Whether he’s behind a recording console or making music with his progressive rock group, Alan Parsons is an iconic figure in popular music.
Parsons first made a name for himself as an audio engineer, landing a job at Abbey Road Studios at age 19 and earning his first LP credit as assistant engineer on The Beatles’ Abbey Road.
He later served as head engineer on Pink Floyd’s legendary The Dark Side Of The Moon, where Parsons’ deft use of effects and recording techniques helped dictate the sonic signature of that record, and his work earned him the first of seven Grammy nominations.
In 1975, Parsons met Eric Woolfson, who became his songwriting partner for what would be known as The Alan Parsons Project. The progressive band released a series of popular albums and scored hit singles such as “Eye In The Sky,” “Time,” and also the instrumental piece “Sirius,” which has remained a staple at sports arenas throughout North America.
Though The Alan Parsons Project never played live during its heyday, since 1999 Parsons and his band have toured regularly under the moniker Alan Parsons Live Project. The group will perform a series of shows throughout the world in early 2015, including local stops in New York City and New Jersey.
In the past few years, Parsons made a return to his production roots, working on ukulele virtuoso Jake Shimabukuro’s album Grand Ukulele and on Porcupine Tree leader Steven Wilson’s solo release, The Raven That Refused To Sing (And Other Stories). Parsons also shared his knowledge of audio production with the October 2014 release of his book, The Art & Science Of Sound Recording.
Recently, I phoned Parsons at his California home to discuss his lengthy career, memories of rock legends, and the state of recording and listening to modern music.
It’s interesting that you didn’t perform any shows with The Alan Parsons Project until the mid-’90s. Up until that point, you were only a studio band. When you first started playing concerts, what was it like to be in that spotlight?
It was terrifying, for someone who had never really been in front of an audience. The biggest audience I had ever played for was about 20 people at a village hall, when I was in school. So it was pretty intimidating, but very rewarding. Our first real show was in Hamburg, Germany. We finished the first song, and we heard applause, and I thought, “Wow, this is amazing—people actually like this stuff!” It was cool.
You had what many would consider to be a dream beginning to your engineering career, getting to work with the biggest band of all time, The Beatles, at the age of 19. What are some of your favorite memories from the sessions for the Abbey Road album?
It was all pretty amazing. I was in learning mode. I was very green, and didn’t know very much back then about how records were made. I was more of a carrier at that point, just running tapes back to the boards. But the whole thing was an amazing experience. I think the most notable thing about Abbey Road is that it wasn’t really The Beatles, but more like four individuals. It was very much John, Paul and George who were doing most of the work and they tended to work alone. After the basic rhythm tracks were done, they would come in and work on their own tracks, do their own vocals and demos and stuff on their own. It was clear that the rot was setting in at that point, and they didn’t want to be with each other very much.
Did you learn a great deal from George Martin?
Yes, I did. I like to think that I modeled myself after him. I feel that he was the epitome of a great producer. Especially in the case of The Beatles—he had their respect, which was very, very important for four slightly out-of-control guys who needed a mentor. He fit that bill perfectly. I hope I can command the same respect in the studio as he did. And he was always open to everybody’s ideas. He never said, “No, I insist that we do it this way.” He was always prepared to accept other people’s ideas and execute them.
Having worked with Martin closely, do you agree with the assessment that he was “the fifth Beatle?”
Yes, I’ve always felt that way. He was very important.
In many ways, records like The Dark Side Of The Moon and Abbey Road are a lost art—we live in an age where consumers download individual songs from iTunes, and don’t focus on albums as a whole. What are your thoughts on that, and do you think that’s a bad thing for music fans?
Oh, it’s terribly sad. But I’m encouraged about the renaissance that vinyl is currently experiencing. It means if you put on side one of a vinyl record, you’re going to be listening for 20 minutes. But otherwise, it’s terribly sad how we essentially live in a three-minute world for downloads.
With vinyl having a bit of a revival now, do you think that artists can get back to recording more cohesive records or even concept albums, if they feel that people will listen all the way through?
As long as the audiophiles buy into that ideology, then yes. But the fact is the average consumer is diverted from listening to albums by the internet and their phones, as well as emails and video games. There are countless diversions. It’s really hard to get the consumer to sit down and listen to music now.
