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Alan Parsons on “The Art and Science of Sound Recording”
Legendary producer delivers keynote address at Sweetwater’s GearFest
By Michael Summers
Fort Wayne Reader
Legendary producer Alan Parsons delivers the keynote address at Sweetwater’s GearFest on Saturday, June 25.
The presentation is called “The Art and Science of Sound Recording,” which is also the title of the 10-hour, three DVD series Parsons has just released. “A large part of it is interviews which I conducted with other engineers, producers, and artists, so you get a wide viewpoint on how things should be done in recording,” says Parsons of the project. “We try to cover every aspect of recording, from the demo stage right through the final mix.”
He adds: “Really, it’s a combination of what I’ve learned after over 40 years in the business.”
Well, there’s “over 40 years in the business,” and then there’s the kind of remarkable career that Parsons has had.
Parsons got his first professional job as an assistant engineer at the age of 18. The year was 1967, and the studio was Abbey Road in London — an era and place that you could say hold special significance for rock historians. While there, Parsons worked on The Beatles Abbey Road and Let It Be albums, just to name a few, and as his reputation grew over the next deacde he found himself as producer and/or lead engineer for a number of classic records — The Hollies “The Air That I Breath”; Al Stewart’s “The Year of the Cat;” albums by Paul McCartney, Cockney Rebel and Pilot…
Parsons says success came pretty quickly for him. “There were a few very early projects that didn’t make it, and few singles that didn’t make it,” he remembers. “There was this band from Ohio called The Buck Eye Politicians, for instance, that had a great sound, but through disagreements between label and management, the record never came out. Things like that. But quite suddenly I started having success with bands that EMI Records came to me with — Pilot, Cockney Rebel. So when it did come together it happened very quickly.”
Early bios on Parsons used to say that he worked on Sgt. Peppers, though Parsons points out that that isn’t true (in fact, the album actually came out the summer before he started working at Abbey Road). “That’s often mis-quoted,” he explains. “But Pepper is definitely what started it all for me. I heard that and said ‘I want a job at Abbey Road’.”
But while Parsons may not have worked on that particular classic album, there’s another just-as-legendary effort that he helped create — Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon.
As you probably imagine, Parsons still finds himself answering questions about that album. A lot. “Not a day has gone by in the last 40 years where someone has not asked me about Dark Side of the Moon,” he says.
Up until this point, Parsons has been a patient and gracious interviewee, but now, if there’s such a thing as “good-natured exasperation,” you can hear just a little hint of it in his voice. Of course, Parsons is happy with that album’s longevity and his part in it, what it has done for him and his career (he received his first Grammy nomination for it), and grateful that decades on people still care so much, but… “After nearly 40 years, I think I’ve said everything I’ve had to say about Dark Side of the Moon,” he laughs. “I should just write a book.”
There’s a few moments silence. “… and you’re not going to ask me a single question about that, are you?”
I don’t (though frankly, I had a couple written down), but Parsons does say that a follow-up project with Pink Floyd that was shelved will see the light of day this year as part of a Dark Side of the Moon box set. “The premise was that it would all be recorded without musical instruments, using ‘found sounds,’ things like that,” he explains. “The very small amount we actually got out of that project before it was abandoned is going to be released later this year.”
In the mid/late 70s, Parsons started focusing on his own work, the Alan Parsons Project — Parsons and collaborator/vocalist Eric Woolfson (who died in 2009) worked with a wide range of session musicians and singers, with Parsons taking a role that he compares to a film director. “With the notable exception of Alfred Hitchcock, a director usually doesn’t appear in his movies,” he laughs. “It just so happens that I can play guitar and keyboards, but that wasn’t what I did on the records. I made occasional cameos, but the bulk of the musical performances came from other people.”
The Alan Parsons Project had a lot of commercial success in the late 70s/early 80s. Singles like “Games People Play,” “Don’t Answer Me” and “Eye In the Sky” (#3 on the US pop charts in 1982) were big pop hits, and several decades later some of the music has had an interesting afterlife — in particular “Sirius,” the instrumental track off of the album The Eye In the Sky, was used as the intro for the Chicago Bulls and has since gone on to pop up in all sorts of places. “P Diddy based an entire album around it,” Parsons laughs. “Or I should say, it formed the basis for the title track of an album.”
While it was active, The Alan Parsons Project never toured; Parsons says it was very much a studio project, and logistically, it would have been difficult to reproduce that sound live. “We really didn’t think it was a live act at the time we made the records,” he explains. “It was a very lush production, lots of different signers… it was a nightmare to think of taking it on the road.”
“The other problem is that a record producer doesn’t necessarily put on a particularly great show,” he adds.
The Alan Parsons Project started performing live in the mid-90s. “As technology progressed, keyboards and sampling became a normal way of doing things,” Parsons says. “The development of MIDI for keyboards was a big help. It became a reality to get that big sound… Otherwise, we would have been twiddling knobs and fumbling around.”
Indeed, audio technology has obviously changed immensely since Parsons began his career, and with “The Art and Science of Audio Recording,” Parsons hopes to reach younger musicians and producers as well as professionals. “So many people these days, virtually every musician, has some kind of home-recording set-up, even if it’s just garage band on a Mac,” he says. “Thank goodness we don’t have to talk about tape machines anymore, since everybody is working with software and hard disks now. That’s what the man on the street is accepting modern recording as being, using just one mic for most things, recording drums with samples and loops and even using virtual instruments.”
Though Parsons is obviously an enthusiastic proponent of new audio technology, he does think a little something is lost in the creative process when there’s not a group of musicians in a room together. “One of the chapters in the program deals with recording an entire band. It’s actually recording a song that I wrote for the occasion, and you see the history of the making of that song from the first backing track adding the overdubs, through to the final mix. That’s an interesting thing for people who want to see how it used to be done.”
“And there’s no real reason why it can’t still be done like that. Talk to any session musician and they’ll say ‘I wish I could record with a band again.’ They get a little tired of being sent recordings and being told ‘add a bass to this, add a vocal to that.’”
Parsons says he tries very hard in his own work to stick to that basic notion of getting a bunch of people together, bouncing ideas off each other and interacting. “Team work is important. That’s another thing we try to bring over in the program — if you don’t have the personality to deal with temperamental musicians, then don’t do this job.”
Alan Parsons presents “The Art and Science of Sound Recording” as part of Sweetwater’s GearFest 2011
Saturday, June 25
9:30 AM in the Performance Theater at Sweetwater, 5501 US Hwy 30 W
For more info, visit sweetwater.com