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Alan Parsons' "Art and Science of Sound Recording"

Alan Parsons' "Art and Science of Sound Recording"

If it doesn’t sound right to the human ear, it’s not going to sound right to the microphone,” notes Alan Parsons on his Art & Science of Sound Recording

If it doesn’t sound right to the human ear, it’s not going to sound right to the microphone,” notes Alan Parsons on his Art & Science of Sound Recording DVD. Parsons—a multi-platinum producer/ engineer/composer who’s revered for his work on the Beatles’ Let It Be and Abbey Road, and on Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon—took the time to create a unique educational product that encompasses over 10 hours of material. It’s a project I feel PG readers who want to learn more about recording, mixing, and production should take a look at.

In Art & Science of Sound Recording, Parsons addresses many topics, including the history of recording, studio acoustics, microphones, consoles, digital audio and computers, internet recording, and so on. But he also gets specific, demonstrating how to use EQ, compression, limiting, noise gates, reverb, and delay, and how to capture vocals, drums, keyboards, bass, electric guitar, and acoustic guitar with vocals. There’s a section on mixing and dealing with disasters, as well as a handful of studio stories. And hey, we even get some narration by Billy Bob Thornton.

There are also some great interviews with other leading engineers and producers who discuss their styles and techniques. One of my favorite quotes was from David Thoener (AC/DC, Santana, Bon Jovi), who said, “It’s not the technology that dictates the sound of the record, it’s the man that’s working the technology.”

I like how Parsons takes the time in each section to get fairly deep into the topic. These are not just shallow introductions on a subject—it’s real meat from someone with a lot of experience. In the guitar section, for example, there’s an excellent interview with L.A. session master Tim Pierce, who discusses using different pickups while surrounded by a stack of tasty heads, pedals, and outboard gear. I like how he says, “If you have a good Les Paul and a good Stratocaster, you can do 90 percent of what you need to do.” But Pierce also talks about the importance of having a wide variety of sounds, and then walks the talk by getting killing tones out of a Kay guitar. He also wisely states, “Really, the tube guitar amp is everything.” There’s an interesting section with Pierce tracking a session on one of Parsons’ tunes, which they break out and mix later in the DVD.

Parsons also talks with producers John Shanks (Sheryl Crow, Christina Aguilera) and John Fields (Jonas Brothers, Miley Cyrus), as well as writer/producer Patrick Leonard (Elton John, Madonna) about such things as amp blending, room sounds, reverbs, mics, and tones.

In the guitar section, Parsons digs into amps, speakers, and mics, and talks about his choice of full-range condenser mics on guitar cabinets. Watching and listening to the sonic changes as he alters mic positions on a cabinet reveals the subtle differences you can achieve by moving a mic just a few inches. He also discusses amp modeling using hardware and plug-ins, and offers his views on pedals, building up guitar overdubs, tuning, and soloing.

Parsons describes working with George Harrison, who would plod his way through a solo in the early stages, but just keep playing it over and over until he didn’t make a mistake. That was Harrison’s methodology— keep playing the part, keep developing the tune, keep the good bits and remove the bad bits. Good advice when you can do it!

While discussing acoustic guitars, Parsons again returns to Tim Pierce to talk about effective recording and production techniques. Pierce illustrates a point by recording and layering stereo acoustics over a track to help make the chorus “explode.”

Then there is an entire chapter discussing how to record an acoustic while singing at the same time. Anyone who has ever tried this knows how tricky it can be. Parsons talks about choosing mics and how to use different polar patterns and various mic’ing positions to get the job done.

Another useful chapter is the one on mixing. Parsons demonstrates some of the techniques mixers use, such as track consolidation, clearing unused tracks, and recall and automation. He interviews producer/ engineers Jimmy Douglass (Bjork, Jay-Z, Justin Timberlake) and Elliot Scheiner (Steely Dan, Foo Fighters) about challenges and issues that mixers face. Producer/ engineers Chuck Ainlay (Dire Straights, Peter Frampton) and Jack Joseph Puig (Green Day, U2) talk about mixing on an analog console and some of the differences between that approach and working “in the box”—mixing within a computer or digital audio workstation (DAW).

Parsons also breaks out a DAW-recorded song by sending the individual tracks into a console. While mixing these tracks, he discusses using EQ and effects, as well as considerations for balancing all the parts. It’s inspiring to watch an experienced engineer work at his craft. Again, he hits it right on the head with statements like, “A mix is extremely subjective, and it can often be the source of conflicts between musicians, producers, engineers, and record company A&R departments.”

Art & Science of Sound Recording is full of useful information, but it never gets boring. The mix of Parsons’ personal narration and demonstrations, Thornton’s voiceovers, interesting graphics, audio examples, and interviews keeps the course flowing. A lot of work went into not only the content of this project, but also its presentation and delivery.

You can buy the material as a DVD boxed set or a complete download—or purchase individual sections via download. An educational license for school programs is also available. I highly recommend Art & Science of Sound Recording. Studying this material is time well spent, and virtually everybody in the biz can learn something from it.

Rich Tozzoli is a Grammy-nominated engineer and mixer who has worked with artists ranging from Al Di Meola to David Bowie. A life-long guitarist, he’s also the author of Pro Tools Surround Sound Mixing and composes for the likes of Fox NFL, Discovery Channel, Nickelodeon, and HBO.