The Alan Parsons Project
The man who took the credit for production on Pink Floyd's superlative 'Dark Side Of The Moon' album has since had ten years of album success with his own creation: The Alan Parsons Project. Richard Elen managed to track him down to London's Mayfair Studios, to discuss the appliance of music technology in his recordings.
The Alan Parsons Project is over ten years old this year. In that time, the unique combination of engineering skills, production technique and songwriting talent represented by Alan Parsons and partner Eric Woolfson has built a strong reputation - particularly in the USA and Europe.
A good deal of The Project's image is that of a high technology band - and on recent albums in particular, Parsons has made great use of both recording and musical technology. To find out more about the latter area, Richard Elen talked to Alan Parsons at home and in the studio, and interviewed top session player Richard Cottle, who has contributed much of the electronic keyboard work to the last two Project successes.
When I first interviewed Alan Parsons we were in the control room of Mayfair's Studio Two, near Regents Park in London. It's a modern 24-track studio: in front of us was the Solid State Logic console; in an adjacent room were a pair of Sony PCM3324 digital multitrack recorders. What also caught my eye was an Emulator II and a Yamaha TX816 rack. By that time all the backing tracks for the current album, Stereotomy, had been recorded so Richard Cottle's keyboards had been cleared away from the studio, which was then being used for various overdubs.
Today, Parsons' new studio, adjacent to his magnificent Kent house, is nearly complete, with an Amek Angela console fitted with MasterMix automation, the pair of Sony PCM3324s, and MIDI cables running behind the walls along with the more usual mic cables. Parsons owns, along with the Emulator and TX rack, a Fairlight CMI and a UMI BBC Micro-based MIDI sequencer.
With technology a recurring theme in the Project's albums, how does Alan Parsons himself find that technology influences the way he works?
"I wasn't born a composer," he says, "I was born, perhaps, a 'creative person'. I'm a record producer, not a writer - Eric Woolfson writes the songs. It just so happens that the technology at my disposal has enabled me to contribute to the way records are made these days."
"Everything's changed over the years. But I'd be a bit lost if I didn't have a real kit of drums, for example, out in the studio. I think Linn drums are wonderful things for writing, and doing demos, but they're no substitute for the real thing."
"But recently," Parsons continues, "we've been getting into sequences quite a bit. Everything's timecoded, and done to a click-track. But then, even the second album, I, Robot, has an early EMS Synthi sequencer on it."
"Richard Cottle is a new addition to the team - he is on Vulture Culture and Stereotomy, though I never thought I would take on a synthesizer player, because I was always fairly 'anti-synth'," says Parsons, surprisingly. "But there are so many good synths around now, especially the Yamaha DX series, that there are some awfully good sounds to be had from them."
If intensive synthesizer work is a new addition to Project recordings, it has not changed Parsons' basic approach - a traditional 'backing track and then overdubs' technique. Eric Woolfson comes into the studio with the basis of the songs, they are worked on by the assembled musicians, arranged and rehearsed, and then the backing tracks are committed to tape. "Sometimes," he says, "everything will halt in order to get a sequence written, or to set up some trigger from a Linn or something, but you can only get a real idea of the way a track's going by playing it start to finish, with the whole band. It's so hard to work with just a bass line and a sequence, for example, and imagine what the whole track will sound like. It's the rhythm section that gives a track its feel."
Yet the tape is striped with SMPTE timecode, and all the timing information for the tracks is derived from that. Any sequencer work is synched from timecode. "We usually do a live click, driving it from timecode," says Parsons. "That's one of the wonderful things about digital recording: you have a timecode track, leaving you with a 'real' 24 tracks of music! Once you have timecode, you can do anything. You don't need a Linn code track, a sync track and so on."
The Friend Chip SRC (SMPTE Reading Clock) drives the set-up from timecode, enabling all the electronic instruments to be synchronised live - including sequences.
"Most people wouldn't dream of doing sequences live. They'd put them down first, then play to them. But we'd send an SRC code to Richard Cottle in the studio, so that he can introduce a sequence mid-track, at the touch of a button, knowing that it'll be in sync."
