There’s a brief segment in this instructional video series presented by Alan Parsons (which shall henceforth be called ASSR) in which the legendary engineer, while describing his approach to recording electric guitar, moves a mic around the front of an amp from the center of the speaker cone out to the edge, then close in and further away. It’s a magical moment, which perfectly captures the power of the marriage of audio and video, because you actually hear the tonality of the guitar change as he does so.
It’s a moment that also serves to demonstrate just how great this three-DVD set (also available as an online download) could have been. Parsons is, of course, a master of his trade, as are many of his interview subjects (fellow engineers Jack Joseph Puig, Chuck Ainlay, Elliot Scheiner, David Thoener, and Niko Bolas among them, along with a slew of producers and artists that includes Jack Douglas, Tony Brown, Patrick Leonard, Michael McDonald, and Erykah Badu). And the range of topics covered is formidable, from signal flow and console design, to advanced subjects such as collaborative Internet recording (complete with all its frustrations) and mid/side mic’ing. There’s no question that everyone involved clearly expended a great deal of time and effort into this ambitious project, for which they deserve a lot of credit, and there is a ton of useful information here, especially when it comes to the basics: a thorough explanation of MIDI; a good overview of room acoustics and reverb; and a comprehensive tutorial on the components of the drum kit by session drummer Simon Phillips; as well as a fun vignette on recording a live choir, shot in a local high school. The all-important EQ section is filled with useful tips and includes a brief Q&A between an off-screen hypothetical student and Parsons (an excellent idea, which unfortunately is never repeated anywhere else in ASSR). And the concluding “Dealing With Disaster” chapter includes sections on studio etiquette and on-the-spot troubleshooting, which should definitely be viewed by every aspiring engineer. Scattered throughout are a number of revealing anecdotes by Parsons and others about some of the lessons learned while recording superstars like The Beatles and Pink Floyd.
But there are so many missed opportunities here! For example, the discussion of microphone polar patterns offers as many onscreen graphics as you’d find in a textbook... but why not have Parsons (or narrator Billy Bob Thornton) walk around a mic while talking about it, so we could actually hear the sonic result of being on and off–axis? Similarly, we are told what a de-esser does, but we never actually get to hear one in action, nor do we ever get to listen to the deleterious effects of jitter or digital clipping. While the section on the use of noise gates includes real-time onscreen knob-tweaking of the attack, hold, and release settings so we can hear their effects, there are no audio examples of the application of different limiter/compressor controls — arguably much more important (and mysterious) to the beginning engineer. Mastering is barely touched upon, though there is a good conversation about the “loudness wars” that plague so much of today’s audio. And while surround sound for music may have died an early death, it’s still the standard mix format for film and television audio — yet it receives remarkably short shrift here; there isn’t even a 5.1 layer on any of the DVDs.
There’s also a certain amount of repetition, with the same clip sometimes reused in different chapters (annoying if you’re watching the entire program from start to finish, as I did), and I also found some of the video styling to be distracting; how many times do we need to see Parsons explaining the same thing in split-screen, both face-on and in side-view? More embarrassing perhaps are the sometimes-dramatic level changes in the spoken audio — some of which is even distorted, though to be fair, the musical content is of consistently high quality. Still, a little more attention to this kind of detail would have gone a long way in a project that is, after all, focusing on the creation of great audio.
Much of ASSR is devoted to the recording of a new Alan Parsons song called “All Our Yesterdays,” composed specifically for the project. While it’s interesting watching the song take shape as the backing band, composed of top-line LA session players, runs the song down, and as various vocalists are auditioned (in the end, Parsons takes the lead vocal himself), there is a rather odd ending to the saga. The “Mixing” section, which should have been such a rich area to mine, is mostly devoted to video of Parsons in a commercial studio, extolling the virtues of breaking out the individual tracks of “All Our Yesterdays” to a large-format console as opposed to mixing in-the-box (even though that’s the way most viewers probably will mix most of the time). As he brings up the faders one by one and explains what he is listening for, we get to watch him apply EQ and reverb to a couple of selected tracks and pan a few of them off to one side or the other — but that’s about it. Even more baffling is the onscreen text that follows, which tells us that Parsons decided not to use the mix we had been watching him do, but instead mixed in-the-box at his home studio — a session we neither get to see nor get any information about.
Still, despite the fact that the execution sometimes falls a bit short of the mark, I think most students of the recording arts will get a lot out of this informative and often entertaining tutorial — whether you’re a beginner looking for a good grounding or a veteran looking to pick up some cool tips.
While I agree with most of Howard’s points above, I also want to add that, after watching the first disc of ASSR, I wish it had been around (on VHS?) when I first started recording music in my basement and trying to set up a small studio. How to configure and use a console, outboard preamps, inserts, and a recorder/DAW are explained in simple, concise ways; and the sections on room acoustics and on microphone types and usage would have saved me years of studying and learning. Howard and I know we aren’t the target audience, and it’s hard to sit through explanations of things you know already. But damn, I wish I could build that time machine and go back and hand my younger self a copy of ASSR. (Download only $99 direct, $149 including DVDs; chapter download $4.99, single-use chapter stream $1.99; www.artandscienceofsound.com) –LC
Follow the Music: The Life and High Times of Elektra Records in the Great Years of American Pop Culture
by John Noll
In 1950, a nineteen-year-old college student with an interest in electronics met another student in his dorm who had a vast collection of folk records. Having not heard this kind of music before, Jac...