When asked what she believes the core ingredients required of a good mastering engineer are, Emily Lazar replies: “It’s all about listening! It’s about making decisions and having confidence in the creative direction you’ve chosen. So be a good listener.”
Sound advice from an engineer who has scaled heady heights in the mastering world. Emily’s CV is populated with countless high-profile artists, and her workload is nothing short of prolific.
We’re talking about some of the biggest names in popular music’s history here; Paul McCartney, David Bowie, Beck, Morrissey, Foo Fighters and Dolly Parton are just a few names Lazar can drop. These iconic musicians have trusted Emily and her team to sonically polish and finalise their music for public consumption, and Emily is therefore also the very first female mastering engineer to win a coveted Grammy Award at this year’s ceremony for her work on Beck’s Colors.
Emily operates from audio-mastering facility The Lodge in New York, which she established in 1997. “At that time, I was interested in creating an alternative to the traditional types of mastering facilities that existed,” she explains. “I wanted to provide a welcoming environment where artists, producers and mixers would feel comfortable investigating whatever was necessary to complete their album. I am happy to say that The Lodge has mastered and mixed around 4,000 projects since we opened our doors.”
The other side of the glass
Many producers and mastering engineers that we’ve spoken with tend to establish their studio-based career livelihoods following a period of attempting to make a name for themselves as artists in their own right, Emily is no exception to this well-trodden path.
“Well, when I started I was very much on ‘the other side of the glass’ – that is, trying to establish myself as a singer, songwriter and performer,” Emily reveals. “When I began, I was in the studio purely as an artist. So I had very little to do with the recording process which I found in equal parts intriguing yet intimidating. During that time, I saved up to buy a 4-track recorder and began learning and experimenting with recording and production techniques while writing my own songs. I was very curious about how to best capture my own recordings. My interest in production grew from that desire to fine-tune and control my own music, so that in the end, it would sound the way I had envisioned. From then on, it was really a very natural progression to delve into the art of recording – and it is a fairly common route!”
Emily’s trajectory prior to that point had clearly been leading her in a creative direction. Born and raised in New York, Emily studied for a Bachelor Of Arts Degree in Creative Writing And Music at Skidmore College before deciding that music was going to be her all-consuming focus. “My interest and fascination with recording led me to work in studios in NYC as an engineer and thenI pursued getting a Masters Degree in Music Technology at NYU,” Emily recalls. “During that time I worked at Sony Classical and had access to some of the very best equipment available. I gained an invaluable education about microphones, placement and recording techniques and found that I was ‘hearing’ music in a very new and exciting way.”
Following Emily’s Masters graduation, Emily began to realise that she had a real ear for frequencies and applied this emerging skillset to developing her ability to master tracks. “After I graduated, I worked at a well-known mastering facility called MasterDisk where I was further able to fine-tune and hone my skills. Mastering is a very unique niche in the recording field. I realised that while I was mastering, I had my own individual approach compared to other mastering engineers. There were several new ideas that came from the new technologies of the time, which I thought could provide obvious advantages in the mastering stage, but these were largely shunned by my colleagues.”
We ask Emily what particular skills she learned at that time that she still uses today. “Stem mastering is an obvious example,” she tells us. “But back then, it was a new idea that many engineers (both mixing and mastering engineers) were frightened by. In necessary cases, where mixes didn’t arrive at the mastering studio in ‘perfect’ shape, it simply didn’t make sense to me to ignore the power that a DAW brought to the equation. These kinds of solutions allowed me to assert my creativity with my technical skills and I began to master creatively in a style that was very much my own, and wasn’t an approach that was being done by any other mastering engineers at the time.”
Out of the box
Emily’s process and hands-on approach to mastering was becoming well-regarded by her increasing roster of clients. So before long, she realised that it was time to start up her own facility, as she explains… “My overall approach became the impetus for me to break away from the ideas and constructs of the existing facilities and start my own studio, which I called The Lodge. Here, my ‘out of the box’ thinking and creative problem-solving approach to mastering became the norm.”
The Lodge is a visually impressive space that is replete with a range of classic and contemporary gear. We ask Emily what technology is vital to her current mastering process. “Oh, every piece of equipment in my studio is essential, because no studio can function based solely on the laurels of one piece of equipment,” Emily says.
“Fundamentally, a great artist, a great engineer and great equipment are the perfect combination for a perfect recording. A roomful of state-of-the-art equipment and stellar engineers and producers don’t necessarily make a great recording if they’re lacking a great artist to provide the music.”
Following that disclaimer, however, Emily does reveal her top-three favourite pieces of analogue equipment: “A matched pair of Pultec EQP-1A3s from the 70s, the Avalon Designs 2077 stereo Mastering Equalizer and my Shadow Hills Limited Edition Mastering Compressor. The Avalon 2077 has a full and warm bottom and the highs are super smooth and clear. It has a classic sound that is clean, beautiful, and elegant. I do really like my Shadow Hills Limited Edition Mastering Compressor. The unit I have at The Lodge is pretty special. It’s a special edition (lucky number 13 of the 50 that were made) with red LEDs and a Class-A discrete section. Sometimes, I use it to ‘colour’ a mix and at other times, I use it for glue. It can lightly pull things together or be as heavy handed as needed.”
