Known for her playful style and fearless approach to recording, Sylvia Massy is a seminal figure in production for her work in alternative music. She has worked with everyone from Prince to the Red Hot Chilli Peppers to Johnny Cash and Tool. She is currently running her own studio out of Ashland, Oregon, working on select recording and creative projects.
At Berklee Online, Sylvia is the author of the course Sylvia Massy: Creative Approaches to Recording and Producing Music, where she teaches students to reexamine the recording process with out-of-the-box methods using everyday objects.
In this full Q&A featured in Berklee Online’s new music production handbook, you’ll hear from Sylvia about how she got her start in music production, and the lessons she’s learned along the way in her career.
When was the first time you became aware of the field of music production?
As a young’un listening to Yes’ Fragile, I realized that the layers of vocals on “South Side of the Sky” were all made by one person. I marveled at how this could be done. It was soon after that I got two cassette machines and began to layer music and sound effects by playing one machine while recording on another. I knew recording was a fun thing to do, but didn’t recognize it as “production” until years later.
What was the first production job that you had?
I started in radio production at Duncan Robertson Productions in Oakland making radio shows and commercials. My first music job was as a staff producer at Bear West Studios on Howard Street in San Francisco.
When did you realize that production was where you could find a future?
While working at the university radio station at CSUC, I learned to use microphones and mixers. This knowledge translated into a great job at a commercial production house in Oakland, after finishing college. I got to be creative with voices and sound effects for commercials, but I longed to be involved with music. So I took a big chance and started knocking on studio doors. Bear West Studios in San Francisco hired me to run an eight-track studio (their B room). The money was less than I made in radio, but I was much happier with the work I was doing.“It wasn't until moving to LA that I really started making money doing music production. Big surprise! You can actually make some big bucks. You just have to be patient.” —@SylviaMassy Click To Tweet
I began producing right away, there was no division between being an engineer and being a producer. But for the first 10 years, I just scraped by financially. It wasn’t until moving to LA that I really started making money doing music production. Big surprise! You can actually make some big bucks. You just have to be patient.
What is the release that you worked on that you find yourself listening to the most?
The songs recorded with Foo Fighters’ drummer Taylor Hawkins are my favorites. He has a great way of drawing you into the story, and there is always a surprise twist in the chord progression. Another song on repeat in my playlist is a mix I did called “Downtown” from a Czech band named Reverse Cowboy. Older favorites are an Aussie band named Cog with the album The New Normal, another Czech artist named Adrian T. Bell and I still love listening to System of a Down’s debut album.
What is your guiding principle as a producer?
My role as a producer is fluid. I’ll fit myself where I am needed in a project. Sometimes I write arrangements, sing backing tracks, hire players, completely reworking the songs . . . and sometimes I am simply a cheerleader. One of my most important jobs is keeping the project on schedule and getting it finished. Remember, you are NOT a producer if you don’t finish. I always land the airplane on the runway.
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What is one valuable piece of music production advice you’ve received that you’ve kept with you throughout your career?
It’s all about the song. If you have a great song, one with memorable melodies, you’re gonna win. That is the most important thing to remember in music production. It is essential that you understand song arrangements, rhythms, and pitch. Depending on how precious your musician client is, you might want to rewrite parts of songs just to get the project to the starting line. I will often have a client write 50 songs before we go into production for an album.