AES President-Elect Leslie Gaston-Bird talks about building more inclusive industry

Innovation comes in many forms, whether it’s a technological idea, a social movement, or a new way of thinking. Leslie Gaston-Bird’s innovative spirit encompasses all of these things. A classically trained pianist, she has amassed more than 30 years of experience working as an audio engineer, educator, and a passionate advocate for diversity, equity, and inclusion in the recording industry.

During her distinguished engineering career, she has worked for National Public Radio, Colorado Public Radio, and the Colorado Symphony Orchestra; and she has been a tenured Associate Professor of Recording Arts at the University of Colorado Denver. She also works as a re-recording mixer and editor under the banner of her company, Mix Messiah Productions, with dozens of film credits to her name. (She most recently accepted a post at City, University of London.) As a leader in the field, Gaston-Bird is intent on elevating under-represented voices and fostering a more inclusive audio industry.

In 2023, she’s poised to make an even bigger impact as the President-Elect of the Audio Engineering Society. We caught up with Gaston-Bird in Brighton, where she’s pursuing a doctoral degree at the University of Surrey, to get her perspectives on diversity in audio, evolving industry mindsets, and the imprint she aims to make as an educator and advocate.

In 2018, you left a very established engineering career—and a tenured academic position—in Denver and moved to England. What sparked the transition?

There were a lot of personal and professional reasons, but it felt like time for a change. So I sought out a PhD at the University of Surrey. My dissertation is called Immersive and Inclusive.

Throughout my academic career, my research interest was multichannel audio, immersive audio. We did work in planetariums, among other places. I taught a surround sound class, and went to a lot of AES conferences, and I was either the only woman or the only person of color, or both, or one of only a few. There were never a lot of women that I could see and I always wondered why that is. So my dissertation is exactly that: Where are we and why aren’t we in these spaces? Is it about access? Is it about the typical barriers to entry, which include micro-aggressions and, let’s be honest, discrimination?

Around the time I started the dissertation was when George Floyd’s murder and the growing fights for social justice were beginning, and the audio industry was one of many industries making these bold statements, such as, “We stand for racial equality.” They acknowledged that there’s a lack of equality and that they are interested in changing that.

Right now my work involves looking at the concerns of under-represented groups in immersive audio: how they are processing those concerns. I’m finding some very interesting data.

Your dissertation has evolved into a mentoring program that feeds a pipeline of skilled audio engineers from under-represented groups. Is the hope to keep the program going long-term?

Oh yeah, we’re here to stay. The inflection point for me right now is scaling up. So I’m constantly talking to audio manufacturers, software developers, people who are in the immersive audio space.

Congratulations on being elected AES President-Elect. What does that role look like?

It’s like being the batter “on deck.” My official title at this moment is President-Elect, and then ahead of me is the President, Bruce Olson; our Past-President is Joshua Reiss. The AES implemented this structure so that there’s continuation of leadership—somebody who’s learning, somebody who’s in charge, so to speak, and somebody who can advise.

Organizations in general are changing. The way companies are working, what members want from us, the way education is changing, the rapid pace with which technology is being developed and adapted and adopted.

The Audio Engineering Society wants to continue to be the hub for all that, keeping that strong and vibrant so that people are benefiting from it. So the audio industry as a whole benefits from it. That’s how I see my role. I don’t think the AES President necessarily makes edicts and orders. I serve at the pleasure of the members who elected me.

You launched an AES Diversity and Inclusion Committee, along with mastering engineer Piper Payne. How does advocating for under-represented groups look today versus 25 years ago?

Some of the challenges are easier because before 2020, you felt alone if you wanted to call the industry out for racism and discrimination. And before 2016, we weren’t talking about #MeToo.

I think the visibility is better. I think people’s intentions are better. But there’s a lot of reinventing the wheel going on. You get pushback; some people don’t believe that data drives change. Some people don’t believe they’re doing anything wrong. I think there’s also a tension between feminists and advocates for racial justice in his space because things aren’t moving fast enough, and then it becomes the fault of the people who are doing the work: You’re not outspoken enough or you’re not ambitious enough, or you’re not pushing enough.

I started the AES Diversity and Inclusion Committee in 2016, but I stepped down in 2020 just because the burnout factor and “minority tax” is so high. As AES President-Elect, I will be trying to tackle it in a different way. The things that are working include proven, data-driven strategies; and the buy-in, acceptance of, and endorsement from the people at the very top, saying, “This is our initiative.”

What was it like researching your book, Women In Audio? You profile 100 pioneering engineers and artists?

