Located near Mount Shasta in Northern California is a thriving complex known as RadioStar Studios. In four different rooms people are making music — mixing, tracking and overdubbing constantly. How did this come to pass? Sylvia Massy made a good name for herself as a producer in the '90s, and when she was looking to keep working without sacrificing quality time with her husband, a move to the town of Weed was in the cards. How she's made this work is interesting, but certainly hinges on a career making records with Powerman 5000, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Skunk Anansie, Love & Rockets, R.E.M., Johnny Cash, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, System of a Down, Smashing Pumpkins, Prince and my favorite, Big Elf. Sylvia and I also have some common roots, as we had both attended Chico State University and had been radio DJs there (KCSC, where she "became fascinated with recording gear and production techniques") as well as performed in bands in Chico, just a few hours south of her current home. Weed is a small town in a beautiful setting, and Sylvia has surrounded herself with a group of positive, creative people. Her enthusiasm is infectious, and the way her voice rises and eyes light up when she discusses future plans makes the listener confident she will achieve anything she sets her mind to.
About seven years ago, you were in L.A. and a successful producer/engineer. You started out engineering, moved into production. You did Tool's early records and things that were beginning to get some notice. How did you end up in Weed?
I think I was planning on moving, and I had already bought a Jeep because I was looking at moving to Lake Tahoe. Then on a fluke, my father introduced me to a guy, Greg Shivy, who lived in Mt. Shasta and was a railroader. We corresponded by letters and then finally, I told him, "I'm selling my house and I'm moving up." We got married and I thought I was just going to retire, but it was right when System of a Down hit — the first record — and the Powerman 5000 record hit also and the phones started ringing a lot and they were really good record opportunities. I had to make the choice of continuing to work in L.A. and for a while and I did. For nine months I stayed in L.A.
While you were married?
Yeah, newlyweds. He was up here working too. Yeah, so nine months of that and it was obvious that we had to set up something here in the Weed area. I had all the equipment at Sound City in L.A. and I had wanted to set up a studio of my own, anyway. We looked at building a studio at our place because we have a fifty- acre ranch up here, but then all of a sudden this theater became available and it is just an awesome recording space. Weed is kind of a dead, dumpy little town in the middle of nowhere but the vibe is great. The people here are really open to unusual people with colored hair and tattoos. It doesn't freak them out.
Why do you think that is the case?
There is another town up the road from Weed called Mt. Shasta City that has all the really expensive homes and some celebrities live there and they're real stuffy, so Weed tries to compete with that in a way and they're like, "We're not going to be stuffy and we're going to let the creative people come in here and we want the artists to be here." They're really supportive, actually.
People have been really nice in Mt. Shasta and Weed. People will stop and say, "Hi. How are you doin'?"
Isn't that weird? When I moved up here, I was driving my Jeep and someone cut me off and I honked my horn and I was all pissed off. I was going to chase them and then I realized, "Oh geez. I'm going to have to see this woman who cut me off every day because it's such a small community." Road rage completely ended at that point. The whole L.A. thing — I had to get rid of it. Strangers wave at you when you drive by and I'm like, "Who are they? I've never met these people before." They're just friendly. I really love it. Once I moved up here I wondered why I didn't do it so much sooner.
Do you think you were at the perfect point in your career where you could make that jump?
I think so. I was lucky enough to have had some success.
Even if you built a barn studio out on the ranch, you would still get enough projects to justify setting that up, I would imagine.
Yeah, that is where I've lucked out, and this is working because of that. It's still working. It's pretty surprising. It's actually grown quite a bit.
How many rooms are there now?
There are four studio rooms and a brand new rehearsal room. The rehearsal room is in a big, old building that we recently acquired which used to be a church. It will eventually be a second, big tracking room, much like the theater. Right now there are four working studios. There's the Neve in Studio A, which is the original console we had installed in the theater, and that's an 8038. Then we have a brand new console installed up here in Studio B in the balcony — the SSL 9080 J — it's eighty channels. Then we have a Trident 80 series in the Studio D "Toy Box." And over in Studio C we have a TAC Matchless with a Neve BCM- 10 sidecar. Everything goes through the Neve.
I figured, and you monitor it through the TAC?
Yeah. It's an alright console, too.
So, that's four rooms with a fifth one on the way. How do they all stay busy? Last year we had two rooms — the Neve and one overdub room and we got so backlogged on projects, especially with mixing, because we would start in the Neve tracking room, move over to overdubs, then come back to the Neve to mix.
