Crossing Over to the Dark Side

Alan Parsons answers the $64,000 question

Despite working on the Beatles’ Abbey Road and the international success of his namesake Project, not a day passes without someone asking Alan Parsons about his engineering experience for Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon. SXSW 08 proved no exception when OTR questioned Parsons about the “Great Gig in the Sky” before his panel discussion, Producers: The Analog-Digital Shift.

Off the Record: What’s the most common question you get about Pink Floyd?
Alan Parsons: What was it like working with Pink Floyd?

OTR: And the canned response?
AP: Read my book. The second most frequently asked question is, ‘What is it about The Wizard of Oz?’ They think I’m some sort of authority on the matter. My answer to that is that the media got it all wrong. It was Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.

OTR: What was the biggest difference you noticed in Pink Floyd from Atom Heart Mother to Dark Side?
AP: I think they were more ready to record it. There was a large improvisational element to Atom Heart Mother, whereas Dark Side of the Moon had been played live before a single note had been recorded for the final version. It was called Eclipse at one time, and it definitely did develop in the studio, but it existed as a piece before we started recording it.

OTR: You’ve revisited this album on several occasions for remastering. What was the most interesting aspect of that process for you?
AP: You have to be careful to not mess too much with history. Everybody gets used to hearing it in a certain way. People often forget that it was recorded with two distinct halves. CDs have become a continuous piece of music from start to finish, whereas we got used to the break between the sides. That was a welcomed thing on a lot of occasions. The break in Dark Side worked really well. You need that breathing space. In terms of making it sound better 30 years on, it was fun, tweaking a little bit of top-hand. We brightened it up a bit.

OTR: Does anything ever sound better to you than the original masters?
AP: I think it sounds a little better with a bit more top-hand on it. It’s like the consumer sitting at home and turning up his treble a little bit. That’s what I felt it needed.

OTR: Were you involved in the process of getting the album ready for download on iTunes?
AP: No.

OTR: Why is that?
AP: I don’t support the mp3 format. I recognize that it’s only a matter of time before a better format appears. Download speeds will get faster and allow for a less memory efficient format to come to the full.

OTR: What do you feel is lost with the mp3?
AP: Information. When you have a complex wave form of information, the mp3 format by its very nature is removing information.

OTR: There are elements of musique concrete on Dark Side, with the money and clocks in particular. Were those ideas the band was coming in with, and if so, what was the most difficult part of realizing those ideas?
AP: It was a complicated process, given the available technology at the time, to get the loop on “Money” to happen. It turned out that in order to get it rhythmically correct and to get each sound to last for the right amount of time to give an even tempo, we had to physically measure the exact length of the tape with a ruler, and then paste them together. It was pretty scientific in its approach. The clocks were a similar process. We relied on the overdubbing technology that was available then. We recorded each clock separately, first ticking and then chiming, and edited it all together.

OTR: That album was not necessarily ahead of its time, but it certainly made the most of the technology that was available at the time. How would it be different to record an album like that today?
AP: It would be an easier job, but I think you have to argue that the process of fighting for a sound – a bit of blood, sweat, and tears to achieve a goal – has an effect on the listener.

OTR: You enlisted Clare Torry for the Alan Parsons Project after she appeared on Dark Side. Can you tell me about when she recorded her wordless vocals on “The Great Gig in the Sky”?
AP: What’s important is that I actually knew her before the Floyd did. I suggested her for “The Great Gig in the Sky.” I thought that if anyone was going to be able to pull it off, it was her. I had always appreciated her talent, and when we were recording “Don’t Hold Back” for Eve in France, I thought it was worthwhile to fly her out there to appear on it.

OTR: Is there still an appreciation for conceptual studio projects in the digital age?
AP: The potential for it is there, but it has become a little unfashionable. Given the iPod generation and its hunger for three-to-four-minute snippets, it’s kind of fallen by the wayside. It’s difficult in this day and age to record a lengthy piece of music and expect for people to listen to it from start to finish. There’s no question, though, that cover art for something like Dark Side of the Moon had a lot to do with its success. It was a complete package.

OTR: Have you been surprised by the recent resurgence of vinyl?
AP: I think that interest has always been there. The good news about digital recording at the professional end is that it is improving. There will come a time, like hi-definition video in film, where you’ll be able to emulate vinyl exactly through the manipulation of digital numbers. It’s probably already here, and one day we’ll all laugh for insisting that the best sound came from these wax records or plastic discs.

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