Alan Parsons Interview
Dark Side of the Moon cover

 

CLASSICAL SESSIONS:

Interview with
Alan Parsons

On the 25th Anniversary of
Pink Floyd's "The Dark Side of the Moon"

Interviewed in June 1998 by Mel Lambert

In terms of its musical scope and technical advances, there can be little doubt that Pink Floyd's The Dark Side of the Moon, which was released 25 years ago in March 1973, represents a milestone for the recording industry. That the album - the band's ninth - spent 741 weeks on the "Billboard" Album Chart - and, to date, has sold a reported 30 million copies - attests to its appeal to hard-core fans and a broader audience around the world; for many of us actively involved within the music recording and production industries, few sessions have aroused as much interest during the past quarter of a century.

   Alan ParsonsWithout a doubt many listeners, Roger Water's domination of the band reached a peak with The Dark Side of the Moon. Many observers would go as far at stating that the care and attention that went into the crafting of this classic multitrack album represents the vision of a single individual. Others would disagree, arguing that the co-operative work of the other band members - notably guitarist David Gilmour and percussionist Nick Mason, not overlooking the keyboard contributions from Rick Wright - shaped the album into a cohesion that might have escaped a solo effort. Whatever the truth, there can be no denying that The Dark Side of the Moon was a dramatic breakthrough in terms of studio techniques; as much of a transitional album as, let's say, The Beatles' Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, or Led Zeppelin's seminal Led Zeppelin II.

    Because, at the heart of the sessions, and acting as focal point for the many, many hours the band spent in Abbey Road, EMI Music Group's famous North London facility, was staff recording engineer Alan Parsons, who since then has pursued a successful career as freelance producer and leader of his own Alan Parsons Project conceptual ensemble.

    Founded in 1931, Abbey Road is considered by many to be the elder statesmen of London's facilities, with a track record second to none. Today, the complex comprises four primary recording areas, a number of post-production suites plus two mobiles; it employs 70 full-time staff and boasts an on-site restaurant. Abbey Road's Studio Three was the site of extended tracking and remix sessions for The Dark Side of the Moon In the mid-Seventies it comprised a large, flexible tracking room with a control room that housed a vintage EMI console linked to a Studer 16-track/2-inch machine; today, it houses a 96-channel Solid State Logic SL-9000 J-Series console with Ultimation. (And, just for the record, for several years Parsons formerly served as Vice President of EMI Studios Group UK, in which position he was responsible for running Abbey Road Studios; so it goes.)
    In an exclusive interview, recording engineer Alan Parsons recalls the landmark sessions that contributed to the genius of The Dark Side of the Moon.

How did the band prepare for The Dark Side of the Moon?
Actually, the band didn't rehearse very much in those days. They had been playing the piece live before they came to Abbey Road, so [the concept for Dark Side] was fairly well structured. They were ready to make the main recordings. Any sort of routine and structuring would basically take place in the studio. Normally, it was never an engineer's job to plan out anything for the session, other than get the mics set up and that kind of [preparation]. The band didn't sit down and discuss what they were after. It was very rare that anyone ever did that for an engineer - even now

Who was the primary director in the band?
Roger [Waters, bassist] would have to take credit as the main giver of directions. But, if he was in the studio's performing area for any reason, David [Gilmour] would take on the role of main producer. They sort of directed each other; giving guidance. It has to be said, however, that when [the band] was laying tracks, they were all in the studio. In those days, it hadn't become the regular practice to record [instruments] in the control room. Everybody was always in the studio, or in the control room listening to each other as the tracks went down.

How technical were the band members?
They were pretty okay with most technical things. David, in particular, always had a reasonable home-studio setup, and knew most of the nuts and bolts of recording. I'm not sure he could have actually sat down and recorded a drum kit, but he had a pretty good technical understanding.

How long did the sessions take for "Dark Side?"
All in all, we spent around a year; I don't think much longer. But the tracking, overdub and remix sessions were interspersed with playing ["Dark Side"] live, which was also interesting. [The band premiered the core pieces from The Dark Side of the Moon in live concert at a number of British venues throughout late 1972 and early 1973; historians of such trivia mark February 3, 1973 - several months before the album's worldwide release - as the first time that the entire piece was performed live in its entirely, during a 2:30 AM appearance at the Lanchester Polytechnic Arts Festival. And later, during a four-day residency at The Rainbow, London's famous live venue in Finsbury Park, the band unveiled "The Dark Side of the Moon - A Piece for Assorted Lunatics;" bootleg recordings from those gigs display a close resemblance to the final album. "It was called 'Eclipse' when we first played it live," recalls David Gilmour. "We showcased it to begin with at five nights at The Rainbow, which tightened it up performance-wise, although one or two of the pieces which were a bit more performance-oriented got thrown out and replaced in the studio. 'On The Run' started as some strange onstage jam, but when we discovered the sequencer capability of the little VCS3 synthesizer we used that instead." ]

Did the band change their minds about any of the songs, or their arrangements, after playing it to a live audience?
I don't recall there being any conscious decisions based on live reactions. The essence of performing it as a complete piece had an effect on the way they structured it for the studio. Most of it was actually recorded as an album; the songs weren't separated. Most of the two sides [of the album] were recorded as they were eventually mixed. The final running order was pretty much determined from the first days. Obviously, we had to record and mix it in sections, which made it a nightmare for track allocation.

