If you’re living on planet earth, you’ve undoubtedly heard the music of legendary producer / engineer / songwriter Alan Parsons – from Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon (45x Platinum) and the Beatles’ Abbey Road / Let it Be to the Hollies, Pilot, Ambrosia, Paul McCartney’s solo albums, and his own creation, The Alan Parsons Project. His name is synonymous with Abbey Road Studios, starting there as an assistant at age 18, fine-tuning his craft with the likes of Sir George Martin and Geoff Emerick, and eventually becoming President of the studio in 1998.
In a recent Music Radar poll, fans voted Alan one of the “Greatest Producers in Music History”. His creative genius can be heard in nearly every style of music, from symphonic rock to EDM, from the Chicago Bulls’ theme song to ukulele virtuoso Jake Shimabukuro.
He pioneered technologies we take for granted today, such as sampling and playing with loops (as in Pink Floyd’s “Money”), surround sound, vocoder vocal FX, EDM pop-synth textures, and more; receiving 11 Grammy nominations.
Recently Alan poured his wealth of knowledge and experience into “The Art & Science of Sound Recording”, a must-have video presentation and companion book that is educational, entertaining, and inspiring all at the same time. He sat down with our own Tom Brooks to give [GTR] readers a sneak peak…
[Tom Brooks] Alan, you’ve probably run into every imaginable engineering challenge in your music career. In the big picture, what would you say are the top 5 tips to help GTR’s producer-engineers make their music sound better?
[Alan Parsons] Tip #1. “Don’t let technology get in the way of the artist’s performance and creativity.” I’ve watched sessions crumble because the engineer was spending too much time trying to get a plug-in tweaked or an effect dialed in; all while the creative energy of the artist was just slipping away.
Tip #2. “Consider each microphone and its sound source.” I remember something Glyn
Johns taught me on a Beatles session, way back. Ringo’s drum kit was in the room at Abbey Road and George’s amp was just to the right of the kit. Glyn asked me to place the mic on the guitar amp; then he said, “What problems will we have with this mic?” I replied, “Spill from the drums?” and he said, “Exactly – so, point the mic away from the drums.” And that always stuck with me.
[Tom] So… using a cardioid mic?
[Alan] Right – of the 3 basic microphone types, cardioid, omni, figure 8; cardioid “hears on the front and is deaf on the back”.
Tip #3. “Capture as many of the players as you can at the same time” – That’s when the spirit of collaboration comes shining through in the feel of the music. So many records sound sterile because they’re done one track at a time. It’s much easier to figure out what is best for the song when everyone is there in the same room. You can listen to each section and fine-tune the arrangement; you can adjust each part so they complement each other. It is so much more musical than doing it on a screen cutting and pasting with a mouse…
Tip #4. “That old classic phrase, ‘Fix it in the mix’ is a death trap.” Record your tracks so they sound amazing already. You should be able to throw up the faders to unity gain and have a pretty great sounding rough mix; ready to fine tune.
Tip #5. “Trust your ears and not your eyes.” If it sounds great and it grabs you emotionally… keep it! It doesn’t matter what the waveform looks like or what some plug-in tells you. Great music sounds great. If a take doesn’t sound great… fix it!
[Tom] Many GTR readers are singer/songwriters, often recording their songs with guitar. Any advice for them?
[Alan] Usually I would think the combined live vocal plus guitar track was for guide purposes; and that you would re-record them both later… but sometimes there is that magic moment that you just can’t recreate, so you want that initial recording to sound as great as possible. Obviously microphone technique is important.
[Tom] What microphone tricks would you use?
[Alan] The first obvious one is to use cardioid mics because of their directional characteristics. Point the vocal mic up at the singer and the guitar mic down to minimize spill. You’re not going to isolate one from the other entirely, but in certain circumstances you might be able to completely replace the vocal, or completely replace the guitar.
[Tom] For acoustic guitar, what is your “go to” microphone?
[Alan] I’ve always favored the Neumann KM84 for acoustic guitar, a small diaphragm cardioid condenser mic. It is slightly artificially brightened, which is what makes it attractive. Even with the brightness, I generally add about 3 or 4db more around 10k. And I almost always roll of the bottom end from around 150-200 on down. It gets rid of all the thumping that you get. It’s alright when the mic is 12 inches away, but when it’s only 3 or 4 inches away, which it needs to be when you’re recording vocal at the same time, you definitely need to roll off some bottom there. I find that the High Pass filter works much better than rolling off the Bass EQ.
[Tom] Talk about how to position the mic to get a natural sound before you start with the EQ. Is there a rule of thumb about where to place the mic, in relation to the soundhole to
get the best balance?
[Alan] I always start 6 to 8 inches directly out from the soundhole. If I feel the sound is slightly boomy, I’ll move it towards the bridge to brighten the sound up a bit. There is a photo showing the precise mic placement in Chapter 20 of the ASSR.
[Tom] Would you ever consider using the guitar pickup, if one is installed?
[Alan] In this day and age it is certainly worth listening to the sound of the pickup; I’ve recorded a Taylor where the installed pickup sounded really good.
[Tom] Have you ever tried putting any baffling between the guitar mic and the vocal mic?
