Alan Parsons got his start in recording through working for EMI in England. Initially he was dubbing tapes when he chanced upon an opening at the famous Abbey Road studios. After getting hired there, he lucked into sessions as a tape op/assistant on The Beatles' Let it Be and Abbey Road sessions. Mixing Pink Floyd's Atom Heart Mother eventually led him to engineering their classic, Dark Side of the Moon, where Alan's technical expertise and ingenuity combined with the Floyd's studio savvy helped to create one of the true milestones of recorded music.
Alan went from there to form The Alan Parsons Project with his manager Eric Woolfson, initially conceived as a possible one-off 'calling card' for his production/engineering talents but which soon led to a long career and many hit songs and albums.
John and I met up with Alan at his home in Santa Barbara. When we pulled up I could hear some music drifting out of the guest rooms above his garage, with a familiar slide guitar style. Alan turned to us beaming as he admitted David Gilmour of Pink Floyd had generously laid down tracks on a song for an upcoming Alan Parsons CD. I was able to sit in Alan's home studio with his collaborator P.J. Olsson and hear the whole song, a fantastic instrumental, which they were mixing in Nuendo. I also got a chance to admire a number of platinum records on the walls. We retired to Alan's home office for a chat while P.J. mixed another song and Alan's cats wandered in and out of the room.
Early on at Abbey Road you worked with Roy Harper on Stormcock?
I did the first ever session on the 16-track desk with Roy Harper in the number three studio. That was a good one. I was the first to actually get my hands on that board, the 16-track.
Was it working okay?
Yeah, it worked fine!
I guess they had a lot of technical staff there to ensure that.
Yeah, in white coats. It was really the first opportunity I had to do some engineering experimentation.
Who was producing on that?
I think it was just him. I don't remember anyone. Perhaps Peter Jenner or Andrew King — they would wander in and out...
Were they managing him at the time?
Probably. Those guys seem to have been involved with every Harvest [Records] act in one way or another.
I wasn't aware you worked on Pink Floyd's Meddle also.
I didn't! They gave me a gold album by mistake. [laughs]
Okay! So instead of sending you [a gold award for] Atom Heart Mother — they sent you Meddle?
I do know that you mixed Atom Heart Mother. One thing I've heard some people complain about was that they felt like the orchestra kind of lagged behind the band since they had the tapes done and played the orchestra over it.
It was a very difficult part — the brass. I mean you can hear how difficult... it was a stunning arrangement. It was, you know, I mean given today's technology of course you can tighten up every note and get everything lined up exactly, but yeah, it's not perfect.
But what records were in those days?
Being that it was such a long piece, did you mix it in sections and splice together?
Yes! Almost certainly that way. Anything that had a complicated mix like that — you would mix until you made a mistake, and then stop and then run back and, "That was good except this and so-so..." I did quite a lot of records like that.
On that song there's the weird talkback voices, like the "silence in the studio" thing. Where did those come from?
I remember it was Nick Mason's voice, "Silence in the studio." It was just a snippet that somebody picked up on and said, "Let's take that and put it in there." I don't think it has any conceptual significance.
Yeah. I was wondering if it was like, accidents and then you keep them...
Yeah, it probably was. Trouble is it's 33 years ago. My memory fails me on that one, I think! [laughs]
During the mixing, was Ron Geesin [arranger/co-writer with Pink Floyd] there or was it just you and the band?
I don't think Ron was around particularly for mixing. You know, I think his job was done. But I remember we had two completely separate gos at recording the brass. The first go was determined not good enough and we got the whole section back in again.
No small expense.
I sensed that Ron wasn't a particularly experienced conductor. I'm not saying he wasn't a very talented guy, but I think possibly if an experienced conductor would have come in it might have been a good idea.
There are ways to conduct an orchestra in a such a way that you can pull them forward. It's one of the skills of conducting, actually. It's one of the things that makes you realize how difficult it is, really.
You've worked with Andrew Powell on orchestral dates. Have you used him recently?
Just the last album, which was The Time Machine.
You must be happy with his work.
Oh yeah. The album I'm doing now is much more electronic. It's a new direction
You heard one track that has got guitar all over it... that's an exception to the rule — most of it is synths and computer generated.
You're working within Nuendo — are you mixing within Nuendo?
Yes. It's great. I actually feel that the formal process of mixing has gone away, it's just really mixing as you go. Pretty much all the level changes that need to be done, you do it along the way.
The working mix kind of becomes...
