• SoundBetter.com Interview with Brian Leshon

  • SoundBetter.com Interview with Brian Leshon, May 2017

    Producer/Recording Engineer Brian Leshon was recently interviewed by SoundBetter.com about his background in the music industry. In the interview, Leshon talks about his career path starting with cleaning toilets at the famous Cherokee Studios in Hollywood where he ultimately became the Chief Engineer. He also discussed working with legendary engineer/producer Ken Scott (Beatles, Devo, SuperTramp, Missing Persons, etc.) from whom he learned music recording and production. Brian also talks about working with many top producers and artists from the 1980s and 1990s. Leshon discusses what it is like to record songs for commercial release now and provides important and useful tips and information for artists.

    SB: Describe the most common type of work you do for your clients.

    Brian Leshon: Most of my clients come to me for full production and recording services. That work involves pre-production, production, all instrument recording (drums, guitars, keyboards, vocals, and etc.) and mixing.

    Pre-production can include listening to any previous recordings to learn the artists’ sound and determine what the finished product should be like; attending rehearsals and live performances to see audience reaction, determine band preparedness and band member dynamics; getting chord charts and lyrics; musicianship evaluation; arrangement critique, and so on. I do all of this so I can give the very best representation of the artist’s music possible.

    I prefer live drums and guitars so most projects have them – something that is rare in today’s music industry, but highly desirable because listeners connect to music with an organic sound and real instruments. It’s a human nature thing. The more live instruments bands record, the more commercially desirable they are in my opinion. The drums I record range from close-in cocktail kits to arena-sized, bombastic, live John Bonhamesque sound, and everything in between. The guitar sounds I record range from country-clean and intimate, to hard rock, towering Marshalls. I use the same recording techniques for both drums and guitars so it sounds like they are playing together right in front of you.

    I do all the mixing on my projects. No assistants touch the work. My philosophy is; no one knows how my clients’ songs are supposed to come out better than I do. I am always thinking about what the end product has to be especially while I am recording the instruments. This means getting all of the instrument sounds and parts right. If they aren’t correct, mixing becomes a salvage operation. And, mixing should NEVER be a salvage operation.

    The range of services I offer includes recording, mixing, adding live drum tracks and other instruments, do artist development and consultation and song critiques.

    SB: What other musicians or music production professionals inspire you?

    Brian Leshon: All the musicians I work with inspire me. Over my career I have been blessed to work with many of the very best musicians in the world (household names) including guitarists Jeff Beck, Steve Morris (Deep Purple, Dixie Dreggs,) the late Allan Holdsworth (UK, Bill Bruford, Jean Luc Ponty,) and Ronnie Montrose (Sammy Hagar.) Awesome drummers I’ve worked with include Terry Bozzio (Frank Zappa, Missing Persons, UK, Jeff Beck, Korn, Jethro Tull,) Bob Siebenberg (Supertramp,) Leon “Ndugu” Chancler (Stanley Clark, Chick Corea,) Jim Keltner (John Lennon, George Harrison, Ringo Starr, Traveling Wilburys, Ry Cooder,) and hundreds more.

    The music professional who most inspired and formed me is legendary Producer/Engineer Ken Scott. Ken taught me the classic recording style used on albums for the Beatles, Bowie, Elton John, Supertramp and many more. I was fortunate to work beside THE guy whose first project as a first engineer was The Beatles album Magical Mystery Tour. And the first album Ken Scott produced was David Bowie’s Hunky Dory. Spending years sitting beside someone who really knew how to hear taught me how to put together a polished, finished product. I was also fortunate to work with other legendary producers and engineers including Tom Dowd (Rod Stewart, Eric Clapton, Allman Brothers, Eagles, Cream, Joe Bonamassa) Roy Thomas Baker (Queen, Cars) and more.

    SB: Tell us about your setup.

