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Alan Parsons - The Interview (courtesy of Go2Music.net)
This is an exclusive interview with musician-producer-engineer, Alan Parsons, who has sold over 20 million albums, been nominated for 11 Grammys, and worked with The Beatles (on Abbey Road) and Pink Floyd (Dark Side Of The Moon). This interview was conducted by Bill Kornman.
Go2Music.net: You were a blues guitarist, weren't you? Is that where your interest in music began?
Alan: My musical beginnings were actually in school. I took piano lessons at a very early age and those lessons continued throughout my schooling. I later took up the flute, but I had certain frustrations with classical music and as one does in their early teens, I picked up a guitar and crossed over into rock music. I used to play hits by the Shadows and Chuck Berry in school bands and once I completed my schooling, I became a little more serious. I guess I became another guy trying to be Eric Clapton with a blues band and although the band and I made an album, it was never released. I've never dared to listen to that album since.
Go2Music.net: Once you began playing rock music, who were your influences? Did the early "60's British Invasion sound influence you at all?
Alan: Oh, sure. I was the biggest Beatles fan around, but I was also into the blues music that was prevalent in the sixties. Around the same time as the British Invasion, you may recall that there was also a folk/blues and folk/rock explosion at that time that also had an important influence on me. These bands had quite a following in London basement clubs known as "folk clubs" at the time. I did my fair share of that type of music but I wasn't particularly suited to that format because I was a better electric player than I was an acoustic player.
All of this was all secondary to my "day job" at EMI where I was not so much a sound man as I was a technical man. During the time I was struggling to make some money as a musician, I was also trying to cross over into more of the operational areas of sound at EMI. Getting a job at Abbey Road was the culmination of my efforts. I mean, I remember that when I heard "Sgt. Pepper" for the first time I said to myself, 'Yes', This is for me. I want to find out what's going on with this record."
I was already an audio engineer of sorts before I went to Abbey Road because I was copying tapes and doing a bit of editing here and there, assembling masters and the like. I wanted to make the next leap, to get in on the recording side of the sound. I was fortunate to get an interdepartmental transfer from Hayes, where I was working, over to the Abbey Road studios - I just happened to be in the right place at the right time as there were some internal organizational changes going on at EMI then.
Go2Music.net: What did working at Abbey Road and with George Martin and the Beatles do for your own sound and production style? What were they doing "new"?
Alan: I think the Beatles music and George's production influenced the entire universe, not just me. That experience was a huge influence on what I produced later, a lot of what we did rubbed off on me, as you might imagine. I mean you can't have worked with the greatest pop band of all time without it having some kind of effect on you.
Go2Music.net: Did you feel the tension of the Beatles breakup during that time?
Alan: Not really. Quite frankly, I think a lot of the tension was going on outside of the studio, not in the musical sessions themselves. It was obvious there were some problems because I rarely ever saw all four Beatles together at the same time. The "Abbey Road" album became sort of a compilation of solo Beatle efforts. The backing tracks were recorded as a group but once they got into overdubs, the Beatles were working as individuals. Paul would come in for one day and work on his stuff, John would come in another day and work on his, George the same and Ringo would come in everyday just to see if he could help out in some way. He'd stay a few hours and then leave.
Go2Music.net: What about Pink Floyd? I've read that they pretty much let you go home at night and do your thing with the session tapes.
Alan: Well, this is a very sensitive area. There are disagreements as to what my contributions was. David Gilmore has slugged me off with the press by saying any engineer could have worked on the record and gotten the same results. I still maintain there's and element of me in the record. I mean, I have no pretense about being involved with the production side of the recording but I was the engineer and as such I made a contribution toward the final product. "Dark Side of The Moon" is one of those albums that everybody knows every note on it. I'm grateful that I'm credited as the engineer on the record because it helped launch me on a very successful career as a producer, but there is a degree of conflict between Pink Floyd and myself.
