Over the course of a career that spans more than three decades, Alan Parsons has been a successful engineer, producer and recording artist — a true triple-threat. Following early engineering triumphs with the likes of The Beatles, Paul McCartney, Pink Floyd, Al Stewart and many others, he enjoyed popular acclaim with his ever-shifting eclectic band the Alan Parsons Project, even landing a passel of unlikely Top 20 hits, including “Games People Play,” “Time,” “Don’t Answer Me” and the 1982 smash “Eye in the Sky.” A top-flight keyboardist with a knack for creating adventurous-sounding albums, Parsons has dabbled in many styles through the years, including rock, progressive, electronic and symphonic, and turned out his share of ambitious “concept” albums. (Remember those?) All the while, he has established a reputation as a sonic guru of sorts — he has been a fixture at AES shows for years and is happy to share his recording secrets with anyone who’s interested.
Parsons’ latest disc, Valid Path (Artemis/5.1 Entertainment), finds the Brit-turned-Santa Barbara, Calif., resident moving more toward electronic and computer-generated music. Certainly, there are still familiar touchstones here for his fans — from the warm keyboard textures, to the cool/cryptic Storm Thorgerson package design, to spirited remakes of two APP classics: “Mammagamma” (from Eye in the Sky) and “Recurring Dream With a Dream” (which combines two songs from Tales of Mystery and Imagination) spearheaded by his 26-year-old son, Jeremy. But most of Parsons’ collaborators this time out are new, and they’ve pushed the music in some interesting directions. P.J. Olsson, who is the lead singer in Parsons’ current touring band, had a hand in writing and programming several tracks on the album. Parsons also enlisted dance/DJ sensations Crystal Method (Ken Jordan and Scott Kirkland) to help on one track, Simon Posford of the British electronica act Shpongle on another and even Mexican computer group the Nortec Collective, “who go out onstage in a group of varying sizes, sit side-by-side and play laptops,” Parsons says. “It’s quite amazing, really.” There is this a nice bit of “old-school” magic, as well: Pink Floyd’s David Gilmour contributes some inimitable guitar wailing on the album’s first track, “Return to Tunguska.”
“My whole approach to recording changed dramatically on this album because it’s the first one I’ve done to disk, so all the approaches to everything were different,” Parsons notes. “Not only did I not have a tape machine running, but I was using Nuendo for the first time and plug-ins for the first time. I have a long history with Steinberg [makers of Nuendo] and they’ve been very helpful along the way.
“Actually, when I started the album two years ago, I was still a bit paranoid [about using a workstation] and I said, ‘We’ve got to back this up,’ so we backed it up to Tascam 8-track [DA-88]. I was still thinking that everything had to be on separate tracks and controllable on a separate fader and all that, but I kind of grew up in the computer world as we progressed on the album and I started feeling okay about backing up on another drive. I’m just as paranoid about erasing something or a system crash as I am about earthquakes and fires. By the second year of the album, I had FireWire drives all over the place.”
The album was mostly recorded at Parsons’ Santa Barbara home studio, which he built in two bedrooms and connected with a window. He has eschewed a traditional console setup, opting to record and mix using Nuendo, HMI I/O units and various plug-ins. “If I wanted to grab a fader every now and then, I had a Houston controller for Nuendo, which gives some of that tactile feel. I would have been curious to put some real analog outboard processing on it, but it’s more of an electronic album and computer-generated, so I made the decision to go all-computer. That philosophy might not stick with me, but I like the way this one came out. I’m afraid my LA-2As are gathering dust, but I guess there’s always eBay,” he chuckles. “One big lesson I learned from this project is that it’s possible to make albums in small spaces now.”
Musically, he employed “quite a few soft synths, being controlled with the sequencer, but the real star of the show was the Yamaha Motif. Now I’ve got the SE and it’s so much better than the original.”
Parsons acknowledges that “it’s hard for anyone who’s been around as long as I have to get anything played on the radio, so in a way, making the electronic album was another deliberate move to try and go into a different area. That said, it wouldn’t be the first time someone has said I was the ‘godfather of electronica.’ I feel more like the grandfather,” he says with a laugh. “But I’m really enjoying it right now, and my [live] band has been playing the new material admirably. We’re finding the new and the old blend really well.”