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(Credit: Sylvia Massy)

Sylvia Massy: The pioneering producer who brought 1990s rock to the masses

In 1993, while on the Lollapalooza tour promoting their debut LP Undertow, Tool singer Maynard James Keenan is asked about how working with a female producer/engineer for the album added a different perspective to what the band were recording. After a pause to collect his thoughts, Keenan lays it out without flowery language or puffed up praise. “This is a very good engineer,” Keenan puts it succinctly. “An engineer that does her job well and she’s just very good.”

Sylvia Massy, the producer/engineer who has worked with artists as diverse as Johnny Cash, Luscious Jackson, Prince, and System of a Down, is the kind of professional whose working reputation exceeds any tokenism, grand exaggeration, or sexist lens. Is she a world-class engineer? Absolutely. Does she have a startlingly impressive resume? Of course. Did she make her name during a time when women behind the mixing desk were few and far between, a time that extends all the way to the present day? Yes. And it’s not because she’s a “good female engineer”, it’s because she’s a “good engineer”.

Massy worked for a number of years out of the legendary Sound City Studio in Van Nuys, California, where she housed her prized vintage Neve 8038 soundboard console. If you’ve ever watched Dave Grohl’s Sound City documentary, there’s a lot of hoopla over the studio’s original Neve 8028 console that was used by everyone from Fleetwood Mac to Nirvana, but Massy’s own Neve console, which was right next door, produced its fair share of classic records as well.

Known for its rich sound and ability to add punch, the Neve console was the ideal workspace for Massy, who made her name throughout the 1990s by producing some of the most aggressive rock and metal bands of the time. Massy met the newly formed Tool through the band Green Jelly, the propagators of outlandish comedy metal. Brutal Juice, Slayer, Horsehead, Bigelf, Econoline Crush, Deftones, and Powerman 5000 are just a few of the loud and heavy bands who relied on Massy’s ability to cut through the noise and extraneous decibels to find the best versions of these band’s hard-hitting styles.

But Massy was able to produce, mix, and engineer beyond the realm of pulverising volume. Although she started out in the California punk and metal scene, it was her work with Prince during the early ’90s, as he was assembling the New Power Generation, where she brushed closest to the mainstream, remixing tracks like ‘Cream’ and being one of many engineers credited on the subsequent Diamonds and Pearls album. The Purple One even offered her a permanent gig at Paisley Park, she turned him down in favour of producing Undertow.

Massy is filled with stories like this. There’s the time when she and Tool unloaded on second-hand pianos with shotguns and sledgehammers. There’s the time she found Prince his own giant grandma chair. There’s the time she befriended the bearded guru Rick Rubin and inexplicably wound up recording Danzig and Donovan at the same time. There’s also the time she recorded the Melvins through a pair of pickles. These tales are nice, but Massy’s unwavering dedication to production is what’s kept her busy, not hanging on the glory of her past work.

The full scope of Massy’s work is still incomplete, even if you mention huge names like the Red Hot Chili Peppers, the Smashing Pumpkins, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers or any of the large swaths of artist she’s worked with for what is now her fourth decade in the music business.

That’s because she’s an experimental producer who is constantly trying to find new sounds and perfect the art of using the studio to channel creativity. If you need to know the difference between germanium and silicon fuzz, or need to know how to properly stem work in ProTools, or want to record the fattest drums possible…she’s the person to go to. There’s always another challenge, or another band, or another new sound to discover with Massy, and her work goes beyond some of the more cliched terms like “innovator” or “pioneer”. Really, she’s just a really good engineer. Nothing more, nothing less.

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