LESLIE MONA-MATHUS • RECORDING + POST-PRODUCTION ENGINEER
June 17, 2017
interview by Madeleine Campbell
illustration by Maggie Negrete
Can you start at the beginning and tell me about your early days in the studio?
I was leaving high school, getting ready to go to college. The Audio Institute of America class took place at Bell Sound Studios once a week so I signed up. It was on 54th between 8th and Broadway. The minute I walked into a studio and saw a console, I fell in love. I said, “I have to learn how to do this.” I was 18. I spoke with my parents and said, “Maybe I want to try this out. Do you mind, if I find a job, if I don't go into college right away?” I was already signed up. My classes were scheduled. I had an apartment rented. They said, “Well, if you want to try something else, go ahead.” I was still living at home right outside of New York City near Hoboken. I went into the city with a friend. At that time, they had phone booths with big phone books. I literally tore out the yellow pages with all the recording studios listed on them and went knocking on doors. One place called Good Vibrations, located at 1440 Broadway, said “sure.” I’m still friends with the co-owner Bernie Fox. I was paid about $20 a week to cover my commuting expenses when they remembered to pay me. I worked under an engineer named Jon Fausty who is still active in the business. At that time their biggest client was Fania Records. I was working with the greatest Latin musicians in the world - Johnny Pacheco, Willie Colón, Ray Barreto, Celia Cruz. My first album/movie credit was the Fania All-Stars. So I got quite a jump start. It was weird, because I was still a cheerleader in my head, ya know? I was bopping around, learning all this stuff and these people really were very giving. They were very willing to pass on their knowledge. Looking back, I don’t want to say I didn't appreciate it, but I didn't realize where I was. I didn't realize the prestige of the people I was working with. They were at the top of their game. Anyways, that studio ended up closing but I stayed close with Bernie and worked at another studio called Sound Exchange, located at 54th and 8th Avenue, owned by Richard Factor, the head of Eventide. All the original Eventide digital delays and phasers and flangers and what not were being manufactured on the ground level and there was a little studio upstairs. I continued to work with Bernie there and got a raise to about $40 a week. It was there that I did my actual first session. What was great about that was I could stay late and do things on my own and really get behind the board and work. But it was getting to the point where I needed to start making a living.
One thing led to another and I was kind of ready to give up and go back to school. I had gotten a job at the ad agency Ogilvy and Mather. I was in the accounting department but they found out about my skillset so I moved into the casting department. I did all of the auditioning and taping of talent that came in for commercials. At that point I started to go back to school at NYU part time, as well. I found out about a place called Automated Sound Studios that was being built. A maintenance person I'd worked with at both Good Vibrations and Sound Exchange told me about it and that he’d gotten hired there. I kind of "auditioned" for that studio and got the job as one of the first assistants at this amazing facility on 43rd and Broadway. That was really, really the beginning of where my career really started to take form. We worked on major jingles, you know, Pepsi, Coke, all the different cars at the time - huge jingle sessions with orchestras. You'd have a couple sessions a day with 35 musicians coming in and out. In the smaller room, you would do the rhythm section and set up the horns, set up the strings, do the vocals and so on. It was a really a classical training in terms of how things should be and what your responsibilities are as an assistant to the engineer, the producers, the clients and the artists. It's a direct kind of connection to the Phil Ramone school of engineering. I loved every second. I was working with the top musicians in New York City, the top producers, the top agencies, the writers, the arrangers, and the engineers. I was pretty good. I had to be. My counterparts, in terms of the assistants, were all guys and I had to be, I felt, better than them in order to get where I needed to get. There was no room for error. When Elliot Scheiner decided to come over to do a project at Automated, I was the assistant that they chose to put with him. Elliot was at the top of his game. He had just got done mixing Steely Dan’s Aja. I was told, “Do not let anything go wrong.” I was obviously nervous but would go over everything in my head. You have to learn what their microphone preferences are. You have to set up the room in a way that they want it set up. I became his assistant for a good chunk of time and things went well. He became quite the mentor. We're still friends to this day. I created my own course of study as to what things I would like to apply in my own way. I loved the global village that existed at that time - the input of a great writer, arranger, musicians, producers, engineers. The way things took shape at that time in the studio was a collaborative effort where, like a concertmaster would say, “What if we did it this way?” Those little changes and nuances would affect the overall outcome of a piece, whether it would be for a record or a jingle or an underscore. Just being part of that was where I wanted to be and what I wanted to do and I loved it. So that’s the long answer.
