As seen in Guitar Girl Magazine Issue 16 – Summer 2021 – Acoustic Amplified!
Meet Ann Mincieli, the talented engineer for—and longtime oppo of—GRAMMY-winner Alicia Keys. Mincieli’s work ranks in the top two percent of female producers (out of 3,000 women credited as pop songwriters in 2019), and she is an active advocate for female advancement in the music industry. In 2018, Mincieli and Keys co-founded the nonprofit initiative “She Is The Music” (sheisthemusic.org), which works to foster more opportunities for women in the arts. Mincieli is also the owner and operator of Jungle City Studios, a plush, prestigious facility based in Chelsea, NYC, as part of an effort to revive the “New New York” recording community. Jungle City has been home to a plethora of A-list artists such as Beyoncé, Jay-Z, Justin Timberlake, Rihanna, Ed Sheeran, Pharrell Williams, Taylor Swift, Mariah Carey, and more. We caught up with this entrepreneur and creative paragon about her 20-plus-year friendship with Alicia Keys, her experience working with some of the biggest names in pop music, and how her studio has managed to keep its doors open even in the wake of the pandemic.
You fell in love with the idea of engineering around 1990. What had you been doing in the music industry before then? Do you have a musical background or play any instruments?
Yes! I started playing and learning bass guitar at the age of 13 and then also picked up guitar. I had a collection of guitars at a very young age. I studied very hard and played in a band for a short time. I followed my friend to a studio at the age of 16, which was the beginning and entry point, and the rest is history. I always loved music and studied all the album credits back in the day. I learned all the different behind-the-scenes roles.
Where would you say you really cut your teeth as an engineer and learned all the fundamentals?
Four main studios in NYC and Skyline Studios (which was closing). I also started simultaneously at Right Track Recording. Then Axis Studios. But my six-year stint as head assistant engineer at Quad Studios (1995-2002) (which renovated all their studios) allowed me to grow into who I am today, thanks to Lou Gonzalez, who was the owner at the time. The managers were looking for experienced assistants, so we were able to really complement each other. I also brought clients to them, which was an added bonus. I was always working every day. I had a lot of passion, and each one of these studios had different gear and technology that I could learn from.
Does production come into play while you’re engineering, or (more specifically) are you finding that you’re having to combine the two more these days, especially with shrinking budgets?
I think production always comes into play while engineering. I think great engineers are also producers. They see the artist’s vision of each song and the sonic palette. I also think with technology today, you see a lot of writers who produce, engineers who write, and producers who engineer. Technology allows us to hop on board all the different creative aspects of making a record. Also, as an engineer, I always wanted to grow into production and writing. I play guitar as well and write.
You met your creative partner Alicia Keys in 1998, in an elevator of all places. How did that chance encounter with her turn into the longtime musical relationship that you have today?
I think that one encounter led to us building year by year. From her drum machine setup in her Harlem apartment where she would bring her tracks to the studio to dump them to two-inch, to working in her studio in Queens, to building with her each year has led us to a great partnership that continues to grow. I always say we went from basements to baseball fields together. Her Long Island Oven Studio really helped me learn how to renovate and build a studio, which came in handy when I built my own Jungle City Studios. She took over two commercial condos in the same building as Jungle and moved her studio from Long Island and created her own private room, which allows her to be a part of the music community there at Jungle. I also had the opportunity to learn by working in various studios around the world, as she gave me the opportunity to travel.
Every year, we challenge each other in the different aspects of the industry. We carve out time to learn new technology and gear. The type of producer she was, where she really liked to experiment with sonics and sounds, was the type of engineer that I wanted to be. I met her at Quad Studios back in the day, and she was writing every day in their little writing room. I started to assist her sessions, and one of the first was with Russell Elevado. He was engineering on a bunch of her first singles, including a version of “Fallin’” from the Ali soundtrack (which we were just revisiting because Songs in A Minor is turning 20 years old this June).