[Alan] I think I did try once to put a layer of sponge rubber between the singer and his guitar, but it makes it pretty uncomfortable for the player. He can’t see what he’s playing, so it’s not a great solution.
[Alan] It is rare that a live vocal like that would end up being the ultimate master vocal track; most likely we would try to get a better performance later… but there are occasions when the magic just happens.
[Tom] Was there a time when you used a first take live vocal on a major hit song?
[Alan] Yes, Al Stewart on the “Year of the Cat” album. He thought he was just doing a runthrough, so he was relaxed and he just nailed it.
[Tom] And you were set up and ready to hit record?
[Alan] Yes, thank God! With experience, you’ll know what to expect; how much level from every instrument, from every mic, etc. It’s a trick I learned from Geoff Emerick at Abbey Road. He could set up an entire rhythm section, orchestra, and singer ahead of time, push up the faders and it all worked. That’s a real skill.
[Tom] Back to guitar, would you ever mic an acoustic guitar in stereo?
[Alan] Generally not. On most of my production work, I would be more likely to double track it.
[Tom] So you would have the guitarist play it twice versus recording it in stereo?
[Alan] Yes. You can reposition the mic from left to right on the double and get a huge stereo spread.
[Tom] You recently produced a new album with ukulele virtuoso Jake Shimabukuro. How did you approach micing him?
[Alan] That is one rare case where I did choose to mic his uke in stereo. Jake is a “one take” kind of performer and we knew that there was no way we were going to be able to double track and do multiple takes with him. He’s extraordinary, one in a million.
[Alan] In the beginning I recorded his uke and I planned to add the orchestra later, but then my instinct told me to bring Jake and also have him play live with the orchestra. And without exception, his live takes with the orchestra were even more spectacular than his originals!
[Tom] I love that you’re thinking as an engineer, but simultaneously thinking as a producer; to get the very best out of the artist.
[Alan] Jake was clearly inspired by the sound of the orchestra and vice versa. Recording them all together raised the entire performance to the next level. One of the tunes we actually sent the rest of the orchestra home and just left a string quartet behind. Jake was right there in the room facing the quartet. There was no isolation at all, but there didn’t need to be because we knew it was going to be a “one take” capture of the performance. Yes, the quartet was in his mic and the ukulele was in the string mics, but we knew the end result was going to be stunning.
[Tom] So, there’s a case where starting with the idea of “everything separate” isn’t always necessarily the best way to go?
[Alan] I think there tends to be a bit of paranoia around this issue on the part of engineers. They think, “Oh my God! I don’t have separation! I can hear the guitar on the vocal mic, and the piano on the vocal mic!” But you have to recognize that there are pluses and minuses. Orchestral recordings benefit so much from one mic picking up everything as well as the instrument it was meant to be picking up. That’s what makes real stereo, not just defined, panned stereo from separate recordings. It just adds to the incredible space that is created.
[Tom] Everybody knows you from all your creative input into albums like Dark Side of the Moon. There’s so much going on there in terms of panning effects, sampling, tape cutting, and looping. Did you have all that in your imagination before you went in? And did you originally envision all that in surround sound?
[Alan] I was certainly thinking of ‘quad’ (as it was called then). For example, the loop on “Money” was designed to walk around the room in quad. And I recorded the clocks for “Time” at an antique shop on 4 separate tracks, so they would be in quad. We knew the day would come when technology would catch up with us.
[Tom] How many years did it take before that happened? Quad never really materialized, but surround sound is basically the same thing?
[Alan] For consumers, surround technology came many years later, and thank God, because all of the sounds were there on the multi-track tapes, ready for the ‘Dark Side’ remix.
[Tom] So… quad was 4 speakers but “Money” is in 7/4 time, so there are 7 elements in that loop, right?
[Alan] Yes, and if I had the chance to remix it again, I would make it bounce around continuously instead of jumping to front left at the end of each cycle. I would have loved it to continue to go around the room. Maybe we’ll do that for the 100th anniversary remix!
[Alan] No, digital didn’t exist. I had to measure out with a ruler and cut the tape with a razor blade for each cash register, each sound effect, and then splice them together so they were precisely in time. Then I had to pull the tape out of the tape machine, join the ends, and run it around a mic stand to create the continuous loop.
[Tom] I’ve often wondered about this. With 7 elements in the loop, when it comes back in at verse 2, and you’re using analog tape… how did you get the loop to line up again?
[Alan] When the loop comes back before verse 2, it was just a happy coincidence that it happened to fit. I had faded out the loop when they started to play verse 1 and it just so happened that they were back in sync at verse 2 when the loop comes back in.
[Alan] When I was recording Paul McCartney on “The Long and Winding Road”, at that time it was a fashionable thing to do a “talking verse” like the Everly Brothers did on “Love is Strange”. Paul tried it with the line “Many times I’ve been alone, and many times I’ve cried”, the spot which now has Richard Hewson’s soaring string line instead. Paul only tried the talking verse on that one take, but I remember thinking that it was brilliant!
Alan’s “Art & Science of Sound Recording” is available at ArtAndScienceOfSound.com.