The James Guthrie & Alan Parsons Dark Side Interviews
With thanks to Sound
& Vision Magazine
© 2003 Hachette Filipacchi Media U.S., Inc.
Tales from the Dark Side
James Guthrie talks about his great gig in the studio remixing Pink Floyd's classic in surround. By Ken Richardson Photos by Ebet Roberts
The scene: the London Planetarium. A fitting venue to visit The Dark Side of the Moon. But its 1973, and this is the albums maiden voyage. And a quadraphonic mix, not approved by Pink Floyd, is being played on terrible, destined-to-be-forgotten speakers. The band members decline to attend and are represented by cardboard cutouts.
The scene: New Yorks Hayden Planetarium. Another fitting venue to go to the Moon. But now its 2003, and this is the albums 30th-anniversary relaunch. And a six-channel mix for Super Audio CD, approved by the band, is being played on impressive ATC speakers. The band members still arent here (their schedules wont allow it), but theyre represented by their longtime engineer, James Guthrie, who mixed the album for surround sound. And while he certainly isnt made of cardboard, he admits hes a little stiffand nervous.
Thats because Guthries usual haunts arent planetariums but, as he calls them, dungeons, the small, dark studios where albums are recorded, mixed, and masteredand where, occasionally, masterpieces like Dark Side are created.Guthrie wasnt at Abbey Road Studios for that albums creation, but he has been associated with Pink Floyd for nearly 25 years, since he co-produced and engineered the bands 1979 release, The Wall. So they chose him to remix Dark Side for Capitols SACD. Which, at first, made him nervous.
After all, this wasnt just any old lunar expedition. The Dark Side of the Moon stayed on Billboards Top Pop Albums chart for a record 741 weeksmore than 14 years. All told, in all formats, it has sold more than 30 million copies worldwide. And the album itself? It started off as just another LP for guitarist David Gilmour, bassist Roger Waters, keyboardist Richard (Rick) Wright, and drummer Nick Mason. But it ended up making history as both a record and a recording. With its kaleidoscopic music and laser-sharp lyrics, the album told a vivid tale of modern pressures and age-old insanity. And it was an amazing sonic adventure. As Wright has said, It seemed like everyone was waiting for someone to make this album. It touched a nerve.
No wonder Guthrie was nervous. Yes, he had done surround mixes of Pink Floyd: The Wall for DVD-Video and Waterss In the Flesh for SACD. But this was different.
There were certainly some sleepless nights before I started, Guthrie says. I vacillated wildly between how conservative I should be and how far I should go. In the end, I thought to myself: This is silly. Im just going to forget about all of that stuff and concentrate on the music. Because theres only one important thing here: Is it emotionally satisfying?
Guthrie and Louis stretch out in his studio, Das Boot.
Im talking with Guthrie in his home studio, Das Boot, named by a visiting band in recognition of Guthries fixation on submarinesspecifically, American diesel boats of World War II. And indeed, his studio is adorned with gauges that summon up small, dark spaces of the past. Yet the London-born Guthrie has finally escaped the studio dungeons of his own past. His Boot is a spacious, comfortable room, with three long windows affording a spectacular view of the Sierra Nevada Mountains that surround his Northern California home.
This is where Guthrie and his assistant engineer, Joel Plante, started work on Dark Side last Novemberwhen the original 16-track master tapes arrived from Abbey Road Studios. The tapes were in quite good condition, Guthrie says, but they werent well marked or logged. At first, we only had handwritten track sheets and a few scribbled notes. But then the terrific librarian at Abbey Road, Ian Pickavance, sent over copies of the daily job sheets. So we were able to do a great deal of sleuthing work.
We were always trying to find little bits of music to make sure we had everything. As far as I was concerned, it was not acceptable to miss even one element. And I hope we havent.
By the middle of January, Guthrie was ready to play his initial six-channel mix for each member of Pink Floyd. I didnt know what to expect. Theyre a fairly low-key bandjust in terms of their characters. They dont get excited easily. But they were very enthusiastic about this SACD. I havent seen Rick and Nick like this for years. The band asked for some changes, but thankfully, none of them were major. And there was very little in terms of the placement of instruments. Its crucial for fans to understand that this mix has the bands input and endorsement.
He acknowledges that some fans are wondering why the albums original engineer, Alan Parsons, wasnt involved with the remix. It was Parsons who did the quad mix in 1973.
