Alan Parsons is known among music fans raised on 1960s and 1970s rock as a legendary producer and engineer who worked on some of the most famous and top-selling albums in the modern pop era.
The 65-year-old, who will bring his Alan Parsons Live Project to the Cleveland Performance Arts Center on Tuesday, worked on the Beatles’ Abbey Road and Let It Be. A fresh-faced 19-year-old Parsons was in the studio, twiddling the knobs of the EMI TG console and cutting tape per George Martin’s commands.
Parsons was in the studio for Pink Floyd’s Atom Heart Mother and Dark Side of the Moon. As part of his production duties, it was Parsons who gave the album many of its unusual and much-imitated sound effects and double-tracking techniques and it was Parsons who enlisted opera singer Clare Torry for the wordless vocal on The Great Gig in the Sky.
He also engineered and/or produced albums by the Hollies, Al Stewart and Ambrosia. Across his career, Parsons has received eight Grammy nominations for best-engineered album, nonclassical.
In the mid-1970s, Parsons decided to gather up a few fellow musicians for the Alan Parsons Project, a studio band that would go on to have seven top 10 hits including the mellow soft-rock Eye in the Sky, the disco-funk I Wouldn’t Want to Be Like You and pop-rock hit Games People Play. The instrumental Sirius has been used as the intro music for many a professional sports team in the past 30 years.
The native Londoner lives in Santa Barbara with his wife and her two adult daughters. (“Great town, great climate, probably better than Akron, you get heat and cold out there, right?” Parsons joked. He said he is familiar with Northeast Ohio through a long-standing relationship with Audio-Technica, a respected audio equipment company whose U.S. operation is based in Akron.
These days, Parsons admits he has to be excited about working with an artist to get behind the production board. Among his most recent works are ukulele master Jake Shimabukuro’s 2012 album Grand Ukulele (“He’s a genius and a great guy,” Parsons said.) and Porcupine singer/lead guitarist Steven Wilson’s 2013 solo album The Raven That Refused to Sing (And Other Stories) (“He wanted to make an album the old-school way. It was really fun to make,” Parsons said about working with Wilson.)
When not on the road, Parsons teaches master classes on production and engineering and has a three-DVD set or download video series called The Art & Science of Sound Recording narrated by Billy Bob Thornton.
The Alan Parsons Project’s debut album, Tales of Mystery and Imagination, was released in 1976, but the APP didn’t become a live act until 1995, long after the studio creation’s 1987 final album Gaudi. That also triggered a name change to the Alan Parsons Live Project.
Currently, Parsons has a new single, Fragile, which recalls some of the mellow rock of his band’s early work and Pink Floyd.
The following Q&A comes from a recent phone interview with Parsons.
Q: You’ve been on the road quite a bit for the past couple of years. What made you want to focus on performing?
A: Yeah, it’s really my job now. With declining record sales, it’s pretty much my bread and butter. I think we’ve been working pretty hard for 10 years now. I think perhaps 2013 was a little more than average but it’s good. It keeps us busy.
Q: You just got back from South America but it seems you’re touring the states pretty hard, too.
A: It’s always a little bit more difficult. America’s such a big country and there are so many venues it’s often hard to create a sensible pattern of gigs, which is why you plan so far ahead and bus overnight from one city to another, but I’m getting a bit old for that stuff.
Q: The APP didn’t become a live act until the 1990s. With a few hits under your belt, why’d it take so long?
A: At the time, I was promoting my first solo venture — an album called Try Anything Once , which was released simply as Alan Parsons. [He and three contributors to the album — Ian Bairnson the guitarist, Stuart Elliot the drummer and Andrew Powell the orchestral arranger and keyboard player] … decided we wanted to promote the album in every way possible so we put a band together, put a tour together and we played that music and all the music from the catalog. And to my delight, we got great reaction and basically I’ve been doing it ever since.
Q: Was that part of the master plan for the APP, to make records and eventually tour.
A: I don’t think I ever did have it in mind that we would tour. The Alan Parsons Project was very much a studio enterprise. For one thing, I didn’t think I was really good enough a musician to stand on stage and play. But I brushed up my guitar playing when we first started going out. I’m still no virtuoso but I’m an adequate rhythm guitar player for what we do. It was really never in the cards we’d go out at the time we were making records. We just concentrated on the production values and the engineering and that’s what we established our name on. The Alan Parsons Project was a studio outfit.
Q: This is officially a greatest-hits tour so I would think much of the set list is written for you. You have seven top 10 hits. That’s a chunk of the set right there, isn’t it?
A: It always has. I mean, tell me a band that doesn’t do a greatest-hits tour (laughs). If you don’t do your hits, people are going to want their money back. And I remember walking out of a Steely Dan concert because I didn’t know a single song (laughs). So you have to play the hits, you really do.
Q: As a producer/engineer who came up in the late 1960s and ’70s, you were part of the hi-fi era when many music listeners strived to have a decent audio equipment and pop/rock/R&B albums were lushly produced. Now, most folks listen to music on crappy compressed mp3s through crappy earbuds. Do you think listeners’ ears as well educated as they used to be? Do they care?
A: All you have to do is put them in a room with a hi-fi playing vinyl or a really good high-fidelity digital format and they go “Wow! I didn’t realize music could sound that good.” Unfortunately, the word ‘high fidelity’ seems to have gotten lost in the annals of history. I’m on a quest to get hi-fi back into young people’s homes. There are literally students who only hear music on their laptops or iPhones with their little white earbuds and that’s totally sad. With my latest releases, I’m offering high-resolution waves and Flac files for the same price as the mp3. I’m hoping that might start a new trend.
Q: Is that part of the reason you began teaching master classes and the Art & Science of Sound Recording?
A: Partially, I think I mention how awful I think mp3 is maybe a dozen times. The consumer unfortunately always gets it wrong. The consumer got it wrong on the battle between VHS and Beta, they got it wrong on the choice between 8-track and cassette; they got it wrong between laser disc and DVD. All these things unfortunately really depend on price and popularity and stuff. I’m really full of hope that the mp3 will go away, eventually. The problem is the average listener just doesn’t know how bad mp3 is until they hear something better.
Q: So, let’s say I’m a young aspiring producer with one of those home studio packages from Guitar Center and I want to become a good, not necessarily hugely successful producer/engineer. What’s your first bit of advice?
A: Take it all back and go to a college, or at least buy my video series [laughs]. It’s all about experience and training. The best sounding records came from people who grew up with other great engineers who were trained by other great engineers and I still believe that to be the case.