Though most people associate the name Alan Parsons with his prog rock hits of the seventies and eighties, this sound designer has had a passion for the latest technologies that reaches back to his early days with EMI and Abbey Road Studios. As an artist, his hits include "Games People Play," "Time," "Eye In The Sky," "I Wouldn't Want To Be Like You," and "Don't Answer Me." As a producer, he helmed Al Stewart's "Year Of The Cat" and "Time Passages," and as an engineer, his credits include classics such as "The Air That I Breathe" by The Hollies, and a little album you might have heard of called The Dark Side Of The Moon by Pink Floyd.
Alan Parsons' latest project is The Art & Science Of Sound Recording, a three-disc DVD series filmed in high definition that explores various aspects of the field. It not only features the world-renowned engineer/producer, but also many of his colleagues and contemporaries such as Elliot Scheiner and Niko Bolas, plus some narration by Billy Bob Thornton, and contributions by Simon Phillips, The Foo Fighters' Taylor Hawkins, and Michael McDonald. On the technical side, there are discussions about EQ, compression, setting up microphones, the art of "listening," and much more, plus there's a presentation on the history of recording from Edison to the MP3. Alan took more than a moment to talk about his illustrious past that included his days at Abbey Road Studios through his latest technology-focused endeavor.
Mike Ragogna: Since your early days of engineering at Abbey Road Studios, you've always been ahead of the technology curve. What are you working on lately?
Alan Parsons: I'm trying to pass some of the knowledge of the technology back to the real world. I've been working on a DVD series called The Art & Science of Sound Recording. If you go to my website, which is alanparsonsmusic.com you'll see a link to this project, a video series which I've written and presented with a guy named Julian Colbeck. It's split into about 24 sections covering everything on recording known to man. It's my attempt to pass on the knowledge to people who might be interested.
MR: Do you also go over aspects of projects you've worked on relative to the information you're covering?
AP: Yes, I often refer to works I've done in the past. What's interesting about it is that it's not only my perspective, it's the perspective of lots of other engineers, producers and artists that I've interviewed during the program.
MR: Who are some of your guests?
AP: Engineer-wise, it's just about anybody who's anybody like Elliot Scheiner, Niko Bolas, Alan Sides, all big name engineers. Michael McDonald is one of the artists. We're still kind of working on various interviews before the full thing is completely wrapped up. Still hoping to get McCartney to do it, still hoping that P. Diddy might do it.
MR: So this is a series on how many DVDs?
AP: It's a three DVD set. But about two-thirds of it is already available as downloadable material from the web.
MR: Where can one find that material right now?
AP: The site is artandscienceofsound.com.
MR: Rumor has it you have a CD/DVD combo being released on the Frontier label?
AP: Well, there's the live album which is just coming out.
MR: Will it cover the The Alan Parsons Project plus your solo material?
AP: It does, though there's only actually one song from the solo material, the rest is all Project hits, basically.
MR: Everything seems to go full circle, you having earned your stripes at Abbey Road Studios. Recently, the facility was in the news because its owner, Terra Firma, possibly was selling it to help generate income due to its enormous EMI debt. How do you feel about a landmark in musical history being sold like that?
AP: I'm pleased to say they seemed to have changed their minds. The building is now off the market, the last I heard.
MR: That's good news, it's a shame that story wasn't as hyped as the potential sale.
AP: Of course, it didn't make the news media because a change of mind is not good news. But that's the word, it's off the market. They've seen the light. They realized they had something that was part of history. If they had sold it, I think it would have been saved by somebody in the industry. But you know, the industry changed, commercial recording facilities are not as in demand as they used to be. It's a new world out there. People are making records on laptops in small studios because they can. It's a whole different ballgame right now.
MR: Speaking of Abbey Road, how did you get your start there?
AP: I actually was working for EMI when I got the job at Abbey Road in a sort of associated department in West London. It was a department that was manufacturing reel-to-reel tapes, which was the way it was then. I'm showing my age here, but it's before cassettes were on the market. You could buy commercial product not only on vinyl, but also on tape on a little plastic three-inch spool in mono. They sounded great, they were very good sounding projects, you see. I worked for that department, doing tape feed maintenance, transfers, and copying master tapes for foreign countries. It was through that association with Abbey Road that I had a sort of in, I knew who to write to ask for the job.
MR: How old were you when you got there?
AP: When I got to Abbey Road, I was 19. But I'd already been working for EMI for three years. I started with EMI when I was 16. I was essentially a high school dropout that went straight into the industry.
MR: Sometimes there are behind the scenes stories the public never hears about when it comes to recording high profile projects. So, that said, how much did you contribute to The Beatles' Abbey Road?
