Music is a big part of GeekDad and when I recently had the opportunity to interview famed producer and musician Alan Parsons, I jumped at the chance. In particular, I was curious about how someone who had established a certain notoriety for being a music obsessive (reflected in his award-winning work on Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon, The Beatles’ Abbey Road and his own Alan Parsons Project, among other credits) felt about a number of growing trends in the industry, particularly the ease of access to simplified recording tools on iPads and whether engineering holds the same importance as it once did when so much of the music we listen to today consists of lossy digital tracks played through cheap earbuds.
The timing is pretty much perfect, with The Dark Side of the Moon just having been released in a remastered form. Parsons has also recently released his own DVD collection, Alan Parsons’ Art and Science of Sound Recording. If you watch the trailer for the set on this website (scroll to the bottom of the page), you’ll get a sense for just how much Parsons sweats the details about recording minutiae.
Read our interview with a true music geek below.
Wired.com: Your career started as a recording engineer and then producer. Contributions to albums like Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon cemented a reputation that’s been recognized with 10 Grammy engineering and production nominations. Now you’re passing on many of the techniques that you learned through decades in the studio. Do you feel that your knowledge and attention to detail still has a place in a world where people record entire albums using GarageBand and a MacBook Pro instead of booking studio time, and where so many fans are listening to tracks encoded at 256 Kbps on iPods through cheap earbuds or over decidedly not-high-fidelity portable stereo systems?
Alan Parsons: Eleven Grammy nominations, actually! It’s definitely lamentable that the concept of high fidelity seems to be largely a lost relic. The sad thing is that it seems to be irreversible. People are locked in to the idea that music (and other “entertainment”) is now delivered on their computer — instantly — and that’s all that matters. Most consumers furthermore believe that music does not have to be paid for. People even avoid iTunes and subscription services because most music can be accessed for free on YouTube. Certain “organic” acts have shown us that microprocessors do not have to rule musical composition. I am sorry to say there is no end in sight for the consumers’ belief that sound quality is simply not important. Old-school pros like me will always fight for the best sound possible but it’s sadly a lost cause falling on literally deaf ears and that includes another soon-to-be relic: the record label. Incidentally, great results can be achieved with GarageBand on a laptop — it’s just that without experience or education, the know-how to attain those great results is just not there.
Wired.com: I’d be interested on your thoughts about the burgeoning iPad music app scene, in particular the virtual instrument and recording studio apps. A Wired.com piece about Korg’s $10 iElectribe app pointed out that Gorillaz released an album (The Fall) that had been created entirely using software on iPads. iPad apps are being touted as instrument replacements (everything from electric guitars to pianos and drums), recording studio replacements and even replacements for traditional music lessons. Do you think that this is a short-lived period where people make the most of an interesting technology and overlook limitations because it’s “cool,” or are we really entering an age where an iPad and a $100 iTunes card is sufficient to replace thousands of dollars in instruments, studio time and untold hours of formal training?
Parsons: Why would anyone take recording on an iPad seriously? Of course it’s a great gimmick — perfect for the likes of Gorillaz. I think music lessons are fine on computers, iPads included. But an iPad replacing a band of great musicians in a real studio playing and interacting with their chosen real instruments together? Come on.
Wired.com: I’m a big fan of music-based videogames, in particular Rock Band. The latest iteration has “pro” mode drums, keyboards, bass, vocals and even guitar that is a working, six-string Gibson electric (that can be played through an amp at the same time as it’s being used as a Rock Band controller). Do you have concerns that a generation of music fans is growing up content to “play” plastic instruments that, for the most part, have no direct relationship to the part played by the corresponding recorded instrument on the track? Or are games like Rock Band more like a gateway drug that potentially gets more kids hooked on the music experience, encouraging them to take the step of learning to play a real instrument?
Parsons: Everyone loves Rock Band, Guitar Hero, etc. and everyone thinks that it’s the closest experience there is to being a rock star. Probably is. But where did this notion get rooted that talent would be born out of it? I’m not qualified to say whether it’s a valid teaching aid, but any means of making learning fun has to be a positive.
