In the studio with Sylvia Massy: Rick Rubin, Tom Petty and The Black Crowes

Having worked with legendary artists from Johnny Cash and Prince, to Tom Petty, The Smashing Pumpkins and Tool, Sylvia Massy has built up a body of work that has secured her place in history as one of the world’s greatest producers and engineers.

Like many Californian music legends, Massy’s music business story starts in San Francisco. It was here in the ‘80s where she was involved in the music scene playing in punk, ska and metal bands and learned how to record her own projects.

“I knew how to use the equipment from working in a radio production house, but people who heard the work I did for my own band’s projects liked it enough to hire me to work on their stuff too,” says Massy.

“Their music seemed to turn out better than mine, so I eventually put aside my own projects and started to do other people’s musical recordings full time, as much as full time was.”

With no online retailers at that time, or the abundance of affordable and mobile recording equipment we have access to today, Massy explains that there weren’t really any ‘home studios’ to learn in and the established ones that were in San Francisco were “kind of exclusive”.

What this meant however, was that she was learning how to produce and record on high-end equipment right from the start.“There were studios like Different Fur and Russian Hill; several professional studios with gear like API and Sound Workshop consoles,” she says.

“I’m very lucky to have learned on Studer machines and API consoles. And I think that has really made a difference today in what I do and the equipment that I choose, because I’m familiar with that sound and maybe that sound is what feels comfortable to me today.”

The more production work Massy did for bands in the local music scene, the more work she was offered by the city’s top studios, who would hire her to produce the projects of artists that were coming in to use their facilities. One of those projects was called The Sea Hags, a San Francisco band that was working with an incredibly talented guitarist called Kirk Hammett on co-production duties. Hammett had been playing in another band that Massy had worked with called Exodus and his other project was of course Metallica.

“They had just finished recording Master Of Puppets when we co-produced The Sea Hags,” explains Massy. “He was young and we collaborated on ideas for the recording and it came out really good. The album actually did so well for the band that they got a major label deal out of it.

“Instead of hiring me or Kirk for the major label recording, they went to LA and hired Mike Clink and I was really disappointed, because I thought this was my big break and this was my first big major label project, but they ran away to LA.” It was at that point that Massy says she decided to move to Los Angeles to try be a producer and within a year had “hit the streets of LA”, where she realised that getting a studio job was not as easy as she thought it was going to be.

“I had already been working in studios and had plenty of projects under my belt,” she says. “I met with the managers at Capitol Studios, Ocean Way, A&M Studios and all these big places in LA.

“These were all big facilities, but no one really wanted to hire me. You basically start from scratch when you move to LA and I think it’s still true today. It just takes time.  I wound up working at a retail store called Tower Records and that gave me enough time to study production.

“I would listen to music in the store and I actually went through the vinyl and looked at the back of every record and made a database of my own of every producer and the music they made just to get a real understanding of where I wanted to be and who I needed to meet.”

Massy cites the stint working at Tower Records as “a really important time” for her, with a number of co-workers going on to become famous music industry figures in their own right.

“The Tower Video across the street was where Slash and Axl Rose used to work before they hit with Guns & Roses,” she recalls. “And in my store there were several musicians that went on to do big projects.”

The big one for Massy was, as she explains “a ridiculously silly band” named Green Jellö from Buffalo, New York, and they hired her to do a recording for them in “someone’s garage”.

The eight-track recording was good enough to get the band a deal with a label called Zoo Entertainment.  “When we went to record the Zoo release, they gave us a budget for a studio,” recalls Massy. “I wanted to work at Sound City because I had heard all the good things about it, especially the fact they were really inexpensive. They had great equipment, but it was cheap enough for us noisy rockers to get in and do a good record.

“One of the drummers in Green Jellö was in Tool and since we had the drums set up for Green Jellö we thought, Why don’t we just record Tool at the same time and save some money? That’s when we did the original recording for Tool. They had been playing in the local Hollywood scene for about a year and I really liked them. They were exciting and had a new sound and I’d never really heard anything like it, so I was really into what they were doing.”

