Audeze talks with guitarist, composer, producer and engineer Liberty Ellman

Liberty Ellman has been a multitasking figure on the creative jazz scene for more than 2 decades. A guitarist, composer, producer and engineer, Liberty has performed all over the world, and contributed to dozens of critically acclaimed recordings.

 

"The LCD-X's have been incredibly helpful in the studio. It's a pleasure to have reference level headphones that help me make critical decisions, but what's a real relief is that they don't have me second guessing my work..." - Liberty Ellman
Here's our conversation with Liberty:
Can you pick out any highlights from your work that you're particularly proud of?

I'm pretty proud of my most recent full recording "Last Desert." Also playing on, mixing and mastering Henry Threadgill's "In For A Penny, In For A Pound" which won a Pulitzer prize.

How would you define your main role on most of the projects you work on these days?

I mostly split my time between being a guitarist and being a producer/mix/master engineer. It's a little hard to judge all that right now because you know, Covid.

How did you get started in music? What kind of music did you listen to while growing up and how has that progressed?

My parents were both musicians. My mother was a singer/songwriter and my father was (and still is) a drummer, so there was always music in the house. I have memories of people like Todd Rundgren stopping by our loft in Soho. I guess I always thought that being a musician was something everyone did. I moved to California with my mom when I was 10 or so. I had taken lessons on a few different instruments, but I have to credit Prince for finally settling into the guitar. So as I got more serious about playing, I took more lessons and started digging through my mother's and stepdad's LP collection. Hendrix, Zeppelin, Miles, Coltrane, Robert Johnson, all came at me in the best possible way, because I could spend a long time with each record and really get lost in the music. Eventually I heard In A Silent Way, and that really helped peak my interest in learning how to play jazz. I guess the jazz/rock connection was a good fit for me at that time. Then in a typical fashion I kept listening to everyone I could.

Can you name any factors that influenced the course of your musical life? Heroes, role models, moments, interactions, etc?

In college, I had friends who introduced me to some things that were happening on the east coast scene. Specifically I got really turned around when I heard Steve Coleman's music and the music of his peers in the M-Base collective. I felt it was really exciting contemporary music with very real sincerity and rigor. I sort of pivoted in that direction with my own music and tried to learn who those people were and how they came to discover their own sound. In short, that would lead me to check out a lot of things, especially the AACM and of course Henry Threadgill, who I have been lucky enough to work with for over 20 years. Around 1994, Steve was also the first of my musical heroes to give me the time of day while he was doing a residency in Oakland, and even as green as I was at the time, he gave me a little confidence boost. Enough to convince me to move back to New York and take my musical life to another level. It was back in New York where I hooked up with Threadgill.

Can you briefly describe a moment of frustration from your past work, and what you may have done to overcome the obstacles? Would you approach it differently now?

Both in performance and in studio situations I would say that whenever I felt unprepared in some way, I would get in my own way and not be free to fully be in the moment. It takes being honest with yourself to learn from those moments. Did I practice the music enough? Or did I treat my control room well enough? Do I know what I'm hearing right now?

Is there any gear you find yourself turning to most when working on a project? What are some of your favorite tools/instruments recently?

With my instruments, I'm pretty inspired by my Collings guitars. They just feel right, and I can get into the zone pretty easily. In the studio I always love working with my Proac 100's. Together with my Bryston 4BST, I really feel I can trust what I'm hearing and at the same time truly enjoy listening to them. From an engineer's perspective, If your monitoring is not right, nothing else will be. I have a lot of fun gear but different things get used at different times. I'm pretty fond of my Bricasti M7 though I must admit.

Do you have any words of wisdom for people who might aspire toward a similar path for their own careers?

Put in the time doing the work. Hours that you put into honing your craft will reward you tenfold. Also, do your best to be an empathetic person, and keep the ego out of the way. Communicating with your collaborators is about learning how they work and listening to them when they tell you what they want to achieve. Half of the reason people continue to work with me is because they enjoy the process. Yes you need to be good, but being both good and good to work with is better.

How long have you been working with headphones, and how do you typically use them in your workflow?

Everyone wants their work to translate to different listening environments. I like to listen in the car, on earbuds, on laptop speakers, etc, to get an idea of how the end listener will hear it. With high end headphones it's a little bit different because they edge closer to a full range monitoring experience, and they take the room and its quirks out of the equation. So when I'm making critical EQ decisions, I like to reference my headphones as a double check against what I'm hearing in the room, especially in the low end. Or if I need to hear very quiet things, either to remove noise, or to make edits, headphones let me get right to the lowest levels without fighting ambient room noise like fans, etc.

How have your Audeze headphones affected your work?

The LCD-X's have been incredibly helpful in the studio. It's a pleasure to have reference level headphones that help me make critical decisions, but what's a real relief is that they don't have me second guessing my work; instead, they are more of an extension of my monitoring experience, letting me get a little more inside the mix. I've been using them during mastering projects as well.

Can you tell us what you've been working on with them recently?

Most recently, I mastered two albums for clarinetist Ben Goldberg, and I've been mixing and mastering some really cool tracks for a producer named Stevie Buono in Los Angeles. I've also been doing some "post" type work on a box set called Baker's Dozen, curated by Henry Threadgill, featuring 13 different leaders (the first box in a series), each one a super creative artist in their own right. The LCD-X's have been used on everything since they've arrived.