Behind the Board with Producer/Engineer Sylvia Massy

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As seen in Guitar Girl Magazine Issue 9 – Autumn 2019 – Ladies of Metal

When the Carolyn Sills Combo set up shop with Sylvia Massy at Pink Satellite Studios in Joshua Tree, California, to record their new album, Return to El Paso [release date: October 2019], vocalist/bassist Carolyn Sills [who was featured in Issue 8 of our digital magazine] found herself working with an icon and kindred spirit. “We recorded over two days, and she was fantastic,” she says of Massy. “She does not mess around, doesn’t waste time. She knows exactly what measure of what song you are referring to when you start to bring it up. She doesn’t get in the way of the creative process, and she knows how to pave the road in front of each step so it’s a smooth journey. She’s fun, easygoing, but means business. That’s my style as well, so it was just the perfect fit for this project.”

When music fans think about Sylvia Massy, they likely turn their thoughts to heavy metal and hard rock, and with good reason. She’s been a tour de force behind the likes of Tool, Smashing Pumpkins, Danzig, and Red Hot Chili Peppers. Return to El Paso gave her an opportunity to step into the world of country music, an arena she greatly enjoys but that is not often associated with her decades-long resume.

Her career began in San Francisco during the alt-punk scene of the 1980s. She fronted an all-girl band, produced their demos, and her work spun enough heads to launch her studio career. By the late ’80s, she had moved to Los Angeles, where she began working at Larrabee Sound. Her roster of artists began growing, and soon she was established at Sound City Studios, where she remained for several years before moving on to her own in-demand space, RadioStar Studios. In 2012, she relocated to Oregon, where she now resides when she’s not traveling to recording sessions, workshops, conferences, seminars, and other industry events.

Sylvia Massy did not reach the upper echelon of the pro audio world by kissing ass or fading quietly into the background. It’s clear from her interviews that she does not suffer fools, nor does she mince words or censor herself for the sake of political correctness or reader fragility. She shoots straight, speaks her mind, and takes no guff from anyone — which is exactly what’s required if you’re going to survive in the often-ruthless music industry.

She has an unwavering passion for her work and a heart for young women who dream of following in her footsteps. When she spoke to Guitar Girl, she offered candid opinions about women in pro audio, gave us some background about the making of Return to El Paso, offered tips and advice about recording, from both sides of the glass, and left us with a touching story about connecting with an aspiring producer/engineer at a recent AES event.

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You presented a Live Tracking Master Class at Sweetwater’s GearFest in June — not your first time there, and of course, you’re a presence at NAMM, AES, and other events. Are you seeing a shift in attendance? More women? More women moving into pro audio?

When I first started in the mid-’80s, there seemed to be a lot more women than there are now, and it always seemed to be not an issue when I wanted to get into the field. There were plenty of women mentors. I used to watch Maureen Droney go to work at Automatt Studios in San Francisco, and Leslie Ann Jones was another, but I never really noticed how many women were around. It seemed there were always women involved, and I never felt like I was getting any pushback about being a woman.

But lately, I’ve seen more women. I’ve done some workshops in France, and the first year I did the workshop, there were about 16 people in attendance and two of them were women. The most recent time, it was about the same amount of people and half-and-half women and men. I was really happy about that because I want to support women in the field, for sure.

Maybe it’s a perception. It seemed like there were a few more in the ’80s, and recently I’ve seen an uptick, but I’ve also seen an uptick in the overall number of people who are getting involved in audio, and that’s a good thing. As the equipment becomes more available at home, it’s not an exclusive club anymore — and when I say “exclusive,” I’m talking about people in general, not girls versus boys.

I read a statistic recently — the source escapes me — stating that women working in professional audio make up just 5 percent of all engineers. If that is correct, why the small number? 

I think there’s a very basic reason why: it is all about biological differences between men and women. I hate to just boil it down to that, but if you are starting in a career like this, or any other real intensive creative career, you will spend fourteen hours a day, six to seven days a week, in the studio, or working on your projects, or just trying to get a foothold in the industry. That goes on for six or eight years before you start getting any momentum, and you’re making the basic wage. You’re just getting by at that time. Of course, the work is fun and fabulous and exciting, and there’s nothing better, but it will not really pay off for the first eight years.

