I first worked with Leanne Ungar in 1992, when I was an assistant engineer at The Complex in West Los Angeles. The record was Leonard Cohen's The Future. Leanne has been engineering records for Leonard since 1984, and she's been in the recording business since the early '70s. She's engineered six of Leonard Cohen's records, and lots more from artists as diverse as Laurie Anderson, Cat Stevens, Holly Cole, and Perla Batalla. Leonard graciously allowed us to conduct the interview at Still Life, his private studio situated in a single room above the garage behind Leonard's house. Still Life is equipped with some very nice furniture, a digital workstation, a microphone and little more — no acoustic treatments or isolation, no racks of esoteric tube gear. Just the basic ingredients, a comfortable space, and plenty of sunlight. Leonard's latest record, Ten New Songs, was recorded and mixed in its entirety here and at co-writer/producer Sharon Robinson's home studio, Small Mercies. It's a great record and a testament to the potential of home recording in the right hands.

You got your start in recording in New York. Did you grow up there?

No, I grew up in the Midwest. Minneapolis. After two years of college — I was going to be a dancer — I went to New York City.

So how did you move into recording?

Well, I realized I wasn't going to be a professional dancer — too painful. [laughing] But I fell in love with New York, so I was looking for a way to stay there.

Music was obviously already a big part of your life.

Yeah, and I played the flute also. I always related to music in one way or another. I had a lot of friends who were musicians, I was hanging out with them, and I saw the studio and just loved it.

What studio was that?

Actually the first studio I was ever in was Richard Factor's, who started Eventide. He had a studio in New York for a long time — I don't think it's there any more — and the band I was working with did a demo there. And I just kind of walked in and went, "Wow! I gotta do this."

Did you immediately start looking for a job at a studio?

Well, I had a job at a publishing house, and they were doing... like, math lessons on cassette, little [educational] skits. So I made them teach me how to use all the equipment, and then I'd sneak my friends in at night and record music. Eventually they hired me [to do recording], and I did about another year's worth of voice recording, editing, and mixing sound effects for them. And then I went to Sound Ideas.

How was that studio set up? That was 1973, right?

Yes. It was really interesting because things were just changing over to 16-track at that point. They had an 8-track recorder that they could put 12-track heads on, a 1" machine. And then the first 16- track they got was an Auto-Tec, a dual-capstan machine made by a company called United Recording. They just had one studio, and during the second year that I was there, Geoff Daking built a studio downstairs, below the other one. So I got to help wire the studio, and watch them put the acoustics together.

Was Geoff already building his own gear?

No, but he was the chief engineer and also the maintenance tech. He knew a lot. He really kept that place running. He taught me how to solder, how to trace a signal path through the board, pull a card, find the problems... and he kept that dual-capstan machine going. It was kind of dodgy — sometimes one capstan would get out of alignment with the other, and it would start to kind of eat the tape.

Yikes!

It was really scary. So anyway, he got an Angus board for the downstairs room. The upstairs had a 20-input API board, with eight busses and four aux sends!

What did you learn from Geoff about making records?

He taught me everything. He's a drummer — he started out in the Blues Magoos in the '60s. He taught me how to get drum sounds, and how to tune drums, which is really important. One of the most interesting things to me about being in that situation with Geoff was, he would tune the drums — say a jingle was coming in early in the morning — we'd get a drum sound based on the way the drums sounded when he was playing them, and then the drummer for the session would come in and it would sound completely different. Same set of drums, same tuning. Ding! [she makes the "light bulb on" sound] You know? Pianos sound different with different people playing — everything does — there's so much in the fingers.

How did you meet Laurie Anderson?

I was a fan. And I think the reason I was a fan was because we had friends in common, so they heard her very early on and said, "You have to hear this person." Anyway, her business manager at the time knew that I was an engineer, and passed my name on to Roma Baran, the producer.

How did you approach recording that first album [Big Science]? Were the pieces already fleshed out from her stage show, or was there a lot of experimentation in the studio?

The stage shows at that point didn't have too much of that material in them. She had a lot of material. She has thick piles of notebooks of written material, and she doesn't mind kind of appropriating from one piece to another, so you see different loops, different word fragments and sound fragments kind of migrating until they find a home. Her stage show at that point was deafening! Huge drums and guitars — it was pretty wild. Most of the material on that record is pretty introspective and quiet. She always had the loops and the basic words she was going to start with, and then there was a lot of experimentation to see what was going to fit, and how it was going to fit together. And she was tireless. I'd go home exhausted after twelve hours, and if she wasn't in the studio she'd be pulling out slides or something for another project, or getting out the vacuum and cleaning the place!