AP: I made tea and coffee, I was a very junior guy in those days. (laughs)
MR: Okay, so you're not telling.
AP: No, I served my apprenticeship, I did my internship as it were, and learned very quickly. Within a matter of weeks of starting at Abbey Road, I was working on Beatles sessions, so that was an amazing experience, of course. And I was learning from the best, from the best engineers in the business...Geoff Emerick, Peter Vincent, Tony Clarke, Ken Scott, you know, all of whom became famous engineers and producers.
MR: Still being modest.
AP: Oh, no, no, not at all. No, I was paid to keep my mouth shut. I was just happy to be sharing the experience. I was there, I was watching it, I watched the album being made. I pressed play and stop and record when told to do so.
MR: Alright, but you did get to do your own projects at the studio. What were some of the first projects you worked on?
AP: The very first session I did was with The Hollies, a track called "Gasoline Alley Bred." It was a small hit for them, it was okay. It would have terrible if it hadn't been a hit because it would have been the beginning of the end of an uninterrupted string of hits over the years. It wasn't one of their biggest, but I did go on to do one of their biggest which was "The Air That I Breathe."
MR: Their producer was Ron Richards, but I imagine you had an idea or two that was used?
AP: Yes, I think I was always ready to pitch-in an idea or two, and Ron was very receptive to that. You know, making records is all about teamwork--the artist, the producer, and the engineer, all working together, provided you have the chemistry between you to make things happen. We're all there to get the best results. If I had a suggestion that I felt would improve the result, then I would speak out or demonstrate it audibly in what I did.
MR: How so?
AP: "How 'bout we make the vocal sound like this?" and I'd twiddle a knob and apply an effect. Just through doing that, you can say you had an influence.
MR: Personally, I feel The Hollies' Another Night album is one of the greatest, under-the-radar pop albums ever made. It had a beautifully "open" sound, and the vinyl's dynamics were pretty impressive. I feel it pushed the envelope beyond most of the records on the market at the time.
AP: Another Night, yes.
MR: To me, it seems that this record was a very big example of your "sound." Can you remember any particular sonic nuances that you might have conjured for this album?
AP: There's one thing I distinctly remember doing, and that was suggesting that we not only double-track the vocals, but we triple-track them, and that made for a better stereo effect. A lot of time, we would have the doubled track on the left side, the tripled track on the right side, and the original vocal in the middle. So, I think that made the overall vocal sound a lot bigger than it had been for The Hollies.
MR: You're also credited as engineering Pink Floyd's Atom Heart Mother and a little record called The Dark Side Of The Moon that ended up being one of the biggest-selling albums of all time. Though, as you said, it's teamwork, here's another group turning the corner sonically and creatively, and look who the engineer is!
AP: (laughs) I'm honored that you would say those things. You know, I didn't engineer Atom Heart Mother from start to finish, I did it with the late Peter Bown. But I did do the mix, and I'm guessing that the fact they felt I did an okay job on the mix led to their asking for me to do The Dark Side Of The Moon.
MR: It's not even arguable that The Dark Side Of The Moon advanced the way rock artists approached their sound quality during that era. Plus it's one of the biggest-selling and continuously-charting albums of all time. All these years later, how do you feel about having been a very significant part of that?
AP: I'm never allowed to forget it. (laughs)
MR: I'm sorry.
AP: Really, barely a day goes by without some reference in my professional career to Pink Floyd. I'm very glad of it, things might have been very different without it.
MR: Most producers and engineers, whether they say it or not, have opinions about follow-up albums by bands when they don't produce them. Considering how Pink Floyd's Wish You Were Here turned out, have you ever listened to that record and thought to yourself how you might have done such-and-such differently?
AP: Absolutely. I was hugely disappointed with it, and remember thinking we should have found a way of working on the two albums, not just the one.
MR: What prevented that?
AP: It was a combination of politics and the need for me to get on with my career. I mean, they made me a very good offer to work for them full-time exclusively, but right at that same time, I was starting to get into production and having hits. So, it just wasn't meant to be.
MR: You worked on Paul McCartney's Red Rose Speedway and Wings' first album which are terrific credits. And in my opinion, you created a new sound with Al Stewart's Year Of The Cat album, with nothing previously sounding like tracks such as "Midas Touch," "Lord Grenville," and especially, "On The Border." On the title track, the saxophone is played aggressively against a rhythm section with big breathing spaces. If you listen to how many pop records approached the sax after that point, you can see that many producers and engineers copped what you did, especially on single mixes.
AP: Really? Didn't "Baker Street" come out around that time as well?
MR: Nope, you beat that record by two years, that was 1978.
