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In the age of NASA’s Artemis lunar missions, there’s a lot less mystery surrounding the dark side of the Moon. But Pink Floyd’s 1973 masterwork endures, continuing to inspire generations of musicians, producers, and engineers 50 years after its debut.
The making of The Dark Side of the Moon has been documented many times over the years—in films, TV documentaries, books, and podcasts—each giving new insights into the album’s inspiration, songwriting, and recording process. For the album’s golden jubilee, we’re taking a fresh look at where the ideas came from, how it all came together in the studio, and what we can learn from this legendary work of sonic art today.
The earliest germ of the material that would become The Dark Side of the Moon came from rehearsals for an upcoming tour after the release of Meddle in 1971. The initial concept for the project came from the urge to take a more meaningful and personal approach to the lyrics, as opposed to the far-out space-rock material the band had become known for. Speaking with Rolling Stone for the album’s 30th anniversary in 2003, guitarist David Gilmour commented, “I think we all thought—and Roger [Waters] definitely thought—that a lot of the lyrics that we had been using were a little too indirect. There was definitely a feeling that the words were going to be very clear and specific.”
When writing the lyrics, Waters began to explore what he called “the pressures of life,” including mortality, fear, violence, money, and the mental and emotional toll they take on us. Allusions to former band member Syd Barrett crept into the lyrics as well, notably in “Brain Damage.” Pink Floyd’s previous film soundtrack contributions also provided seeds of musical ideas that would end up on the album. For instance, “Us and Them” arose out of “The Violent Sequence” composed by Keyboardist Richard Wright for the 1970 counterculture film Zabriskie Point, while the lyrics of “Breathe” came from a track written by Waters and Ron Geesin for The Body, a 1970 documentary about human anatomy.
After working out the material with the band, Waters created the first demos for the album in his garden shed-turned-studio. The band then began preparing for the upcoming tour by rehearsing in London and purchasing new sound and lighting equipment to match their grandiose vision for the performances, including a quadraphonic mixing console for experimental surround sound. The band kicked off the tour by premiering the new material at The Dome in Brighton, England on January 20, 1972, under the working title Dark Side of the Moon: A Piece for Assorted Lunatics. Early reviews praised the artistic scope, depth of emotion, and musical adventurousness, while some were caught off guard by the incorporation of sound effects.
Over the course of their European and North American tour, which included a short stint in Japan, Pink Floyd had the opportunity to refine and workshop the new material in front of live audiences. In February, the band took a short break to work on the soundtrack for La Vallée (AKA Obscured by Clouds) before finishing the North American leg of the tour.
With demos in hand, songs perfected on the road, and trucks full of equipment at their disposal, Pink Floyd convened at Abbey Road Studios (then known as EMI Studios) in May 1972 to begin tracking the album. EMI assigned a young Alan Parsons, who had previously worked with The Beatles on Abbey Road and Let it Be, to engineer the record. This particular combination of band, studio and engineer (along with a healthy budget) would turn out to be a formula for something truly special.
The Dark Side sessions aligned fortuitously with the introduction of 16-track recording at Abbey Road, doubling the number of tracks available from the 8-track format used on previous albums and allowing the band to compose with more layers than ever. In addition to the latest 16-track tape machines, EMI had recently upgraded the TG12345 console in Studio 2 to 16-track capability. In addition to its high channel count, the console was the first to feature built-in compression circuits on every channel, making it easier to capture mix-ready sounds on the front end.
Owing to its history with The Dark Side of the Moon and other classic albums recorded at Abbey Road, the EMI TG12345’s preamps, equalizers, limiters, compressors, and entire channel strips have been replicated in both hardware and plug-in formats. Speaking about the console for an article on its history, Abbey Road’s Head of Audio Products Mirek Stiles 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.”
The Floyd’s taste in instruments also had a large influence on the sound of the record. For instance, Gilmour and Waters came up with the frantic arpeggio for “On the Run” while playing around with the EMS/Synthi VCS3 synthesizer, the first to incorporate an onboard sequencer for programming patterns. In fact, the hi-hat-like rhythm sound, the explosion at the end, and most of the other elements in the song all came from the Synthi. In Classic Albums: The Making of The Dark Side of the Moon, Gilmour explained how the “futuristic vehicle noises” were made: “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.”