But there might be new projects tracking?
Exactly. I turned away seventeen projects in the last six months of last year, so it became very obvious that we needed to get a mix room and another overdub room. Because I have such a great team here we're able to run several sessions at once. The engineers that I work with — that I really trust — they'll run the sessions and I'll come in and I'll help with the arrangements and direct the technique for recording and check the overdubs. I'm able to bounce between rooms. It's really a great system.
There is a mix being finished down here right now...
There's a mix being finished downstairs, there's overdubs happening in Studio C and an outside project in the Toy Box today, so I don't have to be involved in that at all.
They're just renting the space?
Yes, but generally it's all in-house stuff that I'm producing or that I co-produce with my staff.
How do credits work? Are there some records where you're more hands on and you are the producer?
When I set up these sessions I try to be really clear with the clients who are coming in that the engineer is going to be credited with production also, and that we really work as a team. Everyone gets production credit and I also split points with them. I think that's a bit different than what other producers will do for their engineers, but I think it's really fair. They do add so much to the records.
Have you trained some of the engineers you're working with?
All of them except Rich Veltrop, who moved up here from L.A. He and I worked together in L.A. before, so we were familiar with each other. He was the first person to come up. He and I both developed this style of working and the new engineers have come in and adopted the same techniques, so we are all pretty interchangeable. Anyone can drop into any one session and know where everything is laid out on the console and where the Pro Tools files are set up. It's very consistent from session to session. Everyone has the same system. Oftentimes, one engineer will start a project and another engineer will finish. Or I'll have Kalé Holmes do all the tracking on one project and Rich will mix it, or vice versa. It works really great because their ears are fresh and you get everyone's perspective on it. I think that certain engineers are better with certain types of projects, so I try to match them.
It's a unique place in that respect.
Is it? We're just kind of doing our thing and it seems like it's more of an old school way of doing things. I think if you hired a studio in the sixties it came with engineers and producers. When I worked in L.A. the studio owners would just provide the equipment and an assistant and no other services besides duplication. We do everything here. We even make merch. We have a video production company, which is really cranking right now.
So, if a band is in here working, they can also schedule in time to do a video while they're here?
Yeah — a lot of EPK [Electronic Press Kit] work, where the sessions are being filmed and edited together while the band is still here. During the mix, the final edit on the EPK is being done. The band is never really idle. There is always stuff to do. If they want merch designs we have a graphics guy who does that and we have a whole textile print shop. We're a full service facility.
When you talk about doing all this stuff — do they hire you to do these things or are there projects where you are investing your time and money?
I would like to do more of that, but right now these are pet projects. One is this band next door, Cog. They're from Australia. This is the second record that we've done. It's going to be nine months of making this record. It's awesome.
In a situation like that, are you working on a production deal with them?
No, they're paying, but I'm cutting them some slack because it's such a huge amount of time. We're also doing a full-length video documentary at the same time. Our videographer, Richard Valdez, went on tour with them in Australia and has all the footage from that and he's going to be cutting it in. It's a big project for us. It's a labor of love because I just love the music and they've become dear friends, too — which can also get you in trouble if you're trying to do a business — but if you have enough rooms like we have here, we can cut them a break and still generate enough income to keep the place going.
They're in a lower overhead room right now. You can have this other thing going on over here at full rate. That makes sense. How many engineers are on staff right now?
There are three engineers. There are two trainees, but I'm short an engineer. It's a weird thing, but I'm having auditions. I had a guy come up and do some engineering and I'm going to have another guy come up who I've been talking to. We may have already found our engineer.
It has to be somebody who wants to move to Weed. Is that hard? Do they say, "My girlfriend/boyfriend lives in L.A. or Nashville"?
They have to be ready for that and it doesn't pay a lot, to be honest. You get your points and you get your credit. If you're using it as a stepping stone, that's great. The overhead is so much lower living here. You could buy seven houses here for the price of one house in L.A. — with property! The quality of life is so good. The water is great. There is never any traffic.
If you're into snowboarding it's good.
It does snow a little bit, but it's not bad. You can have a family here. Engineer Jason Benham just moved up here from Fresno and he has a couple of kids and they have a house now, nearby. It's family time. It's great.
Outside of engineers, how many people are here full time?
We had fifteen people working here up until recently. The label was just sucking the money out of the studio so I cut four people off the staff.
