Leslie Ann Jones: From Engineering Pioneer to TEC Hall of Fame

Leslie Ann Jones grew up in a musical family, watching her parents Spike Jones and Helen Grayco play the Las Vegas circuit to captive audiences. Inspired by their careers, she learned guitar and started playing in bands, but it wasn’t until she put her hands on a couple of faders that her destiny shifted. The soundboard became her instrument; one that she learned to wield masterfully, and the world began to notice.

For more than four decades, Leslie has worked on a diverse range of albums from Alice In Chains, to The Manhattan Transfer; B.B. King and Diane Schuur, to Kronos Quartet with her discography now boasting over 70 LPs.

She has also worked on many films, TV shows and video games including “Apocalypse Now,” “Requiem for a Dream,” “Happy Feet,” the Grammy Awards broadcast and “Star Wars: The Force Unleashed.”

Now, as a multiple Grammy award-winning recording engineer, Leslie works as the Director of Music Recording and Scoring at Skywalker Sound, a division of Lucasfilm Ltd. She says many of her fellow recording engineers would love to work at this scoring stage and recording studio.

As a prominent female pioneer in the industry, Leslie is the TEC Awards’ newest Hall of Fame inductee and will be honored at the 34th Annual NAMM TEC Awards in January at The NAMM Show. We sat down with Leslie to talk career highlights, challenges and her passion for inspiring women to invest in the rewarding industry of the recording arts.

NAMM: You were given a Sears Silvertone electric guitar at age 14. Would you say that was a turning point for you?

Leslie Ann: The electric guitar was my entry into doing music myself. My parents were in the music business, and I got involved playing in bands with my cousins. The turning point for me was having a PA system and doing sound for other groups. I was in an all-women’s rock band, and I bought the sound system for the band. When we quit the band, I got the sound system back. I put my hand on a couple of faders, and that was it. Eventually, I had a PA business with a couple male friends of mine, and we pooled our equipment together.

I knew that if I was to be a good guitarist I had to work backwards and take lessons, and I never like working backwards. I could play every Stephen Stills solo there was, but I knew I couldn’t be the kind of guitarist I wanted to be. But when I was behind the mixing board, I realized I had a creative contribution to the sound that was happening on stage, and I enjoyed that.

N: When did you know you wanted to be a recording engineer and mixer?

LA: I was working for ABC Records in Artist Relations and worked with artists like Steely Dan and Jim Croce at the time. That’s where I met Roy Halee who was one of my early mentors. I knew I wanted to be a producer and manager and had long admired Peter Asher’s work doing both. I thought I should learn something about engineering in order to be a better producer. ABC had a recording studio, and I went and asked if they would hire me. I was just thinking I was going to learn something about engineering and then ended up staying and eventually making a career out of it.

N: What challenges have you faced being one of the few women in a male-dominated industry?

LA: I’m a glass-half-full kind of person. I’ll never know how many jobs I didn’t get because I was a woman. I just know the jobs I did get. I knew I had to work hard because I was not technically inclined. But most girls were not taught that. I had to read Stereo Review and other hi-fi magazines to learn audio terms. Don Griffin, the owner of West L.A. Music, kept saying, “Who is this woman who keeps coming in and asking questions about power amplifiers?” [laughs] I never felt I had to prove myself. I asked for help when I needed it. I found that people wanted to help and see me succeed. I wasn’t really conscious of all the challenges, and perhaps that helped me a great deal. I learned so much from all the people I worked with. Barney Perkins and Reggie Dozier were two of my engineering mentors at ABC Studios. They always had tons of clients and were so busy all the time, so I would jump in and do overdubs and tracks for them. Then at the Automatt, David Rubinson was not only a career mentor but also is responsible for my early wine education! At Capitol Records, there were many opportunities to learn acoustic instrument balances and things like that. Then of course at Skywalker, and needless to say the bar has been set very high here.

N: What do you think the future holds for women in this industry?

LA: I think the future is very bright for women, more so than ever. This has been helped a great deal by organizations like Women’s Audio Mission (WAM) which is an all-volunteer, women-run organization dedicated to the advancement of all women in the recording arts. At the AES/NY WAM conference, I was on a panel alongside Linda Perry and Emily Lazar. I am also on the advisory board of The Institute for the Musical Arts in Massachusetts, and every summer I teach at their recording camp. The camp provides training for girls and young women ages 15-20. I teach half of the recording class, and Roma Baron and Leanne Ungar teach the second half. I am very encouraged by the efforts of these organizations and seeing more girls and women getting involved.

N: Any words of advice for aspiring female recording engineers?

LA: Don’t make plans on a Friday night. [laughs] Invariably you will have to break those plans. Be prepared to work when the work is there. But that said, I do think it’s important to have a life as well because otherwise you don’t have any personal experiences to bring to your work. At almost every studio I’ve worked in, I was the first female engineer and the only female engineer, and that has taken those studio managers time to adjust. I remember one time at the Automatt, I declined to do a session because I had tickets to a tennis match. The studio manager, Michelle Zarin, looked at me like I was crazy when I said I couldn’t do it, but it’s very important to have a life too!

