History in the (re) Making
From re-mastering The Beatles, to re-energizing The Coral, New Brighton’s Guy Massey is the go-to engineer behind the desk of many of this city’s most essential musical output. David Lloyd wonders if his cans are a bit 'toppy'...
For Grammy nominated engineer, (now Grammy-winning – news just in!) Guy Massey, his job description is simple: ‘it’s just boys and their toys,’ he tells SevenStreets.
On listening to the sometime Manic Street Preacher’s tour guitarist and studio wunderkind’s work, we’re thinking – hmmm, with all the toys in the cupboard at our disposal, we’d never create quite the same noise.
For Massey, the past few years have been every boys’ dream come true. A teenage Beatles fan in the badlands where Seacombe squares up to New Brighton, Massey’s one of the country’s most respected recording and remastering sound engineers. And, next month, he’s off to Los Angeles, part of the Grammy nominated team responsible for last year’s universally praised Beatles Remasters series.
Not a bad career trajectory for an ex Geology graduate and regular at New Brighton’s long-lamented Hotel Vic.
Massey’s particular long and winding road to the top saw him land a work placement at Abbey Road as part of a Sound Engineering course. “It was more than a lad could wish for,” he says. “I learned from the best, in the best studio in the world.”
He must have learned fast. Abbey Road retained his services – and there, holed up in Studio 2, Massey stayed for the best part of a decade, working with legendary producers of the calibre of John Leckie and Mike Hedges on everything from Radiohead’s The Bends, to the Manic’s Everything Must Go. We’ll brush over the Adam Ant ‘comeback’ album, eh?
Hands up who can remember the mid 90s? In engineering terms, the years of Brit Pop and Alcopops are now considered as prehistoric as the granite rocks Massey smashed up at Uni.
“When I started at Abbey Road, everything was on tape,” Massey recalls. They had 24 track analogue tape machines. It was only fifteen years ago, but it was another age, really. I’d spend days in the cassette copying room. Sixty machines, running off copies of Now That’s What I Call Music on tape. Ancient history, haha…”
Still, it was the best of times, too.
“You had more time to learn your craft,” Massey admits, “When the studios were empty, I’d get my mates’ bands in, and have a mess around. I was lucky. Right place, right time.”
Whatever manoeuvres Massey may attempt to try and deflect our praise, there’s no ducking the fact – a Grammy don’t come for free.
The Beatles Remasters series, clocking up 18,000,000 in sales before they were released on iTunes, has been roundly, and rightly, praised as a textbook exercise in surefooted, honest and respectful remastering.
“We were determined to retain the dynamic range of the originals,” he says, alluding to the grim practice of modern recordings’ volumes ratcheted so high, compression and clipping leads to a shrill and limited reproduction: the ‘loudness war’ that still rages on the forums of audiophiles around the world.
“We spoke about this at the very beginning and we agreed – we weren’t going to sacrifice fidelity for the sake of a few extra decibels of volume. People have volume knobs of their own. If they want louder music, they can always turn it up,” he says.
Despite a distance of some 45 years, the spirit – and the soul – of the recordings remain. And those lovable mop tops? Introduced to (yet another) new generation.
“We were never trying to re-write history,” Massey says. “If we’ve succeeded, it’s because we tried as best we could to stay true to the integrity of the originals.”
Exhibit A? The remasters may be digitised, but they’re anything but sandblasted. “There’s a big debate about de-noising,” Massey says. “But we only de-noised less than one per cent of the entire catalogue – five minutes of the 535 total minutes, and then only for things like intros, but we have only taken it down very subtly.”
Massey, who admits he didn’t have to think too hard when the call came from Allan Rouse, Beatles’ gatekeeper at Abbey Road, says the project took four years – on and off – from start to finish. A total immersion into every recording the Beatles ever committed to vinyl.
Rouse holds the unique distinction of being the only person to have heard literally every surviving Beatles tape stored at Abbey Road – a task set when he headed up the Anthology project. Massey, now, isn’t too far behind.
“First, we archived everything. All the ¼ inch mono and stereo recordings, with the highest quality possible converters and sampling frequencies. We’d go through everything, listening to each track over and over again, to make a note of every crackle, hiss and pop. We’d note down the occasional bad edit, hum or voice dropping out, then we’d compare our crib sheet, make a new master, re-EQ it, and listen to it in a range of different environments…”
It was only then that Massey and the team felt confident enough to send it to ‘The Board’ – Apple Corps’ inner sanctum of Jeff Jones, CEO, Macca, Ringo, Yoko and Olivia Harrison.
“There were a few tweaks, and a few discussions over some of the tracks, but, looking back, it all went remarkably smoothly. The fact is, they were recorded so well in the first place, that our task was made all the easier,” he says.
Next month, Massey and co – doubtless looking resplendent in rented tuxedos – will wait to hear whether the Grammy is theirs. For most Beatles aficionados, it’s a moot point. The boy done good.
“McCartney must have liked them, as he’s booked us to do his back catalogue now,” he says. Thumbs up, indeed.
As we talk, Massey’s putting the finishing touches to a couple of Deltasonic’s latest great hopes – Wirral’s The Red Suns (‘I love them, they remind me of early Bunnymen. Great potential’) and helping on a mix of HGV rock of Wigan’s Suzukis. He’s at home, wrapped in Pro-tools, speakers, consoles and signal processors.
“Budgets are non-existent these days. You’re expected to do everything, in half the time for a quarter of the budget, but deliver the same quality,” Massey says. “I’m more of an engineer producer. Not many new bands can afford the luxury of having a team, and hours of studio time at their disposal, so you have to multitask, hopefully not to the detriment of any of the plates you’re spinning”
Perhaps that’s why, when expressing a preference, Massey will always prefer to work with a band that knows how to play and have a clear idea of the arrangements of their songs…
“I see myself more as a facilitator, helping to achieve the sound a band knows they’re after, perhaps making suggestions along the way…
His last major project saw Massey back on home turf, working with John Leckie on The Coral’s Butterfly House, in Lark Lane’s (Andy McCluskey-owned) Motor Museum studios, last year: “Now they’re really great musicians, much of the album was tracked live. Very few edits, a proper old school record, made with modern recording technology,” Massey says.
“People tend to get dazzled by what Pro Tools can do. But if you use it like a tape machine, make decisions and commit to performances, it’s exactly the same as using tape. And that’s the way it should be.”
“A lot of bands these days think that it’s up to people like me to iron out the idiosyncratic performances, because they’ve no patience. It’s not like when you hung out with your mates at school, formed a band and learned your craft playing all the shit holes in your local town.”
Or, for that matter, Hamburg?
“The Beatles’ recordings don’t stand the test of time for nothing,” Massey says.
“When I was a kid, buying music was an investment. These days, it’s everywhere. That’s fine, but if you don’t pay for it, where’s the emotional attachment?”
Somehow, despite the peer to peer, the illegal download, and the compressed bit-rate, as long as people like Massey are at the controls, we think music’s still in with a fighting chance…
The Grammys: February 13