What was the label called?
National Recorder. We're still going to be doing it but it's being rethought.
I've always said, "If you want to lose money, start a label."
No kidding! This is the second time I've done it too!
When did you do it before?
It started in 1990. I had a label called Third Hole Records and I signed a band named Big Elf — it was their first album.
I love that record.
You do? I love those guys still, today.
I didn't know that was your label. I had seen your production credit on it.
I should've known then — never do the label again! We're suckers. A friend described these bands as beggars, almost — you want to help every hungry band out there because you love their music and their passion, but you can't feed them all. Maybe you could feed a few. I have a huge amount of informational resources from setting up the label — and there are several bands who have made the trip out here just to sit in the office and use all the resources that we have for finding management, setting up their own tours or just connecting with the right people. If they're going to get distribution then I can tell them who to contact, but I'm going to have to pass on helping directly. I'll help as much as I can, but they have to make the phone calls.
Do you find yourself stretched too thin sometimes?
If you were overseeing three recording projects and you've got other business things?
It does become an issue. Now that the label is on hiatus it's a lot more comfortable and I'm spending a lot more time in the rooms. The records have always come out great.
It seems like a lot of the jobs that came down the pike, especially when you first moved, were coming from Tool, System of a Down type music — people listening to that going, "Wow. She knows how to make these bands rock." I know your taste is pretty damn broad, do you ever get tired of...
...of getting the Tool type bands?
"Oh, it's some really young boys with loud guitars." It seems like you're doing a lot of that music. You mentioned Lisa Haley [the King Cake zydeco album] came in. Is that a nice change of pace?
Yeah, I also worked with Johnny Cash and Tom Petty and his band — that's the roots, country thing I just love. I also love funk!
You worked with Prince in the past.
Yeah, right. I do get some of the roots stuff every once in a while and even some of the R&B, funk stuff comes through, too, but the majority is the harder edge stuff. I also love the jangle-y stuff and the retro '80s kind of thing that's happening now, too. I love quirky music, too. The weirder, the better.
Do you ever feel pigeonholed as a producer?
No. I get a wide range of opportunities, but the popularity of Tool is just mindblowing.
Musicians love it. That's something people are going to pick up on and say, "Who recorded this?"
I was at Coachella last year and they headlined and it was pretty insane to see two hundred thousand people watching Tool play. I'll probably always get those bands sending demos that sound like Tool.
Somehow you've engineered it to be in this position where people are coming to you. Do you see other ways people could set up a studio in a remote location and make it work? What do you think would be the formula?
Well, first of all, you can't be afraid to try it. You don't have to be in L.A. to do records anymore because of the ability to upload large files to FTP sites. The client doesn't even have to come to the session. They can send you files wherever you're at. I think you do have to have yourself established somehow, but I would say take advantage of places outside of metropolitan areas because you can get the property so much cheaper. You can actually have decent recording rooms.
I think you mentioned to me six years ago when I dropped by here the first time to visit, you said something about the city helping you out. How did that work?
When we came to buy this building, because it's an economically depressed area, the City of Weed got grants for economic development. I wrote them a proposal and said, "I'm going to hire a staff of five people and these people will be working and living in your town," so they gave me a five percent loan for seven years for the building and I was in.
I imagine the building was very affordable.
It was very, very, very affordable. I'm almost embarrassed to say how much it was. It needed some work. It will always be a project. There will always be something that we are working on.
What have you seen as far as the impact of having this complex going here — what have you seen as far as the impact on Weed itself?
Where it was once really dead, we now have art galleries next to us and across the street. There are still some dead spots. There are good things and bad things. The artists are coming in. The bad thing is the real estate investors have also come and they see that something is happening here, they see that we are building and growing and they snapped up all the buildings on the other side of the street and they're just sitting on them. They're vacant. It sucks.
Instead of using them or having something happen...
Yeah, one of the great bars in town got shut down and it's vacant.
The Black Butte?
Waiting until it is worth selling — that could lead to things not happening on an economic level, which backfires.
Exactly. It makes this place not as fun for clients because there's not as much to do here, but we keep kickin'.
Have you ever had inquiries where there is a band you really would like to work with, say a larger name, who was really reticent to come to a town of this size?
