Alan Parsons has spent so much time behind the scenes, it shouldn’t be surprising so few people know who he is after the initial flash of name recognition. Hell, I must’ve told a dozen people I interviewed him, and the responses were variations on the theme of “Cool, Alan Parsons. Who is he again?”
Parsons is the seminal UK producer who started his career at Abbey Road Studios, spent his first several years there learning tricks of the trade on albums like The Beatles’ Abbey Road, and eventually engineered Pink Floyd's enduring classic, Dark Side of the Moon, and helped pioneer some of the era’s most advanced studio recording techniques.
He applied his advanced skills to his work in Alan Parsons Project, which he formed with late co-collaborator Eric Woolfson in the mid-1970s. Between 1976 and 1987, they released 10 artfully composed prog rock LPs inspired by anything from the stories of Edgar Allen Poe to the pyramids of Giza, and each album featured a cast of guest musicians and vocalists suited to the pair’s vision. Despite charting hits that earned them a spot in the classic rock pantheon — “Time,” “Eye in the Sky,” “Wouldn’t Wanna Be Like You,” “Games People Play,” “Sirius” — APP never toured. By the time Parsons had the technology available to properly reproduce the albums in a live setting, Woolfson (who passed away in 2009) had turned to musical theater and wasn’t interested in reviving his role as rock musician. But he was happy to let Parsons take their songs on the road as Alan Parsons Live Project, which has been sporadically active since the 1990s and hits Clearwater this Friday on the only symphonic date this tour.
Parsons, now 65, has settled in California, where he continues to produce his own music as well as select works of other artists, like Jake Shimbukaro’s 2012 album, The Grand Ukulele, and the latest solo LP from Porcupine Tree’s Steven Wilson, The Raven That Refused to Sing (And Other Stories), out Feb. 25. He also offers lectures and classes driven by his 2010 Billy Bob Thornton-narrated three-disc DVD set, The Art & Science of Sound Recording.
We discussed his long studio history during our 20-minute conversation beginning with his early days working at Abbey Road. Check it out below.
At the time, were you at all intimidated working with such big name artists?
Alan: Not so much intimidated, but certainly in awe. I mean, it's not everybody in the world who gets to work with The Beatles, Pink Floyd and so on. It was really good times, but I wouldn't say intimidating, I would say, I just couldn't believe I was being paid to do this job, it really was an amazing experience.
Was there any indication of that what you were doing would have such a long-lasting impact?
Well, it was fairly etched in stone that everything The Beatles touched would do well. Pink Floyd had had a degree of success before Dark Side of the Moon, and I think we recognized at the time we were making Dark Side that it was their best work to date, but I didn’t honestly believe I would still be talking about it 40 years on.
Do you think the lack of technology meant you had to be more creative in figuring out just how to get certain sounds you wanted from tape?
You hit the nail on the head there. Tape was really the only means of getting effects as well as the medium to record. We didn't have digital electronics back then. All we had was, essentially, mechanical echo devices — echo chambers — and tape to use as delays or as a flatback or as a looped effect. You had to really scratch your head to think of anything that hadn't been done before … You could make things distort and then feed it through the delay or the echo, but there were only so many things you could dream up.
There was, extra effort put into creating a sound, and that effort was part of the fun, I think — making an effort to get something new that hasn't been done before. Nowadays it’s so much easier because you just plug in a digital box and you've got 1,000 sounds at your disposal.
Do you think that inhibits creativity at all?
It depends whose hands it's in. In the hands of the right people, anything can work, but I just think it was more was more challenging then. The process of fighting to get a good sound was rewarded by the quality of the sound. It could be argued that it's easier to get a good sound these days, but there are still an awful lot of records out there that just don't sound good.
You discuss how to produce better recordings in your Art & Science Of Sound Recording. What's the most important piece of advice you can offer to a burgeoning producer?
One of the most important things is documentation and keeping track of everything you do. Make sure everything's named properly, and all the notes and any sort of documentation or file folders that go with it are included. There's nothing worse than coming back to something that was done six months ago, or somebody else comes to work with it, and they don't have the information they need, which is incredibly important. A lot of mistakes are made because of insufficient records being kept. You can end up with an entire computer drive full of stock files, all called 'Audio 1,' and that's a nightmare, of course.
You’ve likened your role in the studio to that of a director in a film? Does this still hold true?
I think the two are very similar. I don't why we weren't called ‘recording directors’ rather than ‘recording producers,’ because a film producer is normally associated with the guy doing a desk job and keeping the tabs on finances and budgets. We have to do that as well (laughs), but we are ultimately responsible for the way the record turns out, the performance of the artists, the selection of the material, and so on.
Some producers are more assertive with their ideas than others. I like to think that people work with me because I can contribute something.
What about putting together your own records?
When I'm not only the producer and engineer, but also the artist, I obviously have total control of the situation. But it's a bit of a misconception that I play a big part in the performance of the record. I really don’t — I leave it to people who actually do a much better job than I do when it comes to performing. I'm no virtuoso by any means...
Alan Parsons Project never performed live during your heyday — was this simply a matter of not being unable to produce the sounds you’d created in the studio, in a live setting?
That was pretty much the reason. Since then, the technology has improved, sampling came along, which hadn't happened at the time of the APP.
What was it like the first time, presenting your music in a live setting?
It was wonderful. Once we had hit the road, I said to myself, "Oh, wow, we should have done this five years ago." But I really don't think we could have pulled it off until the ’90s.
Tell me about the current symphonic tour.
Actually, Clearwater is the only symphonic show on the tour, so I'm looking forward to it enormously. We always have a good time with an orchestra. It's the best possible representation of the music, because it was real orchestra on the record, and when we don't have orchestra we have to emulate it.
Does this change the setlist?
Yes, it will change, particularly a song called “Silence and I,” which we’ve never performed without orchestra. It’s a long epic piece from the Eye in the Sky album.
Tell me about working with Jake Shimbakuro.
Oh, he’s wonderful. I sort of discovered him in a little theater in Santa Cruz, California, and I asked to meet him and his manager. Jake and I got together, and we talked about the possibility of making an album together and Jake was all for it and we made it at the end of last year. It was released in the summer, it's called The Grand Ukulele, it's a combination of ukulele solo, ukulele with a band, and ukulele with orchestra. It was all recorded live, which was very satisfying for me…he is a super guy, incredibly talented.
What else do you have coming up?
There's a band out of UK called Electric Litany, I'll be working with them starting next week. And I just finished an album with Steven Wilson from Porcupine Tree. That was a fun album to make. He approached me because he wanted an engineer who had lived through the ’70s, and we did it in a very ‘70s way — everybody playing together, all the instruments in the studio as opposed to being plugged into the control room. The only thing missing was a tape machine. I might release an EP of tracks under my own name this year, but I don't think I'm ready to do a whole album just yet. And we live in a download world, a world of one song being featured. People don't have the attention span, to sit down, turn the lights down and listen to an entire album these days. It's just a fact of life, unfortunately.
Alan Parsons Live Project
With Rock Symphony & Laser Light Show, Fri., Feb. 15, 8 p.m., Ruth Eckerd Hall, Clearwater, $49.50 and $69.50.