The band listened to that quad mix and elected not to use it, Guthrie says. I used the original stereo mix as my guide, because it captured the detail and emotion of the songs.
The focal point of the six-channel mix is the listening position, not any of the speakers. What I have tried to do for many, many years is to make the speakers disappearso that youre aware of sound being everywhere. You get immersed in the sound and can experience the music.
When you first listen to the mix, its very easy to think that everything is everywhere. But in fact, there are things moving around, there are elements in the back. But its all for a reason, and its relevant to the music. In the end, I wanted to keep the albums homogeneous sound but also try to spread it out. It was a combination of keeping the heart and soul of the original but also making use of the larger soundstage.
Author Ken Richardson and Guthrie
The heart and soul of my time with Guthrie is spent sitting and listening to his mix. The main speakers are ATCs SCM-150ASLs, the domestic version of the speakers used at the Hayden Planetarium. As Guthries two cats, Louis and Manu, glide in and out of the room, we go through the entire album, track by track. And Guthrie is eager to provide a remixers commentary.
Speak to Me. Its basically made up of speaking voices. When the band finished listening to the initial mix, I was surprised that their first comments related to the albums various speaking voices. And then I realized I had awoken a 30-year-old argument. In 1973, Roger and David had disagreed about those voices. Roger wanted them to be drier and more intelligible. David wanted them to be wetter and more mysterious. In the end, we compromisedthe same way they did in 1973.
Breathe. There are so few elements heredrums, bass, guitaruntil later when the Hammond organ comes in. There would be a problem if you started to separate things too much. So this was a case of trying to keep the sound anchored while spreading it.
Going back to the very first generation of tapes, everyone assumes that the drums will benefitwhich of course they do, because you have more transients. But everything benefits; everything is richer and has more depth.
In the meantime, something had always bothered me about this track. . . . For years, I had been thinking to myself, Theres some ultra-low-frequency rumbling going on. What the hell is that? I checked the multitracks, andthere it was, coming from that lap steel guitar. It wasnt coming from the guitar itself or Davids amp. It was being picked up in the studio somehow. And we were able to get it out.
On the Run. The opening organ swirl through the Leslie speaker is actually circling around you, but its just for a short period of time, and then the sound fades outso you dont really get a chance to become seasick. The synthesizer sequence running all the way through is coming from everywhere, but its predominantly in front of you, so you get the feeling that its a bit more in your lap.
David wanted the mix to more closely resemble the general muddiness, as he put it, of the original. So I did that adjustment.
This is the only song where I actually added something. The multitrack tapes had some extra guitar that wasnt used in the final stereo mix: a bit of backward guitar and then a dive. I liked it and put it in [starting at 1:15 into the song]. The band agreed.
Time. It was a very difficult song to mix in terms of making it groove correctly, with all those different instrumentsthe jagged guitar, the piano, the organ. It was tricky to find that balance. But when I did, I felt that it was swinging more than the original stereo mix.
Placing the rototoms was a case of trial and error. I just tried to settle on a spot where they were making use of the space without being too distracting.
By the way, the length of time from when the clocks finish chiming to the first downbeat is longer on the original multitrack tape. For the stereo mix, they shortened it. And weve shortened it to match.
The Great Gig in the Sky. In the first part of Clare Torrys vocals, I had originally made her more intelligible, a little drier,more focused at the frontjust louder. But Rick thought the overall impact was stronger when she was a bit wetter and more receded in the mix. So I checked the original stereo, and I was surprised to find that shes buried in there. . . . Your memory of these things changes. Its the way that we perceive music: our minds tend to fill in the blanks. Shes actually still louder now. But Rick wanted to recapture the emotion of the original. And its his song.
Money. The opening sound effects work really well in the original stereo mix. At one point, the panning surprises you. The sounds start moving, and you think theres one thats going to move over hereand it doesnt. The stereo pulls you back to the same speaker. And even though its just two channels, it creates a specific effect. So I spent quite a long time on the surround mix, trying loads of different patterns. This one at least does what the original stereo did. You get an X for a second, but then it pulls you back to the same speaker, and youre not expecting it.
Overall, the song is punchier now, it drives harder. In the sax solo, Nick goes to the ride cymbal. In the stereo mix, you can hardly hear that. But going back to the first generation of tapes, you can hear hes doing this great sort of jazz groove.
In Davids middle solo, when he drops down completely dry, I wanted you to feel like you could just reach out and touch the guitar. Its right there.
