You know all those crazy stories about what happens in recording studios? Wild stuff like musicians insisting on recording while they’re buck naked, or blasting away at a piano with a shotgun? How about recording the sounds of a guitar amp as it’s tossed off a cliff? Or a record producer duct-taping Peter Gabriel high up on a pillar in the studio to get the appropriate level of intensity in his voice? Those are just tall tales, right?
Those things must be myths…surely they couldn’t possibly have happened.
Well, think again. Record producer Sylvia Massy has written a fascinating book entitled Recording Unhinged, which focuses on “unconventional and creative recording techniques,” as the subtitle puts it. There are hundreds of books that give advice on basics such as microphone placement, digital versus analog, type of recording consoles and so forth, and Massy’s book does touch on those. However, the primary slant is towards the unusual. You wanna talk mic placement? How about attaching a mic to a radio-controlled toy car and shuttling it around the studio by remote control to get the best sound.
Massey definitely has the experience to have amassed a vast catalogue of stories, having, as she puts it “been pretty fortunate in that I have been able to work with Johnny Cash and Prince as well as Slayer and Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. You know, the longer you spend in a recording studio, the more crazy tales you hear about. Not only the ones where they’re doing interesting recording techniques, but also the debauchery and all that that goes into being a rockstar and making a record. But I couldn’t really do…and I didn’t really want to do a book about all that, you know, the kiss and tell kind of thing. I was really more interested in the fun part of recording that a lot of people don’t really get to see. And almost every great record that we all know about, our top 10 list or whatever, there’s usually an interesting story associated with every single record.”
“So I started cataloging these stories a long time ago, and my own stories, too. And I thought that that would be of interest to people, not only for the technical information but for entertainment’s sake, like to find out what Bruce Springsteen was doing in the studio or how they got those sounds on the Ramones records. So yeah, I started quite awhile ago, but the actual book took about a year to write and to collect photos, and I also illustrated the book. So doing a lot of these diagrams took some time.”
With all the insider information in her book, were there any people she approached who didn’t want their stories told? “Well surprisingly, several producers really didn’t think that what they were doing was so interesting. But to me, it was fascinating to be able to hear how certain things were done in the studio. So, most people were really open to talking about how they did certain techniques. And most people were really interested in talking. Actually, you know what? There were a few people that just did not want to participate and I really wanted them to be a part of the book, but it didn’t work out. And I don’t even think I could say who those people were, because they were so adamant about not being involved.”
Massy got her start in the San Francisco Bay area in the 80’s. Throughout the years, she’s worked in recording studios in Los Angeles, built her own facility in rural Northern California, and is currently in Ashland, Oregon. “Well, it was a choice that I made, because I grew up in the Bay area in San Francisco, and then I moved to L.A. out of there. But my roots were really from Colorado and I was kind of a mountain girl. So, I decided at one point I would be done with the city and I’d head out and go back to the mountains. I bought a 50 acre ranch in Northern California and I moved up and lived there for about 18 years. I started a studio there called RadioStar and I found people would come from all over the world to this spot because it was out of the city, there was low overhead for me and they could stay there. We had apartments and a house that the band could stay in.”
“It was a really great experience for the musicians to come and be in residence to record albums. One band called Cog came from Australia and stayed for a year doing their second record there. Recently, I moved up to Ashland and I sold my business in California, and Ashland is not too far away from my previous spot. But it’s just a little college town in Southern Oregon that is just absolutely paradise. My equipment is set up in an old church, so it’s a great acoustical room. Again, the overhead is very low so I’m not pressured to run on the treadmill constantly. However, I do love to work. So, I do it for more…almost for the pleasure of it more than ever. And that’s the best part about moving out of the city is that I can really concentrate on making really special music and taking the time to do it right.”
The business of producing records is an almost exclusively male-dominated bastion. When Massy got her start in the late 80’s world of punk and metal, it was even more so. Did she ever feel like an outsider in that world? “Well, you know, I found out that it really isn’t about your gender as much as…it’s just a hard job to get into and to really dedicate your life to. Most people want to have more time to socialize and do other things, whereas if you want to be a studio rat, that pretty much takes up all your time. But if you love the music enough, and that’s where I came from… I’m just a huge music fan, so, I would not mind being in the studio for 16 hours a day. I was really excited to be there and to be working with musicians on making their projects come to life. And so, while I did notice that there weren’t as many women doing the job, I never felt like I was discriminated against. It’s just kind of been the attitude that we’re all in the same boat. It’s a hell of a job, but it’s one that is really the best job in the world at the same time.”
“The other thing that I do is I’ll travel. I have a second home in Dresden, Germany. A friend of mine owns a castle there, and I go out and record at the castle about twice a year, which gives me a lot of freedom.”
A friend who owns a castle? And having the opportunity to record music in an awe-inspiring environment such as that? Sounds like just the type of unconventional recording situation that Massy’s book is all about.