This week In the Hot Seat with Larry LeBlanc: Emily Lazar, president/chief mastering engineer, The Lodge.
Emily Lazar pays attention to recorded sound the way the rest of us pay attention to strange sounds at night.
The power ears behind The Lodge--the Manhattan audio mastering facility that opened in 1997--Lazar has played a pivotal role in creating some of the most influential recordings of our time.
While Lazar has remarkable ears, it’s her attention to detail, her skill in setting up and utilizing the best possible audio equipment available, and her dedication to client demands that both sets her apart in her field, and bolsters her reputation.
Working on upwards of 300 records each year, Lazar has overseen recordings by Foo Fighters, Vampire Weekend, David Bowie, Madonna, Lou Reed, Depeche Mode, Wu-Tang Clan, the Prodigy, Tiësto, the Shins, Donald Fagen, Beyoncé, Björk and over 2,000 others.
As well, she has overseen the mastering of soundtracks of movies such as “Training Day,” “Pokémon: The 1st Movie,” “Boys Don’t Cry,” “Six Feet Under,” and “The Punisher.”
Among her most recent mastering projects have been working on upcoming albums by Coldplay ("A Head Full Of Dreams”), and Beck (“Dreams”) as well as a new Moby album and remastering the classic 1994 album “Grace,” the only complete studio recording by the late Jeff Buckley.
Born and raised in Westchester, New York, Lazar’s earliest and most cherished memories of music are performing, and singing with her mother, a fervent folk music fan, and guitar teacher.
Lazar earned a Bachelor of Arts Degree in creative writing and music from Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs, New York. During college, she performed in various bands, and worked as a freelance engineer, producer, and mixer.
Later, she earned a Master of Music Degree from New York University’s Music Technology program.
While at NYU, she secured an internship at Sony Classical which eventually led to an assistant engineer position at the Manhattan mastering facility Masterdisk where she worked on albums by Sir Paul McCartney, Luscious Jackson and others
After teaching the Music Technology Graduate program at NYU in 1996, Lazar decided to open a mastering space in her own apartment. The following year she opened The Lodge in the heart of Greenwich Village.
When you set up The Lodge in 1997, there weren’t many mastering studios in Manhattan.
There was Sterling Sound, Masterdisk, and a third one that I forget.
Were you scared of opening a new business at the age of 25?
Oh, I was terrified. Absolutely petrified.
How did you get the funding to do it?
First of all I had a conversation with my mother. My mother, the genius, had probably seen the Kevin Costner film “Field of Dreams” (1989), and she said, “Build it, and they will come.” I said, “You are right mom, and if they don’t come I’m 25-years-old. I can wake up the next day having failed at this, and do something else.” I could go and be an orthodontist. I could go and be anything that I wanted. Failure was not really the fear.
Before you set up The Lodge didn’t you operate a studio from your apartment?
Correct. It was fun. I drove everybody crazy.
What building were you living in?
I was at 55 East 9th Street between Broadway and University which you can see from my (current) studio.. My studio there was at the back of the building, and I’m looking at the same view that I looked at from the other building.
Did you open The Lodge in the same building you are in today? At 740 Broadway?
I opened up in the same building, but on the 9th floor. I was waiting for my space to become available on the 6th floor.
Did you have much staff when you opened?
I did. I had moved out of my apartment into another apartment, but I kept the studio running there. So we had an office running out of my old room, and the mastering was in my living room. Of course, when people came for mastering I would make them dinner. They were at my house all day. It was pretty amazing because everything was done in real time. So if somebody wanted to listen to their master I could, right adjacent in the kitchen, be making dinner. It was really fun.
What staff do you work with today?
I have a project coordinator with an assistant and I have an assistant engineer who is a damn good engineer. I have outsourced my accounting. I have had years where I have had more staff, and I have had various amounts of interns around. I went from having a much bigger staff. I’ve learned that too many people were doing too many of the same things at the same time.
Your first platinum record was with Vitamin C?
I don’t know if it was Vitamin C or the Pokémon (soundtrack).
How did those two important projects come about?
I had some great relationships with some people at Atlantic Records early in my career. I did Sinead O’Connor’s comeback record (“Faith and Courage”). I did the original “Hedwig (and the Angry Inch” soundtrack), Pokémon, and Vitamin C.
