The golden touch
by Anil Prasad
Copyright © 2013 Anil Prasad. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution, No Derivatives license.
They call Alan Parsons the man with the golden touch. His production and engineering work is the stuff of legend. His unique approach to meticulously capturing warmth, detail, clarity, and an accurate vibe during the recording process has graced some of the most important albums in history. The Beatles’ Abbey Road and Let it Be, Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon and Atom Heart Mother, and Al Stewart’s Year of the Cat, are just a few of the key recordings he helped shape.
His own seminal progressive rock albums with The Alan Parsons Project are equally remarkable for their expansive approach to songcraft, arrangements and production. Parsons, who is also an acclaimed vocalist, keyboardist, bassist and guitarist, continues to be lauded for the group’s classic albums such as I Robot, Pyramid, The Turn of a Friendly Card, and Tales of Mystery and Imagination.
Another Parsons-related release of note is The Art & Science of Sound Recording DVD series, which looks at what goes on behind the scenes in recording studios. Informative and entertaining, the episodes are for regular fans and listeners, and music industry professionals alike.
Parsons’ most recent project is Steven Wilson’s new album The Raven that Refused to Sing (And Other Stories). Parsons served exclusively in an engineering capacity for the critically-acclaimed progressive rock disc. Wilson, best known as the founder and frontman of Porcupine Tree, sought out Parsons to have the album reflect the qualities of timeless ‘70s records. Parsons was also chosen because of Wilson’s desire to record his band performing live in the studio. Replicating the room’s ambience and the musicians’ dynamic performances, recreating vintage tones, and ensuring instruments were miced and isolated correctly, were among Parsons’ responsibilities.
Innerviews met Parsons in the control room of EastWest Studios in Los Angeles, where he recorded the Wilson album, to discuss his many current projects.
This is set to be a big year for you with a series of intriguing archival Alan Parsons Project releases. Tell me about them.
We’ve got a box set of the entire catalog coming out in the summer, as well as a re-release of I Robot, to coincide with its 35th anniversary this year. Both are in the early stages. I just found out the label wants to do it. I’ll be handling the remastering, as well as adding some new bonus material we’ve dug out of the archives.
I understand The Sicilian Defence, the long-shelved Alan Parsons Project album, is included in these reissues.
Yes, we’ve been coaxed into putting out that mysterious album. It was made almost as a throwaway, contractual obligation album. It was made very quickly. We delivered Eve and The Sicilian Defence simultaneously and told the label “There are your last two albums. Now, give us a new deal.” [laughs] There were all kinds of politics that went on at the time. The Sicilian Defence is very instrumental. I don’t think there’s a single vocal on it. We’ve been pretty protective of it. I haven’t even possessed a copy of it since 1979 when it was made. Don’t hold your breath on this one. It’s interesting, but not the greatest piece of work.
Why are your production and engineering projects so few and far between these days?
I’ve spent quite a lot of my time divided between playing live and recording. Running the business of a live band is extremely time consuming. Working with promoters, crews and the band, as well as rehearsing and making it all work logistically are major tasks. I do have a studio at home, but the truth is I’ve been spending more time enjoying life than working all night and getting a studio tan. But as well as working with Steven Wilson, I recently produced an album for the ukulele virtuoso Jake Shimabukuro called Grand Ukulele that’s doing well. I’m very proud of it.
Are there plans for new music of your own?
I’ve got two-and-a-half songs in the can and I’m thinking about how to release them. We’re now in a singles world, as opposed to an album world. I might just put those out online, emphasizing that there will be high-resolution versions available that sound better than their MP3 counterparts. I also put out a single not that long ago called “All Our Yesterdays” taken from The Art & Science of Sound Recording DVD series.
We also recorded an Alan Parsons Live Project symphony orchestra show for future DVD and broadcast release in Clearwater, Florida on February 15th. That’s another reason I have no time to make other recordings. I was involved in the sound spec, because I wanted to be able to remix it. Getting the right director, the right camera specs, the right number of cameras, and budgeting were also major tasks.
You’re touring a lot with the Alan Parsons Live Project in 2013. What can people expect when they see you perform?
