A day in the life of Emily Lazar, Grammy-winning mastering engineer
Lazar says mastering is "very much about storytelling and very much about psychology"
Beck's Colors. David Bowie's Reality and Heathen. Maggie Roger's Heard it in a Past Life. Broken Social Scene's Hug of Thunder. Netflix's new Dolly Parton-soundtracked film Dumplin'. Saturday Night Live's 25th anniversary special. These projects may read as disparate parts, but at the centre of their Venn diagram is one woman: Emily Lazar.
The New York-based mastering engineer made history at the 2019 Grammy Awards, becoming the first female mastering engineer to win for best engineered album (non-classical) for Beck's Colors album — and her fingerprints are all over the albums you've listened to since she opened her studio, the Lodge, in 1997. With a discography that spans borders and recognition levels (Arcade Fire, Tegan and Sara and emerging Toronto band Dizzy find themselves on a list that includes Björk and Madonna), Lazar has put the final sheen on upwards of 3,000 albums ("It may even be 4,000 at this point," she guesses).
"I am so grateful to get to be one of the people … that young women see and they can say, 'I can see it. I can be it. That's a cool career, I want to go do that,'" Lazar said in her Grammys acceptance speech.
A musician and songwriter first, Lazar got into the mastering business because she wanted things to sound a particular way — and no one was listening to her.
"I was frustrated while being in the studio as an artist, and I didn't feel like I was being heard in the studio necessarily with ideas that I wanted to see come to fruition," she says. "And the studio culture back then was not so ingratiating to young women with an opinion about what they wanted to hear, honestly. So that was an inspiration and a really backwards way for me to figure it out on my own and start learning — so I started learning."
She says her appetite for knowledge was "voracious," and after studio internships, jobs and a master's in music technology from New York University, Lazar opened up her own space.
"A lot of the mastering houses that I knew of were almost like dentist offices with multiple mastering engineers in different rooms," she says. "And [there was] a big lounge or a couple lounges maybe and you went in kind of to see the dentist [laughs] and get your stuff mastered and then you'd leave. And that was not how I viewed the process at all. When I started doing it, I felt like it was a very creative [process] and very much about storytelling and very much about psychology. Like all these amazing things that were not really being addressed in that dental chair of how I felt the majority of mastering facilities were set up. And so I think I was the first to — definitely the first in New York — create this boutique vibe where you went in and you hung out with people that care about music and know music."
There was clearly a need for what Lazar wanted to offer. In general, work finds her — "I don't really do any real advertisement. I have very little presence on the internet, which I'm sure you found out," she says, laughing — and in 2016, she became the first woman ever to be nominated for a best engineering Grammy (non-classical) for her work on the Bird and the Bee's Recreational Love. (Previous to that, she was also the first female mastering engineer to be up for album and record of the year, for Foo Fighters' Wasting Light and Sia's Chandelier, respectively.)
Today, she can add Grammy winner to that list.
It took nearly two decades in the business for a woman to be nominated at all in the category of Lazar's work, and while she works a lot behind the scenes to affect change — she's involved with the Alicia Keys initiative She is the Music, is part of the Recording Academy's pledge to ensure that more women are hired for producing and engineering positions and is on the steering committee for the Academy's Producers & Engineers Wing Leadership, among other things — she would like her gender to be less of a topic and more of a point of fact.
"I would like to walk down the red carpet and have interviewers talk to me about the choices that I made creatively, as opposed to [saying], 'Hey, you're a female!' I'll be like, 'Yeah, and?'" Lazar said in a June 2018 interview with Great Big Story.
The tides are changing so glacially that the cachet of being one of the only recognizable female mastering engineers probably won't wear off anytime soon. An updated study from the University of Southern California Annenberg Inclusion Initiative revealed this month that things haven't improved much for women in the music industry — and that 2017 and 2018 actually have the lowest numbers on record for women in the last seven years surveyed. The study also noted that "the gender gap at the Grammys is real," pointing out that this year, Linda Perry was the first woman nominated for producer of the year in the last 15 years (the Grammy went to Pharrell).
