The Record
10:03 am
Sun January 26, 2014

The Woman Behind The Curtain, Making Good Songs Sound Great

Originally published on Sun January 26, 2014 10:47 am

Mastering engineer Emily Lazar listens back to a section of the song "Envelop Me" by the baroque pop band School is Cool. She's trying to make the main vocals stand out more.

"We pick certain frequencies that we want to hear either more or less of, and those kind of translate into colors for the listener," she explains. "Right now in the raw mix, the lower frequencies, or the low mids of the drums, are kind of clouding up some of the other areas we'd like to hear a little more of — specifically these acoustic instruments that are playing, and the lead vocal.

"We'd like to have a little bit more presence and intimacy," she says, "so that when you're listening on your headphones or in your own space, you feel like Johannes, the lead singer, is right there singing to you."

In the early years of audio recording, musicians performed live in the studio and their songs were captured directly onto a master disc. Today, the process tends to include a few more steps — the last of which involves mastering engineers like Lazar. School is Cool singer Johannes Genard says these final adjustments help emphasize the things he really wants the music to express.

"When trying to convey a story," Genard says, "mastering can bring to the foreground frequencies that we associate with certain emotions or certain atmospheres. Certain frequencies convey more aggression or energy, and certain frequencies evoke depth. It's more, like, psychological than technical."

Genard and his bandmate Toon Van Baelen flew in from Belgium to work with Lazar because they admired her work on Vampire Weekend's album Modern Vampires of the City, which is up for a Grammy this year.

"When the time came to look at people we wanted to work with, I just put down the list of everybody who worked on that record!", Genard says. "I saw that Emily Lazar worked on mastering and mixing as well. We love the fact that we can just be here while she's actually doing it and thinking of the tweaks."

Mastering engineers often work alone, polishing several albums at once without the artists' involvement. But at The Lodge, Lazar's studio in Manhattan's Greenwich Village, that's not the case. "For me," Lazar says, "the best approach has to be a dialogue. It's the essential part of what I do."

Lazar points to a collaboration with Lou Reed on the mastering of a best-of collection. "We really had a wonderful time listening back to a lot of the music," Lazar says. "Lou hadn't initially planned to include the track 'NYC Man,' and when we were going through the original analog masters, I heard the track come off the tape machine and it was just amazing. I looked at Lou and I said, 'Lou! How come this isn't on this? You are the NYC Man!' We both laughed, and it actually became the title track."

Her collaboration with Vampire Weekend went a step further. The band sent the first single from its 2008 debut to several mastering engineers as a way of determining the best match. As guitarist and keyboard player Rostam Batmanglij explains, "Emily was the only one who sent back multiple versions of the song. She sent back six different versions, and there was one that I thought sounded better than all the rest, including the ones that were mastered by other people, and from there we made a decision."

Vampire Weekend's next two albums were also mastered by Lazar. Batmanglij says that while full-length records are often mastered within a day, Contra and Modern Vampires of the City both took several months, with him and Lazar sometimes working directly on his laptop. He says their process feels a little like filmmaking.

"If someone is in a shot and they're further away from you or they're closer to you, or they're more to the right or to the left, all of those things are going to affect how you perceive their performance," Batmanglij says. "I think, with the way we've worked on records with Emily, we've gotten to that point where we have that control."

In the end, its Lazar's job to make sure listeners hear what the musicians are after — not only sonically, but conceptually.

"Mastering engineers have a unique opportunity to help an artist tell their story, or even find their story," Lazar says. "I have these three huge windows in my mastering studio that look out over Astor Place, and sometimes when I'm working I look out the window. I see people walking around downtown with their headphones on and I like to imagine that maybe they'll be listening to the stuff that I'm working on. I get so excited and tickled to be a part of it."

So, the next time you listen to a song, think about the woman who might be behind the curtain.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

As we look forward to the Grammy Awards tonight, we take a moment to consider the art of the mastering engineer. Mastering is the final stage in the music production process, where engineers tweak songs, creating the master recordings that will be used to produce tracks for iTunes, Spotify and CDs. Emily Lazar is one of those engineers. She's worked on thousands of songs and albums by bands like Santana, Foo Fighters and Vampire Weekend. She's also one of the few women mastering engineers. Allyson McCabe has this profile.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ALLYSON MCCABE, BYLINE: In the early years of audio recording, musicians performed live in the studio, and their songs were captured directly onto a master disc.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Singing) Go back where you came last night, get away from my door...

MCCABE: Today the process is a little different.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ENVELOP ME")

SCHOOL IS COOL: (Singing) I guess you'll never know...

EMILY LAZAR: Hey, you know, this mix sounds really good, but I think we should tweak the bottom a little bit and get a richer bass sound. What do you think?