    Brian Leshon: Currently I run AVID Pro Tools 11 HD Native on a Mac through an Avid HD I/O 16×16 analog interface. There are an abundance of microphone preamps, and top quality analog equalizers. There is an excellent selection of plug-ins from Waves, UAD, Arturia and Contact. The UAD plug-ins run on a UAD-2 OCTO Core – PCIe DSP card.

    The studio’s recording room is large, can handle most recording situations, normal-size tracking sessions, and almost any size band. It is large enough to overdub a horn, or modest string section.

    The control room is equipped with a pair of Focal Twin 6BE monitors. Recordings done using them transfer well so they sound the same on whatever system they are played on. There is a pair of classic Yamaha NS 10M speakers for the near-field experience; a standard for decades remaining among the best, bookshelf-size speakers ever made.

    I deliver a BIG drum sound. (It’s my specialty.) There is plenty of room for almost any size drum kit in the instrumental room. Open the doors to the lounge area for ambient microphones and dial in, or out, how live a sound you want for your drum tracks.

    I have a substantial microphone collection including Sennheisr, AKG, ADK, Neuman, Blue, and Shure Rhode among others. I have all the mics I need to handle any situation. There is a large selection of quality guitars, amplifiers, drums and percussion instruments as well.

    Additionally, if needed, my team can include drum, guitar, and session musicians and technicians.

    SB: What’s your typical work process?

    Brian Leshon: That depends on the nature of the work. It is obviously different if I am recording and mixing the project from start to finish as opposed to doing some portion of the recording, or just mixing. If I produce, engineer and mix a project from start to finish my work begins with pre-production. This includes reviewing demos and rehearsal recordings, and when possible attending performances and rehearsals so we can plan for improvements.

    The recording process starts with the focus on drums and rhythm elements. This is the most critical point in the process because a song can’t be a hit if it has a poor rhythm section; there are no good recordings with bad drummers. I specialize in the nearly lost art of recording live drums, which I learned from noted master Ken Scott. The entire band plays during the drum tracking sessions, if possible, even though the only recording used will be of the drums. We overdub everything else to tightly match the rhythm section without heavy editing. Once I have the rhythm tracks I add the bass then the guitars. They are done separately to prevent leakage; I don’t want guitar in my drum tracks and vice versa. This way everything is much easier to control in the mix. The other important thing for me is the use of room mics on electric guitars and drums. By recording them separately I can use the same rooms and microphones so they sound like they were playing in the same space.

    The rest of the parts are recorded usually in this order: keyboards, any other instruments, lead vocals then background vocals. I do the lead vocals late in the process so the singer has the full band to perform to. Each part receives close review, editing and tuning when needed.

    I do the initial mixes by myself then when I feel it is ready for review I share it with the artists. If all instruments and vocals are in balance when they first hear the mix, I spend a lot less time making revisions. But the mix sequence is the same as recording, start with the drums, then bass, guitars, keyboards, lead vocals, background vocals then anything that’s left.

    If I am just mixing a project I need to; review the tracks, any previous mixes and live recordings the artists may have, any examples by other artists they like to get an idea of what they want the song to sound like in the end. From there the mix process is the same as if I recorded the project.

    SB: What do you bring to a song?

    Brian Leshon: I make songs sound like they are being played by a very tight, live band. Songs are “buttoned-up” timing wise. Even though the songs are highly produced, they don’t loose the organic, or authentic sound. I impact song dynamics and how they build. I bring a sense of arrangement that the artists haven’t considered. I introduce instruments and apply them in different places.

    SB: What’s your strongest skill?

    Brian Leshon: I am a top-notch drum and guitar recording engineer. Being able to record live drums and live guitars is a rare skill that seems to have almost disappeared. I am also very skilled at mixing. I have an overall vision of what the song is supposed to sound like in the end, while I am recording it. I am able to come up with a very polished, yet authentic commercial product.

    SB you didn’t ask what my strongest attributes are, and that’s almost as important. I am patient. I listen to my clients. I hear things in the recording and mixing process that other people don’t hear. I am very experienced, so I am able to make decisions during recording that makes mixing less difficult and time consuming.

    SB: What type of music do you usually work on?

