Gear reviews

Interview: Sylvia Massy (Tool, Aerosmith, Powerman 5000…)

I was able to do an email interview with Sylvia Massy. She is one of my long time heroesse (if there is a female word for that). The interview was taken on the January 6, 2014.

more info: or Sylvia Massy on Wikipedia

and she will be a guest on Questions and Answers on (you need to register) => starting January 29, 2014


read on….

George: Could you tell us a bit more about Tool? I saw them 2 times live and they are very distant and not connecting with the crowd. Is this the same you experienced in the studio?

Sylvia: They are actually some very fun and not-so-mysterious guys. Maynard Keenan was an artist and a comedian. He used to make waterfalls out of cement and used to have wild finches flying around in his house. Danny Carey was a basketball player and would have been a pro if it wasn’t for his knee injury. Adam worked for Hollywood special effects houses and did stop-motion animation the way Ray Harryhausen did it, before all the CGI.


George: Talking about recording Vocals, I usually struggle with getting the best performance out of a singer in the studio. Singing into a mic with no people around them is not very motivating to deliver a screamo-performance. Any thoughts on this?

Sylvia: I often will make a singer very uncomfortable if I want to get an aggro performance. For instance, I made Maynard run around the block several times. he was pissed off when he came in to do those screams on “Crawl Away”… pissed! I will also keep every grunt and groan from an artist’s performance and add them into the mix. There is a bunch of heavy breathing on the Undertow record that was outtake recording.


George: Later I found out, that you did the Powerman 5000 record. I am more interested in the background. Why did Powerman 5000 started working with you?

Sylvia: The singer from Powerman 5000, Spider, is brothers with Rob Zombie. Rob came into the studio during my recording Tool and that is where it all started.

George: I recently had a chat with you on skype. You told me that you are moving location and selling a lot of gear. Where and how „large/small“ is the new space? Could you tell us some more details about your current working place (maybe include a photo) ?

Sylvia: I am currently still working out of the Weed Palace Theater in Weed, California and am looking at some excellent spaces in Southern Oregon for the new studio set-up. I have sold some gear but only because I had a ridiculous amount of equipment, with multiples of everything. In the meantime the Neve 8038 studio is ripping it up and I have plenty of gear to make amazing records. Life is good! See the current studio set-up here:

The Theater

09 JeffersonStarship

George : You have/had a Neve 8038, SSL J-9080 and a Trident S-80. Could you describe the differences of each desk from the « sound » point of view ? Any particular sonics you are after which each individual board ?

Sylvia: I feel the best all-around analog board is my Neve 8038. It has 1073 EQs and Flying Faders by Martinsound. The front-end for tracking cannot be beat. It has a grainy, warm texture and an amber vintage character. It is instantly recognisable as the foundation in a great recording. The SSL J-9080 was my go-to console for large format mixing. I have now moved into digital mixing for the ease in recall, but would still highly recommend the analog SSL if you don’t mind the gigantic footprint and enormous power bill. The Trident 80-Series is a great vintage analog console for not alot of money. It has the British 70’s sound and can handle tracking and overdub duties with ease. The Trident I had was great for vocals and guitar overdubs, but challenging for drum tracking and mixing. I have been an audio engineering instructor for many years, and would often test my mixing students on the Trident console. I would give them a finished mix that had been done on the SSL, and ask them to reproduce the mix on the Trident. The Trident did not have automation, and the student would have to dissect the elements of the SSL to figure out how it was done. An excellent test for hungry engineers. If the student could closely reproduce the SSL mix on the Trident within 4 hours, I knew I had a talented mixer on my hands. There were a few interns that could actually do it.


George : Could you describe the creamy punchy low end of your Neve ? I love how people try to reproduce sound in words. Not many of us have worked on a 8038 for such a long time.

Sylvia: Ah, I love finding descriptive words for the Neve sound. I think it is an organic, oakey sound. The harder you push the pre’s, the furrier the sound gets. It is slow and lumbering… but warm and inviting.


George : Talking about boards and gear, do you have a studio tech to fix things or are you doing stuff on your own ?

Sylvia: I have had in-house techs, and have sent equipment out for repair. Knock on wood, the Neve is stable and doesn’t complain too much. I know how to get around any issues that might creep up unexpectedly. I know that console like the back of my hand. It is a part of me.


George : What is your favourite gear you worked with ?