So here it is, ten years into your career, you’re just starting to make good money and get a name for yourself, and you’re turning 35 years old. This is the big turnaround for most women. At that point they have to make a decision: Is it going to be career or is to going to be family, because it’s difficult, almost impossible, to do both at the same time, unless you have an extremely strong support system, which means a partner who’s going to take care of the kids, or other family members — a mother or grandmother — who will take the responsibility of raising the family while you’re busy selfishly promoting your career.

Are we considered selfish for doing so because we are women? Are men considered selfish for promoting their careers?

I’m not saying it’s wrong for anyone to promote their career, and I’m certainly not saying that men should be blamed for any of it, because it’s just the way nature made it. I have no animosity toward men in the industry, and I have never felt discriminated against.

You will find, with most professional women, that they made a decision in their 30s that they were not going to have a family and they were just going to pursue their career, and that’s me. I don’t have kids. I don’t think it’s fair to blame men for any of it. It’s just the dynamics of human beings and how we’re wired. Women are wired to have families, and as soon as they get a hint that this type of career is going to keep them in a cave during the time of their life when they should be out socializing and meeting people, then they often will drop out at that time.

For me, I love music so much, and I’m so absorbed in the music industry and my creative participation in it, that I made the decision at that time, and I continued, and that’s when things got really good — when I said, “I’m going all out and I’m going to do this.” So that’s my opinion on it.

And when we do that, of course, it’s, “What’s wrong with you?”

You’re an oddity! You’re bucking the trend! You’re working against nature!

Exactly! There are organizations working diligently to increase those numbers and create opportunities for women in pro audio. The Women’s Audio Mission, Women in AV, and SoundGirls come to mind.

I was surprised to see Soundgirls worldwide. It’s a great organization, and I think they offer a fellowship with other women in the industry, which is great. I’m really impressed with them in particular. WAM — Women’s Audio Mission — is a great way for young girls to get involved and get their feet wet and see if it’s something they like to do. I like these organizations. I support them when I can, and I think it’s a good thing.

In an interview with Alan Parsons in 2012, you discussed how you worked your way up from making coffee to recording in studios in L.A. Do those opportunities still exist? What about the young person who is not ready to move? Let’s say they really want this, but they’re still in high school or college in a small town. Where do they find a studio? How can they learn and get some experience before moving to a bigger city?

I think the historic way of coming up through being a runner and making coffee is a rarity now because there are so few major studios left, and most of them are going to be in the large cities, where it’s expensive to live and get started. So the way I suggest people get started these days is to build their own recording system in their house, or in their apartment, and to actively go out and find clients and record them for free. If you capture enough of that music on your own, you build a discography, which gives you value for when you want to charge for your services.

If you’re doing your own project, you’ve got the equipment, and you’re recording your voice and your music, that’s great. But you will only have one thing on your discography and that will be your project. So I suggest, as well as your own music, that you do other people’s music, and as many different artists as possible across as many genres as you can, to hone your skills, find out what you like to do, and to make yourself more valuable for people who are looking for your services.

It’s always good to move to the heart of the music-making scene, which there are two main places now: one is L.A. and the other is Nashville. If you move to these places, you have to give yourself two years of knocking on doors and doing your own projects before people accept the fact that you’re available and you can do the job. People move to L.A., and after six months they can’t get anything going, so they leave. But I think they’re giving up too soon.

It took me two years before I got my first opportunity, and that was recording a friend’s band called Green Jello. I was working at Tower Records because I couldn’t get a job in a studio, but I connected with so many musicians at the music store that the opportunity came up for me to record one of them because I knew how to use the equipment. We recorded an album, and with that album, the band went on to get a major-label record deal and I was invited to be the engineer and producer. That kick-started my career, but it was two years before that opportunity came up for me.