Becomes the record, which I like. I mean the whole idea of doing a recall and setting up all the outboard and just doing all that just to tweak one little vocal thing you'd probably say, "Oh! The mix is fine!" It really is realistic to do that now. Just call it up, get it changed and save it again and "done."
Are you using any analog processing? Are you putting things out and bringing them back in?
Not so far. It's just possible that I may choose to, at least on some of the tracks, just choose to break it out and go to a commercial studio and just make use of the outboard. Although I think the mix will still basically be the same.
Right. Earlier you were saying, "P.J. knows computers better than me"?
Well, you know, computing is a youth culture, I think, and he's a good deal younger than me. It's a part of the brain that doesn't work for me or something. He's just very fast.
Do you like having someone to help you engineer?
Yeah, this whole album has been a series of collaborations, really. Computer guys have taken the traditional role over. Although it's my studio and I set up the gear and get the project happening and stuff, you can only have one hand on the mouse at any given time so why not give it to somebody who can do the job twice as fast?
We're talking about freeing the mind up to be creative, too. It probably allows you to step away more.
Yes. It's nice to walk in and out while he's busy doing less creative things... I'd rather not be in the room when he does that. Go make a few phone calls...
It's been said that artists shouldn't engineer their own work and vice- versa. [laughs]
If they engineer then they shouldn't be artists.
You violated every one then...
Well, that must be a dig at me, as there aren't many engineers or engineer/producers that did take the plunge to artist. Daniel Lanois is one of them. I mean, how many others are there? Not so very many people who grew up as engineers and seriously went into music making, as musicians.
Eric Woolfson was your manager, initially. You were still working at Abbey Road as an engineer mostly at that point, right?
You'd be probably the first engineer to have a manager.
It could well be.
Which is interesting. What brought that on?
Well, it was very short-lived because a matter of weeks after hooking up with Eric, I actually had a number one hit as a producer, in the UK with Pilot, a project I was an engineer on. I really didn't do so very much work just as an engineer, and by the time I had established myself I was already producing, doing both jobs, not just the engineering. But yes, it was unusual for those times to have a manager around.
Was it because you were getting calls and to field stuff or why did you do that?
Just to get paid! [laughs] You know, some had a habit of saying, "Oh, we'd like you to do this," and then I'd do it and find that my bank balance hadn't improved as a result of doing it so I needed someone to go in and get some label debts.
That's a good practical reason there. It seemed that Eric's plan with the Alan Parsons Project was initially to sort of get you some attention as a producer...
...and engineer. Did it almost go too far in one way? Since the mid-seventies, you really haven't engineered or produced that many other people's records, it's become more focused on the Alan Parsons Project and the Alan Parsons records. Are you happy with that path or in a way would you like to have done a little more outside production work?
I would like to have done a little more. There are two artists that lived through the Project years — Al Stewart and Ambrosia. It would have been good to do a few other things, but there's only so many hours in the day and I was busy enough and didn't need to be any busier.
How busy did The Alan Parsons Project keep you?
There was usually something going on. In the early years of The Project, I continued to be a staff member at Abbey Road so I was doing a lot of just engineering staff work. I could always keep busy. There was more to simply making the records — there was the promotion. We'd go off and do tours of radio stations, endless interviews and so on. Also Eric would be writing. We kept busy... Eric's vision was to promote me as the first producer/engineer/artist — I think as time went on he grew more frustrated that he'd pushed himself into the background. And he actually tried in the latter years to become more in the forefront. He started singing songs for one thing.
Was that ever a power play between you two or was it just his personal frustration and you guys were still doing okay as a team?
It's a good question and I think there were conflicts. We both had a chance to have our say about the way the Project was going and if we both felt strongly about something and there were opposing views then it was difficult to deal with.
Is he still working with theatre stuff?
He's just finished a theatrical musical based on more Edgar Allen Poe stories.
Are you still in touch?
Yeah! I saw him three weeks ago.
I'm going to ask you some gear questions. I've heard you preferred Nuendo over Pro Tools, but we don't know if you've actually ever said that.
Oh, I have said that. Just because they have a large slice of the market people say that their product is the best. Steinberg has done some remarkable things. Every one of these hard drive recording programs has something that's great that the other can't do and you just have to decide which one's right for you. I've just had a lot of good luck with Nuendo so I'm standing by it.
Have you done sonic comparisons with different platforms?
No, no. That's really quite difficult to do.
I would imagine.