How did you record the basic tracks?
Generally speaking, we would record the backings first; you have to start somewhere. The backings would have been done in a more conventional way; several takes, and then we choose one over another. Basic tracks were recorded to 16-track, and then we went down another generation to free up more tracks. And we mixed from that second-generation 16-track [which contained the overdubs and solos]. It was a compilation from all the master takes with the first-generation 16-tracks. They went to a second generation, because they needed the [additional] tracks.
   Mostly, drums and bass were submixed; those became the tracks that went right the way through the tape. Bass and drums in stereo on tracks 1 and 2 [on the multitrack master]. Then we started adding more overdubs and solos.

These days you can use timecode synchronizers to link two multitracks. Back then it was a free transfer, without the ability to re-sync the two machines during remix. Did that restrict you in any way?
Absolutely! It can be done now; it could have been done then, but it would have been hard to record [the overdubs]. The tapes still exist; we might use them to prepare a 5.1-channel [DVD-Audio] issue. I've been trying to talk the band into doing it, but they seem to be in no hurry.

Let's run down the tracks for "Dark Side," and have you recall what happened on each one. Start with Track #1, Side #1: "Speak To Me."
The opening [heart beat] was just a gated bass drum. [Valley People] Kepex noise gates or expanders were quite a new technology at the time. It actually explains a lot about the sound of the album, since the Kepex had a sound of its own.

   The band also thought it was a nice idea to have some speech interspersed around the record. Rather than interviewing people live, it seemed like a very good [idea] to stick them in the studio with a series of printed cards each with a question on them. They sat down in front of a mic and answered the questions. [The first such voice recording on the album - "I've been mad for fucking years" - is the band's then road manager Chris Adamson, followed by Abbey Road's then doorman, Jerry Driscoll, whose voice is used frequently on the album.] Then we flew in [the recordings] where they were needed on the track. [The song's title is said to result from Parsons' habit of asking for test levels during the questionnaire recordings by yelling down the talkback mic: "Speak to me!"]

What about the clock recordings on "Time"?
I made stereo recordings in an antique clock shop not far away from the studio. I just went out with a portable tape machine and got [the owner] to stop all the other clocks in the shop, and record each one at a time. I then comped them together on the multitrack.

And Gilmour's vocal for "Breathe" was recorded pretty quickly?
Dave never took very long to do vocals. I would say he was more fussy about his guitar playing than he was about singing. He's a clever guy; he can do these things very competently, professionally and quickly. He was certainly aware of what could be done, but was very good at getting sounds - he worked hard with his sounds in the studio.

   It's almost unheard of for a guitarist to be in the studio these days. Nowadays, he would always play in the control room and have his gear out in the studio. Nearly everything he did [for "Dark Side"] was out in the studio.

... The synthesizer sound for "On The Run?"
That was the EMS [Electronic Music Systems, a now defunct British synthesizer manufacturer] Synthi-A that had a sequencer - the second generation of the VCS3. There is a slight click [as each sequence repeats itself], but it is sort of in time. The footsteps were provided by [assistant engineer] Peter James running around Abbey Road Studio #2, and laid onto the multitrack against the sequencer.

"Time" opens with a heavily gated bass line.
The "clicky" bass? That was there before the clocks idea came up; it was there in the original "Eclipse" [the original working title of the in-progress concept that later came to be known as "Dark Side of The Moon"]. The clocks were done as an afterthought; the bass set the tempo. Even in those days we were recording to a click track most of the time. Since the only way of generating a click was with a metronome, we had to put one in another room for isolation and mic it up. There were probably electronic metronomes, but nobody had one [laughs].

And the track features the newly invented Rototoms.
Yes! That was the first time I'd seen them. Although they gave a nice, bright sound, they were sort of thin sounding - they didn't really have much room or space to resonate. Nick [Mason] had four of them, I think. And we had to re-tune each one of them for each chord change and punch the machine into record on each change; we had a lot of fun and games doing that!

For the background vocals - Doris Troy, Lesley Duncan, Liza Strike and Barry St. John - you used a pitch-changing device called a "Frequency Translator," built by Abbey Road service engineer Keith Atkins, to produce that "swishing sound."
Yes, effectively it was a very early pitch changer. If you feed back a pitch-changed signal to itself you get a slight "swishy," "phasey" sort of sound. It was more of a chorus, to fatten out the sound.