What an incredible start to your career. To be a woman, but even more so to be very young throughout all of this?
I was a kid. I started when I was 18. I got the job at Automated when I was 19 or 20. There were no schools for audio at that time. They didn't have degrees in this stuff. As a matter of fact, I had to make a tough choice when I was at Automated. I was still going to school part-time at NYU. The manager said, “If you want to be on a project, it's gonna run late at night.” I gave up school. I said “This is what I want to do.” I stayed in the studio and subsequently went freelance by the time I was 23.
Oh my gosh.
Yeah. I wound up getting a couple of clients and one of them was Suzanne Ciani. You know her?
Oh, I am very familiar. Yes, I’m a big fan.
She and I wound up working together. At that time, as a staff engineer, I did her album Seven Waves.
And you did a few more albums with her as well?
Yeah. Automated is where we met and started working together. I also did the mix for the soundtrack of "The Incredible Shrinking Woman.” She’s a demanding person and artist and we hit it off. There were two rooms. I was the third engineer and there were people coming up behind me. Things were getting competitive. It made sense to me that maybe my time was up and I needed to get out there. Everybody was going freelance. I didn't want to lose my presence in the business by staying in-house, but I loved it there. I didn't particularly want to leave.
I work for a synthesizer company- Pittsburgh Modular. I'm based out of Pittsburgh, if I didn't mention that already.
I read that. Go Steelers!
Yeah! I'm a very big fan of Suzanne's music. I was recently listening to a video of her speaking at the Redbull Music Academy. You were mentioned and I wanted to read a quote I took directly from her interview. She said,
"I always had female engineers. I always loved woman engineers. It's hard to say you like one gender over another, but honestly in electronic music, which was different then, the men were coming from an already entrenched approach to sound from working in pop music or standard music. They could tweak a bass, or EQ a drum set. They had all those go-to solutions, but what I was doing had no go-to solution. It was like - okay what are we hearing right now? How does this sit in the track? What do we need to do with this sound right now that has no precedent? And the women I worked with were not already stuck in something. So I have to say I always got a great result with female engineers."
It's interesting to hear about the early stages of your career because you said that you feel like it was a classical training, but on the other hand, you're working on Suzanne's projects with these instruments that no one else played. What was your experience working with those Buchla synthesizers?
She's right in a sense. There were no preconceived notions as to what it should sound like. The sounds that she created or that we worked on together provided a level of experimentation for me. We were creating something that didn't exist - a sound that didn't exist in, well I don't want to use the term “classical sense”, but a drum should be a drum. I had done an electronic music course at a university and so I was very much into the manipulation of sound and what can be done with it. In that sense, I embraced it. Do I make it move? Do I delay it? Do I put a chorus on it? Is it just a good raw, heavy sound or light, feathery thing? With her, a lot of it was placement within the stereo spectrum. The depth - front to back, left to right - was the the challenging part of placing the sounds that we came up with. There were no boundaries. I wasn't intimidated.
You've been at ABC for a long time now. You spoke earlier about your first work on a movie and also your first engineered session. As someone who has had so much experience in both engineering albums and in audio for video and post-production, do you feel like you have different processes for these different areas of focus?