The Time Machine album, the last album I did, had a big, expensive Pro Tools system running. As soon as the album was over I sold it. I just didn't need it. Anyway, the next version was on the way and it was, "Bye- bye!" I think hard disk recording should be software. Try to keep the hardware independent — that's something Digidesign doesn't do...
At least they didn't in the past, you know.
You started doing some of your recording in the digital realm fairly early on... in the eighties maybe?
As soon as the 1610 was available for mixing to.
What influenced you to try out digital in the first place? What were you looking for and what did you find?
My first experience with it was CD. I thought, "If that's the future of home audio, then I'm in." Possibly if I'd heard it now I'd think differently. It was quite a breakthrough at the time.
And now we've trained our ears to listen to different things, but then it was just like, "Whoa! There's no noise! There's no sound of crackling and we don't think there's any distortion... there's something a little bit strange but we don't know what it is."
[laughs] Now we know!
Yeah. The words dither and jitter didn't exist then.
What did you like and dislike about the early digital multitracks?
Um, being able to do electronic edits was a big one without having to go through a the degredation associated with a generation of copying...
And, interestingly, when the machines first came out Sony maintained that you could cut the tape... and you really couldn't without risk.
Yeah, I wondered about that!
So I really got to enjoy the concept of going back and forth between the two machines and getting cut down or extended versions of stuff. The same thinking that hard disk recording is now but in a more primitive way.
JB: It was all in the digital domain though?
How can you do that with two machines?
You could connect just through a master multi pin connecter — digital to digital.
You've gone on record saying you hate compression.
Okay, no. I don't hate compression — I hate compression on a mix.
When you're having a record mastered, do you attend the mastering sessions and what are you looking for?
I do, but I'm there almost as a courtesy — to see if questions can be asked of me. I don't like to walk into a mastering session saying, "Oh, I'm going to tell this guy how to master my record." I'm there because of his skill. Obviously, the goal is to get the best result, but I'm most comfortable if the mastering engineer says, "I think I can put this onto the master without doing anything," and that makes me happy. If he's drastically EQ-ing or having to limit and compress, then I'm unhappy. I recognize that we're once again in the level war: The war to make your record sound as loud as everybody else's. I'm not particularly sensitive to that. I mean I'd much rather it sounded good and have the dynamics than sounding louder than the next guy. As a result mine probably won't sound as loud and you know when you get to radio it's going to get compressed to pieces anyway. I don't see a reason to compress or limit for the sake of the home consumer.
What was the first piece of recording gear that you purchased?
I think it was a Revox G-36. But I had a ferrograph in my family that my father bought... a tape machine to record me as a baby singing in my bath. [chuckles] So there was always tape in the family. From the age of two there was a tape recorder. With a cousin of mine I used make radio plays. Play all the parts and get all the sound effects and everything. It was good fun.
[laughs] What specifically did you use on kick and snare on a lot of your sessions? They're noted for a real dry, tight drum sound.
Kick was always D20 and the snare was, as soon as the [Neumann KM]84 came out, it was the 84. It was the 87 before that. Almost exclusively.
Even up and through the '90s?
Yes. And always, whenever I could, a pair of ribbons overhead. The STC 4038s. In EMI days the maximum top-end that you could apply was 10 dB at 10 kHz, and we used to automatically lay "10 in at 10" on the equalizer. You knew that would sound pretty good.
Do you have any favorite pieces of gear or anything you really feel, if you're going to go work somewhere you've gotta have with you for sessions?
I would always like Fairchild limiting, of course, given the choice. Just for vocals and bass and stuff — it's just a really nice-sounding unit. I'm really not that fussy — I think it's more important to make the best use of what you have. I don't like to walk into a studio and lay down the law and say, "I must have this, otherwise I cannot continue with the session." I'm not like that. I prefer to be more, "What have you got? Well, okay let's see what we can do with that." And I hate spending inordinate amounts of time just playing with a sound and trying different pieces of equipment and different mics and that stuff...
It's, "Let's get the job done. Let's make a record."
Some people might think the opposite of you.
Well... the whole process of recording is one big experiment in itself so you get a good result with one mic on a given piece of gear then it must work every time.
Hopefully. We've got some questions from Joe Chiccarelli. He wanted to ask you about the EMI desks and with the compressors built-in.
Oh, I hated them!
You hated them? Is that the TG series compressor/limiters?
Yeah. They had a sound, but if there was an opportunity to plug in something else I would do it.
If you ran out of plug-in limiters, then you would use one. Or if you were just doing a quick guide vocal or something, switch in the on-board compression.
