Sylvia Massy - Getting The Best Out Of Artist & Hardest Decision As A Producer

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Sylvia Massy is well known in the industry, not only for her incredible work or the artists that she has worked with, such as Tool, Johnny Cash, System Of A Down and many more, but also her unique approach to recording and getting artists to perform at their best. 

In this interview, Sylvia opens up about her struggles to break into the industry, working with Rick Rubin and his approach to producing, her own unique way of producing artists and how to get them to "get out of their head" as well as how far you can push them. She also speaks about her hardest decision she had to make as a producer and so much more.

I hope you will enjoy this interview and let me know what your thought are in the comments below.

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You moved to Los Angeles to try and further your career but it wasn’t as easy as you thought to break into the music industry. What made you keep going and not giving up when it seemed impossible to reach your goal? 

Los Angeles is a place where dreams are made, so, me and all the various people I met were all on a quest to make a living doing what we love. We were all taking menial jobs to be able to pay rent but at the same time trying to make as many connections in the industry as we could. I had a job at Tower Records in Sunset Boulevard and there I made the most important connections in my career. In this little retail shop, I met some people who were in a band called Green Yellow whose drummer also had another band called Tool who we would go watch performing in the clubs. Soon I found myself in the studio with Tool and that’s how I cracked into the industry. 

Also, there was a pivotal moment when I finally got a job at a studio called Larrabee Sound in LA, which was the studio where I worked with Aerosmith, Prince, Rick Rubin and as an assistant for many big mixers. However, I almost lost that opportunity because the night before I had stayed up partying so I had a hangover and I was going to call in sick and cancel my session. Although, I made the decision at that moment that if I was really serious about this, and wanting to make a career out of this I had to make some hard decisions and actually “grow up” so I stopped partying, stopped drinking and stopped doing drugs as well as stopped smoking pot and cigarettes. I went through a big withdrawal but got through it and I have been sober ever since. I think that that was probably the most important decision of my career. 

How long were you at Tower Records?

I moved to Los Angeles and hit every recording studio, I had plenty of experience and a good résumé but no one wanted to hire me. So, my first job in Los Angeles was to paint Christmas windows but eventually got that job at Tower Record. It lasted about a year but it was such an important thing to have a job and be able to meet as many people as possible. I think when you first move to a new town like LA, New York or London you have to give it some time before you actually get an opportunity. It doesn’t happen right away, you have to be patient and slowly make these connections with people. You have to tough it out for 2 years before people start looking at you to trust with their projects. 

I see a lot of students that get a diploma and start knocking on doors to get a job and they are frustrated when they don’t get a job after 6 months of graduation. They may move to LA but here it’s difficult to keep your head above water when you can’t get a good job right away. You have to be prepared to tread water for a while, have roommates, share a flat, have a couple of jobs. But keep your nose into the recording scene, see bands play, make connections with people.

Before moving to Los Angeles you got to co-produce The Sea Hags with Kirk Hammett, which did well and earned them a major label deal. Unfortunately, you didn’t get to work on their major label debut, how did you handle that setback, especially being in the early stages of your career?

My first studio job was in San Francisco, which was a bit by accident because I was more involved in radio production but I knew how to use the equipment. I got a starting position in a music studio and would record my band in the middle the night and these recordings came out really good so people would ask me to do their records too. It wasn’t that I was trying to produce or anything, I just knew how to use the equipment and wanting to record my own music. As soon as I started working for other people that opened up these opportunities to work with new bands and at the time there was a great punk scene so I got to work with upcoming bands like Adolescents, Skid Roper, Tuxedomoon, Christian Death, MDC (Millions of Dead Children). Then there was this band called Exodus which I did some demos with, who Kirk Hammett was associated with. Then I got chosen to co-produce The Sea Hags record with Kirk by the studio owner. However, because we didn’t get hired to do the major label album with them, that’s when I realised I had to move to LA to further my career.

 Sylvia, Kirk and The Sea Hags

Sylvia, Kirk and The Sea Hags

How did working with Rick Rubin influence your methods and decision makings in the studio?

There are three types of producers, the engineer type, the musician type and lastly, the fan type, which Rick Rubin is. He is not a technician, nor musician, he is a fan and that makes him a completely unique producer because he listens to the songs and chooses the material, very carefully, to be recorded. He also puts himself in the position as the end-listener. Rick will also start with having the artist write 100 songs or more and then he will pick the best 20 and out of those 20 he will record 15, which will give you a darn good record. 