It’s not all hardware, however. “As far as digital equipment is concerned, we have a slew of plug-ins, as well as some really high-end digital hardware that I rely on,” Emily explains. She adds that the mastering process is variable depending on the project and the artist’s direction, but there is some consistency with several of the stages.
“There is no one-size-fits-all solution for mastering and each and every project is different. However, there are some things that do not really change. The main DAW hub for everything I do is Pro Tools, which I use for source-material playback and Pyramix for capturing the masters, sequencing, and album publishing/final master part creation.
“Sometimes I’ll use plug-ins in Pro Tools and then hit some of the gear in my analogue chain before recording into Pyramix [a professional and advanced DAW used largely in the post-production world]. Sometimes, I’ll use plug-ins in Pyramix after I’ve gone through my analogue chain. More often, I’m working in Pro Tools, my analogue chain and Pyramix, all at the same time.
“I rely heavily on my monitor and playback system which includes equipment by Lavry, Prism, Antelope, MuthDesigns, Genelec and ProAc,” she explains. However, she stresses that the thought process remains fluid and dependent on both the source material and the artist’s objectives.
“Every project is unique, so it’s hard to describe the process in general terms, but each project has one definitive similarity. I like to have a dialogue with the artist, producer and mixer about what they are trying to achieve in the mastering process early. Either the artist attends the session with me, we speak on the phone, or the conversation occurs via an exchange of emails. It’s really important to me to establish a framework for what an artist is trying to accomplish in the big picture prior to starting. This is how we can work together to nurture their creative process every step of the way the way.”
Spreading the word
Emily’s work at The Lodge has been widely regarded, with artists of the calibre of David Bowie (on his Heathen and Reality records), Sia (on 2016’s This Is Acting) and Foo Fighters. The Foo’s 2012 record Wasting Light won a Grammy for Best Rock Album and Emily was part of the team that was nominated for the Album Of The Year category.
Remarkably, she was the first female mastering engineer to be nominated for a Grammy Award. At that time, Dave Grohl was reported by Skidmore College’s website as saying: “Not only was it an honour to work with Emily Lazar on Wasting Light, but an incredible (and historic) privilege to have worked with the first female mastering engineer to be nominated in the Album Of The Year category! We’re very, very excited for her.”
This year, Emily finally got her reward and historically won the Grammy for Best Engineered Album (Non-Classical) for her work on Beck’s Colors. Her massive achievement was reported far and wide and Emily is still incredibly happy to have received this accolade. “This has been a really exciting time,” she tells us. “I feel so honoured to have won the Grammy for the Best Engineered Album category. For me, it’s a meaningful accomplishment, because it highlights the people behind the scenes who are involved in the art and craft of making an album come to life.”
On the record itself, Emily says: “My work with Beck on Colors was very special. Beck is a talented artist with super-refined ears and an incredible connection to what he wants to achieve. We worked on the album over two and a half years. During the making of Colors, Beck used the mastering process to better guide his recalls in the mixing process. Each of the tracks were mixed, mastered, recalled, remixed and remastered, some of them many times – and the result speaks for itself.”
With her clutch of awards and her astonishing work ethic, we ask Emily how easy it is to generate new clients – or indeed if there’s such a long list of people wanting to work with her that she just picks and chooses her projects? Emily reveals she has numerous longstanding clients: “Our client base at The Lodge comprises a wide variety of artists who really are our best ambassadors.” Emily tells us. “I have been very fortunate to have received recommendations and referrals that have come to us through the years through word-of-mouth and various social networks, but mostly clients come to The Lodge because they admire the results of the work that has come through the studio over the years.”
The art of listening
With such a sizeable back catalogue of projects, records and soundtracks, it’s difficult for Emily to pin down the work that she’s most proud of. “The thing is that I truly take pride in every project that I work on. There have been so many wonderful albums that have come through The Lodge throughout the years that naming one over any other is impossible.
“So instead of choosing one ‘baby’ over another, I’ll list some recent standouts: Panic! At The Disco (and their 2018 record Pray For The Wicked), Vampire Weekend (on their latest album Father Of The Bride), Maggie Rogers and her Heard It in a Past Life album and an incredible single that I’ve just done for the country group Little Big Town, just to name a few of my latest high points.”
Though finishing a project is always a joy, the process is not without its challenges, even for someone as talented as Emily. “Because mastering is often the last thing anyone thinks about, I’m more often than not up against tight deadlines to deliver complete albums with sometimes just a one-day turnaround. In those moments, it’s certainly a race against the clock, but in the more leisurely moments, it’s really important to set yourself a target and aim for an end goal. Without a clear of idea regarding direction, you can certainly keep tweaking the same thing in different ways for days. The best way to stay on course and check your work is to make sure you’re in an environment with a proper A/B listening setup.”
Emily feels that the secret to being a great mastering engineer, as she shared with us at the very beginning of our interview, is fundamentally to be a good listener and make creative choices based on your instinctive reactions. “Success in any career requires clarity of purpose and direction,” Emily says. “It’s important to have that confidence in the sonic picture you envision in your own head, and just to be direct about painting that picture.”
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