So I would recommend getting a job at Guitar Center or in a restaurant, because you will meet people in Los Angeles and that will widen your network. You have to be someone that people want to hang out with, someone likable, but give yourself a chance to get established before giving up.

We all read or heard about Fender’s survey regarding an increase in guitar sales among young women. We would love to hear your thoughts. 

I love to see women getting involved in the composition of the music, and guitar is a special instrument. I would say initially that Taylor Swift — who really has some true talent in her bones — probably inspired a whole generation of young girls to pick up a guitar and write and play and sing. It’s exciting. It’s a good trend.

Let’s talk about the Carolyn Sills Combo and their new album, Return to El Paso, which is such a unique concept. How did this project come about for you?

I have on purpose tried to work with diverse artists and diverse genres of music, so that I wouldn’t be pigeonholed. Some of the biggest records I’ve worked on have been hard music albums, like Tool and System of a Down, but I worked with Prince for three years, and I worked as an engineer for Rick Rubin on Johnny Cash’s Unchained, which did really well and won the Grammy for Best Country Album in 1997.

Through that connection, I met Carolyn because they wanted to record a roots record that captured what they do live. I love roots country, and so we made a plan to work in an unusual little studio called Pink Satellite that’s in a house in the Mojave Desert. It was a big challenge getting there because I drove, apparently I took the wrong way, and I was stuck in the desert on a dusty road with my car buried in sand.

I had to walk part of the way, between cactuses and up a dirty, dusty hill in the hot sun. There was no cell phone service, so I was really stuck! But I could see the studio in the distance because it was in a pink house on top of the hill. It was quite an adventure, but I appreciate those kinds of stories that I can tell later, so no problem there! And we started recording right away. I wasn’t going to stop the session because I had a car stuck in the dirt. The car wasn’t going anywhere, so we just started, and it was fun. I jumped right into the session when I got there, and we dealt with digging the car out later.

But what a great band, and Carolyn is fantastic! Her vocals were so on pitch that there was very, very little correction that needed to be done. She’s a genius with harmonies and her band is excellent, so that was a great experience. And the songs are so clever! She took Marty Robbins’ song “El Paso” and continued the story. All the characters in that original song have a song of their own, from each of their perspectives, and it is fantastic. I think it’s Grammy worthy — it’s just so well done. So we’ll see.

It was two or three days of recording, and then I spent time mixing it afterwards. We got a lot of work done in a short amount of time. I tried to record it in a way that gave a nod to the original Marty Robbins recording but kept it genuine in its organic approach, and I think it came out so good. I’m very excited about this project.

When you say you recorded it in a way that “gave a nod to the original recording,” what did you do? How long had it been since you’d worked on a project in any way close to what Carolyn and her band did with this one? 

The project that I consider the closest association would have been Unchained. That was a collection of classic songs and Johnny Cash doing some modern rock songs in his own roots country style. There was a need to record this album in a way where it reflected that roots country of the Johnny Cash era. It would be everyone playing in the same room and looking at each other while they play, and keeping some of the subtleties of playing live, where there might be a little mistake or some little change in a part that wasn’t planned, but I wanted to keep all that natural performance that you would see if they played live onstage.

During the recording of Johnny Cash, I used vintage equipment to give it an old-fashioned sound, and the same way with the Carolyn Sills project. The studio had a good collection of equipment, so we dug out some RCA ribbon mics from that era and had Carolyn singing in that, which gives you a round, warm sound much like old-fashioned radio. Their instruments were also played through vintage amplifiers to give it that warm, vintage feel with tube amplification.

I think all the instruments were aged in some sort of way, so there was a vibe to the whole recording, which really reminds me of the original Marty Robbins song, plus we stuck ourselves in the middle of the Mojave Desert, just to get the feel of that dusty trail and the story, which all takes place in a Western desert scene. So we put ourselves right there to capture that kind of feeling and it worked — all the way down to me with dust on my boots!

Are some recording techniques standard for you, whether it’s the Carolyn Sills Combo or Tool?

