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Studio Pass: Sylvia Massy

Lesson 3 of 27

Sylvia's Recording Philosophy

Sylvia Massy

Studio Pass: Sylvia Massy

Sylvia Massy

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Lesson Info

3. Sylvia's Recording Philosophy

Lesson Info

Sylvia's Recording Philosophy

Do you generally try to record live at the same time and get that feel? Is that how you create the feel and vibe and then you go back? Is that a normal process or is it always different for you when you're in the studio? I try to do recording in a way where you capture the live essence of the artist so, as much as possible, I'll set everyone up so that they have eye contact and hopefully, they're in the same room. I think that helps to raise the energy of everyone. We're really concentrating on getting the best performance from the drummer, but there's something that happens when people play together that doesn't happen when you isolate each individual instrument. So having everyone play together is really important. Even if you plan on re-recording the guitar or re-recording the vocals, or re-recording the bass, in this case, I think it's really important for everyone to record the initial tracks together. I believe that we're gonna try to record the guitars and the bass in a way th...

at we could possibly keep these tracks, depending on how good they come out. We might detail the tracks by punching in and cleaning up maybe if we have a great take, but this section, the second verse of the guitar is not so good. We'll just go back and we'll just clean up that second verse only. I plan on re-recording the vocals though because the vocalist is going to be recording in the room with the drums and we'll get a lot of drum bleed. I'm not afraid of vocals getting into the drums. Basically this type of band, and you'll hear, is kind of a noisy band, so if there is some voice in the overheads, it's not gonna be bad thing. We will re-record the vocals later and you'll see how it works. Even if there's a little bleed, it's not a bad thing usually. Or if we find out there is a problem, say there's a very quiet section in a song, we'll do separate takes of just that section, without the vocals, without the vocalist in the room just to make sure that we have a clean section like that. But, having the vocalist in the room with the other instrumentalists helps to drive the entire band. It helps the band to know where they are in the song. It helps me to know where they are in the song, because I'm essentially learning the song as we go also. So it really helps me and later on if we're doing edits it's going to help me because I'll know, well, this is the second verse because I can see the vocals, I can hear the vocals happening. So if I'm doing editing, I can easily take the sections and rearrange or cut and paste knowing the parts. Do you try and get a copy of the song and listen to it ahead of time and sort of plan before a session, or do you just sometimes go into the studio and just listen to it for the first time and discover it? Both ways. Real time? Yeah, sometimes I'll get a chance to listen to the music ahead of time. When I go in with a new artist, I'll try to get them to give me as much music as possible, so if we're going to do four songs, I'll ask them to give me 20 songs, or 50 songs even so that we can pick the best four songs. And this is something I learned from working with Rick Ruben is that you would ask of the band to give you as much material as possible, and no doubt, if you are given 300 songs, you're gonna pick 12 or 20 of those songs, and they're gonna be the best songs. So, you're bound to have a better record because you had more to pick from. So, I try to get that with every artist that I work with is to get as much material ahead of time, to listen and make choices. If that's not possible, just coming in and having a little extra time on day one, to listen to their material, and make decisions about that is okay, too. With the band Thunderpussy, I met with them previous, and we listened to three, four songs, and made a decision that this one song was going to be our song. The song is called, "Speed Queen". I like it because it's got a swagger to it. Halfway through the song they go from one tempo to a double tempo and they step it up. It's a very exciting song. There's two guitar solos in it and we're gonna try some things with those guitar solos. We're gonna try to do some unusual things to make it really interesting and fun. And, if it works out, great. If our experiments don't work out, then it's just all part of the adventure. So what else would you go over with the band before you go into the studio? Would you go over anything else or just try and listen to the music? Another thing I'll talk to the band about will be the choice of equipment. I have control over the equipment that I use for recording, but it's equal and maybe more important to discuss what equipment they'll be using. I want them to be comfortable with the equipment that they're using, but I also want it to be of a quality that I know that recording will be good. So, they have the drum kit which is a Ludwig stainless steel kit from the 70s. A great choice, very bombastic and loud drums. I have questioned if the kick drum is the quality that I'm looking for in that kit. I know the toms are great, so we have some options for kick drum. We'll listen to those when we start with the drum recording. The other things we have discussed is the bass amps and there is in the house here at Avast, there is a SVT Amp peg, an original from late 70s SVT had. If we need it, it's here for us, but I think they have a custom head that is a local build that I'm really interested in trying out and hearing. So, we'll be doing that and I wanna hear what they have. Also the guitar player will be playing, I think she's bringing in an SG today, and she normally plays with vintage Marshalls. There are a couple Marshalls here at the house at Avast so we'll use a split guitar setup, where we're gonna use a splitter pedal and go into two amps at the same time. In fact, we have a splitter that will allow us to go into more than two, so we're going to actually set up some weird stuff just in case, to see if works and to see if it adds another dimension to what we're doing. So, the choice of the equipment is very important. I also just really want the artists to be comfortable with what they're doing so headphones will be important today, and my assistant is Scott will be in charge of headphones, so, I'm crossing my fingers that works out, if not we'll take some time and really work on getting the headphones so that they're all comfortable and they can hear each other and they can feel each other and get a good performance. What if a band can't play with a click. If they come in, and it's kind of just killin' the vibe, when they're playing with a click, what do you do in that situation? When it's difficult for an artist to play with a click, I'll do a couple things. The first thing I'll do is let them just play without a click, get the whole song down without the click, so I have a template basically to work with. then I'll take section by section, find the right tempo, give them the click, give it a shot and maybe take sections and see if we can get sections on a click. A lot of times, it does kill the vibe to have someone whose not comfortable with a click playing with a click, it could potentially really kill the vibe. But I've had good luck with taking section by section with a click and then using the ones that still have great energy and cutting it into my master template, the free-wheeling version, which is in Pro Tools. Yeah, I have in the past actually used a little drum machine that I'll turn on and off, so if the artist has difficulty playing with the click or they start good on the click and then they drift, I turn off the click so that it doesn't bother them. And I'll restart it with a drum machine so that I'm kind of joining them instead of them trying to work with the click. And I like to do editing, too. If possible, I'll fix any tempo fluctuations that are obvious and not good for the song. I'll do that editing in Pro Tools to fix it.