As the 2019 Grammys approached, we wanted to talk to Lazar about her work: what it entails, what a typical day is, and how she balances artistic vision and ambition.
The conversation below took place on the phone from the Lodge in early February 2019, and has been edited down for length and clarity.
What, exactly, is a mastering engineer?
"At the end of the day, for me personally, I always hope that in its very simplest form, the mastering engineer is supposed to make music sound the best that it possibly can across all of the various platforms that exist.
"It is the process that involves taking [a] track to the 'next level,' right? But more like to a great commercial level or to a particular artist's vision — that can be the level that you're going for. So the role is actually kind of flexible in a weird way because it's determined by what's going on and the story that's trying to be told.
"So it's not a one-size-fits-all career and it's certainly not a one-size-fits-all process. Because sometimes people are like, 'Whoa it's just the same all the time, right?' And I'm like no, it's different — not only is it different project to project but it's different track to track. So it's kind of an interesting game. But the very basic gist is that you're trying to take the music that's been recorded and mixed and make it available to the masses in the best possible way."
On what fuelled her
"I never wanted to be the person standing there, as an assistant or otherwise, where somebody was asking me to do something I didn't understand or would just straight-up attack me for not knowing something — because that was also part of the culture [laughs]. People did not survive. Not just women. There weren't very many women — actually there were, like, none [laughs] — but [for] the ones that were there, it was hard to get through and survive. And truthfully, like, a lot of bad things happened. I don't know how I did survive it, to be completely honest with you. But I think it just made me stronger, actually. I think it just made me want it more.
"I grew up in a house where there was lots of music but it was not a technical basis. And all of that stuff was very foreign to me. So there was definitely a learning curve for me to jump in. But I was so voracious about it that it didn't feel like a learning curve, it felt like, you know: 'Yeah, I can do this, I can rock this.' Not only am I going to learn the stuff that I need to learn but I'm going to learn it so well and come out of this with so much knowledge that I will never be in that situation to feel dumb, or feel like I don't know what I'm doing, or feel like I've said the wrong thing, which happens all the time — not just to women, by the way. It's anybody who walks into a studio and doesn't really know what's going on and is trying to communicate. There's just this weird barrier between not knowing the jargon and knowing the jargon. And understanding what it means. So I think that I was more like on fire [laughs] to just rip it up."
Starting the Lodge in 1997
"This was still the time where it wasn't so great for women in the studio and behaviour was really out of control. And my vision about how things should happen in the studio didn't align with what the studios were doing. And I was really coming from an artist's perspective because I still had my band at that time and I really was about making things that I thought sounded great and getting the sound that was in my head to come out of the speakers. That was my real impetus for making stuff sound great and having a place to do it. And as I was coming up I realized that there were few studios that had a great culture about them, and that the majority of them kind of had a particularly bad culture.
"I had worked at those [dental chair] places and I realized I really got an amazing education in exactly what I didn't want. I didn't want those yucky, dirty leather couches and this feeling of a very masculine dental-office vibe with people who were all much techier than you. I wanted people to come in and feel very warm and not intimidated and in a place where they could try things that were maybe outrageous because they wanted to. I wanted the possibility to be there and I wanted to shake things up as far as the process was concerned."
How she starts her day
"I never have a typical day but that's probably because it's me and I'm just not typical [laughs]. I'm sure there are other mastering engineers who might be a little bit more ritualized with their behavior. But for example, I could work on an album for a couple months; I could work on an album for a couple of years.
"Coffee. I'm a mom, and I have a son. And so my day usually starts with getting him into his deal and then it moves on to getting me through mine.
"So when I get into the studio, the first thing I do when I start working is I listen. I spend a lot of my day listening. And if there are clients there I do a lot of listening to them, kind of talking about where they're at and what they're trying to accomplish and then I do a lot of listening to what it is that they've brought versus what it is that they say that they want and we kind of talk about how we're going to get there. So there's a big dialogue that goes on, but for me, I feel like there's a lot of listening.
