The Copper Interview

Leslie Ann Jones, Part 1

While there are engineers who have become celebrities in their own music specialty fields, there are some old-school-trained engineers who are able to handle any kind of audio demand, from lip sync recording for a movie, to jazz trios, to power rock ensembles, to chamber music string quartets, all the way to full orchestras. Fewer still are those engineers who win multiple Grammy Awards in different music genres. However, only one has been put in charge of one of the most cutting-edge studios in the world: Leslie Ann Jones, the Director of Music Recording and Scoring at Lucasfilm’s Skywalker Sound.

As the daughter of the legendary Spike Jones and singer Helen Grayco, Leslie Ann Jones grew up in the music industry. Discovering a talent for sound mixing, she initially did live PA sound engineering, including mixing for the pioneering female band Fanny on their 1974 world UK tour. As a recording engineer, she apprenticed with Roy Halee (Simon & Garfunkel, Blood, Sweat & Tears), among others at ABC Records before launching her own career. A casual client list of Leslie Ann Jones includes her work with Miles Davis, Herbie Hancock, The Kronos Quartet, Alice in Chains, Quincy Jones, B.B. King, Bobby McFerrin, The Winans, Carlos Santana, Van Morrison, and many others. Her film work includes: Apocalypse Now, Requiem For a Dream, and Happy Feet. She has also supervised and engineered video game scores for such games as G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra and Star Wars: The Force Unleashed. In the home video field, Leslie Ann Jones co-produced the Jane Fonda Workout Video sequel and received a platinum record for the Jane Fonda Workout Video music.

Recently announced as one of the latest NAMM TEC Hall of Fame Award inductees in January 2019, Leslie Ann Jones joins other pioneers like engineer Geoff Emerick, drummer Hal Blaine, and guitarist turned Department of Defense consultant Jeff “Skunk” Baxter.

Leslie Ann Jones graciously agreed to be interviewed by John Seetoo for Copper.

J.S.: You do a lot of recording with acoustic instruments and likely have a tremendously large mic selection at Skywalker. As more and more large studios shut down due to financial cost cutting or the continued rise of DIY laptop studios, do you find the knowledge and techniques of using different microphones on a variety of sound sources and in a host of room sizes are being lost to digital simulations?

LAJ: Well I would have to say yes, given there are fewer rooms and opportunities to record that kind of music. But the demise of some studios also includes the economics. Recording studios are not high margin ventures and in many cities the real estate is much more valuable. So I think it will become harder to learn those techniques.

J.S.: You and Chuck Ainlay hosted a symposium about Hi Res recording at the 2018 AES NYC trade show. You worked at the Automatt in the late 1970s, which had one of the first digital recording systems, and also worked on projects for Windham Hill, which was one of the first “New Age” labels that developed an audiophile reputation. As you learned on analog, were you an early convert to digital when you worked with Tony Williams and Santana, or were you a staunch 30 ips analog supporter until the D/A converters and other components of digital recording reached an acceptable spec to your satisfaction, and what might that spec have been? At what point did digital Hi Res finally have all of the elements to satisfy you as the platform of choice over any other analog one, and what were those elements?

LAJ: Wow, tough questions to answer. Many of the people I have worked for, like David Rubinson who owned the Automatt, liked to experiment with new technology. Maybe it was all the years he worked with Herbie Hancock and seeing him consistently push the envelope. I don’t recall how we got the opportunity to record with the 3M machine, but I would not say I became a convert right away.

I became more comfortable with the Mitsubishi X80 2-track and used it on several live albums, eventually working on the X86 and X-86HS with higher sampling rates. When I worked at Capitol we had the Mitsubishi X880, the 32-track. I loved that machine, the way it sounded and having the extra 8 tracks. I edited on it too so it was like a digital version of a tape machine. I was an early adopter of the Tascam DA-88 as well, often using one to lock up to a 24-track analog, again for those extra 8 tracks, and then using several by themselves.

When I got to Skywalker in 1997, we were still mostly in an analog world with Mag and 2” tape. But on the film side, Tascam had come out with the MMR-8, the film version of a DA-88, and that started to replace some of our mag machines. In Scoring, we rented Pro Tools since only certain clients wanted that format. Not only was it a sonic issue for me but it was a track count issue at higher sampling rates. So we bought a Euphonix R1 that gave us 48 tracks at 96k. Of course, it did not have the editing capabilities but it had great sounding converters and again, I used it more like a tape machine.

Eventually, the R1 was not supported any longer and Pro Tools was improving all the time. It became the ubiquitous recording format we know today. Once the HDX cards came out, I didn’t find the need to use outboard converters any longer, so that’s the history. I guess the short version would be it was always a sonic and interface issue for me.

J.S.: We have a mutual friend in Fanny founder June Millington, who sat next to me during the AES Hi Res discussion, and is the subject of a separate Copper interview( Part 1, Part 2, Part 3). You do some teaching at June’s Institute for the Musical Arts, engineered her Heartsong album, and went on the road with Fanny back in 1974. How would you describe that 40+ year relationship with June and how does it reflect your own history: live sound engineer to independent mixer and producer to icon, teacher, and mentor for the next generation?

LAJ: I met June when I started doing live sound. We both lived in LA and I would go to clubs where they were playing. When I toured with Fanny, June was no longer in the group. Patti Quatro was the guitarist. But June and I remained friends. Then she asked me to engineer Cris Williamson’s Strange Paradise album, which June was producing. That was such a fantastic experience. It was one of the first “women’s music” albums I worked on. And being in the studio watching and learning from June’s production techniques was enlightening. She was and is a force of nature and what she and her partner Ann Hackler have done with IMA is amazing. I teach recording there and am also on the Board of Directors. June paved the way for so many female musicians and producers. I am grateful for her friendship and her legacy.

J.S.: Your mother was a famous singer and you have made some records with vocalists such as Rosemary Clooney, Dee Dee Bridgewater, BeBe and CeCe Winans, Michael Feinstein, Carmen McRae, Van Morrison, The Manhattan Transfer, and Bobby McFerrin, to name a few. Do you have a particular methodology when recording or producing a singer, and which, if any, projects surprised you with the final results as opposed to when you first cut the tracks, once you finished mixing?

LAJ: As I said in my NAMM TEC Hall of Fame speech, I learned so much from watching my mother sing the same songs night after night and making them new each performance. That is what I try to do when I am producing singers. It is about storytelling, and I want to feel the emotion from them no matter what they are singing about. That is true no matter the genre of music.

As to engineering, I am lucky to have access to a large toolbox here with many microphone choices. I think with experience you can tell which are the 2-3 mics to put out and then make your decision based on which works best for the particular voice and the tune. Men and women don’t sound the same, obviously, so the mic choices might be different.

With regard to projects – it would be the most recent project just released on Ghostlight Records, Andrew Lippa’s Unbreakable. I had no idea how that record would turn out until it was done. When they asked me to produce and engineer, I was already committed to another project at the same time. So, while I went to the rehearsals and the dress rehearsal, I was unable to attend any of the 3 performances. Fortunately, I work with great engineers on my team so they gathered all the equipment necessary and did a great job recording. Because I wasn’t there it took quite a long time to do all the editing: 4 soloists, an 11-piece Chamber group and the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus, all 200 of them! But I and everyone involved are really happy with the results and it is getting great reviews.

[Part 2 of John’s interview with Leslie Ann Jones will appear in Issue 83.]