In talking about where we recorded the Carolyn Sills project, I think it’s very important to include the surroundings, the environment, as an important decision to be made. If you’re recording a singer, for instance, in a studio, you’re going to get a different performance than if you have that same singer sing that same thing in a cathedral. The environment you record in has a lot to do with the type of performance and the emotion behind it. So putting ourselves in the middle of a hot desert scene was really the way to record this Carolyn Sills album.

In the same sense, I oftentimes will take clients and put them into unusual spaces to inspire different types of performances. For instance, I recorded a bass player in a submarine. I recorded a band in the abandoned underground subway in London. I recorded an all-girl band called Thunderpussy in a deactivated nuclear cooling tower. I will oftentimes take projects to a beautiful castle in Dresden, Germany. I’ll take metal bands there in particular because they really soak up the environment and it spills out into their music and performances. So I really believe that the place where you record is imprinted into the recording itself.

Someone reads this and thinks, She has the means to do that, and the bands can travel, but I’m here in my little home studio in a small town and I can’t go to exotic locations to record. What can I do?

You don’t have to stay in one place. If you have a recording rig with a laptop, you can probably travel pretty easily with an interface that is bus-powered. What I do, and it’s not that expensive to get into it, is I use something called the Sound Devices MixPre-10. This is a portable, standalone multi-track recorder that has eight mic pres in it, so I can record eight mics at a time no matter where I am. It’s battery-operated, so I can record at home, sure, but if I want to take a client into the woods or into a parking garage, it’s very easy. I just carry the equipment to that spot and record. These things cost under a thousand dollars, so if you’re investing in your studio, if you make some wise choices, you can make yourself portable to be able to go wherever you want.

You can find places in your town. One of the most exciting places to record, that almost every town has, is a church with an old pipe organ in it, and if there’s an organist involved in the church, they usually love to participate in your recording. So that’s available to everyone, and these are fantastic, huge instruments that take up an entire room and are just so exciting to record.

What should musicians and producers/engineers on a budget know in order to spend their money wisely?

I spend more money on the preamplifiers than I do on the microphones, because you can get really good results from inexpensive microphones. My favorite mics for recording guitars, in particular electric guitars, are the Shure SM57 and Sennheiser 421. The 57s are $100, and the 421 is around $300 or so. If you want to record acoustic guitar, a great inexpensive mic that is also really good for vocals is the Aston Origin. This is a simple, sturdy, large-diaphragm condenser mic that’s really good — one mic on the acoustic guitar, and that’s all you need. You don’t have to get so fancy.

The thing to invest the money in is the preamplifier. A fairly inexpensive, good one is the Auteur by Black Lion Audio. It’s a great mic preamplifier that will give you an accurate representation of what the mic is seeing. At home, I’m so spoiled! I have Neve 1073 mic preamps and EQ, and that, I have to say, is the best in the world, so I’m set, but those things are really expensive. So the Black Lion stuff is a great alternative.

You don’t need expensive mics, though. All the rock guitar I record is usually with 57s and 421s — simple and in your face. It’s more about how you record it than it is the equipment you record with.

What about the room?

If you’re recording electric guitar, those microphones are going to be right up on the speaker. It doesn’t matter what room you’re in. It’s nice, when you’re recording acoustic guitar, to have some compression on the microphone, and that will bring up the sound of your room. If you’re in a small room, you’re going to hear it. So having a larger room when you’re recording acoustic guitar will help, or a small room with a lot of damping of the reflective surfaces. If you have a small room, acoustic treatment does help.

I’m recording my first session. Scenario A: I’m doing the recording. Scenario B: I’m being recorded. What do I need to know?

One thing that I can recommend for the person who’s on the recording side of it is that you need to know what your monitors are telling you. Before you start recording, play some music that you like and that you’re so familiar with that you can tell if there’s a buildup of bass frequencies in the place where you’re listening from, because if there’s a buildup in bass frequencies, you’re going to want your recording to also have a little extra bass; otherwise, you’re going to walk out with a recording that’s thin. So know your monitors. That’s a big one.

