August 06, 2010

An Interview with Alan Parsons

As digital technology has enabled some of the most innovative musicians to redefine the means of composition, so too has it facilitated record producers and engineers in broadening the possibilities of how music can sound. One of the foremost authorities on such matters, Alan Parsons chronicles the modern recording process in a three-DVD, nine-hour instructional series, The Art and Science of Sound Recording.

“The program is really designed to cover every aspect of recording,” he explains, “from the acoustic properties and design of the studio right through to the final mix of a record.” It's a culmination of sorts for Parsons, who has invested more than 40 years as a producer and engineer as well as an artist, along the way playing an integral role in shaping some of most seminal works of the pop-music era.

An assistant engineer for EMI Records in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, Parsons served his apprenticeship at Abbey Road Studios in London, acquiring the formative skills of his craft in album sessions for the Jeff Beck Group’s Beck-Ola and the Beatles’ Abbey Road, among others.

His stature grew exponentially when he produced and engineered Pink Floyd’s dystopian masterwork, 1973’s Dark Side of the Moon. The album has not only endured as a landmark achievement, but in many ways has also loomed over everything he’s done since.

“I’m never allowed to forget it,” Parsons says with a laugh, yet he acknowledges, “I do regard it as a milestone, a significant milestone. I’m always proud of it. There’s nothing I would change. The only slight thing is that I didn’t get rich off it. I was paid a studio-staff salary.”

Nonetheless, Parsons affirms that the experience afforded him the opportunity to pursue his own endeavors as a recording artist. “The Alan Parsons Project would not necessarily have happened,” he says, “had it not been for Dark Side of the Moon.”

Along with vocalist and co-writer Eric Woolfson and a cast of rotating musicians, the Alan Parsons Project enjoyed a successful run throughout the '70s and '80s with albums like I Robot and Eye in the Sky, both of which reached the Top Ten.

With a reputation as one of the foremost producers and engineers in the music industry, Parsons went on to work on such albums as Paul McCartney’s Red Rose Speedway and Al Stewart’s Year of the Cat. Also, indelible radio singles like Pilot’s “Magic” and The Hollies’ “The Air That I Breathe” bear his deft aesthetic.

Asked what inspired him to produce The Art and Science of Sound Recording, Parsons says, “I know there are people out there [who] have the same curiosity about what happens in a recording studio that I had when I was in my teens. I just felt it was time to give something back.”

In doing so, Parsons recently issued his first new solo single in six years, “All Our Yesterdays,” along with the B-side instrumental, “Alpha Centauri,” the latter serving as the theme song to the series.

Not only for professionals and audiophiles seeking such step-by-step instruction, the program should also prove enlightening to music fans interested in learning about the recording process. “I’ve interviewed a whole bunch of celebrated engineers, producers, and artists to get their particular perspective on certain aspects of recording as well,” Parsons says. Altogether, what’s presented is a comprehensive tutorial on subjects that insiders seldom reveal in such detail or with such consideration.

“Most recording studio videos that you see are basically bad miming in the studio against a track that they’ve finished,” Parsons says. “Pretty much everything you see in this video is as it actually happens.”

Beyond what is offered in the way of applicable technique, Parsons hopes the series will encourage viewers to better appreciate listening to music. “That’s something I’m trying to bring across in the program,” he says. “Learning how to listen is just as important as learning how to make it sound right. You have to know what a good sound is, and that’s quite difficult to do. It’s a big part of the art of engineering.

“It took me a while to grasp that in my own ears,” he continues. “When I first started working at Abbey Road, everything sounded great to me. [Then] I started doing a lot more listening and started to be more analytical. I started to hear the differences between one engineer and another.” As he refined his acuity, Parsons says he then developed his own tastes and distinguished his own creative voice.

Even so, Parsons notes that knowing the facts doesn’t preclude him from welcoming new insights and ideas. “Every session is, in a way, a learning experience,” he says. “I’m not the kind of guy who says, ‘I know everything. I know exactly how to do this.’ There are always alternatives and experimentation that you can try that haven’t been tried before, not necessarily just with recording techniques, but with production in general. You can take a musician in any direction through what you say.”

Interestingly, having spent his career experimenting with every conceivable element of music, Parsons hasn't compromised his basic ability to enjoy it. “There are some producers who analyze every note and every sound and every stereo moment. I can listen to music as a consumer, just like everybody else; and I do, frankly…I like to hear other people’s music, like everybody else, on TV or radio.”

Critics of digital have long contended that the technology doesn’t produce the sonic warmth of analog recording, but Parsons predicts, “You’ll be able to exactly duplicate the sound created by an analog tape machine if you so desire, and I’m sure there is research going on in that direction. Just like you can make video look like film if you want to, you should ultimately be able to make digital sound like tape.”

The question arises, though, if seemingly infinite options and user-friendly software minimize the importance of one cultivating genuine talent. “Oh no, there’s always room for talent,” Parsons insists. “It’s certainly less demanding on some aspects of engineering technique, but engineering technique is still important. It’s still alive and well, even in the digital age.”

What is not alive and well, Parson concedes, is the concept (if not the format) of the full-length album. “Sadly that has been a casualty of the digital age,” he says. “The iPod world is a three-minute world, not a one-hour world, unfortunately.” Other than artists recording longer songs across the board, he suggests, he doesn’t foresee the current trend reversing. “The idea of making a lengthy piece of music is much more difficult to bring across now.”

Still, Parsons is optimistic about the ongoing evolution of digital technology in music. “It has improved and I think it will continue to improve,” he says. “It’s still a young science. Even in its simplest form it’s really only been around thirty years.”

The capabilities of digital, he suggests, will over time eclipse any, if not all, of its criticism. “One day, we’ll laugh at ourselves and say, ‘What problem did we have with digital audio?’ Ultimately anything will be possible.” 

The Art and Science of Sound Recording is available for purchase through its official website.