You work on about 300 records a year?
You’ve worked on about 2,000 albums over the years.
It’s probably more than that. I haven’t looked at it lately. That figure came out a few years ago and I haven’t bothered to change it because it sounded so obnoxious.
Other than your reputation, and the number of high-level projects you’ve been connected to, why do people hire you?
In addition to the reputation, there are certain aspects on certain albums that I’ve worked on that people, maybe, sonically enjoyed, and (would) like in their project too. What they think is a reference point. That’s probably not the best way to choose a mastering engineer.
You are the final sound person involved in the recording process. So what’s your role in the storytelling process?
I feel that my job has two very distinct, important angles. One would be that of handling the audio itself, so that it sounds as the artist, the producer--whoever is calling the shots--intended or dreamt about. That would be the sound sculpting aspect of my job, and the artistry on my end. The other angle of what I do focuses on having a dialogue with those people who are dreaming about this particular kind of sound; about what they are trying to do; about what story they are trying to tell; and how I can be most effective in telling that story.
To me the most important thing about music is the story, and how it can emote. I believe that’s why there’s the human connection to music, and why it’s so important to all of us—those of us who are listening—is because it can touch upon important universal chords for all of us. And getting a piece of music to translate to as many people as it can is a very big part of what I am trying to accomplish. Whether that is through the actual sound sculpting itself or, maybe, suggesting things that I am hearing about sequencing or choosing one mix or another, and giving my opinion when there one that gives me a visceral response over another one.
What you are talking about is providing human instinct, really.
In the studio itself recording is a collaborative process, whether a group or a producer dominates sessions with an engineer. When you are hired, who are you taking your cues from? The artist, the producer or from both? Maybe the artist doesn’t care about the mastering.
For the most part I would say that I spend a good deal of time trying to understand the relationship, and what’s going on. The interpersonal relations that are going on are very, very important.
Even within the bands at times.
Absolutely. Psychologically-speaking the process of making a record or even one track is like having a baby. Everybody is a little bit on edge, and very excited. Some people approach it like, “I can’t wait for this thing to come out. It’s going to be so beautiful, and amazing, and perfect.” Other people are like, “Is my baby ugly? Whoa, did that really come out of me? Did I make that? Is it okay? Will people like my baby?” So there are a lot of elements to approach (in mastering), and people will approach the whole process really differently. Some people are excited to “Keep tweaking. Keep tweaking.” They will try every possible thing, and then settle on something. Other people don’t want anything to do with the process, and refuse to come. Some people are very interested in making sure that everybody’s voice in the project is heard, and it is kind of a compromise kind of situation. Like, “Okay, we want to do this because this person wants this to happen, and we want to do that because another person wants it.” So there’s a bit of a group dynamic. Other times, one person is largely in charge, and that’s the person that you have to please. It becomes pretty obvious.
Sometimes label executives want their say too.
Absolutely. I’m lucky because I have had some really amazing projects, and have had some really interesting people to work with. Those are the kinds of artists, and the kind of people that labels seem to have a ton of respect for, and want to work really collaboratively with, which I really, really like. The labels, for the most part, have been amazing. The people that I work with. They only wanted to see a project through to its rightful end, and be supportive and helpful.
Is it common for an artist to sit in the mastering room with you while you are working?
Yes it is, and I invite that because I like to hear what they have to say because it helps the process. I think that any part of their input helps shape or form what I’m going to do.
It also saves you time because they could return it later if not there.
Sometimes, yes. Sometimes it’s difficult because there’s a little indecision going on and the, “Oh my gawd, is my baby ugly fear?
By the mastering stage haven’t producers generally moved onto other projects?
I would say that it is always a very touchy time for producers and engineers because their schedules are booked. They also just want to be done. They just want to put the ribbon and the bow on it, and be done.
Most producers have already been paid or are working on a royalty percentage. There may be the attitude, “My work is done here.”
