When Alan Parsons landed a job at the famous Abbey Road Studios in London at the age of 19, it became clear that the world of sound recording was going to dominate his career. Since then he carved a successful career as engineer and producer and has worked on some of the greatest albums of all time, including The Beatles Abbey Road album and Pink Floyd's Dark Side Of The Moon.
Aside from these classic albums, he also worked on many others, as well as, his own albums with his Alan Parsons Project. Alan is still very active in the industry today, and his latest venture is an instructional series about recording called The Art And Science Of Sound Recording. He also recently released All Our Yesterdays, a song written especially for the series, which features some of LA's finest musicians and a rare performance by Alan on lead vocals.
In Ultimate-Guitar's continuing "The Producers & Engineers" series, in this latest installment, Joe Matera speaks to Alan Parsons about his work, engineering and the evolution of recording.
UG: Let's begin the interview by going back to the beginning. You began your engineering career as assistant engineer at Abbey Road Studios working on The Beatles' Abbey Road album?
Alan Parsons: That wasn't the very first thing I did, the very first thing I did was actually sitting in on various sessions as a trainee engineer. But working with The Beatles was an amazing experience. And working with producer George Martin and engineer Geoff Emerick gave me a great deal to learn from, and that experience too was amazing. The album Abbey Road was actually recorded very quickly, it was done in about eight weeks which for The Beatles was pretty fast. But I enjoyed every second of it. And I was getting paid to work with the greatest pop band of all time!
What were some of the main things you learned during those sessions that has held you in good stead in your career ever since?
It was the knowledge that George [Martin] gave me, which was all about how to be respectful and how to command affect which was one of his traits. George was universally looked up to by The Beatles and he in return, gave them a fair degree of freedom to do what they wanted to do in the studio. And they'd always look towards him and say, we want to do this George, so how do we do it? And George would somehow find a way.
How important was The Beatles experimentation in the recording studio upon the overall evolution of recording in general?
I think there is no doubt The Beatles had a profound effect on the development of recording technology. If it hadn't been for them, I think we'd probably still be using an eight track or four track even. They showed every one that a band didn't just play their instruments and then would add vocals, but that they willing to go beyond that. They were a band that always were ready to experiment and push the limits of the recording studio to the boundaries that had never happened before. I think other groups from the 1960s and 1970s took advantage of what The Beatles had achieved, and many of them would say, if The Beatles can do it, we can do it too'. And I think Pink Floyd was one of those bands that did that.
Speaking of Pink Floyd, Dark Side Of The Moon, which you engineered, is almost a master class in recording as the group used some of the most advanced recording techniques that were available at the time?
Yeah and it was done only sixteen track, believe it or not. There was nothing digital. All time shifting was done with tape and all the reverb was done with mechanical devices. I think it demonstrated the state of the art at the time and I am very proud of it. They would occasionally double track guitars and I certainly multi-tracked guitars myself as Dave [Gilmour] would have as many as five or six parts going on and that was a demonstration of how the technology affected their creativity. The nice thing about the band back then was that they were all getting on with each other which is sadly, no longer true unfortunately. They were fun times and everybody was enjoying themselves.
When you put together your own group Alan Parsons Project, was it hard to be objective as a producer, musician and artist?
It was actually a very similar procedure. But because I was more involved in the creative side, the composition of the tunes and the structure of the record, I had much more freedom than I might have had with other artists. It was the same operation when it came to the engineering and production techniques as I had already established the way I did things. It wasn't that different doing my project compared to other artists.
How important is the placement of mikes in the overall scheme of recording guitars?
It is very important. You can transform a guitar sound by moving the mike even a half an inch literally. If you mike near the center of the speaker, where the cone is, you're getting a very bright sound and if you move away from it, you're going to get a duller tone. And you can move the mike even further away from the cabinet, that'll give you another effect yet again. You can really tune your sound quite dramatically by moving the mike.
Does it really matter whether you have expensive gear as to the quality of a recording, or is one's own creativity paramount and should always drive the recording process?
