ANTHONY GORDON: NAMM 2022. Boy, we missed you so much. We really missed this show. So give yourselves a round of applause for coming here, staying healthy, staying safe.
So let’s just jump right into it. So the woman we are honored to be speaking to today is one of the greatest engineers/mixers/producers, who has completely helped define the sound of heavy rock in the last generation. The records you worked on—System of a Down and Tool and Slayer —just a slew of amazing records, not just hits, but great, timeless records that people will listen to for a lifetime.
This is the woman who is behind the boards and mixing and producing all that stuff. And I can’t tell you how honored and thrilled — and a little starstruck — I am to be here with Ms. Sylvia Massy.
SYLVIA MASSY: Thank you very much. It’s really great to be back. It’s a strange time of year to be here for this event, but it’s you we’re all getting our land legs back, but it’s great
ANTHONY GORDON: Over the years you’ve helped define the sound of rock, and you’ve definitely been an icon in this industry. For somebody who really gets rock, you’re the go-to person who really understands rock and roll. When did you fall in love with rock and roll?
SYLVIA MASSY: When I was starting out, I was really into my own band. Because I grew up in a household where my father was building his stereo and everything, it was a natural thing for me to get into the technical side of it. I would always wind up being the person who could set up the mics and make a simple recording in the rehearsal room. And that translated into me getting into a starting position at a recording studio, starting to bring musicians in — and their music seemed to be coming out better than my own personal music. So I just continued with that and had a lot of success with it. I didn’t go to school, but I just learned how to guerrilla record as I was going.
ANTHONY GORDON: It’s funny, I was looking through some of your earliest credits and there are some names on there that are very famous to very many people — maybe not so much to other people like Tuxedo Moon. Anybody? Tuxedo Moon? Probably, no. Beatn*gs? Exodus: classic Bay Area metal band. So obviously you have some connection to the Bay Area. How did your connection coming up in the Bay Area inform your career?
SYLVIA MASSY: It was an interesting time. There was great music in the Bay Area and I was working at a studio called Bear West and just getting used to doing sessions for pay. The opportunity came to work on a project with a band called the Sea Hags. I loved this band. I would go out to see them play live. I had the opportunity to do a record, co-producing it with Kirk Hammett from Metallica, who is a Bay Area guy, and he was really young. He had just joined Metallica at the time. And we did this record, and it did so well independently that they got picked up by a major label. And I thought, here’s my chance: I’m in San Francisco and I’ll be able to do a major label project because I did the demo.
But that’s not how it worked. The job went to Mike Clink. Ohhh, he got my gig, man. And then I was invigorated to move to L.A. That’s when I moved. That’s when things really changed, because I moved to L.A. and nothing really happened for several years. I was just getting into assisting and working on projects at Larrabee.
That’s when I really started to connect. I always had this thing with the punk rock people that I used to work with in the San Francisco studios. I kept the connection with all those people.
ANTHONY GORDON: Do you think it’s essential to live in L.A. to make it on the recording side as a producer, mixer, engineer?
SYLVIA MASSY: I would have to say that you almost have to do some time in L.A., give it two years, and you’ll know. If you go to L.A. and you’re breaking in or trying to get started, don’t just give it six months because that’s not enough time. You can give yourself two years to fail and then get back up and then get into a really good position — and you’ll find it at two years.
And that’s exactly what happened. I went to L.A., I struggled, I went from gig to gig, and then all of a sudden I got this job at Larrabee that led me into working with Prince. And Rick Rubin. It was a strange connection, because Rick also wanted to work with the Sea Hags. So we had that connection. And that led to Tool and all the other things that came later.
ANTHONY GORDON: I wanted to follow up on that, because you worked on Diamonds and Pearls?
SYLVIA MASSY: Yeah. On Prince, Diamonds and Pearls.
ANTHONY GORDON: I get chills thinking about this.
