What it’s like working in the studio with Alan Parsons
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They say it’s impossible to learn much when you’re scared. And certainly who, as they struggle to balance their checkbook, can ever forget their sadistic math teacher or the mean spirited gym teacher as they trip over both their left feet… The corollary of course is the inspirational English teacher who routinely gets thanked as the Pulitzers are being presented. Instruction is most effective when it’s delivered relaxed, measured and positive.

Alan Parsons might initially look a bit like a big scary guy; thick mane of hair atop his 6ft 5in generously proportioned frame. But though some measure of shock and awe may linger through the day, this will predominantly be thanks to the amount of stuff you’re learning and gathering.

Smiley face The key ingredient in any Master Class is hang time with the Master. Not hang time in terms of swapping jokes or sharing the peanuts but considered, observational hang time where you’re able to pick up on the vibe, the pacing, the approach to the day’s proceedings. Anyone can feel (or even say) ‘The chorus comes in too late’ ‘You’re early on the downbeat’ or ‘The kick drum is a bit muddy.’ But how and when to voice these thoughts? If the writer, or artist, or engineer feels the narrative is a discussion between equals and not a directive issued from on high, that could be the difference between good day or a great day in the studio. Possibly even between a good and a bad day? Possibly between a hit and a ‘yeah whatever’.

These days it can seem everyone has the same information available to them and to some extent we have. How to mic a snare (“use a 57”), how to record upright piano (“point a pair of AKG C12’s at the back from a foot and half away”) but exactly where to point the 57 on ‘this’ snare, how much stereo to shoot for on the upright are the details on which the devil bases almost all his levels of success. And these are hard to get from a book alone, or even from a skilled instructor who’s not (or maybe just not yet?) had the privilege of multi-platinum puddings in the proving of their mic positionings.

The beauty of MCTS events is that there’s time and opportunity to ask and get answers, to live and learn. And also to contribute. At a recent event at a university in Mexico City some 40 producers-in-waiting were squeezed into the control room and when Alan played the demo du jour in order to tweak the song’s arrangement he began: “So what do we feel about the chorus? Anyone feel it should get there earlier?” Immediately ideas were flowing and in under a minute a consensus was formed as to not only when but how the track could hit its first big moment.

Validation is often quoted as one of the most valuable take-aways from an MCTS. “I was just going to suggest a little boost at 12k” said one Attendee. “And then Alan comes up and says ‘I think we need a little more at 12k’ and I was like YES!” Hearing can sometimes just be believing in yourself. At the other end of the spectrum are those “You’re right but I’d never have thought of that” moments like when, at a session in Buenos Aires Alan shocked Attendees by EQ-ing the left overhead drum/cymbal mic and then moved over and began EQ-ing the right? “Why don’t you just copy the left cried almost the entire audience, concerned, maybe, that the master was not privy to that particular capability on ProTools? “Because, said Alan, ever patient, "I want it to sound the best it can and copying parameter values is not ‘listening.’ It sounds better when I do it like this. Recording is about how it sounds, not about how it looks.”

MCTS events are both hands-on and feet on the ground affairs. In fact knees on the ground as often as not. Alan is not averse to plonking himself down on the floor to nudge a mic a half an inch to the right so that it’ll escape the worst of the spill from a neighboring sound source. He’ll also tell you why, sometimes, having two sources physically closer can help minimize the problems of separation because you’re not also at the mercy of timing delays.

Having started working with Alan more than thirty years ago when MIDI was scarcely more than a knowing glint in Charlie Steinberg’s eye, and then having worked as both scribe, sounding board and co-conspirator on the Art & Science Of Sound Recording project, I’ve lost count of the number of moments in an AP session where the muse and the magic starts to flow. Sometimes you’ve got to be quick and really pay attention to ‘what just happened’. Alan is not going to bang a gong (literally or figuratively) and either telegraph every move he’s making or make some big deal of it after. So much of what makes a great producer or engineer is taste and instinct that the observer needs to keep their wits about them in order to distill a particular moment into tangible lesson form.

Much of what Alan Parsons is all about he learned at Abbey Road, be it overarching concepts like ‘value for money’ or the particular, like miking a concert Grand piano. At all levels, benefiting from Alan‘s lifetime of experience in two day’s worth of work is going to be an exhausting and exhilarating experience for us all.