I didn't like them. Oh, you hear it working alright... It's just [that] some engineers like me wouldn't want to. I used them occasionally, and with Chris Thomas, who came in to help mix Dark Side... I had to kind of compromise with his views of compression and mine.
He wanted more compression?
He wanted a compressor across the whole mix and I said, "Can we do a compressor across the whole mix except the drums?" That's what we did.
What was the songwriting process with the Alan Parsons Project? Did it differ from album to album.
It was never typical. I've always given credit to Eric for doing the bulk of the writing. He wrote a huge proportion of the songs that are on the Project. Occasionally I would come up with a musical idea — occasionally I would come up with a lyric idea that got incorporated in there. But it would have to be said that most of the instrumentals are my compositions. But sometimes I would do an instrumental composition and then we would put words over the top of it so it then became a genuine collaboration. There were no real rules. I think I was more prolific in the early days. I was more inclined to come up with ideas — to stick my ideas down on a Revox or a cassette. When I got my own full-blown professional studio and I had the capability of doing amazing things on my own, I didn't. [laughs] I just sort of waited until everyone was there and ready to go.
I think that's always the case, though: The more equipment you have around you the less you get done.
Yeah, I think so.
It seems like you've almost come full- circle, in a way. The track I was listening to sounded like something you've had your hands in quite a bit of the parts and putting it all together. Being able to do so much with electronic-based instruments and stuff...
The track you heard was an English act called Shpongle — alias Simon Posford. It was the only track on the album we originated in Logic. We then actually transferred it to tape and then back into Nuendo. But it's really what Simon and I did together with David Gilmour on top of it.
With something like that, when you send tracks to David, do you have any kind of guide ideas like, "Play here and here?"
Oh yes, absolutely.
Did you have a melody?
No, I didn't give him any melody. I gave him a chord chart and a bar chart and this is what needs to happen here and here and here. He actually sent two versions. He sent a first attempt and I commented on it, and he had another go at it and it was dead right.
With David Gilmour, I know there's been an up and down, verbal sparring, almost. At points he had said that any engineer could have engineered Dark Side of the Moon.
But he later retracted that remark.
What do you think spurred that in the first place?
I'm not really bothered by what he thought or what Roger thought and if it had been complimentary I would have appreciated it. But I was there... I know what I did. I've got my own inner satisfaction even if it isn't reflected in what they thought I had contributed.
Right. And at the time you were a staff engineer at Abbey Road, probably not on a very large salary.
There are no "points" on that record for the staff engineer.
"Parsons yelled at the top of his voice: 'And I am not a victim!'" [laughs]
It was a good start for a career, though.
Oh yeah, of course. And the Floyd were, you know, a very easy to recognize act. I think Roger was heard to say once that, "Dark Side of the Moon did a whole lot more for Alan than he did for the album."
That sounds like a Roger 'compliment' doesn't it? The other question was regarding James Guthrie's surround mix of Dark Side of the Moon. Maybe you want to explain how the album was done — the original drums were on a different tape, I believe.
Yeah. The 16-track master that we mixed from for the 1972 stereo version, was largely second generation. There were so many things going on that we had to go from one 16-track, reduce it down to less tracks so that we could have space for overdubs. Given modern synchronizing technology, James was able to go back — which was something I would have done, absolutely — go back to the first generation tapes and sync them up.
At the time, you mean.
Yeah. With a great deal of time it would have been possible. You can do hand synchronizing! But I think it would have been pretty hard to do. I think some of the songs benefited from the first generation tracks, some of them not particularly. It was only a one- generation bounce. And it wasn't bounced off the sync head — when you bounce within one machine you get a lot of degradation.
On those decks...
Particularly with the Studer decks. I think machine design has improved since then but we're talking about playing back off one machine and recording to another. But I remember we had bass and drums in stereo — mixed onto the second 16-track.
There was no contact with you about having you do the surround mixes for Dark Side of the Moon?
No, that was the upsetting thing, of course. The stab in the back.
Yeah. You think it was mostly because they had already been working quite a bit with James Guthrie or what?
That was the reason given but the fact is I bet they didn't even give it a moment's thought.
I remember at a NAMM show you played us a quad mix of the album.
Well, I did that single-handedly, actually, and in a bit of a hurry, but it sounded good. It did have a certain magic to it. And you know, I can't expect James' mix to sound exactly like my mix would have sounded had I done it. There are just things I would have done differently. I'm not saying it's a bad mix... just that I would have done it differently. But I must say that any ill feelings have been largely dispelled by this huge favor David has done me.