SYLVIA MASSY: When I think about it, I get chills, because it was me and Prince in the studio. Usually he would book five rooms at the same time, and he would bounce between rooms and I’d be in a room ready to record overdubs. And I’d have every pedal, all the guitars I thought he would want to use, including a Strat and a Telly.
And then he would walk in and grab something and I’d be recording. It was terrifying.
It was amazing, though: He’s dancing, he’s playing solos, he’s spinning, he’s dancing, and he plays better than anyone.
ANTHONY GORDON: So that was around the same time you were working on Danzig II: Lucifuge. And those are very different records, but those are both incredible-sounding records. Those are still records that people take into the studio to test the monitors.
SYLVIA MASSY: I have to say, that’s a Rick Rubin thing. He created this really dry, no-room, in-your-face thing with barely any reverb on the vocals or effects. True raw recording. So I got to be the person to record with him producing and I learned so much from Rick about keeping that raw energy, and not messing around.
ANTHONY GORDON: That’s such a wide range of recording styles between those two. I can’t think of any two artists that would have such a different sound. Do you find that was a big part of your education, being able to navigate doing rock and roll that sounds like a punch in your face versus Diamonds and Pearls, which is like one of the most lush, beautiful-sounding recordings that Prince ever made?
SYLVIA MASSY: It’s interesting that you would think that, because when you look at how he recorded, a lot of his recordings were just crushed into the analog tape. So he was also in your face. The Prince stuff has also got that kind of urgency. So there are some similarities to those things, incredible. Seemingly, vastly different animals.
ANTHONY GORDON: Who’s scarier in real life? Glenn Danzig or Prince?
SYLVIA MASSY: Oh, boy. They’re coming from different parts of heaven or hell.
ANTHONY GORDON: I won’t make you commit. Moving on to the early nineties, I guess in ‘92, when you worked as a producer/mix engineer on the first Tool EP and then Opiate, the first Tool record — which is a record that completely changed heavy rock and also largely in vocal style, because up until then, if you think about the period behind that, like the glam rock, kind of goofy-ass…sorry…some of these people might be in the room, so no offense.
But if you think of the glam rock, Sunset Strip kind of rock and roll sound. And then the shrill “who can sing the highest,” which was the thing in metal for a while. And then Tool comes around, and Maynard James Keenan has a voice that is absolutely singular. How shocking was it to hear something like that? And how did you approach producing a guy with a vocal that was so different and a band that had such a different sound?
SYLVIA MASSY: Yeah, he has a unique style. And in fact, when he sings on stage I heard him scream and sing in ways that were just terrifyingly awesome. So to get him in the studio and to have that kind of energy, he has no audience to play off of. So I would try to make it as comfortable as possible. The big trick was like setting up mics so he could lean over because he…He would sing like this. [Sylvia LEANS]…with his face pointing to the floor. So I would set up mics like that for two months and was just like, “Don’t touch the mics!” It was obvious that he really just needed something to grab on to. We chose an AKG C1000 microphone condenser and wrapped a bunch of foam on it. And that was the vocal mic that we used for those records. When you’re in the studio, a handheld mic will give you a much better performance for certain singers.
ANTHONY GORDON: That was going to be my biggest question for you: How do you inspire confidence in a singer? And it sounds like you’re not married to having to do it one way. You’ll accommodate.
SYLVIA MASSY: Well, singers don’t always have good days. So you have to work with them to get the performance. Or be rough. Tough love also works. The singer’s just not hitting it and they say that they can’t do it any better and you know they can. I’ll push. And I also will make a singer do ridiculous things to get their head out of their ass: “Stand on a chair. Okay, now sing.” And they’re balancing and trying to keep from falling down. So they’re suddenly not thinking about their poor throat, you know? But that just gets themselves out of their head. And then they can do a proper performance or something more genuine.
ANTHONY GORDON: Did you learn this technique or is this just something that your own good nature led you to?
SYLVIA MASSY: I didn’t necessarily get any training, but I did grow up in a household where my mother was an opera singer and would rehearse. I would hear singing in the house all the time. In fact, I think she held me as a baby and would work on her stomach muscles. It was just a natural thing for me to be doing this and helping others.