By Julian Colbeck

The Power Of A Pint At The Ship

There was no such thing as ‘networking.’ Back when I was 19 and ‘unsigned’ to label or publisher, the band simply sat around scouring Melody Maker or NME for who was who and what was what; listening to the radio, playing records, plotting our next move towards being ‘discovered’.

There was a certain amount of bliss in that ignorance. We weren’t stressed out trying to get an introduction to every executive on the planet or having to spend a fortune on Google Ad words because the internet didn’t exist and there was precious little chance of being able to meet any executive, by any means, much less a flotilla of them.

But we definitely did ‘plot.’

We knew, for instance, that a certain record company liked to drink in a certain pub on Wardour Street in the heart of London’s Soho; The Ship. So, in what now seems more nitworking than networking, the band decided to pile into the pub one night in order to try and engage various members of the label in conversation.

We discovered that most evenings the crew went from The Ship to the Marquee club a few doors down to catch some live music, albeit through a beer-smeared window between the room and the bar, and finally onto ‘the speak’, or The Speakeasy as this dimly lit after-hours den of iniquity was officially named.

That was good information. Or data as we call it now.

Regardless of how good the information or data was, a gig at The Marquee could only be got by one of two means: fame or cash and we had neither. However, we did have a friend with money. And subsequently he (Gary) kindly put up the cash to get us onto the calendar.

As we launched into our set our manager managed to pry, for at least a song or two, the reluctant label boss and his cronies out of the bar and onto the floor. They were intrigued, they called a meeting, they paid for a demo to be recorded, and we totally ignored their instructions about what to record. But, they loved what they heard and duly signed the band. A career was launched.

Could it happen again today? There’s a lot of missing parts in today’s equivalent, for sure. But today there’s also a ton of new and rather more seemingly scientific arrivals: strategies, seminars, platforms, apps, all knitted together in one giant networking sweater to protect you and then project you into starasphere.

Only they probably won’t.

With only 24 hours in everyone’s day you have the choice of seeming to do something, or actually doing it. Like the choice of calling your friends when you’re on the beach to say what a great time you’re having… as opposed to actually having a great time on the beach, i.e. without your phone or friends who didn’t want to haul their asses off the couch and join you..

All emerging artists face the problem of exposure, or rather the lack of it. The challenge is not just how to stand out but who to stand out to? You might think a target is easier to hit if it’s bigger but sometimes the opposite is true. If you narrow down your target of people you want to reach to, say, three, then you can devote a lot more energy (and guile maybe?) to reaching them. Like us boys down the pub back in the seventies.

Entering a contest is a time-honored rite of passage. Even the much-ridiculed Eurovision Song Contest has thrown up the likes of Abba, Celine Dion, Secret Garden and Lordi and others over the years. OK, so contests like Melody Maker’s Rock and Pop contest did throw up (in possibly the other sense too) bands like Splodgenessabounds, Bite The Pillow, and Robert And The Remoulds, none of whom took much of anywhere by storm aside from Splodgenessabounds of course—who can forget the punk anthem "Two Pints of Lager and a Packet of Crisps Please"? On the other hand contests like American/British/Lithuanian Idol have been relatively extremely successful in kindling new music careers. And by no means just for the winners. Which is my next point.

Aside from some obvious benefits to winning, entering a contest is a great way to just focus on who you are, what you want to do, sound like, be comfortable being categorized as. It’s a goal, a target, moreover one of the ones that falls into the second definition: relatively easy to if not score a bullseye on, to at least hit some useful vectors or quadrants.

Above all, entering a contest is a statement of faith: Here I am. This is me, or us. In today’s increasingly isolated recording world where entire musical lives can go unheard by anyone outside your immediate family, entering a contest gets you out of the house, metaphorically and hopefully literally.

Entering a contest takes a different type of effort, which is precisely the point, and it’s effort with a nicely sharpened focus. Bit like that pint at The Ship.

By Julian Colbeck

1. Decide who’s in charge. Me, you, all of us by committee decision? It doesn’t really matter so long as everyone knows who’s calling the shots.

2. WRITE THE SONGS. Unless you’re a jam band and songs are not really the point, write—and finish—the songs before you start recording them. Just because technology lets you write on the fly doesn’t necessarily make this the best way to go.

3. Beg, borrow (maybe not steal) as much gear as you can. You can never have too many mics, amps, pedals, so call around to friends in the neighborhood and see if you can snag some loaners for a few days. Look after the gear you borrow.

