Producer and engineer Leanne Ungar talks about Leonard Cohen’s recording, accessibility and his unique studio touch
In the grooves of a record, some producers announce their presence loud and clear. Daniel Lanois looks like Daniel Lanois. Georges Martin looked like George Martin. Eno is Eno is Eno. Other headlights, like Rick Rubinpractice a kind of voluntary transparency and distance to let the artist himself be the most authentic.
Then think of Leanne Ungar, who produced and designed some of the most eminent artists of the 20th century. Where does it fall on this spectrum? “I think different kinds of music call for different kinds of sounds,” Ungar told GRAMMY.com. “Some have buried voices; some have the greatest voice you’ve ever heard. I wanted to be able to do both.”
Having both senses in the engineer’s chair doesn’t mean that Ungar somehow lacks a distinct identity; in fact, it means the opposite. By serving the song above all, Ungar fulfills the highest vocation of a producer and/or an engineer: to bring music into the consciousness of a listener by the purest and most free way.
Where does this philosophy come from? “What goes with my personality is that I’ve always tried to be as invisible as possible,” Ungar continues. “So when I come back and listen to records that I’ve made over time, it’s quite changeable. It’s more in 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 distinctive approach, and what she wants to bring out in any artist, regardless of genre, style or style. the intention.
This interview has been edited for clarity.
I’m such a fan of these Leonard Cohen albums you co-designed. What was it like working on i am your man?
I was talking to a student the other day who told me he was working on a song called “I’m Your Man”. I said, “I recorded a song called ‘I’m Your Man!'” He had never heard of it, of course.
It was funny because the sense of humor seemed to be more present on this record than on some others. I took over in the middle; I didn’t save all the bases. It was produced by Roscoe Beck at the beginning, and at a certain point, he wanted to leave the project. I never really told him why.
I was traveling between working in New York and working in Los Angeles, and Leonard was in Los Angeles. It was just great to meet [oudist] John Bilezikjian and recording [vocalist] Jennifer Warnes. There was incredible talent on this record.
Leonard has always been hilarious, so I never quite understood how he came to prominence on this album.
Just looking at it with a wilted banana on the cover is so funny!
When did you first realize you were in the sounds of documents — their architecture more than what they contained?
There were a few things that happened to me after I walked into the studio and was bowled over by what was going on there and wanted to be a part of it. A few things that pushed me into engineering.
One was a sound company that worked with the grateful dead, called Still. Back then, in the late 60s, people weren’t even really using stacks of speakers and monitor speakers. The fact that they put so much into the concert sound told me sound was really important.
Then there was a disk called something anything by Todd Rundgren.
Such a fan!
Such a fantastic record. I noticed he was doing everything on it. He wrote; he sang; He produced; and he also recorded and mixed, which put it on the same level as the others. It meant a lot to me too.
Another key moment did not occur until 1976, when Stevie Wonderit is Songs in the key of life came out of. Surprising record, and a lot of those horns were synth horns, and they didn’t have reverb on them.
I was listening to this record, sitting there with a fellow assistant engineer, and we were just amazed that it could sound like this 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’m too! The reverberation is harsh. This blurs the recordings and puts a distance between you and the subject. It can also involve impact, so I think there are times when it has to be there.
But record on the dry side – especially those with depth, with something in front of your face but also behind the soundscape which is [dictating] the front or back of the room – are truly satisfying.
How did you fuse your various influences into a signature approach?
What goes with my personality is that I’ve always tried to be as invisible as possible. I don’t think the sound depends that much on the mixer. If you serve the song and it plays, I think that’s the most important thing.
So when I go back and listen to records I’ve made over time, it’s quite changeable. It is rather at the service of the artist and the song.
I like producers on both sides of the equation – those who are super transparent and those who put an unmistakable stamp on everything.
I think different kinds of music call for different kinds of sounds. Some have buried voices; some have the greatest voice you’ve ever heard. I wanted to be able to do both.
And being transparent involves more than just turning on the recorder and walking away. I am on apparent invisible requires a lot of subtle brushstrokes behind the scenes.
[Chuckles] I think you are right.
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 big ideas. One of the things they did a lot was use samples from the Synclavier [synthesizer]. We had to simulate a church space, a choir – different things that weren’t what they seemed.
So to serve this particular song, there had to be a lot of dynamics and depth to the “chorus” that was unfolding. So, I worked hard, I sweated, I tried to make it happen.
Leonard kept asking for more and more reverb in his voice. He wanted to sound like God on this particular point [song]. And I don’t think I did such a good job of simulating God, but there’s definitely a lot of reverb to it!
Listening to the first Leonard Cohens is interesting. They added some bells and whistles that didn’t really need to be there – but I like them!
He really didn’t like it!
When we went to make that Sony Legacy album [2022’s Hallelujah & Songs From His Albums]the first thing we thought of was to make the early tracks sound like the later ones, because some of the later sounds were fabulous.
So when we put that EQ on the first stuff, it brought up all these tambourines and bells and things that were all [Gestures, suggests a ceiling] here. Leonard said: “I fought the producer. I didn’t want it on the album. And now I don’t want it to be louder on the album. Make it boring!
His idea was very centered around the voice. And I think he always thought because he wasn’t a great quote-unquote singer – I think he has been 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’ve worked on that you think sums up your vision.
Well, there’s this Holly Cole record that I really like – [1993’s] Don’t smoke in bed. It’s a jazz trio in Toronto — just piano, bass and vocals. It’s very, very simple, but it sounds pretty good and goes into different style machinations. It’s emotional, but not overdone. I love her so much.
I rented Shelley Yakus’ Telefunken 251 for vocals and it sounded fantastic! We also rented a Neve sidecar so we could get 1073 [channel amplifier/equalizer modules] on some entries.
We ended up not liking the piano too much because the pianist [Aaron Davis] had a way of touching the piano that sucked all the highs out of the sound. It was the smoothest, quietest piano sound I’ve ever heard, and it could make any piano sound like it.
Run that piano sound through the Neve pre[amp]s put too much fuzz and sweetness in the sound, so I ended up not using Neves on the piano.
It’s crazy how registration processes that would have cost a fortune 40 years ago are now available to almost anyone. What advice would you give to a young music creator who is just starting to play with sounds at home?
I think it’s wonderful that the sounds are there and can be had universally. It’s absolutely brilliant that you don’t have to walk into a million dollar studio. Although if you are looking for certain orchestral or drum sounds, it is good to have a processed acoustic environment.
For me, the most important thing is how you listen – what you hear. So, for me, mixing is above all hearing. Because hearing is so universal – we can’t stop sounds from coming in – we all think we hear everything, but we don’t.
One of the courses I’ve been teaching for 19 years now is critical listening. It’s about “What am I listening to? How can I go into a dense recording and listen to the 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 very much about the relationship between this sound and that sound. I was talking about “front and back” earlier. The way textures sound next to each other. Not how they sound on their own or soloed, but how something bright can make something darker than it would on its own.
This is what you need to pay attention to and listen carefully. Mixing is tough whether you’re doing it in a million dollar studio or in your bedroom. I don’t think either is really more difficult if you know what you’re going to do.
Producer and engineer Susan Rogers worked with Prince and Barenaked Ladies. Now she wants to know why we love the music we make.