Review: Alan Parsons' Art & Science of Sound Recording: The Book

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With the exceptions of George Martin, Quincy Jones and Glyn Johns, arguably no other recording producer is as quite a household name as Alan Parsons. (And only Parsons has been namechecked by Austin Powers’ nemesis, Dr. Evil!) Starting at age 18, Parsons began working in EMI’s legendary Abbey Road Studios in 1967 before going on to engineer the Beatles’ classic album of the same name and numerous other projects. His career as a staff engineer at EMI culminated in his engineering Pink Floyd’s epochal 1973 album Dark Side of the Moon, which remained on the Billboard charts for an astonishing 741 weeks, a phenomenal achievement for what had been prior to its release a band that defined the phrase “cult hit.” In terms of its variety and musical craftsmanship, the album was arguably the high point of Pink Floyd, but its success was in no small part due to the crystalline three dimensional sound that Parsons’ engineering brought to the product.

Only in the 1970s could a recording engineer launch a successful career as a rock frontman, but give Parsons credit for perfect timing – he parleyed his industry connections and his key role in Dark Side of the Moon’s smash success into a lengthy record deal with Arista Records, fronting and producing his own Alan Parsons Project band. The Alan Parsons Project itself enjoyed several best-selling albums and arena tours. But Parsons never stopped producing other artists, working in the years since Dark Side with Al Stewart, The Hollies, and other artists.

In 2010 Parsons released his three-DVD box set titled The Art & Science of Sound Recording and narrated by actor-director-musician Billy Bob Thornton. Recently an accompanying book version of that DVD, co-authored by Parsons and Julian Colbeck (also an old hand in the music industry), was issued by veteran music publishing house Hal Leonard.

The How-To Guide for Recording a Complete Rock Band

For anyone interested in recording a rock or pop group, in conditions ranging from their garage or basement to a professional music studio, this is a must-read book, filled with useful tips on how to record all of the primary components of a popular group including the drum kit, bass, electric guitar, keyboard, and vocalists. In both group form playing all together, and then afterwards in the form of solo overdubs to bring a song closer to perfection.

While Parsons is the primary voice in the book, he’s joined by such veteran studio luminaries as drummer Simon Phillips, bassists Carole Kaye and Nathan East, and former Doobie Brothers vocalist Michael McDonald, and fellow producer Jack Douglas, who bring their own recording tips and anecdotes to the book. The book concludes with an excellent chapter on recovering from studio disasters, ranging from tape machines unspooling to a comparable 21st-century terror, hard drive crashes.

If there’s a drawback to The Art & Science of Sound Recording, I would have liked to have read more on the postproduction end of modern recording. Software such as Celemony’s brilliant Melodyne program can dramatically transform a recording after the band and the singer have gone home, making it possible to fine-tune individual vocal and instrument parts, and even rebuild and restructure an arrangement. Fortunately, books such as Paul White’s  The Producer's Manual, and Sound on Sound columnist Mike Senior’s Mixing Secrets have this aspect of recording production well covered.

However, as awesome as programs such as Melodyne and Izotope’s RX “digital repair kit” are, Parsons'  book is a reminder that if you get the intonation, performance and audio quality right while recording the live musicians,  the less postproduction feels like a salvage job, and instead the opportunity to add the final ear candy and sparkle over a well-produced base of ingredients.

While Parsons can’t supply the inspiration, his book is an excellent, highly readable guide to recording a group, and then adding overdubbed details such as backing vocals, lead guitar solos, all the way to recording a full orchestra, as Parsons’ early clients the Beatles and Pink Floyd were certainly wont to do from time to time. Not to mention details on how to record a live concert, both to capture the moment with clarity, and bring back tracks with enough separation that overdubbing and correcting any minor (hopefully minor!) mistakes can be achieved.

The 21st Century: In Search of Talent Worthy of Their Producers

There is one slightly melancholy aspect to both Parson’s highly technical book, and fellow super-producer Glyn Johns’ memoirs, also recently published (a fun read in its own right, though few technical details emerge). Both producers began their careers in the 1960s as young men engineering for the Beatles, and other legendary groups inspired by the Fab Four’s success. (Pink Floyd in Parsons’ case, the Stones, The Who, and Led Zeppelin for Glyn Johns.) Their technical knowledge is likely much greater today than it was in the 1970s when they were making their bones. Unfortunately, for the most part, comparable pop musicians don’t bring the same history of the craft to their side of the equation, sad to say. It’s unfortunate for both producers – and for the rest of us as listeners – that there isn’t a successor crop of talent to live up to the musicians they produced as young men.

On the flipside, as Parsons’ book spotlights, the tools to make an effective recording have become much more democratized, and are much more advanced, than what even the best studios owned during the Beatles’ heyday. And The Art & Science of Recording will help anyone who applies himself make the most of both aspects of recording.

(Artwork created using a modified Shutterstock.com image.)