4. Consider soundproofing and room acoustics. If you’re recording in your bedroom or garage you’re realistically not going to be able to get the place soundproofed. But you can block up holes (think of soundproofing like waterproofing. If there’s a hole, sound [or water!] can and will leak in and out). If you’re recording in a symmetrical room sound waves are going to bounce around and give you a false picture of what your recording sounds like. Read up on this a bit and maybe pick up or construct some bass traps. In this instance, a little knowledge is not dangerous at all. A little goes a long way.

5. Think about how you’re going to record vocals. Vocals are the song’s shop window. It’s the first thing people latch onto. First, make sure if it’s a ‘singer’ that they can sing well in the key you’re playing at. Don’t just rely on Auto-Tune! Also make sure the singer is rested and does not eats gobs of dairy the day before or of the recording. Finally, figure out where you’re going to recording him/her. Closets can make great vocal booths. Seriously.

6. Decide exactly how you want to record. Everyone in the room at the same time or part-by-part? If you’re recording ‘together’ you then have the choice of ‘just using a couple of room mics.’ Maybe you want everyone miced separately? If you want separate mics and you’re using a DAW you’ll need an interface that can handle as many inputs as you have. And if you want to be able to monitor everything separately, you’ll need to think about the number of A-D and/or D-A converters. With all this to think about you might want to go back to tape! It’s not a bad idea, either. All things to consider…

7. Check your equipment is in good working order. Fix crackly pots and channel faders (use an air duster, then a lubricant). Update your computer and recording software (but not 5 minutes before you start as updates can also cause at least temporary problems too). Make sure you have spare guitar / bass strings. Ideally, put on a new set of strings on any stringed instrument you plan on using.

8. Download everything you think you might need. Loops, instrument and effects plug-ins, patches, the new version of Melodyne you’re been promising yourself… Don’t spend precious recording time downloading stuff.

9. Look out all your widgets, gadgets, doodads and adaptors: Mic clips, a mic stand, a music stand, a string winder, your wallwarts, footpedals, cables… It’s The Law that the one cable you need—that stereo eighth inch mini jack to dual RCAs or whatever—will not be where you thought you last saw it when you need it in the heat of battle. Locate all of this stuff.

10. Print out the words/lyrics. 1. It’ll force you into completing them. 2. It makes it so much easier to identify sections you need to repeat, or makes changes to etc. 3. It’ll help everyone ‘keep in touch’ with the meaning or purpose of the track.

Bonus Track…

11. Decide on the credits. Music history is littered with musicians who felt they wrote or contributed to songs they ultimately were not credited for (Rolling Stones bassist Bill Wyman claims he wrote the guitar riff on Jumpin’ Jack Flash and was not credited for it, etc.) and basically once you leave the recording session ‘un-credited’ that’s how it’s going to remain. Have that conversation now or, as many sensible bands do, simply pre-agree that if you were in the room/band when a song was being written, you are a co-writer. Either strategy can save a lifetime of heartache or litany of legal fees afterwards.

MCTS Mexico City

Date: April 24-25, 2015
Country: México
Venue: Estudio Piayet, Tec de Monterrey, Mexico City
Event: MCTS Level 3
Artist: Tren A Marte
Musicians: Alan García (Vocals), Edgar García (Vocals), Cristian Carrillo (Drums), Adrian Adame (Guitar), Allan Fuentes (Bass), Luigi (Keyboards) Cardoso (Violin and Cello)
Producer: Alan Parsons
Event Management: Charlie Steves
Engineer: Nicolás Mariñelarena
Video: Cameron Colbeck
Event Producers: Alejandro Ramos Amezquita, director at Tec de Monterrey, Julian Colbeck for KEYFAX NewMedia Inc.

For two whole days 10 AM to 7PM more than 400 students on Tec de Monterrey’s Music Production course got to participate in the making of a new record produced by Alan Parsons.

Held at Estudio Piajet on the walled and heavily fortified Mexico City campus, shifts of 30 students at a time piled into the control room for a morning or afternoon session with Alan and Latin GRAMMY-nominated Tren A Marte for the recording of a new track Yo Queria.

With double lead vocalists, brothers Alan and Edgar Garcia, supported by a line up of drums, bass, guitar, keys, violin and cello, the day began with a playback of the demo followed by a discussion between Alan, band, and the 30+ other producers in the room as to how best to arrange the song. Should the drums come in quite so late? Did that power chord guitar part really work? Could the keyboard part be simplified?