MCCABE: Mastering engineer Emily Lazar is working with the Belgian pop band School is Cool on the final mixing and mastering of its forthcoming album. She's tweaking the vocal for the song, "Envelop Me."

LAZAR: So, when we EQed the vocal, we pick certain frequencies that we want to hear either more or less of. For example, in this song right now in the raw mix, the lower frequencies or the low mids of the drums are kind of clouding up some of the other areas that we'd like to hear a little more of - specifically right now the lead vocal. We would like to have a little bit more presence and intimacy so that when you're listening on your headphones or in your own space you feel like Johannes, the lead singer, is right there singing to you.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ENVELOP ME")

COOL: (Singing) I want you to envelop me, envelop me...

MCCABE: Singer Johannes Genard says those kinds of sonic adjustments are more than just sonic adjustments.

JOHANNES GENARD: The mastering can bring to the foreground frequencies that we associate with certain emotions. Like certain frequencies convey more aggression or energy and certain frequencies evoke depth. It's more like a psychological thing than a technical thing, I think.

MCCABE: Genard and Toon van Baelen flew in from Belgium to work with Lazar because Genard says they admired her work on Vampire Weekend's album "Modern Vampires of the City," which is up this year for a Grammy.

GENARD: I really liked the sonic experience of listening to it. So, when the time came to look at people we wanted to work with, I just put down the list of everybody who worked on that record. And we saw that Emily worked on mastering, and mixing as well, and we love the fact that we can just be here while she's actually doing it and thinking of all the tweaks.

MCCABE: Mastering engineers often work alone, polishing several albums at once without artists' involvement. But at Lazar's Greenwich Village studio, The Lodge, that's not the case.

LAZAR: For me, the best approach has to be a dialogue. It's the essential part of what I do.

MCCABE: Lazar points to a collaboration with Lou Reed on the mastering of a best-of collection.

LAZAR: We really had a really wonderful time listening back to a lot of the music. And Lou hadn't initially planned to include the track "New York City Man" on this anthology. And when we were going through the original analog masters, I heard the track come off the tape machine and it was just amazing. And I looked at Lou and I said, Lou, how come this isn't on this? You are the New York City Man. And we both laughed and it actually ended up making its way not only onto the compilation but it became the title track.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "NEW YORK CITY MAN")

LOU REED: (Singing) New York City man, blink your eyes and I'll be gone...

MCCABE: The work was even more collaborative with Vampire Weekend. The band sent the first single from its 2008 self-titled debut album to several mastering engineers as a way of determining the best match, as guitarist and keyboard player Rostam Batmanglij explains.

ROSTAM BATMANGLIJ: I think Emily was the only one who sent back multiple versions of the song. She sent back six different versions, and there was one that I thought sounded better than all the rest. And so from there we made a decision to master the whole record with her.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

VAMPIRE WEEKEND: (Singing) I see a mansard roof through the trees. I see a salty message written in the eaves. With ground beneath my feet, (unintelligible) written. Now, the tops of buildings, I can see them too...

MCCABE: Vampire Weekend's next two albums were also mastered by Lazar.

BATMANGLIJ: Often, records are mastered within a day, but for us that hasn't been the case. And the past two Vampire Weekend records, "Contra" and "Modern Vampires of the City," have actually been mastered over a multi-month period.

MCCABE: Sometimes they master directly from the laptop.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WEEKEND: (Singing) Got a little soul, the world explodes, no place to be. Gone a little while but who's going to save the little one for me...

BATMANGLIJ: Moving elements in the stereo image makes such a huge difference. Just like if you take the analogy of making a film - someone is in a shot and they're further away from you or they're more to the right or to the left, in the movie, all of those things are going to affect how you perceive their performance. And I think with the way we've worked recently with Emily at The Lodge, we have that control if we want it.

MCCABE: And in the end, it's Emily Lazar's job to be a kind of bridge between musicians and listeners.

LAZAR: I have these three huge windows in my mastering studio that look out over Astor Place. And sometimes when I'm working I look out the window. I see people walking around downtown with their headphones on, and I like to imagine that maybe they'll be listening to the stuff that I'm working on. I get so excited and tickled. It's kind of awesome to have been a part of something that's being broadcast out to the world in that way.

MCCABE: So, the next time you listen to a song, think about the woman who might be behind the curtain. For NPR news, I'm Allyson McCabe.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WEEKEND: (Singing) I'm as in tune with a boom box and Walkman. I was the hearth of a girl that was back there...

MARTIN: NPR's Linda Holmes and Stephen Thompson will be live-blogging the Grammys tonight starting at 7:45 Eastern. Join me in following along at npr.org. This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Rachel Martin. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.