It was a transformative experience, because when I started the book, I thought I was going to do a research paper. You do some research and then you publish the results and you’re done. But there was this one woman, Joan Lowe. She had engineered the first feminist album in the ‘70s. I found her, and we talked. She emailed me her story because she said she was in her 90s and her hearing wasn’t that great.

A couple months later, one of her friends contacted me and told me she had passed away. He offered to send me all these pictures, and it occurred to me she doesn’t have any descendants. These pictures would have been destroyed. That’s when it hit me: This is not a research paper. This is capturing women who’ve been kind of erased from our history. There are definitely enough stories out there for a sequel to the book. Writing the book changed my life.

With all of these academic projects, you still find time to work as re-recording mixer and sound designer?

Yes, it’s nuts. I am very proud of a recent documentary I did with Michelle Carpenter at University of Colorado Denver. It’s called Awadagin Pratt: Black in America. It is on the festival circuit now. It’s going to air on PBS this month for Black History Month, and it won Best Sound at the American Golden Picture International Film Festival.

Awadagin gave a performance at the University of Colorado Denver. He’s a wonderful pianist. He’s played at the White House and had Banff Center residencies. In the documentary, he talks about his career, his experience as a Black man in America, getting racially profiled and about getting arrested.

Laura Cornes helped me do some of the dialogue editing. We did it in 5.1. Scott Burgess and his team recorded with the Sennheiser Ambeo mic and presented me ambisonic tracks for the recital, which I then decoded to 5.1 and mixed for the documentary.

 You work on a lot of documentaries and indie feature films. There are quite a few horror films in the mix, is that a coincidence?

Well, I just completed an animated children’s educational series called Messy Goes To OKIDO. I did a feature-length film with David Liban of Tiny Fist films called Publish or Perish. I did a podcast with Futuro Media, Maria Osa’s company. But about this horror film thing, I’ve never liked scary movies. I have zombie nightmares and I hate them!

When it comes to sound serving the story, would you make a distinction between documentary work and fictional narratives?

It’s the director who makes that determination and I try to help them get there. There are all sorts of dynamics. Doing a cartoon like Messy Goes to OKIDO, you’re thinking about hitting your target loudness, but you’re also thinking about propelling the story. What is the funny thing that just happened? Let’s draw attention to it, so everybody gets the joke. You want to sell each joke in each gag while being sure the kids are still understanding how clouds work, for example.

With the documentary, it’s the dialogue that is important. For example, director William Friedkin talking about making The Exorcist in the documentary Leap of Faith: I want to hear his story. There are only one or two times during that documentary where he specifically talked about how sound drove the picture, so we had the sound there to illustrate what he was saying.

The challenge with feature films is keeping the sound consistent from the start to the beginning. By the time you’re at 45 minutes to an hour-twenty in, you’ve got to remember what happened at the beginning of the movie, and all the tension that’s building and dropping, and you still have to deliver the soundtrack so that it sounds consistent from beginning to end. I know some sound editor out there is saying, “But what about dynamics?” Yes, dynamics are important to the arc of the story. But the challenge is keeping making sure that you’re keeping the thread through the whole thing.

Particularly with indie work, is it a hard sell to get a director or producer to commit to an immersive soundtrack?

There are challenges, definitely. On one film, I said, “So you want this mixed in 5.1?” The director/producer said, “No, stereo. Definitely stereo. Then the day after we finish the mix he asked, “Can you do a 5.1 mix?” Of course, “Yes,” was my answer, but…!

There was a podcast that I did where I said, “I have all these ideas about how we can make this immersive; how about some sound gathering?” And the line producer came in and said, “We’re not doing that. It’s ‘get in, get out,’ and that’s what we’re doing.”

But there are sometimes technical reasons why you might not want to start with immersive. There was a project I worked on where the engineers said, “we have always had problems with 5.1 downmixes. So we upmix them from 2.0 because it sounds better.” Surround was the intention, but it wasn’t the primary workflow.

Will this change as audiences get more comfortable with the idea of immersive sound?

You have to hear it. If people aren’t hearing it, they don’t care. You’ve got your earbuds, you’re maybe hearing spatial audio, maybe not.

I don’t know how we’re going to fix that. We’ve been trying to do this since we had Dolby Pro Logic on videotape. I went out and bought surround speakers in the ’90s, and I enjoyed that, then I got my aunt and sister surround sound systems. If I could go to every single member of my family and hook them up with a surround system, I would … now, I just have to do that six billion more times!

Welcome to issue 7 of Audio Media International