Well, no. At least not with the ones that I work with, and the ones I respect and that I enjoy are into it until the last second. Butch Vig has been with me with his bands, for the Foos, and all sorts of things. He’s very involved. He knows when to step back and say, “Okay, give me a couple of options,” or “What do you think?” He’s a great one to work with. There’s a lot of people that I’ve learned an incredible amount from. I’m always happy to offer my opinions. You could say that I am opinionated.
You’ve had Foo Fighter’s David Grohl in the studio with you. I can’t imagine him not coming in.
No. He’s been in quite a bit. We did “Wasting Light” (2011) and we did “Sound City” (“Sound City: Real To Real” soundtrack in 2013). He’s totally beyond a special human being in every way.
I love the story of you working with Lou Reed on “NYC Man (The Ultimate Collection 1967-2003),” the two CD anthology, and you discovered a recording of the title track that had been overlooked.
I loved the A&R on that project. It was a moment where (VP of A&R at Sony Entertainment) Rob (Santos) had stepped out of the studio. It was quite late at night, and Lou and I were listening to all of these tapes. We just flew by “NYC Man” and I just happened to stop there, and play it. It just sounded so great coming off the tape. It just dawned on me. I just looked at him, and told him he had to include it. Truthfully, the plan for that double CD was for it not to be called “NYC Man.” It was not even on the sequencing. It had nothing to do with it. All of a sudden, by the next morning, Lou had already upended the entire thing.
Sony Legacy is releasing a comprehensive Lou Reed box set in 2016.
Those are the same guys that I did the project with. I did all of the Lou Reed stuff with Rob Santos. I love the guy.
Other than Lou Reed, you’ve worked with some artists known for being meticulous about their music like David Bowie.
He’s amazing and (producer) Tony Visconti is amazing. I worked on “Heathen” (2002) and “Reality” (2003).
Did you meet David? He’s very funny in-person.
I did. He’s hilarious. He’s very funny. He’s a consummate entertainer. He is. He walks into a room, and he’s on, and he’s so engaging. He lights up a room for sure. I was laughing all the time. There’s one amazing thing that happened one day. He came in, and he had just seen Ozzy Osbourne’s reality show ("The Osbournes,” which followed the lives of the Black Sabbath singer and his family). (Ozzy’s wife) Sharon wanted Ozzy to fly out in this (bubble machine) thing to the stage. He freaked out, and he said, “I’m effing Ozzy Osbourne, the Prince of effing Darkness. Evil. Evil. What’s evil about a shitload of bubbles?” He thought it was ridiculous. That was his response. It was a very funny moment in that reality TV show because it was an Ozzy rant. It became sort of famous. That had just happened, and David came in to do his stuff. When we were working, he was telling stories. He said, “Oh my gawd have you seen this Ozzy Osbourne thing?” Then he starts imitating Ozzy. His imitation was so spot on. He was doing this imitation of Ozzy Osbourne and I’m sitting there pinching myself saying, “Okay, is this really happening? David Bowie is imitating Ozzy Osbourne in my studio trying to make me laugh. What’s going on here? This is crazy.” David is such a sweetheart.
I find that many of the recording you’ve worked on actually breathe. There’s a dynamic range. Many records don’t have that today.
Sure. Not everybody is listening for that. They are listening to, “I like this song” or “I like this artist.” I’m not. I hope that’s why people choose me because I try desperately to not to just smash things into a compressor. I try very hard to look for that detail, for the emotional line that is running through everything, and make a story out of it. Piece it together so it makes sense both sonically and lyrically. I was an English major, a creative writing major in college, so the story and the lyrics are important to me as well what frequencies are going on.
As opposed to rolling up a UAD plug-in and multiband, and playing the track, and pulling things out.
Exactly. Not to say that I don’t like the UAD plug-ins because I do.
You seem to use UAD plug-ins subtlety whereas many people don’t. You mostly use plug-ins when you work on stem or multi-track mixing and, in particular, for stem mastering.
I think that you can get more life out of a mix when you are not shoving so much information down a small pipe. I feel some way or the other that....
With stem mastering you can insure that individual tracks accomplish what they need to, and do a quick fix before hitting an analog chain.
