Leslie Ann Jones, multiple Grammy award winner and longtime Director of Music Recording and Scoring at LucasFilm’s Skywalker Sound, is a huge proponent of immersive audio. One of her upcoming album projects, Soundtrack Of The American Soldier by The U.S. Army Field Band, was recorded from the outset with immersive audio in mind.
We had a chance to chat with Leslie about her early career, what kind of immersive projects she’s currently working on at Skywalker, and how she thinks recent strides in immersive audio will shape the music industry in the coming years.
Who in the music industry inspired you when you were starting your career in production?
When I started out as an engineer, I was lucky to have several mentors that seemed really invested in my success. They were great engineers that I really admired, like Roy Halee and Fred Catero. So, you know, those are people whose work really influenced me.
What inspired you to really get into recording and engineering rather than performing music?
Well, I was in a group with my cousins, but nothing we recorded ever came out. I quickly realized that, being a self-taught guitar player, I would not ever get to the level of the people that I really admired. I had actually bought the PA system for one of the bands I was in, and when the band broke up, I got the sound system back. Friends of mine were playing and I started mixing their sound and I just really enjoyed that, even though I didn't know anything about it.
So I teamed up with a couple of friends of mine who had sound equipment, and we started a PA company. We did live sound for bands and clubs and things like that. And I think I just realized that I had an aptitude for that, and really enjoyed the way I could improve somebody's performance by mixing it a certain way. And that's how I got into it.
The industry has something of a reputation for being a “boys club.” It's great to speak to someone who's really been a trailblazer for women, especially with engineering. Did you find that there were any difficulties as you were building your career?
I think “boys club” is kind of the wrong way to put it. Just because all guys are doing the work doesn't necessarily mean it's a boys club. It just means that women haven't been exposed to that kind of work and are not necessarily interested in it.
It's a bit of a barrier to break through. I had the same experience as many other women that started around that time. When people would wonder who their engineer was, and you told them it was you, and they kind of looked at you like, “Oh well, we'll see if you can really do this.” So I had to constantly prove myself and get over the low expectations that they had, but there's a benefit of having low expectations. It's very easy to exceed those if you have even half an idea of what it is you're doing. Eventually, that wasn't a problem anymore.
What advice would you give to anyone interested in pursuing a career in audio production?
I think if it's something you're interested in, the only real limitation is you. You really need to try and learn as much as you can. If you're in school, sit in the front of the class and ask questions. Read up on things you don't understand. Stay after and ask someone. I had mentors in the tech department at ABC when I first started out, and if there was something I didn't understand, I asked them and they were more than happy to explain it to me. That's what I would recommend.
The industry has gone through a lot of changes over the years. From your perspective, what are the biggest changes that you've seen in immersive audio during your career? And is there anything in the industry that you expected would have changed more or less over time?
Well, I think the biggest thing is that there's a lot of interest in surround and immersive. What Apple is doing now is quite a game-changer, with what they're calling spatial audio. (Frankly, I wish everybody would call it the same thing.) I think that's going to be a game changer particularly for the video game industry.
I remember a time when all we could do was mix music in stereo because there wasn't enough bandwidth and to allow more bits to be appropriated to music. The music was stereo because that allowed them enough room for all the sound effects and all that kind of stuff. But now it's just normal to do a surround mix for the music. Those things are a big change. They’re also a way for people to experience music in particular, in a different way than they have been before. You asked if there was anything I thought could have moved faster. I wish stuff had been accepted earlier. But no, I think everything seems to have its own pace. And I'm just glad that it came out on the other side rather than being some format that eventually just got shelved somewhere.
At Skywalker Sound, there's a lot of scoring and recording for film. Do you have a preference for working on music primarily for film/TV, or albums?
Well, yeah, it's funny. People have the expectation that, because I work at Skywalker, I do primarily film work and don't record or mix music. My work is mostly records, actually, and some video game scores, film scores. A little TV, but not much. I would say probably 75% of my work is recording music for record release, either stereo or immersive.
Do you find that the process is a little different for TV versus, say, video games?
Well, working with visual media like video games is certainly different than recording music for a record release. Probably the biggest difference between video games and something linear like film, is that video games have different levels. Different pieces need to be recorded and extended. When people play through the game, they don't necessarily have the same aural experience all the time. I also like to say that there are no love themes in video games, so most of the material has quite a large, dynamic range to it. There is lots of brass, lots of percussion. You do have that in some films, but there are always periods of time where things are a little more, you know, quiet.
As far as records go, you've worked with people like Rosemary Clooney. Are there any projects involving famous artists or musicians that stand out in your memory?
Well, it's funny, because somebody asked me that same question for an interview I did recently, and I listed five things that I really enjoyed working on. And then I was listening to my music on my iPhone, and Melody Gardot’s Currency Of Man (2015) came on. I thought, Damn, there's always a record I forget to list that I enjoyed doing.