You’d be forgiven for thinking that recording a song in Spanish with a 7-piece band in front of a live and impressively opinionated audience would phase even the most seasoned producer. But Alan takes all such and more - a 2-day deadline to record and mix, a live webcast broadcasting the activities to two other TEC campuses in the city - in his not inconsiderable stride.

Every decision, from routining to mic choices and placements, to performance and production judgements, was taken with calmness and clarity—a lesson in itself for the students.

Within the session students got to observe the recording a basic tracking session—including a short-course in isolation with drums and acoustic grand piano recorded in the same room without gobos—copious instrument overdubs including violin and cello, two lead vocal recordings, backing vocal recording (including participation by Alan himself), a couple of mic shoot-outs featuring two mics Alan had brought along himself (the new Rode ribbon, and a Miktek CV5), and a full—though necessarily speedy—mix with processing and stereo considerations addressed.

The final mix of Tren A Marte’s Yo Querio is probably not the final final mix but it was nonetheless greeted with tumultuous applause when played back for the public the following day at the SoundCheck Expo at Mexico City’s World Trade Center.

MCTS Nashville News Story

Entitled “The Art Of The Song”, the Nashville MCTS saw Alan return to Nashville–site of the first filming sessions for the Art & Science of Sound Recording video series.

Songwriting was the focus of this two-day Level 3 workshop looking at issues ranging from composition to arrangement and performance as well as recording techniques. Famed Nashville listening room The Bluebird Café (featured in the hit TV series Nashville) conducted a month-long song search to find a new, appropriate homegrown song for the event. Alan Parsons himself selected the lucky winner at a special audition just the day before the recording.

Only it didn’t quite work out like that.

Confronted by three very individual performers on stage: Paul Sikes, a young male country-pop singer and guitarist, the brooding JP Williams, blessed with a voice as true as his true-blue country roots and who happens to be blind, and the wonderfully quirky Annie Mosher who’s intensely personal style straddles country music and modern folk.

Alan would clearly not make the best American Idol judge as he simply could not find a winner amongst these three performers, announcing to universal delight that all three would be recorded over the next two days.

This last-minute change of plans was only even theoretically feasible thanks to the quartet of seasoned Nashville session players headed up by guitarist Troy Lancaster. On drums was Nashville uber session player Shannon Forrest playing his beautiful Australian Brady kit (with - if we heard correctly - a eucalyptus finish). Artist in his own right Doug Kahan was on bass and soundmeister Charlie Judge handled keys with a Yamaha Motif flanked by a pair of trusty Roland JP808 modules plus a full compliment of soft synths lodged in his personal ProTools rig.

The first track, written and performed by Paul Sikes, had originally been an upbeat country rocker on Paul’s demo. Alan and Paul decided to give it more of an edgier / U2 feel with lots of sparse and punctuating guitar and a bubbling, arpeggiated synth motif that was SMPTE-d to the main ProTools rig in the control room.

It was fascinating for the mainly non-Nashville Attendees to see the ‘Nashville’ ‘number’ system of charting chords in action–especially in view of this guitar based track being written in Eb.

Once the main tracks were in the bag there was time for one or two key instrumental overdubs before it was straight onto song #2, JP’s beautifully observed country ballad The Dollar, recounting the influence of money for good or bad (“I take all the credit, all the blame…”), as a single greenback floats from bar to homeless person’s coffee can along the highways and back alleys of life.

Time was getting extremely tight as Annie Mosher stepped into the limelight to record her personal and precious take on society’s value of human life through the eyes of her four year old son’s reaction to the death of his goldfish. Talk about the power to move; after the first run-through never mind ‘scarcely’ a dry eye in the house…

The recording of Annie’s song demonstrated Alan’s deft touch when it comes to recording ‘just the right number’ of parts on top of a delicate and highly emotional song such as this. Too much and becomes too produced and slick; too little and why bother, just leave it as an acoustic guitar track.

The Nashville MCTS stood out as the first of these events where women attended at both Platinum and Gold levels and Annie and Alan took full advantage of this with a girls chorus culled from the ranks of the Attendees and Production Manager Abi Mae.

Attendee Gina Towell also sung harmonies on Paul Sikes’ song; her voice matching almost eerily with Paul’s. Interestingly, for Paul’s own vocal Alan put up a U47 and a Miktek C7 and actually chose the Miktek for the final mix, feeling it suited this particular vocal better.

Recording and mixing three songs in two days–never mind to an audience eager to ask questions—is a tall order but once that was accomplished to universal approval from three delighted performers, studio staff, Team ASSR, and twenty-four Attendees.