Producer Ken Scott works hard at the mixing board circa 1968 while working on the Beatles’ White
Album at Abbey Road Studios. Photo courtesy of Ken Scott
It almost sounds like a feel-good
Hollywood movie: A young man gets
hired by Abbey Road Studios at age 16.
After moving up through the ranks, his
first session as an assistant engineer is A
Hard Day’s Night by an English group
known as The Beatles. That same young
man’s debut session as first engineer is
Magical Mystery Tour. He then works on
the White Album and subsequently goes
on to record seminal albums with the
biggest artists from the ’60s, ’70s, ‘80s,
and beyond—Jeff Beck, Dixie Dregs,
Supertramp, Elton John, Missing Persons,
John Lennon, George Harrison, The Tubes,
Stanley Clarke, Mahavishnu Orchestra,
Pink Floyd, Devo, Lou Reed, Kansas,
Billy Cobham, David Bowie, and many,
many more. Definitely a dream career, yet
also the true-life story of record producer/
recording engineer, Ken Scott.
Along the way, Scott worked with a
who’s who of guitarists: Beck, Steve Morse,
John McLaughlin, Tommy Bolin, Mick
Ronson, David Gilmour, George Harrison,
Eric Clapton, just to name a few, as well
as legendary drummers (Rod Morgenstein,
Ringo Starr, Terry Bozzio), and bass players
(Clarke, Andy West, Patrick O’Hearn).
Along the way he earned a CLIO Award
for recording “I’d Like to Buy the World a
Coke” and two Grammy nominations, but
has yet to win a Grammy.
Scott remains a vital force in the industry
today, recording and producing, as well
as releasing a virtual drum library, Epik
Drums—A Ken Scott Collection, featuring
five stellar drummers from his past,
as well as Epik Drums EDU, a DVD set
documenting his approach to recording
and mixing drums. His latest effort is his
just-released autobiography, Abbey Road to
Ziggy Stardust. Ken generously gave Premier
Guitar an extended interview in the middle
of a long day of book promotion, discussing
how he approaches making music as a
producer, and, of course, his approach to
recording all those killer guitarists.
You actually started your career at Abbey
Road Studios at age 16?
That is absolutely correct, yeah.
How did you land that job?
Someone upstairs was looking after me! I
got fed up with school. One Friday evening
I wrote letters to about 10 places.
All those letters were mailed on Saturday;
I heard back from EMI [parent company
of Abbey Road] on Tuesday, had an interview
on Wednesday, and was accepted on
Friday. I left school that day and started at
Abbey Road the following Monday. Like
I say, someone upstairs was looking after
What was your first job there?
Tape library—just getting tapes, checking
in tapes, and making sure they were in the
right cutting room or studio.
How did you move from that into the
engineering side of things?
Via second [assistant] engineering, doing
that for a few years. My very first session
as a second engineer was on side two of
A Hard Day’s Night and I carried on with
them [The Beatles] all the way through
to Rubber Soul. Then I was promoted to
mastering—disc cutting. EMI felt it was
better to learn the final product before you
worked on the “easy” side of it. So you
could never become an engineer without
knowing the problems that may ensue if
you don’t give the cutter a good tape. After
doing that for a few years, I got the phone
call to move downstairs as an engineer.
After sitting next to one of the other engineers
for two weeks—just watching what
was going on—I got to push up the faders
on my very own first session, which happened
to be Magical Mystery Tour.
Working with The Beatles had to be
Are you kidding? They were the biggest
band in the world at that moment in time.
Nothing bigger … it was terrifying! To put
it bluntly, I was shitting myself the entire
Obviously it worked out okay.
Well, they’d been to an outside studio and
recorded a version of “Your Mother Should
Know,” and Paul wanted to try a new
arrangement on it. So we were re-recording
“Your Mother Should Know.” The arrangement
didn’t work, so luckily anything I did
mess up, it didn’t matter anyway.
Working with them as a training engineer
was incredible because you couldn’t
really do too much wrong with The Beatles.
