Balancing Act: Joe Lambert

Mastering engineer Joe Lambert is responsible for perfecting the art that musicians keep so close to their chest. Over the last decade, Lambert has done just that, and in the process, he’s gained the trust of artists ranging from Bright Eyes to The Black Crowes.

If you weren’t specifically looking for it, you would miss Joe Lambert’s mastering studio, which is buried beneath a small pocket of Brooklyn’s historic DUMBO district on the edge of Wallabout Bay. Hidden almost directly underneath the Manhattan Bridge and lodged between trendy coffee shops and industrial-sized power generators, the studio is not exactly the kind of place where you’d think musical magic happens. But its unusual location and diminutive size is quickly forgotten once you’ve stepped inside. Airtight acoustics, a gorgeous wooden interior, or even the pristine copy of Radiohead’s Hail to the Thief—every element of the space makes it clear that, despite its ordinary exterior, this studio is most certainly a place of serious musical mastery.

Graduating from Full Sail University in 1993 with an associate’s degree in recording engineering, Joe Lambert decided early in his career to pursue his passion for creating and mastering music. Lambert was determined to get his foot in the door even if it meant working several low-end studio jobs and internships at once. “I just knew I wanted to learn how to make records, whatever that meant,” he said, laughing.

Finally landing a job as an assistant engineer at Ground Zero Studios, Lambert began the arduous process of learning the skills he would need to open his own studio.

“There’s a long line to get into to learn the whole business,” he said. “How to take care of clients, how to not get in the way, how to take care of all the small details every day in a session to make the whole workplace better.”

And if the walls of that workplace could talk, they would undoubtedly have plenty to say. With clients ranging from Kanye West to Animal Collective, Lambert’s studio has become a safe haven for bands of all shapes and sizes; a fortress from which they can feel confident their art will emerge sounding better than when it arrived.

Get In Media: Over the course of your career, you’ve worked with a lot of artists from very different genres. What are some of the differences between mastering different types of music?  

Joe Lambert: Some small technical issues arise when you’re working on hip-hop or dance. The things that the artist cares about are different than they were ten years ago. When I started mastering records, [everyone] wanted the bass to be big. It had to have this huge bass and it’s gotta shake the cars. That’s what it was all about. Whenever I would do a record for the hip-hop or dance music genre, their first comment was always about the bass.

Now, it’s changed since so many people are listening on computers and phones with small earphones. Those things don’t reproduce bass well so we don’t really hear a lot of the subtleties. But what we do notice is just flat out level, where the vocal is. So now, it’s changing to the point where they’re judging how good it is by how loud it is. It’s to the point where people are rolling the bottom end off of those types of records because that’s the only way you can get the mid range to pop out and give the illusion that it’s louder. That exists in that genre more so than if I’m dealing with a rock record, where they want the more balanced sound.

GIM: You mentioned that the listener is enjoying music on different formats, such as a computer or a mobile device. Have you had to adjust what you do in a studio based on how music is being enjoyed?

JL: The quick answer is that when I get a song balanced the way I think it should be balanced, I feel that works best regardless of whether it’s [listened to] on an iPhone or a pair of $20,000 monitors. But there’s a certain way that it’s going to sound on a headphone and sometimes people will have stuff that doesn’t sound as good. My job is to try to encourage the artist and say “listen, we can still make it really loud but have it balanced really well and have it be something you want to listen to five years from now.

It’s a constant battle; I’m always trying to get it to where I think it should be. And I win most of those battles. I’ve been doing this for a while and people trust me and my ears. But it’s somebody else’s name on the record at the end of the day. My job is to make them happy. I’ll tell them what’s going to happen and I’ll let them hear it, but ultimately it’s up to them.

GIM: What is something you learned inside a classroom that has helped you perfect your skill and enhance your career?

JL: The one thing I took away from my education that really helped me—especially when I was first starting out—is that you have to expect that something is going to go wrong. If you’re in a studio with all sorts of different gear and you’re bringing people into that environment every day, something is going to go wrong. When that happens, go back to the basics. Where is this signal coming from? What is the problem? Is this making it better or worse? You can get overwhelmed, especially if you’re a tracking engineer and work in a different room with different equipment every day. I don’t care how talented you are, something is going to go wrong. Something is not going to work.

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GIM: Aside from the obvious transition to a digital platform, what is another technological aspect of your industry that has changed recently?

JL: There are so many things you can do now that you think will make your life so much easier, and they really don’t. Before, when you were done, everything got put onto this giant 16x30 digital tape, which ran in real time and took forever. Now, I can make a reference for somebody in ten minutes, which saves me time. Some of the new tools give me a lot of flexibility; the majority of my gear is all analog. But there are some newer products that allow me to try different things quickly. Do I like it? Does it sound better? There are things like an all-analog tape simulator, which has different tape machine cards and you can choose the tape speed or the reference level, but still have all the functions that you have on a tape. Even if the files in come in digitally, I can run them through this and actually emulate. I can set up really quickly, listen and decide whether it makes it sound better. I have clients all over the world that I can send files to very quickly to let them decide what they think. There’s incredible convenience, but you have to harness it because if you’re lazy, it can cost you a lot of time.