Sylvia: United Audio 175b, Telefunken U47, Fairchild 670 stereo tube compressor, Gates Sta-Level compressors, Hammond C-3 organ, 1979 Ampgeg SVT… oh the list goes on and on!!!! I have set up a “Gear Porn” page on my new website for gear stalkers:


George: if it comes down to tracking, how do you track Drums? (microphones used, technique used)

Sylvia: I like fairly simple microphones for tracking most instruments, so drums use shure 57 on snare top and bottom, Shure SM98s on tom tops, Sennheiser 421s on tom bottoms, Shure SM81s on hat and ride, Neuman U87s or Mojave M200s on overheads, room mics of some persuasion… and a mono room mic right in front of the kit to crush in a compressor for effect. Most importantly! Check phasing between all mics before recording so you don’t have issues later.


George: … and the guitars?

Sylvia: Two heads, two cabs, a 57 and a 421 on each cab. Sum all mics into one track. Do not record the mics on separate tracks and combine them later!

la foto 3 (3)

George : any special approach on recording vocals ?

Sylvia: I have a very special vocal chain that I carry with me. I love my Telefunken U47 and combine two compressors to get the intimacy I want, depending on the type of performance I want. For aggressive vocals sometimes I will use a live mic, such as a Shure SM58, so the singer can move around like a live performance.


George : …the bass ?

Sylvia: I like the sound of a Fender Jazz bass through a vintage Ampeg SVT head and cabinet. Combine that with a Countyman DI. Nothing else is better.


George : your thoughts on reamping ?

Sylvia: If I’m mixing someone elses recording, sometimes I will re-amp the guitars. It works if you want to give some guitars more excitement. But it doesn’t work if the guitars were originally recordied with too much gain. Nothing you can do wll bring out the clarity of the chords, besides re-recording.


George : your thoughts on analog vs. digital or In the box mixing vs. out of the box mixing? (Summing unit, console).

Sylvia: Mixing is wonderful on an older analog board, yet difficult without the recall-ability of digital. The difference in sound is noticeable, but not enough to keep it all in analog. I’m moving into digital mixing now, using higher quality D to A converters to add warmth. I like Burl.

09 SSLr

George : Do you mix all your records on mixing boards or is there a time where you completly switch to digital? If so, what do you use on a daily basis? (plugins, analog inserts… ) ?

Sylvia: It depends on the project. I finished a progressive bluegrass record that was perfect for the Neve console, so I mixed it there using the Flying Faders.


George : Is there a favorite loudspeaker you use for mixing ?

Sylvia: I have used NHT M100 speaker for several years. i like them because they don’t color the sound. You have to work a little harder to make it sound right. Like big Yamaha NS-10s.


George : Do you prefer to mix loud or at low volumes ? Either way, the question would reamin as why you prefer loud or soft volumes.

Sylvia: I monitor at medium volumes usually during a mix, and finish vocal placement at very low levels.


George : what is the project you currently work on ?

Sylvia: I start on Facing New York this weekend. From Los Angeles of course…


George : What was your favourite project in your career ?

Sylvia: I’ll have to say the Johnny Cash project with Rick Rubin was the most memorable. So many big stars showed up: Tom Petty, Carl Perkins, Mick Fleetwood, Anthony Keidis, Marty Stuart… the list goes on… a magical time!


George : is there an artist or engineer who left a permanent impression on you?

Sylvia: Producer Rick Rubin is my greatest inspiration. He showed me how to be a “fan”.


George : We all learned from someone, somewhere. Is there an individual you want to mention who teached you the nuts and bolts of recording and or mixing? Maybe a funny story from your start as an engineer?

Sylvia: The producer of Maroon 5, Matt Wallace, helped me early in my career. In fact his session on a band called Pariah was my first assisting job. I fell asleep as it rolled into about 2:00am. He has never let me forget it!


George: How important is an assistant to you and just in case you want to put some fame on someone, who is the best assistant you had ? What do you expect from an assistant?

Sylvia: I have had so many great assistants. They all become great engineers. One who stopped engineering is Kale’ Holmes. I wish he would get back into it. He passed my Trident mix test with flying colors and he is fun and talented, yet he stays out of the way.


George: your view on the current state of the music industry?

Sylvia: Someday we will find the secret to making money with music again…haha! But for now it is just a hobby for most people. I love making music and have built a comfortable client-base that will continue to sustain me. I am excited about the new studio coming up. I worry a lot about the younger engineers though. Anyone getting into the biz had better be doing it for the passion of creating art. The days of manufactured super-stars may be over. The days of true individual creativity may just be beginning!


Thank you very much for your time Sylvia! Rock on.

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