Getting A Job In the Music & Recording Industry—An Interview With Leslie Ann Jones
February 20, 2013, by Keith Hatschek
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.
What part of your job gives you the most satisfaction?
Obviously, the studio work is always very satisfying. But it’s easy to get burned out when you do too much of it, which is why I chose to pursue a job that is a bit different, but one that is still rewarding and a lot of fun. Whether I’m the engineer or not, I really enjoy when people have a great time here.
However, I would say that being in the room when a great performance is happening is still the main thing that inspires me.
Could you describe an entry-level position at Skywalker?
On the scoring stage, that gig is as a runner, which we have now although it’s not a full-time position. The runner is just called in on an as-needed basis, because we only have the one music studio.
For the rest of the Skywalker facilities [home to the post production and mixing stages for hundreds of hit movies, as well as special effects division, Industrial Light and Magic], most people come in as central machine room operators (MRO) for the mix stage. Sometimes they might come in as transfer people, as well. But that requires quite a bit more experience and education.
A transfer op may have been somebody who worked at a smaller facility for a year or two, got their feet wet, and knows the difference between a single stripe and dual stripe mag, drop-frame and non-drop-rame time code, and so forth.
Could you identify three attributes or skills—it could be either—that you would look for in an entry-level person?
I think we tend to gravitate towards people that have the right amount of enthusiasm. We don’t have a lot of people working here, and there isn’t any formal time period that you’re going to stay in each job. It just seems that those people that tend to excel at what they do, who grow and progress through the organization— start as a mix tech and progress to a mixer—are the ones that have the most self-motivation.
They can think for themselves, they are smart, and they invest the time to educate themselves. I really think not knowing too much and not knowing too little is key. I mean, even for a runner, the guy we have now studied for a number of years at Berklee College of Music in Boston.
I don’t have to worry about him knowing the etiquette in the room or being unfamiliar with equipment. He has a really strong music background. Yet he doesn’t know so much that he expects to walk in and be an assistant engineer right away. He’s willing to make food runs and do whatever it takes to keep the session running, just so he can be here.
But there are only so many jobs, so you have to be flexible and be willing to fit in wherever you can. You need to stay attuned to the opportunities that might present them-selves and be willing to jump in and take a chance.
That’s what I’ve done in the last twenty-five years— let’s see, I’ve had five jobs. This is my fifth job. And one of those jobs is counting the three years I spent as an independent engineer. I am pleased to say that, in each of my jobs, I have gone past what I thought I knew or tried something kind of different, with an element of risk.
Realizing that the next career move wasn’t necessarily safe. That’s the only way you can really grow. And that risk/growth relationship is a preview of what you’re going to have to do when you finally sit in the chair as an engineer anyway. You are going to have to get past whatever knowledge you have to when the client says, “That’s too orange.”
You have to figure out what that means and how to make the track sound more “green.” You should know enough about what you’re doing and the tools that you have available to you to creatively get the job done.
When a person is getting started in the business, they are there to primarily learn—not so much to earn. Try to get into a good learning situation, because the money comes
Yeah. Actually, that’s why I really recommend that a person get a job in the biggest studio they can find and not take a job in a one-room place. Chances are, they’re not going to really learn in a one-room studio.
Do you have any tips you can offer to somebody who is thinking about getting into the business? When you started, you walked in and approached Phil Kaye at ABC and said, “I’d like to engineer here.” Things are quite a bit different now, obviously.
Yes, I think they are different. A lot of people that we consider tend to come recommended from other people in the business. We also have a relationship with certain schools. I might e-mail the head of the recording department asking if they have any outstanding students, which is exactly what I did the last time we were looking for somebody.
I contacted Los Medanos, San Francisco State, and Berklee College of Music and just asked if anyone had a couple of bright young kids. A referral like that is one way to get a start.
The other way is just to call around, and if somebody says they’re not hiring, send them a resume and follow it up with another call. Or, you can ask if you can come by, drop off your resume, and see the studio. That way, the person who is hiring gets a chance to meet you, even though they might not be thinking about it at the time.
That approach may not work at some facilities that just do not have time or availability to accommodate drop-in visitors, but for many studios, it will work, so it’s worth a try. You should ask, “May I stop by and drop off my resume and meet you, and spend about five minutes speaking with you?”
Studio managers are generally very busy people, but at least you’ve had the opportunity to meet a person in the music community and hopefully make a favorable impression.
As far as resources, is there anything you think someone coming into the business should be looking at?
I think for somebody just starting out, “Mix” magazine might be a little too much. We haven’t yet talked about knowing computers, either. You certainly don’t have to know Pro Tools editing, but you really should know the fundamentals of either a Mac or a PC. I think having some knowledge of hard disk editing is quite an advantage.
I would also suggest joining the Recording Academy as an associate or as an affiliate member, because you still have access to any of the workshops that are offered once you’re on the mailing list. A lot of those events are free. So the networking and educational opportunities available in that organization are available whether you’re a voting member or not.
A lot of schools have student AES (Audio Engineering Society) chapters; I know San Francisco State does. As far as conventions, I would think now, NAMM would be a good place to go to learn a little bit about who the players are in the technology side of recording.
Do you have any parting thoughts?
Master the basics and the fundamentals. I think that’s the big advantage of working in a big place and not in a small place—you’re exposed to a lot more. In my nine years at Capitol, I was pushed to do so many things, not only the level of clientele that we had, but just kind of the things we were asked to do.
All the Frank Sinatra ednet ISDN sessions for the two Duets albums happened at Capitol. Then we shifted gears to record a film score with a large orchestra at the next session. You wouldn’t really get that kind of experience in a one-room studio. It makes you much more valuable as an employee because eventually, you are going to have to look for another job. It always happens.
It’s true. A person’s depth of knowledge makes them much more valuable to their employer. Do you have any Yoda-like pearls of wisdom to share in closing?
Use your ears, Luke—use your ears.
Getting A Job In the Music & Recording Industry—An Interview With Leslie Ann Jones