Leslie Ann Jones – Master of sound

Leslie Ann Jones, Director of Music Recording and Scoring at Skywalker Sound, is responsible for some of the most iconic music, and enthralling scores for film and games. The world-renowned, quadruple Grammy winning sound engineer has recorded legendary artists including Herbie Hancock, Alice in Chains, Quincy Jones, B.B. King and The Manhattan Transfer and mixed scores for film and video games including Apocalypse Now, Zodiac, Ben Hur, Happy Feet, Star Wars: The Force Unleashed series and Halo 2. Jones has built a career as one of the worlds greatest sound engineers.

From a young age, Jones has always had an interest in music. She was exposed to a variety of music styles through her parents as her Father, Spike Jones was band leader and her Mother, Helen Grayco a singer. Jones learnt to play guitar at the age of 14 following being given a Sears Silvertone electric guitar and later joined a rock band. Rather than follow her parents into music performance, Jones found herself following a career path to become a sound engineer. “I knew that by being self taught rather than taking proper guitar lessons and music education I wouldn’t be as good as I wanted to be” said Jones. “When you are around great musicians like the ones in my Dad’s band and the ones who played on the recording sessions I just knew I couldn’t get to that professional level so I decided to do sound. I really enjoyed contributing to someone’s performance through mixing. It was very lucky that I discovered sound and mixing otherwise who knows!”

Jones began her career at ABC Studios in Los Angeles as a recording engineer where she apprenticed with Roy Halee (Simon & Garfunkel, Blood, Sweat & Tears). Back in the 70’s and starting her career as a female engineer Jones was a rare breed. “I must say I knew it was going to be somewhat of a challenge but at the same time I didn’t give it much thought. When Phil Kaye, who ran ABC Studios at the time, hired me it was with the caveat that “we’ll just have to see how the guys feel about having a woman in the Control Room”. Hearing that with a 2019 mindset it sounds incredibly biased, but then in 1973 it was the reality.”

Some of the live albums Jones has worked on have been her biggest challenge. “I have recorded several Records with composer Andrew Lippa and the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus and those are quite challenging” added Jones. “We bring everything in, setup in a closet, guerrilla recording I call it. It can be a 13 piece band, 4 principals and 200 chorus members. We get a dress rehearsal and maybe 3 performances. The work I do with composer Laura Karpman is very inventive so I always find myself saying yes and then figure how the heck I am going to accomplish what she wants.”

Jones now works for Skywalker Sound. “I have two jobs at Skywalker. I was hired to manage the Scoring Stage. Managing includes budgets, staff, talking to clients about their needs, the cost etc. But then I get to have this great creative job as an engineer and mixer.” Jones also gets the best of both worlds as she still produces records, mostly in the Classical and Jazz genres independent of her Skywalker work.

In the studio Jones has a lot of tools to work with. “We have a great microphone collection and even though we were built as a scoring stage (music for film and TV) we have the same outboard equipment you would find in any tracking studio. That is why we can be so flexible and work with different genres.” If she had to name one piece of gear she couldn’t be without it would be the Avalon 737. “I have used it for years as my main vocal chain and regardless of what mic I have to use it is always wonderful. But if I could name two the other would be the Lexicon 224. It is a very simple but great sounding digital reverb, the first I think with a LARC (remote control) and suits the sound of the Skywalker room perfectly.” As for mics “I don’t have a favourite…really. I use what I think is the best for the situation I am in. There are things I start with like a Neumann M149 on a vocal or AKG C12’s on drum overheads but the rest changes based on genre and the kind of sound the composer/artist is looking for.”

Having started in the audio business when women audio engineers were extremely rare, their numbers still have not increased greatly over the past 40 years. For those who are interested in getting into the business Jones feels that an education in the recording arts is essential for anyone looking for a career as a recording engineer. 
“I have worked most of my career trying to be out there, speaking on panels and giving workshops so that younger women can see someone like them. There are social studies that have shown young girls lose confidence when they reach middle school and peer pressure takes over. It is important to support them and introduce them to all the music and recording related jobs there are. But I think there is some responsibility girls and young women have as well: raise your hand and ask questions, sit in front of the class and not the back, find a mentor, say yes to the opportunities presented to you even if you think you are not ready yet. It doesn’t happen by itself. And I would encourage men to be more open to women being in their classes, and creating opportunities for them. If you want to see more women you have to make room for them.”

Jones also believes that a woman brings a different skill set to the workplace. “We are different and that is ok. Without playing into stereotypes too much we do multitask well. We are great assistants! The challenge is breaking out of that role and sitting in the “big chair” recording or mixing a session and being seen as a leader.”

Jones was inducted into the NAMM TEC Hall of Fame this year joining other pioneers like engineer Geoff Emerick, drummer Hal Blaine, and guitarist turned Department of Defense consultant Jeff “Skunk” Baxter. It is the industry’s highest honour to the music industry’s most accomplished producers and audio technicians. “I am so honoured to have been selected for this year’s TEC Hall of Fame,” said Jones. “It is quite humbling to know I will be joining a list of past inductees whom I have admired, respected and looked up to my whole career.” 

In addition to being a leading female sound engineer Jones also sits on various advisory boards including the Grammy Organisation. “When I was starting out the San Francisco Chapter of the Recording Academy met in the same building The Automatt was in” added Jones. “I was asked by my peers to join the Board and am still involved to this day. Then it was to meet people in the Bay Area music and recording communities but soon it became much more than that. It was a place for me to develop my own voice on matters affecting the community. As a result of being involved I was elected the first woman Chair of the National Board of Trustees and the only person to hold every National Office. Now of course I am lucky to be in a position where I am established and able to give back. Every organization I am involved with is different: several focus on women and young girls entering the business, some like G.A.N.G, the Game Audio Network Guild, specialize in music and audio for games. Of course I always hope to advance the roles of women and the LGBTQ community but my opinions are not segmented necessarily. I have had the privilege of working with some very smart people who have taught me a lot and I am very happy to pass that on.”

Jones’ list of clients, projects, and accomplishments over the years has been extensive and the diversity of projects has helped her longevity in the business. Jones never saw herself following another career path and she shows that following your passion and not being afraid to take a risk that you can have an exciting and fulfilling career. Jones remains a bit of a well-kept secret but it’s the producers, composers, arrangers and musicians she works with who know her true worth, and that’s why she’s one of the busiest people you’ll ever meet.