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.