Us and Them. The band liked the initial surround mix, so its basically the same now. Rick, who wrote the music for the song, was delighted. He said he was never happy with the stereo mix.
The sax plays a very different role here than in Money. It has a close, breathy feel to itbut it also works well when its wet. So for the surround mix, its mostly in the center channeland theres reverb going on in the back. But by also feeding it to the left and right front with less echo, you retain the closeness and the breathiness. I know it sounds incongruous, but its a great way of achieving something that is present and in your face while, at the same time, having it roomy and lush.
In the choruses, theres a lot going on. Theres stuff playing in the same register, theres intermodulation distortion on the girls voices on the multitracks, and the sax is now wailing. So I tried to achieve some distinction for the voices, but I needed the slightly messy approach, tooas well as the big dynamic lift. Hopefully, you retain the detail, but you still get the size.
Any Colour You Like. Originally, I had gone a bit further in the mix, and Roger asked me to tone it down. The ping-pong guitars are now a little less dramatic. David wanted it that way as well.
Brain Damage. I made Rogers voice louder, which he really liked. I think its a lot more intelligible. David thought it was a bit too loud. [laughs]
The background vocals arent just in the back. Otherwise, they wouldnt be part of the same performance. And that would be a real problem in the car, with all the extremely high ambient noise. It would be a case of the people sitting in the front seats saying, Weve got rhythm section up here! How are the vocals back there? Not bad. Hows the groove up there?
Eclipse. I prefer this vocal balance to the original. I think the build is somehow better, and you can hear more of the subtleties in the harmonies at the end.
Author Ken Richardson and Guthrie, joined by assistant engineer Joel Plante.
Whats next for Guthrie? First, he has to finish mixing the bands concert film Pulse for DVD-Video. Then, he hopes to start his own boutique label. And then . . . more Floyd? Nothings been decided, other than weve talked about doing more surround stuff, but only touched on it. I think it will hinge on how well received Dark Side is.
I personally would love to do Meddle. Its one of the better-sounding Pink Floyd albums. Id also like to do Animals, which is probably one of the worst-sounding Pink Floyd albums. I love it musically, but the drums sound like hatboxes. Wouldnt it be great to take Animals, put it in the correct spatial environment, and work on the individual sounds? And of course, Id like to do The Wall, having done it originally.
Does Guthrie have a multichannel wish list of other artists? You know what I would jump on immediately? I would love to do a surround sound mix of Kate Bushs Hounds of Love. Kate is a dear friend of mine, and Ive spoken to her about itbut Idont think shes ready to let go of it yet.
Its a long way from London to California, a long way from the stereo of the 70s to the six-channel sound of the 00s. But in some ways, the more things change, the more we need them to stay the same.
Whenever I had any extra money as a kid, Guthrie remembers, I would buy a stack of vinyl. And I would sit down between my two speakers, and Id be transfixed. I would listen for hours and hours and hours without moving. Id be thinking, How did they do that? People dont listen like that anymore. They dont have the time, they dont have the focus. If The Dark Side of the Moon in surround helps rekindle our interest in just sitting and listening and experiencing music again, what a great thingthat would be.
Another Phase of the Moon
Original engineer Alan Parsons
explains why the SACD mix doesn't speak to him. By Ken Richardson
Photos by Ebet Roberts
Walk into the home of Alan Parsons, nestled in the hills of Santa Barbara, and youll see ample evidence of his illustrious career. There are so many gold and platinum records on the wall of the studio annex that they spill from the hallway and fill the kitchen. Theres everything from Red Rose Speedway, which he helped record for Paul McCartney, to Eye in the Sky, one of the many albums by his own Alan Parsons Project. Then theres the original gold record for Pink Floyds The Dark Side of the Moon, which Parsons engineered at Abbey Road Studios.
But open up the Super Audio CD of Dark Side, and youll see no evidence that Parsons had a hand in the six-channel mix. Thats because he didnt.
Of course, I understand Pink Floyd would want to take on their engineer of the past 25 years for this project, Parsons acknowledges, referring to James Guthrie, who was tapped to do the surround mix. But I think it would have been nice if I had received a call just to say, Would you like to be involved? I had been consulted when Dark Side was remastered in 1992.
Some fans contend that the stunning sonic architecture of the original album is at least partly due to the engineering expertise of Parsons. Then again, since its 1973 release, some band members have occasionally tried to downplay his role. Theres plenty of room for differing memories and opinions in the span of 30 years. David Gilmour and Roger Waters themselves often disagree on their own roles in Dark Side.
