LESLIE GASTON-BIRD

on public radio, symphonic recording, racial and gender equity in audiO

lesliegastonbird.jpg

You can’t doll it up. You have to say, “This is a white male dominated field and we must demonstrate that we have an inclusive attitude.”

February 12, 2018
interview by Madeleine Campbell
illustration by Maggie Negrete

Leslie owns a post-production company (Mix Messiah Productions), serves the Audio Engineering Society as Vice President of the Western Region, and was an Associate Professor at University of Colorado Denver until 2018. She currently resides in Brighton, England with her husband and two children.

How did you get started working in audio?
It was 1987. I enrolled in a program at Indiana University. That program had only been in existence for five years when I enrolled. Audio, in the late ‘80s, was a new thing. I think I was doing something with the cable access channel or I had gone to see something and there were camera people and I thought, “It’d be cool to be a camera guy.” I got into the technology and looked through brochures and I’m like, “Wait a minute! Music recording! I’m a musician.” So it was kinda that and I got into the program at Indiana, which was really good.

Were you studying an instrument, as well?
I tried to get in on piano but I wasn’t accepted so ha! It’s sort of good that I had the audio to fall back on.

And you worked in public radio for a long time?
Yeah! The campus at IU had a radio station, WFIU, so I was a board op there. We would get the satellite announcements, kinda like an internal news feed for all public radio stations, and they said there was a position open at NPR in DC. I thought, “Hmmm I can do all this stuff. I’m doing all this stuff right here in my little college four-dollars-an-hour minimum wage gig.” So I went out there and got hired and worked there for four years. Then I got a little tired of DC. NPR is a huge place and I just felt like it was kinda out of control, so I decided to look for greener pastures. I went to Colorado and there was an engineer from NPR [in DC] who had that gig in Colorado, so that was fortunate because he could put in a good word for me. We had worked together. I was one of 40 audio technicians when I was at NPR but when I was in Colorado I was the audio systems manager. When I moved to DC I was 22 and when I moved to Colorado I was 26. I stayed there for eight years before I decided to change and I got into post-production at a place called The Post Modern in Denver. It’s a really cool little joint.

The funny thing is, my salary at this time—well, I am not climbing any ladder, man. When I worked at NPR I thought, “Holy god, I’m making $24,000 a year! I’m rich!” I took a cut to come out to Colorado then a cut to take the job at Post Modern. This is a labor of love. You’re not in this for money. All that being said, at Post Modern I got a chance to do post-production, which is how I got into post. I was working on my masters at the same time. I was there for three years. My professors, Roy Pritts and Rich Sanders, were saying, “You should teach!” and I said, “Nah man, I’m good.” They said, “No really, you should apply to be a professor!” I figured maybe I had a knack for teaching. I didn’t make the first round but I did make the second. They had two positions open in quick succession so I got the second. So I’ve been teaching since 2005.

But you also still work in post? You have your own post-production company?
I still freelance. I have my own post company called Mix Messiah Productions. I still work on films and commercials.

Could you explain to someone who might be new to audio what “post-production” means? What work did it entail for you at Post Modern? Well, they actually had a contract with Sony Columbia Pictures. They had a bunch of old movies that they wanted to put on DVD. I think the most famous example that Americans might know would be The Partridge Family or The Flying Nun. They had this back catalogue of stuff that was on film and beta, all these old video formats. So they needed picture and sound editors to go back and take out all of the dirt and grime that had built up on the soundtrack over the years to make it nicer, to clean up the quality. A lot of people who listen to movies nowadays wouldn’t tolerate noise like the tape hiss that we had. That was no bueno, so we cleaned that up. That was my job! I would listen for hours and hours and take out every single click. Izotope is a program that people might have heard of and it analyzes the sound for you and takes out all these clicks and pops. Before Izotope, there was a company called Cedar and it did an okay job of doing that but it would come out sounding a little artifact-y, so one of my jobs was to say, “This is starting to get a little too aggressive. I’m gonna back off.” It was painstaking. It would take me 20 minutes to go through two minutes of audio. It was laborious but it made me super fast at Pro Tools. I got my editing chops up really high.

Another thing I wanted to ask about, which I think is so cool: you have years of experience in symphonic recording? Yes! Indiana, of course, has orchestral ensembles. They have a symphony and opera and jazz band, so that was a pretty big deal, all those hours I got recording there. At NPR there is a program, Performance Today, which features orchestras from all over the country, all over the world. When I moved to Colorado, it just so happened that the Colorado Symphony Orchestra was trying to get on Performance Today. Performance Today kept rejecting their submissions. I don’t know how they heard about me but they got in touch asking for tips. I went down to the concert hall and said, “Where are the mics?” and they pointed up and they were in the catwalk. I said, “Wow, that’s way too far away.” So they hired me as a consultant at first just to say, “Where do we need to put our mics?” and I had to argue with a bunch of people but eventually we were able to put the mics where we wanted and they were happy. After that, they hired me and I worked for them for four years. I did a few seasons with Marin Alsop when she was the conductor. That was a good time.