    Brian Leshon: I work on lots of rock, pop and country. But, there is also a good mix or reggae, jazz, urban and Americana as well. Based on what I’ve seen over the past couple of years, I think rock is coming back. I also think the music fans want to hear a better mix of live and electronic instruments – and that’s the strength that country music has right now.

    SB: Can you share one music production tip?

    Brian Leshon: I’ll give you two. One, get it right at the source (at the mic,) and two, never believe anyone who says “we’ll fix it in the mix.” Mixing should NEVER be a salvage operation. Don’t get into a shit-in-shit-out situation. Great performances produce great mixes. Plan how you want the song to turn out in the end then make the decisions while recording to achieve that.

    SB: Which artist would you like to work with and why?

    Brian Leshon: I’ve been fortunate to work many of the artists I respect and enjoy including Jeff Beck, Stanley Clark, Missing Persons, Barbara Streisand, Jean Luc Ponty, Devo, Kansas, Dee Dee Bridgewater and more. I had their records in my collection before I started to work in the business. But if I could work with anyone it would be Peter Gabriel.

    I’ve been a fan of his since the early days of Genesis. I really love the subject matter and lyrical content of his material. His social consciousness, his mix of organic and electronic sounds and use of musical styles from around the world make his songs compelling. He’s a true innovator. His records sound fantastic sonically speaking. I feel a kindred spirit with his production techniques and the blend of real and virtual instruments.

    SB: How would you describe your style?

    Brian Leshon: My favorite clothing designer is Jhane Barnes. If you don’t know her work, look her up. Her fabric designs are like my music productions; many layered, colorful, and profoundly unique. The music I interpret has an organic, authentic but highly-produced and ready-for-commercial-distribution sound.

    SB: What was your career path? How long have you been doing this?

    Brian Leshon: I started cleaning toilets at the famous Cherokee Studios in Hollywood for $50 bucks a week. I probably worked 80 hours a week. If you are unfamiliar with Cherokee it was one of the major hit factories worldwide in the 1980s. It was there I had my first recording sessions with artists like Paul McCartney, John Lennon, Ringo Starr, David Bowie, Jeff Beck, Eric Clapton, Harry Nilsson, Rod Stewart, Steely Dan and lots more. Next I got a job at Chateau Recorders. (I got it because I was able to get the Comprehensive Employment Training Act (CETA) federal grant program to pay half my salary for the first six months. Studio owners were notorious cheap at the time.) I quickly became Chief Engineer.

    At Chateau Recorders I had the great good fortune to work with legendary recording engineer/producer Ken Scott who is famous for his work on projects like Beatles, Elton John, David Bowie, Super Tramp, Duran Duran, Kansas, Devo, Missing Persons, Jeff Beck, and more. From him I learned the recording techniques used on the Beatles albums and other standout artists. There I also worked with jazz artists Jean Luc Ponty, Stanley Clark, Chick Corea, Allan Holdsworth, Louis Johnson and many, many, many more.

    SB: If you were on a desert island and could take just 5 pieces of gear, what would they be?

    Brian Leshon: A boat, a motor, enough fuel to get to civilization, water and navigation. And then, when I got to civilization, I’d be happy to have a Neuman M49 mic, Trident A Range console, Fairchild compressor, Studer A800 24-track tape machine, and a pair of Focal monitors.

    SB: What advice do you have for a customer looking to hire a provider like you?

    Brian Leshon: Look for an engineer/producer who is: right for your style of music, has a lot of experience working in your genre, learned the craft from people who made big, famous hits and knows how finished product has to turn out to be sold commercially. (Recording for fun and recording for commercial success are ENTIRELY different.) Pro Tools certifications (I have one) and Associate Degrees in Music Production from Community Colleges don’t equate to the knowledge that comes from experience working with people who have made major hits and have done it over and over again. Listen to what they’ve done and what they are doing now. Ask a lot of questions – just like those in this interview.

    This is why I feel giving comprehensive answers here is so important.

