Studio Legends: Alan Parsons on "Dark Side of the Moon"
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 present day.
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 different setups.
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 any continuity.
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 guitar cable.
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.
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
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
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
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
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.
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.
Guitarist David Gilmour used a small arsenal of gear for the Dark Side of the Moon sessions. Given his penchant for changing his rig—and the fact that the sessions were scheduled around live gigs and stretched over the course of a year—it’s difficult to pin down an exhaustive list of his Dark Side setup. However, the following pieces of gear are generally believed to be the main tools for the sessions.
Gilmour’s famous black Fender Strat was his main axe during the Dark Side of the Moon sessions. At the time of the recording, the oft-modified 1969 Fender Strat would have had a ’63 neck with a rosewood fingerboard, stock single-coils, and an extra mini switch for extra pickup combinations. In early ’73, a Gibson PAF humbucker was installed between the bridge and middle pickups, but it is doubtful that pickup is heard on the album.
Gilmour also played a Fender 1000 pedal-steel guitar tuned in G6 (D–G–D–G–B–E, low to high). He also used a custom guitar built in 1970 by Canadian luthier Bill Lewis for parts of the “Money” solo. It had a mahogany body, ebony fretboard, 24 frets, and custom humbuckers, and it may have been used for other tracks, as well.
During the Dark Side period, Gilmour used Hiwatt DR103 100-watt heads through 4x12 cabinets. Alan Parsons recalls the cabinets being Hiwatts, while some sources (such as Gilmourish.com) suggest they may have been WEM cabs. The latter source also suggests that a Fender Twin combo was used on Dark Side, though Parsons does not recall that amp being used. A rotary-speaker cabinet—either a Leslie or a Maestro Rover—was also used.
Gilmour is famous for his masterful use of effects, both live and in the studio. Among those used for Dark Side were a Dallas Arbiter Fuzz Face, a Binson Echorec II, a Colorsound Power Boost, a Univox Uni-Vibe, a Kepex tremolo, and an EMS Synthi HiFli.
Parsons' Go-To Mics
The Neumann U47, U 67, and U 87 microphones mentioned by Alan Parsons in this interview have probably been used to record more hit records in more styles of music than just about any other microphone models. They’re quite expensive—especially vintage U 47s and U 67s—as are newer reproductions like those from Telefunken and Bock Audio. However, below we’ve also listed some quality alternatives that will impart much of their magic at a pretty reasonable price.
Neumann U 47
Manufactured from 1949 to 1965, the U 47 was a large-diaphragm tube condenser microphone with a switchable polar pattern. It is outstandingly versatile and excels on almost all sources, including vocals and guitars. It has a clean sound with good presence and nice top-end warmth. The Beatles’ producer, George Martin, has stated that the U 47 is his favorite microphone.
In 1969, the U 47 FET—a very different microphone with solid-state electronics—was released. Many engineers prefer the FET version for recording kick drums and upright bass.
Neumann U 67
In the early ’60s, the U 67 was introduced to address some complaints about the U 47—some engineers felt the U 47 could be harsh and bass-heavy when used for close-up vocal recording, which was becoming popular at the time. The U 67 is still a large-diaphragm tube condenser, but it adds a bass roll-off switch and has a slightly reduced upper midrange. It is also very versatile, with a large diaphragm, switchable polar patterns, and a tube-based condenser design. The U 67 became the studiostandard workhorse for many engineers and producers.
Neumann U 87
The Neumann U 87 is among the most widely used mics in the professional studio market. It’s a solid-state condenser with a large diaphragm and switchable polar patterns. Many engineers rely on it for vocals, but it has been used for almost all applications, including orchestra, drums (Bruce Swedien of Count Basie, Duke Ellington, and Michael Jackson fame swears by it for toms), electric guitar, and more.
Large-diaphragm tube condenser alternatives: Mojave Audio MA-200 ($1,095 street), Rode K2 ($699 street), SE Electronics Z5600a ($849 street), Avantone Audio CV-12 ($499 street), or Studio Projects T3 ($599 street)
Large-diaphragm solid-state condenser alternatives: Mojave Audio MA-201 FET ($695 street), Audio-Technica AT2035 ($149 street), Rode NT1000 ($329 street), Blue Bluebird ($299 street), AKG Perception 220 ($179 street)