searchsearch
Producer & Engineer Leanne Ungar On Recording Leonard Cohen, Accessibility & Her Unique Studio Touch
Leanne Ungar

Photo courtesy of Leanne Ungar

interview

Producer & Engineer Leanne Ungar On Recording Leonard Cohen, Accessibility & Her Unique Studio Touch

What has Leanne Ungar learned after decades of producing and engineering albums by Cohen, Laurie Anderson and countless other greats? Above all else: serve the song.

GRAMMYs/Jun 14, 2022 - 09:12 pm

Within the grooves of a record, some producers announce their presence loud and clear. Daniel Lanois sounds like Daniel Lanois. George Martin sounded like George Martin. Eno is Eno is Eno. Other leading lights, like Rick Rubin, practice a sort of willful transparency and backseat-ness to let the artist be their most authentic selves.

Then consider Leanne Ungar, who's produced and engineered some of the preeminent artists of the 20th century. Where does she fit within that spectrum? "I think different types of music call for different types of sound," Ungar tells GRAMMY.com. "Some have buried vocals; some have the biggest vocal you've ever heard. I wanted to be able to do both."

Having it both ways in the engineer's chair doesn't mean Ungar somehow lacks a distinct identity; actually, it means the opposite. By serving the song first and foremost, Ungar fulfills the highest calling of a producer and/or engineer: Getting the music into a listener's consciousness via the purest, most unfettered route.

Where does this philosophy come from? "What goes with my personality is that I've always tried to be as invisible as I can," Ungar continues. "So, when I go back and listen to records I've done over periods of time, it's pretty changeable. It's pretty much at the service of the artist and the song."

Read on for an in-depth interview with Ungar about what inspired her to become a producer and engineer, how she honed her particular approach and what she wants to bring out of any artist — no matter the genre, style or intent.

This interview has been edited for clarity.

I'm such a fan of those Leonard Cohen albums you co-engineered. What was it like working on I'm Your Man?

I was just talking to a student the other day who said he's working on a song called "I'm Your Man." I said, "I recorded a song called 'I'm Your Man!'" He'd never heard of it, of course.

It was fun because the sense of humor seemed to come more to the front of that record than some of the others. I took over in the middle; I didn't record all the basics. It was being produced by Roscoe Beck in the beginning, and at a certain point, he wanted to leave the project. I never really talked to him about why.

I was traveling between working in New York and working in L.A., and Leonard was in L.A. It was just terrific, meeting [oudist] John Bilezikjian and recording [vocalist] Jennifer Warnes. There was some amazing talent on that record.

Leonard's always been hilarious, so I never fully grasped how it came to the forefront on that album.

Just looking at him with a wilted banana on the cover is so funny!

When did you first realize you were into the sounds of records — the architecture of them more so than what they contained?

There were a couple of things that happened to me after I walked into the studio and was bowled over by what was going on in there, and wanted to be part of it. A couple of things that pushed me into engineering.

One was a sound company that worked with the Grateful Dead, called Alembic. At that point in time, which was the late '60s, people weren't even really using stacks of speakers and monitor speakers. The fact they were putting that much into the concert sound told me that sound was really important.

Then, there was a record called Something/Anything by Todd Rundgren.

Such a fan!

Such a fantastic record. I noticed he did everything on it. He wrote; he sang; he produced; and he also recorded and mixed, which put that on the same level as the others. That meant a lot to me, too.

One other key moment didn't happen until '76, when Stevie Wonder's Songs in the Key of Life came out. Amazing record, and a lot of those horns were synth horns, and they didn't have reverb on them.

I was listening to that record, sitting there with a fellow assistant engineer, and we were just marveling that it could sound like that without having any reverb. I didn't know how they did that, and it was wonderful.

I'm also a big fan of dry production.

I am too! Reverb is hard. It clouds up records and it puts a distance between you and the subject. It also can imply impact, so I think there are times when it has to be there.

But records on the dry side — especially those that have depth, with something in the front of your face but also in the back of the soundscape that's [dictating] the front or back of the room — are really satisfying.

How did you meld your various influences into a signature approach?

What goes with my personality is that I've always tried to be as invisible as I can. I don't think that sound is about the mixer that much. If you're serving the song and it's getting across, I think that's the important thing.

So, when I go back and listen to records I've done over periods of time, it's pretty changeable. It's pretty much at the service of the artist and the song.

I love producers on both sides of the equation — those who are super-transparent and those who put an unequivocal stamp on everything.

I think different types of music call for different types of sound. Some have buried vocals; some have the biggest vocal you've ever heard. I wanted to be able to do both.

