Mastering Engineer Emily Lazar on Her Love of Vinyl, Three Album of the Year Grammy Noms and Spotify’s Subpar Audio

Grammy-Nominated Emily Lazar
Courtesy of Matt Licari

“It’s that perfect combination: Great artist. Great music. Great production. Great mixing. Great mastering. Voilà!” says award-winning mastering engineer Emily Lazar, whose work is often the last step in the music-making process and the one whose magic can make the difference between a song sounding good or great.

For the 2021 Grammys, she has 10 projects in contention, including three in the album of the year category — Coldplay’s “Everyday Life,” Haim’s “Women in Music Pt. III” and Jacob Collier’s “Djesse Vol. 3.” Her résumé also includes seminal releases by Vampire Weekend, Beck and Sia.

Lazar’s mixing and mastering mothership is New York’s The Lodge, which she founded in 1997 and where she’s worked on some 4,000 records. She also recently launched a charity initiative called We Are Moving the Needle, which aims to close the gender gap in music-making. Lazar spoke to Variety‘s Strictly Business podcast ahead of the March 14 Grammy Awards, portions of which appear below.

How do you step in as the last person in the music-making process and understand what the artist is trying to do?

That’s actually an important part of my process. I make a huge effort to have a dialogue and understand the big picture. What are we trying to do here? What is this about? What was going on in your life? How is this different from your last album? Was there something inspiring you to go in this direction? Is this song or this chorus doing what it’s supposed to do as you start to hone in on all the different things?

My goal is to always serve the song and tell the story. We’re that last-chance Texaco to gas up, making sure we’ve done everything we possibly can to help them give birth to that baby and put it out in the world. And I really do think of songs and albums as giving birth. It’s a labor of love and putting them out and having people potentially judge them and comment on them can be a very nerve-wracking experience, and it can also be exhilarating and devastating.

So helping an artist give birth to that baby, and then getting them through that moment where they’re like, is my baby ugly? Do you like my baby? Is anybody else gonna like my baby?

As streaming music providers go, Tidal’s audio quality is superior. What do you make of Spotify’s new “hi-fi” option?

I’ve been demanding this — like, screaming from the rafters that this needs to change. It’s a long time coming, and Spotify — love them, great platform, super easy, everyone uses it — sounded awful. It’s a disservice to the artists and to the people who are crafting records. And it’s a huge disservice to the consumer.

I can boil it down to  an example that I’ve made before and I’ll use it again, just because I think it makes it clear: if I were to go to a museum, and pay the entrance fee and wander down the halls and end up standing in front of the Mona Lisa. But the Mona Lisa was a photocopy of a photocopy of a shrunen photocopy of a stamp-sized version of a black-and-white photocopy of the Mona Lisa. I can’t imagine that it would give me the same visceral reaction that it would if I actually saw the Mona Lisa smile.

And this is to me, a very similar experience. So I appreciate Tidal for standing their ground and offering higher resolution audio and actually also addressing the credits issues. And I’m very grateful that Spotify has made this announcement and that they’re going to work as hard as they can to offer what I think would be a really great start. Because this is an artist’s legacy. It’s not surprising that there’s a huge surge in vinyl, because I think people like to have something that sounds really good. And streaming things are convenient, but they don’t sound good. Period.

When it comes to the popularity in vinyl, it seems sometimes albums are put out in an LP format but weren’t mastered for it. Sequencing according to grooves is a science unto itself, as the beginning songs can carry more low-end. Plus the vinyl pressing plants are working around the clock. Do these things factor into your work at all?

First, I always recommend double vinyl, which is an A/B/C/D side. So it’s two pieces and you have plenty of room for both low-end and volume for a nice loud, deep cut. I also prefer a 45 RPM cut as opposed to 33. It sounds better. We always suggest that people do a separate master optimized for vinyl. That falls under the auspices of budgets and who wants to pay for what. And I don’t always get my way, but I certainly try.

Some of the limitations of vinyl is what people like about it. I am a vinyl fan, so you won’t hear me dogging it, but there are instances where I understand why someone may choose to forgo vinyl and only create digital. And as you pointed out, stampers wear out. So the first couple of albums that you press are going to sound different than the albums at the end of the run. That’s another thing to bear in mind: how many albums can you get out of your stampers?

You’ve worked with many rock bands, but Jacob Collier feels like a pivot into the avant-garde.

Jacob, as a musical being, is on a level that very few people can truly understand. He is one of a kind: part mad scientist, part harmonic genius. If we were awarding people on sheer talent or musical prowess, he should get a Grammy the size of Idaho. He’s also very thoughtful and provocative with his ideas and the way he sees the world. And I could say the same about the women in Haim and about Coldplay in getting to understand their vision.

When we think about Mozart or Beethoven, they almost seem like fictional figures, but they were people who wrote music and were ridiculously gifted. I sometimes can’t believe how blessed I am to come in contact with this many Beethovens and Mozarts. It seems not from this world. I definitely feel humbled being around them.

Listen to the Strictly Business podcast’s all-music edition featuring Sony Music Group chairman Rob Stringer and Grammy-winning mastering engineer Emily Lazar below: