Alan worked as an assistant engineer on the 1969 album ‘Abbey Road’ and 1970’s ‘Let It Be.’ He later worked with Paul McCartney and on the 1973 Pink Floyd classic “The Dark Side of the Moon,” among other projects. A part of an interview below:
Let’s jump back to the early years. At 18 years old, you’re an assistant at Abbey Road Studios. How did that happen?
“I had been working for the parent company, which is EMI Records, in the department known as Tape Records. This is before cassettes; it was a department that was making reel-to-reel plastic spools on quarter-inch tape, putting up EMI’s products. “I was involved with making copies of master tapes, maintaining the production machines. We could run off 24 copies at the space of four minutes because everything was run at four-times speed, both sides together. “That department gave me access to a lot of great music; and because it was an allied department to Abbey Road, I’ve been one of the first people to hear [The Beatles’ 1967 classic album] ‘Sgt. Pepper’ when it was completed, and that had a pretty profound effect on me. “I just was very lucky. I timed things right; the management at the time wanted to fire a couple of people and I got the job. Soon after writing a letter, I was working there, very much as a trainee in the tape library.”That was the first thing that the new recruits got to do, working in the tape library. But that was only about a month before I was down, being a fly on the wall on sessions.”
You had such an enviable opportunity to be there at some incredible sessions. Tell us a little bit about ‘Abbey Road’ and ‘Let It Be.’
“‘Let It Be’ was the first to happen, though they released in reverse order. That was actually nothing to do with the Abbey Road Studios except that I was sent down as a member of staff to help them out. “And it was quite an intimidating experience, walking into the Apple basement studio. There were all four Beatles there, their wives, and it was intimidating, but amazing at the same time.”
You worked later with Paul McCartney and Wings…
“Well, yes. As a result of working on the ‘Abbey Road’ album, at least half the time they were there making it, but I got to know Paul a bit better. “And as I progressed from being an assistant engineer to a fully-fledged balance engineer as they were called at Abbey Road at the time, yeah, I was let loose with Paul on some of the sessions for [1973’s] ‘Red Rose Speedway’ and ‘Hi, Hi, Hi’ and ‘C Moon’ as singles. “And I probably got to know Paul and Linda best on the  ‘Wild Life’ album, which I didn’t engineer; I did a mix on one of the songs on Wings’ ‘Wild Life,’ and Paul said, ‘It’s fine, we’ll go with it.’ “So that was my first real breakthrough, just getting a mix of the Wings onto that first album.”
Talk a little bit about how you approach doing a mix for all those artists.
“As an engineer, you have to give the results that the producer is looking for. But I think I would always start by approaching it in such a way that I felt comfortable with it.
“If the producer doesn’t comment on the sound, then you can be fairly confident that you’re doing an OK job. I mean, McCartney would always say just as a matter of principle, ‘Make the drums sound better.’ “So, what is it that makes the drums sound better? I’d say, ‘OK, I’ll try a different mic, I’ll try a different EQ, I’ll change the balance.’ And eventually, he’d say, ‘Yeah, that’s fine, that works.’ “Some artists, some producers are much more demanding than others, but Paul was always pretty demanding.”
What mistakes do you see looking at a recording that someone’s done? What mistakes do you see bands making commonly today?
“It’s a different world, the pop world, the Top 10 world is not something I particularly aspire to right now. I find a lot of pop music is tending to sound the same, tending to use the same effects, the same kinds of beats.”And I still think that my skills are in classic rock; they’re based on the period I grew up with. I’m still making records now the way I did back then. “That’s not doing one track at a time, getting a drum loop, adding the bass, adding the guitar part – I like to get four or five musicians all playing together, all interacting with each other. “It’s the way I’ve always done it. I think it’s the way I always will do it. So, just the interaction is something I look for when I’m making records. I think that sometimes interaction is missing in modern pop music.”
What makes a great artist?
“I would have to say charisma and, of course, the ability is hugely important as well, you know? All the talent shows used to use the expression ‘star quality.’ “And if somebody is a great singer but does not have ‘star quality,’ he or she is going nowhere, they just got to have that charisma that makes people say, ‘I like this artist, I’m gonna buy this artist’s music.'”
What is it that makes a great producer?
“Having the respect of the artist and vice versa, that’s key.” You didn’t mention ‘technical skills’ in really any of them.
“It depends on how you define ‘technical skills,’ whether that translates to good sound. If ‘technical skills’ translates to ‘good sound,’ you can have engineers that are extremely untechnical but have incredible ears.”So, I mean, I grew up with engineers at Abbey Road that could not play a note on an instrument but were amazing engineers. “It’s a lot of parameters that go into making a good producer, a good engineer, just like the parameters that go into making a great artist.”