud of that.

David Liban directed the film. It’s about a professor who accidentally runs over a student with a car, so we’re gonna say that’s a dark comedy... And this professor wanted tenure. I don’t think you can get tenure in England; but in America, if you are a professor and you get tenure, it’s really hard for them to fire you. So the professor in this movie is like, “I gotta get tenure,” and he’s trying to turn in his dossier and he runs over this kid. And he’s like, “I’m gonna take you to the hospital as soon as I drop off my dossier,” but the kid dies. So it asks how you live with yourself after that. And it’s funny, so please watch it! I can relate to the story, just having been under that kind of pressure. I never killed anybody, though!

I did the re‑recording mixing for that. Our little crew put this thing together. And to do it in a small studio like mine, in 5.1 surround sound, using iZotope and all the tools that we have access to, being trusted by a director, doing the final mix... It just sort of validated me, it was like, “Yeah, I can be trusted by a director to do great sound design.” We wanted to finish the film, but we could take our time with it. And I really enjoyed the process of doing sound design for that film.

Leslie Gaston‑Bird: A studio can look pretty, you can see the cosmetics and you can see the treatment, but the question is: how does it sound? I want to know how it sounds.

The first thing I look for in a studio

The first thing I do when I walk into the studio is this: [claps]. I like it when it’s on the dry side. One studio I’ve been in love with was at National Public Radio in their old building: Studio One, I think, at the Massachusetts Avenue [Washington, DC] building. It was clear as a bell. Transparent. Lovely. You know, a studio can look pretty, you can see the cosmetics and you can see the treatment, but the question is: how does it sound? I want to know how it sounds.

The person I would consider my mentor

I’m gonna say Wayne Jackson. And David Pickett. Those were the two professors I had at Indiana University. And I have great respect for the curriculum they put together. I still have great respect for that programme, because it’s an Audio Engineering programme. I think, today we often try to relate to our students. But they weren’t trying to relate to us, they were just putting information into your head! And I appreciate that. It was like, “I don’t want to know you personally.” I think it’s a Gen X thing: we try to relate, to get in touch with the inner child... you know, “How are you feeling” But for me, I really just appreciated knowing shit.

My go‑to reference track or album

It’s going to be Thomas Dolby, The Flat Earth. I mean, I picked that back when I could hear above 18kHz! Back when I had baby ears when I was 18, 20 years old. And those frequencies are in there from the very beginning, as soon as you hit play. It just gives you everything.

My top tip for a successful session

Calibrate. Make sure it’s all calibrated. And make sure your workflow is ready to go. Because if you don’t know what your listening level is, and you have to be routing shit, you will waste time. So, you know, your speakers are at 78dB sound pressure level... If you’ve got an analogue thing going into your converter, you know, make sure it’s at line level and it’s not going to clip; or if you’re just working in the box, set your levels. Know where zero is!

The studio session I wish I’d witnessed

Snarky Puppy: ‘Lingus’ [from 2014’s We Like It Here]. Now that would have been cool, to be in there for that. They had people in the audience wearing headphones, in the round. It was this big thing, and they had video... I would have loved to see the setup. Like, where did the headphone boxes go? How did they do cable management!? I think that engineer did do like a walkthrough of some other thing where they had 128 channels. I was like, “Jesus: 128 channels? For 12 guys? OK, actually, I can understand that!” But yeah, it’s kind of insane.

The producer I’d most like to work with

Todd‑f**king‑Rundgren! He’s scary... he’s a moody guy. He’ll probably read this and hopefully he will laugh. But, you know, he scares me! And much like my thing about Wayne Jackson: to be afraid of someone, it gives you a different work ethic. I don’t know what that says about me — I don’t believe that people should be bullied, I don’t believe that people should be yelled at or intimidated, that’s not my style. But, if you have respect for the person, like a good sergeant; that’s when you’re like, “OK, this has gotta be on point.” It gives you a different energy. It makes you pay attention to things in a different way than just “Oh, let’s have fun!” You know: “Let’s have fun” is different to “Don’t f**k up.” You just bring a different level of professionalism to the session if it’s a “don’t f**k up” session.

The part of music creation I enjoy the most

Hearing pretty sounds. The Energy. You know, I think it’s that tickle you get when you’re working with other people to make pretty sounds. You get an energy, like, “All right! That’s really hitting!” I think that’s my favourite part. You can hear anything come through speakers, but if you’re sharing it with somebody, that’s The Energy. That’s what I call it: The Energy. Capital T, capital E!

The advice I’d give myself of 10 years ago

Go to Los Angeles! Starve! It’ll be OK! It’s sunny out there, all the time. And the networking is amazing. I mean, everybody is out there! It’s not a secret to anybody who knows me that I wish I was there. Every time I go I’m telling everyone “I’m going to LA!” It has amazing studios, amazing engineers... people who are genuinely there to help you. People want to help you solve your creative dilemma. They want to help you solve your technical dilemma. They want to listen to your thing and give you feedback. And, OK, it is cut‑throat competition. But still, I would tell myself to go to LA.