I also want to touch upon AES [Audio Engineering Society]. Before we get into the specifics of the projects you’re focused on within AES, could you describe the foundation and overall mission?
Oh yeah! I won’t bore you with the company line that’s on the website but basically it’s a society of audio engineers and I don’t mean that to sound literal or silly. It’s a community. I think what’s really good about the community is that once you get into the profession, whatever field you’re in—mixing, mastering, recording, audio for video, acoustics, whatever—you can talk ‘til you’re blue in the face with your mom and dad and they will not understand you. Who are you gonna talk to at the end of the day about what you’re doing? So the society gives us a place to compare notes and find resources and network. A typical thing that happens at the conventions is you go there because you’re interested in one thing and then you happen upon an exhibit—someone demonstrating a crazy microphone or something and you’re like, “I had no idea they had mics that did that!” You go there because you’re interested in acoustics and you meet someone who’s doing virtual reality and you realize, “Oh wow, our acoustic spaces have to be different now because we’re dealing with the space all around a person.” It’s so wonderful. I love the conventions and I love the people, but it’s an almost homogenous group of people—white, male-dominated. Being a black woman, I go to these conferences and I’m the only one. Sometimes I’m the only one. Sometimes I’m the only black person. Why?! It’s a great big world. How is it that I’m the only one? But what’s cool is that I’ll branch out to SoundGirls.org and Women’s Audio Mission and I start to network. I meet Fela Davis and Ebonie Smith and Abhita Austin and I’m like, “Okay! I’m not the only one!” I also have to say there were like 20 female engineers at NPR and I think half were African-American like me. So it was weird to go from college to NPR and assume this is a very diverse field, come out of there and go to Colorado and realize—nope.  If you’re in New York, if you’re in DC, it’s more diverse. Once you leave the big cities, it’s not. Over the years, I kinda figured out we need to talk about this.

How do you begin this conversation? Was that discussion present at this year’s convention?  
It was because we made it that way. We started the Diversity and Inclusion committee on purpose so we can have that conversation. As it turns out, there’s only one way to start the conversation and that’s just to start it. You can’t doll it up. You have to say, “This is a white male dominated field and we must demonstrate that we have an inclusive attitude.” Women’s Audio Mission and SoundGirls.org did it. I can’t speak for Terri Winston and Karrie Keyes, but I think they just had to take matters into their own hands and do what they did. They weren’t waiting for guiding principles or a mission statement. They said, “We need more women. I’m gonna start something.” Bam. AES was getting left in the dirt really by these other two organizations who just came out of the gate and decided to handle the problem. At this point, AES has to be supportive and ask what we can do to help. That’s where we’re at.

SoundGirls.org has been so encouraging to witness. It really reinforces how big our community actually is. I love having it as a resource.
Right.

I wanted to get back to your production company.
I would call it a post-production company. Well, I dunno. I mean, I’ve done a couple music videos which was fun so in that sense I did a production, but I generally don’t do productions as a rule. I do audio post for video. Anyways, it’s called Mix Messiah Productions. I’ve been operating under that name forever but I made it an LLC in 2012 or ‘13, which is pretty recent. But I’ve been doing freelance work for ages. I just launched a webpage recently and decided to make it a full-blown operation recruiting clients and whatnot. Mostly I’ve been doing stuff with fellow faculty people in the film department but I also did a couple independent films not affiliated with the university.

Can you elaborate on audio post for video? Are you doing dialogue replacement or editing or mixing?
The piece I’m working on for David—he’s a faculty person I work for—somebody else did the location sound but I’ve been doing the dialogue editing and sound effects and foley, with a team for the foley. The re-recording mixing I’m doing and I’m also doing music composition, too, so I’m wearing a bunch of hats. I would say my specialty is re-recording mixing. Music comp is something I’ve dabbled in but want to do more.

Are you using Pro Tools?
Yup. Exclusively.

What other tools are you using to do this work?
I have Pro Tools 10, 11 and 12 hot all the time. If I need to switch back and forth I can do that because there are different tools and plugins on all of those. I do a lot of MIDI using Pro Tools and I use Reason for atmospheric sounds and textures if I need to construct a sound more. Really, the only time I crack open Ableton is if I need yet another sound. All these tools give me access to different libraries of sounds I can use. I haven’t gotten into using Native Instruments but I’ll get there eventually, but between Pro Tools, Reason and Ableton, I can do what I need to do. That’s pretty much it.

Oh, and you and your family just moved overseas?
Yeah! I’m teaching online for the university for another year but my position is open. Please ladies, go get this. After that, I think I’m just gonna focus on my freelance stuff for a while. I dunno. Maybe I’ll go get a PhD.
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Since this interview was published, Leslie has been elected to serve on the Audio Engineering Society’s Board of Governors for 2019.

www.mixmessiahproductions.blogspot.com


- Women in Sound 2019 -