I have often said that it is not the mike and everything that happens after it. It is what you put in front of the mike that really matters. Another expression is, garbage in and garbage out, so if you have not got a good sound to start with, no microphone is going to be able to capture it. There is another cliché that exists in the business where it says, we'll fix it in the mix'. And I am all for not doing that. I am all about getting it right from the beginning and from the early stages.
"They were a band that always were ready to experiment and push the limits of the recording studio to the boundaries that had never happened before."
What sort of gear do you currently have in your studio?
In my home studio I have a Yamaha digital desk, a Mac quad core, and between Pro Tools and Cubase software wise I don't have the need for any tape machine. I'm not such a traditionalist that I still have to go through the nightmare of running tape all the time. I have a reasonable collection of microphones, preamps and processing gear like reverbs and delays and stuff like that. But is not the kind of environment where I'd want to record a whole band, it is really for a good listening environment with a good sounding room which is more suited to the modern way of recording, like doing vocals. But I just love the feel and the atmosphere of a big studio and there are lots and lots of faders.
When it comes to using or applying compression, especially in regards to the whole loudness wars debate, how important do you think it [compression] is to the final mix?
If you ask a record label person, he'll say it is everything. And you can also get that same opinion from a number of mastering engineers too. But I resist that [using compression] at all levels, I dislike compression and I only use it when a dynamic is out of control, as that is what compression was designed for anyway; to control dynamics not to give records a squashed up sound which is what it seems to have become very fashionable now. Some records are so, so compressed and squashed you barely recognize them. And it is very tiring to listen to records like that too it is very hard on the ears. I don't like compressing a mix and generally speaking I don't like compression in mastering either. I just like to get it right the first time.
How and in what ways do you think has engineering evolved from your early days to today?
I think digital has made recording possible for the masses. All you need today is a lap top computer, a microphone, and a half decent preamp and anybody can make a record now. But it wasn't like that to start with, if you wanted to do a multi-track recording you had to do it in a commercial studio and spend the big bucks to do it, but the sheer numbers of lap tops means that there an enormous number of people making records now. So there is a vast quantity of music out there that has to be shifted through. So there is much more out there than it used to be. And of course the internet makes it accessible even more.
And the job of sound engineer has actually evolved along side the developments in engineering.
Yes, an engineer really traditionally was just the guy that got a sound balance and answered to the instructions and the whims of the producer. Basically he was paid to keep his mouth shut on any creative thing. He just really worked on sound and sound balance. But that has evolved over the years where engineers are much more likely to be part of the overall creative team.
"There is another clich that exists in the business where it says, we'll fix it in the mix'. And I am all for not doing that."
Do you think that the big studios are becoming more irrelevant in today's environment?
I still prefer the traditional way of recording which was al about having four or five guys all playing together, all interacting with each other, all kind of working towards an arrangement that works. Where as the modern way tends be, start with a click track, put a drum loop down, add a bass, add a guitar, add a pad, so it all kind of has become a much less team experience. And that is one thing I miss in modern recording.
You recently released The Art and Science Of Sound Recording' a DVD series that looks at and delves into all the stages of the recording process. What was the impetus that led you putting this series together?
I felt there was a need in the industry and though there are a lot of colleges and recording schools out there, and I am not saying they don't have the teachers, but I think there was scope for me to impart some knowledge to educational courses that otherwise they may not have. There are lots of books on the subject too, but I felt that was a need to do a real high quality and really comprehensive series about every aspect to recording and that is what we set out to do. We thought it would take six months in the beginning but it ended up taking three years to do. So instead of one DVD, it became three DVDs, so it is ten hours of material. But there is something for everyone in there, every question you ever wanted to ask about recording which we hopefully have given you the answer to in the series.
What have been some of your highlights in your career?
I think the success of Dark Side Of The Moon and my first Grammy nomination, that was a great moment of pride for me. And in later years the success of the Alan Parsons Project and the success of bands like Pilot and Cockney Rebel, whom I had two consecutive number ones with, that was also really great moment for me. My whole career has been full of great moments and disappointments too, but I can feel lucky to still be doing the job that I love after all these years.
For further info on Alan Parsons' Art and Science Of Sound Recording, please visit this location.
Interview by Joe Matera
"The nice thing about the band back then was that they were all getting on with each other which is sadly, no longer true unfortunately."