Did that record present some special challenges with some of the unusual instruments? Like the tape head violin?

[Laughs] Well, strangely enough, the tape head violin is really easy to record because you just take the direct out. And she just plays it. But one of the interesting things was making the tapes for her. Finding pieces of tape that she thought she wanted to play, and she just popped them in. She had a guy named Bob Bielecki who was — and still is — a recording engineer but also a bit of an electronics designer. And she would work with him on things like taking a little Casio keyboard apart and putting the key contacts onto her body so she could tap on herself and make weird noises. He was the one who mounted the tape head on the violin.

Do you enjoy experimenting with unusual or unnatural sounds?

Oh yeah, totally. I'm always interested in sounds where you can't exactly tell what they are, or where they come from. And also mixing real sounds together with unreal sounds to make something new. I thought for a while that I might want to get into film sound effects, or something like that. But I've found from the movie work I've done that sound to me is much more interesting when it exists on its own. When it's got to be subordinate to an image, that's not as much fun.

It's liberating to work on projects that aren't bound by limitations of style or pop song formats, or corporate "hit" expectations...

I guess I've been kind of lucky in my career, because the totally mainstream hit stuff has, you know, mostly ignored me. [laughs] I've been kind of more associated with more eclectic people, so that there hasn't always been a lot of that commercial pressure. I worked a lot with a guy named John Lissauer who was the producer the first time I worked with Leonard at Sound Ideas. And he was one of those guys... all his projects were always off the wall and all the sounds that he went after were so creative. He had a really liberating approach to sound. Laurie kind of took it to a new place in terms of the things that made the sounds, because the sources that she used were just... as big as the world.

Those records sound pretty honest and direct, like what's unusual seems to be coming directly from the performers rather than through a lot of studio processing.

Yeah. Especially since Big Science hardly even has any reverb on it. It's very, very bare.

You've been working with Leonard Cohen since '73, on New Skin for the Old Ceremony. Did you hit it off back then?

Yes.

How did you end up working with him again ten years later?

Through [John] Lissauer. Because I had worked on other projects with Lissauer all along. I was an assistant engineer in '73, and by the time Various Positions came around, in '84, I was the main engineer.

I read that before doing the new record (Ten New Songs) Leonard had spent some time in a Zen Buddhist monastery.

Even in '73, when I first met Leonard, [his teacher] Roshi was coming to almost all the recording sessions. He would sit on the couch, wearing those little sandals and split-toe socks. He was so cute — it was such a good vibe. When Leonard got off the road after the tour for The Future, Roshi at that point was getting to be about 90, so he didn't know whether Roshi was going to be around that much longer. Of course Roshi still is absolutely vibrant — he's fine. But it seemed to Leonard like a good time to hang with him some more.

And he was up there for several years, right?

Yes.

Did you keep in contact with him the whole time, or was he keeping himself secluded there?

I would hear from him from time to time. You see that red thing in the corner there [indicating a roll- around rack containing a Tascam DA-78HR, a Brent Averill Neve 1272 mic preamp, a Mackie 1202 mixer, and a Stewart HDA-4 headphone amp]? That's like a little portable recording studio, and he had that up there with him, for writing. But he wasn't always really comfortable with manipulating everything, so he sometimes would call with a question, or asking about an upgrade. And there were other little projects we did, like a score for a movie of a friend of his, and another narration thing that he did for the Tibetan Book of the Dead. So there were contacts all along the way.

Are all the instruments on this record, apart from Bob's guitar [Bob Metzger played on "In My Secret Life"], sequenced by Sharon?

Yes, and there was some stuff that Leonard played on his keyboard [a Technics SX-KN6000]. It has a huge library of sounds, with all kinds of different ethnic percussion instruments.

Did you talk about replacing the sequenced tracks with live musicians? 

Yeah, we talked about it a lot. And ultimately we fell in love with what we had. Every time we would go to replace something it would be like, "But it's going to change!" [laughing] Especially with Leonard's music, you know how little tiny shifts in the background affect the mood. He's got a kind of specific whole mood that he's trying to create, and some of those real musician performances can sort of take the attention away from what he's doing.

The sequencing sounds very natural.

What Sharon did was perfect. The mood that she created, and the sounds that she used, and the way that it worked with the voice. Replacing things wouldn't make it better — it would make it different. And probably not as good. That's what our experience was.