Absolutely. But to go back to your question about why people choose me. I do think that part of my reputation in the industry with labels and producers is that sometimes it’s about my approach, and about how I try to have a dialogue with my clients. I don’t necessarily just take out the big “Emily Lazar” stamper and stamp my imprimatur on it. I want to work together to find what that (recorded sound) is supposed to be. My favorite days in the mastering studio are when something comes to me and it’s flawless, and I barely have anything to do. I sit there and think, “Oh my God, this is unbelievable. You are a genius.”
You can then tell the client that you spent three days working on it.
Oh no (laughing). When I’m impressed I absolutely let people know.
How do you approach recording projects that may have up to 8 producers, 12 engineers, and that were, perhaps, recorded in a half-dozen studios over two or three years? Do you ask yourself, “What’s the common thread here?”
If it’s 10 tracks say, I will pull in the idea, “Okay, everyone put your hat in the ring here, and tell me is there one or two tracks here that are the closest to sounding—they are not finished—but are they close to where we want to go? Are they going in the right direction? Are some things left-of-center? Are some things right-of-center?” I try to get some sort of gauge of whether or not we are making right or left turns.
With the understanding you can’t take a good song, and work it into a great song. Though you might be able to make a poor recording into a much better recording.
There’s an expression in the studio called “polishing a turd.” The best you can do sometimes is take something that doesn’t sound so great, and make it sound amazing, but you are still not going to have a great song.
My generation grew up with, “Don’t worry, we’ll get it in the mix.”
Oh yes. Then I’ve heard, “We’ll get it in mastering.” I have had people in my mastering room singing background vocals over my shoulder into my vintage Neumann U-67 while flying them in to capture them (their performance).
Record mastering began when tape recording was introduced to record production shortly after World War II. At first, it was considered a technical stage of the record making process. The artistic aspect of mastering led to the birth of independent mastering studios as recordings moved from two-track and beyond to 72-tracks. The recording forest became deeper and more complex.
I can’t speak to what it was like to be an engineer in the time frame when people with white lab coats were approaching it from the science of recording more strongly or even entirely as opposed to addressing the artistic side of it. I think that the whole industry changed. The producer’s role changed. The engineer’s role changed. And as artists started to experiment in the studio I think that the artists’ role in audio changed as well. It (a recording) used to be kind of a snapshot in time. An artist would come in and play, and you’d try to record it all. That would be a big job.
The big thing back in the day was finding the right audio balance.
Yes. That you actually had it.
Major record labels used to have staff engineers who set technical standards in the company studios. As a result, the tapes reaching the mastering facilities had a technical quality, and consistency that was predictable. Early studio recording was often about insuring there wasn’t too much leakage between instruments or the voice or that the leakage was cool.
Right. I don’t think they even went into cool at that point. I think that they really focused on making sure that they had a snapshot of something. Then I think that the art started to stem from there. Once more tracks, more experimentation, more ideas came I think that it all started to build upon itself, which is really great. The dialogue between the creativity is what kept pushing things along and I think it’s still what keeps pushing things along today with the technology moving things through plug-ins, and trying to emulate certain stuff, physically model things, and then having people that seek to invent a new sound. I think that the creativity, and the artistry has actually really helped bring music forward.
It’s noteworthy that the Beatles and producer George Martin worked mostly in mono with little emphasis on stereo releases. I found that really interesting.
It is really interesting because the (Beatles’) stereo versions are very cool. As a practitioner, you sometimes end up on having to focus on whatever the industry is demanding at the moment. Right now, there’s a resurgence in vinyl. So there’s a lot of focus on making the best kind of vinyl release that you can. I have been suggesting to a lot of clients who can afford it to do double vinyl, to create even more of a landscape for artwork, and kind of a throwback to all of the things that people loved about the physical product.
Do you mean two record sets?
Exactly. Four sides so it sounds better and it creates more interesting stuff to play with.
I’m unsure if 180-gram vinyl makes a difference to an album’s sound and pressing quality, but matched with intuitive digital remastering the results can be remarkable
Exactly. I make a lot of high res things. All of the high res formats, I deliver for my clients. I’m in the process right now of doing another 192 KHz (recording). I think that for those people that want to hear the detail and feel the intimacy, it’s awesome that it’s there for them, and that we are now pushing those other formats as well. There was a big black hole where we only had poorly digital converted things, and we went into this zone of MP3s. I am a music fan as well as person who works in music so I love to digest as much as I can too. When a new song comes out, I want to hear it right away too. So I do spend time listening to what things sound like in downloads, and in streams. Not just for my job, but also on an appreciation level. I am acutely aware of the difference. It’s upsetting (the sound of tracks sometimes). I hope that we get to a place where it’s even better.
