Recording engineer Alan Parsons’ fi rst studio gigs included tracking albums by the Beatles and Pink Floyd.
Imagine, you’re 19 years old, and you’ve
landed a job as an assistant engineer
at the famous Abbey Road Studios in
London. Among your first sessions? The
Beatles’ last two albums, Let It Be and
Abbey Road. Then, after being promoted to
full engineer, you are assigned to work with
a band called Pink Floyd on a project called
Atom Heart Mother, followed by Dark Side
of the Moon—the latter of which earns you
the first of nearly a dozen Grammy nominations.
Not a bad way to start out, is it?
For Alan Parsons, it was a launching pad
for a stellar career engineering and producing
a who’s who of recording artists, including
the Hollies (“He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My
Brother,” “The Air That I Breathe”), Paul
McCartney (Red Rose Speedway, Wild Life),
Al Stewart (Year of the Cat, Time Passages),
Ambrosia (Ambrosia), and many more.
But Parsons wasn’t content to stay behind
the console. He also stepped out front
with his Alan Parsons Project, earning hit
records (including I Robot, Eye in the Sky,
Stereotomy), and touring the world to soldout
crowds along the way. He is an accomplished
vocalist, keyboardist, saxophonist,
flautist, bassist, guitarist, and songwriter.
These days, Parsons maintains a busy
schedule as a producer, and performs
around the world with his Project. His latest
venture is educating a new generation
of engineers and producers with his Art and
Science of Sound Recording series of DVDs,
web videos, and master classes.
Needless to say, after working with axe
slingers ranging from George Harrison
to David Gilmour, Alan Parsons knows a
thing or two about tracking great guitar
tones. Premier Guitar recently sat down
with Parsons to discuss his guitar-recording
secrets, as well as how he captured the seminal
sounds on Dark Side of the Moon.
You’ve captured some of the most
iconic guitar sounds of all time—David
Gilmour’s “Money” tones being one
example. Mics are obviously crucial to
that. In the past, you’ve said you always
use condenser mics on guitar amps, never
dynamic mics. Why?
Dynamic mics tend to accentuate what I
would call “hard” top-end frequencies, like
3 or 4 kHz—and that’s just the area you
generally don’t want to accentuate on an
electric guitar. I’ve always had better luck,
in terms of smoothness, using condensers.
Do you tend to use large- or small-diaphragm
I’m comfortable with either, actually.
Historically, I’ve used large-diaphragms
most of the time, usually a Neumann
U 87 or U 86. Somehow, I’ve always
favored Neumann over AKG condensers.
I favor AKG for dynamic mics, but I favor
Neumann for condensers. People often
ask me if I’ve noticed how many new mics
there are out there lately—new condenser
mics, new ribbon mics. I have, but I still
come back to the old faithfuls. I’ve not been
excited by a new mic in a very long time.
Parsons’ recording advice for guitarists: “Never be frightened to add bottom end.” Electric guitar can sound hard and thin, he says, but accentuating the
bass frequencies can help smooth it out.
You’ve also said you avoid close mic placement
on guitar amps. Is that still true?
That’s absolutely true, because if you mic a
speaker of an amplifier in a certain location,
you’re just hearing that part of the speaker,
you’re not hearing the whole speaker. So I’d
say, generally speaking, you’re not getting
the full picture. I think there’s this separation
paranoia that people have with guitars.
They go, “If I don’t stick the mic right on
the cabinet, I’m going to pick up drums.”
The simple truth is that you won’t. It will
be fine—because the guitar is adequately
loud, and anything else is adequately quiet.
It’s not going to be a problem. Even on a
live take, you can go as much as a foot away
without problem. Live sound engineers just
don’t seem to get it.
Is about a foot away from the cabinet
where you start?
Live, I probably start eight to nine inches
away. In the studio, I might even start a
foot and a half, 18 inches away. And I
might go as much as five or six feet away,
depending on how loud it is and whether
it’s a big cabinet with four speakers in it.
You have to start at least 18 inches away to
pick up all four speakers equally.
Because you’re trying to capture the
sound of the entire cabinet.
