Her ability to balance the human and the technical sides of recording has made Laura Sisk one of the US's most in-demand engineers.
Remove noise, and at the same time you might be removing valuable intensity and intimacy. That's the conclusion Laura Sisk reached as she engineered the new Lana Del Rey record, Norman Fucking Rockwell. "A lot of the magic of this album is that listeners are hearing the parts pretty much as we heard them when they were first played," she says. "We used a lot of full takes, and we kept in and even added noise to the recordings."
As with much of her work, Laura recorded the Norman album with producer Jack Antonoff. They've made records together with Taylor Swift — each collecting a Grammy for their contributions to Taylor's album 1989 — Lorde, St Vincent, P!nk and more. In a 2018 SOS interview, Jack called Laura "the unsung hero of all of this".
Getting In The Flow
At her musical-arts high school in California, the young Laura Sisk played piano and oboe, and became interested in sound. The band director was off sick for a crucial week when auditions for All State Honor Bands were being recorded, so Laura had no choice but to get her head around the school's ancient Roland recording system. "It ended up being really fun," Laura recalls. "And I realised as I was applying for colleges that maybe I didn't actually want to major in music — which is always what I thought I would want to do."
Instead, she applied for recording courses, ending up happily at Jacobs School of Music at Indiana University, Bloomington. "One of the questions I'd asked was: 'Where do your graduates end up, and what are they doing now?' Indiana had students all over the map: someone here mixing a Cirque du Soleil show, someone there making Nokia ringtones, someone else working on pop music, someone working in video — it was a well-rounded programme."
Another positive part of the curriculum was that students spend hours and hours recording, every semester. "There's an incredible music school there," she explains, "and the kids in the recording classes, about 50 or 60 total, are responsible for recording every single performance. That's classical, jazz, opera, massive big-band performances, ballets — three or four performances a day, all captured by recording students. It means the number of hours that you get just practicing is incredible. And there are studio classes, too, where you find local bands, bring them in, and figure out how to record them."
The stuff she learned back then still resonates today. "I remember my very first class where my teacher just sat down and yelled: 'Signal flow! Signal flow! Signal flow!' They hammered in the basics, so that you're comfortable troubleshooting, you're comfortable learning something new. It's Pro Tools-based there, but you come to understand how everything should flow — and then it's a lot easier to translate that when you want to pick up a new DAW or a new piece of gear. You come to realise that everything's kind of laid out differently, but it's all the same."
Becoming An Adult
Laura interned at a few studios during the summer breaks and discovered she liked the studio life. Her first job after graduating with a Bachelor of Science in Recording Arts from Indiana came at the start of 2011, working full time with the producer John Hill at his studio in Los Angeles. Laura had just turned 21, and her new role proved a second round of hands-on education. The first week she was there, John asked her to crack open one of his mics that wasn't working and try to fix it, and she was working on sessions as soon as she arrived.
Laura worked with John on records by Portugal The Man, Shakira, Phantogram and plenty more. "There was a lot of opportunity for trial by fire and quick growth," she recalls. "We did so much stuff, and I'm so grateful for those years. John bounces around between genres, and when we first started working together he had a home studio, but we also worked at a lot of studios around town, and it was really cool to see all the different styles and setups at the studios in LA. Then we got to build out a couple places for him more specifically. He's got quite a synth collection and guitar collection, and we had to figure out how to set all that up in a space so that everything is plug-and-play."
The next step was to go freelance. "A little scary!" she says, archly. "It takes time to build up your clients, and it can be hard to make that leap. Of course, there are dips and floods of work, so getting used to that at first was interesting." I mention that actors call the dips resting. "Oh right," she says with a laugh, "not hustling, then! Not being totally stressed about when the next gig is coming!"
There are positives, too, of course. "It's good that you're becoming a fully fledged adult, able to talk business, to sell yourself, to figure out the other side of the business. When you have a full-time gig, you don't necessarily learn how to reach out to people and let them know you're available, for example." She does not have a manager. "Sometimes I think it would be nice, but my schedule these days is jam-packed and I couldn't imagine taking on any more work at the moment."
