Alan Parsons on his Career of Making Sound Decisions
British producer Alan Parsons is perhaps best known as the guy who engineered Pink Floyd’s classic Dark Side of the Moon. Parsons, who got his start at as an assistant engineer at the famed Abbey Road Studios, worked on The Beatles’ Abbey Road and Let It Be before forming the Alan Parsons Project in 1975. The band delivered prog rock anthems such as “Eye in the Sky”, “Time” and “Don’t Answer Me.” Its entire catalog was recently reissued and Parsons called from the Santa Barbara home where he’s lived for the past 14 years to discuss the band’s legacy.
Have you toured regularly for the past few years?
Yeah, we’ve been keeping busy. With declining record sales, it’s my bread and butter really. It’s fun. I enjoy playing live as long as I’m not too long in the tooth.
You have a new symphonic album coming out.
We’re in the final stages of editing a symphonic DVD, which was shot in Colombia. That may well be a TV broadcast as well as a Blu-ray DVD. We haven’t planned a release yet, but I’m hoping it will be this year. It was a huge outdoor free concert. The orchestra was great and the conductor was great. We had a great time. It looks very lavish. It’s a huge audience. It makes us look special.
Have you done other orchestra shows?
We’ve done quite a few, especially with the Night of the Proms, which has become a new thing. They’re coming to America actually. We’ve done orchestral shows in Florida and one at the CERN facility in Switzerland where they made this great physics discovery and they accelerate particles. They have a big anniversary event there with an orchestra. The [Alan Parsons Project] records feature orchestral instruments so it’s nice to do that live otherwise we have to use samples. It works, but it’s that much better with an orchestra.
You’ll be playing the hits on this tour. Will any deep tracks make their way into the sets too?
Well, yes. There’s one or two. We have one new song which has just come out as a single. It’s called “Fragile.” You mentioned the word “deep tracks” and we play the entire piece of The Turn of a Friendly Card. It’s almost the entire side of an album. It’s hardly heard on radio, so it’s not a greatest hit. We love playing it. If we didn’t play “Eye in the Sky” people would be on their way. It’s always been essentially a hits show. The band personnel has changed over the years though and we like to add a new song for a bit of variety.
You went to work at Abbey Road when you were 18. What was that experience like?
I’m the one that applied for the job there. I was already working for the label in a West London tape duplication facility. We were making albums on quarter-inch tape. It was closely linked to Abbey Road. We would get the master tapes to duplicate them for the record factories in foreign country who made their own vinyl. It’s all done digitally these days. Back then, you have to send an analog tape to every country in the world. Through that job, I had the link to Abbey Road and I simply applied to the boss there. They offered me an interview and two weeks later, I was working there. I was actually 19.
Did you have a good ear for music then?
I was always into music. I was playing in a blues band at the time. I soon gave that up to devote every hour of every day to the job. I dusted off my guitar and put it in the attic and got it out some years later.
Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon has become one of the top-selling albums of all time. Did you have a sense at the time that it was bound to be something big?
I don’t think anyone really could have known that. We were all pleased with it. Floyd were in agreement that it was their best work to date. Talking about it 43 years later, no one could have predicted.
What made you want to start the Alan Parsons Project?
It probably stemmed from Dark Side and my first couple of hits as a producer. I was fortunate in that I had early success as a producer. My manager was Eric Woolfson. He advised me that I needed a manager and took me on. Very soon after that, it turned into a partnership. He started writing songs based on Poe stories and poems. We thought it would be great to make a concept album with various artists. We had no idea it would be released under the banner of Alan Parsons Project. It wasn’t my intention at the time that I would be branded. It continued to be a frustration of Eric’s that he didn’t get his name on it.
Were you frustrated by artists you produced who didn’t listen to you?
There was a certain bit of that but it didn’t happen often. I think producers shouldn’t be dictators. They should work alongside the artists and not be too busy. I think had a good working relationship. Not only as a producer or an engineer, but also as composer. There’s not much left to take over.
Is there one version of Dark Side that sounds best?
I think the latest boxset sounds pretty good. The last time I was involved was for “Shine On You Crazy Diamond.” I think that version was good as well. To be honest, I haven’t taken much interest or clinically analyzed each version. Other people do that and that’s the job of people who write for the Internet and have that kind of time. In the latest boxset, they included original 1973 quadrophonic mix. That nice to hear that again. It had been bootlegged. James Guthrie, my successor with Floyd, also did a surround version of Dark Side, much to my chagrin. They didn’t even approach me, but the good news is that most people prefer mine.
What about the different digital formats?
I’m on a quest to make MP3 go away. Seriously. It’s unnecessarily there. There is technology there that allows the consumer a much better quality product if you would only spend a little more time downloading. Most artists are charging a premium for the high quality download. I’m going to reverse that trend and make it cheaper. My new website will have high quality downloads cheaper than MP3s. We’ll see if I can start a trend.
It doesn’t cost the artist more to make them, does it?
No, especially if the artist is in control. I might at some future time try to get the catalog onto high quality sites or license them as high quality items that I sell myself.
I grew up a time when everything was on vinyl and people had high-end stereos.
People listen to music riding bikes and flying on plane and riding on buses. The whole concept of a hi-fi stereo system seems to have gone out the window with obviously a few exceptions.
The turntables that convert vinyl to MP3s can’t be good either.
As long it is MP3, it will always be MP3. Even the CD has become a compromise and that’s why vinyl is undergoing a huge resurgence, which is great. I’m all in favor of that. But I’m in favor of high quality downloads, whether it’s WAV files or FLAC files, which sound great. It takes a little more time to download and takes up more space on your computer, but it’s worth it.
What was it like to work with Porcupine Tree’s Steven Wilson on his last album?
It was the last thing I did. I was more of an engineer on that. He wanted to make an album in the old school way. Of course, I am old school. He’s got his own reputation as an engineer and producer as well. He’s done stuff that I wish I have done, working with Jethro Tull. He’s a great writer. The album did really well. He asked me to come back and do another in September.
What other projects do you have in the works?
We’ll be releasing a live album, which we recorded in Germany. It’s a double CD. We’ll be offering that as a high quality download. Sony Legacy just released a boxset of the entire catalogue. I Robot was re-released as a 35th anniversary edition on two CDs with bonus tracks.
I take it you oversaw the sound quality on all of those projects?
Absolutely. That’s my job.