“I remember when I was younger it would make me nervous, thinking, ‘Am I going to do a good job? Are they going to think I suck?’ I was so worried about disappointing them.”
GIM: There’s a lot of trust involved in your profession. From an artist’s point of view, what factors are considered when they’re deciding who to have master their record?

JL: Whoever has the power to make the decision about who is going to master the record has to consider: What is the person’s track record? What are our expectations? Whether an artist made an album in their bedroom or went to the best studio in the world, they all want their record to sound like the best one ever made. Has this person done records that you’ve listened to, admired, and thought, “This is something I want my album to sound like.” If you’re a record label, you consider that, but you also think “is this person going to be able to do all the things that we expect in the time that we expect it and at the price we expect?” Price is a bigger issue now. Whom can they afford to work with?

The whole reason we built this studio where we built it and the reason we’ve kept our prices the way we have is so that we have the ability to take care of these artists who don’t have $3,500 for one day of mastering. You want a professional who has experience and a great listening environment. A lot of my clients come to me because they liked an album I did by Animal Collective, or an album I did by the National, or a record I did for their buddy. That’s how I get a lot of my business. They heard that song I mixed by so and so. But at the end of the day, it comes down to trust over anything. The trust that it will sound better than they could have hoped for.

GIM: Using a recent project as an example, can you run through a timeline from the moment an artist requests your services to the moment you feel the record is finished?

JL: If you call me today, you’re likely to have it in 10 to 14 days. Of course, it varies from artist to artist. A typical project could come in; they’d call us today and say they have 12 songs and want me to master it. That’s when our work begins. We need to find out if all the songs are mixed, if they’re ready to go, if they can be sent right now. Where is that client? Are they in New Zealand and will be sending the files? Are they in Brooklyn and will be attending the session? That affects our schedule if they’re going to come into town or if they’re just going to send the files.

Then, obviously, there’s our schedule. Everybody thinks their record is the most important record in the world, but we may not have something available in the schedule for a couple of weeks. Once they get in here—let’s say it’s a 12-song record—I can do that record in a day if I have all the files in hand. I’ll get started in the morning and by five or six o’clock at night they’re going to have a reference to listen to. Then, it comes down to how long the approval process will take. If it’s one guy who has the all the decision making power, he’ll say, “yeah that sounds great.” Record labels are different, because they’re waiting for people, a band is on tour, or you need one person to sign off on something. And sometimes, [labels] forget about records; they may have an album that they’re not going to release for a couple of months, so it’s a big part of our job to think for people. That’s our motto.

GIM: You have a hands-on approach to mastering that involves preferring to work with artists directly. Where did this philosophy come from and how you believe it improves a project?

JL: I like working with musicians; there are certain musicians that we have fun working together. At the same time, I wouldn’t say it’s necessary; there are plenty of people that don’t attend [the session] and I’ll know what they are looking for. If they want tweaks, I’ll tweak it for them. I know I can do just as good of a job without them here, but it’s especially beneficial for people that are new to making records or new to this process. I also think it’s good business if you’re working with somebody for the first time and you have the chance to meet them, you can read them a lot better in person than by sending a text. I just try to keep it as human as possible.

GIM: Can you provide an example of when that hands-on approach turned out to be beneficial for an artist or project?

JL: With people I haven’t worked with before, you can see the nervousness when they walk through the door. I remember when I was younger it would make me nervous, thinking, “Am I going to do a good job? Are they going to think I suck?” I was so worried about disappointing them. Now, being more experienced, I can see them walk in and tell they’re nervous. But usually within 5 minutes, I can do something or say something to put them at ease, usually even before we start working. That’s the best skill I’ve developed; I can get an artist in here and bust their chops or say something or do something that says, “It’s going to be OK. We’re going to have fun.” That, to me, is the ultimate challenge because a lot of people don’t want it to be fun.

On the last Deerhunter record that we did, we had Bradford [Cox, singer, guitarist] in here. He’s a super-talented guy and he was stressed. He was coming to the end of the record and he cares so much about what he does and what he puts out there. He’s one of the most intense musicians, and I mean that with all due respect. But I could feel his tension in here. He had been working on the record for weeks and was just out of energy. He just wanted it done. He slept the whole session, just conked out on the couch. But to me, that was such a compliment because I knew he hadn’t relaxed or slept. He knew he was in good hands. And I knew that if he was asleep, he was relaxed and happy and everything was going to be just fine.

 

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