Interview: Alan Parsons

Modern music moves in cycles. Once-hip albums are consigned to the bargain bins of history, and unloved records are dusted off years later to reenter the lexicon of cool. While punk and what came after seemingly killed off progressive rock, prog has now been rediscovered and reinterpreted by a new generation of listeners.

Studio engineer, producer and musician Alan Parsons is one such artist who’s undergone reappraisal, mostly by house, techno and disco DJs and beat-makers such as Radio Slave and Luke Solomon, but also by hip hop producers and rappers such as Puff Daddy and Kendrick Lamar. His records boast futuristic electronic textures and galactic funk rhythms, and – unlike most prog – there’s an emphasis on groove that makes his work catnip for selectors and samplers searching out leftfield beats.

Parsons made his name as an engineer at Abbey Road Studios, working on records by The Beatles, The Hollies, Pink Floyd (notably Dark Side of the Moon) and more before initiating his own live band. He masterminded a record based on the stories of Edgar Allan Poe, Tales of Mystery and Imagination, but really hit it big with 1977 sci-fi concept record I Robot, named after the Isaac Asimov book and mining disco for inspiration while sounding light years ahead even now. Later on, “Mammagamma” from 1982’s Eye in the Sky became something of a cosmic disco touchstone, sounding more like a recent dispatch from Oslo than a record of such vintage.

While in the United Kingdom for a series of talks at Abbey Road Studios, Ben Murphy quizzed Parsons on his past and his perspective on modern reinterpretations of his work.

How did you become a studio engineer and producer?

It all started when I left school. I went to work for EMI in a research department for television cameras. From there I was on a training apprenticeship. I expressed an interest in getting into sound and they transferred me to a department that was known at the time as tape records, and that was a department making quarter-inch copies in mono of the current catalogue. I think it was 1966 that I was there. It was closely linked to Abbey Road, because Abbey Road would send masters to us and we would copy them for production of these reel-to-reel tapes, and also we would make copies for record factories abroad. It was a duplication facility basically. From there I studied and applied for a job at Abbey Road and the rest is history.

Were you a musician first?

I was playing in a blues band. We were called The Earth, and needless to say I found my job at Abbey Road a little too time-consuming to continue playing with the band. We did make an album with this band. I haven’t heard it since but it’s emerged in Record Collector magazine.

What were The Beatles like to work with?

Amazing of course, ’cause I was a Beatles fan right from the jump anyway. To be sent down to Apple for the Let It Be sessions was just a dream come true. There I was working for the greatest rock band of all time and I was being paid for the privilege. Not a lot, but I was being paid!

Nowadays the studio is often considered an instrument in itself, but you were arguably one of the first engineers to treat it as such. How did you go about enhancing a band’s recording?

I can’t take any credit for anything creative in The Beatles’ domain. But Pink Floyd was a chance for me to let my hair down and get into the creative side of engineering. One of the reasons that Dark Side was so successful was that it was a really good team. The band were excellent musicians, Roger [Waters] was an excellent writer. We worked together well as a team, the cover was great. Everything worked. It’s actually rather sad it’s the only album we did together. We started an album that became known as the dumped Household Objects album.

Pink Floyd - Time

What was your role on Dark Side of the Moon? What did you contribute in terms of the sound, effects and so forth? There are the famous clocks at the beginning of “Time.”

Just incidentally I’d recorded these clocks in an antique shop for a sound effects album, and I asked the producer of the sound effects record if Pink Floyd could make use of those recordings. He said yes. We jiggled it about a bit, and let it do what it does, and it works really well. Had I not done that, made the suggestion to put that into that record I don’t think it would have happened.

There are the cash registers on “Money” also.

I can’t really take credit for the idea of that, although one of the sounds is an old telephone exchange. You hear the cash register and the coins but not all the sounds were necessarily money.

The album has a very rich sound that at the time was very new and distinctive. The use of reverb and so forth. Were there certain effects that you employed?

I remember extensive use of Kepex noise gates. I think part of the sound is these Kepex gates. They had a certain sound rather similar to tape compression. We were not just using them to reduce tape noise, they had a sound as well.

Was new technology a source of fascination then in terms of being able to capture sound in new ways?

I was always ready to experiment. That was part of the fun of engineering back then. All you had were tape machines to introduce time-based effects. There were no digital delays or reverbs. So what you had essentially were tape machines and echo chambers. You had to find creative ways to get new sounds.

