The Uncommon Mastering of a #1 Album: Vampire Weekend Gets Creative with The Lodge

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When an artist is working on a record that they expect will debut at #1, it’s understandable if they take no chances with the mastering.

Vampire Weekend set up their Big Brooklyn Show with a #1 album in "Modern Vampires of the City"

Vampire Weekend set up their Big Brooklyn Show with a #1 album in “Modern Vampires of the City”

But the band we’re talking about here is Vampire Weekend, and it’s no surprise they went in adventurous new directions at every turn with their third studio album, Modern Vampires of the City — which did indeed arrive atop the Billboard charts when it was released in May of this year.

Aided by Emily Lazar, Chief Mastering Engineer at The Lodge, the NYC four-piece integrated mastering again and again into the collection’s recording and mixing, not just on the final day. But the unique workflow that Vampire Weekend employed with their trusted mastering engineer – the GRAMMY-nominated Lazar finished the group’s self-titled debut and 2010’s Contra as well – doesn’t necessarily jump out at you. Instead, it’s interwoven with the original beauty that grows with repeated listenings to Modern Vampires, which was also mastered by Joe LaPorta.

This Friday, September 20, 2013 at the Brooklyn Barclays Center, Vampire Weekend takes center stage joined by Sky Ferreira and Solange (both of whom also mastered at The Lodge). With a hotly anticipated live show in the offing, it was the perfect occasion to sit down with Lazar and Vampire Weekend’s guitarist/keyboardist Rostam Batmanglij, and review what made mastering Modern Vampires so different.

What were Vampire Weekend’s specific expectations from the mastering phase for “Modern Vampires of the City”?

EL: Every album has its own set of unique sonic circumstances and Modern Vampires of the City is an amazing album with its own signature sound.

Some specific expectations/needs were that it was really important to enhance the blend of the retro and modern elements that make this release sound so special.

Vampire Weekend are considerably thoughtful in the way that they approach the recording process and have very specific sonic agendas. I’ve been really fortunate to work with them since the very beginning of their career. Having worked together on their first EP as well as each of their subsequent albums, we’ve forged a strong friendship and always remain in contact throughout the recording and mixing stages.

I always like to provide an “open door policy” for artists, and in this particular case, I was able to hear the songs from the beginning – some of them even as demos.  For some of the Modern Vampires tracks we evaluated multiple mixes at various stages of the process.

I created The Lodge as a place for artists to have the opportunity to really listen and have an open dialogue about what they are trying to achieve — after that, it’s my job to help translate the sonic elements as much as possible toward making it happen.

Rostam, Modern Vampires of the City was intentionally a very-different sounding record for Vampire Weekend. You changed a great deal about the way you create, but kept the mastering engineer – Emily Lazar and The Lodge – consistent with past records. Why did this aspect remain the same, when so much else about the production was new?

RB: Emily is someone I trust. She is sensitive to our concerns and very aware of how small changes can alter one’s perception and enjoyment of a song.

When we are mastering an album our concerns become her concerns and we are all in it together: I know that whatever needs to be done to cross the finish line will get done, and that’s an amazing thing to have.

Emily Lazar and onsite at The Lodge.

Emily Lazar and Rostam Batmanglij onsite at The Lodge.

What was unusual about the workflow to master Modern Vampires? How would you describe the way the group worked with you on mastering the album?

EL: Technically, the workflow of mastering Modern Vampires was unique in that their source material came in at various times on various media.  Some mixes arrived digitally, some came on tape, while others were adjusted and tweaked straight off of Rostam’s laptop.

Emotionally, this release was long awaited by fans and carried with it the burdens that come along with prior success. The band really took their time when making decisions and did not give up when they felt that something in a mix “just wasn’t right,” and persevered until they felt it was as close to perfect as possible. For the mastering process that meant a lot of versions to compare and master, and at times even editing multiple versions together to create the final version.

Emily, you’ve worked with the band since their first self-titled album Vampire Weekend, and their second album Contra. What did you learn from those previous collaborations?

EL: It’s been such an honor to watch them grow up through the creation and success of all three of their albums. It’s always refreshing to see artists retain their original vision and expand upon it, as opposed to giving into the pressures of commercial success.

Having a long-standing relationship with a client is always really helpful in that as you get to understand someone’s preferences, the deeper you can go into achieving their goal. Also, there is always a connection to what came before – each album seems to pick up and reinvent itself where the last one left off, and Modern Vampires is certainly the most mature in what most reviewers are referring to as a trilogy.

Do I understand correctly that you mixed “Unbelievers” with Scott Jacoby? How did you become involved with a mix? And why was that a good creative/technical challenge for you?

EL: Indeed you are correct! I mixed “Unbelievers” with Scott Jacoby. “Unbelievers” is an amazing song, but it took the band a few tries to figure out exactly how they wanted to arrange and orchestrate it.  Actually, I heard “Unbelievers” in various stages throughout the writing, recording and mixing processes, and was privy to numerous discussions over a period of months about how it should sound.

By the time the album’s mastering was to be complete, the band felt as though the sound they were trying to achieve was just not there. I suggested they reach out to a handful of mixers and recommended a few people. After those mixes started coming back and the band was still unsure of what to do, I suggested that I co-mix it along with mixer/producer/songwriter, Scott Jacoby.

Being a mastering engineer grants me a very unique perspective: I have the opportunity to hear the songs, in and of themselves, as singular ideas, as well as a larger artistic endeavor. I also spend most of my time evaluating and tweaking mixes so I have a good idea about where things can go sonically speaking. I have mixed tracks for artists spanning genres ranging from EDM artist, Tiesto to a folk rock track for Tim Robbins, and all sorts in between.

In the case of “Unbelievers,” I had heard and evaluated all of the various mixes, and was involved in all of the mix discussions, so it made it a lot easier to address all of their specific issues. I understood their vision, as well as their end goal.

On the gear tip, have you made major technical changes/additions to the Lodge since Contra? If so, what were they, and how did you have the opportunity to apply them to Modern Vampires?

The Avid HD Thunderbolt interface played a key role in the making of "Modern Vampires".

The Avid HD Thunderbolt interface played a key role in the making of “Modern Vampires”.

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