Tell us about that truly brilliant - and manic - lead vocal at the end of "The Great Gig in The Sky" by Clare Torry.
When Clare first went out [into the studio] she started improvising words. And the guys said: "No words, just sing." So it just became "Woh yeah, yeah, yeah." I remember she was rather puzzled by it all. We probably did three or four takes, with guidance being given on each part. The resulting master was a compilation of maybe two or three of those takes. [In Torry sued EMI and Pink Floyd for song-writing royalties, arguing that she co-wrote "The Great Gig in the Sky" with keyboardist Richard Wright. The UK High Court agreed with her, but the terms of the settlement were not disclosed.]

   Clare is just a very good singer. I'd only worked with her once before that occasion but thought she was great; that's why I put her name forward to the band. Interestingly, I put her on a track for one of my albums a couple of years later.

"Money" is a simple bass riff, unusually in 7/4, with a guitar an octave apart plus effects loops.
Yes. It was certainly unusual to have anything other than 2/4 or 4/4 on the average rock and roll song. The original idea to do a loop was certainly not mine; the only contribution I made was to come up with the sound of the telephone exchange as one of the sounds. The loop was slightly different on "Eclipse." It was a seven-sound loop for a 7/4 time signature. The only way to ensure that it was perfectly in time was to physically measure the tape with a rule, so that we had seven, exactly timed pieces of tape cut to exactly the same length. That [decision] was made through bitter experience: we tried to do it just by ear, and it came out hopeless. The only way to do it was to measure it accurately.

   David's vocal was caught in probably only two takes. [The sax playing was by Dick Parry, who also contributes a breathy solo to "Us And Them."]

What about the sequences for "Us and Them?"
I'm not certain whether the vocal repeat was part of the original concept for the song. I remember Dave asking one day: "Can we get a long repeat going?" And it turned out that the only way of getting it long enough was to use a 3M eight-track machine at 7 1/2 ips, using two tracks for each repeat. It's a very long delay for tape. But, back then, of course, there were no digital processing boxes.

During the sessions, "Brain Damage" was known - for obvious reasons - as "The Lunatic Song." How did they go down?
Even to this day I can't relate the tracks to the song titles, because they were applied at the last minute. On "Brain Damage," we certainly never called it that during its making. With Jerry saying. "Sometimes I don't know if I'm mad even if I'm not mad" . . . all those voices and speech [recording] were added during the last few days. Actually, those were the freshest things of all. They were put on almost as part of the mixing process.

And the ending, "Eclipse," which was added after the band had toured the work-in-progress?
I don't remember that! My memory is a bit hazy, but I recall that every time we played it live, it always had the ending on it. I would be interested to hear [the original, live version of] "Eclipse" again; there are tapes of it lurking about somewhere.

The million-dollar question. If you recorded "Dark Side" today, what different techniques would you use?
Well, it would probably end up on 96 tracks. It was actually quite a feat of engineering to squeeze it all on to 16 tracks. Especially when things like the "Money" loop alone took up four tracks.

   Quite apart from it being obvious, having more tracks to play with would have been good. And digital delay would have made the echoes on "Us And Them" much easier. The wrap-around console [in Abbey Road's Studio #3, now owned by Mike Hedges] was not big. It was sort of configurable for what you wanted. Basically, it had 24 channels into 16 groups, but you could use the groups as inputs as well.

Would access to MIDI-based sequencers and synthesizers have provided the band with more textures and musical tools?
Almost certainly. But it's hard to say how different it would have been. If "Citizen Kane" was made today, how would it be? It's one of those imponderables. In those days, people weren't quite so fussy about getting everything spot on, timing-wise. There's no question that there are a couple of ragged edges on "Dark Side of the Moon." If it was remixed today, possibly those ragged edges might be tidied up. But it is still the work it is, and should be judged on what it was at the time.
   Computerized mixing would have helped enormously! There were a lot of hands on the desk; a lot of changes to remember. Automating the mix would make it a much more polished tape.

Anything you'd change?
I remember that we fought to get the right echo on the Rototoms for the beginning of "Time." There was a magic rough mix I did that we never got back to on that section. Chris Thomas [who supervised the mixing process at Abbey Road] was very keen for me to try and find what that [reverb sound] was, but we never really quite found it. As I remember, Chris was around for about the last three weeks, and worked with the band as a mixing supervisor; basically, he was brought in as a fresh set of ears.

   Generally, I don't think the recording was rushed at any point. So I don't think it would have necessarily benefited from any more time.

Given access to source elements, would you like to try a 5.1 surround-sound mix of "Dark Side?"
As I said earlier, I've been trying to get the band to do that very thing. It was mixed in [matrix-encoded] quad because, at the time, "Dark Side" was designed to be a quad album. I think the quad mix was pretty damn good; it sounds great in surround. The sooner the better as far as I'm concerned.