Wired.com: In terms of technology and rock music, as touched on in previous questions, there’s a certain amount of controversy over the use — or encroachment — of technology and whether that detracts from the end product or reflects on musicianship. But this has always been the case to a certain extent. Electric guitars were once controversial, synthesizers were condemned by purists, effects pedals had deriders and sampling generated years of debate. My roommates and I used to have a running battle over whether bands were legitimate or not: For example, they considered The Who to be the epitome of a “real” band because they played guitars, while deriding Depeche Mode as pretenders because they favored keyboards. So, as opposed to whether musicians are willing and able to adopt the current technology in their recording, do you see a time when rock music fans accept iPads and the like as legitimate, mainstream instruments, or will the use of tablets and apps remain controversial and relegated to being a gimmick?
Parsons: Rock music has evolved like everything else. What drives the evolution is the constant search for something new. Yes, the electric guitar had a profound effect, as did Robert Moog. Rock is barely 60 years old and has developed at an incredible rate of knots. Think how long the symphony orchestra and its component parts has been basically unchanged for centuries. No one these days would seriously try to emulate Mozart or Beethoven — they would just be criticized for being unoriginal.
It’s hard for a rock band with two guitars, bass and drums to be genuinely original, at least sound-wise, and it’s largely down to vocal style to have a recognizable sound. Synth keyboards are the most common interface between a writer and a recording — and also a composition — in this day and age. A singer strumming a guitar might be an alternative means of composition but most listeners want metronomic artificial instruments and heavily processed sounds. Plugins have got so out of hand no one can keep up and perhaps also the increased use of iPads and the like. Enter Mumford & Sons and you have a wonderful breath of fresh air. Catch my drift?
Wired.com: Our website has a weekly feature and podcast called HipTrax that showcases artists largely in the nerdcore, J-pop, hip-hop vein. As a former music writer of a certain age, I’ve tried to occasionally introduce music that was considered to have a certain amount of geek cachet (or the late ’70s to early ’80s equivalent of “geek” cred) — Talking Heads, Devo, Rush and Nash the Slash, for example. Do you have any other suggestions for bands that people who are looking for something challenging, but perhaps a little more old-school than Optimus Rhyme, might want to check out?
Parsons: To me Talking Heads are a one-hit wonder — although of course they and David Byrne have a huge cult value. The only other band you mention that I have even heard of is Rush. My wife also, and she’s 16 years younger than me. My taste is classic rock, or perhaps what was then known as progressive rock, i.e. Floyd, Genesis, Yes, Mike Oldfield, Moody Blues, Jethro Tull, Zeppelin and, of course, Rush. No one can be blamed for favoring the music of their own generation — contemporary parents are no doubt screaming at their kids, “Turn off that Lady Gaga crap and let’s hear some decent thrash metal.”
Wired.com: My kids are familiar with a considerable catalog of classic rock tunes, but in most cases they have no idea of the song title or the artist. Thanks to the licensing of music to movie soundtracks, they identify most of these tracks as “the song from movie X.” For example, they know “Sirius” as the “Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs” song. As an artist, does this bother you at all, or is the fact that new generations are being exposed to your back catalog more rewarding?
Parsons: It’s enormously bothersome and is not helped by the fact that radio DJs rarely back-announce their playlists. I welcome with open arms the fact that satellite radio and some FM stations send out a text display of the current song and artist. For writers and artists, it’s a godsend to have a film or TV sync license bestowed on them — it’s like money for nothing. Another way money falls out of the sky is when samples get used. I have a sample from the first Alan Parsons Project album on Lil Wayne’s latest offering and it’s going to sell millions, but virtually no one knows what the sample is or where it came from — sad.
Wired.com: On a final note (because we discuss many parenting issues on this particular blog), if your kids were at the age where they were beginning to show an interest in learning to play a musical instrument, would you steer them toward traditional lessons and a “real” instrument — guitar, drums, piano or whatever — or would you hedge your bets by letting them experiment with virtual equivalents first? Would you have any fear that the relatively immediate satisfaction of playing a virtual instrument (i.e., downloading a $10 app that has a beginner mode) might deter them from the more time-intensive and expensive experience of learning to play the real-life version?
Parsons: I was coerced into piano lessons by my parents from age 6. I hated it then but nothing would convince me now that it wasn’t valuable. Especially the ability to read music. My two sons, Jeremy and Daniel, both taught themselves guitar and piano with help from me when they asked for it but I never forced it upon them. Both are active musicians, though not professional and no knowledge of music theory or reading and writing music. I do believe formal lessons are best but the teacher is so important to make music learning fun. At the end of the day, talent will shine through whether it’s an iPhone app or a double bassoon.
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