The Art of Listening

Leslie Ann Jones - Director of Music Recording & Scoring, Skywalker Sound

Sennheiser’s Pro Talk Series on YouTube features interviews with the industry’s most respected sound professionals, including Leslie Ann Jones, who currently serves as Director of Music Recording and Scoring at Skywalker Sound and occasionally also dons her Record Producer or Recording Engineer hats for the studio. For Jones, whose 30+ year career has included runs at ABC Studios, Capitol Records, Automat Records and as an independent engineer, the secret to her success has been to always listen.

The daughter of esteemed musical satirist Spike Jones and singer Helen Grayco, Leslie Jones was born into the music industry. And, her parents’ talents had a big influence on her recording, engineering and producing style today. “I think they were my earliest inspiration even though I didn’t know it at the time,” she says. “The biggest benefit I have from hearing [my parents’ show] since I was little is the mountains of music that I’ve spent my life listening to. My father had a very eclectic record collection, from Stravinsky to Elvis Pressley, so I grew up with a very varied taste in music that’s been with me since I started.”

According to Jones, an admiration for music can have an incredible impact. “For younger people wanting a career in this business, I think that’s the best advice I can give: spend time just listening to music. Don’t turn it up too loud…really listen to what someone’s trying to do, even if it’s the kind of music you could never see yourself doing, because you can always learn something from it.”

But Jones’ success is attributed to more than just listening to the late-greats; it’s understanding your clients. You need to uncover their vision and expectations, so you can find the sound that they want. “It’s really important to have a conversation with the person whose record you’re going to be recording, whether it be the producer, composer or artist,” she explains. “On every project that I do, I have a conversation with the composer or the artist about what it is that they want. The more information I can get at the beginning, the better the session will go.”

Having these discussions early on also means that Jones can figure out which microphones she’d prefer to use, and even where they’ll be placed in the room. “I’m really lucky to have worked in great studios with great mic collections,” she continues. “One of the main microphones that’s in all those studios happens to be Neumann microphones. So, I kind of grew up being able to use a lot of great Neumann tube mics and it just kind of became my go-to in a lot of cases. And I use Sennheiser on orchestras with lots of strings and brass. It really just comes down to whatever is the best tool for what we’re doing. It just so happens that most of those tools are Neumann and Sennheiser.”

“It’s funny that I ended up working at a place that is a post-production studio for film and television, because my miking technique is really as much about trying to take a sonic picture of what I’m trying to mic as it is about what the sound is going to be. If there is any trademark to what I do, that’s what I strive for: that the instruments sound like what they’re supposed to sound like. Not every microphone is great for every [application], so it really depends on what it is I’m trying to hear at a particular time.”

Though Jones spends most of her time recording and scoring for TV and film, it was a recent archival project that has been the highlight of her career thus far. “One of the best projects I’ve worked on here [at Skywalker Sound] was archiving all of the analogue reels of music from Star Wars Episodes 1-6,” she adds. “It was fantastic listening to the genius and music of John Williams over the decades. And, if it’s the last thing I do in my career, it will have been well worth it.”

With other professional credits ranging from the Apocalypse Now soundtrack to the Israeli Philharmonic live performances, one might assume that Jones has put a major emphasis on her career, but “the other thing I would say to a new engineer just starting out is that it’s important to have a life outside the studio. It’s fine to work 24/7 and say ‘yes’ to everything, but it’s another thing to have a life that informs what you do. Whether that means having interests outside of music or joining organizations in the industry. It gives you a wonderful understanding of other people’s jobs and what they do. Learning to work with other people in the industry has made me a better engineer and producer.”

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