Though mastering engineer Emily Lazar may wryly refer to herself as an auditory “input-output machine,” her true role in the studio is far more nuanced and important than such a phrase might imply. In fact, as the final sonic craftsperson to lay fingers on projects for many of the world’s top musical acts, Lazar has played a key role in creating some of the most popular and influential albums of the 2000s.
As the founder and chief mastering engineer of The Lodge in New York City, Lazar’s resume consists of well over three thousand albums, including projects for the likes of David Bowie, Foo Fighters, Sia, Vampire Weekend, Alanis Morissette, Garbage, Lou Reed, Depeche Mode, and many more. She has also mastered audio for numerous movie soundtracks including Training Day, Sound City: Real to Reel, and American Psycho.
Here are Lazar’s thoughts on troubleshooting at the mastering console, the sculpting power of UAD plug-ins, and the philosophy and practice of crafting platinum-destined masters, time and time again.
How would you describe what you do to someone who isn’t really familiar with mastering?
I get asked this all the time. [Laughs.] Normally I start out by saying that a mastering engineer’s job is to make a musical project sound better and to make it viable for commercial release. On the most basic level, the process involves balancing the many different qualities of any project — EQ, compression, volume, editing, flow, and even album sequence. All of those elements come into play when you’re working to create the bigger-picture story for an album.
But beyond that, I also try to facilitate what an engineer, artist, or producer can’t do on his or her own to get a project to where it’s really meant to be. I want to help find a unique and specific sound for an album and tell its story sonically.
So you help give perspective, among other things.
Sometimes the artist's ability to hear where they want a project to go can get lost in the muck and mire of the entire process — focusing on one or two trees instead of seeing the forest. The mastering engineer’s job is to help “fix” any of those little, problematic trees [laughs], and present a bigger picture to the listener.
At this point in your career, can you tell who produced or mixed a project that lands on your desk, just by listening?
I can. Once you’ve worked with someone for a while, you can hear similarities across their work, though sometimes I will get tracks from producers or engineers who I know that don’t sound like them. There’s always an interesting story there. Maybe they inherited a project midway through and had to take it in a different direction, or some element was recorded in an unexpected way. If I don’t have that information in advance, it’s a fascinating puzzle for me, just trying to figure out what’s happening only by listening to the mix.
When an album has multiple different producers on each track, as opposed to one producer working on the entire album, does it make your job harder?
It depends on the album and the point at which it gets to me. Sometimes people will spend inordinate amounts of time — years, even — mixing and remixing, before I hear it. At that point, it can be quite focused and refined, which is great, or sometimes it can sound incredibly different from track to track. Maybe over those two years, the producer or artist’s mindset and vibe changed, and the people working on it interjected themselves into the process in ways that wouldn’t have happened if it all had happened at once. It’s all hit or miss, even to the point of knowing whether one song on an album will be up to snuff with the other nine or ten.
When it comes to multiple producers on the same project, however, having that kind of variety can make things interesting and fun for me as an engineer, just because it’s not the same thing over and over again. That said, even a full album coming from the same producer, engineer and mixer, with all of the tracks having been recorded in the same room with the same gear, could still come out sounding totally different from mix to mix.
What role do UAD plug-ins play in your work?
When a project calls for me to rely on plug-ins, they play an important role — and they can sometimes do the job more easily, and with more precision, than my analog equipment. I mostly use plug-ins when I work on stem mastering, stem mixing, or multi-track mixing. With stem mastering in particular, I rely on them quite a bit. I use them to make sure that individual tracks accomplish what they need to before hitting my analog chain.
Can you describe a stem mixing situation?
I’ve had situations where I’ve been in a session with the mixer, artist, producer, etc. and someone says, “You know, we really didn’t achieve what we wanted to with that that kick drum. It’s not functioning the way it is supposed to in the mix.” If we are lucky enough to have stems of the mix to open up, I can try to help figure things out on the spot. It definitely doesn't happen on every project, but it’s a rewarding and helpful process when it does — clients can come to me feeling completely psyched about a mix that they and the label have become attached to, but if there’s just one element that’s not right, a vocal that’s just too loud or not sitting in the mix, it’s great to be able to go in and make adjustments on the spot.
And you use UAD plug-ins to help?
Yes. I use all sorts of UAD plug-ins depending on the need. I really like the Precision Multiband Compressor plug-in, the Fairchild Tube Limiter Plug-In Collection, the EMT® 140 Classic Plate Reverberator, the Neve 1073 Preamp & EQ Plug-In Collection, and the Pultec Passive EQ Plug-In Collection. I also use the SSL G Series Bus Compressor plug-in quite a bit.