I haven't heard directly from them about that. I think, so far, it has worked the other way. Ross Robinson brought a couple of projects up here. I think some of the bands might get a little stir crazy. On the other hand, there are no distractions. If they're here to make a record, they make a record and they put a hundred percent into it and great things happen. Also, they have to deal with their own shit because there's no place to go to escape, so there are some meltdowns that happen when you have to deal with yourself.
Do you feel like camp counselor sometimes?
Yeah, but isn't that what a producer does? There are some weird, freaky stories about things that happen up here that people walk away with and we get a lot, lot, lot of return business. Almost fifty percent of people who come here come back to do their next record.
How do you feel about where your rates fall?
We need to charge more!
How do you know how to assign rates if you're shuffling people around from room to room? Do you just charge a project rate? Do you set a rate for the different rooms?
The rooms are different rates, but I try to build every project so that we move from one room to the other so that they save money in overdubs. I think economically it's better for the studio if all tracking is at one rate and being done down there in the big room.
Like, the live tracking would be done in the theater? Do people ever do overdubs in the Toy Box?
Oh yeah, that's major overdubs because all the weird stuff is over there.
Is that where all the oddball gear is?
Yeah, all the oddball gear is over there, so you can go over there and have fun.
One of the things I noticed on the website was band testimonials. A lot of them looked like bands that are self- financing their session. Did you guys make a conscious decision to try to facilitate all kinds of budgets with a studio like this? Say, a band from Salt Lake City is going to drive out and do a hard rock record — what is the tightest you can squeeze it down to for them?
I have a formula for bands now. Per song — if everyone has their act together — two and a half days per song, we'll finish that song. If they want to do six songs, just add it up — if they want to do twelve songs, a full album — add it up.
That is pretty minimal and straight-ahead?
Yes, you're always going to have to do mixing in the more expensive room, but you can do tracking in a less expensive room. You don't have to track in the theater. If you don't have enough money to spend on tracking in the big theater room then just do it in the smaller tracking room. It sounds great too. I think the results are equal. But there is a vibe in the theater. Everyone wants to record in the theater. And you have to mix on the SSL or the Neve. That is a requirement. We're not going to let anything out the door that isn't one hundred percent... The Trident is alright for mixing but it's not automated.
What kind of budget would a small band spend to do, say, a ten- song record really fast?
Say, twelve songs is thirty days, add another couple of days, thirty-two days, you're going to use four of those days for tracking drums and then maybe eight days for mixing — minimal — so it's going to be a little over twelve thousand for that and then half of that for the overdubs so that's another twenty days in the B room, or one of the other rooms, so that's another ten thousand, so we're looking at a minimum of probably twenty-two. That's minimum because there's been a rate increase. Let's say twenty-four thousand.
Does that include staying in the house?
It includes accommodations, engineers, producers and coffee.
It doesn't include food. You have to feed yourself and you have to do your own laundry.
What was the highest billing for a project you've ever dealt with?
Like with Cog, probably up to a hundred and twenty thousand — in L.A. standards, that's average, but what that buys you up here is nine months.
That's pretty awesome. Do you feel like the time bands can have up here to stretch out their ideas has been a big selling point? They can have the same budget, but stretch it out over more months.
Some projects, because they only have a certain amount of money, will come in and only cut about six songs. Then six months later they'll come back and do another four or something until they finally get the whole record together. If it costs less to record, obviously I think you can make a better record. Well, that's debatable, actually. Part of it is the focus and the fact that the people who work here really care. We're very consistent. I think every record that comes out of here is great.
Is everybody involved from here contributing to song arrangement and production?
Totally. Just learning how to play their instruments sometimes — even the seasoned artists try playing their part and they say, "Oh, there's an intonation problem on this guitar" and they put that aside and they grab another one — same thing — okay, another one — the third time it's like, "Okay, this is a problem with your fretting and you're fretting too hard and you're playing too hard and we need to revise the way you play." Even the seasoned people are going to learn a few things when they get in under the microscope.
I was amazed to see this band, who probably saved up all of their money to come out here and do this project, mentioned that they got treated really well.
They have the opportunity to work on this gear too, which is top-notch gear. They're learning about that as well.
I thought one of the futures of studios was to start acquiring more instruments. As you know, in Los Angeles if you go to a major studio you walk in and there's nothing to play on. You have to hire out everything.
That's the '80s and '90s way of running a studio. You have to bring your own stuff. You have to bring your own engineer. The studio isn't responsible for the outcome. I think we're very responsible for the outcome and everyone here takes it very seriously.