Class Description

Over the last 30+ years, Sylvia Massy has built a career as one of the gutsiest and most innovative recording engineers and producers. She has worked with legends like Prince and Johnny Cash, and won awards for her work with bands like Tool, System of a Down and The Red Hot Chili Peppers. In this once-in-a-lifetime experience, you will get a peek inside the recording process of one of rock’s legendary engineers. 

While she is a proficient master of vintage gear, Sylvia stresses that great records come not from having the right gear, but from capturing great performances. Join Sylvia as she records a song in the studio with Seattle alt-rock band Thunderpussy, and learn how to work with an artist to capture that magical take in your own work.

Pulling from her years of experience and sharing stories from her newly published book Recording UnHinged, Sylvia will show you:

  • How to get interesting and vibrant drum sounds, using the room and the drummer to your advantage
  • Capturing great sounding guitars at the source, without editing and reamping
  • Pushing vocalists to deliver their best vocal takes 
  • Mixing both in the box and through a console using outboard gear

Sylvia is also known as a prolific educator, speaking and teaching at some of the best recording schools around the world. Don’t miss this opportunity to learn from one of the industry’s most celebrated A-list producers. 


Jimmy Foot

This Studio Pass episode with Sylvia Massey covers a lot of ground. From fundamentals like correct mic placement and phase to experimentation with amps, cell phone delay and a few extra parts, Sylvia makes it fun! I have been lucky enough in my career to work with a number of great engineers and producers. I haven't had the opportunity to work with her, but Sylvia is certainly in that category, and anyone who gets a chance to work with her would be a lucky person. This broadcast is the next best thing. Great job there at Avast Studio and fantastic camera work! And as for Thunderpussy; you guys rock!

Marc Felish

Wow, that was such a blast. Thanks so much Sylvia and everyone else for making this such a fun experience. I picked up so many new ideas that I can't wait to try out! Sylvia is such a creative producer, it was so much fun to be a fly on the wall watching everything. Loved it!!

Marcus Soares

Awesome! A great opportunity to pick into the creative mind of one of the greatest and get that kind of knowledge that you can't acquire otherwise. Highly recommended!