And being transparent involves far more than just flicking on the recorder and walking away. I'm sure seeming invisible requires a lot of subtle brushstrokes behind the scenes.

[Chuckles] I think you're right about that.

The way Leonard and [producer] John [Lissauer] worked on "Hallelujah" in the studio — there wasn't a big budget for the record, and they had some big ideas. One of the things they were doing a lot was using samples from the Synclavier [synthesizer]. We were having to simulate a church space, a choir — different things that weren't what they seemed.

So, to serve that particular song, there had to be a great amount of dynamics and depth to the "choir" that was going on. So, I was working hard, sweating, trying to make that happen.

Leonard kept asking for more and more and more reverb in his voice. He wanted to sound like God on that particular [song]. And I don't think I did that good a job of simulating God, but there's certainly a lot of reverb on it!

Listening to early Leonard Cohen is interesting. They added bells and whistles that didn't really need to be there — but I kind of like them!

He really did not like those! 

When we went to do that Sony Legacy album [2022's Hallelujah & Songs From His Albums], the first thing we thought is we'd make the early stuff sound like the later stuff, as some of the later stuff sounded fabulous.

So, when we put that EQ up on the early stuff, it brought up all those tambourines and bells and things that were all [Gestures, suggests a ceiling] up here. Leonard said, "I fought the producer. I didn't want it to be on the album. And now, I don't want it louder on the album. Make it dull!

His idea was very much centered around the voice. And I think he always thought because he was not a quote-unquote great singer — I think he was a great singer in his own style — he always thought that if there was too much embellishment, people wouldn't listen to him.

Give me a record you worked on that you feel sums up your vision.

Well, there is that Holly Cole record I like a lot — [1993's] Don't Smoke in Bed. It's a jazz trio in Toronto — just piano, bass and voice. It's very, very simple, but it sounds pretty good and goes into different style machinations. It's emotional, but not overdone. I like it a lot.

I rented Shelley Yakus' Telefunken 251 for the voice and it sounded fantastic! We also rented a Neve sidecar so we could get some 1073 [channel amplifier/equalizer modules] on some of the inputs.

We ended up not liking it very much on the piano because the piano player [Aaron Davis] had a way of touching the piano that sucked all the highs out of the sound. It was the most velvety, quiet piano sound I'd ever heard, and he could make any piano sound like that.

Having that piano sound go through the Neve pre[amp]s put too much fuzz and softness into the sound, so I ended up not using Neves on the piano.

It's crazy how recording processes that would have cost a fortune 40 years ago are now accessible to almost anyone. What advice would you give a young music-maker just starting to mess around with sounds at home?

I think it's wonderful that the sounds are there and they can be had that universally. It's absolutely great that you don't have to go into some million-dollar studio. Although if you are searching for certain orchestral or drum sounds, it is good to have an acoustic environment that's been treated.

For me, the thing that's most important is the way you listen — what you hear. So, to me, mixing is mostly about hearing. Because hearing is so universal — we can't stop sounds coming in — we all think we're hearing everything, but we're not.

One of the courses I've been teaching for 19 years now is critical listening. It's about, "What do I listen for? How do I go into a dense recording and listen for things that were done that made it sound like that? What are the tools, and how can you tell them apart when you can't solo something?"

I think mixing is a lot about the relationships between this sound and that sound. I was talking about "front and back" earlier. The ways textures sound next to each other. Not how they sound on their own or solo, but how something bright can make something sound darker than it would on its own.

That's the stuff you have to be paying attention to, and listen hard for. Mixing is hard, whether you're doing it in a million-dollar studio or in your bedroom. I don't think either one is really harder if you know what you're going for.

Producer & Engineer Susan Rogers Worked With Prince And Barenaked Ladies. Now, She Wants To Know Why We Love The Music We Do.

Willie Nelson To Be Honored With 2019 Producers & Engineers Wing Award

Willie Nelson

Photo: Larry Busacca/Getty Images

news

Willie Nelson To Be Honored With 2019 Producers & Engineers Wing Award

The GRAMMY-winning country legend will be honored for his many years of "artistic achievements and creative genius" during GRAMMY Week in February 2019

GRAMMYs/Oct 30, 2018 - 05:31 pm

Willie Nelson may already have many accolades and achievements to his name, including eight GRAMMY Awards, but that doesn't mean there isn't room for more. On Oct. 30 the Recording Academy's Producers & Engineers Wing announced they will be honoring Nelson during GRAMMY Week 2019 to "celebrate [his] artistic achievements and creative genius."