Place To Place
Laura met Jack Antonoff while working with John Hill, when Jack and John co-produced Strange Desire, the first album for Jack's project Bleachers, which was released in 2014. For the last five years or so, they've worked together on a variety of records, the most recent being that Lana Del Rey album. "Lana and Jack got together in his New York studio to see if there was a good vibe, and they wrote 'Love song' together," Laura says. "Lana got really excited about that, so maybe just a couple of weeks later the three of us got together at Conway in Los Angeles. I have a pretty thorough standard setup with Jack that we had ready to go on day one."
Laura usually does a lot of preparation before any session to ensure that every instrument is just a click away. But another crucial part of her job, beyond technical considerations, is to create an environment where the artist feels comfortable to try anything. "The vibe of the session is set by the artist," she says. "And people tell you their vibe as soon as they enter a room, without having to spell it out. So, the first few sessions were spent trying a lot of stuff and homing in on Lana's taste. All you can know about someone before you work with them is where they've been and not where they're headed."
That standard setup depends to some extent, of course, on the individual studio. Norman was recorded primarily at Conway, Westlake and Henson in LA, and at Electric Lady and Jack's own Rough Customer studio in New York. "At Conway we were usually in one of the rooms with a large live room," she explains. "So we had the drum kit set up, with around 14 mics, and that was usually in the live room and baffled off, or in one of the dead booths with one of the doors open, so we could get some of the massive room but also keep a tighter, drier drum tone. We also had a grand piano out there. We were working mostly in the control room, so we had our vocals set up in there, plus six or eight synths, and then a pretty big reamp setup."
Conway has two Neve 88R consoles, and most of those drum mics and the keys on Norman came through the 88R preamps. "Those preamps added a warm, vibey colour to the sound," she says. "Having access to such amazing consoles was such a luxury because they gave a sound to the recording and the mixes and the album as a whole. And we used a lot of tape echoes on this record, so I would have at least a [Roland] Space Echo and a Binson Echorec."
For monitors, Laura always has a pair of Yamaha NS10s with a subwoofer, and either ATC SCM45As or SCM50s with a sub. "During Norman, working at those different studios," she recalls, "it was crucial to have a consistent monitoring system so that we were able to pick up the mix where we left off at the previous studio and continue to push the sound forward. Electric Lady has a pair of SCM50s tuned by John Storyk that sound incredible."
Even a cursory listen to the Norman album reveals the importance and space afforded to Lana Del Rey's vocals. The key to this was the CM7 S, Wunder Audio's recreation of the Neumann U47 mic. "Original U47s are usually awesome," says Laura, "but they can vary greatly between each one, as with any vintage mic. The CM7 S is really consistent and bright: it just picks up every little detail, kind of like the 47, but it has a little cut, a little dip, at 8k, which helps minimise sibilance. That was really helpful, especially when we were recording some of the quieter vocals on this album, because the ratio of consonant sounds to vowel sounds can be a little hotter. In those situations, it was nice not to have to EQ so much in the box, because the mic was really doing a lot of that for us."
The other thing she loves about the CM7 S is its consistency, which ensured that a similar vocal sound could be captured in all the different locations where the album was recorded. The vocal chain led from that mic to a 1073 preamp — in New York, the BAE version; in LA, a vintage original — and then a Tube-Tech CL-1B compressor. "I really love the Tube-Tech's fixed option for attack and release," she says, "which is 1ms on the attack and 50ms on the release. I didn't compress a lot on the way in — it was usually 3 to 5 dB max at the very loudest parts of the song — because I found that's a lot easier to edit and also keep all the emotion and the dynamics of Lana's vocal. In the box, we were barely EQ'ing and using a little bit more compression, and the reverb kind of depended on the song."
Laura Sisk: "It's acoustically really nice to work in the control room, because it's treated so well, and it's a nice size. It's a little bit bigger than a vocal booth — usually!"
Most of the vocals for Norman were recorded in studio control rooms, for reasons Laura explains: "It's acoustically really nice to work in the control room, because it's treated so well, and it's a nice size. It's a little bit bigger than a vocal booth — usually," she adds with a smile, "but not always. And it's smaller than a live room. I find sometimes I tend to baffle off a lot in the live room, because you can get reflections from the glass, depending on how loud the artist is singing. Sometimes their voice is coming back even if they're pretty far in the middle of the room, and you're getting as much of the reverb of the room."