PINK FLOYD:

David Gilmour: vocals, guitar, VCS3 synthesizer, keyboards.
Nick Mason: percussion, tape effects, drums.
Richard Wright: keyboards, vocals, VCS3 synthesizer.
Roger Waters: bass guitar, electric guitar, vocals, VCS3 synthesizer, tape effects, keyboards.

 

Alan ParsonsAlan Parsons, pictured left in December 2002, began his career as a staff engineer at EMI Studios in England, and soon gained valuable experience through his work on the Beatles' 1969 album, Abbey Road. Parsons' reputation was solidified by his engineering work on Pink Floyd's The Dark Side of the Moon (1973), one of the best-selling albums of all time.  He also worked with Paul McCartney on Wings' early albums, produced Pilot’s 1975 hit “Magic,” and collaborated with Al Stewart on Year of the Cat (1976) and Time Passages (1978).

   A multi-talented composer, musician and producer, Parsons founded the Alan Parsons Project in 1975 and released a series of innovative records, including Tales of Mystery and Imagination (1976), I Robot (1977) and Ammonia Avenue (1984). Some of the Project’s hit singles include “Eye in the Sky,” “I Wouldn’t Want To Be Like You” and “Games People Play.”
   Most recently, Parsons has released several recordings under his own name, including Try Anything Once(1993), On Air (1996) and The Time Machine (1999).

Image ©2002 High Fidelity Review. All rights reserved

 

A REVIEW: Loyd Grossman, writing in the May 24, 1973, issue of Rolling Stone: "One of Britain's most successful and long lived avant-garde rock bands, Pink Floyd emerged relatively unsullied from the mire of mid-Sixties British psychedelic music as early experimenters with outer space concepts. Although that phase of the band's development was of short duration, Pink Floyd have from that time been the pop scene's preeminent techno-rockers: four musicians with a command of electronic instruments who wield an arsenal of sound effects with authority and finesse. While Pink Floyd's albums were hardly hot tickets in the shops, they began to attract an enormous following through their US tours. They have more recently developed a musical style capable of sustaining their dazzling and potentially overwhelming sonic wizardry.

   "The Dark Side of the Moon is Pink Floyd's ninth album and is a single extended piece rather than a collection of songs. It seems to deal primarily with the fleetingness and depravity of human life, hardly the commonplace subject matter of rock. "Time" ("The time is gone the song is over"), "Money" ("Share it fairly but don't take a slice of my pie"), and "Us And Them" ("Forward he cried from the rear") might be viewed as keys to understanding the meaning (if indeed there is any definite meaning) of The Dark Side of the Moon.

   "Even though this is a concept album, a number of the cuts can stand on their own. "Time" is a fine country-tinged rocker with a powerful guitar solo by David Gilmour and "Money" is broadly and satirically played with appropriately raunchy sax playing by Dick Parry, who also contributes a wonderfully-sated, breathy solo to "Us And Them." The non-vocal "On The Run" is a standout with footsteps racing from side to side successfully eluding any number of odd malevolent rumbles and explosions only to be killed off by the clock's ticking that leads into "Time." Throughout the album the band lays down a solid framework which they embellish with synthesizers, sound effects and spoken voice tapes. The sound is lush and multi-layered while remaining clear and well-structured.
   There are a few weak spots. David Gilmour's vocals are sometimes weak and lackluster and "The Great Gig in the Sky" (which closes the first side) probably could have been shortened or dispensed with, but these are really minor quibbles. The Dark Side of the Moon is a fine album with a textural and conceptual richness that not only invites, but demands involvement. There is a certain grandeur here that exceeds mere musical melodramatics and is rarely attempted in rock. The Dark Side of the Moon has flash - the true flash that comes from the excellence of a superb performance."


LATEST NEWS:
SACDIn late March 2003, The Dark Side of the Moon was re-released worldwide in Super Audio Compact Disc format. The single inventory, hybrid layer multi-channel SACD was the first release by Capitol Records in the US market. (SACDs have been released on both the EMI and Capitol Records labels in Europe.) A hybrid multi-channel SACD features 5.1-channel SACD, stereo SACD and stereo CD versions of the songs, and is compatible with CD and SACD players.
   The new 5.1-channel surround sound mix of The Dark Side of the Moon was completed at James Guthrie's Das Boot Studios, Lake Tahoe. For many years Guthrie acted as the producer/engineer for Pink Floyd and was approved by the band for the remix assignment. He was also responsible for the 5.1 mix on Roger Waters’ multi-channel SACD and DVD-Video releases of In The Flesh Live, as well as performing 5.1 mixes for two recent Pink Floyd DVD Videos: Pulse and The Wall.

 

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