Absolutely. At a certain point, the business changed. Rather than going in and doing a full day of work, I would go in and somebody would hand me a DAT. They’d done their tracks and I just have to now sweeten it with some vocals, mix it, and leave. What would have been a twelve hour day was now a four hour day. It was just shrinking and the writing was kind of on the wall - okay, now I have two kids and a marriage that wasn't going well. I made the decision to go into post. This is where I credit my experience with Suzanne immensely, with all of the synthesizers and sequencers and equipment that I was exposed to. She had the first of everything. I would stay at the studio and familiarize myself with the equipment. I’d program DX7s. I did her concert mixes and developed big sound design experience with her. Sound design not entrenched in the literal sense but in the musical sense - how to create a sound that would evoke a reaction. I asked myself what could I do with all this experience I have and continue forward in this industry? I ended up getting a gig as an in-house mixer at one of the big ad agencies. At my interview there, when the guy played my demo tape, I informed him that his speakers were out of phase. So, I got the job. I ran the in-house studio at that agency for about a year. My son was an infant and I needed a steady paycheck. I had two kids now. They had Sonic Solutions which I learned there. They had an AMEK board. It was a pretty nice little setup there for an in-house studio. I have to say that I believe having a musical background as an engineer is, and people might take offense to this because there are a lot of people in post that don't and didn't, but I think it's an integral part of being a good post engineer because it's about timing and it's about rhythm. In terms of design or cutting up a huge piece of music, to work well in 60, 30,15,10, and even 20, and 5 seconds. I think those chops are important to being a good post engineer. But there are a lot of great post engineers who don't have that background.
It sounds like from your personal experience, it's been a great asset.
Yeah. It served and still serves me well. The discipline of learning new software carried over to operating Sonic Solutions to my first post production job at an ad agency. When I had to learn Sonic Solutions, it was all me. And then I was recruited. The people were great, but in terms of my own ego, I did have a problem going in at nine o'clock in the morning and sitting there waiting for people not to come in until ten. It was too corporate for me. The opportunity came up to go to ABC. They had two rooms that were using Sonic Solutions. They were looking specifically for a Sonic operator and that’s when I ended up over at ABC Sound. At the time, it wasn't required to be union to do what I did. That's where I continued to do spots for radio and television for their news promos and for WABC. But, I wasn't allowed to do things for ABC television, whether it was promo or not because that was all union based and we couldn't touch that. An old producer friend of mine was working with Xerox and they were using Sonic Solutions. They wound up coming there and became my big client. Oddly enough, I use to be a little bit of a snob about it, saying “I don't want to do this. I want to do music.” So I kind of maybe bit the hand that might have fed me a little sooner. Without the musical background and the sensitivity that I felt that I had, I don't know that I would have done as well. I think I brought something else to the table, especially with the sound design which was a big part, and again I attribute a huge part of that to Suzanne.
For someone who is totally unfamiliar with post-production, what do your projects entail?
If you're working in a huge post facility, you have to be ready for pretty much anything. So, one of the biggest things in post is working with voice, cause you're pretty much always going to have talent come in, whether it be for a movie, whether it be animation dialogue, whether it be for a commercial. You're always pretty much working with a voice artist or actor which carries into what my day to day is now. I'm a good voice director. That's one of the constants. You get a script and it could go either way. You could record the script first or if there are sound bites entailed, you'll maybe have to wait for an edit and then get the voice to fit into the edit. We'll get the announcer and record him or her and place them into the spot. Again, depending upon the person I'm working with, either they'll take the reins and do what they want to do, or I'll participate in the production and direction of the performance. The music selection, which now we do mostly using music libraries, whereas there are a few houses out there that will deal still with original music and composition and get to play a little bit more that way. I unfortunately am in the position where I have to deal with libraries and try and cut things up and make things work. Or, producers will have pre-selected their music. It can go many different ways. So then we put the announcer into the spot if there are sound bites, dealing with noise or the poor recordings that I usually get and balance that whole thing out with the music. If there's time, I'll be waiting for a cut to come back to with graphics and then sweeten it with title punches or swishes or maybe some sound effects if there's a car or whatever. So it's pretty much just dealing with the layers of voice and sound and music and then some possible sound design and sound effects. My template is laid out; I have a video track, I have sound tracks, I have music tracks, I have the sound effect tracks ready. Usually, it's a go, go, go situation for me at work. Promos are a different thing. Promos are even different than regular ad work. I can record, edit, and mix a spot in fifteen minutes and it's on air because it has to make air. I’m working in news now. When we have something like a Boston marathon bombing or a shooting that happens, the turnaround is immediate. We gotta get the announcer on the phone. Pick this, pick that. And you have to be careful with news. We can't embellish beyond. It has to be real. It's not entertainment.