Go2Music.net: The melodies were well crafted and orchestrated on all your recordings. How do you approach keeping the melody in the front of your "Project" sessions?
Alan: I think that's sort of an automatic process. As writers, we didn't really set out and say: "We have to keep this melody out front and we have to orchestrate this way and that way." It was more a fortunate combination of competent composition and adequate production techniques and I can't say there was any particular secret formula for achieving that. What amazes me over the years is how people tell me (who is someone that is not really a performing artist but more the one who oversees the engineering and production for the most part, with a certain contribution as a composer) that my music has an identify. I never hear that identify myself when I heat my recordings-I don't really associate what I do with having any particular identify of sound. I just do it the way that I feel is right and people somehow recognize it and say, "Oh, that's Alan Parsons' work".
Go2Music.net: It's amazing that songs can be so textured and full and yet the melodies remain so sharp - songs like "Don't Answer Me", "Time", "Wouldn't Want To Be Like You", and "Let's Talk About Me"...
Alan: Well, I'm pleased that you picked songs that are all going to be in our show. It's interesting that "Don't Answer Me" is so popular because it was designed to be a parody of a Phil Spector production - it has a very "Poppy" melody and then it's smothered in echo and percussion - sort of a record that Phil Spector might have made.
Go2Music.net: How do you choose the vocalists for your songs? Did you have someone in mind as you prepared the material?
Alan: It's a combination of convenience and circumstances on the one side and a longing to have a particular talent on the other. Very rarely did we ever say on the "Project" records that such-and-such a song is going to suit this particular vocalist. We usually got to the point of getting the track down, getting the structure sorted out, doing the orchestration and then, at that point, saying now we need to get a singer. David Payton was around because he had been playing bass and had done Procol harmonies we'd ask David to take a whack at it and we'd find it would work out brilliantly. On other occasions, we'd say the only voice for this is John Mave and we'd give him a call and he would come. There were no hard and fast rules but I must say that on the "Project" records we built up a stable of really good singers.
Go2Music.net: And of course Eric sang lead on a lot of songs.
Alan: Yes, Eric became more and more of a dominant figure as a vocalist. With each successive album he seemed to be singing more. I always maintained that one of our strengths wax having the flexibility to use different lead singers, from album to album and even from song to song on an album. There are many albums in my collection and I only listen to two or three tracks on them because you tire of the same vocal sound. That's why I'm hoping to have as many as three different vocalists on our upcoming tour.
Go2Music.net: People for whom I've played your material often think you are the singer.
Alan: (Laughing) That's a common misconception. In fact, I was voted 13th best make vocalist in 1978 by Cashbox Magazine, which shows you how much the media knows. I mean, I've done some harmonies and backing vocals, bits and pieces, but not the lead vocal. On the first album I guess I technically did some lead vocals if you consider a line here and a line there as a lead vocal.
Go2Music.net: After you went from "Dark Side" to "Tales of Mystery", did you envision yourself continuing to do concept music?
Alan: "Tales of Mystery" was intended to be my statement, my "Dark Side of the Moon". It was my proof to the world that an engineer and producer could make a record. In that respect, it was ground breaking and very fulfilling for me. To this day I still feel it is one of my best pieces of work. I always thought the title "Alan Parsons Project" represented that record, that "Project", and I didn't expect that title to evolve into the identity of an artist, per se. I thought the title for the next album was going to be "The Second Alan Parsons Project", and so on and I did not expect that "Alan Parsons Project" would become the name on the act. I've never really been pleased with the identity we had thrust upon us. Now that Eric and I have split up, I feel much more comfortable that the "Project" tag is gone forever and I am Alan Parsons again.
Go2Music.net: What recordings of yours are you most proud of and what might you have done differently on them?
