#080: Howard Massey – Behind the Glass

Howard Massey is a recording engineer and producer turned writer and author.  He authored the books Behind the Glass Volume 1 & 2 that chronicles the many hours he spent talking to music producers from all different recording backgrounds.  Investigating how they go about recording and making great albums.  People like George Martin, and Daniel Lanois, to name a few.  It covers all the inside detail people want to know about the actual process of getting in the studio and creating good music.  Volume one was written almost ten years ago, so it’s interesting to see how the changes in the music industry effect the tone of the conversations.  In the interview, we discuss the role of the producer, what they bring to a recording, and the unique ideas that are are changing the way records are made.

Get 25% off + free shipping on Behind the Glass Volume 2! Just click HERE and enter promo code NY9 when you check out.

  • Excited to listen to this. And thanks so much for the promo code! I had read a few pages from this book, and you just gave me a great excuse to order it (on Amazon’s “Click to look inside”: http://www.amazon.com/Behind-Glass-II-Producers-Craft/dp/0879309555).

  • Interesting episode. I did think it kind of odd that though Howard mentioned The Beatles several times, not once was the book he co-wrote with Geoff Emerick about Geoff’s work recording The Beatles, mentioned.

    The other thing that struck me, was that Howard is still very focused on the signed artist side of things. Much of your conversation even though indie perspective was the subject, kept coming round to when the artist is of a level to be of interest to a producer and consequently, a label.

    He piqued my interest a bit talking about the trend today to use autotune and people not knowing that the human voice doesn’t sound that way. Sadly, he failed to mention, as did you, that talented vocalists do indeed sound that way sans autotune. Then again, that would have required either of you to say something about the sad lack of talent present in the vocalist camp these days.

    Autotune by the way, began life as an effect. Producers brought us to the point we’re at today with it present on darn near every pop tune you can imagine. In the past, the vocalist would simply retrack the part until they got it right or leave it, warts and all.

    I laughed my fool head off hearing his recommendations on must have items. Hmm, quality mic and preamp… Okay, but them above stellar ad/da converters? Okay, if you’re going straight to tape, no problem. If you’re going digital, you’d better have some pretty darn good converters in that chain or your nice high dollar signal might as well be a Radio Shack cassette deck microphone through a mic-in on a cheap soundcard. That’s what was wrong with digital in the early days, poor converters, not poor mics and preamps.

    His recommendation regarding mixing outside of the box has some merit but again, only with steller ad/da converters. Otherwise, the signal degradation coming out of the computer to be summed at the console pretty much negates the benefits. Hence his mention of the high cost mixing studios. They are likely to have enough converters of high enough quality to make the process worth doing, while the average home studio won’t.

    I was a bit confused with his mention of listening to the input, post converters etc.. I suppose if he meant sitting in the control room the engineer should listen that way then it makes sense. But tracking, the musician never hears anything but what he/she is playing in the room until playback. So, while it might help the engineer, the idea is unworkable for the musician.

    It was a pleasant surprise to hear he recognized the problematic nature of recording in a vacuum. Though I suspect his perspective is more of self interest, being a producer himself, then that of one who recognizes the difficulties inherant in working alone. Although I don’t think it’s harmed Beck or Sufjan Stevens who largely work alone.

    I’m surprised the recording budget issue has had such legs. From Howard’s perspective, of course $60,000.00 isn’t a lot of money. I’d wager his fee is a substantial percentage of that number anyway. For indies, $60,000.00 is ludicrous. Even with, say the Record Plant as the studio at oh, $1,000.00 a day, $30,000.00 would cover a month of studio time, leaving another $30,000.00 for musicians and misc… I’ve said it before and say it again, if you can’t make a pro record for $60,000.00 you have no business recording a record in the first place.

    Most studios have day rates at substantially less than $1,000.00 a day a great deal less in fact. Producers on the other hand… You won’t get a Mutt Lange or Chris Tsangerides for that kind of money.

  • Thank God I can’t afford Mutt Lange! 😀

    Excellent podcast. I recommended the podcast to a friend the other day and told him it was more focused on promotion, not too much tech stuff in it, and then this comes along. It’s my favourite kind of tech talk to, the kind that is focused on the human beings who are doing the work.

    The recommendation of having a good quality mic and pre is one I very much agree with and I’d still say that they come above the convertors. In my opinion a poor mic will still sound poor through excellent convertors but an excellent mic will still sound pretty damn good through average convertors.

    I liked the bit about listening to the sound coming out of the computer. I think what he’s saying is this (and this is aimed at the solo artist at home);

    Get your sound right at source and record a bit of it. Listen back in the track and see who it sounds. If it doesn’t sound as good coming out, tweak your sound until it does. It means spending a little more time on it but it will save a lot of time when it comes to mixing.

    As you mentioned in a tweet Kevin, it was a bad line, but with an interview as good as this who cares? I soon forgot about the sound quality and enjoyed the content (which is kind of relevant to my point about digital convertors…).

    Can I just give some gushing praise here Kevin? I’ve started listening to other music-related podcasts in a bid to stop me going postal at work and you are without doubt the best host. Keep it up!

  • I really like his point about having one great signal chain — a great mic, great pre-amp, and (I think it was sort of implicit in the conversation) a great A/D converter if you’re using digital.