Now, I am part of her AK Worldwide team and head up the music department. I do everything from album project management to helping work on strategies and album rollouts.
You also tour with Alicia a lot. Are you recording/documenting her live performances each night, or are you there just in case she gets inspired and wants to record?
Yes! I have always toured, edited all the arrangements, and provided all the album files needed to complement the band. I record every show and have an 80-input rig on the side of the stage for all tours. I also work on the sonics, so the transition from the album and tour sound is seamless.
Now with the pandemic, my audio and video team became a full-fledged production hub. We always owned all our own audio and video gear, which really came in handy during the pandemic. I bought a lot of wireless stuff to make the setups look great on camera. A lot of stuff just shot in our bedrooms came out really high quality. That really allowed us to promote and pivot our strategies as we released a book and an album, which had great success.
You’re the co-founder of the massively successful Jungle City Studios in New York. What do you feel you’re doing differently than all the other studios in town?
I focus on my studio being like a seven-star hotel. Latest and greatest gear, a lot of retro gear, and a lot of futuristic toys and plugins. The little things count, too, like service, great coffee machines, etc. My studio, the location, and how each room is designed really help me get a lot of different types of gigs. From Apple Music streaming four years straight to 110 countries to shooting Master Classes and CSI. All the little things to really cater to the artists. I have underground parking; each room has its own floor and private lounge. I have a collection of gear that complements the studio: vintage guitars, amps, keyboards, drums, guitar pedals. Everyone from Depeche Mode to Beyoncé to Madonna come in and camp out. I am 10 years in now and very excited that I can provide the full experience for these artists. The neighborhood being right through the heart of Chelsea and the beginning of Hudson Yards also lends itself to the vibe and experience. I love the fact that I get full album projects in and artists camp out.
Have you found that you’ve gotten more or less session work with the pandemic? Since a lot of artists haven’t been able to perform live, it seems like it could be an ideal time for them to record new or backlogged material.
This has been my busiest year ever. Alicia has been working on a lot of music. She works on making music every day and puts the songs in buckets for future releases. Also, the whole production aspect of recording and pre-recording all the production has me mixing and recording everything on the live end of things. My studio really pulled through, and we are busier than ever. I also am working on a special project with Rob Stringer and Sony that I’ll unveil soon. I’m really excited about it . . .stay tuned for that.
You’ve mentioned in past interviews that you’ve toyed around with the idea of opening an open mic cafe or even starting a record label. Are those things still on the table?
Yes! Especially now in NYC as it builds back up. Open mic meets coffeehouse meets vinyl bar—stay tuned. I feel like there is so much culture back in NYC, and it’s a lot less corporate!
You’ve collaborated with a laundry list of iconic performers, but is there an artist or band you’ve yet to work with that you’re absolutely dying to engineer?
Yes! Fleetwood Mac! Carole King. Obviously, PRINCE, if he were still around.
You’re also a founding member of the nonprofit organization She Is The Music. Can you tell us a little about the organization, its mission, and a couple of examples of some good work the organization has accomplished?
She Is The Music is an organization founded by me, Alicia Keys, Jody Gerson, and Sam Kirby. We created pillars, chapters, and committees to involve everyone in the music industry. In three short years, we accomplished so much. We have three pillars, which are database, songwriting camps, and mentorship. We have had so many supporters and so many industry folks supporting our initiatives to push the next generation of females forward. We have built our database with the support of Billboard Magazine. I encourage everyone to join as it really helps connect the dots for so many different areas of the industry—everything from photographers, engineers, writers, producers, tour positions, etc. We started up our mentorship program last year with over 600 applications. We paired mentors and mentees together in various aspects of the industry. We are doing our whole mentorship program again this year, with over 600 applications received. Also, Blackbird Music Academy has given us four scholarships that we created an application for online, which we are excited about. Check out sheisthemusic.org to see all of our partners and industry folks involved.