The Copper Interview

Leslie Ann Jones, Part 2

[Part 1 of John’s interview with Leslie Anne Jones was featured in Issue 82.]

J.S.: You have also recorded some famous virtuoso instrumental soloists, such as Miles Davis, Carlos Santana, Dave Edmunds, Herbie Hancock, Maynard Ferguson, Charlie Haden, and Wayne Shorter. Do you have a particular methodology when recording or producing a solo instrument, both with an ensemble and unaccompanied, 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: I try to make the players comfortable, both in their sightlines with other players and with their headphone mixes. I can’t get a good performance if they are not comfortable, so I make sure the mics are not in their way. Sometimes that might mean I have to make some sacrifices in the sound to make it all work, but it is about the performance.

Recording an instrument unaccompanied is very different than with an ensemble. Then the room really makes a difference. At Skywalker, I always put out several pairs of mics at varying distances and then get the best blend I can; one that I feel is appropriate for the performance. And that blend might change for different songs. With an ensemble it is a matter of how the instrument sounds within the context of the arrangement or orchestration. How do all the tones sound together? Are too many people playing in the same range, and if so, how do I feature the soloist? Both are equally challenging. We are fortunate to have a tunable room and that helps quite a bit as well.

J.S.: Singer-songwriters such as Holly Near, Dwight Yoakam, and Nellie McKay all have widely divergent musical styles and genres, yet you’ve worked with all of them and with some for multiple projects. As you have stated in other interviews that your personal favorite music is Big Band, how do you develop your lines of communication with these different writers to become sufficiently simpatico with their musical visions to get the call backs? You have joked about being able to interpret when an artist says something sounds, “too orange”.  Is the ability to mentally translate their intent into sonics one of Leslie Ann Jones’ secret weapons?

LAJ: Well, I guess so. I love orchestration…how all the instruments in their particular ranges and tone fit together to make a whole. That is probably why I like Big Band, plus of course, the rhythm aspect. I do like all kinds of music and listen to things even though I might never record that style. It also comes from respecting the musicians I work with.

J.S.: Some distortion to tape has often become a signature sound of some bestselling records, such as the Rolling Stones’ Sticky Fingers and recent releases from the Foo Fighters. When working with grunge rock, metal, or other high-volume artists, what changes, if any, in your approach are deployed for keeping the audio fidelity level while sonically maintaining genre-appropriate sound? Tape saturation and “hitting the red” in analog obviously doesn’t exist in digital hi-res. Sometimes, certain music genres can find super pristine audio quality to be detrimental to their appeal. How do you split the difference or widen the circle to accommodate both aesthetics? Would you ever use tape saturation emulation plug-ins?

LAJ: It’s kind of whatever the music requires. I don’t do much rock so I suppose I’d just have to close my eyes and turn all the knobs to 11…..12 maybe!

J.S.: Spike Jones was a pioneer in the use of sound effects within the context of music. Did that early exposure prepare you for your work at Skywalker, where film and video sound effects and music all need to mesh together for a total aural experience? Even if you are primarily responsible for music and scoring and not supervising sound effects, don’t you need to keep sound effects in mind so that the music and effects mesh instead of clash? Does mixing to 5.1 make the choices easier or harder, and why?

LAJ: As I was coming up in music and recording, I never really thought my father had much influence on my approach. It wasn’t until I got to Skywalker that it kinda hit me. I guess it’s because Skywalker is primarily an audio post facility where one thinks more about how all that goes together. Many years ago, I saw a score of one of his pieces of music and all the sound effects were written into the score. Much like a radio drama. I realized everything had its place, just like in orchestration.

When I am mixing a film score or recording it, I don’t think too much about that, as that should have been worked out between the director and the composer before they get to me. Sometimes though, I might have to listen to the sound effects and dialog to again see how it all fits together. Mixing to 5.1 does make the choices easier because you can spread things out a bit more and make room for everything else.

J.S.: You have worked in pretty much every music genre imaginable, including international music. Is there any music type or particular project you recall that gave you unforeseen challenges due to elements of the music, instruments, or vocalists that required you to think out of the box in order for you to capture the music and mix it to your satisfaction and professional standards?

LAJ: Well, there have been several projects, because from early on I worked with artists like Holly Near, who made records with so many different musicians and genres…Appalachian, Chilean, etc. In many cases the musicians played instruments I had never seen or recorded (before).

On a project with composer Laura Karpman, we did a live performance that included an orchestra, singers, Laura on stage with a laptop playing back sound with Ableton, and then Pro Tools sessions loaded with different voices. All this in the Santa Cruz Civic Auditorium. I decided the only way we could make this work sonically was to set up Surround in the house. With the help of the folks at Meyer Sound we were able to do that and it worked out really well.

J.S.: You know every format for recording inside out and have done thousands of recording and mixing sessions in your career with everything from a single instrument or sound source to full orchestras and all of the permutations in between. What kind of recording and mixing session is the most enjoyable for you, personally?

LAJ: I have found it best to look for the silver lining. By that I mean, of course it’s easiest when I record and mix the project. Then I can help shape the sound from the very beginning. And then even easier if I am the producer. But often I am asked to mix a project that comes from another studio. Then it becomes a challenge to find the warmth and spaciousness and integrity I get at Skywalker. But that has its own enjoyment. I also like working with other good producers, ones who can bring out the best in artists and that I can learn from. That’s a good day.

J.S.: Congratulations on your TEC Hall of Fame Award and induction. Your multiple Grammy wins and other accolades are a testament to your expertise and the respect of your peers. Many luminaries in the field, including Chuck Ainlay, are visibly in awe of your accomplishments. What new mountain does Leslie Ann Jones have next to conquer?

LAJ: I don’t know…I don’t really have an answer for that. Challenging projects come my way and I raise my hand and say yes. I’ve always done that. In the beginning it was to move to the next level; to go from apprentice to assistant to sitting in the “big chair” as I like to say. Now it is because I get to have fun. I certainly know what I am doing but I love to learn. I guess it is whatever mountain shows up next.