ANTHONY GORDON: With your mom being a singer, it sounds like you had lifelong empathy for what it means to be a singer. It’s tough on your voice. It takes bravery, right? You’re exposing yourself so much more in vocals than you are with any other instrument. Because it’s you. It’s your person.
When you’re doing your tracking with a vocalist, are you looking more for a pitch-perfect performance, like a technical performance? Or if you have to pick between that and that perfect note breaking that, what do you go for? How perfect are you looking for?
SYLVIA MASSY: I don’t want perfect. Because it’s not genuine. It’s not real. I can manipulate the tracks to do whatever I want them to do, but if I can get a performance is the essence that tells the story of the lyric…is convincing…those little pitchy things, I can even move words, I can replace words, I can change consonants, I can clean up dirt. It’s not a problem. All I want is a real, honest, raw…in particular the styles of music, that’s the most important thing.
ANTHONY GORDON: And you really are listening to the lyrics, as well.
SYLVIA MASSY: I want to know what the story was, what the writer was thinking when he wrote those lyrics. Convince me that this really happened and how you feel about it.
That’s the part of music that I think we all love because it transmits the emotion. And when it’s accessible, it’s really fantastic. That’s what I’m looking for. It’s that communication.
ANTHONY GORDON: That’s wonderful. You are one of the few people in this business…a lot of people have done engineering/mixing/producing, but not doing it on a masterful level. And you also do it with records where you are doing all three yourself.
SYLVIA MASSY: Yes, that is very hard. But sometimes if you don’t do it yourself, you’re not going to get the result that you want. If you really want to be careful about it, there’s ways that, as an engineer, you can record so that the producer or the mixer or the mastering engineer can’t fuck it up. Well, maybe the mastering engineer can.
If you record the vocal layering and then create stems, then that’s what you give to the mixing engineer, they are locked into a certain sound. So there’s ways you can manipulate…mixing is very hard. And I’ve been doing mostly mixing lately. We set up an app. So we’ve got 9.1.4 and it’s fantastic, mixing for something spatial. The spatial platforms. It’s really good.
ANTHONY GORDON: Did you ever see that coming? Do you think 9.1 sound is coming to people’s homes?
SYLVIA MASSY: I still am hoping that it all works out. I’m most interested in auto sound or having an immersive experience in your auto. Oh, boy. And home systems that are still being developed with the headphone experience with immersive…
ANTHONY GORDON: It’s crazy. Yeah, it’s great. When you start to sit down and mix a vocal, where do you start? What’s the first thing you do?
SYLVIA MASSY: If it’s already been completely put together, then the rest of the track, I want to put that in pretty close to the end of the mix. Then tuck it in, it depends on the music, but I want it to blend in, usually with the front wall kind of field. I’ll usually take the raw track and put a little progression on it and add delay and reverb. And a stereo simulator, which I use in the front wall. We’re still learning about how to treat the vocals in an immersive situation, and that’s changing because there’s less compression on the end of the immersive mixing. If someone sends me files that are unprepared, I’ll go through it and I’ll make sure that they’re detailed. And that will be with editing, it will be with tuning, it will be with compression and whatever it needs just to bring the point across in the lyrics.
ANTHONY GORDON: I love how thoughtful you are about the songwriting and it’s respectful of the artist, too. So how are you using Auto-Tune in your process? Obviously you’re not working with a lot of bands where people can’t sing…it’s some of the best singers of all time. How do you work it into your workflow?
SYLVIA MASSY: Well, you think that they’re the best singers of all time, don’t you? Antares has given a lot of help in that area.
ANTHONY GORDON: The secret’s out.
SYLVIA MASSY: The secret sauce. The initial use of Auto-Tune, and it is still a miracle, is to keep that essence of performance, like a live performance. It’s not going to be perfect, I want all the spitting and all the growls and the breaths. And I’ll manipulate it in a way that I want to. I’ll even change the melody.
