Guy Massey did his apprenticeship at one of the most prestigious studios in the world – Abbey Road – and is one of the most sought after recording engineers around having worked with everyone from Paul McCartney to Manic Street Preachers to The Coral as well as re-mastering The Beatles catalog.
In Ultimate Guitar’s continuing "Producers and Engineers" series, Joe Matera caught up with Guy Massey to discuss his work from capturing guitar tones in the studio to the delicate approach of re-mastering The Beatles.
UG: You started out playing in bands before moving into recording, how important has having a musician background and live experience been to your work as an engineer and producer?
Guy Massey: Yes, I think coming from a background in music albeit on a pretty rudimentary level, was important in gaining certain skills as I moved forward in my career. From simply spending lots of time in close proximity with band mates and dealing with the issues that all bands have as they try and carve a niche, to gaining experience in local studios and getting excited about the process of creating music was instrumental in pushing me towards wanting to engineer and produce as a career.
You learned a lot of your recording skills at Abbey Road, what was that experience like and what lessons did you learn that has held you in good stead in your career?
Abbey Road was a fantastic and informative place to work in. So many different types of sessions were regularly catered for. From straight classical setups, strings for pop and rock stuff, big band, show tunes, rock and pop recording and mixing and big film score recordings were constantly on the go when I joined in 95/96 So I regularly setup sessions for engineers in Studio 1 on big film jobs and smaller stuff too. I quickly gained experience in which mics to use for these sessions and more importantly where to put them. I then graduated to assisting in Studio 2 which sort of became my home for the next few years and I regularly assisted in there.
Learning studio etiquette too, which I still think is a massive part of your skill set as saying the wrong thing at the wrong time can be catastrophic to an artists’ confidence. I learned to watch and listen and not say anything unless prompted and tried to second guess what everyone else would want and when they would want it. A good assistant on a session is paramount, without one, a session can go tits up pretty quickly. I also used my time wisely I think, in as much as when I had time off, if the studio was empty, say over the weekends I'd get friends bands in and lock in the studio for hours, learning by my mistakes and experimenting on mic placement and which mic amps/compressors went well with which instrument etc….
You re-mastered The Beatles recently, how did you approach that task considering the delicate nature of the work involved and because it was The Beatles.
I was asked by Allan Rouse at Abbey Road to sort of head up that process because one of the guys who was originally asked to do it, had too many other commitments so I nervously said ok… it was a big job and obviously our work would be under the microscope somewhat. I suppose I was trusted with the material because I'd been involved with quite a few other Beatles projects previous to the Remasters.
You have done a number of re-mastering projects, so what elements do you look for when it comes to re-mastering a project?
"The drums especially in loud rock stuff are very important, they are the backbone of the song, so getting a good sound is important."
The transfer and archive is important. We tend to try a few different machines to do the transfer, choose the best one and archive at 24 Bit 192Khz sampling rate. Once archived, I'll listen through a few times to individual tunes then mark any stuff down that I want to address. I'd then take it into restoration - with Simon Gibson - and remove any stuff that detracts from the listening experience (hum, pops, electrical noises etc) then edit in the 'fixed' stuff into the new digital Hi Res master. Once that s done, I'd go up to Master it with Steve Rooke. As for actual projects, my remastering has solely come about via the Beatles so I'm tending to do associated projects like the Apple Box set and McCartney’s new remasters. The only other one I’ve done of note with Steve has been the Chameleons’ Script Of the Bridge Remaster which was a good one because it was such an informative album when I was in bands earlier on.
When it comes to recording do you work in the digital domain primarily or do you utilize a mixture of both analog and digital?
A mixture generally if I can. I love tape still. I love the sound it imparts, the work flow when using tape is vastly different than when tracking digitally. I love the fact that you’re not staring at a screen, you're not watching the music you're listening, it’s so much nicer, and less tiring. Once the backing tracks are down on tape I would then transfer to Pro Tools at 24 /96 and do edits and overdubs digitally, and the depending on budgets, mix at home in-the-box or back to a studio for mix down through a nice analogue desk.
What gear comprises your main working console?
It depends really, whatever is available. Old Neves float my boat, but I like SSLs too. I did an album last year on an old Helios which is a cracking desk. I love them. I tend to try and use lots of different mic amps when recording if they are available. Many studios have such great collections of these that it's quite easy to get a broad pallet of sounds.
What approach do you use when it comes to capturing great guitar tones in the studio?