Richard sends a complete keyboard mix - including reverberation - into the mixing console from the studio during the recording of basic tracks. "It's an engineer's dream," says Parsons.
"I'm a great lover of Prophet 5s - I've got two of them, retro-fitted with MIDI."
Parsons has an original UMI computer-based sequencing system, which he currently uses primarily for demos and for storage of DX sounds. It's been updated to the UMI-2 version, and therefore differs little from the current release.
"I'm just beginning to get interested in - and to grips with - MIDI," Parsons comments. "So much of the problem with this hi-tech stuff is finding the time to sit down and play with the machines - outside of the studio. It would be pure extravagance to spend the amount of time necessary with all these boxes in the studio, so I've tried to find out how all these things work at home, whenever I can."
"I spent months with the Fairlight. I could have spent some time in the studio with it, but we didn't have time: it got plugged in, played its pre-programmed piece which I had programmed at home, and then we moved on to the next thing. The Emulator II I'm only just scratching the surface with. We've used it a lot, but I know that it's capable of much more."
Parsons doesn't use the Emulator's built-in sequencer: what he does like a great deal, however, is the Linn 9000. "Not so much for actual use in the studio," he says, "but for demos and working things out. What I love about the Linn 9000 is the instant, real-time overdub facility." In the studio, they rely on Richard Cottle's Roland MSQ-700. "He really makes it fly," says Parsons.
Richard Cottle came originally from Swansea, and moved to London with a band about eight years ago. Then he got a job at Rod Argent's Keyboards and eventually started getting gigs and session work about four years ago. He's used to using fairly comprehensive keyboard set-ups on Project albums.
"On Stereotomy," says Richard, "it was basically a PPG Wave 2.3, Emulator II, a couple of Sequential Prophet 5s, and DX7. Plus a couple of other instruments that were wheeled in when we wanted them. We also used Alan's Yamaha TX rack a good deal."
"I'm a great lover of Prophet 5s - I've got two of them, retro-fitted with MIDI. I normally programme step-time sequences from them, because they can send on all MIDI channels. Although sometimes velocity information is useful on sequences, I find that a lot of the time, some sort of playing consistency is required. So it's a lot easier to do it on the Prophet, where however hard you hit the keys, it doesn't make any difference!"
The Prophet 5, although now out of production, can still be obtained, and there are several applications where the 'traditional' analogue sounds it generates can warm up a track. I had recently seen one at Chromatix, in Ealing - one of my own regular sources of electronic instruments - a store that Richard Cottle knows well, of course, having worked previously with its co-proprietor Howard Brain at Argent's. "I get most of my gear there," he says.
On the sequencing side, Richard has augmented his MSQ-700 with the PPG Waveterm, which he's been using on the new Project album, for which backing tracks are now virtually complete. "Generally, though, I find the MSQ very fast," Richard continues, "especially on step-time sequences. The only problem on it is that you can't drop out. But I've pretty much sussed it out, and it takes no time at all to get something together."
Has Richard thought of getting anything else in this area? "I'm trying to master the sequencer in the Waveterm - it's a bit slow to work with at the moment. Until you really get into it, the system can take some time."
"I'm really amazed... at the number of records that use the standard DX7 preset sounds. It doesn't show very much imagination."
Richard underlines the central role that the already-mentioned Friend Chip SRC plays in putting down Project tracks. "What we normally do is to get the rough tune, kick it around a bit ourselves, with me either playing a guide for the sequence manually, or flying it in. We establish a tempo and then get the SRC to synchronise everything."
"Alan sends me the SRC code into the studio," Richard continues, "and feeds Stuart Elliott (the drummer on the recent Project albums) the cowbell click-track as a tempo guide if he needs it. We then try and get a good sound on the backing track with the sequence going and me playing a few chords. I'm a great believer, like Alan, in the 'gig' approach to recording in the studio."
"The one drawback; sometimes, these days," says Cottle, "is that everything is timecoded. When you're doing a ballad-type tune, it can easily sound a bit mechanical. The click holds you all in time, whereas normally the tempo will waver according to the music. If you try to get ahead of the click, say, going into a chorus, and then try dropping back into it, the track sounds terrible."
