Sometime near the end of the last millennium, on a sprawling ranch high atop a Southern California mountain ridge overlooking the Pacific Ocean, a man finished construction of a small, mysterious building near the edge of his land. Walk up to the structure and you might have heard the hum of large motors whirring within.
“He used the building to house two generators,” says producer/composer Alan Parsons, the property’s new owner. “He thought, The apocalypse is going to happen at the end of 1999; there will be no more electricity, so I’ll produce my own. He was probably generating enough to power the entire city of Santa Barbara.”
Today, nearly two decades have passed since that time, when the Y2K “Millennium bug” threatened to disrupt computers everywhere and the services that rely on them. The world didn’t end, and the man and his generators are gone, but that doesn’t mean there’s not still an impressive machine between those walls.
“This is a Neve 5088,” Parsons says of the shiny new recording console that sits before him and Jeff Kollman, his lead guitarist, in his studio control room, the former Y2K-proof power bunker. “If you’re going to build a brand-new studio, you’ve got to start with a console. The 5088 is the culmination of Rupert Neve’s entire career designing consoles. It’s got all the sonic features he’s become famous for.”
Surrounding the console are five towering Bowers & Wilkins studio monitors. “I’ve had these speakers for 20 years,” Parsons explains. “They were using them at Abbey Road when I was the boss there, so that carried through.”
Expanding the building into a complete studio, Parsons added a live room for full-band sessions, an isolation booth for tracking guitar amps, and a lounge in which to house the kitchen and bathroom — not to mention many of the Gold and Platinum records he’s been awarded over his 50-year career, a remarkable run that began in his late teens when he landed a job in London duplicating tapes for EMI. Lest anyone need reminding, Parsons is the guy who helped bring about great albums such as the Beatles’ Abbey Road and Let It Be, Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon, Al Stewart’s Year of the Cat, and Steven Wilson’s 2013 release, The Raven Who Refused to Sing, not to mention Platinum records under his own name, including I Robot and The Turn of a Friendly Card. When not at home, Parsons is usually playing keyboards, singing or maybe even strumming a guitar somewhere in America, Europe or beyond, on tour with Kollman, co-guitarist Dan Tracey and the rest of the Alan Parsons Live Project.
Lately, though, Parsons has been planted in front of the Neve 5088, where he tracked nearly all the songs on The Secret (Frontiers), his new album, and his first full-length release in 15 years. A musical celebration of magic (“I enjoy doing magic and probably would have been a magician if I hadn’t become a musician,” Parsons says), The Secret aptly opens with a rock-band-plus-orchestra rendition of Paul Dukas’ adventurous 1897 symphonic piece, “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice,” a work given new life when it was featured in Disney’s 1940 animated tour de force, Fantasia. Recorded at one of Parsons’ public all-day recording workshops, “Apprentice” was a challenging session, and the big question beforehand was, Which guitar player might be up to the task?
Enter Jeff Kollman. A self-taught rock virtuoso, he performs in stadiums with Japanese superstar Eikichi Yazawa, has played lead guitar for singers such as Lou Gramm, Glenn Hughes and Robin Zander, and is also a prolific solo artist. His fiery brand of shred-fusion regularly packs Los Angeles’s premier jazz club, the Baked Potato. And, luckily for Parsons, Kollman is also that rarest breed of electric guitar slinger — one who can read.
Jeff, were you intimidated to record “Sorcerer’s Apprentice”?
Jeff Kollman Yes. I got a score of it beforehand, peeked at the fast violin phrases the guitar was supposed to play and thought, I’m doomed. My first reaction was, “Guys, maybe you should just get Christopher Parkening in here, hand him a Les Paul and hope for the best.” [laughs] Then they got my favorite guitarist, Michael Landau, for the session, but he was busy. Things came full circle when Michael told Alan, “Why don’t you just use Jeff? He can do it, and he’s already in your band.” So even though Alan typically uses outside session musicians for those workshops, he booked me.