Alan: In a way, I've already had the opportunity to do something different with "Tales of Mystery" because it was remixed and rereleased in 1987, adding the Orson Welles narration. I'm proud of most of the work I've done. Of course, everyone does good work and not-so-good work but I think the strongest albums were "Tales of Mystery", "Tale of a Friendly Card". "Stereotomy" was strong too. Everything else sort of falls into the middle ground. I have to say, and this truly is not because it is my current effort, but I am also very proud of my latest, too.
Go2Music.net: Did you have any input on which songs would be released as singles?
Alan: Companies know what they're doing. Singles and radio play are really just glorified forms of advertising. That's not my area - I just make a record that I believe sounds good and is pleasing. I've done my bit by making the album and the record company does its bit by releasing singles and promoting them. I didn't make these records to be made in 3-minute sections between commercials on a radio station but I accept the fact that that's the way the music reaches the people - record companies market what I do. The record company is sort of an intermediary between me and the public.
Go2Music.net: Three platinum albums, four gold...that's quite an accomplishment considering not that many singles were released, no concert or TV appearances, etc.
Alan: Yes, I am very proud of that. Because I've been out of the limelight for about six years now, I'm only too aware that our audience has probably grown up with us and probably forgotten about us and are wondering where we are and may not be reading the kind of press of eve listening to the kind of radio stations that are playing the new music. We've got to so everything we can to recapture our audience. That's one of the reasons we are doing this concert tour.
Go2Music.net: "Turn It Up" and Wine From The Water" seem to be good candidates for singles from the new album.
Alan: Yes, the band felt that as we were making the album. Clive Davis, head of Arista, had made perhaps a slightly unexpected choice for our next single: the last track on the album, "Oh Life, There Must Be More". It's almost suicidal as a single because in its current form it's over six minutes long. We've cut it down to a more sensible four and a half minutes. Clive's a great song man and he certainly knows a hit song when he hears it and we trust his judgment on this one - he believes very strong in that tune and so that's what we're going with in America. "Wine From The Water" is going to be the next single in Europe. "Turn It Up" got a lot of play but it was limited to album oriented rock stations which is good but to really make a substantial impact, you've got to get onto "Top 40" stations. I've always been an album maker but the marketing people think they can bring this one home. I'm very hopeful.
"Mister Time" is a good track too but there's a bit of a problem getting it as a single because of the sheer length of it. Jacqui Copland is a very talented young lady and she's a newcomer. She toured with Duran Duran as a backup singer. She did an entire album with our drummer, Stuart Elliott. The album has yet to see the light of day but one of the tracks on it was "Mister Time" and I just felt that it was the king of song we wanted to do. So she became a member of the team for this album. It's interesting to note that we have not had a female singer on our album for a very long time. An interesting breaking of tradition.
Go2Music.net: You've been quoted as saying the whole thing about rock is a trick and that the whole basis of the music unnatural in a sonic sense? Why?
Alan: Ever since the electric guitar and amplifier came along, the entire basis of guitar-based music became artificial. An electronic guitar does not have any sound in and of itself. It just produces electronic impulses that feed the amplifier and produce that sound - sound that's a "fake" in itself. Another reason for saying what I do is that you can turn the amplifier and guitar up beyond the dynamic range of any human voice. Drum kits are also beyond the dynamics of any human voice. So you've got this series of backing instruments capable of generating extreme high decibel levels that in real terms could never really compete with the human voice. That's was makes it a fake, that's what makes it a sham. And rock music relies so heavily on effects: vocal effects, delays, reverbs and a totally sort of unreal balance - something that could not be achieved in real life. What is real, by way of contrast, is what's achieved with a symphony orchestra in a concert hall. That's real. That's acoustic instruments being played now, real time, real sound. Rock music, especially recorded rock music, is not only a distortion of sound balances but also of time - every track you hear has been recorded in several different performances by the same person. So the whole thing, the final song or final album, is totally fake - now I'm not saying that makes it an invalid musical statement - it's just that rock music is nothing other than a representation of a series of events.
Go2Music.net: Do you see a parallel between performance and production of music?