AP: It was after? Yeah, that was sort of the big sax record. If I had one radio play for anything of mine for one radio play of "Baker Street," I'd be so rich. (laughs)
MR: But "Year Of The Cat" was huge here in the U.S.
AP: Yeah, and in England. And Al was suspicious at the time at the suggestion of sax. He said, "I never had a sax on my records." But we got a good player, Phil Kenzie, and the next thing I know, he was joining his band. (laughs)
MR: And then comes Time Passages which used the same formula, but again, here comes another leap in the sound. The single "Time Passages" had the most unique electric piano approach of its time--lots of air, but with enough action in the keyboard to make it "play" with a little percussion, as opposed to settling for it to just hover or waiver as most producers and engineers were employing the instrument. I mean, you had the instrumentation of many songs on the radio, but nothing sounded like your end results.
AP: This observation of yours comes out in The Art & Science of Sound Recording. You can put the same set of tracks in one pair of hands, and it will sound totally different than when it's put in another pair of hands. You know, just the initial balance that's set-up by a certain individual will be so totally different that it will sound like a different record.
MR: But it almost seems that each of your mixes pushed the envelope sonically of what was possible at Top Forty radio.
AP: This is just one of those things. Every engineer, producer, whatever, has their own style, and he thinks he's acting on his own instincts. It's those instincts that give the perception that this guy is talented. It's really odd, I can't put my finger on exactly what it is, it's just something in the instinctive reaction that one person has over the other in terms of presenting a mix. That can be the live or die, you know. It makes all the difference.
MR: And when you listen to what you did with John Miles...
AP...wow, you have done your homework. (laughs)
MR: I own all of these records, I know all your stuff. And I know that the album John Miles--another record that never caught on in America--was brilliant for its time. There were three or four potential singles, but he just never got any radio luv beyond FM stations like New York's WNEW that played the heck out of "Music."
AP: That's such a shame because it really deserved to be a hit in the early days of AOR. As you probably know, it was a Top Three in the UK, and it lasted something like six minutes. It broke all the rules.
MR: Do you think it might have gone over the head of the American audience at that time?
AP: I think it just didn't get played because of its length. Radio wanted three minutes, four minutes in those days. It's such a shame because John, to this day, is such a talented artist. I just did a tour with him in December in Germany, the guy's still as talented as ever, still singing that song.
MR: And he guested on albums by The Alan Parsons Project.
AP: Yes, he did.
MR: Recently, we lost your longtime musical partner, Eric Wolfson.
AP: It was in December during that tour that I got the news.
MR: He was your partner for many projects. How did you take the news?
AP: Well, I knew he wasn't well, and he'd been battling with cancer for four or five years at least. But it came as a surprise, I didn't know he had a relapse. It was untimely, it was unexpected. And it was very emotional, it was tough. I was on the road and had to make the announcement to the audience that evening in Mannheim, Germany. There was a very shocked reaction from the audience.
MR: Together, you guys had a golden era that lasted about ten albums, with that run of I Robot through Eye In The Sky in a lot of collections to this day. Which were you and Eric's favorite albums, if you feel comfortable speaking for him?
AP: We both recognized that the first album, Tales Of Mystery And Imagination, broke the most new ground and got us onto the map. That's the one we both feel is the most deserving of any recognition.
MR: Did you have any favorite Alan Parsons Project singles?
AP: Hmmm...you know, we never really tried to make singles, per se. We always strove to make albums work as a whole. In a way, we were born into the right generation to do that because people did go buy an album and sit down, turn the lights down and light up, and play an album from start to finish. It's just something they don't do anymore. And you still had to get up and turn the record over. (laughs) That's a kind of missing link in the chain for me, going from side one to side two.
MR: Well, things got longer and longer, more room.
AP: Instead of simply sitting through the forty-five minute CD, it became the one-hour CD. I think albums became too long because of the CD format.
MR: Exactly, and the culture now uses music for function, you know, for working out or playing sports or background ambiance. You can hardly think of a Top Ten pop album these days that makes an artistic statement as a single body of work.
AP: Well, the iPod generation just wants to download the big hits, they don't care about what happens between the big hits and anything else that's on the album. They just want the song of the moment. It's sad, you know?
MR: What was the creative process like for you and Eric making Alan Parsons Project albums?
AP: Eric was usually the one to come up with the conceptual idea, sometime because he had a couple of songs based around that idea to start with. But sometimes, the concept changed. Pyramid, for example, did not start as an album based on pyramids. It was an album based on witchcraft. We just found there was so much to offer from pyramids--pyramids, pyramid power, the history of the pyramids, Egyptology, etc. We just zeroed-in on that and decided to call the album Pyramid.
MR: Did any other Project albums evolve like that?
AP: We didn't come up with the title Eve until we were way, way into the album. We knew that it was an album based on women, but we didn't have a title.