A pre-programmed sequence tends to be the first thing recorded, however. Cottle has an 8-into-4 mixer, with reverberation and delays as well as the keyboard feeds, in the studio. He sends Alan Parsons in the control room a stereo balance, and feeds the same signal into monitors in the studio for foldback.
"It's pretty impossible to get the sound in the cans," he says, although he has to revert to headphones for a take. "Sometimes what happens is that if the sequence plays an important part, I'll just put the sequence down on one track to begin with. Then we've got the tempo and sequence written in. That frees the DX, or whatever was playing the sequence. Then we just overdub the drums and the rest of the band to the sequence and the click. Normally I'll just be playing big stereo chords when we put that track down."
"Stuart Elliott is a great drummer for playing along with a click-track. He's one of the few players who can actually sit up on the beat, and then relax a bit, despite the fact that it's all the same tempo. There are a lot of session drummers who just slavishly follow the click."
Many of the sequences and programmed bass lines on Alan Parsons' Project albums use delays and repeats to liven them up. Often the repeats are an important part of the rhythmic feel of a track. "Alan does a lot of that kind of treatment," notes Richard. "Once the basic sequence is written, Alan often tries to mess around with it, adding different effects. That's one of his little tricks." That kind of application, of course, is also ideal for something like the Akai MIDI Delay unit.
Alan will often add drum machine patterns and the like, with effects, and these will be played back to the musicians in the studio as they record the basic track. "Alan normally has a Linn which he uses himself," says Cottle, "but now Stuart also gets a feed from the SRC himself, and he has an Oberheim DMX drum box which is capable of triggering his Simmons SDS-7 modules. So he can write a drum sequence and can play that along with the drum kit. But a lot of the Linn stuff you hear on Project tracks is Alan's work - especially the percussion."
The development of the actual musical arrangements on a track is a joint effort. Eric Woolfson will run through the basic parts of the song on the piano, and the band will develop it, with the musicians feeding ideas back to Eric as the piece comes together. "Generally speaking, Alan lets us kick it around for quite a bit to see what we come up with, then he'll step in and make his own suggestions. He's quite a stickler for the overall chordal movement - voicing of the chords and so on." Alan is concerned about the dynamics in a piece, too, and gives Richard plenty to do on his array of volume pedals.
Richard Cottle finds modern velocity-sensing keyboards a help in this respect. "But I've never been a piano player, myself. A lot of people enthuse about wooden, weighted keyboards on synthesizers, but I normally prefer a lighter feel. I also tend to use a lot of after-touch, particularly on the PPG Wave 2.3, although I don't like the physical feel of the Wave keyboard that much. I'm looking at getting a PRK keyboard for the Wave, which has a lot more possibilities."
But surprisingly, Richard's favourite keyboard is still the Prophet 5, despite its lack of modern facilities. The reason is simple - familiarity: in the pre-DX7 days, he used Prophets a great deal. "In real terms," he says, "I suppose it's a pretty awful keyboard. But I've pretty much got used to it, and it's light and fast to play."
"The slight time delay caused by daisy-chaining MIDI instruments is sometimes a nice effect. If it's a small-sounding percussion or rhythm part, the 'flamminess' created by the delay can sound good."
Richard Cottle is largely responsible for the wide range of DX7 sounds on recent Project albums. Few of them appear to be standard sounds - almost everything is original. "I'm pretty much okay on DX programming now," Richard admits, "although it's a little slow. The one thing that's annoying about it is that I'll get a nice sound together for a certain part, which everyone in the studio likes, but it needs to be just a little different, perhaps a bit more mellow or something. You start changing it, and if you're not too careful you start losing the whole thing."
"I hate spending loads of time in the studio on one sound, so I have a whole bunch of sounds collected either from friends or whatever or edited versions of factory sounds. I know how they all sound, so instead of searching for the sound to suit the part, I try and imagine what sound is closest, call up the patch and start editing that. If it doesn't start working after a few minutes of editing, I'll try and get that sound on another synth, and then mix the DX7 with it."
