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more... ArtistsHow-TosRecording TipsStudio LegendApril 2012

Studio Legends: Alan Parsons on "Dark Side of the Moon"

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Studio Legends: Alan Parsons on "Dark Side of the Moon"


Parsons stands with an array of speaker monitors—two sets of nearfields and wall-mounted mains—that help him optimize mixing adjustments.

Are the sounds that you were capturing pretty much what we hear on the final mix, or was there a lot of processing done at mixdown?
Yes, David tracked with his effects. He had a pretty advanced pedalboard for the period. I mean, I don’t know if it was actually a “pedalboard,” but he had pedals. He had phasing pedals and wah-wah pedals and all kinds of things. And there was also a thing made by EMS called the HiFli, which was a sort of console device that had an early form of chorusing on it and some other effects. It was an interesting box.

You’ve said in the past that you’re not a big fan of compression, except for managing out-of-control dynamics. Did you use much compression on the Dark Side of the Moon mixdown?
What generally tended to happen was either no compression or compression on everything except the drums, because I totally hate—with a vengeance—compressing drums. So, although [producer] Chris Thomas wanted to compress everything, I talked him into compressing just the instruments and vocals, but not the drums.

You created some pretty cool sounds with very little studio gear on Dark Side— basically, an EMI console, a 16-track tape machine, Fairchild limiters, and an EMT plate reverb.
Every sort of time-based process was done with tape—there were no digital boxes then. We might have had as many as five or six tape machines doing various delays, reverb delays, and so on. I distinctly remember on the mix having to borrow tape machines from other rooms to get delays and stuff.

There were a lot of tape loops, too. Did you do a lot of actual tape editing in addition?
Oh, plenty. The 16-track was an edited tape. You’d think that all the connecting of the songs was done at the mix stage, but it wasn’t. It was all there on the master tracks. There was a break between side one and side two, just as there was on the vinyl, but you could play the whole multitrack as a continuous piece, so everything was there.

You actually did the edits right on the master recording, the master multitrack?
Yeah. That was a challenge for getting tracks well played, getting the right instruments in the right places and not having any problems at the crossovers [tape splice points].

To do a new take, you had to erase the old take. So the new one always had to be better—because you couldn’t click undo like we do digitally today, and you didn’t have a bunch of tracks to spare like we have now with digital audio workstations (DAWs).
Well, we ended up second generation in order to make more tracks available. [Ed. Note: “Second generation” refers to a bounce or submix from one multitrack tape machine to a second multitrack tape machine to free up tracks for additional overdubs.] There were even some songs, I can’t remember which ones specifically, where the bass and all drums were reduced to two tracks on the second-generation tape.

It must’ve been a pretty big challenge to balance the drums and bass and still have them sound good when everything else was laid on top later.
That was definitely a challenge [laughs]. It was, “Oh my God, I hope I’ve got this right—because I can’t go back!”

Sometimes having limited options is better than having too many options. Looking back, do you think those limitations were somehow an advantage?
Oh, I agree with that totally. There are far too many decisions that can be made later now. I’m all for committing at the earliest possible moment.


Parsons’ advice for going into the studio is to “do the processing at the front end,” focusing on the playing and composition of the music rather than the equipment.


About Dark Side
Pink Floyd had already released seven albums and was a major success by the time their magnum opus, Dark Side of the Moon, debuted in early 1973. They’d begun working on the new songs in 1971, and the suite—which was originally known as Dark Side of the Moon: A Piece for Assorted Lunatics—was performed live for the press in early ’72. Floyd entered the studio in May of that year, with Alan Parsons manning the console and Chris Thomas (Roxy Music, Badfinger, Sex Pistols, Pretenders) producing. They spent nearly a year recording what would become one of the biggest albums of all time.

Dark Side was an immediate hit upon its release in March 1973. It shot to the top of the charts within a week, and remained on them for an amazing 741 weeks. It is one of the best-selling albums of all time (50 million copies and counting), surpassed only by Michael Jackson’s Thriller. It has been remastered and rereleased several times, most recently as part of the exhaustive Why Pink Floyd…? set released in September 2011.

It’s been almost 40 years since Dark Side came out, but it’s still regarded by many as an audiophile master recording. What do you attribute that to?
I don’t take all the credit. I mean, the band members were experienced in the studio. They arguably were the most technically minded band out there. They knew what a recording studio was capable of, and they took full advantage. And they worked me hard—they always worked their engineers hard to push the barriers. There’s no better band for an engineer to cut his teeth on, frankly [laughs].

What’s your advice for musicians wanting to capture that quality of sounds in a home studio or a project studio?
Just get the band playing. Use good mics and good mic preamps and so on, and then leave it alone. Do the processing at the front end—in the playing and in the composition. For the Art and Science of Sound Recording, we did a master class at the Village Studios and we got the top guys: Nathan East [Eric Clapton, Four Play, Stevie Wonder, Herbie Hancock] on bass, Rami Jaffee [Wallflowers, Foo Fighters] on keyboards, Vinnie Coliauta [Sting, Allan Holdsworth, Frank Zappa, Jeff Beck] on drums, and Michael Thompson [master L.A. session guitarist] on guitar. We laid down a track, and it sounded great with no plug-ins, no special sound processing. Everybody was just making their own good sounds. Nathan had his own little pedal box and Michael had a rack full of gear, so they made it sound good at the source and then we just committed it to disk—and it sounded great. There’s another general attitude that the more time you spend experimenting and turning sounds inside out, the better it will get. But it’s often the reverse that is true.

Any tips for guitarists recording at home?
The technology has evolved. You’ve got all these Line 6 Pods and SansAmp devices to get nice distortion out of. But you know, there’s no substitute for a great lead sound—like a vintage Les Paul through a Marshall amplifier. I still think that’s a great guitar sound—and hard to get any other way. So much of it is in the playing, as well. I’m not an electric guitar player—I’ve got a rig here at home, and when I play it sounds like utter crap—but when I get a guitarist in here, he makes it absolutely sing [laughs]. So that makes a huge difference. The standard of musicianship, quite apart from the other stuff, is such a huge contribution to the way a guitar sounds.

Any final thoughts you’d like to add?
I’d just like to add one thing: Never be frightened to add bottom end if you’re a guitarist. I often do that. Electric guitars can sound hard and thin, and rather than try and remove that hardness, I add some bottom end on the console to smooth it out.

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