This is such a powerful tool, especially in layering vocals, because oftentimes you’ll get a singer that…they have ideas about parts, but they don’t exactly hit the interval that would be the best. So I’ll take it and manipulate it; make those slabs really rock.
And it’s a fun writing tool, too, the Auto-Tune in particular, with writing new music, writing parts for mixes. I might add my own vocals into a mix. Towards the end I’ll add some backing vocals, but my voice is not super great, so I lean heavily on the correction so that I could make these vast slabs of “ahhhs,” and they’re just amazing. It depends on how you use the software, whether or not you want to make it sound artificial or make it sound subtle, with subtle changes. But each individual person has to make those decisions.
ANTHONY GORDON: Cool. I think we are at time. I don’t want to take up too much of your time.
SYLVIA MASSY: It’s been wonderful.
ANTHONY GORDON: It has been wonderful.
SYLVIA MASSY: It’s been great. If there’s questions or anything, I’d be glad to take it. How is everyone? Yes.
AUDIENCE #1: Hi, everyone. My name’s Alonzo, I’m from Chicago. I’m a music publisher. I’ve been in the industry for seven years. I heard you when you said move to L.A. for two years. What if we can’t move to L.A.?
SYLVIA MASSY: It might be better to just develop relationships in your region. It seems like it is harder, when you’re at a remote location, for opportunities to come in. Because you know someone in L.A. that can help or someone you know has a gig, and they’re like, “Can you be here next week?” They may be looking at ten people. There may be ten individuals that they’re interested in working with, but it will be the one that’s down the street, and that’s all there is to it.
AUDIENCE #2: One of my favorite bands growing up was System of a Down. How was your experience?
SYLVIA MASSY: That’s a really special band. Real people, not posing in any way. True family people, I love them so much. Their energy is just electric, it’s just fantastic to see in the studio. I’ve been so lucky and blessed.
AUDIENCE #3: Any advice for the hobbyist to make that transition to actually getting paid to do it?
SYLVIA MASSY: If you’re interested in getting into recording and making a go of it, I would suggest starting your own, if you have your own recording rig at home…to invite musicians to come in, every kind of musician, and do projects.
And not just one artist and 20 songs by one artist. Or your own music, please. You can do your music, but also do other people’s music if you want to get a foothold as a producer. I think that the type of work that I do is…do many different projects and diversity. You’ll find the one you work in the best. You develop relationships with as many people as possible. You get them in the studio with you. You show them that you’re a good hang, because that’s one of the big things, is you gotta be a good hang, and you just build a clientele that way.
Honestly, that’s what I did. I still visit with people that I started out with way back in the ‘80s, these relationships, they actually never cease. I see people here every year that I’ve known for a looong time.
ANTHONY GORDON: The “good hang” thing is a critical piece of information you just let everybody know. If you want to be in the studio with an artist for 8 to 10 hours a day, they have to want to be in there with you. You have to be good company.
SYLVIA MASSY: Yeah, good company. I don’t know what that means. You know, if you’re a good cook, and you bring some mac and cheese one day and that does it, you’re a hero. Just knowing your stuff, doing a good job trying, but not getting in the way, at least just to start and doing as much as you can. And thanks, good luck!
ANTHONY GORDON: All right. One last question, then we wrap it up.
AUDIENCE #4: Unconventional recording techniques, love it. Because I learn all the rules, that’s why we follow…to break the rules, do what you wanna do. So what’s the bread and butter in there? What’s your favorite part of that?
SYLVIA MASSY: Oh, breaking the rules? You know, life is an adventure. Make it interesting, you know? The more interesting you make a session for the people you’re working with, the deeper imprint into the music, there is the joy. And you can feel it when you hear it. You can really tell when there’s something special there.
ANTHONY GORDON: Well, I want to thank you so much again. The legendary Sylvia Massy, still making cool records forever. Thank you so much.
SYLVIA MASSY: Everybody, have a great, great show and I’ll see you around.