Editor’s Note: This interview was done by Keith Hatschek for the first edition of his book “How To Get A Job In the Music and Recording Industry.” A second edition of this book is now available from Berklee Press here.
Leslie Ann Jones is director of music recording and scoring at Skywalker Sound, the recording and production facilities built by George Lucas in Marin County, CA.
She has been a recording and mixing engineer for 30 years, during which time she has worked with such artists as Herbie Hancock, Angela Bofill, Michael Feinstein, Michelle Shocked, BeBe & CeCe Winans, Bobby McFerrin, Holly Near, Rosemary Clooney and Narada Michael Walden. She launched her film score mixing career with Francis Ford Coppola’s “Apocalypse Now.”
Starting her career at L.A.’s ABC Studios in 1975, she joined the staff of San Francisco’s famed Automatt Recording Studios from 1978–1987. Next up was a 10-year post at Hollywood’s Capitol Studios. Leslie returned to Northern California in 1997 to accept her current position at Skywalker Sound.
And, she’s also a past chairperson of the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences Board of Trustees, the organization that awards Grammys.
Keith Hatschek: What drew you to music or recording initially?
Leslie Ann Jones: Well, I guess it’s because I grew up in the music business, because my parents were performers and I was a guitar player. I just kind of progressed from that. I actually was drawn to music first, then the recording business later.
What can you share about your first paying gig in the business?
Well, as a recording engineer, I was working for ABC Records, which was owned by the ABC Television Network. They had a recording studio. I’d already done a lot of live sound and had taken a couple of recording engineer courses, which were the first offered in L.A. I actually wanted to be a record producer and manager; I wanted to emulate Peter Asher. I didn’t really plan on being an engineer.
But I thought I should learn something about engineering, to make me a better producer/manager. So I just went and asked. I knew the studio manager, Phil Kaye. I told him I wanted the job, and he said, “Well, there aren’t any other women doing what you want to do. I don’t know how it will work, so we’ll just see how the clients react to you. We’ll just have to play it by ear.”
What background, training, or education has proven helpful for you during your career?
Let’s see, I think reading a lot proved really helpful. Most people that go into this line of work have at least some sort of natural inclination for either the music or the technology. As I said, the two recording classes that I took were the first offered in L.A., and mostly for me it was because I was so self-taught that I really needed to double-check what I thought I knew.
But I started out reading magazines like Stereo Review and Hi-Fidelity because there was no Mix magazine when I started out. Many people came to it from kind of a broadcast or Heathkit home electronic background. Many of your readers may not even know what Heathkit is. Heathkit was a catalog company in the 1950s–1970s that provided home electronics kits for ham radio and hi-fi enthusiasts to build their own equipment.
Heathkit is important to many engineers of our vintage because it provided the hands-on aspect.
I think many of us got those little kits, those “Build an AM Radio Kit” on our ninth birthday or whatever. I can do this, you know. They provided a breadboard, soldering iron, parts list, instructions, and off we went.
Well, yes. Those classes helped me a lot because by the time I got the job at ABC, which was essentially making tape copies on an eight-hour shift, I had already learned quite a bit about sound. I was familiar enough with tape machines so that no one had to point and say, “That’s a seven-inch reel, that’s a ten-inch reel.” I wasn’t terribly nervous and I understood the basic process of recording.
I sometimes think now what happens is kids learn too much, and when they go into their first job, they’re not able to keep an open mind. I feel that some of the schools forget or don’t spend enough time on the fundamentals. Instead they emphasize learning how to run Pro Tools or an SSL (Solid State Logic) board.
And then, of course, they get to their first job and the place doesn’t use either one. So don’t overlook the importance of really mastering the basics.
Were there any early mentors who influenced you?
There were many. I kept a really open mind and I asked a lot of questions. I was very eager to learn and jump right in and do new things. I was the person who raised my hand whenever there was an opportunity to take on something new. When you do that, people naturally start to feed you more information.
But I would say my first main mentor was [engineer and producer] Roy Halee. And then after that, it would be [engineer] Fred Catero and [producer] David Rubinson. When I met Roy, he was head of A&R for ABC Records. And he came from CBS/Columbia Records. And actually he and Fred had both worked together in New York in the ‘50s and ‘60s. And then Roy moved to California and Fred moved to San Francisco.
Roy had engineered and produced Simon & Garfunkel, among many other great artists such as Blood Sweat & Tears, Bob Dylan, Journey, Laura Nyro, Boz Scaggs, and Paul Simon. When I worked with Roy, he was working with Rufus and other artists signed to ABC. And Fred, of course, recorded Janis Joplin, Santana, Herbie Hancock, The Pointer Sisters—every kind of major artist that was representative of the San Francisco sound—as well as Barbra Streisand, Chicago, and other CBS artists.
David Rubinson was the producer who developed many of those acts, and he and Fred were a team working together out of the Automatt [now a parking lot at Fourth and Folsom in San Francisco].
Now fast-forward to the present day. We mentioned your official job title. Let’s talk a little bit about your role in the day-to-day work-ings of Skywalker, because I understand you wear a couple of different hats in your job.
Well, I not only run the studio but I’m responsible for every aspect of the recording operations: booking the studio, the administration, the budget, the personnel, hiring/firing, buying equipment—all of that. I help to steer it and market the scoring facility.
Really, the scoring stage operates like any small business. Plus, I’m still a recording engineer. So although I don’t record every session, I do record about 30 percent of what goes on here.