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Reverse Engineering: The Dark Side of the Moon - Pink Floyd

Hey! Welcome to the second instalment of Reverse Engineering, where we unpack the recording techniques and equipment used in iconic albums. Today, we’ll be deconstructing the 1973 album The Dark Side of the Moon by Pink Floyd, which is widely considered to be one of the greatest concept albums of all time.


A young Alan Parsons, only 23 at the time, was tasked with engineering the band’s eighth album. Parsons recalls being ‘thrown in the deep end’ by the studio when he took on the job… but it’s a job I’m sure he’s glad he accepted now.


Recording


Conveniently coinciding with the beginning of the album sessions, EMI Studios (now known as Abbey Road Studios) acquired 16-track tape machines and a complementary TG12345 console with 16-track capabilities. This was influential in achieving the experimental, sonically dense production style the band achieved on the album. Furthermore, the console was one of the first of its kind to feature compression circuits built into every channel strip - speeding up the workflow of the engineers, and therefore the band.


Mirek Stiles, Abbey Road’s Head of Audio Products, said:


“The microphone preamps color sound in a beautiful and satisfying way. The compressors and limiters are some of the most wonderfully brutal sounding in the history of recorded music… they can literally make instruments sound like they are jumping from the speakers. The EQ is extremely musical with a lovely presence in the top end.”


Parsons’ approach invested time in the recording phase to minimise work in post-production. In a 2012 interview with Premier Guitar, Parsons said he wanted to ‘use good mics and good mic preamps and so on, and then leave it alone… do the processing at the front end - in the playing and in the composition’.


Pink Floyd in the studio

Drums


This video is a great representation of Alan Parsons’ drum production formula. According to him, the set up in the video is “as close a copy to the original drum sound" on The Dark Side of the Moon, with exactly the same microphones as the original recordings where possible.


Parsons’ choice for a kick drum mic is the AKG D20. This is a classic vintage kick drum microphone - a dynamic mic with a frequency range of 50hz-16khz. Parsons dampened the kick (possibly with pillows, blankets, or clothing) and pushed the microphone about halfway into the kick, before sound-checking and adjusting accordingly.


At the time of The Dark Side of the Moon, Parsons’ standard snare mic was the Neumann U87. This is a large diaphragm condenser - meaning it is large and bulky - and Parsons has said that its size made it less than ideal for recording snares. In recent years, he has moved onto Neumann KM84’s, which were not available back in the early 1970s. They sound quite crisp, with less body than a large diaphragm condenser like the U87. Parsons has also said he isn’t a fan of snare bottom mics, preferring to use just a snare top and EQ to get a top end ‘sizzle’.


Parsons believes AKG D19’s were the tom mics on the album recordings, but he admits they could’ve been any dynamic microphone. Many dynamic microphones will do the job on toms. Parsons says he applied quite a bit of dampening as the toms were quite ‘live’.


As for overheads, Parsons swears by Coles 4038s (formerly STC 4038s). These are ribbon microphones, meaning they’ll be a little less bright than small diaphragm condensers. Parsons discovered the 4038s while working with Geoff Emerick on the Beatles’ latter sessions, and has said that they react nicely to EQ, with a nice cymbal ‘shimmer’ achievable by adding top end.


Lastly, it’s worth noting that ‘room’ or ‘ambient’ mics were not commonly used at the time of The Dark Side of the Moon. The popular approach back then was to keep the kit clean and tight, while maintaining as much isolation as possible in the microphones, and using plate reverb to provide depth. The band also often played live during sessions, so a room mic would cause spill issues.


Alan Parsons in the studio - a more modern one than in 1973!

Guitars


When it came to capturing David Gilmour’s legendary guitar tones, Parsons consistently reached for condenser microphones, often relying on the Neumann U87. This is somewhat uncommon; many engineers choose to mic guitar amps/cabs with dynamic or ribbon microphones. Parsons explained his decision to Premier Guitar:


“Dynamic mics tend to accentuate what I would call ‘hard’ top-end frequencies, like 3 or 4 kHz — and that’s just the area you generally don’t want to accentuate on an electric guitar. I’ve always had better luck, in terms of smoothness, using condensers.”


Further deviating from convention, Parsons positioned the microphones at a slight distance from Gilmour’s guitar quadbox cabinets. This captured all 4 speakers in the cabinet working in unison, rather than the one specific cone you’d capture with a close mic.


A Synthi VCS3 synthesizer

Instrumentation


Pink Floyd’s choice of instruments greatly influenced the overall sound of the album. A prime example is the fast, mind-bending arpeggio of On The Run, which was created while experimenting with the EMS/Synthi VCS3 synthesizer. This groundbreaking synthesizer was the first to incorporate an onboard sequencer, allowing the band to program the arpeggio and let it play while they focused on live automation and tone bending. In the documentary Classic Albums: The Making of The Dark Side of the Moon, David Gilmour described creating ‘futuristic vehicle noises’ with the VCS3:


“You take the pitch down a little bit and pan it at the same time. That creates an artificial doppler sound… like ambulances whizzing past you.”


The VCS3 also contributed the hi-hat-like rhythm sound on the track, as well as the explosive ending. Speaking of rhythm - drummer Nick Mason also explored new sonic territories by incorporating Rototoms (drenched in reverb of course) to create the melodic percussion heard in the introduction of Time.


Another great example of the band’s quirky but effective instrument selection is Gilmour's inclusion of the pedal steel guitar, which is primarily associated with country and Hawaiian music. With its reverb-soaked slides, the pedal steel guitar imparts a uniquely identifiable, haunting texture throughout the album - most notably in the track Breathe.


Meanwhile, Richard Wright's proficiency on the Hammond B3 and Farfisa Compact Duo organs is a key element in many of the record's most memorable moments, while his jazz-influenced piano playing serves as a grounding force amidst the psychedelic trip that the rest of the instrumentation takes you on.


Conclusion


50 years young and still selling 250,000 copies annually, The Dark Side of the Moon is a truly timeless album, and ensures Pink Floyd’s place as one of the greatest bands in history. Following on from our exploration of Fleetwood Mac, I hope this blog gave you some further insight into the recording techniques of the 1970s, as well as the philosophies of the great Alan Parsons. Until next time!


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