Laura recalls that a satisfying outcome is how intimate Norman feels: it has a kind of nostalgic vibe, even though it also sounds distinctly modern. Another plus for control-room vocals in Laura's estimation is that it's simply a more comfortable and amenable place to work. It's just easier to discuss ideas and try different tones when everyone is sitting together talking in the same room, rather than trying to communicate over talkback. One factor to bear in mind, though, is machine noise. "Basically, the first thing I do when I get to any studio is to start turning everything off that I don't need. Especially anything with loud fans — reverb units, AMS delays — and I'll just click those back on if we're reamping through them. Sometimes you go in and you're: 'Ah! What's that noise coming from! Get it out of here!' On occasion, we've had to add packing blankets to the door to the machine room just to quiet down the interfaces and the computer fans coming through one pane of glass."
Moreover, it's not only machines that can be noisy in the control room: Laura admits to sneezing loudly during one sensitive vocal take and reports that it caused much hilarity. But noise ceased to be a nuisance when Laura and Jack began to ponder the atmospheric advantages. "I started to clean things up, like I normally would," Laura recalls. "Either I'd EQ out the noise, or just cut the vocals in and out a little tighter, so that there was still the noise but it was less obvious, because the mic was shutting off as soon as the vocal was done. So, we started cleaning up — and we realised pretty quickly that we were losing a little bit of the vibe.
"Historically, everyone was trying to get less noise out of the tape machine, trying to figure out how to get less hiss and so on. You couldn't pull out tiny clicks or room noise, or even someone talking in the background of a take. Now that we can, we're like, 'Hmm, that was actually pretty cool!' We clean up so much in modern music because we have the capability. But, you know, every session I have, I try to be ready for anything. And I follow the artist's lead on their vibe."
Capturing the vibe is also the reason why the first couple of vocal takes are often the best, even if they are not technically perfect. "You know: 'Oh man, I wish I had recorded this demo vocal with this other mic, because I really want to use this take, it was just magical!' Capturing the recording right after someone's written it and is feeling it the strongest is really important. A lot of the takes that we ended up keeping on Norman were the first few takes, or even the only take. And we're thinking, if we have a little bit of noise from the tape echo or a little bit of noise on the vocal mic, it just adds a little more to the frequency range of it."
Laura took this idea further in some cases by actually adding noise. "It was raining once in LA — which is, you know, shocking!" she adds, laughing. "So we set up a stereo pair of mics on the patio and recorded the rain for like 15 minutes, and you can hear it on 'Norman Fucking Rockwell', the song."
The track 'Venice Bitch' on Norman turned into what Laura describes as something of an odyssey. It started with Jack playing drums, and the arrangement began to lengthen, with added piano and orchestral Mellotron sounds. Jack started playing guitar over that and kept going. Laura picked up the guitar recording and started going over it, and enjoyed playing with the delays. "Humans start thinking of sounds as separate, as two independent sounds, once they're roughly 30ms apart from each other, which is why I think a lot of pre-delays on reverbs are 20ms and under. But we were trying to push that solo guitar sound to make it as stereo as possible with the delay — he just ripped the guitar solo, which was amazing. Later we added the synth, in stereo: those higher, wormier synth sounds. We ended up recording these whole takes of improvising, kept adding more vocal parts throughout the song, which helped make it grow, and it felt like this interesting piece was developing that wasn't just repetitive. It kept going somewhere new."
'Venice' was also Laura's favourite on Norman for the use of the echo machines. "You can hear them on the background vocals and on the drums. They're arranged heavily, but we were pulling them in and out and using them as transitional pieces. The drier guitar that you hear in the first part of the song, there's an echo coming on and off of it, and then in the later part, the echo's on almost the whole time."
The all-important tape echoes are brought into play at Jack Antonoff's studio using a little Yamaha mixer. "It's a sick little thing that blows out nicely, has really basic high-end and low-end EQs, and we have a bunch of tape echoes connected to it. Each is coming up on a channel, and you can play with all of them at the same time. It also helps to have these things on live, because people play into them. Jack will lean into a bend, say, while the swell is getting bigger in the echo. We were trying to really capture the feeling of live. I think the more you can record it how it's going to sound later, the easier that is to capture."