I’m not sure if this new generation of music fans has the same appreciation of sound as we once did.
I think that there are people at probably every time period that have their ears wide open and are listening, and there are people who are digesting the 45 (rpm) single back in the day which didn’t sound anywhere what the 33 1/3 album did.
I disagree. A good 45 could blow many albums away. Like the Motown singles.
It depends on much compression there is on the side. I would love to just agree with you on the fun conversational side like, “Wow man, those singles are awesome.” But there are so many elements at play here. Like how cheaply was it getting pressed? Where was made? Who did the cut? Was the 45 cut different from the album cut?
Often the 45 singles were different versions
Well, sure and we still make single releases to this day. I will master things differently sometimes as a single as I will for the album. I will sometimes suggest that to people because they feel that the want it to jump out of the iTunes download or out of television or radio a certain way or the car. But when someone is listening to the album or piece as a whole unit they want them (recordings) to have a different or soulful experience and I will approach that a little differently.
There are often innumerable versions of a well-known recording.
I know. Different mixes. Different anything. Absolutely. I think that the world at large would be surprised at how many different versions of things there are. Sometimes those versions are even edited together to make a vinyl version. The answer to your original question which was does the younger public now have a sense of what sounds good or what should be good...
Or do they care?
Or do they care? I will tell you that from a personal experience of mastering an album. I started at a pretty young age so I kind of loved the idea that when I was in the room with people I was one of the younger people in the room working. I felt very with it because I was of the generation listening to all of this music. As I started to get a little bit older, I was in a session and the people in the session with me were 18 or 19 years old. So it was a big shock to me that there was this new perspective that these new kids—I should say that these artists— felt. They liked digital distortion. The kind we don’t like. They liked it, and they wanted to understand how we could make their track have all of this shredded gritty stuff on top of it. And it would feel really pushed and urgent in that way. My jaw was on the floor.
They didn’t want the warmth of analog?
Beyond not wanting the warm of analog, they didn’t want digital that was not shredded. So there was a level of digital distortion running across the things that they had grown up listening to on their headphones, and their iPods. It was like, “No. I want it to sound like this. So and so sounds like this. It’s the loudest one. It’s amazing. I want it to really hit people, and sound like this.” And I was shocked because they pulled out examples of things that were horrifically mastered—actually I don’t want to say that because sometimes your client pushes you to do things that you may not want to do—but they were just super-duper loud. Let’s just say that. I am at the mercy of what my artists want as well. There are a lot of times that I have done records that I think should be within a certain loudness range and the artist, the producer or whoever say, “No. It needs to be twice as loud as that.” So I say, “Okay.”
Going back to 2012, you are laid up in bed at home with the flu and with a temperature, and the Grammy nominations are being announced. And David Grohl is...
Texting me. I was so sick. I was thinking, “I must be dreaming this. This is so weird.” Then he keeps texting me because there’s more and more nominations. I’m like, “Does this happen?”
Foo Fighters won five out of six Grammys that year for “Wasting Light.”
Yes amazing. And I have to say that they were up for Adele (“21”) for Album of the Year. That was really a tough thing to be up against. A tough year.
Then you lost out the next year for Sia’s “Chandelier” for Record of the Year.
That’s true. But I have to say I understand how hard it is to be even nominated. So to be nominated is huge. To make the first cut is huge. So I’m often overwhelmed and surprised. I have been in that little arena for tons of little records that I’ve done that have gotten nominated. I don’t know if you understand how this Grammy thing works. Vampire Weekend won (for “Modern Vampires of the City” as Best Alternative Album in 2014), but the mastering engineer doesn’t get an award.
You get a certificate.
