Sylvia Massy is a creative force to be reckoned with. Known for employing unusual (and sometimes outrageous) techniques to draw artists out of their comfort zones and capture their best performances, she’s shaped albums by the likes of Tool, Johnny Cash, Prince, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Tom Petty, System of a Down, Skunk Anansie, COG, Spiderbait, and Sevendust. She’s an accomplished painter, illustrator, and video director, and most recently, she’s become a book author.
If you’re looking to be more adventurous in the studio, you’ll find plenty of inspiration in Recording Unhinged (Hal Leonard), which explores the “unexpected side of recording,” that magic that happens when the recording rules get broken.
In addition to offering her own session tales, tracking tricks, and DIY gear hacks cultivated over decades, Massy interviewed dozens of artists and producers, including Hans Zimmer, Bruce Swedien, Bob Clearmountain, Dave Pensado, George Massenburg, Pat Metheny, and Linda Perry, to find out what they’ve gained by pushing past the limits of convention.
When I tracked Massy down to learn more about Recording Unhinged, she was camped out in an island fortress near Helsinki, where she was tracking vocals with Swedish theatrical metal band Avatar.
Tell me how Recording Unhinged came to be.
I’ve always wanted to write a book, and I’ve kind of been known for unconventional techniques. It’s things that people just don’t talk about in regular recording manuals, the proper way to mike drums or whatever. You don’t have to have an expensive mic to get a lot of great recordings. You don’t have to be in a studio to record something properly; walls don’t have to be at special angles… I wanted to talk to other people in the industry, and ask them about ways they’ve broken rules. And I was so surprised about the response I got—Bob Ezrin had Peter Gabriel duct-taped to the wall; Geoff Emerick had stories about recording Revolver, using a Leslie on John Lennon’s voice—just out-of-the-box thinking and how it changes the way recordings get done, and changes music.
There was a time when record companies ran all the studios; all of the recording was done in record company-owned studios, and then in the late ’60s and early ’70s, the engineers in those places started going out on their own and became independent.
It was the time, coincidentally, when there were a lot of drugs being taken, so the combination of these independent engineers and psychedelic drugs created this whole new genre of music, this rock and roll thing, it blossomed, and became extremely creative. We talk about that in the book, too: how forward thinking happens.
You share a lot of creative ideas for coaxing the best performance out of an artist; any tips for inspiring musicians recording at home, often on bare-bones laptop rigs, to step away from their tools and cultivate their own best performance?
One way would be to insist, even in a digital recording, to only use organic instruments that need to be tuned by hand, or to incorporate an instrument from another country that maybe they’ve never played before, and play it wrong, and put it in there anyway, see what happens.
Another way to get out of your head is to take on a new role. Write a song for another artist. If you’re a rock artist, write a reggae song; write a song for Taylor Swift. See what happens. Most likely, what you come up with will still have your imprint on it. It’ll still be you, but it will serve to get you to break away from whatever rut you’re in.
But yeah, I think one of the most difficult things to overcome right now is, if you’re working entirely computer-based, with samplers, you’re given a set of tools and these are the sounds that you have to live with, so you do get limited that way.
Musicians recording at home can feel limited by their tools, or their recording space. You prefer recording in the same space that the artist is performing in.
I prefer to record in the same room that the equipment is in, especially if I’m engineering for another artist, because the artist is right next to me, they’re not standing behind the glass, we’re not separated from each other; the communication is immediate. Often, working out parts, I want to sit right there in front of the recorder, and I want to have a microphone right there, and wear headphones. I don’t think that working in the same space is limiting at all; actually, it is a great asset.
You really have to know your headphones, though. You have to have a set of headphones that you trust, and do a lot of reference listening to music that you’re really familiar with, that you can trust what you’re hearing. And then outside of that, it’s easy.
People tend to have a lot more tools at their disposal than they think. I love your story about recording System of a Down in a cement room in Rick Rubin’s home studio, and building a vocal booth out of a camping tent.
It should be an adventure! Recording is such a creative thing; you should be incorporating recording with like cooking, or painting, or dancing. It should all be happening at the same time, it should be a joyful thing.
A lot of times now, if I have an engineer and there’s any chance at all I can combine these things, I’ll have a canvas set up in the control room; I’ll be painting madly while they’re recording, and I’ll just be throwing comments out at the same time. Or any number of things like that.
