Madonna’s legendary producer redefines the studio standard
Over the last 20 years, legendary record producer Patrick Leonard has helped shape the sound of popular music through his work with Elton John, Pink Floyd, Bon Jovi, Michael Jackson and other top hit-makers. In addition, Leonard enjoys an almost unparalleled level of personal success—his 1986 collaboration with Madonna, True Blue, sold over 26 million copies. When working with these elite artists, Leonard has unlimited access to the most celebrated recording gear on the planet. After countless multi-platinum records and several Grammy nominations, he continues to redefine the standard—choosing M-Audio’s Sputnik condenser microphone and EX66 reference monitors as his new studio staples.
What is your philosophy on the interplay between technology and creativity?
I’ve always been fascinated with technology. Some of the serendipity that happens as a result of technology is phenomenal. I can come alive sitting in front of the computer and a mouse, finding crazy ways to manipulate it—using software to craft sounds and sonic landscapes. Having said that, nothing replaces sitting down at the piano with a metronome and improving your skill level—realizing that you are still growing as a musician. At the end of the day, what matters most is that special three-note combination you discover on the piano—that’s how hit records get made.
How did you come to know M-Audio?
A few years ago, a friend of mine recommended M-Audio gear because no one else was developing products that gave musicians hands-on control over certain processes. M-Audio provided controllers and other products that provided total manipulation of software parameters and recall functions. The more control you have, the more you can create. M-Audio controllers help maintain that creative medium. I keep watching the product line because M-Audio is obviously thinking about what people are doing.
M-Audio gear turns processes that are somewhat stiff into creative tools that are non-repeatable. The architecture is so open that two musicians can take the same piece of gear and generate dramatically different results. It cultivates the notion that you can actually do something that no one else can do.
You have used the "Madonna mic"—the AKG C24—on every album for the last 20 years. What made you decide to start using the Sputnik condenser microphone instead?
Producers tend to be rather closed-minded about experimenting with new microphones—especially when they’ve been using the same mic/compressor combination for years and it’s always sounded great. But the Sputnik sounds absolutely wonderful in every situation. We recently completed a record where we used it for both lead and background vocals and it sounded amazing. On the soundtrack for Madonna’s new documentary, I Am Because We Are, we’ve been using them for everything and getting exactly what we want.
The Sputnik was designed to deliver a lush sound like that of vintage microphones. How does it compare to the other mics you have used?
A Neumann U87 provides a certain sound, while an AKG C24 delivers a distinctively different sound—the difference is huge. The Sputnik seems to fall somewhere between those other mics—smooth, clean and dynamic with excellent range. It’s nice to find a microphone that sounds clean and pure without severely coloring the signal one way or another. And very few microphones have such an elegant EQ response—as a result they squawk or resonate when you push up a certain frequency. That has never happened with the Sputnik.
At my studio, I have a pair of Sputnik microphones permanently installed over the piano. It’s impossible to get a matched pair of vintage microphones because you just don’t know where they’ve been. Because of the way they’re constructed, the Sputnik microphones are much more closely matched than a pair of vintage U47s.
How would you describe your experiences with the EX66 reference monitors?
We had just finished mixing a record on an extravagant three-monitor referencing system, so I knew what the content was supposed to sound like. When we listened to playback on the EX66 monitors, I immediately noticed a dramatic improvement in image clarity. They sounded fantastic. Since then I’ve installed EX66s in my studio and on my keyboard setup as well. They serve a perfect function—just the right size with excellent imaging. They sound smooth and fall in a perfect space, which is important when you’re working at a desk. I absolutely love them.
What other M-Audio gear do you use?
Wherever I go, I take my Axiom 25, a FireWire 410 and my laptop. I’m able to get a lot of things done that I could never do with a piano. The portability factor is huge. I worked on a Bon Jovi record using just my laptop and an M-Audio keyboard controller. A lot of the instruments and drum parts I sequenced ended up on the final recording.
As a professional who has been involved in music for over 30 years, how do view the changing industry landscape?
I think the music industry will eventually reshape itself to follow music. For quite a while content has been following form, but it can’t stay that way. It’s just as much of a law as gravity—we just need content worthy to follow and the direction will come from somewhere. It might sound corny, but music will always find a way to rise above whatever is going on. Once that happens, the industry will right itself.