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© Ursula Dueren/dpa/Corbis
During his 40-year-plus career as producer, engineer and artist, Alan Parsons has sat on both sides of the studio glass on projects that have sold in the tens of millions. But when the production legend joined the staff of EMI Studios (soon to be renamed Abbey Road) in 1968 at the age of 19, his duties included little more than logging tapes and keeping artists' tea cups filled.
“Oh, yes, if you were a tape op, making tea was part of your job," Parsons says. "Abbey Road had a very effective training scheme, where people started at the bottom, carrying tapes from room to room and eventually becoming second engineer, engineer and so on. Some people went from the tape library to disc cutting, but I managed to skip that step."
As a tape operator, Parsons watched London's finest producers and engineers - namely George Martin and Geoff Emerick – shape music that transformed popular culture. For the most part, he kept his head down and kept quiet. Even so, he calls his early years at EMI an invaluable experience.
"You were on sessions, and you watched the engineers at work," he says. "It was a gradual process of understanding what good sound was. What microphone works on a piano? How do you record a band? How are songs molded, albums put together? You found that out. But learning how to listen was the biggest lesson I got overall. It all comes from the ears.”
In 1968, most teenagers in Great Britain would have given their eye teeth for the kind of daily, intimate contact Parsons had with the Fab Four. But the young tape op and world-class tea maker had to keep his wits about him in the studio or risk getting the boot. "One mistake and you were out of there," he says. "Press a wrong button, forget it, you're done. Sure, they’re The Beatles and you’re in awe, but you’re there to work. You had to stay in the right frame of mind.”
One of Parsons' first gigs as full-time engineer, Pink Floyd's landmark album The Dark Side Of The Moon, earned him a Grammy nomination. Easing into the producer's seat, he turned Al Stewart's six and a half minute jazz-influenced dreamscape – with a sax solo, no less – into a worldwide smash. And then Parsons did a funny thing – he became the artist. The Alan Parsons Project, a two-man group that also included singer, songwriter and composer Eric Woolfson, yielded Top 10 hits such as Time, Games People Play and Eye In The Sky.
"If I have any kind of modus operandi, it still has to do with listening," Parsons says. "Listening to the song and what the artist is trying to accomplish with it. I’m not the comic strip idea of a producer, the guy who walks into the room and says, ‘I want this, I want that.’ It’s all about communication and an exchange of ideas. Again, you have to listen and trust your ears – that’s how you extract the best performances.”
While Parsons continues to push boundaries – this year he's worked with artists as disparate as ukulele virtuoso Jake Shimabukuro ("absolutely brilliant") and progressive rock titan Steven Wilson ("astonishingly talented") – we managed to sit him down for a retrospective look at 10 of the most important and memorable recordings of his career.