How has the evolution of technology affected what goes on in the studio?
There’s a movement away from bands working as a unit. There’s a lot of music being made by individuals. I’m old-school in the respect that I still see value in a band playing together and working with the artist and bouncing ideas off them. The technology allows for it to be done otherwise and I think a lot of records suffer because there is no interaction between the elements.
And people are always looking for shortcuts.
Yes, that’s one thing that technology has brought about, is you can make shortcuts. You only need to sing your backing vocals on the chorus once, and you just drop them into the next chorus. But in the old days, everything was linear and you’d record it as the tape ran. And all the effects were achieved with tapes and with chambers, and real-time room delays. Now you just plug something in Pro Tools and with the click of a mouse, you can achieve any special effect you want.
With The Dark Side Of The Moon, the recording techniques you used proved very influential and innovative. Did you know when you were making that album that you were really onto something special? All these decades later, it’s still considered such a landmark achievement.
I’m very proud of that. I was just doing my job at the time. In a technical sense, it was very challenging and demanding to make that record. A lot of machines, and plugging things in. We would sometimes use tape machines from three different studios at the same time to achieve certain things. I think everybody said at the time that it was the greatest Pink Floyd album, but I don’t think anybody knew it would still be selling 40 years later.
I recently read a list of albums that you’ve engineered in your career, and it seemed that after 1977, you didn’t serve as engineer again until Steven Wilson’s album in 2013. What was it about working with Steven that made you return to engineering?
The Alan Parsons Project was extremely time consuming and there wasn’t really much time to do anything else. With Steven’s album, I was drawn to that because I admire what he does. He’s genuine for progressive rock and in keeping that genre alive. And he wanted to work the way I outlined earlier, as a band playing together, and getting a cohesive band feel for the whole thing. And he wanted to use old-school engineering techniques, which I was able to bring to the table. He’s a very talented guy.
Are there any recording artists that you’d love to work with, but never had the chance to?
Whenever I’m asked that, I always say Pete Townshend. I would have loved to have done something with The Who. I just think that Townshend is an amazing talent as a songwriter and a great guitar player. I’m the biggest Who fan you could possibly imagine.
Your book, The Art & Science Of Sound Recording, was released a few months ago. I know you had the DVD series for a while too.
The book is very heavily based on the DVD, so it’s essentially a companion piece. I think the book turned out way better than I thought it would. It’s actually a really nice coffee table book, that people can peruse at their leisure. It’s much more accessible than the DVD. When you’re watching an instructional DVD, you really have to concentrate, but a book you can thumb through.
And it’s suitable for any level, not necessarily just for recording experts?
We aimed to give it a very general appeal, so even people who have no knowledge of recording at all would find something of interest in it.
I understand you’ve recently become involved with acting. Is that true?
Yes. It’s a long, hard road to become a movie star. (Laughs) But, yes, I have been trying. I’ve been taking acting lessons. I have an excellent acting coach in Los Angeles and he and I have been having regular sessions. But I did get my first voice-over job recently, for a movie called A Single Frame. It’s yet to be released, and it’s a full-length documentary.
Thanks. It’s just a couple of pages of stuff; it’s not as if I’m talking all the way through the movie, but it’s a start. One of the issues with living in Santa Barbara as opposed to Los Angeles is, if you go on an acting audition, it’s a two-hour drive to get to it. But voice-over work can be done at my studio, and I’m happy with that. So I might be looking to do more voice-over work than acting work.
For your upcoming tour, you’re performing with the same musicians that you’ve been playing with for a while?
PJ Olsson, the singer, has been with us for about 11 years now. Manny Focarazzo, the keyboard player, has been with us about the same length of time. And the band has grown—it was a six-piece, and it’s now an eight-piece.
And fans can expect a greatest-hits type of set for these shows?
Oh, absolutely. If we don’t do “Eye In The Sky,” people will not be happy. (Laughs)
The Alan Parsons Live Project will perform at the Newton Theatre in Newton, NJ on Jan. 31 and the New York Society For Ethical Culture in New York City on Feb. 3. For more information, visit alanparsonsmusic.com.