The Alan Parsons Project - The Raven

Apparently your track “The Raven” was the first to use a vocoder. What prompted you to use that new technique at the time?

It was an idea to have an effect on that voice, and I was aware of the vocoder. I don’t think anybody had made effective use of it [then]. Although we got credited I’m not sure we were the very first to use it. Maybe the first to get recognition for it.

Your album I Robot as The Alan Parsons Project is considered an electronic music milestone today. What was your ambition at the time? Was there a desire to be cutting edge, to evoke a space age sound, considering the allusion to the Isaac Asimov novel in the title?

It was a sci-fi subject so we wanted to make it sound sci-fi. But we were helped a lot by the fact that the Yamaha CS-80 was new off the production line. A lot of the keyboard sounds come from that. That’s what you hear on the rising intro to I Robot. It’s funny, people sometimes associate The Alan Parsons Project with electronica, and it really was much more of a guitar band than a keyboard band. There was always a guitar solo and overdubs of guitars. The orchestration is sometimes mistaken for electronica, we tried to educate people on what a real orchestra sounded like but I think some people just thought it was electronics. But it was unusual to incorporate orchestration into progressive rock at the time.

The Alan Parsons Project - I Wouldn't Want to be Like You

The tracks “I Wouldn’t Want to Be Like You” or “Voyager” have a funk or disco feeling. Was dance music something you were into at the time?

It was the disco period, ’77. The “pea soup” drum pattern as we used to call it. Do you know what I mean by that? The “peashoup peashoup.” We didn’t intentionally make it a disco beat but at the time it seemed to work.

For a long time you were viewed as a prog rock artist, did you feel part of that movement at the time or was that just a tag applied later?

I think we were prog at the time, verging on progressive pop rather than rock. We had songs with verses and choruses. I was happy to be lumped in with Pink Floyd, Genesis, Yes, King Crimson. It was definitely the market I wanted to appeal to.

The Alan Parson Project - Mammagamma

Later stuff like Eye in the Sky and tracks from it like “Mammagamma” have been rediscovered and reappraised by a lot of contemporary DJs. How does it feel to have your work picked up again by new generations?

It’s great. We’ve had fairly major rap artists sample our stuff as well. Kendrick Lamar. And Puff Daddy lifted a loop of “Sirius” as well. But I’m interested to know who’s having success with “Mammagamma!” Imitation is a very good form of flattery.

What are your thoughts on digital recording today? How does it compare to analogue?

It has its pluses and minuses. In terms of time saving it’s made an enormous difference. It’s a weird thing to say but an awful lot of time was spent waiting for the tape to wind back to do a take. Access in the digital world is instant. It really does save some time. You’ve got instant access to any part of any song. You don’t have to locate it and figure out what you want to do in a linear fashion. The fact it’s non-linear makes a huge difference. Every chorus, every backing vocal, the way it used to be done was very drawn out. You could argue that it becomes sterile if you cut and paste everything that needs to be cut and pasted. Most people don’t think it makes any difference.

Do you feel you sacrifice a certain degree of richness in terms of the sound?

Yeah, the modern obsession with perfect timing and recording everything to click, adjusting everything to a grid is often overdone. For that reason when I make a backing track I like to have a number of people playing together, genuinely interacting. Not autocorrecting and auto-tuning. The feel comes from that first backing track and people interacting. I’ve always stuck to my guns with that.

Are you still working on music? What’s coming up?

I’ve been doing some production work with a big star in Israel called Aviv Geffen. I did an album with Steven Wilson [from modern prog band Porcupine Tree], he’s also involved in Aviv’s stuff. I also did an album with the virtuoso of the ukulele. Most people laugh at that but when you hear it you won’t! His name is Jake Shimabukuro and he’s a rock ukulele player. I’m not really looking at making another full-blown album as Alan Parsons right now. We’ve had a couple of singles. We’re in the download world, and the concept albums I’m known for are no longer fashionable because people aren’t sitting down and listening to 40 minutes of music like they used to. Three minutes of this, three minutes of that. It’s mp3 quality on earbuds, that’s not a lot of motivation for me.

Do you think that the role of the engineer and producer has merged over time?

Everybody has to do all the jobs now: you’re a writer, musician, engineer, producer. Which I think is a shame, I still think the traditional role of engineer and producer is capable of making a good contribution to music. There’s too many people doing everything at home now, which has resulted in the downfall of the commercial recording studio. Abbey Road, thank goodness, seem to be keeping their heads above water.

By Ben Murphy on November 17, 2015

On a different note