Interview: Guy Massey Shares Recording Techniques from Abbey Road, AIR Studios, and More

Guy Massey has had an extraordinary 20-year studio career, working with everyone from Radiohead to the Manic Street Preachers. He was first lured into the the world of recording after visiting a local studio under a railway station in his native Liverpool, England.

"It was a magical place to me — dark, dingy, and full of possibilities," he says.

One of the last of a generation of engineers to pass through the old studio-apprentice system, Massey took a course at the University of Surrey, which guaranteed a temporary placement in one of the top studios in London.

"I got my holy grail," Massey says. "Abbey Road."

After three months of "slogging in tape copying rooms and making tea," Massey was offered a full-time assisting position.

I used to get friends' bands in to practice with, and learn from my mistakes. You can do that much better if you ponce around in your own time and test yourself without a client's clock ticking."

"We weren’t really allowed to engineer on official sessions, so when there was studio downtime, I used to get friends' bands in to practice with, and learn from my mistakes," Massey says. "You can do that much better if you ponce around in your own time and test yourself without a client's clock ticking."

During this time, Guy learned that good engineering is about being able to quickly realize a sound that an artist asks for.

"It's what I was aiming for, and something I try to carry through in my work today," he says. "That comes from experience, good players and instruments — plus, a decent acoustic space."

And acoustic spaces don't get much better than those at Abbey Road. Guy would end up spending 10 years at the studio. During the mid-‘90s, he learned his craft from some incredible engineers and producers — including Mike Hedges, Ian Grimble, and Alan Moulder — on sessions with some of the biggest artists of the time, like Oasis and Radiohead.

Spiritualized - "Out of Sight"

During the engineering sessions for the Dr. John album Anutha Zone, Guy met Spiritualized, who were guest artists on the recording. "We clicked," he says. "And I ended up recording and mixing an EP and tracking all of Let It Come Down at Abbey Road and AIR studios. I also did post-production and the mix on their Ladies And Gentleman at the Royal Albert Hall LP [Royal Albert Hall, October 10, 1997 Live]. We still work together today."

Guy mixed and co-produced The Beatles’ Let It Be… Naked and did the remastering engineering for many of The Beatles’ reissues, including 1 and The Beatles Anthology DVD set. He has mixed Paul Simon, engineered acts from Depeche Mode to Ed Sheeran, and produced Ultrasound, Ray Davies, and other artists.

Guy now frequently works out of his own studio, which is based around Pro Tools with Waves, UA and Soundtoys plugins. An analogue breakout chain includes everything from Dangerous Music and Shadow Hills compressors to Kush Electra EQ, plus monitoring with Unity Audio The Rock and Focal CMS 40 monitors.

When not recording there, Guy mainly frequents Konk or Snap! studios in North London and sometimes, RAK and Abbey Road if there's a budget. All of these studios boast an array of vintage gear, which Massey is still a huge fan of using.

The two-time Music Producers Guild Recording Engineer of the Year shares some of his detailed studio tricks below.

Massey on Recording Guitar

Decide what you’re going for early on. Is it leading the track and meant to be the main focus? If so, make sure it’s tonally right and works with the vocal if there is one. A big, rich guitar may mean you have to excessively EQ it to work with the vocal, so experiment with different guitars if you can.

Rhythmic acoustics can be lighter in tone and less full, so they fill up higher frequencies. Sometimes I like to record an acoustic from four feet away at head height with a crossed pair. Pan hard left and right, and place the vocal down the middle, so the guitar doesn’t compete too much but sounds focused. I also might try a Neumann U 67 at the bridge and a condenser pencil looking at the 12th fret, panned slightly away from each other to give a nice space.

With electrics, I tend to close-mic with a Sennheiser MD421 and either Royers or U 67s, EQing the sound with both signals, and often record a room if overdubbing too. I’ll most often take a clean DI for re-amping if the sound turns out to be not quite right.

I can do that at my studio with either the Audio Kitchen Little Chopper or my trusty old Fender Twin. I tend to be able to get a pretty comprehensive palette with those, although I’d love a Roland JC to complete it. I love both Neve and API mic preamps for both acoustic and electrics and often use an LA-3A for acoustics and an 1176 for electrics.

Recording Drums

Learning to record drums with multi-mic arrangements was something of a revelation for me. Learning about phase and choice of mic and how they all interact was great fun. I still love recording drums, both with a few mics and all-out, close multi-mic’ing and staggered ambiences. It also took me a long time to realise that if the drum kit sounds ropey, isn’t tuned well, and the acoustic space is a dog, then you’ll never get a decent sound.

With drums, I’ll have either Coles 4038s or U 67s as overheads. And often, I’ll use either a Fairchild or a TubeTech or a couple of 1176s to go through if needed.

Recording Vocals

If you’re overdubbing a track with a lot of space for a big vocal, that would inform what mic I’d use, along with the timbre of the vocalist's voice. For valve mics I'd probably use a Neumann U 47, U 67, or AKG C12, with a Neve preamp, 1176 or Tubetech CL1B compressors. If it's a dense track, I’ve been using my Electro-Voice RE20 mic and a distressor, which can sit a vocal really well.

Getting the vocalist comfortable with how they record is paramount, including the right ambience and a good mix for them to sing to. Always listen to what they have in their headphones before starting. Personal mixers are okay, but sometimes using them can affect pitching if their mix is wonky. Use a little reverb if they insist, but I try and talk them out of it unless it’s a really big part of the vibe.

Being positive about performances is another must, choosing words wisely so as to not make artists feel insecure. Knowing when to offer advice or not is something that comes with experience, I guess. Finally, suggest they leave when you’re comping. Listening to lines they have sung that aren’t good can add to insecurity and alter their vibe.

Guy Massey

Some General and Not-So-General Advice

Don’t monitor too loud, as your ears will tire very quickly. Check mixes at home and on headphones, and don’t forget to check in mono and take breaks.

At the risk of sounding like your dad, do some stretches every day, as sitting on your arse for 10 hours in front of a console or monitor seriously fucks with your posture and back. Trust me on this: when you take a break, do a minute or two of stretching. I’m going to take my advice on this, too, as I always forget and have slipped a disk. Not pleasant…

It might sound a bit of a cliche, but I sort of enjoy most sessions. Being in a great studio with like-minded people playing with cool gear and making great music can’t be anything but fun.

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