The programming is simple but detailed, particularly in the subtle drum fills and accents, layers of percussion, and stuff like that. It's meticulous work. Was that done from the beginning, or was it like, "Okay, we're not going to re-record this, so let's make it more detailed"?

You know, the phrase "we're not going to re-record any of this" never really came up. It was more like a track would be there that Leonard would sing to, and then Sharon would put some layers around it, and Leonard would react to that, and then more things would happen. It was just kind of a process of trying to build it into something that was working, and when it was working it was kind of too late to change it.

Were you involved really closely through all of this, or did you kind of sit back and let the two of them exchange their ideas back and forth?

Different songs went different ways. Some songs I had very little involvement in, some songs I had a lot of involvement in. With some songs, it seemed as though you couldn't really tell whether anything was going to work or not unless the mix was really there. And we spent a lot of time working with the different elements, trying to fit them in, so that when we went back to mix, we realized that we had [already] been mixing.

I was going to ask if you sort of mixed the record as you went.

Yeah, but we didn't know it. If we had been mixing all along, I would have insisted on more plug-ins, and not just slapping [Digidesign] D-Verb all over everything and then trying to get it off later. [laughs] Which was a problem in places.

Did you do anything special in recording or treating any of the instruments? It all sounds clean and simple.

You mean in the way of using any special preamps or converters?

Yeah.

We actually mostly went in just using the [Digidesign] 888. Leonard has one of those Brent Averill Neve [1272] mic pres, and his voice sounds good going through that. The most special thing that I can think of that I did was not using very much compression. Which kind of gave his voice a real "right in your face" kind of texture, with all the transients preserved. And I kind of relied on Pro Tools to ride any syllables that needed riding. When you can get that specific, you don't really need to squash things.

Do you do that by just drawing curves with a mouse?

Yeah.

Did you use any kind of control surface?

No. I've done some stuff with control surfaces but I find that even when the control surface is there I tend to be going in there and mousing around anyway, so eventually I just stopped using them altogether. I pretty much just do it with a trackball — I'm a trackball person.

Leonard has a Pro Tools system here (a Mix Plus, running version 5.1 on a Mac G4) but was he still using the DA- 78 to record vocals?

Yeah, and anything that he would play. If he wanted to learn Pro Tools, he would know it in about two seconds. He uses [Adobe] Photoshop and Illustrator, and he's very computer-savvy. But that program is more than he wants to take on, I think. He just wants to think about the songs.

How do you choose a microphone for Leonard? Did you already have a favorite, or did you approach that fresh for this album?

On The Future, most of the vocal recording was done at Image on a [Neumann] U67 that sounded just great on him. So I used that for that record. And then he went away, and he was using his stage microphone, either an AKG C-535 or Shure Beta 57, to go into the "red box" and put down scratch stuff while he was writing at the monastery. And he called, and said, "I want to get another microphone," and we auditioned a few. I don't want to say all the name brands of the microphones that we didn't buy [laughs], but we ended up with the [Neumann] U87 which is, as you know, very close to a 67. His voice sounds very good with the 87. I've also used a Neumann M49, which sounded really good.

So, the U87 through a 1272... any compression to tape?

No compression.

Did you just set a conservative level and let him go?

We would set up a rough mix, and he would try it a little bit, and... I couldn't tell a hundred percent where the vocal was going to go, but you could get an idea. I kept it on the conservative side. There were a couple vocals that we threw out because he distorted. He'd get up at 3 a.m. — that was his rising time at the monastery. So he stayed on that schedule, mostly because of sounds like this [traffic, dogs barking] going on in the background during the day. He'd come in and do five or six takes, and we'd come in and review them in the morning.

So when the recording was done, and you were just concentrating on mixing, did you do that here or at Sharon's?

Here.

On those speakers [Yamaha MS60S]?

Yeah. The whole thing with mixing is being familiar with the speakers that you're using. And Leonard's very familiar with these speakers. So what we would do is, in between here, and his system in the house, and his car, we'd kind of run around and listen. And I'd take it home and listen at my house, and Sharon would listen at her place.

Having everything automated and recallable in Pro Tools, were you sort of mixing the whole album at once?

