Persistence for the win
From Chico State grad to world-renowned recording engineer
Sylvia Massy does not hold back. As a recording engineer, producer, visual artist and author, Massy’s accomplishments have included recording artists like Tool and System of a Down, co-producing with Rick Rubin, building her own recording studios, traveling around the world to work with musicians, lecturing at the likes of Boston’s Berklee College of Music and London’s School of Audio Engineering Institute, and most recently writing the book Recording Unhinged.
And Massy’s expansive career began right here at Chico State, where she returns this evening (Dec. 1) to give a talk as a guest of the School of the Arts and SOTA Productions. It all started with making posters for KCSC events, and eventually transitioned into working as an on-air personality for the college radio station.
“It was at KCSC that I really learned how to use recording equipment, and that’s where I got my first opportunity in a studio,” Massy said in recent telephone interview (from outside Dresden, Germany, where she’s been recording for a month). “That really got me hooked into wanting to do that for a living.”
After leaving Chico State, Massy headed to San Francisco to pursue commercial radio. That career choice didn’t pan out as planned, but she began volunteering at various recording studios and slowly began picking up engineering and producing gigs, including co-producing demos with Metallica guitarist Kirk Hammett.
“I decided if I was serious about being a record producer or an engineer at all, I’d have to move to Los Angeles because that’s where everything was happening,” she said.
Massy’s intro to the business in LA started with a job at Tower Records on the Sunset Strip.
“It was a great place to work because I met all the record label execs at the customer service counter, and my co-workers were all musicians and they were striving to break into the industry,” Massy said.
It was during that time that Massy met Tool drummer Danny Carey, which led to her big break—recording Tool’s well-received debut, Undertow, in 1993. Over the next several years, Massy mixed and produced records with artists ranging from Aerosmith and the Red Hot Chili Peppers to Johnny Cash.
Though Massy’s career was thriving in LA, in 2001, she sold her house in West Hollywood and bought a ranch up in Siskiyou County. For roughly a decade, Massy operated RadioStar Studios (later renamed the Loud Palace), a recording space she opened in an old theater in Weed.
In 2013, Massy shut down the Loud Palace, and eventually moved to Ashland, Ore., and opened a private studio located within the Church of Divine Transformation.
Earlier this year, Massy co-authored Recording Unhinged, a collection of stories and tips on unconventional recording techniques (e.g., recording a kick drum through a garden hose). The book features interviews with well-known producers and engineers, including Geoff Emerick (The Beatles) and Academy Award-winning composer Hans Zimmer (The Lion King).
“If you really start reading these stories, you realize the sky’s the limit if you have a microphone and an amplifier and a way to record,” Massy said. “Just start creating your own recipes for these crazy sounds.”
The book also includes several illustrations by Massy herself.
“Way back in Chico when I was at KCSC, I started as an illustrator for their posters, and here with this book I was illustrating a lot of these diagrams to explain how these techniques are done,” Massy said. “I rediscovered my love for illustration and art.”
Recently, Massy purchased an old auto garage in Ashland and is building a second studio, along with an art studio and gallery where she can continue to work on her illustrations and larger paintings.
“There’s always that voice in the back of your head that says. ‘No, I can’t be that,’” Massy said. “I just want to invite everyone to suspend disbelief for themselves, because at one point, if you’re persistent enough, you break through. I’m so blessed to have been able to do all the things I’ve done so far, and I plan on doing so much more, but it has to be because of this persistence.”