But what's happening now in my world is that a lot of video editors are doing their own sound and their own mixing. They hand over audio tracks to mix and sweeten and work with, and often times, they'll lay in their own effects. There are those that give me work they don't want me to touch. Just make it sound a little bit better and go. It's a balancing act. So I, not that I want to remake and reshape everything that's given to me, but sometimes music edits have been made that I can't shift or change because they've cut to it and they've locked it in make me say “Wow, I wish you would have let me work on something for you.” It's not just the creative, but it's the whole relationship aspect of being in my position of who you're working with, what you're doing, what the goal is, the time you have to do it in, the elements you're given to make it happen. So, that's my challenge in today's world. What am I gonna be given today? I don't know.
What software are you working in now?
I'm in Pro Tools 10.3. We're probably going to go up to 12 soon because my Mac is about five years old now. I have the D Control console, which I loved and I don't want to lose. I have Izotope RX software. I have a few bells and whistles that I use every day. My big speakers are Genelecs. It's a very small room but it works. I have it set up so that I can just-
I guess it has to be with how quick things turn around. You need a setup that's just ready to go.
Exactly. I've gotten so busy that I just can only do what my job allows me to do. I do look for people to get a roster of subs built up for when I may be sick or when I go on vacation. I think I scared away the last person because you have to. It's grueling. The pace is grueling and I don't want somebody to come in and crash. It's not good for anybody. Going back to relationships - my announcers, our announcers that we use - I take care of them, they take care of me. The same thing with the producers. There's always a huge string of approval. As you're recording, you make notes and I should say to whoever comes in “Please do it my way.” You can use a different EQ or different compressor or whatever but in terms of the layout of the edit list, I prefer my way because we have ongoing projects. For example, for the election, we started 45 days out doing countdown spots for World News Tonight. There was no reason to change the template. I just kept going and going and going - just do that, plug it in, do this, and so on. So if you're going to come in, don't change what I've done to an ongoing project. I don't use much automation. I automate my levels. I automate my pannings. I don't automate plugins because I have more than enough DSP for what I do. It's quicker for me to duplicate a track and put on a different EQ than it is to sit there and fiddle. Going back to the announcer work, I make notes on a script as I go. I have a take sheet. I noticed now that people don't take notes on a script and they keep using markers. I mean markers are fine, but to me, markers clutter up the screen. Eventually I'm going to be moving all this stuff down the timeline and building my spots. I see a different generational thing with people that don't have the training that I have. I used to have to pull out the tape numbers as an engineer. “This is going to be take two. Okay, this is going to be take three.” I would keep the take sheets. That training goes back to Automated. I mark my scripts. If I've not done the session I'll look at the script and I'll see there are no markings and have to look on screen. That's old school vs. new school. I want a little note on my sheet saying "sounds good on take seven." Or, "this is good on take two." But I won't put that on Pro Tools. I'll put it on the sheet in front of me.
I can't deal with markers either, especially if it's something lengthy. So, I always have a Moleskine journal with me to keep notes and I, as someone who is part of the new generation, I agree with you on that.
I'm working harder now than I ever have if that gives you an idea. I go in at 12pm. I don't know what time I'm getting home tonight. That's the way it goes. During the week I never can make plans because I don't know when I’ll get home. I know a few women in the business. We all have different experiences and I think clearly the relationships that we've had in our lives influence our experiences in the workplace. Certainly mine did. I'm a mixer, I'm a recordist, I'm a director, I'm a sound designer. I'm not a techie. I know how to apply the technology. I know how to manipulate the technology, but I don't get tied up in it. So you're building a studio, or you own a studio?
Yeah, I worked at a Pittsburgh studio for a few years and began working independently last year. I thought that me leaving an established studio would close a lot of doors, but in a way I think it opened up some more doors just because I feel like, especially being it's 2017 and so few artists have the funding that they use to have to record in a big studio so I've been building this small space for the last nine months. It's very modest. It's very small. But I just really wanted a space. I was loading up my car and doing everything mobile and taking my rig around with me and that was interesting to record in different places, and not that I didn't like it, but I was just ready to have a space where people could just come to me and I could know how everything is set up and be use to the way that it sounds in one space again.
Well, great! We should stay in touch it would be nice.
I would love that.