Signal Path Podcast: Sylvia Massy
Hear the stories behind the music with the Signal Path podcast. Tapping a global network of musicians, producers, engineers and other sonic innovators, Shure brings you exclusive interviews with the people shaping the world of audio.
Episode 016 – Sylvia Massy
For the latest episode, we sat down with the producer Sylvia Massy at the Famous Gold Watch studio in Berlin to talk about her creative approach to recording.
Massy has worked with an incredible collection of artists over the years, including Johnny Cash, Prince, Red Hot Chili Peppers and Tool. She is famous for her unorthodox methods, such as recording in an abandoned nuclear cooling tower, demolishing pianos and hanging singers upside down. Now based at her own studio in southern Oregon, Massy travels extensively each year, taking her unique production and engineering talents on the road.
In the podcast, Massy discusses how she got started in the music industry, what she does to inspire artists in the studio and why she has a penchant for running audio signals through cheese.
Leaving commercial radio to become a studio engineer, Massy’s first break came in San Francisco when she collaborated with Metallica’s guitarist Kirk Hammet to co-produce a demo by the sleaze metal band Sea Hags. She then moved to Los Angeles to pursue her career but couldn’t immediately find a job at a studio.
“Coming to LA, I had to start over. It took about two years,” she says. “In the meantime, while I was struggling, I took a bunch of entry-level jobs and one was a retail job at Tower Records, and that actually was the best thing I could do.”
It was at the now-defunct record store that she met lots of ambitious up-and-coming musicians, including members of what ultimately became the prog metal band Tool.
“Hard music is my roots. It makes me smile. The more extreme the better,” Massy says. “But on the other hand, there’s beautiful country music, roots music. There’s really exciting funk music. I got a chance to work with Prince for several years and that was amazing.”
After working with Tool on the band’s Opiate EP and full-length debut Undertow, her career began to take off, and she quickly forged a reputation for her creativity in the studio.
Inventing New Sounds
“I try to bring in unconventional techniques into the session for many reasons,” she explains. “I want to challenge people to invent new sounds. It helps to inspire the artist to think outside of the box, to use a clichéd term.”
She also likes to bring musicians to unusual places to elicit exceptional performances from them.
“To take a musician, let’s say, singing in a vocal booth in a studio, you’re going to get one kind of performance,” she explains. “Take that same singer and have that same verse sung in a cathedral and you’re going to get completely different performance inspired by the surroundings.”
Yet according to Massy, the creative challenges in the studio are the same no matter what the genre.
“Hopefully you can help artists express themselves. My job is to help them realize what their intention is with that music,” she says.
And sometimes that requires donning a blindfold to pick the right equipment for a session. Once, working alongside producer Rick Rubin on a Smashing Pumpkins record, Massy learned performance and price don’t always correlate.
“We set up about $25,000 worth of microphones to find the right mic for Billy Corgan’s vocals,” she says. “We had Billy sing the same verse, did a blindfold test and it ended up being the SM58. You don’t need to spend $10,000 on a microphone. If you have a ’58 you’ll be just fine.”
A master of all kinds of studio gear, Massy also enjoys undertaking recording experiments with unexpected items: “One of my favorite sounds is running audio through a fluorescent light bulb. A fantastic fuzz sound! And if you route the same thing through cheese? An incredible blues tone.”
For the record, she uses Gouda.
Anyone interested in reading more about Massy’s adventures in sound over the years should pick up her book, Recording Unhinged, which is chock-full of entertaining and useful anecdotes, tips and tricks.
Listen to the full interview with Sylvia Massy and be sure to subscribe to Signal Path from the podcast provider of your choice below!