Its a function of human nature, Parsons observes, that everybody who contributes to a project feels that their input is the make-or-break, crucial thingthe thing that took it from good to great. I dont think Im trying to say that, but I would say that without me, the album might have been different.
In the early 1970s, Parsons engineered Pink Floyds Atom Heart Mother before doing Dark Side, and he then made quad mixes of bothcommissioned by EMI but not okayed by the band.
Im not surprised that Pink Floyd rejected my quad mix of Dark Side for the SACD, Parsons says. I did the mix very quickly. If Id known that the record would sell in its millions, then I wouldve insisted on having more time. Theres stuff missing from the quad mix. I just didnt have enough tape machines in the studio to get it all in. The quad was a compromise; I have no problem admitting that fact. I did it single-handedly without automation. But the feel of that mix is pretty exciting. Conceptually, it wasnt so wrong that I shouldnt have had a crack at the surround mix.
Parsons gave a detailed account of the making of the quad mix in Four Sides of the Moon, a paper he wrote in 1975, originally published in Studio Sound magazine. And last December, at the Surround 2002 Conference, he discussed his philosophy of surround:
The surround experience shouldnt be a stereo experience with ambience. It should be four stereo sound fields. I tend to work on the outsides when I mix for surround. A lot of people choose to go into the room, but thats asking for clarity problemsit clouds things up. In my quad mix of Dark Side, I liked the idea of action happening in all four channels. I wasnt particularly interested in it sounding like a band onstage.
Today, Parsons tells me his impression of Guthries six-channel mix. Im generally rather disappointed. Its not very discrete. There is some discrete information in there. But I found myself, about two-thirds of the way through, kind of forgetting that this was surround. James was possibly a little too true to the original mix. He could have taken some risks, as I did on the quad. One of the parameters I always work with when Im mixing for surround is: Keep the Interest. If theres nothing going on, then stick something in the back.
That said, Parsons agrees with Guthries subtle use of the center channel. Hes right with me on that. If it was a perfect world, Id be fine with the center channel. But since the center can be set up in someones home at anything but the exact correct level, Im not really interested in it. Also, artists dont like to have their voices isolated in the center for microanalysisor for possible karaoke versions.
Overall, I think that James has done a great job in cleaning everything up. And his surround mix has some very good moments. But it also has some rather dull moments.
Author Ken Richardson (left) listens raptly as Alan Parsons describes how he'd have shaped the sound field in The Dark Side of the Moon's multichannel remix.
Even though Parsons and his fiancée, Lisa Marie Griffiths, are to be married in only ten days, he takes the time to conduct a moment-by-moment listening session. He goes beyond A/B comparisons to A/B/C comparisons: the original stereo mix, his quad mix, and Guthries six-channel mix. Parsons and I are in his studio, surrounded by B&W Nautilus 802 speakers. And since Track 1 of Dark Side was named after the line that he would say when testing a microphone, I just couldnt resist following suit: Alan Parsons: speak to me. His reply: Any colour you like!
Speak to Me. In the stereo mix, I put the heartbeat coming slightly from the right, because if a person is facing you, the heart is on the right. James has the heart dead-center.
Breathe. I like Jamess placement in the beginning more than my quad mix. It works really well. But I find the vocal sound to be harsh.
On the Run. In the stereo mix, at the beginning, I took the organ swirl and opened up the panning gradually, wider and wider. In the quad, the swirl goes right round the room. In Jamess mix, it doesnt open up at all.
After hearing his mix for a while, I think Im hearing stereo with a bit of surround.
Time. In Jamess mix, the rototoms are underfeatured, too mixed in, not jumping out at you enough. Hes made more of a feature of the big bass notes.
In the main section, Jamess mix is nice and balanced, but the placement is only a little better than stereo. Still, he has improved the drum sound here, no question.
The Great Gig in the Sky. I tip my hat to James for sorting out the correct bits of Clares vocals. And he has improved on the stereo mix, which is a bit wishy-washy. The stereo is heavy on the Hammond organ, and Clares a little too far down. In my quad mix, the Hammond is barely there, which shows you I really wasnt being faithful to the stereo mix. The quad sounds pretty good, but James still has the edge. His mix is definitely cleaner, and hes brought Clare out a bit more.