Alan: Yes, the production is intended to represent as best as possible the performance of music. That's what you are trying to achieve but the fact of the matter is that very often you have to cheat in order to get the best impression.
Go2Music.net: How do you feel about your upcoming tour of the states in 1995?
Alan: With a degree of trepidation, quite honestly. I'm not rally sure that the audience is there but I'm hopeful that they are. We're playing it safe to start off with as we are not playing the mega-stadiums but small theaters - at least to start. As a result of that we will get a better sound and a much better technical level of sonic purity. It's probably going to be a three week tour spread over twelve cities. Of course, if a city appears to be particularly strong, we can do second night. We'll add gigs at the beginning or the end if things go well. If things go badly, that we're only playing to two-thirds full houses, we're covering our asses, basically. It cost money to put a show on and more money is lost from a half-full 10,000 seater than a half-full 5,000 seater. We want to make it the best show possible with the budget we have available. Every moment of every day now is being spent on getting the best people, choosing the best songs, getting the production, the lights, everything right. I'm terrified and excited at the same time.
Go2Music.net: Assuming the tour goes well, do you have plans for future albums and tours in the states?
Go2Music.net: How did you get to know Adrian Kerridge?
Alan: There's a certain sort of fraternity among sound engineers in London. It's been rather enhanced lately by the formation of a body known as REPRO, the British Record Producers Guild, that is now known as the guild of Recording Directors, Producers, and Engineers - a bit of a mouthful, isn't it? I've known Adrian for sometime and I've worked a Landsdowne and CTS on several occasions. I've always respected his work. I think he is one of the main persons responsible for changing the fact of independent studios in this country. Engineers were sort of the unsung heroes of the '60's and early '70's. It was only through what the Beatles did for the industry that engineers got the recognition that they deserve. If it hadn't been for them, I think engineers would still be wearing white coats. I have a lot of respect for Adrian and he's very active in the APRS, the association of professional recording studios, which is the parent body of REPRO. He's one of those people who is very devoted to the industry. He's grown up through being an engineer and making lots of hit records. He paved the way for the younger breed of engineers. In fact, I do lectures and write articles as my part in the process. I'm only to happy to impart my experience to other people - I recognize that you can't teach talent but there are certain things that you can pass on that will be absorbed by those who are talented.
Go2Music.net: It seems that the best engineers were actually musicians, people who started out playing music.
Alan: Well, there's really no rules on that. Geoff Emerick, one of the greatest engineers of all, is a passable piano player but he wouldn't call himself a musician. I wouldn't consider myself one either. I can get by as a guitarist and keyboard player but I don't look upon my musical abilities as a major part of what I do. My ears control more of what I do than does my playing ability.
Go2Music.net: You said, "I'm responsible for the atmosphere in the grooves - that's all mine."
Alan: A bit of ego there, I guess. I wouldn't maintain that the sound is all totally from my own ability. I recognize in a big way that a record is a team effort - I couldn't do it without the help of the people with whom I surround myself. I am even more cognizant of that now since the new album is really more of a band thing. Since Eric's departure it's now a new set of circumstances.
Go2Music.net: You've lived through decades of changing sound: The British Invasion, Disco, Rap - all of which to some extent distorted the natural sound of the instrument. How important is it to keep the instruments sounding as close to their natural sound as possible?
Alan: At the end of the day, you have to ask yourself if the composition is successful as a composition. If it is, then you can begin nursing it, experimenting with it. But there's no way you can make a dud song sound good through clever production techniques. If the melodic content and the overall structure on the song doesn't work, there's no way you can put it together and make it work by being clever in the studio. I mean, there's a place for machine music. In fact, I'm actually very keen of some of the techno dance music being done now, and the trans music, I think known as hard core techno material--a new area undergoing expansion and interestingly so - in the same way that the Floyd had a certain something in the late '60's and early '70's that others weren't doing repetitive figures and spacey sort of sounds.
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