What it’s like working in the studio with Alan Parsons
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.
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