MR: One of the great things about your music is that it led to great album covers by Hipgnosis. Every one is progressive and memorable.
AP: Yeah, he did a good job for us over the years, as he did for Pink Floyd and countless others. But I've always believed in the strength of the artwork and always lamented the loss of the 12" format.
MR: Although you and Eric parted a while back, was there a shot that you would collaborate with him again on another Alan Parsons Project?
AP: I think with each passing year, it had become more unlikely. We were in different areas, and he was clearly entrenched in musical theater, and my experience with the theater and our music was not a good one. I mean, Freudiana was an experience I'd much rather forget. But he seemed okay with it.
MR: And you did have some great success with him.
AP: It seems odd but, in a way, I spent my entire career with him on the project trying to take away the sort of pretty song aspect of something that might have worked in staged musicals that didn't work on rock records. I would often give his songs a harder edge somehow, just to do something to take the prettiness away.
MR: Did you have any "discussions" as a result?
AP: Yes, I think we did. (laughs) We were sort of legendary about disagreeing with each other about so many things. It was a kind of love/hate relationship, it became more difficult to work together, we did start seeing things in sort of a different light. But a lot of artists go through that.
MR: My favorite group ever, Simon & Garfunkel.
AP: Yeah, right. (laughs)
MR: You and Eric had certain responsibilities when approaching your records, right?
AP: Well, you know, his main contribution--and I will always give him credit for this--was his songwriting. That's what he did, he wrote the songs for the project. Anything that I could contribute to those songs was through production and through ideas developed during the recording. On occasion, we genuinely did collaborate on the writing of a song. A good example would be "Days Are Numbers" that was essentially my chord sequence, my title, my basic chorus line. But he came up with the verse and all the lyrics. Another example was "Breakdown." That was a genuine collaboration between us. "Can't Take It With You" is another one. But most of the time, it was his songs, and most of the instrumentals were my tunes.
MR: How did you decide on some of the guest artists who sang lead. For instance, Allan Clarke?
AP: It just seemed like a nice idea at the time, you know, let's try Allan Clarke. He's up the road, I knew him well. He jumped at the chance, everyone was agreeable, so we just got him. It was great.
MR: And you had return vocalists.
AP: John Miles certainly, and Colin Blunstone was the favorite. You know, everybody loves Colin's voice, so the opportunity to use him was always a good idea.
MR: Are you working on any new music?
AP: Well, I'm just about to release a single from The Art & Science Of Sound Recording project because I wrote and recorded it especially for the program. So, you get to see the entire recording process of that song in the program. I think it'll sell a lot of copies on that basis. You get to see pretty much from start to finish what goes on with one of my productions. It may eventually form a part of a future album, it remains to be seen. But for the moment, it's just a single that will be released April 9th. It will be available on iTunes and everything else, but it will be considered to be promotional for The Art & Science project.
MR: And, of course, you're pressing it up on vinyl, right?
AP: Uh...no plans for that. (laughs) If there's pressure to do so, then maybe we will, yes.
MR: You have at least ten Grammy nominations...
AP: ...I think it's twelve now. I hold the record with Joe Satriani for having the most number of nominations without winning. But you know, think of it. Jimi Hendrix has never won a Grammy, Led Zeppelin has never won a Grammy.
MR: Eh, Grammy, shmammy. That brings us to Ladyhawke. You produced the soundtrack which sounds a lot like an Alan Parsons Project, but Andrew Powell is the "voice."
AP: I think Richard Donner, the director, probably asked me to do it, but by the time it went through all the negotiation process, they handed it to Andrew. But they kind of insisted that at least I produce it. I think maybe Eric was not feeling good about writing instrumental music. Although I would have been happy to do it, I think Andrew was equipped to write it. Writing is a time-consuming process, it really is. If you're gifted in being able to write and present orchestral music like Andrew is, I think it was the right thing to write it. I think I was offered to write the main theme or something. It sounded like me anyway. (laughs)
MR: Now, all in the same period, you did Al Stewart's Year Of The Cat, John Miles' Rebel, and you produced Ambrosia's Somewhere I've Never Traveled album.
AP: Yeah, those were good times. I'm actually doing a solo, unplugged, talk show panel discussion with a small audience in Orange County with David Pack. I think it's on the website.
MR: What was your reaction to being referenced in the Austin Powers movie?
AP: Oh, I loved it! (laughs) The only frustration was not knowing ahead of time. I didn't know until I was sitting in the seat in the cinema, and...okay, I wouldn't have gone to see the movie had somebody not told me to go and do it. It was a complete surprise, and I was open-mouthed when the reference came. But I took it in good humor, and I feel good about it.