It’s a direct extension of the Alan Parsons Project. We play all of the group’s songs most people want to hear. If we have a new record out, we’ll play a couple of songs from it, but that’s when the audience gets up and gets a drink, because all they want to hear are the hits. [laughs] People want to hear recognizable songs. I felt we were slightly wrongly classified as being a progressive rock band, because we were leaning more towards pop than some people might have thought.
Playing live is big fun and I feel very fortunate that we’ve had the success that we have and that we’re still here playing the same songs. The one regret I have is that I feel we missed the boat during the ‘80s. If we had started playing live then, instead of starting in the mid-‘90s, we could have been as big as anyone. We’re a theater band, not a stadium band. If we had started touring in the ‘80s, I think we could have become a stadium band. When you play a theater, you get a vastly superior sound than you do in a stadium, but some people carry it off well. Pink Floyd and Bruce Springsteen always sounded incredible playing stadiums. I think we could have geared ourselves to playing them, but it never happened and probably never will.
How do you look back at your last studio album, the electronica-inspired A Valid Path from 2004?
I look back on the album a little bit unfavorably. I felt that we possibly deviated too far from our intended course. I wanted to do something different and hopefully capture a younger audience. We did to a certain extent, but I think we lost our core audience in the process. I was sorely disappointed by the sales. It didn’t achieve anything like some of my previous albums. The reason could be that people felt it was too much of a break from the tradition of what I had done previously, which was heavily orchestrated, catchy, melodic songs. The album was all recorded on computers for the first time, without a Neve console like the one we’re sitting in front of in sight.
“Precious Life,” your 2012 collaboration with the German electronica act Lichtmond seemed like an extension of A Valid Path’s direction.
I think it was somewhere in between. It came out of a request from Lichtmond to have me sing on one of their tracks. I was loosely involved in the composition, along with P.J. Olsson from my live band. I’m pleased with it. It also has an exceptional video with some amazing images, textures and effects. It’s a beautiful video to show off a widescreen video system. The collaboration has done really well, but I can’t see it gaining traction outside of Germany, because it was so concentrated on the German-speaking market.
The track also features the SubClones, an act you were planning on making a full-length album with.
The SubClones were—and I use the word “were” because it looks like they may not surface again—two individuals who are known for doing other things. They chose to remain anonymous by wearing masks. I won’t give the game away, but if you Google “SubClones,” you’ll figure it out. I was going to make a full-blown album with them, but they had a management kerfuffle that created issues, and I don’t think it’s going to happen.
Describe your objective for the DVD series The Art & Science of Sound Recording.
We wanted to bring my experience, and the experience of a lot of other engineers, producers and artists to bear on a subject which has a lot of mystery about it. People are fascinated by what goes on in a recording studio. The series kind of spills the beans. It lifts the lid on the mystery. People have generally been very receptive. It’s for everyone, whether they know anything about recording or not. Even those without an academic interest say they really enjoying watching it. It’s a complete TV series that runs 10 hours. I’m hoping it will appear on the Discovery Channel. We’re doing well with it in schools and colleges. It’s also now available on a USB stick, so you can go to any part of the program and find what you want very quickly, which is nice for students.
What attracted you to working on Steven Wilson’s The Raven that Refused to Sing (And Other Stories)?
His reputation. I had also heard his work with Porcupine Tree, previously. I was interested in the fact that he told me he was looking for a retro sound, perhaps something reminiscent of the early ‘70s. Above all, he said that the band was going to play live, together. That’s really what clinched it for me. I thought “Oh wow, this is definitely for me. I want to be involved in this, because that’s how I work too.” I’ve always maintained that a band playing together and bouncing ideas off each other is the way it should be. Prior to working with Steven, I had only heard his work with Porcupine Tree, but not his solo stuff.
How did you influence the proceedings and outcome?
I’m too modest to say I had any huge creative input, other than the way the sound was constructed. It was a very nice relationship. The band looked to me for advice on sound and balance matters. The drums were the most critical thing to achieve the right balance and textures for. The dynamics of Marco Minnemann’s drumming were very challenging. I was constantly in awe of his playing. I think we also got some unusual bass sounds happening—bass sounds I would never have gone for, had they not coaxed me into it. They said “Make it sound like Chris Squire.” [laughs] So, that’s what I did. I think that’s fairly obvious on the first track “Luminol.” To make that happen meant I used a Marshall guitar amp to record the bass. I haven’t recorded a bass through an amp for a very long time. Normally, I record it directly straight out of the instrument. It ended up being a great bass sound and I’m very proud of it. The whole band is just incredible and mutually respectful of each other’s abilities. I was in heaven. I said “My God, how could I ask for a better band of musicians to record?”