We really did try to concentrate on a song at a time. But you're right — everything is always so easy to come back to, and three weeks later if you just want to take that shaker down, you can do it. That's a luxury, it's just fantastic. When we were getting ready to mix, we thought we might want to put everything back through analog, and gave that a try and found that it changed the sounds and the delicate relationships too much. It didn't seem to need "analoging" for some reason, to the point that when we mastered it, we looked around to find somebody who wouldn't put it back to analog to do the EQ. And that's how we ended up with Bob Ludwig [at Gateway] back in Maine.

What format did you bring the mixes in on?

We just brought the hard drive.

That seems to be going on a lot these days.

Well, it's been a real problem. All the stuff I've been working on for the last, maybe, four years has been inside workstations. Most of it has been Pro Tools, but a little bit of MOTU [Digital Performer] and stuff. Almost everybody has been able to upgrade to 24- bit, and what do you do? How do you deliver it to mastering and preserve everything you've got? It's a real problem, you know, if you don't want to do that last conversion. And I've done some projects where going back to analog has sounded beautiful, but Leonard had the instinct on this one that any change was going to throw it out of balance, with what we had carefully crafted. And actually Bob Ludwig has been doing a lot of coming right out of Pro Tools and dumping it digitally into his system.

Did he do much processing from there?

On some songs, he did a little bit of adjusting the bottom end. And I think he might have done a little bit of spot compression on some songs. One of the things about Bob is that he is happy to lie back, and let it be what it is. [He has] the instinct to know when to do that, and when something needs something. To be able to put it in his hands is really a luxury.

The Future, Leonard's last studio record, was a very different process, with a lot of re-recording and remixing, a lot of different studios...

A lot of producers, a lot of ideas running around. This was like a total reaction to that, wasn't it? [laughing]

I'm always telling people about that session because of the five- and six- hour days. Leonard had a really relaxed but deliberate way of working, like spending three or four days mixing each song. He was comfortable spending as much time as necessary to get what he wanted. Was that the case on this record?

Yeah, I think we worked on this for about a year and a half. And we did two records at the same time. We did Field Commander Cohen inside of this project. We started this one, and at a certain point there was more writing going on than recording, so I worked on Field Commander... while the writers wrote.

Was that mostly an effort of going through tapes and...

That was picking performances and dumping them into Pro Tools, and doing any mop-up that might be necessary.

With so many facilities available now for fixing things or "improving" performances, how do you set guidelines for what to fix and what not to?

Well, isn't that the million-dollar question in this business? It's always "is that performance good enough?" or "is that character or is it a flaw — is it going to matter?"

Do you think there's a trend in records today toward unnatural levels of perfection?

The pendulum might have swung that way. It swung all the way to the Cher record with Auto-Tune jumping from note to note, and back again. It's interesting to see what the tools will do, and then to see what you want them to do. It really is all about taste. And for myself, I've never really been the kind of engineer that likes making giant effects, you know? I'm kind of more about "this is what this sounds like," even when there's nothing there but artificial sounds. Trying to make something that sounds organic, that sounds real. So for me, when I'm using those things I'm kind of looking at the performance, and going to fix things that are taking my attention away.

Are you putting together another live record for Leonard now?

We're sifting through material, looking to see if there's something there, yeah.

Are there a lot of old recordings?

Oh yeah, there's a lot.

What kind of tapes are you running across? What kind of condition?

Well, the Field Commander stuff was all recorded on Scotch, and it was fine.

Scotch 250?

Yeah. But back when I did Cohen Live in '93, we were already baking some tapes that had been recorded only ten years earlier in Europe. It was on Agfa, and it just didn't last. So, you know, conditions of storage really seem to matter. I know that some of the stuff is on Ampex, and I'm just crossing my fingers that I'll get to it before it's too late. But the baking process seems to work fine.

Are you just archiving everything you run across?

No. Everything that was recorded was also rough mixed in the truck at the time, so I'm just running through lots of performances. I haven't even gotten into what's actually on the tape or if the tape's playable. Or even where it is.

You're just plotting the whole thing out, and then you'll go digging.

Yeah, rather than archive every bit, we'll look for what will make the record. I mean, I guess eventually we're going to have to face the problem of archiving everything. But, even in just the last two years, 96 k has come along, and 192, and maybe it'll get better. So it seems prudent to wait.

A lot of people are talking about archiving now, and looking for permanent storage. But everything changes so fast, you know, how do know if you're going to be able to plug in a FireWire drive in another ten years?