    As for autotune, I felt the point he was making was the *difference* between the sound of a phenomenal vocal and an autotuned one — it never sounds completely natural, and I suspect that some subtle degrees of pitch ‘inaccuracy’ are what make truly great singers so distinctive. I think the effect of autotune on the pop consumer has been to reduce their tolerance for unique voices. If Bob Dylan or Lou Reed were starting out today, they’d never make it anywhere close to mainstream, simply because their voices don’t fit in the narrow box that people have come to expect on the radio, TV, etc.

    That said, I don’t think autotune is ‘cheating’ — it’s just another tool in the toolbox. People probably thought Les Paul was cheating when he first overdubbed. I don’t personally like the sound of autotune, but I wouldn’t question the morality of someone else for using it.

  • Wil

    Excellent interview with Howard. I’m looking forward to reading the book.
    Keep up the good work!

  • Some great discussion here. Just one point I’d like to make:
    Digital summing doesn’t “degrade the audio.” Analog summing does. However, it degrades the audio in a way that pleases our ears. It’s the perfection of the “digital math” that our ears can find displeasing.

  • Broadcast James


    You’re kind of missing the boat on the auto-tune discussion. “talented vocalists do indeed sound that way sans autotune”. So talented vocalists sound artificial? What’s they’re talking about, is that (younger) listeners are starting to equate the artificial sound with what they recognize as natural. A good example to something like “Pokerface” by Lady Gaga. If you ever heard her sing a capella, you’ll notice that she has no problem staying in key. She IS a talented singer… What we’re talking about is the effect of autotune on the cultures ears.

    The $60,000 number was based on a figure given by Indie artist Corey Smith. It wasn’t “From Howard’s perspective”…

  • Gosh I still don’t get exactly what he meant about hearing the signal after the computer as opposed to before. I’m an idiot. Anyone, help?

  • Ben, it’s kind of hard to explain but I’ll have another go!

    Imagine two sets of monitors. One set gives you the signal from the mic through your pres and directly to the monitors.

    The other set gives you the signal from the mic, through the pres, through your digital convertors and to the monitors.

    If you make recording decisions using the first set you’ll be making the wrong decisions as you’re hearing an almost direct sound.

    The second way, you hear what it will sound like once it’s been passed through the AD convertors and so it will be more like what you’re going to end up with.

    To be honest, I think it’s more relevant to the studios who have decent convertors, analog summing etc and aren’t working in the box. It can be helpful if you have a small two-room setup though. Say I’m in the upstairs room and the guitarist is playing downstairs. Don’t set the guitar sound downstairs. Let the guitarist play while you listen to it going through your system and tell the guitarist what tweaks he/she needs to do to their sound.

    Does that help?

  • Thanks Darren, I was wondering what he meant there as well! Enjoyed reading Vol 1 a few years ago and thanks to Kevin and CD Baby for getting the discount for listeners on Vol 2.

  • Angelo

    Am I an idiot? I can’t figure out where to enter the promo code!

  • Fun interview. Always great to hear about the craft. Do not agree with the old, tired “too much bad quality stuff out there” point. Biggest thing is that anybody with a music idea and some drive can put themselves out there. The time when “a few people controlled what people listened to” only seem to have benefited all the people who made a living under that system. The audience have a way more diverse taste as proven by the digital/on-line change, and big super-artists seem to be dying breed since “those few people controlling the output” are gone.

  • This is the 1st podcast I’ve listened to, having only recently become a member of the CD Baby community.
    I thoroughly enjoyed it! I read the 1st Behind The Glass book several years ago.

    I thought the questions asked to Howard Massey by the podcast host were excellent.
    The dialogue also sparked creative insights in my own mind about how I’m approaching things and the various pros and cons.

    My day “job” is teaching guitar…mostly adolescents and teens. And part of my mission is nurturing people’s musical intelligence. I hope it helps with the direction recorded music is taking and with consumers taste/ability to receive music with nutritional value 🙂

    I accept the reality of auto tuning but because of my knowledge base with music harmony and the overtone series etc, I know that true tuning is flexible and based on simple ratios. For example a true octave is exactly 2:1… and know what? The human brain is designed to produce and recognize these intervallic relationships precisely. A particular note in one chord will be tuned slightly differently than when that same note is resonating in a different chord. A piano or guitar is using tempered tuning ( approxiamate ) so they can accompany with chords in any key..and that is definitely a good thing. Tempered tuning was a war in Europe a couple hundred years ago between the Church, musicians and science.

    It’s all good, and music is very subjective. But I prefer a wholesome, nourishing meal with a bit of junk food only every so often 🙂
    So long as our ‘peeps” like our stuff! The ones that don’t simply aren’t in our target market. It’s a fun game!
    Peace to all,
    Dave from Toronto

  • I just wanted to point out that besides rock and country music you don’t need 60,000 lol. Take trance as an example their is not a signal flow in! its completely virtual now from your computer. VSTI AND VSTE have changed everything like nexus or the best plug ins. and when I say plug ins its not just music plug ins talk about mastering like WAVES plug ins that cost 15,000, the best are using them. O and did I mention its FREE yes IF YOU KNOW HOW TO PIRATE THEM LIKE A LOT OF PRODUCERS ARE DOING. so I think it cost more like 2,000 for the jbl speakers an ok mixer and a usb interface. I’m not saying I do this or have done it, I’m just speaking my mind!

  • Michael,

    No offense but Trance is NOT music and has no resemblance at all to creative output. Stating proudly that it’s cheap because you can pirate the needed software is stupid to put it kindly. Without the original tracks, even trance could not exist. Are you a musician, an artist or a remixer? remixers are for the most part, thieves and nothing more.