Gilmour’s use of pedal-steel guitar, previously heard mainly in country-western and Hawaiian music, was another differentiator for the band’s sound. With its smooth glissando (and plenty of EMT plate reverb), the pedal steel lends a haunting texture to the album, which can be heard most noticeably on “Breathe.” Richard Wright’s Hammond B3 and Farfisa Compact Duo organs feature on some of the record’s most beautiful moments, while his jazz-influenced grand piano playing grounds the music between psychedelic excursions. Even drummer Nick Mason had a chance to get adventurous, using Rototoms (drenched in reverb, of course) to create the pitched percussion heard in the intro to “Time.”
In addition to the cutting-edge gear, thoughtful songwriting, and extremely talented band members, Parsons’ engineering had a major impact on the sound of the album. Although he had worked with Pink Floyd as a tape operator on the Atom Heart Mother sessions, taking the helm of Studio 2 was still a daunting prospect. As Parsons recalls in the Classic Albums documentary, “Dark Side was really the first proper engineering job I'd been given with The Floyd, so I was pretty much put in the deep end.”
Whether due to studio practices of the time or his own personal preference, Parsons prefers to put in the work upfront to get the right sound before recording, rather than doing a lot of enhancement in post. “Just get the band playing,” said Parsons in a 2012 interview with Premiere Guitar. “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.”
When it came to capturing Gilmour’s now-legendary guitar tones, Parsons almost always used condenser microphones (often a Neumann U87). As he said in an interview for 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.” Parsons typically mic’d guitar cabinets at a bit of a distance to capture all of the speakers acting in tandem rather than close-mic’ing a single speaker.
Luckily for us, some of the Abbey Road sessions were captured on film and sprinkled throughout the band’s seminal Live at Pompeii concert film. While not completely candid, these snippets are the best way to see the band’s creative process in action. In between interviews with the band and sometimes heated philosophical debates over lunch, we get to watch Roger Waters tinkering with the frantic arpeggiated pattern from “On the Run,” peer in on Richard Wright working out the chords to “Us and Them,” and observe David Gilmour dialing in the guitar tone for “Brain Damage.”
With one of the best studios in the world at their disposal and an engineer by their side who had worked with The Beatles, the already adventurous Pink Floyd was emboldened to experiment with sounds in new ways on The Dark Side of the Moon. The opening track, “Speak to Me,” is a perfect example—over a heartbeat-like sound created by a specially treated and processed bass drum, we hear a musique concrète-style medley of sound effects, voices, and synthesized noises float across the stereo field before an epic transition into “Time.”
Perhaps the most adventurous track, “On the Run” captures Waters’ fear of flying in a frantic, dizzying barrage of noises created by the aforementioned Synthi. To add to the mayhem, Gilmour played his guitar by sliding a mic stand up and down the strings, then reversed the track and added delay to create the screeching, wailing sounds toward the middle of the song. Then, a studio assistant ran around the studio’s echo chamber to capture the echoing footsteps that fade in and out of the mix while panning from side to side.
For the intro to “Time,” Parsons offered the band a series of mechanical clock recordings he had been commissioned to capture for a Quadraphonic sound effects record. As he tells it in the Classic Albums documentary, “Getting all the clocks to chime at the right time was a process of just finding a particular moment on the multitrack tape where all the chiming would happen, and then back-timing all the quarter-inch originals which contained each of the clocks.” Parsons also treated the background vocals on “Time” and other songs with a frequency translator effect, yielding a vibrato-like sound reminiscent of a Leslie rotating speaker.
Surprisingly, the biggest hit of the album is also one of the most unconventional. “Money” opens with a repeating sequence of cash-related sound effects recorded by Waters at home on his Revox A77 quarter-inch tape deck followed by a bass riff in 7/8 time, which was (and still is) considered highly unusual in mainstream music. Gilmour then brought in saxophone player Dick Parry to improvise a solo over the tricky 7/8 riff, after which the song seamlessly switches to 4/4 time for Gilmour’s guitar solo. The song’s massive success proves how powerful unconventional techniques can be in the hands of good songwriters and engineers.
