Update: Post reflects winners at the Grammy Awards
When the Grammy Award for Album of the Year was announced Feb. 15 in Los Angeles, a certain Indiana University alumna might have been holding her breath.
Laura Sisk, a 2010 graduate of the Jacobs School of Music, was nominated for her engineering work on Taylor Swift’s smash pop release “1989.”
The prestigious Album of the Year category recognizes an entire collection of songs and the team behind it, including not only the artist but producers, recording engineers and mastering engineers.
At the end of the night, both Swift and Sisk walked away as winners.
Sisk engineered three songs on “1989”: “I Wish You Would,” “Out of the Woods” and the bonus track “You Are in Love,” which appears on some versions of the album. The songs were a collaboration between Swift and Jack Antonoff, a musician known for his own bands, Bleachers and Fun.
“Jack and I were in one studio and Taylor in another during ‘Out of the Woods,'” Sisk said. “They would send voice memos back and forth with ideas for parts, and a lot of the writing and recording were happening simultaneously. They are both wildly talented, and the songs came together in no time.”
Swift opened the awards broadcast with a performance of “Out of the Woods.” Out of seven nominations, Swift also took home Grammys for Best Pop Vocal Album and Best Music Video for “Bad Blood.”
“Music has always been a huge part of my life,” Sisk said.
Raised just north of San Francisco in San Anselmo, Calif., she played piano and oboe from a young age.
In high school at Marin School of the Arts, she and her friends needed audition tapes for statewide honor bands and orchestras. Sisk figured out the school’s Roland equipment and began to make recordings for her own use and for her friends.
“It turned out to be so much fun that when I started thinking about college, I knew that’s what I wanted to do,” she said.
“I came to IU for the recording arts program and was really fortunate to be accepted as a Barbara and David Jacobs Scholar,” Sisk said.
“The recording arts department filled my years at IU with real-world, hands-on experience,” she said. “Every day was different: building electronics, miking different instruments and setups, recording live, recording in the studio, working with tape, and troubleshooting.”
The Department of Recording Arts enrolls fewer than 20 new students each fall. Its structured education is based on the idea of a four-year apprenticeship at a recording studio. Because the department is part of IU’s prestigious Jacobs School of Music, its select students have plentiful opportunities to record live musical events.
Sisk graduated with a Bachelor of Science in recording arts, along with an emphasis in informatics and a minor in Spanish.
“I’m forever grateful for all the training I received,” she said.
Instead of having one mentor at IU, Sisk felt like she had a whole team. She thanked faculty members Konrad Strauss, Michael Stucker and Mark Hood, who have been “huge influences” in her life. She gave equal credit to Wayne Jackson, who now runs his own recording business, and Travis Gregg, now with Apple Inc.
“All the recording arts faculty are incredibly dedicated and have proven this with their endless support and encouragement,” she said. “I still come to them for advice as I continue to navigate the industry.”
The music scene
“Working in Los Angeles has been a very special experience,” Sisk said. “The music scene here is unparalleled.”
Before becoming a freelancer, Sisk’s first job after college was engineering for Grammy-nominated producer John Hill. “He’s an incredible producer with an unrivaled work ethic, and I grew as an engineer while working alongside him,” she said.
“The process for every project is always different. As a professional engineer and especially as a freelancer, you have to be prepared for every scenario,” she said. “I’m always in different places working with different people.”
For Sisk, those projects and people include recordings for Shakira, Pink and Tune-Yards.
“It’s a lot of work, but the most rewarding work I can imagine.”
Sisk said her experience at IU gave her the confidence to tackle new challenges within the recording industry and beyond.
“The music industry is a male-dominated field, and it is a thrill to be one of the women coming up in it, especially on the technical side,” Sisk said. “A lot of artists tell me I’m the only female engineer they’ve ever worked with and that it’s exciting because there is a different energy in the studio.”
As she prepared for what would be her winning night at the Grammy Awards, Sisk said, “I think this is the first time that I get to wear a dress for anything audio-related, so I’m taking full advantage of this opportunity to go all out!”