You had the perfect set up for experimenting
to find mics you liked. It wasn’t a typical
three-hour session where you had an
orchestra and you had to do two songs in
a three-hour session—where you had the
pressure, so you had to get it right from
the get-go. With The Beatles, they were
spending ages. They loved experimentation,
so that gave you the freedom to try
things. And also, if I wanted to try mic X
on piano, which no one ever used, and I
wanted to try it in a totally different place
from anywhere other people mic the piano,
and I pulled up the fader and it sounded
like crap—nothing like a piano—The
Beatles would turn around and say, “Wow,
that doesn’t sound anything like a piano, we
love it, keep it!” They didn’t want things to
sound normal, so it was a perfect learning
experience for me.
Why did you become a producer?
It was a combination of two things:
Engineering was becoming too easy. I’d
almost reached the point where I’d seen
some of the other engineers at Abbey Road,
where they could literally set up the board,
all of the EQ and everything on the mics
before the musicians even came in or they
pulled up faders. You get into habits of how
you record things, what works for you. I
was reaching that point.
There was that, plus something that a
lot of engineers eventually go through …
you’ll be sitting there next to the producer
and suddenly you’ll have this idea. You tell
the producer. He looks at you and pushes
the talkback button and tells the artist,
“You know what, we’re going to try this.”
And the artist says, “Yeah, okay.” Then, if
it works, the producer takes the credit. If it
doesn’t work, “Oh well, that was only Ken’s
idea anyway. I didn’t think it would work,
but I thought I’d give him a chance.”
That was happening more and more. I
wanted more artistic say.
Ken Scott cutting acetate in the studio. Photo courtesy of EMI Archives
What is the difference between an engineer
and a producer?
If you look at it from the film sense,
the recording engineer is the director of
photography and the record producer is
the director. [The producer is] there to pull
the performances out of the artists. They’re
there to help with the arrangements. The
producer can be a shrink, he can be a dictator,
he can be your BFF. He has to be a
million different things. But ultimately, the
way I look at my gig, it’s to get the best
performance out of the artist in the way the
artist wants it put across. There are a lot of
producers out there that go in, “It’s my way
or the highway” kind of thing, and they finish
up with it being more of the producer’s
record than it is the artist’s.
Do you go into a project with an end in
mind? Do you know what it will sound
like before you even start?
To a point. Not wholly. I don’t like to do
too much pre-production. I’ve found that
if you go in with a set idea of how something
has to be, something can change in
the studio. You do the song fractionally
faster or the sound is slightly different
from when you were in pre-production,
and a guitar part suddenly won’t work.
If you’re fixated on that guitar part or
whatever it is, you’re going to waste a
lot of time trying to get back exactly
what you had in pre-production—and it
might never work. So as long as the basic
arrangement is there going into the studio,
that’s it for me. I have a certain idea of
what it’s going to be like … it’s probably
50/50. I know 50 percent of what we’re
heading for, but leave the other 50 percent
up for grabs once we’re in the studio.
Ken Scott's Top Recording Tips
Here’s a short list of Scott’s own tried-and-true guidelines for making better recordings:
Scott recently put
pen to paper for
Abbey Road to
1. Make decisions
as you record.
Don’t wait until
to Scott, “No one likes
to make a decision, and
it’s not just in music—it’s
in life it seems. Everyone
themselves. How many
times have you been to
the supermarket and you’ll
walk past a guy with a
cell phone to his ear: ‘Yes,
honey, I know, but there
are 10 different kinds of
baked beans. Which kind
is it I’m supposed to get?’
It’s just baked beans,
come on. So you make a
mistake, she’s not going
to kill you for it. Make a
2. Listen to many
try to learn as
much as possible from
each. Don’t be afraid
to experiment. It’s nice
to have a total picture of
where you are headed, but
leave the final destination
open to improv and
3. Your idea of
“That’s how you grow,”
Scott says. “A band like
The Beatles, they were
changing constantly. As
they learned more and
more, they would make
things change. They would
take the audience with
them, and that’s how they
managed to come up with
such incredible stuff—they
were always learning and
they always wanted something
to be different.”
4. Make recordings
gear you have.
can be made with any level
of equipment if the sources
and performances are great.
5. Invest in good
learn how they
starts with being
able to hear your tracks
6. Play out live
as much as
learn from the
to your performance.
You’re bound to benefit
from being exposed to
7. Pare down
to the essentials.
making the best song,
don’t fixate on the individual
parts to the point
of losing the forest for
8. Go into recording
with an end in
mind. Don’t worry
about having every detail
mapped out, but a good
arrangement and a vision
for the final result will make
for a much more productive
and successful session.