Part of Tool’s debut EP Opiate was recorded at Sound City with Massy, with the other part recorded during a live performance at a Green Jellö New Year’s party, for which they hired a remote truck with an API console.

“That [became] the other half of the Tool record, with some embellishments actually,” says Massy. “I had to cut between studio takes and live takes to really make it convincing and to get rid of a few mistakes. They won’t tell you that, but I’ll tell you that!”

Although she was recording bands when she could while she was working at Tower Records, she was still knocking on doors throughout LA trying get a full-time studio job. The hope was to work with one of the top producers she looked up, to like Brian Eno or Steve Lillywhite, or as she calls them, one of “the untouchables”.

“That was my goal,” she says. “It happened quickly when I did get that job at a place called Lion Share, where Phil Ramone was recording Barbara Streisand. One day I was working at the customer counter at Tower Records and the next day I was working with Phil Ramone at Lion Share Studios. It was a big shift when I finally got that job.”

Not long after that Massy jumped over to Larrabee Sound Studios where she was able to work with “several of her heroes” as an assistant and learned a lot from working with the likes of Prince, Tom Lord-Alge and Rick Rubin. “That was when I connected with Rick on several projects and he helped me make the jump from working at Larrabee to being an independent engineer and producer in Los Angeles,” she explains.

“Rick Rubin was very interested in The Sea Hags project that Kirk and I had co-produced. So we had something to talk about immediately because we both loved that band. Rick had several projects going on, but the first one that I assisted on with David Bianco engineering was a band called Trouble.”

Through meeting Rubin, Massy went on to work on projects by the likes of Danzig (Lucifuge II) and The Black Crowes (Shake Your Money Maker), produced by Rubin’s friend George Drakoulias, and released on Rubin’ s Def Amercian label. “As I went independent Rick would hire me to do projects and most of the time we would work at Sound City because we were both really familiar with that room and really loved the sound of the old Neve there,” she explains.

“I worked on System Of A Down there and the Johnny Cash Unchained album project was also really special. Rick had arranged to have Tom Petty And The Heartbreakers as Johnny’s backup band, so you can imagine the star power in the room for that. Plus Marty Stuart, who was a great country star came in to be part of the band too. As far as engineering goes, I had to be on my best game.” Massy says that it was at Sound City where she learned how important it is to be as prepared as possible when you start a session, even before the artist walks in the room.

“If you are working with someone like Tom Petty And The Heartbreakers, and they sit down and they plug in and you don’t record that first take or if the recording’s not great, they are only going to play it once,” says Massy. “They might play it a second time, but not because you want them to, they just don’t screw up.” After 15 years in LA and finding success in the studio, Massy says she decided to “do something else for a while outside of the city” and bought a 50-acre ranch in California close to a little town called Weed.

“I spent about a year out there with horses and stuff, got extremely bored and at the same time the System Of A Down record was hitting really big. My manager in LA was giving me offers for jobs and the money was really good, and I was sitting there feeding the horses and thinking to myself, What am I doing?

“I started commuting to Los Angeles again because I love producing. I love studio life and I missed it, but after living in a hotel for six months, I decided it was time to move my rig up north. I had all the equipment that was in Studio B at Sound City. I had the other Neve console, an 8038, which is basically the same thing that was in the A room that Dave Grohl bought later.”

Massy arranged to have the Neve console moved to Northern California and found a space in the town of Weed where she founded the now-legendary RadioStar Studio.

“It was an old theatre and was abandoned at the time. I moved the Neve console straight in. I didn’t do any additional wall treatments. It was just a big open room with a Neve console in it and some great recording equipment. I started recording and the place thrived for 15 years and grew.

“It was the strangest thing because the town of Weed only has 3,000 people in it, but these clients were coming from all over the world to work in this tiny California town. I think the name of Weed probably attracted a lot of musicians at the time. We went from the one room in the theatre to five studios in total. “It really was just kicking ass for 15 years, and then I had a divorce and everything kind of had to change so that ended, but for those 15 years RadioStar was in existence, I think we had 300 projects go through there. We had an amazing time and we had some big hits.”