10 Feb

The Female Engineer Behind Some of Pop’s Greatest Hits

Emily Lazar: setting the controls for the heart of the sun. Photograph: Becky Yee


Standing out as one of the only women in a male-dominated industry, Emily Lazar is the engineer behind the sound of everyone from Björk to the Killers.

by Mona Lalwani |The Guardian 

The walls of The Lodge studio are lined with classic platinum records and music memorabilia. A David Bowie poster hangs next to a guitar signed by Lou Reed and a classic jukebox sits by a vintage eight-track player. Vampire Weekend guitarist Rostam Batmanglij strolls down the same halls that have greeted the likes of Dave Grohl, Garbage and the B-52s. Inside this finishing school for some of the biggest albums in music history, chief engineer and founder Emily Lazar is contemplating the intricacies of the mastering process.

Emily Lazar
Emily Lazar.Photograph: Becky Yee

She’s one of the few women to break into the niche as a mastering engineer and is the first woman to have received a Grammy nomination for mastering Record of the Year. She started out as a singer and songwriter before wanting to get to grips with the workings of a studio and completed a master’s in music technology from NYU before setting out on a job hunt, seeking major studios in the New York area. She briefly worked at Masterdisk, one of two acclaimed studios in the city at the time. But her experience was disheartening. “I learned exactly how I didn’t want to do things,” she says. “I learned great things but mostly how not to run a business.”

At the time, in the late 90s, studios were largely male-dominated and unwelcoming. “There were definitely things and responses that were gender-based and inappropriate,” she says. “There were also artists that were completely sexist. I remember a hip-hop session when somebody grabbed me while I was walking down the hall carrying tapes because he thought he could.” But with time, she’s seen the landscape change, with misogyny being stigmatised over time even if female engineers are still rare.

“If you brought those things up back then you would’ve been ostracised. You had this sense of losing everything if you came out with it. So you had to be strong and remove yourself from situations. I think it still exists, but it’s less of an issue now. Women are more empowered to speak out and feel more comfortable asserting their rights. If it was today, I would’ve responded differently.”

She quit Masterdisk as soon as she got an offer to go back to NYU, this time as a summer school teacher. Soon after, she started her own studio in her one-bedroom apartment. A year later, at the age of 26, she moved into the building where The Lodge operates today.

“Her records are timeless yet contemporary,” says Greg Kurstin, a Grammy-nominated producer who worked on Sia’s album, 1000 Forms of Fear. “She holds a special place where she can do very artistic albums that don’t necessarily mean to be mainstream, commercial records. But somehow her records can fit in with pop music that’s out today. She’s one of the few people who can really achieve that in the mastering world.”

Lazar’s work on Haim’s Day Are Gone retained the classic 80s sound, while she gave the final nod to Sleigh Bells’ excessively and purposefully loud Treats. She takes pride in her ability to interpret musicians’ stories through her interactions with them. “I don’t undo what people have done,” she says. “My goal is not to tell someone what they want but it’s to draw out, through a dialogue, what they want.”

Mastering builds on the creative process of putting an album together – it can either enhance or diminish the listening experience. “No mastering engineer is going to turn a bad song into a great song, but they can take a bad recording and make it sound like a great recording,” she says. “If you can align a great song and a great recording, now you’re really talking.” The art lies in achieving the right balance. Music production is cluttered with apps that claim to achieve that effect. Algorithms can sort through the plethora of effects that are now at the disposal of a producer or an engineer to make a decision for a song. But they’re not a replacement for human instinct. “I’ve edited records with analog and digital pieces to achieve different things with different elements,” she says. “It’s hard to assume an algorithm can make those decisions – it can’t.”

“You can be a mastering engineer and bring to it who you are,” she says, before arguing that like a story, every album needs a beginning, middle and end. “Artists don’t always know what that should be,” says Lazar. “You can come in with the sequence but this is where it gets put in order.”

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