Yeah, I think if you’re a guitar player, you
hear the whole cabinet—you don’t just hear
one speaker. I’m not saying that’s a rule or
that you might not get a very good result
just mic’ing one speaker. I’m just saying, as
a general procedure, I would want to make
sure that the entire rig is being heard, not
just one element of it.
You’ve also said you don’t use ambient
mics with guitar cabinets. Is that because
you’re pulling the single mic farther away?
That’s a slightly unfair generalization. I
have used ambient mics. I think, especially
if you’re recording guitar with a band, as I
often do, an ambient mic is just going to
reduce your separation. I think outboard
processing of room sounds is usually as
good and more versatile than using ambient
mics. If you want a guitar to sound
like it is in a room, then put a room plugin
on it, y’know? It will sound good, and
you can control how far away that virtual
mic is, or control all kinds of stuff. But it
is a generalization that I don’t use ambient
mics. I just think you get more versatility
by not using them.
Would that hold true if you were overdubbing
a guitar by itself?
Overdubbing is different. It all depends
on the style of music, as well. If the music
calls for an ambient sound, then I put an
ambient mic up. If it doesn’t and you want
the sound in your face, then I wouldn’t. I
think every case is different.
While we’re on the subject, do you recall
what mics were used on the Beatles sessions
you worked on?
I remember on Let It Be, Glyn Johns used
a [Neumann] U 67 on George’s cabinet. I
think Geoff Emerick favored the AKG D19
[on Abbey Road].
What about with Gilmour on Dark Side
of the Moon?
Probably a [Neumann] U 87, possibly a U
86. I’ve carried that through right to the
Did you use both of those together or
did you use them separately?
Just one or the other. By the time we
got around to overdubs, probably the
only mic I actually had set up would
be a [Neumann] U 47 so that we could
do vocals. I might have stuck that on
it, on occasion.
Tracking Floyd’s Dark Side was difficult for Parsons (center) for many reasons, including the fact that they had five or six tape machines set for different delays.
Just because it was convenient?
Yeah. The 47 is a great mic, and it will
record vocals and guitar admirably. I
would not see any reason to dig out an 87
or an 86 for the task. But, you know, the
guitars were recorded over the year that
it took to record that album. A lot of the
guitars were live, and we did a lot of overdubs.
I’d say that there were a number of
Were you concerned at all with trying to
match sounds as you progressed through
that year of sessions?
There wasn’t a requirement to do that. I
mean, the sounds between the songs were
so diverse and the styles of the songs were
so diverse, there was no real need to have
Did Gilmour play in the control room
or out in the studio?
It was the first time I’d ever done it
where David was in the control room
with his amp in the studio. I’d never
done that before.
His amp head was in the control room
and the speaker was out in the studio?
No, his whole rig was out in the studio.
So you ran a long guitar cable out to
Yes, we ran a long guitar cable, which I
later found out was probably not a good
idea [laughs]. You can lose a lot in a long
But it worked out okay …
Yeah, it seemed all right [laughs]. The first
thing to go would be top end. We would
have been getting a somewhat mellower
sound through a long guitar cable than we
might have with a shorter cable.
The studio at Abbey Road is a big room.
Most of the guitars were in the number 3
studio, which is actually the smallest—but
it is a big room, yeah. A good-sized room.
How much time did you spend finding
the right place for the microphones on
Generally, I’d put a mic out and I might
move it once, but not beyond that. I would
usually get it to a place where I felt it
worked—in theory—and then if it didn’t
work, I’d move it. But I saw no reason to
move it if it was working.
Were you following your “18 inches away
with a 4x12 cabinet” philosophy back then?
Yeah, I would guess so.
Some sources say Gilmour tracked some
of that album with a Fender Twin. Was
that mic’d the same way?
I have no memory of that. All I remember
is a 4x12 Hiwatt cabinet and whatever
speakers were in there. Oh yeah, and a
Leslie. On “Breathe,” for example.
How did you mic that?
Most likely it was fairly distant. Probably
one mic on the top, one mic on the bottom.
Because we were on 16-track, as opposed
to 24-track, I was probably not recording
the Leslie in stereo—because of not having
enough tracks. It would have all been recorded
mono anyway, so it was getting a good
spectral response out of the Leslie, rather
than any kind of stereo out of it.