    SB: What questions do you ask prospective clients?

    Brian Leshon: What I ask ultimately depends on the service prospective clients are inquiring about. Most are interested in mixing, producing songs for commercial release, movie and television placements, or song critiques (evaluations). Therefore the following questions are really important. The answers add up to how many songs the artist can realistically produce with the time and budget you and your musicians have. I need to know:

    What are you trying to accomplish with your recording project? Is this supposed to be a demo, or are you trying to get something that is commercially viable and suitable for major distribution or use in a motion picture, television show, or perhaps a video game. Most bands come in and try to do too much, in too short a time, with too little preparation, and too small a budget for what they want to do. What is often called an “album” or a “new CD” is in reality a glorified demo. This means the songs aren’t properly produced. This happens when there are too many songs to work on in the time allotted by the budget.

    How many songs do you want to record and why? This is related to the previous question: that artists who come in with too few resources want to produce 10 or 12 songs. If you really feel you have to release an album focus on 8 to 10 songs. If you only have 6 great ones, do an EP. Since most consumers buy songs rather than albums, there’s no longer the pressure to release a full album’s worth of music at one time. Spend your budget, time and resources on your very best material. And, these days, think vinyl as those get 8 to 10 songs maximum.

    What’s your time frame, and what is your availability? When do you need this by? Are you going out on a tour or need a CD for holiday gift season? How much time do you have to devote to it? What is your work and family schedule like? Are you in school? Do you have a full-time job? Are you going to be able to devote 5 or 6 days a week, 8 to 10 hours a day to get your project done, or do you have a day job and only evenings and weekends available.

    SB: What’s the biggest misconception about what you do?

    Brian Leshon: That artists can get the same results from productions recorded and mixed in a home project studio as they can in a professional studio.

    There are some great home project studios. No doubt. I’ve been in some that are awesome and just as good as any commercial studio anywhere. But those studios cost their owners $300,000 or more. Most home studios rooms are not properly built for recording and not equipped to do a top notch recording job that is commercially viable.

    Project studios generally don’t have nearly enough microphones, preamps, equalizers, or an input device big enough to do a drum session (16 ins and outs or more.) There isn’t enough room for the needed gear. And the rooms aren’t acoustically correct or soundproof. They rarely have separate control rooms.

    I’m a producing, recording and mixing professional. I’ve been doing this work for years. That experience has told me what end product is commercially viable. Most musicians don’t have the experience necessary to do what I do. And many very talented people miss their chance at success by insisting on doing all the work themselves. Sometimes, the best tool for the job is another person.

    SB: What questions do customers most commonly ask you? What’s your answer?

    Brian Leshon: Here are the most common questions and the explanations that answer them.

    “How much does what I want to do cost? Can it be done for a few hundred dollars?”

    SoundBetter pricing averages in May of 2017 were:
    Producer                       $ 400/song
    Engineer                       $ 400/song
    Recording Studio           $ 500/day
    Vocal Tuning                 $    40/track
    Vocal Comping              $    40/track
    Editing                          $   40/track
    Time Alignment             $    40/track

    Producing one average song:
    Producer                       $ 400/song                                                        $   400
    Engineer                       $ 400/song                                                        $   400
    Recording Studio           $ 500/day          3, 8-hour days (minimum)          $ 1,500
    Vocal Tuning                 $  40/track         4 (average)                               $    160
    Vocal Comping              $  40/track         4 (average)                               $    160
    Editing                          $  40/track         6 (average)                               $    240
    Time Alignment             $  40/track         6 (average)                               $    240
    Total                                                                                                      $ 3,100

    These are not necessarily my prices. But it gives you an idea of the production costs for one song. Bear in mind more experienced Producers and Engineers base their per-song prices on the number of days it will take them to do the work.