At the session, I had seven pages to read, and adding to my nerves was the fact that [drummer] Vinnie Colaiuta had the room really cold, which meant my hands were freezing. But then Vinnie said, “There are three stands holding up my music. Can we maybe do this in three chunks?” I was like, Yes! That meant we could do some punch-ins. Things went pretty smoothly. We got each section done in just two or three takes.
Alan Parsons Steve Hackett, who’s also a reader, put guitar on that track, too. I grew up with that piece. It’s very magical, and it was the first classical EP I ever called my own. In our household, classical music was going day and night. My mother was a harpist, my dad a flautist. I loved the Beethoven symphonies, too, every one of them, and was also very keen on the Mozart horn concertos, which is possibly why I feature French horn a lot in my music.
Alan, you’ve brought a lot of melodic, highly sing-able guitar solos out of your guitarists over the years, such as Ian Bairnson’s great Strat solo on [the 1980s Alan Parsons Project song] “Games People Play.” Did you give Ian any melodies to play on that solo, or did he come up with all that stuff himself?
Parsons Ian was always a joy to work with. He did all the Project albums, and he guests on two solos on the new album. But I never tell him or other guitarists what to play. I might offer players a little bit of guidance, but I don’t hum tunes to them and say, “Play that!” The “Games” solo was improvised to a degree, but we also probably found bits we liked and then expanded on them, or comped between two takes. There were no real rules. It was always a case of developing each solo and making sure that we were both happy.
That’s what being a good producer is — bringing out a good part in just a few takes and being able to communicate with a player in such a way that he gets the job done better than he might otherwise have done it. Some producers will have an entire screen full of guitar solos and say, “Oh, we’ll listen to them tomorrow and see how it goes,” but not me. I like to make decisions. My philosophy is “Get it done.”
Kollman I think the important thing with guitar solos is to be thematic. If I come in to do a solo for Alan, he’s going to want something he can latch onto — not frantic licks or showing off , but some sort of memorable phrase or melody. That’s why Ian Bairnson is so great — you can sing everything he plays. It’s all so melodic and just a joy to listen to. I mean, people say Slash is underrated, or Ace Frehley is underrated. No, those guys are highly rated. A guy like Ian Bairnson is truly underrated because he has orchestrated such great leads, yet he’s not a household name like, say, Gary Moore.
Speaking of lyrical solos, Jeff, I love what you played on “Soirée Fantastique,” off the new album.
Kollman I remember improvising a melodic solo on that song, and then Alan saying, “Can you double it?” So I learned what I had played, but before we tracked the double, he had me tune my guitar down a few cents to get that vari-speed effect.
Parsons That’s a trick of mine I’ve been doing for years. I first learned it from Roy Wood, originally of ELO and the Move. He used vari-speed to run the tape either slightly faster or slightly slower, which puts the doubled part slightly out of tune, achieving this wonderful chorusing effect you can’t get any other way. And getting a honkytonk piano sound is easy with that technique, too. Doesn’t work on vocals, though, because it’s singers’ natural tendency to pitch their singing to whatever they’re hearing.
As for guitar, you don’t need vari-speed. You can get a very similar effect by simply tuning the guitar slightly flat or sharp and doubling the part. Sometimes I’ll do passes at three or four different pitches to get to a really strong tracked effect on guitar. Works really well with a bass, too.
A particularly hypnotic new song on The Secret is “One Note Symphony.” The lead vocal is one pitch throughout, but, kind of like Jobim’s “One Note Samba,” melody is created by harmonies that shift around it.
Parsons We did jokingly refer to that song as “One Note Samba” when we were working on it, but the main inspiration for the song is this so-called frequency that dominates the universe, and you’ll hear [vocalist/saxophonist] Todd Cooper singing that it’s 7.83Hz. It’s called the Schumann Resonance, and the clicking sound you hear in places is the 7.83Hz being reproduced. We’ve been opening shows with this song lately, and it’s working well. We’ll be playing it at a free concert at a NASA event at the Kennedy Space Center in July marking the 50th anniversary of Neil Armstrong walking on the moon.
