Interview: Ken Scott, Part 2: Musicians’ Questions About Recording with the Beatles
In part two of our interview with producer/engineer Ken Scott, Premier Guitar turned the floor over to Beatles-hungry musicians with a desire for details.
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What is your opinion of Let It Be: Naked?
It was a different way of looking at the album. There’s no right or wrong way to make a record. Some of it I like and some I don’t, and it’s just another look at it. It was OK’d by everyone around and connected with the Beatles, so they must have liked it. There’s good and bad about both versions. I have no problem with something like this as long as the original is still available. I feel the same about mono and stereo versions. So many people never got to hear the music the way the Beatles heard it. We did it all in mono. Stereo back then was Saturday morning with the television on the BBC channel in one corner and the radio on the BBC station in the other corner and you’d spend an hour listening to trains pass by, or a car, or the high spot, a stereo tennis game. Everything was mono until Abbey Road.
Do you prefer the mono mixes on the White Album to the stereo ones?
Probably. I’m still awaiting the mono re-masters from EMI, and I have yet to hear them. From what I remember, yes, because that’s what we spent all the time on. On the White Album they became interested in stereo mixes, because fans would buy both versions and write and tell them of all the differences, so they began making mono and stereo mixes with planned differences.
What do you think of the new remasters?
I have only heard them in stereo and they’re really good, just not as good as the original vinyl. I like vinyl; there’s a warmth to it.
What was it like when John McLaughlin plugged in at the start of a session? Steve Morse? Davey Johnstone?
When we did [Mahavishnu Orchestra’s] Birds Of Fire, John very much had his sound set. He plugged into his Marshall, turned up fairly loud and played. It was very live with very few overdubs. Visions Of The Emerald Beyond took a little more time to get the right tones, but it was still pretty basic.
With Steve Morse it was really different. Very purposefully, I wanted to spend a lot of time not just getting guitar tones per song but for each individual section—a sound for verses, then choruses, if you like, and so on through for solos. I spent a lot of time honing in with Steve, and not much of it was particularly live. I got Rod [Morgenstein] going first, with the others playing DI, and we did overdubs from there. It was very much pieced together accordingly.
With Davey, once again we were recording quickly. There was a certain amount of picking tones for sections, but a lot was done live, so we didn’t change that much. I remember working on one track on his solo album [Smiling Face] with Gus Dudgeon. I can’t remember which track, and a sound wasn’t happening. I finished up with an acoustic guitar, but it was too thin. It had a pickup on it, so I put Davey in the drum booth and fed the guitar through a Leslie. When we mixed the mic’d acoustic with the Leslie sound, it was exactly what was needed. But on Elton John’s albums it was straightforward. We did pre-production at Chateau d’Herouville in France, and from the beginning we were all working on what the songs should be. It was a very collaborative effort. As soon as Elton wrote a song, we’d do pre-production, so I’d say we had a much better idea of the guitar sound for Davey from the get-go.
Would you agree that there is an art to being a sideman?
Absolutely there is an art to it! And it doesn’t lead to being voted number one best guitar player, which says absolutely nothing about your playing.
Is anything more than 16 tracks the "devil's workshop”?
No, it’s not. If 93 tracks are 100 percent needed, that’s fine. What I can’t stand is people not making decisions and ending up with a multitude of tracks that they never use. It makes mixing far more complex. Learning on four-track, from the get-go I had to know what we were heading for, and I had to make decisions, which people don’t do these days, whether it’s four tracks or 192. It’s how we determine the use of them. If the tracks are essential, then it’s no problem. If they’re just jerking off, then basically it does become the devil’s workshop—even if it’s 16 tracks and you only needed eight and the other eight are filled with rubbish.
Here’s an example of what it used to be like, and, believe it or not, it did actually work back then. When George Harrison was recording “What Is Life” with Phil Spector at Abbey Road, they were running out of tracks, so George came to Trident where I was working, and we finished it there. Working with George was always a joy. When he did backing vocals, it was all George. It was tedious, but it was so much fun. We would double it and bounce those down, and double some more and bounce those, getting the mix as we went along. It was a real juggling act to get all the voices on using only an already half-filled 16-track tape, but we had made the decision about what was needed and went for it. Nowadays, every vocal would be on its own track and mixing would be a nightmare.