Another piece of advice to aspiring female recording engineers is to sit in the front of the class and raise your hand. Don’t be afraid to ask questions! Too often I see the women sitting in the back of the class, and it makes me sad to see that.

N: What are you most proud of in your career?

LA: You mean besides the TEC Hall of Fame? I’ve been doing this for over 40 years now—it’s crazy to say that—and, in that time, there are so many high points that have influenced me and were so rewarding. I raise my hand and say yes to challenging projects, so I can keep growing. I can’t imagine a better place to end up in my career than Skywalker Sound. I know a lot of people would love to work here, and I will be forever grateful for the opportunity.

N: Briefly retell how you got to Skywalker.

LA: I was at Capitol Studios in Hollywood for nine years. I always wanted to return to the Bay Area, but there never seemed to be the opportunity. Mix Magazine seems to show up at the most opportune times in my career. I read a Gloria Borders interview in one particular issue. In that interview, she said her biggest challenge as the then GM and vice president at Skywalker was to allow the scoring stage to live up to its potential and was looking for someone to run it. So, I applied. I don’t think she hired me for mixing. I think it’s because I had film contacts and years of studio experience. I had worked there a full year before I even sat behind a console, but the rest is history.

N: Your first Grammy. How did that feel?

LA: As an elected leader of the Recording Academy—Trustee, Chair of the Board, et cetera—I have an understanding of how the awards process works, so I had even more of an appreciation for how difficult it is to just be nominated, let alone win. And to get a Grammy for a record that was not a mainstream classical release [Grammy for Best Engineered Album-Classical, Eliesha Nelson - Quincy Porter: Complete Viola Works] was pretty amazing. I think that people appreciate good work. But what’s funny is after I received the award and gave my speech, I was ushered to the media room, but I had left my purse with my brother that had my credentials in it. I ran out to the lobby but couldn’t find my brother, and I couldn’t call him. So, I borrowed a cell phone and called my mother and eventually got a hold of him and my purse, so that I could get into the Staples Center. So, I wasn’t really able to bask in the glory. [laughs]

N: What has been your biggest challenge in this industry?

LA: I think for me it’s just keeping up. I am the type of person who likes to learn a lot about what I’m doing and technology changes so quickly. It’s important to keep up since I am running the scoring stage, engineering and producing records. I sit in on meetings at the Producers and Engineers Wing, and that helps me keep up. One thing I’m currently learning more about is record distribution models. What’s the point in producing what you think is a great record if you’re unable to sell any? I want to learn about distribution models for records because I work for so many independent artists who don’t record for labels. I can be somewhat of a mentor to them and educate them.

N: Who have been your favorite artists to work with?

LA: I really do like everybody that I work with. One of my favorite sessions at Capitol was working with one of my favorite arrangers, the late Peter Matz. I remember as a young girl listening to his work on some of the Barbra Streisand records that my mother used to play. To work with him was a highlight. And through him, I met Allen Sviridoff who managed and produced Rosemary Clooney and Michael Feinstein. That was another highlight, working with Rosemary and Michael. When I was at the Automatt in San Francisco, I enjoyed working with Herbie Hancock but also had great sessions with Con Funk Shun, Maze, Holly Near and Cris Williamson. And I recorded the first digital multitrack session in San Francisco with Carlos Santana and an all-star group of jazz greats. Working with the Kronos Quartet at Skywalker is always fantastic. I also enjoyed working with Laura Karpman on the album, “Ask Your Mama.” It was an extremely challenging project, and we won a Grammy for that one.

N: Who would you really like to work with that you haven’t yet?

LA: I would really like to work with John Leventhal. He is a wonderful producer and guitar player, and I really like his work. And Linda Perry. We don’t make the same kind of records, so it would be fun.

N: How do you get the most from the artists you work with?

LA: I work with a lot of singers. I watched my mother sing all the time. When my brother and I were young, we would go see my parents sing in Las Vegas. I watched my mother sing the same songs night after night like they were brand new, and it made an impression on me. She would tell a story with whatever song she would sing. That’s what I want to draw from the singers I work with. I try to be encouraging and understand what the singers are trying to say. I want the listener to have an emotional response to it. The technical and creative knowledge is what we do, but I try to make artists feel good about what they are doing. Storytelling has become front and center for me.

N: Favorite movie score?

LA: That I’ve worked on? “Apocalypse Now.” Others include the score to “Magnolia” composed by Jon Brion and “The Horse Whisperer” score composed by Thomas Newman. That’s music I can sit down and enjoy anytime without having to know the movie.

COMPLETE THE THOUGHT

Something people don’t know about me is … I make wine. I’m a big wine and food enthusiast. I’m also intentionally not on Facebook. It’s hard enough keeping up with my email. There’s plenty about me on the internet already, so it’s pretty easy to find me.

When I’m relaxing, my favorite type of music to listen to is … jazz.

When I’m not in the studio, you can find me … in Italy.

My biggest pet peeve is … people that don’t let me in when I want to change lanes.

My life motto is … “Life is a combination of magic and pasta.”—Federico Fellini

One thing I have yet to do on my bucket list is … I would say, a weekend with no work where I can sleep, hang by the pool, and have someone bring me adult drinks with umbrellas!

Learn more about the TEC Awards at TECawards.org.