I don't think of that particular record as much because I only recorded the strings for it. I didn't mix it or anything. But that is one of my favorite records because of the sonics and the textures. Vince Mendoza was the arranger for the strings, and it was just fantastic. So, yeah, I would say that's one of my highlight records. I’m happy to have an opportunity to mention that one.
Can you tell us a bit about working on The Kronos Quartet’s Sun Rings, which won a Grammy back in 2019?
When I do those projects with Kronos, I'm really just recording the string quartet. Most of what you hear on that record, in terms of the space sounds, was done in post production. We did have some of that available to us when we were recording, because there were things that the quartet wanted to sync to and kind of work out their dynamics with. But it's always amazing to me being involved in recording the music, and then to take a listen to what the final product is. I hate to use the word “stellar” because it's cliche. But it really is a stellar project. And I'm just so pleased it won the Grammy.
When you're doing these projects, are there any particular challenges that arise? Either on the human side or technical side?
I don't feel that I have a ton of personal challenges. At this point in my career, people call because they want to work with me, so I think there's an expectation that they know what they're getting into. I think the most important thing is that I respect all of my clients, no matter what level of competency. I have to respect people that are still doing that, especially knowing firsthand how difficult it is now to fundraise and make records as an independent artist without a label.
I have been technically challenged my whole career, which is why I spend so much time reading and trying to catch up on what the newest technology is. I really know nothing about electronics and plan to keep it that way, but I do want to continue learning about the stuff that is important to my work.
How did you begin working at Skywalker Sound?
I was very lucky. I had been working at Capitol Studios for almost nine years and was ready to move on to my next challenge.
I had read an article in Mix Magazine with the General Manager, Gloria Borders, who was talking about the scoring stage. That was her next big initiative at the time, to get the scoring stage to live up to its potential and to hire somebody to run it. I had always wanted to move back to San Francisco, so I called them. After a couple of interviews, I was hired as the Director of Music Recording and Scoring. I run the scoring stage and manage the staff and budgets, and I'm the one that talks to clients. It wasn't really until I'd been at Skywalker for a bit of time that I started engineering. It just became part of my job, and now I produce records as well.
Is there any project you worked on at Skywalker Sound that stands out in your memory as being a particularly fantastic experience?
There's a couple of projects that stand out to me. One would be Soundtrack Of The American Soldier by The U.S. Army Field Band, which was recorded specifically for immersive. It was designed with immersive in mind in terms of the way we set the band up on the stage. This is the kind of stuff that you could only do in a room the size of the scoring stage, which is 60 by 80 by 30 feet. You need a large space like that to push air and have enough room for people to feel comfortable. So, we set the band up in an immersive way, and when we wanted to feature different instruments, we would move the players as opposed to moving the microphones. And that turned out really, really great because the arrangements showcased the immersive format quite well.
Another one, speaking of immersive, was a top secret project for Mercedes. They had built a new model, a roadster, that had a proprietary sound system in the car that was surround. I had a client that had gotten rights to a lot of classical material and a lot of pop material that had already been released, but never in a surround format. So we had the opportunity to mix it all in 5.1. The only way that we could see if it was going to work was to actually have the car on the scoring stage. They drove the car into the scoring stage, it was covered up the whole time it was there, so nobody knew it was there. Unfortunately, the 5.1 material we mixed was never made available outside of a DVD that came bundled with the car.
That Mercedes-Benz DVD has actually become something of a collector’s item in the immersive audio community now, because there's a few exclusive songs on it like Lady Gaga’s “Poker Face” and Yes’s “Owner Of A Lonely Heart.” I didn't know you worked on it.
Yeah, yeah. In fact, the Lady Gaga track is still one of my favorites. I think that's the challenge with doing surround or immersive mixes of classic albums. How do you still maintain what it is you loved about that record in stereo, be it a certain guitar lick or vocal line, when you start to spread things out into different speakers? I think my biggest challenge with that was trying to make the surround mixes as fun as the original stereos were.
I’ve always found it interesting how the various audio professionals we’ve spoken to seem to have radically different ideas for how to use the extra speakers in these immersive formats. There are some mixers who seem to prefer an experimental style with prominent directional sounds in the back. For example, they’ll have a guitar in one corner of the room and a keyboard in the other. Then there are others who make more use of the “phantom” space between the speakers, opting to move instruments further into the room instead of working on the edges. When you're working on one of these immersive projects, what's your approach? Do you have a specific preference or style?
Well, it really kind of depends on what the project is. For the Army Field Band recording, the approach was to have a realistic sound from the band and not lose the musicality in the interest of the immersive experience. I'm not often a fan of people that take a string quartet and put one player in each speaker. That's not how you would listen to it in real life, but some people might really like that approach. Like you said, everyone has their own style.
Lastly, what surround sound system do you use at home? Is there a particular brand of speakers that you like?
At the studio, I use B&W 802’s for 5.1, and then we use Neumann 310’s for the sides and ceiling. At home, I only have a 5.1 B&W 703 system.