The P&E Wing's 12th annual celebration will take place on Feb. 6, 2019 in Los Angeles, Calif. as part of GRAMMY Week, which culminates with Music's Biggest Night, the 61st GRAMMY Awards on Feb. 10. In addition to honoring Nelson, the event also acknowledges the industry contributions of the Wing's more than 6,400 professional members.

"Each year, the Recording Academy's Producers & Engineers Wing annual GRAMMY week event honors members of the recording community who exhibit exceptional standards of integrity, creativity and sonic quality," said Maureen Droney, Managing Director of the P&E Wing. "We are thrilled to pay homage to Willie Nelson, an undeniable icon with an incomparable—and uncompromising—body of work."

Nelson is a musical force to be reckoned with, a living legend who has released more than 200 albums over his six-decade career, a true leader in outlaw country music, and the larger genre as a whole. He has made an impact in the music industry as a songwriter, performer and collaborator, and in the larger world as an author, actor and activist. He has always used his platform to speak his mind and make a positive impact on those around him, such as with Farm Aid, an annual charity concert he co-founded in 1985 to support family farmers.

To date he has won eight GRAMMYs, taking home his first at the 18th GRAMMY Awards in 1975 for Best Male Country Vocal Performance for his breakout hit "Blue Eyes Crying In The Rain," from Red Headed Stranger. The album was inducted into the GRAMMY Hall of Fame in 2002, followed by several more of Nelson's recordings. Over the years he has been recognized by the Recording Academy on multiple other occasions, receiving the President's Merit Award in 1986, the GRAMMY Legend Award in 1990 and the Lifetime Achievement Award in 2000.

"Willie Nelson has inspired generations of musicians and fans, and continues to set precedents of excellence within the music community," added Recording Academy President/CEO Neil Portnow.

In 2018 the P&E Wing honored power couple Alicia Keys and Swizz Beatz. Prior honorees include Jack WhiteRick RubinNile Rodgers and Neil Young.

2019 GRAMMY Awards To Air Feb. 10, 2019, From Los Angeles

YES, MASTER

news

YES, MASTER

GRAMMYs/Dec 3, 2014 - 04:22 am

By the Mayan calendar, 2012 was supposed to have been apocalyptic. By the measurement of music mastering engineers, however, it was instead a turning point in the history of how good iTunes music can sound. That’s because file-based music and iTunes in particular now have the tools needed to make AAC mp4s and other compressed file formats sound far better than they have in the past.

“This year it’s different, this year it all changed,” exclaims Eric Boulanger, a mastering engineer and manager at the The Mastering Lab, a Los Angeles studio facility where records receive their final polish before distribution. The facility, where artists including the Eagles, the Rolling Stones, Al Jarreau, James Taylor, Willie Nelson and Lyle Lovett have had their sounds perfected by mastering legend Doug Sax and his staff, was the first to employ Mastered for iTunes, the software toolkit released earlier this year by Apple and developed with significant input from mastering engineers affiliated with The Recording Academy’s Producers & Engineers Wing.

“There’s been a movement towards this for some time now,” Boulanger continues. “The market has been demanding higher-quality sound. You see it in the resurgence of vinyl: vinyl records are being bought by teenagers who, other than maybe a few times in their lives when they’ve listened to a CD, have spent their entire lives experiencing music through mp3 files and earbuds. When they hear what music can sound like on actual records played through speakers, they say, ‘We want that!’”

 

New Tools

And that’s what everyone will soon have access to, thanks to new tools that let mastering and other audio engineers approach file-based music formats as their own entities, instead of simply taking the 44.1 kHz/16-bit .wav files that are the basis for Compact Discs and jamming those larger files into the confines of a 128-kb/sec or 256-kb/sec file. Andy VanDette, chief engineer at New York’s Masterdisk who has mastered records for artists including Rush and the Beastie Boys, says attention began being paid to the mastering of music files when artists began to complain about how their recordings sounded on iTunes. “It took a long time for the market to pay attention to how file formats affect sound quality,” he says. “But then artists began to tell us, ‘This doesn’t sound like my music anymore,’ when they heard it on iTunes.”

