ASSR Session Files: An SBO Best Tools for Schools 2018 Award Winner

Mike Lawson • Technology • May 11, 2018

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Wandering around the NAMM show is an experience in cacophony. Between product demos, artist presentations, and the thousands of attendees trying out the latest gear, it’s hard to hear yourself think.

It takes something special to cut through all of that and grab your attention. The SBO Best Tools for Schools winner for Best New Advanced Educational Product, “Session Files from the Art and Science of Sound Recording” did just that.

The session files are a new series of ten original songs, written and produced by famed engineer/producer Alan Parsons. For those not familiar with Parsons, he got his start at Abbey Road as an assistant on some of the Beatles final recordings and was the chief engineer for Pink Floyd’s classic The Dark Side of the Moon. He followed that with numerous hits with his own group, the Alan Parsons Project.

The songs were recorded during master classes conducted by Parsons at renowned recording studios like Ocean Way and Abbey Road.

The sessions feature first call players like Nathan East and Vinnie Colaiuta and use mics and gear only found in top studios. All of the recordings are 24-bit/88.2khz and the quality is outstanding. Each session includes all of the stems — numbering from 26 to over 90 depending on the track — from a recording session of a song. The files are in WAV format and can be imported into any DAW. A ProTools session file is also included with tracks already loaded and color coded. All of the tracks are exactly as they were recorded. Most are dry, but some include processing that was recorded live and printed directly to track.

The songs represent a range of pop music in classic styles. Even though there’s nothing in modern hip hop and dance styles, the tracks don’t sound dated. Some have a characteristic Parsons sound to them, but others bring to mind music theater, country, hard rock, or New Orleans funk. There are also two instrumental tracks, “Lisa’s Theme” and “Rocker,” and one in Spanish.

There’s an impressive array of instruments represented, including orchestras and choirs. The recordings of the acoustic guitars, especially the 12-strings, are particularly good. These can be a challenge to get right and the sound here is gorgeous. There are also solo strings, saxophones as well as a wide range of electric guitars, synths and even some virtual instruments. Many of the instruments and most of the vocals were double-tracked, a signature Parsons technique he first used on Dark Side.

The recordings are well-documented in the included track sheets that list the microphones, mic placements, the specific instruments, and Alan’s notes about the track. Also included are tracks that didn’t make the final mix. Parsons explains why he didn’t use them, but also makes it clear that it’s only one option. There are also links to videos that provide further insights into mic placements and recording techniques. The package also has a selection of pictures from the sessions.

A mix-down is included with each of the sessions. On some, it’s just a rough mix, on others, it’s closer to a final mix and a couple of the tracks appear to have been mastered. One track, “White Matter Recess,” includes both a rough mix and the mastered track. As recorded, it’s a rock track somewhat reminiscent of U2, but Alan’s mix removes many of the tracks and it ends up having an almost musical theater feel. It’s a fascinating demonstration of how a producer or engineer can affect the final result.

From an educator’s view, these tracks are invaluable and fill a real gap in materials available for music technology and production classes. They provide insight into the recording process you don’t find in books and a window into the mind of an award-winning professional producer and engineer. The minute I heard them, ideas on how to use them in classes came to mind.

Mixing and mastering are all too often not given the attention they deserve in music technology classes. As the last step in the production process, my students find they run out of time and only give it a cursory attempt. Even if they have the time, they are often working with arrangements of virtual instruments that don’t resemble professional recording sessions.

It’s no better when working with live sessions. The most time-consuming task when mixing amateur ensembles is trying to compensate for the deficiencies of the performers. Editing is an important skill, but as they say, garbage in, garbage out. There’s only so much you can do and no, it won’t all come out in the mix.

Having access to professionally recorded tracks changes everything. First, mixing need not be left until the last minute. Authentic projects can be designed, and students can attempt some serious mixing without having to first create and record the music. The tracks require minimal editing other than removing count-offs and such. Be advised that the tracks are recorded pretty hot, so students will need to practice their gain staging.

The same idea applies to mastering. After students mix these, they can swap them with another student and practice mastering. Once again, the quality makes it possible to create a professional sounding master.

One of the more revealing techniques is how the drums were recorded. While the basic technique is similar on each track, closemiking, overheads and room mics, the variations he uses and his explanations for them is the type of information you can only get watching a pro engineer at work. The separation on the tracks is excellent.

As any engineer knows, getting the drums right is essential, but it takes practice. I can also see using the individual stems as reference tracks. Recording students can compare their own tracks with those done professionally. Since most educational studios, won’t have access to the mics used on these recordings, this gives them a chance to hear the difference a classic tube mic can make. They can also experiment with various plug-ins to try to emulate that sound on a budget.

I have a confession to make. Not only are these tracks great for students, they’re also great for us teachers, too. I’ve had too much fun playing with these tracks. It’s not often we get to use stems of this quality and with so many different possible combinations, it’s a new experience each time. I even mixed one track as an a cappella.

You’ll find these provide an opportunity to hone your skills trying out new ideas and going for different effects. Another thing I’m using them for is to practice mixing faster.

ASSR also has a video series and book that covers all of the recording and mixing process. While not directly linked to the Sessions tracks, one of the songs, “All Our Yesterdays,” was written specifically for the video series and is featured on one of the videos. You could easily base an entire audio production course on the three products.

List price for each session is $99, but educators can get all ten sessions for $699. If you can only afford a few, I’d recommend “All Our Yesterdays” and “Do You Live at All” as the ones to start out with.

Both have over 60 tracks, so they provide a lot of flexibility. My favorite track is “I’m Done,” but at only 26 tracks, it doesn’t quite offer the flexibility of the others. One track, “The World’s A Stage” is great, but unless you want to spend a lot of time teaching processor management, it may not be practical for some systems. I had to increase my buffer to 512 samples just to play it before adding plug-ins.

Wish List

There’s already so much to work with here, that it’s hard to come up with anything else to add. But the one thing I would like to see is final mixes and masters for each of the sessions. While there is a danger that students would think they’re definitive and try to copy it, I think hearing the difference between the two would be worth that risk.

Final Grade

These are a must-have for any music production program and I am already planning how I will incorporate them in my studio techniques classes. Other than the overall quality, what really sets these tracks apart is the variety of styles and instruments. For these reasons, I give them a solid A. For classes that don’t have access to a recording studio and even those that do, these provide an experience that just isn’t available any other way.

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