I know. I really learned something from Jac Holzman, who was the president of Discovery Records when Perla Batalla did her first record. We were getting ready to mix, and I said, "We'll mix to digital" and he was like, "What? No you won't! No way are you mixing to digital!" and I said, "Well, it's coming out in digital, it's not a big budget, and you can save all this tape expense." He said, "In between each of those bits is material that'll be lost forever, and I can't afford to have it be gone." We ended up mixing to half-inch and digital, so that at least everything was archived for him, you know, until it can be put on whatever turns out to be the medium. I mean, we're in a period of transition here. I think things will settle down, and it's worth waiting.

That sounds like a good opportunity to compare the two formats side by side. Did you have a preference?

Well, we've been working digitally ever since. Once we did that record for Jac, she went off on her own, and economics dictated that we'd have to stay in the digital realm. But really, to me, quibbling about the details aside, it's more about the music. Whatever you have to do to get the music out. You can get really snobby, and say 96 k sounds better... but, you know, it's coming out in 44.1, and if you put it out in 44.1, people can hear it, they can play it, they'll probably mp3 it. And if they don't mind — if they're listening to it — I don't mind. [laughing]

The substance of the music is more important than the science of recording. We can obsess about...

Well, it's our job to obsess, and we want to have all recommendations handy so that when people don't know what to do we have some ideas. But, yeah, we can't get too caught up in the details and miss the forest for the trees. I just mixed a project for this girl Sara Lovell, with Marvin Etzioni producing. And everything we did we put on quarter-inch 15 [ips], and also bounced [to stereo] inside Pro Tools. So we were comparing, and we finally ended up going on a song-by-song basis. Some songs sounded better coming back off tape, and one song really sounded better staying digital. And I did a project for a guy named Wade Biery, a band called Still. It was the second record we've worked on. The first record was done analog, and mixed to tape. For the second one, he bought a MOTU [1224] and we recorded everything at his place, and mixed it there. We were going along fine until we got to mastering, and we realized that what we were hearing coming out of the converters of the 1224 wasn't exactly what you would hear if you went out through a good pair of converters at the mastering studio. So we had kind of fallen in love with this blurry warmth that was actually the bad converters, and we had a hell of a time mastering it.

That's a valuable point, how one box can be "better" than another technically, but you might prefer the other for your own reasons. So which is really "better"?

Yeah, we were liking it better through the worse converters. Because we had mixed it to that sound — we had tailored it perfectly for that.

There are a lot of different opinions flying around concerning the "sound quality" of mixing in workstations, versus mixing through an analog desk.

You have to trust what you're hearing. Especially with digital, if you're liking the way it sounds, it's not really going to change. It's going to change a little bit, if you dither down to 16-bit, but that's about it, if you've got good converters. If you cut something with analog, it's going through a lot of changes. And if you're a master at manipulating how those changes happen and that's what you're expecting, then that can be good too. For me, analog has always kind of plagued me, the way it changes. I've always felt like I've lost high end, like I was fighting for the detail on the top in my analog mixes. And in digital, you have to be sure that it's going to be warm enough. It's a different problem.

You're sort of a rare breed. Why aren't there more female recording engineers?

I don't know. I really don't. It seems like something that would be a really good thing for a woman to get into, from my perspective. [laughing]

Are there things about the type of work, or about the business...

It's really surprised me, you know, the whole music business is kind of male-heavy, and music is such an emotional art. I don't know why there aren't more women participating.

Has it ever been difficult for you?

I don't know. It's a tough business — it's hard to know how much is coming from my being female. For the most part, I've met really nice people, like yourself. Every once in a while you meet somebody who's not into it. Probably for as many people who didn't want to work with me because I was a female, there's been that many that remembered me or were interested in me because I was. So, you know... it's a feature, it goes with the package.

Do you think there are some female traits that make for better engineers?

Yeah... You know, when I was back at Sound Ideas, and I was assisting for Geoff, I thought, "I'm never going to be an engineer, because I don't have the kind of outgoing personality to keep a whole room of people entertained like that." He's got that really big personality. And I thought, "I can sit here and move the knobs, but I can't keep all these people happy." I realized later that there are some people that want to be entertaining the room themselves, and they don't need any competition from the engineer. So there's someone for everyone. A wide spectrum of personalities, that can do the jobs, that get matched up with different personalities of producers and artists.

Making a career in this business seems to have everything to do with the relationships that you make. Has that been true in your experience?

Yeah, very much. Especially when you're starting out young, and you think, "I'm meeting this person, and they're always going to see me as a lowly assistant." Well, they're not. Ten years later you can be doing their record.

Tape Op is a bi-monthly magazine devoted to the art of record making.

Or Learn More