Right because it‘s not Album of the Year or Record of the Year. Obviously I’m proud I got a certificate. Mastering engineers only get a Grammy itself for Album of the Year, Record of the Year, Best Surround Sound Album, and Best Engineered Album. I was so thrilled for Vampire Weekend. I have worked with them from their very first releases, and three albums and two Grammy nominations later that moment for me was particularly sweet. But also a little strange because, unlike some mastering projects which can take a day or two, I spent quite a long time working on the mastering of that album. There were months of mastering and listening sessions and even tweaking of mixes on the fly while in the mastering room and, additionally, I co-mixed their highest charting single ever "Unbelievers" which is on that album with my mixing partner Scott Jacoby. So I really felt that I had played an integral role in that album's birth.
Well, maybe you didn’t get a Grammy, but you got to attend a great industry party, and rub shoulders with celebrity artists.
Yes, absolutely. But I just wrapped up the new Coldplay record "A Head Full Of Dreams” that was produced by Stargate and I had this conversation with someone who knew that I was with them, and said, “Oh my gawd, what’s he (Chris Martin) like.” I always answer that type of question with, “Oh, he’s the greatest guy.” In this case, he really is fantastic, and amazing. He happens to be amazing stellar human being. Everybody who was involved in that record were just incredibly stupendous I have to say. But I’m always so blown away by people asking, “What’s he like? What does he like to eat?” I always want to say, “Just because someone is an amazing songwriter or someone is an amazing guitar player or an amazing producer, it doesn’t mean that they are a nice person.” I always ask people whatever business that they are in, “So you know a bunch of bankers? Are some of them nice, and are some of them jerks?” Yeah, well it’s the same thing with artists. Some are nice and some are jerks.
As people do their jobs in music they don’t tend to dwell on the impact of their day-to-day activities. It isn’t until looking back years later that they realize what they’ve done. You probably don’t realize the impact of what you are doing now. This is your job.
It’s like the commencement speech that Steve Jobs gave (in 2005 at Stanford University). I tell a lot of the kids who come to interview with me to watch this speech, and then we will discuss it because it’s more interesting to talk about than where they went to audio school. In the speech (Steve Jobs says) that you can only connect the dots in retrospect. The reason that he took a calligraphy class (at Reed College in Portland, Oregon as a dropout) while he wasn’t even matriculating and was sleeping on a friend’s floor, had a huge part in creating the Serif fonts in the Macintosh computer, which set it apart from a window-based PC. The idea of trying to do that while you are in the moment or going forward, projecting where you are supposed to go in order to get to the end zone is a little bit weird. It is easier to say, “Oh, I did this and this gave me the opportunity to do that.” He gave a couple of examples in that speech.
At York University in Toronto, I majored in film and took classes in linguistics.
That’s why people say to me, “You have a major in creative writing and English which is not a technical engineering degree.”
You, in fact, earned a B.A. in creative writing and music from Skidmore College, graduating Cum Laude with honors distinction in your major. Were you going to be a writer?
The absolute truth was that I was in a band and....
Growing up you had learned piano, guitar, flute and violin....
My mom was a guitar teacher. That’s where it all really started. It started from my mom
You are from New York?
Yes, I’m from Westchester. My mom and dad were in that whole kind of...I wouldn’t say that they were hippies. They were more on the folk scene. They weren’t on the hippie scene.
I worked for the Canadian folk act Ian & Sylvia.
Oh, I’ve heard every Ian & Sylvia thing. My mom loved them. My mom used to hold picks for everybody down at Gerde’s Folk City (in the west Village) while they were playing. My mom was very entrenched in that scene. She took (guitar) lessons from the Reverend Gary Davis. She’s an excellent player. My father was at NYU as a student, and he ended up doing restructuring and helping businesses that were failing. Figuring out ways to fix them, basically. He was a fixer. I’m a fixer, and my mother was a musician.
You said that you were in a band.
I had different bands in college. I had the Veronica Lodge band after Skidmore. That’s where The Lodge came from. Originally, the band was The Lodge.
Better than the Bettys I guess given the “Archie” comic book reference.
Most people didn’t make the connection. Her name was always either Veronica or Ronnie. And her father’s name was Mr. Lodge. The name of the band was Lodge and I wanted to find an adjective to feminize the word Lodge because everyone said Lodge didn’t sound like a girl’s band. It sounds like spoon or something. This was back in the days where I cared what people said, I guess. I said, “Okay let’s make it kind of girly.” So we tried to find to find something to girlify the word Lodge, and that’s what we came up with.