It seems like that has become part of the whole selling point. Nothing is coming out of here that sucks. "We really care." You've got great recording equipment here. You've got lots of great musical equipment. What do you do about getting your guitars set up or something recapped or trouble-shooting in SSL? What happens?
We cross our fingers. No, luckily we hooked up with a guy in Oregon. It takes an hour to drive to him because he doesn't leave his house. He's kind of crazy, but he does a brilliant job working on stuff. We bring rack gear and amps to him. He's also designing his own guitar amps, which we're excited about. Just knock on wood. The guitars get taken care of at Guitar Center in Medford. We really need someone knowledgeable here in town. We really, really need that.
Have you ever put the call out for that?
We've had a couple of different techs come and go. We haven't found the right person yet.
They don't want to stick with it?
No, I don't think they were as knowledgeable as we needed them to be. One lucky thing is that a guy named Ron Garrett — the house tech for Sound City back in the day — has a business called Alive Sound in L.A. He commutes back and forth from L.A. every week from his house up here. We're like, "Ron, can you bring us up some NS10 woofers this week? And would you mind looking at our ATR while you're up here?" He can walk us through any problem over the phone if he's not here. But you're right — we need someone regular. That is the biggest drawback from not being in L.A.
There are a lot of rooms to maintain.
I guess it's out of necessity that we have several rooms, because one three hundred dollar a day room ain't gonna fly. It ain't gonna keep you alive, really. The building is gonna cost the same. If you have one studio in it, you're making this amount. If you have two, you're making twice as much and it's not costing you any more except for the additional personnel. We'll cram a studio into every corner of this place.
You have four rooms going and one more on the way. Do you see any more past that?
I don't think so. I want to do other things, though.
When's the root beer coming?
Well, there's a brewery in town and they have a bottling facility. We have our own silk screening thing so we could silk screen our own bottles, so we're getting closer. I'm serious. I'm going to do it. My dream would be that this place would be the destination for people in the industry to come and move and have their families here and to have their own studios — or musicians to come and live here if we had a venue for them to play. It's a stopping point along the I-5.
Do you think you will make the theater a venue that's open occasionally?
It's still the plan. We haven't had any shows recently but it's a part of the plan. We have to build another addition with toilets because we only have one toilet in the theater and we need seven per sex in order to have enough for the building.
Could you do it out back or something?
Yes, there's an exit on the side of the theater. Since we own the property next door we'll be able to build and connect the two properties. That'll be another fifty to sixty thousand dollars, so that's down the road. It's part of the plan, still.
You think if you had shows of the right caliber you'd get people from Redding and Medford coming up?
Easily, because there is nothing around, really — besides the casino in Redding — there's no place to see shows. What I'm really looking forward to is having live shows going on with the view from the SSL room in the theater balcony. We can have big name acts play in this smaller venue and we can record it on world-class equipment. When there are no shows going on, everybody would continue with the studio sessions the way it is now.
It would get the name out more, if people see a live record recorded in this place.
We have the video production, too, so we could have our own little TV show.
It would be a beautiful place to shoot in.
Yes it would.
If the town wasn't named Weed, do you think it would work?
We were thinking of helping change the name to Radio City, California, because businesses don't want to come here. They don't want "Weed" as their address. It works for the studio, though!
People probably think it's funny.
Do you know what Weed is known for? Jim Morrison's common law wife [Pamela Susan Courson] was born in Weed.
One of the things I thought was funny came from the studio guide that's in the guest house [Toy Box], "Watch out for the underage fans out front." Has that really been an issue?
We keep an eagle eye out for that kind of thing. We've had some issues and we had a parent call us once, but usually everyone is pretty well behaved. When From First to Last was here there was a whole crowd outside.
They found out somehow?
Yeah, and Norma Jean, too. There were some fans out there.
It's kind of cute in a way, but that's probably part of why you're out here is to get away from everything.
It's all right, though. If I can help kids in any way to find out that there is something else to do besides working at the whatever fast food restaurant. We have a whole slew of interns. Our engineer Cecil Gregory was an intern. He's from Weed and it was actually a school program that got him in here. He started when he was fourteen. He's nineteen now and he's the fastest Pro Tools editor out of any of us — he flies. We pass all drum editing on to him and he fixes it up and passes it back. He just started producing, so in his downtime we assign him some projects and he's doing really well. I support the young people — especially if we can help any kids locally.