What were some of the other challenges you faced when working on the album?
They made it really easy for me, but there were a couple of challenges. Theo Travis, the woodwind player, was standing in a little box over there in the corner of the studio. It wasn’t hugely well-isolated, so I was picking up quite a lot of the guitars and drums, especially given that Marco is no quiet player. He’s really hitting those drums. So, there were some issues with leakage into the sax and flute I had to work on. Also, when Adam Holzman, the keyboardist, was isolated in the room on the far end of the studio, he was playing piano, as well as electric piano. The electric piano was being played very loud through an amp. My job was to make sure one set of mics was muted against the other.
Describe what an engineer contributes to a recording, for those who might not be aware.
In the modern age, the roles of musician, engineer and producer have all kind of got mixed together. Traditionally, the engineer was the guy who chose, set up and placed mics; decided where to place the musicians in relation to one another in the studio; plugged all the equipment in; and got every microphone coming into the board on every channel and into the faders. Each of the channels on this Neve console in front of us represents an instrument or a microphone. From there, it’s a case of committing the sound to the hard drive. Previously, it was tape. The engineer, historically, has been paid to pretty much keep his mouth shut as far as anything creative was concerned. Part of the producer’s role involves bringing up anything in the sound he is unhappy with and saying things like “I want to hear more bass” or “I don’t think the vocals are bright enough.” Now, because everybody has a home recording setup, ProTools, or at least GarageBand, the traditional role of the engineer has become a little more hazy.
What are your impressions of EastWest studios’ facilities, where classic albums by The Beach Boys, Ornette Coleman, John Coltrane, and Duke Ellington were recorded?
Working on Steven’s album was the first time I’ve been here. When I walked in here a few weeks before the sessions and saw the Neve board I said “Oh yes, I can work with this.” It’s a ‘70s classic Neve console that’s been brought up to date with flying faders—automated faders that move up and down on their own, according to what you tell the computer you want them to do. That wouldn’t have existed on the original version. It could be argued that automated consoles aren’t necessary anymore if you mix, as we say, “in the box.” These days, all of the volume and EQ changes are done inside the computer, so you don’t have to physically move anything at all. But for me, it’s still nice to have the touchy-feely thing and be able to push things up and down manually. It’s much better than clicking a mouse and doing things one track at a time.
The Wilson album is being released in Blu-Ray format. What’s your perspective on its value as a high-resolution sound carrier?
Blu-Ray audio is great. I think Steven did a great job mixing it in surround. I wish I could have been involved with that, but you can’t have it all. [laughs] I’m so pleased that Steven has the reputation he does for surround. As much as I like Blu-Ray, I’ve never been that unhappy with CD. It’s become better over time and with that improvement has come a higher ability for the average person to discern sounds. When CD first emerged, everyone said “Oh wow, this sounds incredible. There are no scratches or crackles. It’s the best thing I’ve heard.” But when we got tuned in a little bit more, we started realizing “There’s something not quite right in the mid-range” and this and that. I do believe with the technology improving, our ears are too. Blu-Ray and modern digital conversion technologies are making a lot of difference. Having said that, here we are in the MP3 and earbud world, where so many people don’t care about audio quality. It’s nice to know that there are some people that do still care.
Do you consider the Wilson album within the same canon of the other major album projects you’ve worked on?
I think so. If there is any justice, this album should do incredibly well. It’s a beautifully composed and constructed record. I think the quality of the songs, the lyrics, and Steven’s performances as a singer are really super. The musicianship and solos are just second to none. I hope he can pull it off and get the exposure he needs to sell those Blu-Ray editions. I’m very worried that people are too busy texting, surfing the Internet, playing video games, or watching their countless TV channels to sit down and listen to a complete album from start to finish, without distractions. It’s an experience people have forgotten. It’s a lost art.
Do you still do that?
[laughs] I wish I could say I did. On occasion, I have been known to do it.
So, you’re a victim of the same distractions?
I think I am. [laughs]