Was it interesting going from being the assistant to being the engineer in those days for you too? Do you remember?
Or course, all the way through recording Dark Side of the Moon, when I was not working on it, I might have been tape-opping for other people 'cause I was in my early days of engineering... One of the difficulties, if you are doing other projects as well, is making sure that you don't miss anything, 'cause if you miss anything that means that your name is shared with somebody else on the credits. I worked very hard to make sure that didn't happen. If I was working all night I'd still come in and work with the Floyd.
Right. A judicious move on your part, it seems.
Oh, I think so. [laughs]
From your perspective as an EMI- trained engineer in the late '60s and early '70s... what is your opinion of the state of engineering art today?
I think there's just this leaning towards samples, keyboards, MIDI and programming — less towards recording a band playing together. I think the schools are doing a great job in making up that deficit in that they do teach them how to record drums and that stuff. Because without them I think a lot of engineers would be scratching their heads. "Drums?! What do we do with that?"
Yeah. Where do you plug it in?
"Where's the MIDI connector?" I think records are sounding really good. I think there are an awful lot of bad records... technically good sounding, bad records! The sound spectrum is well balanced, but it's just crappy songs and crappy artists.
What records have you been listening to lately that you enjoy?
Radiohead. Coldplay. Sheryl Crow. Maroon 5. Excellent stuff. And I still follow my old faithfuls from the past like The Who.
In '97 you were Vice-President of EMI Studio Group. Are you still in that position?
I didn't think so. We're sitting here on the other side of the world. [laughs]
[laughs] It'd be slightly difficult to answer to the Chairman of the Board from my house in Santa Barbara. It was literally just a high corporate position. It wasn't the job I thought it would be. I thought I would be running around with design engineers saying, you know, "How are we going to develop and build studios?" There was an element of that but more of it was looking at spreadsheets and trying to make a profit. It's not my game.
How long were you there?
I would imagine you didn't need to have the income.
It was a well-paid job! It was actually a useful bit of extra income leading up to a divorce.
It wasn't something that I could continue and remain sane.
What is a Projectron?
It was a keyboard with an audio input for every key on the keyboard, designed to come out of the outputs of a tape machine. And the idea was we would make a glorified Mellotron — continuous sounds in an chromatic scale on 24 tracks....
Oh my god.
So you could play your chords. But it was a little more complicated than that, because it actually used very early voltage-controlled ADSR technology. You could actually change the time of the decay. You could play a chord and have it decay. The difficulty was not playing the keyboard; it was making the damn loops. To record a new tape meant make a long diagonal splice, or another technique was to slowly pull the tape slowly away from the heads so that it would be seamless on the loop.
Oh right... I've done that. [laughs]
All kinds of stuff... and we did that on the first album, on Tales of Mystery and Imagination, there's a pretty good sounding female voice.
JB: So you can get two octaves on to a 24-track tape, then?
Yeah. That's kind of the way, on Pink Floyd's Wish You Were Here, polyphonic synthesizers didn't really exist and they just multi-tracked it. So those beginning chords on "Shine On You Crazy Diamond" that are shifting, they're just fader moves.
I did record those. Those are actually fingers on the rims of wine glasses.
There was an ill-fated household objects album.
That's never been bootlegged.
No, it hasn't. Well, it's only one piece and a bunch of loops.
You were pulling on sellotape [Scotch tape] and a bunch of various household things?
We made a pretty convincing sounding drum kit out of a broom, an aerosol can and just tapping a foot. The aerosol can was the snare "Psht! Psht!" The tape length was about 1/2" between leaders on a loop to get a short enough burst.
That's one way to keep the engineer busy...
We did one and a half minutes of bass, played on a rubber band, and drums and it took six weeks.
Do you feel like the difficulty of achieving stuff like that back then made you appreciate it more?
Oh yeah. I think most people would have just said, "You want a delay that goes 'Us... us...'?" "No, there's no machine on earth that will produce a delay that long." There's always a benefit to fighting to get something.
Are things too easy now?
What part of the process keeps your mind really active when you're creating music and recording it?
I think just constantly trying to improve the composition and what you do with it. Trying to make it a better record, in one way or another. Through restructuring or artistic things. Performance things. Everybody has access to the same gear, the same synths and so on. It's just the way you use them. I try to find a way that the other guy hasn't thought of using a sound or a sample.