On the performance side, it depends on if we’re talking about acoustic or electric guitar. One of the biggest issues that I have with rhythm guitar is that oftentimes it rushes against the track. As a guitar player, if you relax and let the beat lead you, you’ll be in the pocket. Be careful not to rush against the drums or the click track or whatever you’re playing to. Let yourself be led, let the tempo lead you instead of you pushing it, and your parts will be so much better when you’re doing your rhythm parts. That’s a huge thing that everybody has a bit of a challenge with, it seems. The very first takes are always rushed, and I have to tell everyone, “Relax, relax. Let the beat lead you.”

The other thing is don’t press down on the fretboard too much. There is a nervousness to being in the studio and you might grip a little too hard, then you’ll find that all of a sudden the intonation on your guitar doesn’t sound right. Perhaps it’s not the guitar, but it’s the way you’re gripping the fretboard. You may be a little nervous, but have a light, light touch when you’re fretting your chords, and you’ll stay in tune a lot easier.

Checking tuning is also extremely important. Keep a tuner nearby and check it often. If you have a problem with a particular chord that you’re working on — let’s say you can play a whole phrase, but one darn chord is always out of tune — you can actually fret that problem chord and tune the guitar to that chord by playing each string one at a time, checking the tuning while you’re doing that, and as you get that one chord in tune, have your engineer just punch that chord. If it appears in every phrase, several times through the song, punch in and out on that chord throughout the song, and that’s the way to win when you have one darn chord that just doesn’t want to be in tune. That’s how you fix it. It happens pretty much every time.

When you were on Pensado’s Place in 2014, while talking about the producer’s job and commanding respect, you said, “Maybe because I’m a woman, I’m not as intimidating; however, if I need to be, I can be.” It seems we often walk a fine line: If you’re too nice, you’re a doormat, but if you take charge, you’re a bitch. Sometimes it feels like lose-lose instead of win-win.

I like to have fun in the studio, so I’ll walk in the room and curse like a sailor, just so everyone knows they don’t have to tiptoe around me because I’m a girl. And I’m fun. I’m a fun hang, so people will loosen up right away. You can be serious, but you can do it in a way that it’s not a drag. It shouldn’t be a drag. So I can be crass, I can be gnarly, and if I need to, I’ll be commanding and demanding, but I usually will get the job done. The biggest challenge for any producer in the studio is to get it finished, so I’m always pushing toward that deadline, and I’ll make sure that I land the plane right on the runway and get it done right on time.

I’m treading carefully as I say this. We live in “sensitive” times. One example: A sense of humor that was dismissed in the past can be seen as offensive now. If a person tends to be a bit more sensitive toward certain subjects, certain types of humor, can they survive this industry?

People who are going to be precious about whatever it is are going to have problems. The winners are the ones who are not offended, the ones who can let any silly comment just roll off their back. Even though some people might be offended, I’m generally so thick-skinned that I laugh anything off or just ignore it. It just is not an issue.

People who are easily offended will not make it, period, no matter who they are. You’re dealing with creative people, and when you’re involved in an intense recording situation, you have to make friends with them really fast and you don’t know them. You’re going to be working intensely with them for an amount of time — it could be a few days or a few months — and you’re going to have to tolerate a lot. That goes for anybody.

Everybody has particular tics that you need to rise above and get around, and if you’re going to be precious about “You can’t talk to me that way,” or some kind of conversation that you’re not even a part of, if you’re going to be sensitive like that, you won’t make it, and that’s true with any kind of thing. You’ll have more success if you’re able to tolerate all types of humans. You have to balance the tightrope between the sexes very carefully, of course, but you’ll be on firm footing if you’re just not precious.

Was that something you had to learn, or were you always that way?

It never occurred to me that there was that much difference. I was always doing what I wanted to do, and I wasn’t given any restrictions on what I could do, so it never occurred to me that there was a problem, and in fact, I honestly don’t think there is. But it could be just my perception.

I know that there are women who have had problems. I had a friend tell me a horror story about how she was trying to get engineering gigs, and she was being hired by a producer who stopped hiring her when she refused to go out to dinner with him. I thought, That’s awful, but then, you don’t want to work with that person anyway, so find another gig. You shouldn’t let that hold you back.