Lots of different amps, guitars and pedals, I would always be out in the studio with the guitarist to check the sound at the amp, generally I'd close mic the cabinet and have a room mic up too for spread (I'll use anything from Royer Ribbons to SM7s on the cab and say a 67 in the room). If multi mic’ing I'll phase correct the mics at source to ensure there is no part of the frequency spectrum getting "sucked out" then record this as well as a straight DI pre pedals to tape/computer. Often when recording big distorted guitars, I will use compression but I'll maybe run the signal through an API 560 and possibly have an 1176 Pre this with no compression. I just love the sound they give when not compressing, and handy level control to tape too. I always utilize multi amping too. You could say I go with a 4x12 and a Mesa for the crunch and power and then have a smaller boutique amp too with a pedal in the way for a pure fuzz tone then blend the two making sure their phase relationships are right too. For clean sounds I go with my ‘70s Fender Twin or a Jazz Chorus first and then maybe something a little dirtier underneath. And a Clean DI too.
What about when it comes to acoustic guitars?
Acoustic guitars, C12s and 67s, Neve preamps and 1176s, I often put a 57 right up close and then send that to a small amp in another room and use that amp’s spring as a reverb too as it can be effective in the right setting.
How important to a recording is the drum sound and in how they are recorded?
I asked somebody the other day how my mix was sounding and he said', "yeah, the snare sounds good". So yes the drums especially in loud rock stuff are very important, they are the backbone of the song, so getting a good sound is important. I love recording drums. I find it challenging but really rewarding when you turn up the monitors and they sound massive. I generally put up far more mics than I think I need and then pull stuff out I don't need. But the basic setup would be a couple on the kick, two on the snare upper and lower, two on each tom - upper and lower, stereo overheads, hats, ride, a stereo ambience and a couple of fucked up ones.
I'll compress the overheads and ambience to tape and not hit the tape too hard peaking at -2Vu or just above, louder for the ambience probably. I think having enough separation of individual drums is important not to limit your choices before mixdown. It can be a problem when getting stuff in, you haven't recorded and the drums are too compressed or distorted, especially if the cymbals are hit hard. Usually in those scenarios, the kick and snare sound fucking brilliant but as soon as the cymbals hit, they take your head off.
Do you think where recording technology has advanced today has reached a crucial point where it’s become detrimental to the point that everything has become computerized or do you think it’s been a positive thing as it’s opened up way more recording potentialities than previous?
"I love tape still. I love the sound it imparts, the work flow when using tape is vastly different than when tracking digitally. I love the fact that you’re not staring at a screen, you're not watching the music you're listening, it’s so much nicer, and less tiring."
It depends on how you use the technology. There is some amazing music out there by people who record everything in their bedrooms and use and abuse the technology to great effect. It's not the fact that it’s a computer capturing a recording, it’s the fact that you can manipulate it for eons afterwards that can be dangerous. With Hi Rez and great converters these days, capturing digitally sounds great. I prefer the sound that tape imparts for some recordings but love the clarity of digital too. You can use Pro Tools like a tape machine and I often do do big broad edits and try and capture the performance at source instead of manipulating it into one post recording, but that can be tedious. I mean, I like a tight performance but I don't really like stuff that is bang on a grid all the time, its boring to me and gets less powerful because of that tightness in some way.
Where do you think recording in general is heading in the future?
Well, most of the big studios have gone, so I think there will be a lack of people coming up who have gone through that studio process and therefore maybe a lack of knowledge of basic stuff, and some of the stuff you can only learn from experience. Obviously we cant all have big consoles and tape machines to work on at home, so the home studio computer aspect will march on because it is for some the only avenue available to them to create music, which in itself is great because it means more people can do it. But I dearly hope some studios will remain, I think there is no better way to create music than in a studio, utilizing the talented assistants, technical engineers, brilliant acoustics, amazing gear and the love invested in them.
How have you evolved as an engineer over the years?
I think I listen to things better now. I like to think I know which mics work best on which instruments and how to position those mics better than say 15 years ago. So much of being an engineer is that ability to stay focused and get on with people for long periods of time in confined spaces, sometimes with a few big egos in tow, so I've learned to be patient for the most part, and to listen to what's required and try to second guess so things can be ready to go before they are asked for, also how not to mix too loud. I used to mix loud when I started out but now I mix pretty quietly, I suppose it's just something you learn as you get on.
What advice can you offer to those that have home studios and want to make better recordings?
A great microphone and a great mic amp is a good place to start.
Do you think there is a genre of music that is much harder to record and capture in the studio than another?
I was talking about this recently. I think a three piece rock band is a pretty tall order sometimes, especially if you're not going with loads of guitar overdubs. Getting all that power and energy busting out of the speakers, is harder than it would seem I reckon. There is nothing as satisfying as standing in front of a Marshall stack with a Les Paul on full or a really shit hot drummer going for it, its immensely exciting capturing that and pumping it out of tiny speakers and have it still sounding awesome. That is hard and I take my hat off to the guys that can do that well.
What are you currently working on musically?
I've just finished producing and mixing an album for Ultrasound and recording and mixing and album with Bill Fay. I'm currently re-mastering some Paul McCartney and Wings albums, mixing a young artist for Atlantic records and about to start work with a singer songwriter from London.
Interview by Joe Matera
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