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Sylvia Massy’s Studio Divine

By Barbara Schultz. Famed Engineer/Producer Opens Up Her Studio While She Works Abroad

In the audio world, Sylvia Massy is as famous for her radical recording techniques as she is for her award-winning projects with Johnny Cash, Tool, System of a Down, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Prince and others. And in pro audio’s great tradition of mentoring, Massy often shares her techniques and experiences via a lively social media presence, industry events, her book Recording Unhinged, and her former “Gear Stories” column in Mix.

Now, Massy has decided to share her studio itself: Studio Divine in Ashland, Ore. While she is conducting the latest Mix with the Masters seminar at Studio La Fabrique in the south of France, and is producing a string of European clients, Studio Divine will be available commercially for the first time, complete with Massy’s immense gear collection. Mix recently talked to Massy about this decision.

Why is this the right time to open Studio Divine to the public?

We’ve finished our main upgrade of the facility and I’m going to be traveling most of this year. Studio Divine has a remarkable collection of gear, with a vintage Neve 8038 console loaded with 1073s, racks of audio processing and a powerful Pro Tools system with every type of plug-in. I’m eager to open the doors to outside engineers, producers and musicians.

What was involved in your “main upgrade”?

After searching through the area for a few years, we fell upon the perfect acoustic space in an old church. We moved the console in and I started with sessions right away. Over the last few years of private operation we put in new lighting, with updates in the bathroom facilities and the kitchen. We put in a cozy fireplace right next to the console, which is really romantic. And we’ve pumped up the mic collection. Studio Divine is a unique place for people who love vintage equipment and creative recording; it’s a big sanctuary full of rare devices and inventions, crazy old gear, and instrumental lunacy.

The other exciting thing about Studio Divine is that it’s growing. We just acquired another building and we’re putting in another tracking/mixing room. I have an overflow of equipment that will go into the new rooms that are being built now. It will be another year before they’re online, but we already have a Looptrotter 16-channel console with great mic pre’s and a 500 Series frame—and it’s loaded with 500 Series modules including Aengus, APSI, API and many more on the way. An array of colors for the audio palette! The desk also comes with Emperor modules, the commanding 500 Series limiters that Looptrotter makes. I’m fired up because the Looptrotter will allow me to do hybrid mixing in the new room, and in the main church facility I’ll be incorporating the Neve as a summing device, as well.

Why is it so meaningful to you to teach other engineers?

I think that new engineers sometimes need a kick in the butt to become more creative. They are so very safe. So whenever I can, I will do something wacky and adventurous in the studio. Young engineers will shake their heads and say, “You can’t do that,” and I’m saying, “Oh yeah? Watch this.”

For example, I’ve been interested in filtering sound through different materials. Take the speaker jack from the back of an amplifier and insert that speaker cable into different devices: lightbulbs or sausages or potatoes, or a power drill or motors of any kind. Imagine the sound of a synthesizer being run through a drill motor. You get the filtering effect of audio being run through the motor electronics, and then if you hit certain frequencies, the motor will actually start up—powered entirely by audio—and then you get the harmonics of this motor running along with the filtering effect.

When you pull out the lightbulbs and the drills and the cheese in a session, the musicians look at you like you’ve lost your mind, but then they get in the mood too, and they’re enthusiastic to participate with new and wonderful ideas.

I think also, when we can escape the studio environment and go into new and unknown places to record, that’s also enlightening for new engineers because there’s such a huge difference between a performance of a singer in a normal studio environment and a singer in a cathedral. Or put that same singer in a crawl space where they can’t even stand up. Using space as a way to manipulate a performance can be fun, or sometimes a bit torturous.

Are performances in Studio Divine affected by the church atmosphere?

Absolutely. And this place is a perfect example of how environment can positively affect performance. There’s a great spiritual vibe in here—the church creates open hearts and we bring the open minds. 

Related: Gear Stories with Sylvia Massy in Mix magazine• Mr. Williams and the Fairchild 670, December 2010• Her Satanic Majesty’s SVT Beast, October 2010• The Spirit of American Gadgetry, September 2010• Triangles, Tubes and UFOs, August 2010• The Age of the Customs, July 2010• Cockroaches and SM58s, June 2010• Trixon Speedfire, May 2010• Whole Lotta Theremin, April 2010• Johnny Cash and the Sta-Level, March 2010• Prince and the Gemini II, February 2010• Gear Stories with Sylvia Massy, January 2010