If you’re working on Pro Tools, you can take that laptop anywhere! Why aren’t you recording in a subway? Why don’t you hike up to the hop of a hill and record on the hill. Climb a tree and bring the laptop with you in a backpack! Has anybody recorded an acoustic album in a tree? Singing in the shower. There should be no limitations, and there should be a story attached to each record that you do.
Is it hard to push artists out of their comfort zone like that?
So far, it’s gone really well. There are some things that just don’t happen because of financial considerations; like the record I’m doing now, we really wanted to record vocals in an airplane, but we haven’t been able to get that one together.
The last project we did, in Bergen, Norway, the engineer on the project used to work as a submariner. We actually got to go into a submarine and recorded several things on the sub.
When you are hired for a project, how do you leave headroom to allow for that sort of experimentation, within the project’s—or label’s— budget?
You have to budget for it, budget extra time for these ideas to completely fail. Because most likely, you’ll build an adventure to your recording, and it will sound like shit, it just doesn’t work, and you’ll have spent a day, maybe more, on this grand idea that just doesn’t fly. But if you prepare for that mentally and financially, then you’re going to be okay anyway.
There are ways to do these things inexpensively. If you’ve got a laptop, and some good mic pre’s, and some decent mics, you can go pretty much anywhere. [For this record] we’re going to record a church organ; it’s a massive pipe organ, and we’re thinking to ourselves, how are we going to get a pipe organ on this record? Well, we could just get a sample, but that’s not very fun… how much would it cost to go into a church? Well, surprisingly, not that much.
It’ll take a day out of our time, we carry a laptop in, we get some mics. You just get permission to go into the church and find someone who can play the organ, compensate them for their time; it might actually cost less to go have an adventure recording a pipe organ than it would to hire someone to put together a composition with samples.
You really just have to try it, and be ready for it not to work, but usually the magic happens.
Massy with her partner, Chris Johnson, at The Village in Los Angeles.There’s a visual component to your work. Tell me about your studio illustrations, which we see throughout the book.
My first love was art, and I thought that was going to be my lifelong career, but I found out that art is extremely personal, so it was difficult to do it for someone else. Music, on the other hand, it’s much easier for me to help someone realize their musical vision through my tools than it is for me to realize someone’s visual idea through my art.
I find it really easy. I can draw these diagrams, like how to build a Cooper Time Cube; it’s very easy for me to draw these diagrams with a funnel, a hose, and duct tape, how to put it together, how the signal flows, I’m having a lot of fun with it.
You tend to work with a lot of boutique and vintage analog gear, and quirky, one-of-a-kind instruments. What kinds of recommendations do you have for people who aspire to capture those kinds of sounds, but are working on digital rigs at home or in a project studio?
It would make sense to try some different things, especially the mic pre’s, the front end. The recorder is sorted out, the digital recording is great; it’s the front end that’s the challenge. So trying different microphones, using old microphones, or building microphones is something to try. Old tape machines that you find in thrift stores—and there are a bunch of them—it makes sense to experiment with them. Take something apart and build a new instrument out of something old; get an old, broken-down piano and try doing something with that. Make it into an entirely new instrument. Just be careful if you’re working with electronics that you don’t get electrocuted.
I just hope that everyone can rediscover the fun of recording. Because somehow I think some of that fun has gone away. And it is. Writing this book, I also rediscovered the fun of recording by listening to these other people’s experiences and thinking, what can I do to top that? It’s a fun challenge. You have to challenge yourself to break out of the mold.
Any parting words of advice?
If there is any advice I can give, it is: Don’t Be Lazy. Do more than just call up a patch, which is actually someone else’s invention. And if you are working with musician clients, don’t let them be lazy either! Make them work on those intros and outros. Make sure they deliver a message, musically, rhythmically, or lyrically...and never waste the opportunity of a middle bridge. It is precious time. Make every moment an adventure.
Sylvia Massy Selected Discography
Prince Diamonds and Pearls engineer
Green Jello Cereal Killer producer, engineer, mixer
Tool Undertow producer, engineer
Johnny Cash Unchained engineer, mixer
System of a Down (debut) engineer
Powerman 5000 Tonight the Stars Revolt producer, engineer
Spiderbait Alright Tonight producer, engineer, mixer
Avatar Feathers and Flesh producer