"If there's anything hanging over from the day before, I try to wrap that up and then I usually make a list of whatever I have not completed. And a lot of list-making [laughs] and the list is awesome. I could not be more blessed by the fact that the list is like this bucket with a hole at the bottom and a faucet at the top, so it's like it never empties — actually it's always overflowing but it's like it never empties. It just goes down a little bit but then it's full with stuff. And that's kind of the cool thing because I don't look for work."
How she knows when a project is finished
"Oh my God. It's never finished. I have this conversation with people a lot. And I'm like, 'It's finished when you're done, right?' And no moment before now. And that sounds kind of weird to say because technically these things can be done in a day. Right? But if you don't like the mix and you have to go back and change things there, or if the artist is not happy with the way they sang a vocal on this, still, after hearing it 50,000 times and mixing it 50,000 ways and mastering it 50,000 times, then it's not done, you know? And so sometimes the function of those things not being complete doesn't actually have anything to do with the mastering work. It is more a function of the combination of everything and the artist not being happy.
"And sometimes it's a very psychological process and some people are just not ready to be done. They're not ready to finish. And then some people learn that you're never really finished and you just kind of keep it rolling and move on to the next one. And some people are very specific about when they're finished. And they know.
"The artistic process and creative expression and the ability to push your own boundaries and have the freedom to do things are all really important. The reason that the Lodge was created was to cater to artists like Beck, who are incredible, have incredible ears, have an incredible sense of what they want. They know when they're done and they're not done, and I mean, he spent a long time being sure that he was not done [with Colors]. I think that's not only highly respectable but I think we're lacking a lot of that right now. I think people just put things out with reckless abandon and just don't really craft things as much anymore. So I respect that he takes the time to make sure that what he's doing is what he wants to say, musically."
How the process worked for Maggie Rogers' 2019 album, Heard it in a Past Life
"[I was working on her album] a while [laughs]. Not all of her tracks came in at once. Singles happened first and then we did the album. She's worked with other people that I work with frequently, like Rostam Batmanglij from Vampire Weekend for just a couple tracks, and Greg Kurstin who I've done a bunch of records with. And I just really enjoyed it because [she] was this new, beautiful blossoming artist and she had this happen with the help of some old friends who I've made records with for years. So it was the kind of fun experience on a different level than just the Maggie connection, which was amazing.
"Communicating in this particular instance, Maggie was not in the studio with me but we were on the phone a lot and we talked through music, and I would give her something and I'd say try this, you know, hear this and listen to tell me what you think or whatever and respond, and then that's a lot of how it goes. But we also actually spoke on the phone and did a lot of yapping [laughs].
"Even though she's much younger than me she experienced a lot of similar problems with the beginning of making her record and getting pushed around and feeling not heard, feeling powerless and feeling crazy, actually, which we've kind of both bonded on because I had spent a great deal of time feeling like I was crazy, like I was hearing things in my head that nobody else understood.
"I feel like her artistry kind of blends this very old soul artist that we all kind of know because she reminds us of some of the greats. She reminds me of the Joni Mitchells, the Ricky Lee Jones, and these incredible, amazing artists and then she kind of flipped it on its head and created this whole new thing that's super fresh and young and amazing.
"She's really outstanding. I have to tell you, I don't give those kinds of compliments or comments up easily and I find her to be really beyond her years."
On what makes something an Emily Lazar project
"Some people will say, 'Oh Emily, she makes records sound like this.' And the reality is this is simply not true. Because [laughs] every day that I go in there I'm going in there with my own Emily-isms and somebody says 'Emily-ize it,' you know? And it's all depending on how I feel that day about that. And how it moves me, really, and how I can help it move more people better, or more effectively. So that's never the same and is never the same process. So I don't think at the end of the day they all sound similar. And I don't think other mastering engineers' tracks do that, either. But what I can hear is the difference [between] something that's been mastered well and something that hasn't."