    This list above doesn’t include these important budget items (if needed):

    • Vocal Pre-Production – working with a vocal coach on the songs you intend to record to make sure you have them perfected before getting into the studio. This saves a lot of time and money. I HIGHLY recommend this.
    • Equipment rental – additional recording gear and instruments.
    • Mastering
    • Musicians
    • Arrangers
    • Meals
    • Transportation
    • Accommodations
    • CD pressing
    • Artwork
    • Distribution
    • Legal

    “Why does it cost so much? Why does it take so long?”

    Let’s say you are going to do a 6 song EP, and you are well prepared for the sessions. To produce a commercially viable EP plan:

    • 2 to 3 days just to lay down the drum tracks. Part of this time includes getting the drums to sound right before beginning to record and that can take hours depending on the condition of the drums.
    • 1 day to do all the bass.
    • 4 to 6 days to do the guitars.
    • 4 to 6 days to do the vocals.
    • 4 to 6 days to add all the other instruments to all the songs.
    • 6 days to mix the songs.

    That’s 21 to 30 days.

    Many people can’t believe it takes so long to produce a song. They don’t think about the time it takes behind the scenes to engineer it. They are mostly aware of the time it takes for their part, forgetting about tuning and comping vocals, recording all the other parts, editing, time alignment and more.

    If you want a commercially viable product that can immediately be used in movies, television, radio, or ready for major distribution through a label or an independent distributor like RED, this is what you need to be competitive. You’re trying to compete with the big dogs. This is where most bands make the mistake of putting out demo-quality recordings and not commercially ready products. It can be done faster for sure. But this is a reasonable estimate of what it takes to produce sellable product.

    “Can you do the work for free?”

    Producing, recording and mixing are my businesses. It’s how I make my living. So, no, I don’t ever work for free. (With one exception, charity projects where absolutely everyone involved donates their time.)

    That said I am always interested in talking with artists about their budgets. We make all sorts of deals with people who are very talented and whom we believe have the ability to be successful. For those people, we are able to make their budgets go a lot further than they would ordinarily.

    SB: What do you like most about your job?

    Brian Leshon: The creativity is the thing that motivates me most. I enjoy working with talented, creative people and making product that is commercially viable and that the artists are proud of.

    SB: What’s your ‘promise’ to your clients?

    Brian Leshon: I promise the songs I produce are technically acceptable for their intended use. I approach every project as if it were the most important one I have ever done. Clients get my full attention.

    SB: Analog or digital and why?

    Brian Leshon: I would love to be able to use an analog tape machine. But in today’s world it isn’t practical. They are mechanical devices that are old and hard to maintain. There are limitations to the number of tracks you can have. Tape as a medium is very expensive.

    But what I do use is an analog signal chain all the way up to the computer. This means using high quality microphones, preamps and equalizers (I prefer APIs), and compressor (I use a UAD 1176 or a Crane Song Falcon tube compressor.) I want the warm sound of the analog gear so that I don’t have to fix it later with too many plug ins.

    SB: Is there anyone on SoundBetter you know and would recommend to your clients?

    Brian Leshon: London Supernaw is an incredible songwriter. He packs his songs with hooks.

    SB: What are you working on at the moment?

    Brian Leshon: Currently (Spring 2017) I have 3 major projects in production. One is a 5-song EP for indie-pop band Supernaw. The second is a 4-song EP for country artist David Lorongo. The third is a single and a B-side for classic rock band Americas Kountry. I am doing lots of remote mixing projects and song consultations (critiques and evaluations.)

    SB: Tell us about a project you worked on you are especially proud of and why. What was your role?

    Brian Leshon: I’m always proud of the latest project I’m working on whether it is mixing, recording, producing, or consulting. It demonstrates my effort to deliver the best possible product. With each project I always set out to do the best job I’ve ever done.

    The projects that shaped me as an engineer/producer though, and schooled me on the music industry, was working with Missing Persons on their EP and all the way through their first full album Spring Session M (gold.) The project lasted several years. It took a talented band of musicians from working nightclubs all the way through getting them signed, and releasing a gold-selling album with 4 top radio hits. I got to participate in the entire career development process. This was the first time I was able to see how artists are developed from being unsigned and unproduced through making it big.