After finishing most of the tracking, Waters had the idea to write up a series of questions concerning the themes of the album. He then took studio staff and other hangers-on into Studio 3 one at a time, turned down the lights, showed them flashcards, and recorded their responses to intimate questions about fear, death, violence, and so on. With some added echo and thoughtful placement throughout the album, the voices lend a sense of humanity to the album, and they’re part of what makes The Dark Side of the Moon a true concept album.
After assembling most of the tracks, the band hired producer Chris Thomas to oversee the mixing and completion of the record. It was during this phase that the band brought in Clare Torry, an acquaintance of Parsons’, to record the improvised vocals on “The Great Gig in the Sky.” Torry performed just a handful of takes which were combined into the dynamic, freeform vocal solo heard on the record. Although she was only paid a session rate for the work and received no royalties for her artistic contribution, Torry later received monetary compensation and joint songwriting credit after settling out of court in 2005.
To make room for overdubs and other late additions to the album, certain tracks had to be bounced together, but Parson’s engineering (and his diligence in getting the sound right at the source) made the process fairly seamless. With most of the balancing stage complete, the main question during mixing concerned how much echo, delay, and reverb to add.
At the time, delay effects had to be created using multiple tape machines without perfect sync, making the perfect timing of the vocal echoes on “Us and Them” a technological feat. In fact, as Parsons explains, “Every sort of time-based process was done with tape—there were no digital boxes then. We might have had as many as five or six tape machines doing various delays, reverb delays, and so on. I distinctly remember on the mix having to borrow tape machines from other rooms to get delays and stuff.” For reverb, Parsons and Thomas took advantage of EMI Studios’ unique echo chambers in addition to the popular EMT plate reverb, which is still prized today for its long decay time and smooth, flattering sound.
Some sources have reported that Waters and Mason favored a drier sound while Gilmour and Wright preferred to layer on the effects, but whatever the case, Thomas was able to help the band find a happy medium, and the results speak for themselves. From the perfectly-timed vocal delays and spacious snare reverb on “Us and Them” to the overlapping delayed synths and modulated guitar on “Any Colour You Like” and the slapback vocal echo on “Money,” the album is a masterclass in tasteful effects that complement the songs without overwhelming them.
When it came to the subject of compression, however, the team had to find a balance between Parsons’ preference for an open, dynamic sound and Thomas’ preference for a more compressed sound. As Parsons recalled in Premier Guitar, “What generally tended to happen was either no compression or compression on everything except the drums, because I totally hate—with a vengeance—compressing drums. So, although Chris Thomas wanted to compress everything, I talked him into compressing just the instruments and vocals, but not the drums.”
After finishing the final mixes, Waters told Billboard, “I took a reel-to-reel copy home with me and I remember playing it for my wife then, and I remember her bursting into tears when it was finished.” Although Parsons had not yet finished the quadraphonic mix (which would never be released), The Dark Side of the Moon was first played for the press at the London Planetarium on February 27, 1973. Holding out for a quadraphonic debut, the band boycotted the listening party, replaced by cardboard cutouts. Nonetheless, those present gave rave reviews, although a few found the scope of the record difficult to follow.
Finally, on March first, 50 years ago today, the album had its public release. It sold like psychedelic hotcakes.
The fact that we’re still writing about The Dark Side of the Moon at length 50 years later is a testament to the record’s cultural impact and resonance. The work is a staple of “best albums” lists, still gets daily radio play, and has even been immortalized in internet meme culture. Multiple artists have recorded front-to-back covers of the album, including Easy Star All Stars’ Dub Side of the Moon, The Flaming Lips and Stardeath and White Dwarfs with Henry Rollins and Peaches Doing The Dark Side of the Moon, and the star-studded 2006 tribute album Return to the Dark Side of the Moon.
But what can this 50-year-old work still teach us in 2023? Perhaps it’s a reminder that a well-crafted album can become so much more than the sum of its parts; that sitting and listening to 42 minutes of music at a time can take you to a place no single ever will. Maybe it’s a wake-up call to try something weird or different in your art, to push the limits of what a song can mean, what a guitar can do, or what a studio can be. Whatever it means to you, it’s certainly an opportunity to view the world with more empathy.
So, on this very special anniversary, we encourage you to turn off the lights, fire up the lava lamp and soak up the magic of The Dark Side of the Moon. Then, when it’s time to get back to work, carry that inspiration into your recording sessions, songwriting, mixing, and beyond.
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