You can like him to a chef, for example, he makes the recipe and chooses the different ingredients to be used, meaning, he chooses the engineer, the studio, the drummer, and the songs. He lets the musicians and the engineer work together and then he checks on them periodically, so he is not there every single day directing the session, he comes in every now and then to make decisions about the direction of the project. He is not micromanaging at all and because of that musicians love him because they get to take the range in some way. Also, he has the ability to come in and listen to a song and make one statement that will hit the hammer on the head and then he will leave. It’s amazing! 

I have also worked with Rick, where he has been there every single day and every minute which was with Johnny Cash with Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers as his band. Rick was, I believe, in awe of Johnny and those two guys just loved each other so Rick wanted to be there as much as he could. However, on other projects, like with System of a Down, it wasn’t necessary for Rick to be there every minute. The record was going to be great because the band was so great. But, going back to my previous statement, he puts the ingredients together, lets the cooks take care of it and then he will go back to check on them. 

You said that you found out early on that the talent really needs a producer, maybe they don’t think they do, but they do. In that case, how do you convince them what you bring to the table is beneficial for them?

That’s all in the psychology of producing a record. If it’s an artist that’s used to produce themselves, I might step back a little and let them drive the truck in the direction they want creatively. Also, in this case, I will act more as an engineer and only make technical decision such as trying to record instruments in different ways or trying another vocal microphone, etc. 

The thing about productions is that I can’t be precious about my own personal ideas, even though I might be really passionate about it. I can make suggestions and let them decide if they want to pursue it or not. For instance, I worked on a Sublime record and I really thought that some backing vocals would be a good idea on a particular song, so when they were not in the studio I thought of some backing vocal parts and recorded some as a suggestion, however, the reaction I got from them after having played it to them that was pretty dark, there was a dead silence in the room. Some of my ideas are embraced and some might drop like a lead balloon, so I can’t be precious about them nor can’t get hurt about it but I will always do my best to help to make a production better. 

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You have utilised some tricks that are definitely not in the books or what they teach you in school, such as making Maynard from Tool run a few laps around the block, having Serj from System of a Down hanging upside down. Where do these ideas come from and how do you persuade the artist that it could be a good idea to try them before they know you that well?

I think that a lot of musicians think really hard about what they are doing, they are self-conscious, unsure, so I do these crazy things I do to get them out of their own head. For instance, if the singer is not getting a good performance I will shake him up a little bit, like have him running around the block or hanging upside down. Although, the performance hanging upside down wasn’t that good the performance after that, when we had all laughed it off, was great. Same with running around the block, Maynard was pissed off, but because of that, he wasn’t thinking of how his throat wasn’t going to work, he was thinking of how angry he was. He screamed and it was blood-curdling, it was real. Also, throwing a guitar of a cliff or whatever fun things that we can think of can also used as a reward, as in, if we can finish all the basic tracks and don’t get bogged down with minutiae we can have fun and do these crazy things, but before that you have to get your parts done. It works as a great reward for getting through the huge amount of work that needs to get done to make a great record. 

Sometimes, the recording you get when you do these unusual fun stuff is really good and special. It’s always a challenge to make a sound that is new that someone hasn’t done before, so whenever we can create new sounds in the studio I think it’s important to try. 

What inspired that sort of thinking? Did that come from a different experience in life or was it something you learned from someone? 

I have a lot of ideas all the time. I collect ideas on paper and sometimes it’s appropriate to bring one of those ideas to a project. For example, on ToolUndertow, there’s a track in the end called Disgustipated, which was recording I did any experimental recording on. I had a small budget and we had some time to spend in the studio, I bought a couple of upright pianos and miked them up, then had the band destroy them with sledgehammers, it was fantastic!

So, if you start there, how do you beat that? 

It's been a constant challenge to see if we can go for something better and bigger. 

I’m also exploring different places to record in, especially with the ease of laptops and great interfaces nowadays. I have experimented with recording in Cathedrals, salt mines, nuclear power plants, cooling towers which is very exciting these days. Also, this summer I’m going to record in Switzerland in a hut on the top of Mont Fort with a band called Punk’d Guns, as well as going to London to do a recording in a tube station with a band called God Damn.  

I also heard that Al Schmitt did something similar, where he went to Taj Mahal to record? 

There’s a fantastic story about that where Al was recording a fantastic flute player called Paul Horn (check here on Apple or Spotify). They got the permission to record at Taj Mahal but they had to wait until the middle of the night to start recording. This was because they had to wait until all of the tourists had stopped coming, and the second reason was that there were so many birds that lived in the rafters that they had to wait until all that noise had calmed down. They manage to record in the middle of the night and they were able to do some fantastic recording in there. However, they did have some issues with the sound of birds dropping falling to the ground, so they had to try record in the silence between the dropping. 