I’ve never had that situation. Maybe I’m a little more sensitive ahead of time to spot a problem before it happens, so if I get a sense that working with this particular person is going to be an issue, I’ll just avoid it and find something else to do. But I can’t say that I’ve had a problem, because I don’t perceive these things as problems. So it’s tough to comment on it because I haven’t noticed it to be a problem.

Do we operate under a different set of rules? If so, how do we navigate that? “Boys will be boys,” but when we step onto their playing field, should we have to worry about how we speak, how we dress, how we’re judged?  

Whoever is worrying about those things is having more of a problem with themselves than is necessary. I never dressed to overly sexualize myself in the studio, and I think that, in general, in a workplace, it’s not appropriate. But if you’ve got all those issues with “I can’t be myself in the studio,” then you’ve got to learn to be yourself. I walk in and I could give a s**t what anybody thinks. This is what it is, and if they don’t like it, they can move me to another room. But it’s not going to be an issue with me.

In the past, I used to wear the engineer’s uniform, which is a black t-shirt and jeans and sneakers or boots. Now I just wear whatever I want. I wear skirts and tons of jewelry and heels — I walk in heels all the time — and hats and fun things. Maybe it’s changed a little bit because I feel freer to be myself.

In closing, do you have some words of wisdom and encouragement for young women who have not yet begun their careers, but they know they want to do this and are ready to take that next step?

This is the best job in the world. It’s like I get to be a part of a band for two months, and then I get to leave that band and go on to the next band for a month, and leave that band and go to the next one for a few days. I’ve joined so many bands, and these connections with people last a lifetime. I’m still in contact with the people I recorded in the late ’80s. They’re friends forever. We go through this emotional roller coaster together, and I’m helping them realize their emotional communication through their stories. I feel like I really contribute to making these dreams happen for people. What a great job! I would recommend it for anyone.

The challenge with being a girl and starting out, again, is at one point you will have to make the decision: Is it going to be family or is it going to be career? You can’t get away from it. If you’re really serious about doing this type of thing and making it a lifelong career, there will be that point. If you’re fine with not having kids, or if you have a support system, that’s great; you can have it all.

It’s difficult to make money right away, so you will be broke for a while, but if you can eat ramen and have roommates and drive a crappy car, you’ll love life. My life today — I can’t believe it. I travel around the world. Last year I was in twelve countries. This year I’ll be in another fifteen countries. It’s just insane. And I get to record in all these unusual places. I get to be so creative, and I wouldn’t trade it for anything!

So be patient. I’d say for anyone getting into it, be patient. When you move to a new town, give it a couple of years, try to make as many connections as you can, be likeable, don’t be afraid, don’t be shy. With shyness, you become a wallflower, so you have to really stand out in the crowd and you’ll make it. And be good at what you do. Know your stuff. There’s so much ahead for anybody who wants to do this, and I’m very excited for all the girls who are interested in getting involved.

There was a girl at this AES event in Seattle. They had a meeting and I spoke, and this young girl, this high school girl, came up to me. Her name was Agnes, and she said, “I want to do this.” I said, “Let’s talk during the break.” I asked her, “Do you have any equipment?” She said, “No.” I said, “Do you have an iPhone?” She said, “Yes!” So I said, “OK, you have a great recorder on your iPhone; this is where you can start.” We exchanged phone numbers, I called her number, and I showed her how to do a vocal delay using two iPhones. And then we demonstrated it in front of the audience later because it worked so well. There are things you can do and be creative with very little, and you can start now.

To take time out of your very busy schedule at this event to not only speak with this young woman, but also to work with her … what a beautiful thing!

Anything you do with a young person is going to influence how they proceed. She seemed so motivated. I put myself in her shoes when I was her age in high school, and I thought, Here’s something to chew on. This will get her going. And it was fun! That’s what WAM and SoundGirls are also good for. But having that high-schooler come up to me and say, “I’m really interested in it,” I thought if she was brave enough to come up and talk to me about it, then I’ve got time.

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