Even though I have the original analog units for a lot of these things, sometimes the overall stability of the plug-ins makes them a really great choice in the mastering room. Often, I use them for subtle adjustments, but other times, I make substantive creative moves like using tape emulations and enhancers to really transform a sound or a particular track. Generally speaking, I like a subtle approach — I greatly respect the work of the amazingly talented mixers that I get to collaborate with. Most of the time, I’m more of a scalpel than a hatchet. That said, sometimes it’s necessary to bring out the big guns.
Can you elaborate?
For example, sometimes people are working in environments in which they are not completely familiar and they can’t hear the full extent of a song’s low-end frequencies while they are working, and, as a result, don’t even realize those frequencies are there. In that sort of situation, I have to bring out the low-end hatchet and, artfully, attempt to chisel them out and get rid of the gunk.
In situations like that, I’m very grateful to have access to UAD plug-ins. They give me more options than I’ve ever had before. More importantly, they’re also really musical sounding. I love analog gear, but I also really dig digital gear that sounds great, and it’s amazing to me that Universal Audio has been able to emulate the sounds of these legendary boxes in such a spot-on way.
What advice would you give someone who is getting to know the UAD Precision Multiband Compressor plug-in?
It's a powerful tool, but use it with subtlety and be as thoughtful as possible with your knob-twisting, as opposed to just randomly tweaking something out of frustration or as a result of being distracted. Focus on compressing the elements of the mix you’d like to hear expanded.
Another thing is, if you place an EQ in the signal chain directly before the multiband compressor, then you get into territory where you can sculpt and paint with a huge range of colors. Again, if you use them sparingly, plug-ins can create incredible depth and movement where there wasn’t any — you can really wake up a mix and bring it to life.
And what if you get a really problematic mix — for example, one with way too much bass, like you mentioned earlier?
The best way to achieve a great master is to start with a great mix, so I start by having a dialog with my clients and asking if they know where the problem came from and if it can be fixed in the mix. If not, then I have to start manipulating things. You can still end up with a great master that way, but it’s certainly harder. Again as an example, if we’re talking about a bass overload problem in a stem mix situation, I would probably start by trying to isolate where the excess bass is coming from and go from there. It might actually be coming from multiple sources.
Sometimes there will be crazy low end coming through a vocal mic — or any other mic, for that matter — and if you don’t realize it’s there, suddenly everything is swallowed up by it. If I’m able to go through the tracks and find where the offensive frequencies are located, I can start figuring out the best ways to control or even remove them. Then the fun starts when I can start shaping the mix so you can hear the parts that you want to hear and not the parts that you don’t.
It sounds like you work collaboratively, rather than clients just dropping off a hard drive and you handing them the finished project a week later.
Originally, I was an artist and I am a still a songwriter. In addition to mastering, I also enjoy mixing and I’ve been involved in producing, writing string arrangements, you name it. I think my background as a musician and an engineer helps me to understand the journey that the artist, engineer, mixer, producer all endure on the way to making a final product and the dialogue between all of these people is essential.
Even if a client cannot be there physically in the session with me, my approach remains a very collaborative one. I’ve never viewed the mastering process as a “my way or the highway” process, and thankfully some of my clients have been known to submit notes that rival novellas alongside their mixes when they are unable to attend the session.
Other times that dialog may very well begin with someone saying, “I love what you did on the Foo Fighters’ album. Do your thing.” That’s fine, and certainly creates some context for me, but I want to dig deeper and understand what about that particular record stood out and how I can bring those qualities to this new project. I’m not shy — if I think of something, I’ll offer it and do it — but at the same time, if I’m working with you, I want to know, in your heart of hearts, what you’re dreaming of and hoping for with your album.
I tell anyone who works with me that he or she can sit at the console, twist any knobs, and be in the driver’s seat when listening and A/B-ing during playback. I don’t want clients to feel that I’m controlling the listening experience. I want them to feel that they’re getting what they want out of the music — and that I’m working my ass off to get there. My job is to facilitate, not dictate.
How do you know when a project is done?
While my role includes doing whatever a client and project needs, my role also includes saying when I don’t think something is necessary. Digital software and editing can be great tools, but they can also be a bit of a Pandora’s box — especially with the ability to instantly recall mixes. It’s part of my job to help decide, and communicate, when Pandora’s box needs to close.
For more on Emily Lazar, visit thelodge.com.
Photo Credit: Becky Yee