Review: Alan Parsons’ Art & Science of Sound Recording

Alan Parsons’ Art & Science of Sound Recording is a series of videos available on DVD, online streaming, or download that offer a fascinating look into the recording industry, hosted by legendary producer, engineer and performer Alan Parsons. With years of experience at Abbey Road Studios and credits including Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon, Parsons is an eminently qualified host.

This series is recommended for both novice and pro engineers, musicians, and anyone interested in the ins-and-outs of the recording studio. While there are plenty of books, videos and other tutorials available, this volume gives a rather unique perspective not only because it’s hosted by Parsons, but because it also includes many interviews with other equally legendary producers, engineers and artists.  We reviewed the three-DVD box set ($149.99 MSRP), but each chapter is available individually online for streaming ($1.99/chapter) or download ($4.99/chapter).

The video series is geared more towards a do-it-yourselfer starting with building a home studio, but it’s also a good refresher for more experienced engineers, and vital for any musician thinking about starting to record his or her work.  The series is broken down logically. The first disc contains a brief history of recording, acoustics, and studio design.  It goes into monitoring and consoles and digital audio workstations too. The second disc talks about specific concepts in recording, such as EQ and compression, and basic studio techniques. The third disc is the most entertaining; it follows Parsons through the entire process of recording and mixing a song, with a very detailed section hosted by Simon Philips on recording drums.

The series is narrated by Billy Bob Thorton; he is not a professional voice-over talent, but he lends a down-to-earth tone to the mix. The interviews feature the likes of Chuck Ainlay, Erykah Badu, Jack Douglas, Jimmy Douglass, Sylvia Massey, Jack Joseph Puig, John Shanks, Elliot Scheiner, Allen Sides and Michael McDonald.  All of these interviews relate to real-life experiences in the studio, and make what could be a boring technical instructional video actually entertaining.  The best tip in any of the interviews has to be Erykah Badu discussing how to make sure vocals are in pitch. “If you squeeze your ass-cheeks together, the pitch is usually good.” Priceless!

What makes the discs most watchable is Parsons himself. He has an almost shy approach on camera that’s quite endearing yet he delivers some very funny lines with what I describe as typical British humor. When talking about 7.1 surround sound, he sums it up as “utterly ridiculous.”  Without hesitation, he talks about mistakes he’s made throughout his career, including accidentally erasing tracks – both a single track of a multi-track recording and an entire performance from an orchestra. This is followed by a comment that younger viewers might not realize that the industry existed for years without an “undo” button.

The series contains good examples demonstrating the different topics discussed. For example, it uses A/B comparisons to show how EQ can effect the tonal quality of individual instruments, along with explaining what A/B comparisons are. These are things that can be written about, but until you actually hear a snare drum with and without EQ, it might not make sense. The videos also step through typical EQ and recording problems for specific instruments, and even details specific frequencies to use for common problems.  Worth the whole price of admission: Alan talking about how he created the heartbeat sound on Dark Side of the Moon. And don’t think we’re gonna tell.

Perhaps most important are things that usually aren’t discussed in textbooks, such as studio etiquette and what can only be described as best practices. When discussing whether it’s better to EQ a sound or work on mic placement, Parsons points out that if changing or moving the microphone around disrupts the flow of the session or bothers the artist, it’s best to fix it with EQ. Get the source sounding best, GIGO (Garbage In, Garbage Out) but if the artist is getting annoyed, or their voice is getting worn out while you’re making adjustments, just move on.  Fix acoustic problems acoustically when you can via mic placement, but know when it’s time to move on. Along the same lines, the programs offers some ways to quickly fix problems; for example, there are in-depth discussions on getting rid of the ringing of a snare drum, and how to place mics for recording an acoustic guitar and vocals simultaneously.

There are many subtle, but important tips. For example, know your system, know your gear. Bring your own music or near field monitors if you’re working at a new studio. Equally important are the multiple warnings about the dangers of listening to headphones, or any audio for that matter, at high volumes. Parsons has been in the studio business for years, and his hearing seems to be holding up just fine, so it’s obviously good advice.

The section on reverberation has a great example of different types of typical reverb options such as hall, plate, spring, etc. Having started my career at a studio that had two huge reverb chambers, I thoroughly enjoyed that section, and can vouch for its accuracy. Home studio users might resent the amount of time spent on showcasing high-end studio equipment, but should appreciate the history behind common plug-ins used today.

Some sections move along quickly, others drag on. Parsons gets bogged down in the internet recording section. I was recording via ISDN lines 20 years ago and addressed the problems of latency the old-fashioned way (digital delay of the time code) and I don’t see the value in showing Parsons struggling with his specific software when engineers have been doing this effortlessly for years.  Also, while viewing the series in its totality, there were a few repetitive sections; for example, two interviews were repeated. If downloading specific chapters, it wouldn’t be noticed, but if viewing the DVDs in their entirety, it’s a bit odd.

The mixing chapter is really interesting; long, but intriguing.  Parsons admits that he mixes differently than most engineers, so it was fascinating to see his approach, which IS different than most. He gets a basic rhythm track mix of drums and bass, then turns them off and addresses the rest of the tracks: keyboards and guitars. Then, he brings both parts together. What is missing is his explanation of the all-important question of why he places things at different levels in the mix.

The videos have an interesting approach. Some ideas are discussed in-depth and assume the user already has experience or knowledge in an area, such as room nodes and standing waves. Then it glosses over some really key ideas, such as instead of spending money on really expensive DACs that provide relatively little audible benefit, perhaps you should instead invest in a good quality microphone. What is glaringly lacking is basic information about digital audio. There is lots of talk about digital mixing and analog mixing, including a arguably worthless demonstration comparing the two, but little information about what different sample rates and bit depths mean.  Many people know that 96 kHz is better than 48k, but why? What’s the difference and consequences of 16-bit versus 24-bit? Experienced engineers should know, but the people who would benefit most from this series might not. Other concepts that I felt were glossed over were when to use what type of microphones, and a more in-depth discussion of microphone pickup patterns. The website has additional information and samples that might make some of the sections that are lacking in details clearer to the amateur.

As an engineer with over 27 years of experience in professional studios, I found it interesting to see how other professionals, particularly Parsons himself, approach recording. Knowing that other engineers such as Elliot Scheiner and Chuck Ainley have had the same experiences and disasters that I’ve encountered is comforting.  A student or amateur engineer will gain so much more from these videos. Just the etiquette tips alone are worth the purchase price.  More insightful and entertaining than a textbook, The Art & Science of Sound Recording should be required viewing for anyone who thinks they want to venture in the world of studio recording.