Money. I mostly like Jamess placements in the surround mix. But what hes done with the sound-effects loop is very illogical. You have to wait a long time for something to appear in the left front channel. In the quad, the pattern goes around the room in a circle, starting again in the left front each seven beats. If Id done the surround mix, I wouldve made the loop continue around the room the whole time, so that the circle itself would actually rotate.
Listen closely when the loop re-enters later in the song. In both the stereo mix and the quad, the timing wasnt exactly in sync with the music. James has corrected that for his mix. It was something I was dying to do for 30 years.
I went crazy with the third guitar solo in my quad mix. Thirty years later, I wish I hadnt. Its going all around the room. Very 1970sjust like the early days of stereo.
Us and Them. I think it was the right choice in my quad mix to make the vocal echo go around the room in a circle. James has a better balance, but Im disappointed with his vocal echo placement.
For the album, I pretty much decided when the echoes should be there and when they should not be there. . . . Theyre on the word with, but theyre not on without. And when it comes to what the fightings all about, I just echoed bout, bout, bout, boutbecause bout means fight. But James missed that: hes got about, about, about, about.
Jamess choruses are just a touch on the cluttered side. Everything is on the same level. In the stereo, they hit you harder [Parsons thrusts his fists out in front of him]: Forward, he cried!
Any Colour You Like. On the downbeat every four bars [starting at 1:46], theres a bass-synth note thats totally missing from Jamess mix.
Brain Damage. In the quad mix, the guitar picking is in the rear. This is definitely surround. And you can hear every note the girls sing. Even in the stereo mix, you dont get that. James is basically stereo with the voices forward.
Eclipse. In Jamess mix, the closing heartbeat actually sounds like what it is: a kick drum. Its clean as a whistle, but I think there was a certain amount of mystique about it before.
If theres any mystery about what Parsons can achieve in a contemporary multichannel mix, its dispelled by what he calls my first modern-age attempt at surround: On Air, his 1996 album as remixed for an acclaimed DTS 5.1 CD. Eventually, he hopes to license the surround rights to the rest of his back catalog from Arista.
Meanwhile, after his wedding and honeymoon, he plans to finish work on a new album, scheduled to be released in January on DVD-Audio by the Myutopia label of the 5.1 Entertainment Group. Assisted by his 26-year-old son, Jeremy, Parsons has fully embraced electronica. The album is essentially a more computerized slant on what Ive done in the past, with less vocals. Im making no pretense: Im trying to capture a younger, more clubby audience.
Its no wonder that Parsons, having gone to the Moon and back, still keeps his eyes on the sky and his ears on the cutting edge. After all, this is the man who, way back in 1975, predicted the future when he saw the Ken Russell film of Tommy and wrote about its use of a quintophonic systemdoubtless an indication of things to come. Forward, he cried!
All That You Hear By Ken Richardson
PINK FLOYD The Dark Side
of the Moon Capitol
Music * * * * *
SACD * * * *
Look at the redesigned cover: the original art is now enshrined in a stained-glass window. Its a beautiful transformationas well as a perfect metaphor for the six-channel mix inside. For some listeners, this may mean that the mix is overly respectful. For others, it may mean the mix is appropriately reverent while still providing a robust surround experience.
For me . . . James Guthrie has done a marvelous job of taking the church of The Dark Side of the Moon and transforming it into a cathedral. He begins with some surround-by-stealth in Speak to Me and Breathe before pulling you into the drifting (but not dizzying) movements of On the Run. He envelops you in the big choruses of Us and Them and Brain Damage but still shows you newly identifiable layers of sound. And then there are the exquisite details: the scraping guitar in the middle solo of Money, the tactile clocks of Time.
That said, the SACD falls short of five stars for two reasons. First, no matter how faithful the mix is or isnt, I still think the use of the center channel is too subtle. The one time its used prominently, for the breathy sax of Us and Them, gives me a chill that I wish I could get again and again. Second, though the new cover is splendid, the 18-page booklet is disappointing. Yes, the lyrics are here, but there are no new essays or liner notes. Instead, you mostly get images of Dark Side paraphernalia. Do we really need a 1-inch-square photo of a Pink Floyd Millennium Series T-shirt, 1999?
If you dont own an SACD player, this hybrid disc will let you hear the stereo mix on your CD player. My advice: buy an SACD player! Think of the surround mix any way you like. This reissue still eclipses every Moon that came before.
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