Was the band any good?
Yeah, I think we were pretty good. There was some (industry) interest. I am very much a perfectionist which goes along with my profession. My kind of music when I was coming up was Liz Phair, and very early Sheryl Crow. There was not much in the way of women in rock. Hole hadn’t even happened. It (female rock) was just starting. So that was the landscape for me. It was skinny. All of sudden Alanis Morissette showed up--who I have since made a record for--and I remember everybody all being in love with Alanis. I was happy that we were pushing though the territory a little bit, but it still felt....
A band is supposedly a democracy. Did you have problems compromising?
No because I wrote a lot of the songs. We wrote some together, but I wrote a lot of the songs.
What did you play?
I was the singer. I also played guitar, and played drums on one song terribly, but it was fun. During that part of my life I really wanted other people to step to the table, and to do more than what they were doing. I kind of wanted it to be more of a band or I would have called it Emily Lazar and the So and Sos. There were a couple of people that did really pull their weight, and did some great things.
What did you do after graduating from Skidmore?
After Skidmore I came to New York to be in music. I worked in a clothing store and was playing with the band and writing songs. Then I was called into the manager’s office at this awesome mid-town clothing store, and I was told, “Emily, we want to give you the keys, and give you a promotion to assistant manager.” I said, “I quit.”
I quit because I realized that retail was not for me. Unfortunately, I was succeeding at that and all of a sudden I would have more responsibilities. I was working at a clothing store to make my rent while I was with the band. It was not a career choice. I was like, “Yep, nope, I’m gone.” So I left. I had been practicing with my band. I was playing shows and trying to get into the studio and record all of the time. I was totally taken with recording while in college, and I desperately wanted to get back into the studio. I really enjoyed it.
I bet that you found it frustrating being a musician in the studio asking for earphone adjustments from someone on the other side of the glass.
That’s exactly right. That was exactly my problem. I was like, “Can you put delay in one ear and do this and that?” And they would look at me like I was insane and they would move a fader. I know all those tricks too. It was very upsetting to me because it didn’t feel right.
How did you come to earn a Master of Music Degree from New York University’s Music’s technology program?
Concurrently, I had run into a friend of a friend who was an undergrad at the Music Tech program at NYU. I had a studio job at Platinum Island Sound operated by Richard Kessler. He was an assistant there with me. I went there because I really want to be in a studio. He said, “Okay, you can be in the studio too, but you have a degree in creative writing, and you have a brain, and I need you to do this.”
He wanted you to write press releases.
Right because Richard had started this record label. I was like, “I will do that for you on the side, but I really want to be here doing this.” He said, “Okay, as long as you do this stuff for me,” That was fine with me. I helped out with artists that they were trying to break, and I helped out in the studio.
It was pretty funny because that studio did a bunch of urban things. Here’s a funny story. I came into a session for (Brooklyn rapper/actor) Big Daddy Kane. I think it was one of the first sessions that I had been on with a celebrity artist present. The studio was making a real big deal about his arrival, and I think that it was his birthday. The engineer made the introductions between myself and another assistant to Kane. I really didn’t know how to address him really. In my head, I was going, “Do I say hi Mr. Big? Hi Mr. Daddy? Hi Mr. Kane? Hi Big Daddy.” I went through all of the incarnations of his name, and I stood there and I just froze. I just kind of smiled, and said nothing. I was not sure what to say or what to do. I was very young and I had not been in that situation yet. It was awkward.
It sounds as if you got your audio footing while at New York University.
That’s where I got a lot more confidence for sure. I finished early. I went through the summers, and I finished it (the course) in under two years. I had gaps in my knowledge because I had learned things in college at a rampaging speed because I just dived right in. So I had some holes here and there because I was not the child growing up taking a toaster apart and putting it back together or working on the car or any of those engineering type things. Plugging things in the first place was, “Oh, this is how this works.” That was a great thing because it made me work even harder. The great thing was that it made me go back to square one and get it all perfectly right so I knew exactly what I was doing, and why. Whereas, I think that kids growing up doing all kinds of stuff, there are no questions. They just do it by rote. They don’t question things.