Another Laura favourite on Norman is 'Hope Is A Dangerous Thing For A Woman Like Me To Have — But I Have It', which is essentially just Lana's vocal and a piano, along with one small background vocal. The piano was an upright recorded at Jack's studio with some close C414s, plus some Rode NT5s for room ambience, pointed toward the ceiling. The main vocal has a tiny bit of reverb added to the standard vocal chain. "You can hear absolutely everything Lana is singing — that's the CM7 S song — and she's just crushing that vocal take. It's sometimes harder to get just two elements sounding big enough and important enough to stand on their own. And there's nothing masking anything in this song. You can't turn up the reverb to cover a drum edit. And also, you can hear the bench squeaking and the chairs moving a little bit. It feels like you're sitting right next to Jack and Lana while they're playing and singing."
Elsewhere, 'How To Disappear' has the acoustic guitars and the vocal recorded through the same mic, and as with much of the rest of the album, this makes for a spacious sonic picture. "With this record, I feel like you could see the arrangement. You could see the whole band in multiple rooms or in a room together, and you can see where you're sitting in the mix. On this track, you're right there next to her vocal, the acoustic guitar is in the same room but a little further away, the drums are in the cathedral part of the room, that massive open space, and then there's the Mellotron with a bunch of echoes on it. And there's Jack, somewhere, playing vibraphone through the Space Echo."
Laura knows how lucky she is to be able to use the remarkable mic collection at Conway, where they can indulge themselves using C12s simply as a stereo pair if they feel like it. "It's really fun to play with the space," she says. "And on this record, we kind of arranged the drum mics, as well, which is really cool. My engineering brain is like, 'Oh, but we're messing with the phase!' But it worked out well, because the closer mics work in a position, and then the rooms can be kind of moving, or placed in a different area of the mix than they normally would be. We pull the rooms in and out.
"We might use a pair of [Neumann] 87s as rooms, and we're putting them through a Fairchild 670 compressor clone called a Fairman TMC [Tube Master Compressor]. It's the nicest compressor I have ever used. It's gorgeous! Any of the room tones that you're hearing on the drums on this record is that Fairman compressor. We have it on medium-short for attack and release, trying to get the compressor bouncing with the bpm of the songs. I always say it's the artist not the paintbrush, but sometimes a really special paintbrush helps!"
When it came to completing Norman for release, Laura says they felt they'd spent so much time creating a specific sound world that it was hard to know what could be gained by sending it out to mix. "We were really getting lost in this world of darker vocal sounds and the more raw feelings. And we'd spend forever tweaking these roughs. Now, sometimes we really want to hear the mixer doing exactly their thing to it. But other times we're like, 'Please don't touch it very much — make it a little better.' This time, we didn't really want that polish, so Jack and I mixed it. And we worked with mastering a lot, Chris Gehringer at Sterling, he does a lot of mastering for us and he's awesome."
The main concern in mastering was to make sure Norman sounded internally consistent, rather than trying to make it as loud as other records. "We went through a few rounds with Chris, getting the right vibe going," Laura recalls, "and it was mostly levelling it all out and making sure it felt like it flowed as an album. Which is always the point of mastering. But presuming part of what's so cool and raw about it is that there's so much space on everything, we didn't want to compress anything too much — especially after we'd spent so long trying to figure out how to not compress it too much. And it's a lot more dynamic, I think, because of that."
Manage The Room
We leave Laura busy at work at Electric Lady on the new Bleachers record, and she concludes with some thoughts on what we might call the social role of the engineer. "You should always be quietly anticipating what's about to happen next," she says. "If you can see people moving toward an instrument, the room stuff is obvious: making sure their headphones are going to be right there while they're recording vocals, say. You need to do all that before they're sitting there ready to record. You have to manage the room — without showing your work."
Is it that an engineer's job often comes down to balancing everyday practicalities with technical matters? "Absolutely," she says. "If, say, a computer crashes, you could be, 'Oh my gosh, the computer crashed! I don't know what's going on, why did it crash?' Or you could simply be like, 'Sorry guys, I just need one minute for backup.' If you're not stressed about things, no one else is going to be stressed."