I love the huge blast-off sound at the end of the song. I played a lot with Paul Kantner, and he got a cool rocket sound on a record once apparently by miking the studio’s vacuum cleaner.
Parsons We did ours with a keyboard, but I have used a vacuum cleaner in the studio. I used one on the first couple Project albums to blow recorders and flutes. But getting the motor noise separated from the sound it was blowing was really difficult! That’s my vacuum cleaner story.
Jeff, what was your main gear on The Secret?
Kollman My go-to setup was my two Wildwood Guitars Fender Custom Shop Stratocasters, a few pedals and usually a Fender Twin Reverb. I’ve always felt a good Twin is the best platform for pedals because it won’t break up. If you put delay or something in front of it, it’s going to be clean. Another go-to amp was my ’77 Marshall MKII head, which Reinhold Bogner modded for me. We opened that amp up, and the process was that he’d make a little adjustment and then I’d play through it. We did that a few times until the amp was sounding just the way I wanted it to. When we were done, it sounded like we had taken a blanket off it.
But for the solo on “Requiem,” I plugged this Japanese reissue Tele that I love into a 1967 Fender Pro Reverb. We actually recorded that part remotely from Nashville, where I was using Source-Connect.
Parsons Source-Connect is helpful because it allows you to track high-quality audio in real time, even when you’re across the country from each other — though there is a delay between when the performance happens and when you hear it back. That’s also how we tracked Jason Mraz’s lead vocal on “Miracle.” He was on tour in Dallas, so we used Source-Connect to do the audio. To see what was happening, though, we used Facetime on our mobile phones.
What is Dan Tracey’s role in the band?
Parsons It’s great having Dan, because he and Jeff can play wonderful dual-guitar harmonies together. Dan was the principle songwriter for “As Lights Fall,” which I sang lead on. Dan is great singer, too — really good with high parts, and always in tune. Plus, he’s the band jester. He’s always got a joke up his sleeve.
Kollman There are a few jokers in this band. For instance, one night at the end of the first tour I did with the band, I’m soloing on the song “Prime Time,” which is kind of a guitar feature, and I’m probably being a bit long-winded, making guitar faces with my head down, really getting into it. Well, unbeknownst to me, Alan is behind me with one of those big industrial brooms, sweeping around me, as if he was the janitor. [laughs] I was the last to see.
Alan, having tracked so many legends over the years, including Pink Floyd, the Beatles and some Paul McCartney solo stuff, you must have experienced many unforgettable guitar moments. What were some of your favorites?
Parsons You know, on Pink Floyd’s “Money,” there’s a large dynamic shift from the loud, fuzzy guitar solo section to where the song suddenly breaks down to almost nothing. When we played that song live, and the band would break things down at that point, I remember I would shut the P.A. off completely, even in large halls, and you’d just hear the band playing acoustically — no P.A., just their raw amps and acoustic drums. That was quite dramatic. I also remember when we tracked George Harrison’s solo on “Something.” That took all day. A lot of work went into it, but in the end, it was very good. There were just four of us there — George, engineer Phil McDonald, George Martin and me.
You remind me a lot of George Martin, because, like him, you’re a literate and musical producer who brings classical and other influences into your music. Plus, you’re adventurous. You like to throw unexpected sounds and cool musical segues into songs, as he did.
Parsons In a funny sort of way, I do try to model myself on him. He was great. He understood musicians. He also had perfect pitch — the bastard! — which I thought was very useful, and which I was hugely envious of. And he was always calm, never flustered. He always respected the musicians, never lost his temper and was able to work with so many different kinds of artists. He crossed a lot of bridges, and I sort of felt I wanted to be him in the studio.
Nowadays, people are producing decent albums on their computers, even with minimal knowledge of music theory, harmony, the physics of sound or any of those other skills that were expected of great producers when you got your start. You’ve seen both eras. Any advice for new-school producers who’d like to reap the benefits of old-school production and arranging approaches?
Parsons Get a band.
Kollman Get out of your bedroom and play with others.