According to Boulanger, Apple’s own engineers had been looking into the issue of how data compression affects music for a couple of years. However, computer engineers understandably would look at a challenge from a coding point of view, not necessarily from an artistic perspective. When they began to collaborate in earnest with members of the P&E Wing, progress accelerated. It reached a turning point in January 2011, when Colbie Caillat’s producer (and father) Ken Caillat met with iTunes executives to discuss how to improve the sound of Colbie’s music when it was distributed through the iTunes store. Ken Caillat referred Apple’s people to Boulanger, who conveyed to them his concern that since the iTunes’ encoding process to the AAC file format took place after the mastering stage was completed, the esthetic intentions of the artists and engineers for the music could be distorted by the additional data processing. He suggested that if Apple could make that encoding process more transparent, and offer access to it to mastering engineers before it was delivered for AAC encoding, music could better accommodate the process. The ultimate goal, Boulanger says, was to establish iTunes as a primary format for mastering purposes, on a par with the CD and vinyl, rather than as an afterthought.

From that larger collaboration Apple created Mastered For iTunes, a software kit that lets artists and engineers preview how their tracks will sound once they are encoded for iTunes, allowing them the opportunity to make informed decisions regarding levels and how hard to hit the AAC encoder, thus adapting the music for the medium ahead of the iTunes encoding process. Mastered For iTunes also standardizes certain protocols suggested by mastering engineers, such as delivering masters at 24-bit resolution.

A combination of new tools and a heightened awareness of what’s necessary to make music sound good on files is opening a new chapter in music production. The dialog opened around the mastering of Colbie Caillat’s LP All Of You led directly to the creation of a toolkit from Apple now downloadable by anyone who wants to optimize their music for iTunes distribution. It reflects insights offered by collaborating engineers, resulting in tools such as AFClip, which allows engineers to measure whether or not a high-level master will clip the encode and decode stages of AAC, causing distortion.

Apple’s cooperation was critical -- in the second quarter of 2012, by Apple’s own estimate, iTunes accounted for 64 percent of the entire digital music market and 29 percent of all music sold at retail (including both digital and physical formats). And the company, often known for its diffidence to outside collaboration, cooperated by making its ALAC (Lossless) encoding process transparent. It has not only embraced the quest to improve the overall sonic quality of file-based music but has included in the on-line toolkit, AU Lab, a free digital audio application that can be used to perform key quality-enhancement tasks such as detecting peaks and clipping, and performing double-blind listening tests. This injects optimization for file-based distribution further up the music production chain and, combined with Mastered For iTunes, will take sound quality even further.

“Apple is huge in music, so when Apple changes, the entire industry changes,” says Boulanger. What consumers can expect as Mastered For iTunes becomes more ubiquitous is a big change, too -- a change for the better.

Behind The Record Celebrates Behind-The-Scenes Creators Of Your Favorite Albums

news

Behind The Record Celebrates Behind-The-Scenes Creators Of Your Favorite Albums

The brand-new Recording Academy initiative encourages artists to thank the fellow creators who helped their music come together, thus, helping fans dive deeper Behind the Record

GRAMMYs/Oct 24, 2019 - 06:00 pm

This Friday, Oct. 25, the Recording Academy will launch Behind the Record, a new social media initiative to highlight all of the creators that made your favorite albums and records possible. The goal is to ignite a cultural conversation by inviting artists across genres to recognize all of their collaborators' tireless behind-the-scenes work, for the music their fans adore.

The conversation kicks off on Friday, when the first group of artists will share their reimagined album covers—Credit Covers that highlight the songwriters, producers, engineers and other collaborators—on social media.

Credits have been a casualty of the digital age, for all that we gained with streaming we lost in the opportunity for recognition and even discovery. Behind the Record champions all professional music creators and aims to connect with artist fan bases in order to give recognition to those who work tirelessly on these recordings."

If you are artist, you can participate in Behind the Record by creating and sharing a Credit Cover for a single or album using the online generator. Once you create your Credit Cover, you can join the conversation by sharing it across your social media platforms and tagging the amazing collaborators now featured on the cover.

Please use the hashtags #GiveCredit, #WeAreMusic and #BehindTheRecord when posting, so everyone can find and discover it.

Behind the Record is supported by the Recording Academy's Producers & Engineers Wing. Additionally, Jaxsta, a database of official (non-crowd-sourced) music credit information for members of the music community, offered support by providing credits for Merlin, Warner Music, Sony Music and Universal Music Group releases. Pandora, TIDAL and Genius also partnered with the Academy to help make this project possible.

For more information, or if you're interested in creating a physical limited-edition sleeve, please contact givecredit@recordingacademy.com or visit www.grammy.com/behindtherecord.

For music fans, artists and behind-the-scenes magic-makers alike, don't forget to explore and join the conversation on social media, starting Friday, with #GiveCredit, #WeAreMusic and #BehindTheRecord.

GRAMMY Museum To Celebrate 20 Years Of Latin GRAMMY Excellence With New Exhibit