You had an outside job as well while at NYU?
While at NYU, I did an internship at Sony Classical. Amazing, and brilliant people there. I had some amazing editing and listening experiences there. I also had the opportunity to work under David Smith (dir. of audio operations, Sony Classical). I also got to work in their tape library. Fascinating, and unbelievable. It was kind of otherworldly in a way. Then I did do a bunch of editing for classical artists, both signed and unsigned.
What did you do after graduating from NYU?
I was still playing with the band and writing and recording. I had also started doing projects for people in the NYU studios because I had access to them. Doing everything. Recording, mixing, producing, writing string parts. I did all kinds of stuff which I think helps me as a mastering engineer because I come from a very diverse place and understand all of these things.
You fit in with musicians because you are one.
Yes. It’s a good way to get into their heads a little bit, and understand them. And even with producers and engineers too because I understand their roles as well.
You eventually went to work at Masterdisk.
I was called by (mastering engineer) Greg Calbi. (Producer/audio engineer) Steve Addabbo had recommended me to him. Steve had worked with me on a (Peter) Himmelman project at the NYU studios, which I had edited. The first time Greg called me he left a message on my answering machine, I accused the members of my band of playing tricks on me because I had been calling Masterdisk, Sterling and other places saying, “Hey, I’m available. I’ve got my degree. I’d like to come up and start working anytime.”
You taught summer school at NYU after Masterdisk.
Yes. What happened is that I worked at Masterdisk for a while. It was a very intense schedule. While I was working there I was thinking about doing my own thing because I found it to be a bit impersonal there, and not the way that I wanted to do things in my life. I got this phone call from the chairman of the department at NYU. I was in the mastering room at the time putting together I think it may have been some Paul McCartney parts for “Flaming Pie.” I remember being distinctly more interested in talking to him. He said “We would love to have you teach Tonmeister Series 3” which is, basically, mastering and using the Sonic Solutions (Digital) audio editing work station. I had written my thesis on Sonic Solutions and they knew that I was using it every day at Masterdisk. So they wanted me to come back and teach a class starting in three weeks. I was like, “Okay I quit.”
You’ve long been an Apple advocate, but you changed over to PC computers.
I changed over a couple of years to a workstation called Pyramix which runs on a PC. Previously, I was never on a PC. Not once. Now I look at the screen and I feel like I’m at the dentist’s office or something. Everything looks wrong. It doesn’t look right. It just doesn’t feel the same. But I do have a Mac running that has ProTools and other things.
What computer do you use in your personal life?
MacBook Pro. One is in front of me right now.
What was first piece of high-priced equipment you purchased for The Lodge?
When I bought the first piece of equipment for the studio, an Apogee UV 1000, something I had to have in order to deliver professional masters, I had to talk Betty Clearmountain into making another one of those units for me. Apogee had already outfitted all of the major mastering houses with them, and there were not really any solo mastering engineer studios at that time. I bought it with a credit card while I was still working at Masterdisk. It sat in my coat closet, and "spoke" to me about opening my (own mastering) place every day when I got my coat out. To pay for it, I kept shuffling the debt back-and-forth between credit cards. I got very good at that and, basically, did the same thing with all of the studio equipment--the magic of credit cards. It didn't hurt that I had such low overhead because I first started the business in my apartment. Later, when it (my business) got serious, I needed more funds for the construction build-out and, of course, more equipment, so I got a loan from the bank.
Larry LeBlanc is widely recognized as one of the leading music industry journalists in the world. Before joining CelebrityAccess in 2008 as senior editor, he was the Canadian bureau chief of Billboard from 1991-2007 and Canadian editor of Record World from 1970-89. He was also a co-founder of the late Canadian music trade, The Record.
He has been quoted on music industry issues in hundreds of publications including Time, Forbes, and the London Times. He is co-author of the book “Music From Far And Wide.”
Larry is the recipient of the 2013 Walt Grealis Special Achievement Award, recognizing individuals who have made an impact on the Canadian music industry. He is a board member of the Mariposa Folk Festival in Orillia, Ontario.
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