High Fidelity, First Class: Pink Floyd's The Dark Side of the Moon Turns 40
The Dark Side of the Moon has long been considered to be the audiophile benchmark. It's been remastered and reissued a number of times over the years since it was initially released March 1, 1973 and proceeded to spend a record 741 weeks (that's 14.25 years!) on the album charts. As our resident professor emeritus of engineering and music Ken Pohlmann observes, "It's the band's innovative peak. They were determined to push their boundaries and find originality in wherever their sonic experimentation carried them." To both celebrate Dark Side's 40th anniversary and honor the integral, seminal art direction and creative design work of key band collaborator Storm Thorgerson, who passed away on April 18, I've put together a series of interviews I did with principal Floyd band members and musical admirers about why the album remains a gold standard to our collective ears.
Pink Floyd's drummer, expert backbeat driver, and Grand Vizier
METTLER: You make an important point in your 1995 autobiography [Inside Out: A Personal History of Pink Floyd] about The Dark Side of the Moon: It's the definitive test record people use to show off their systems. I, along with much of the Sound & Vision readership, can certainly attest to that firsthand.
MASON: That's nice to hear. We have to give an enormous testament to EMI for installing us at Abbey Road Studios. It was something that simply hadn't crossed anyone's minds until about 1968 or 1969, to "host" a project that long in one place. No one dreamt of spending any longer in the studio than a few hours, because you did the sessions and that was it. So I think that's one of the reasons the album holds up.
METTLER: When the Dark Side sessions got underway in 1972, you recorded your drums first before other things were completed. They set up the bed for everything that followed.
MASON: Yes. That was another era entirely, wasn't it? We'd gotten Alan Parsons on board by then as our engineer. He was really technical, wonderfully old school in the way he'd come up as an assistant and an apprentice. Engineers never started in rock & roll in those days, and they were made to edit tape with scissors [chuckles]. I think the idea with the scissors was that they were less prone to cause any damage or demagnetize the tape on the machine. It was the beginning of 16-track, with 2-inch tape. Plus, people expected there to be a fair amount of tape deterioration. From that point of view, it's a wonder in a way that Dark Side came out so well. When I think back to when we recorded it - the number of passes the drum tracks and most of the instruments on that record took, the things that were opened up and redone, and all the rest of it - the end result is truly amazing.
METTLER: You had already played songs like "Breathe" live before you went into the studio. Did you have any other melodies to work with once the rest of the album got underway?
MASON: Oh, no. What we did first was the bass and drums together. We were looking for a master track, and there'd always be guidance from Dave [Gilmour] and Rick [Wright], just to get the "mood" right. Almost all the time, we'd do the drums analog, even when we'd gotten full 48-track digital machines. The idea was to put the drums down on 16-track, and then we'd hide that away until we came to mix time.
Pink Floyd guitarist, vocalist, and Pulse-ologist
METTLER: How did you like James Guthrie's surround mix of The Dark Side of the Moon??
GILMOUR: I think that one came out really, really well. Fantastically well. James and I did "transatlantic mixing." He sent his mixes to me in England from his studio in Lake Tahoe, and I sent back copious notes. Believe me, that thing came back and forth across the Atlantic a number of times. Pink Floyd was always about surround sound. We were doing live quadraphonic sound live right from when I joined the band in 1968, and a lot of our albums, like Dark Side, were based on elements that were already integrated into our show. Unfortunately, at the time, we weren't able to do the quad mix ourselves, though Alan Parsons [who originally engineered the album at Abbey Road Studios] did do one himself.
The Great Gig: The Floyd's live mixmaster on shepherding the sound of The Dark Side of the Moon, Live at Wembley 1974
JACKSON: We had a lot of things to fix. We actually looked at this recording about a decade ago and decided we couldn't use it because of technical problems. But technology has come a long way, so we were able to rebuild the stuff that wasn't there.
METTLER: What do you mean "rebuild the stuff that wasn't there"?
JACKSON: A lot of the sound effects - the footsteps, the explosions, and all that stuff you hear in the show - came from tape decks in the front-of-house. But a lot of that hadn't been recorded onto the live master tapes. We could hear things spilling into the audience mikes, but we didn't have the original signal. So we went back and found the original tapes used for the show and put them back in, very laboriously. It was self-evident what needed to be done. I've been in this organization for a long time, since right after the movie of The Wall came out , so when it comes to the live shows, I know what they sound like. It's not like we were working with new material, where there isn't a clear idea of what it is until you've made it.
METTLER: How did you reconstruct a sound-effects-heavy track like "On the Run"?
JACKSON: We could hear the sound effects in the PA - racing-car noises, which aren't on the studio record, and other things like that - but we couldn't find any tapes of them. Fortunately, it was so loud in the room that they were spilling into the audience mikes; they just sounded distant. For "On the Run," I could afford to have the audience mikes up really loud, which actually made it sound very much like the record. But putting the audience mikes up to get that kind of vibe with it also made it feel like being in a big hall. The audience didn't make much noise, but they did make some. You're kind of unconsciously aware of that, and it makes you feel like you're at a gig. I thought it was important that it feel like a gig. It's a pretty accurate live performance. You know, I was in the audience that night. It was the only time I ever paid to see them. [laughs] So I'm on the recording somewhere! Actually, it's kind of nice to be able to work on the stuff that predates me. And this project felt like a missing component was fulfilled.
Next: Steven Wilson, Wayne Coyne, and other musically inclined Floyd fans speak to us about their love of The Dark Side