Richard tries to give Alan in the control room a sound that won't need much work as far as console signal processing is concerned. He is wary of engineers who listen first to one keyboard, then another, and apply the same kind of EQ to a whole bunch of instruments as they go down on tape. "Alan's pretty much got the right approach. He listens to what he's presented with, and more importantly, he listens to it in the track. He'll always give me a bit of help, wherever it's needed."
Richard shares my own worry about the 'hardness' of FM-type sounds: they're fine for many applications, but you can get too much of them in a track. Sometimes there's a need to warm things up. "I've never actually used a DX string sound. Even mixing a bit of DX strings in with something else doesn't seem to work a lot of the time. The one thing that the DX can't seem to deliver is a good warm sound. If you do get a warm sound you seem to need to turn it up so much in the track to be able to hear its depth - and a lot of the time it'll be too loud. But with a Prophet you can get that."
"I'm really amazed," Richard continues, "at the number of records that use the standard DX7 preset sounds. It doesn't show very much imagination."
Stereotomy and Vulture Culture were two of the few albums on which Richard has used the Fairlight. "Again, that's a real time-consumer, getting the Fairlight up and running. Especially if you're trying to overdub it over a load of modern-sounding keyboards: it's a very slow process."
While MIDI-based systems have been used extensively on Project albums recently, it's generally for hooking up instruments for Richard to play live. On Stereotomy, for example, the TX rack was in the control room, driven by a MIDI feed from Richard in the studio, connected to the DX7. The DX was set up with 'System exclusive available' so every time Richard executed a patch change, the DX7 sound he selected was thrown at the rack of modules. "And what I also tend to do is to use the PPG Wave as the master keyboard, driving the DX7 and Prophets for chordal pads."
One disadvantage of using older generation synths in this configuration, even if they're driven in a 'star' network via a MIDI Thru junction box, is that some of them can be rather slow to respond compared with modern digital synths like the DX series. This is not always a problem, however, as Richard points out. "The slight time delay caused by daisy-chaining MIDI instruments is sometimes a nice effect. If it's a small-sounding percussion or rhythm part, the 'flamminess' created by the delay can sound good, especially with two or three synths playing more-or-less the same sound."
"I also rely a lot on volume pedals. I could start off playing the first chordal pad on the Wave, and when the chorus comes in, fade in the other keyboards, then change the programs, and so on. I set up about eight sounds I need for a song in the same patch positions on each synthesizer (17 on the DX7 corresponds to 31 on the Prophet, for example). Then I can switch between them during a song just by selecting one patch change and having all the synths follow. MIDI is very useful for that."
Richard also makes a good deal of use of the 'offset' facility on the Friend Chip SRC synchroniser to overcome the notorious 'MIDI delay' problem. It's useful to be able to delay the feed to the click-track, for example, to enable slower instruments to sit on top of the beat in sequences. Says Richard, "I'll put my sequencer code down on tape, and before putting the click down, I'll delay the feed to the drum box by, say, 60 milliseconds. So that the drum box - and therefore all the music - is that much late with respect to the guide sequence. Then every overdub goes through the same delay to maintain synchronisation. But if I want to use the Prophet or something, the Prophet always takes longer to respond and needs bringing forward in time slightly, so I knock the delay back to, say, 45 milliseconds."
"I'm sure I've heard some records," Richard continues, "where they've put down a Linn drum track and then overdubbed a sequence, and they've assumed that it would be in time because it's in sync, yet it sounds late. Especially if it's a bass sequence, it's got to sit right on the beat. So the ability to use delays is important. Even if you're not using an SRC, you can still delay your code to a sequencer with a digital delay to achieve the same effect."
The combination of Alan Parsons and Richard Cottle produces impressive results. With Eric Woolfson's songs and the rest of the band, The Alan Parsons Project has released a string of hit albums. And in keeping with their image, the combination of talents that make up The Project is making plenty of use of modern music technology.
Interview by Richard Elen