What has been your favourite failure in the studio which lead to something unexpected that you are still using today?

I have a piece of equipment that I found in a garage of an old radio tech, it’s this old crusty compressor called 121 Western Electric. I bought it and set it up in the studio to recorded drums with, and it was the most broken sounding piece of equipment but it was fantastic so I decided to never fix it because I don’t want to jeopardise that sound. I nicknamed it The Army Man. I wanted to use it as a serious compressor but realised it was much better as an effect and I still use it to this day. 

What has been your hardest decision to make as a producer? 

It was this very sad experience where I had to fire a drummer because of a record label. I wouldn’t have fired him myself because I thought that he was a good drummer but the label was more interested in having a famous session drummer play on the record. They wanted Josh Freeze, who is a great drummer, to play on the record. However, it was totally unnecessary, and what it did was that it kind of broke up the band because they had been playing together since they were kids. And now they were doing their major label debut album and the drummer gets sidelined so he has to sit and watch another drummer play his drum parts. That was really sad. I had to do it because it was my job to bring the message to the band and tell them that he had to sit this one out and that Josh was going to play instead of him. It was a terrible decision by the label. 

How did you keep the session going after that? 

It was very hard. Because the drums are at the beginning of the session, and we had done all the pre-production and we were ready to jump in and record. The drummer was doing great, although I expected that I would have to do some drum editing but I would have to do that on anyone. After that, the rest of the session was tainted by the sadness of having let him go. 

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You are able to see the talent in an artist and extract the best out of them. Do you have a go-to technique or philosophy when it comes to bringing the best out of an artist? 

I think artists have the ability inside them to communicate the message in the music. Especially with singers, I want them to really tell me the story because you can tell if someone is just reciting lyrics from a page and you can tell if it’s not their own words. However, if it’s a song they wrote and they are singing it and telling the story it makes such a huge difference in the performance. Therefore, I feel that it’s important, as much as I can, to get them feeling comfortable enough to talk to me and tell me that story musically and lyrically. 

I also think that the musicians need the freedom to make mistakes. I want them to feel comfortable making mistakes and not be perfect because those mistakes become the most important part of the final recording. I encourage them to feel comfortable enough to do their thing. Let’s say I want to get a particular performance, for example, if the music is angry and dark, I don’t want to have a studio that’s comfortable with candles lit, I want to have it way too bright, maybe ice cold, maybe I want the singer to strip down to his underwear so he is so incredibly uncomfortable that he is going to shriek at that microphone. Then again, if it’s a very personal and intimate performance, I will put curtains all the way around the artist, make it very warm and dark and make sure nobody is in the room except me and the artist. Even make it so they can’t see me. I want them to get right up on that mic and I’ll crank up the compression so that their voice is so loud in their headphones that they can only just whisper and I can really get that performance from them. 

Also, not waiting until mixing to get a certain effect is important too. For example, let’s say you record an artist with a good/ high-quality microphone, but you want them to have a character, like a vintage microphone from the 1920’s, you will get a much better performance if they are singing into an old retro lo-fi, carbon or crystal mic. For two reason, they are looking at it, they are touching it and it will remind them of this feeling and the sound in their headphones will be more reminiscent of this old style. 

I think it’s much better to use equipment so they can hear what they are doing as it’s happening instead of manipulating it afterwards. 

How do you know how far you can push someone to get the best out of them?

There’s a point where you have diminishing returns on your investments and that’s when you back off. Especially with vocals, when you are really working a singer and you are doing 3-4 songs a day, which is a lot of work for a singer unless they are touring a lot. Their voice might not hold up to that. You just have to recognise there will be a point when you have to let them rest and let them do something else because you will just hurt them. Even with drummers, guitar- and keyboard players, if you are working really hard on a part and they are not getting it, just take a break and move on. That’s when I often times send someone to take a walk or even call the rest of the day. You have to make those decisions in order to save everyone. Usually, if you do call the session and take the day off because people don’t get their part, people get really upset about that, angry at themselves and start worrying about the budget. It’s a very hard to thing to do, but as a producer, it’s really, really important to be firm and call it. It will most likely be a better day tomorrow. 

Thank you, Sylvia, for providing such great insight into your work and amazing value we can all apply to our careers. 

Let me know what you think in the comments!