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May 2014
more... ArtistsStudio Legend

Interview: Ken Scott

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Interview: Ken Scott

Ken Scott sports a managerial look, circa 1983. Photo courtesy of Ken Scott

Was that the same when you were working with the Dixie Dregs? Steve Morse composed all the parts in advance, did he not?
Yeah, it was the same with the Dregs. The first time I ever met them was in pre-production. I walk in and they play their first song, one called “Take It off the Top,” and I stopped them in the middle and immediately laid into the drummer [Rod Morgenstein]. [Laughs.] He was just overplaying so much, it was a constant battle between him and everyone else. Steve was trying to get as many notes in as possible, the bass player was trying to get as many notes in as possible, and Rod was trying to get as many hits in as possible. We took small sections of the song, and I just had him pare it way down. He hated me. It’s a great story between us, because he absolutely detested me at that point because I was stopping him from showing off. But once he heard it starting to come together in the studio, more as the song as opposed to their individual pieces, then he suddenly realized what I was getting at. He re-thought all of his drum parts. He now says that thanks to what I did that day, he still has a career.

I knew a little bit more about what had to happen—more than they did—right from that get-go. Once we’d laid down the basic tracks, then it was overdubbing. With Steve’s guitar, it was so sectionalized. One of the things that I loved working on with Supertramp was using as many different guitar sounds as we could get, and that’s what we did with Steve. It was, “Okay, we’ll take this verse … this part should be this kind of sound, this part should be this kind of sound.” We’d zero in on the sound, he’d play those parts, we’d double them or whatever, then we’d get the sound for the next part, and just patch it together like that. So, exactly what should the sounds be? I didn’t know up front. We had to find them.

It sounds like you need a well-developed sense of psychology to work as a producer. How do you read the musicians and know how to handle them?
I have no idea! Take my history with Jeff Beck. The first time I worked with Jeff, it was to record the first Jeff Beck album, Truth. It was a bunch of guys who weren’t really known. Jeff had a bit of a reputation from the Yardbirds, but certainly nowhere near as big as Clapton was coming out of that band. Little-known, generally regular guys—they were a blast. They were really fun to work with and they were really good, obviously.

Then we complete the project. Album comes out, they tour the States, they come back to start on the next album. And the egos were through the roof! We couldn’t work together, it was obvious. I think we did one day and that was it—sessions got canceled because it just wasn’t working.

I don’t see Jeff for a while until I start to work with Stanley Clarke. Jeff comes in and plays on a couple of tracks on Stan’s albums, and he’s back to normal again—he’s a regular guy. It was really nice working with him again. No sign of that ego. Then I get to work with him again later on There and Back. It was the exact opposite of everything! He didn’t feel he was good enough to be playing with those musicians. On this occasion, I had to try and draw his performances out of him. I was sort of stroking his ego the whole time, “Jeff, you can do it, come on mate, this is easy for you.” That was very hard. I hadn’t had to deal with that before. That was a learning experience for me, trying to pull something out of an artist they didn’t think they were capable of. Generally, they go over the top. It’s easier to pare it down than it is to get it out of them.

You’ve done pop, glam, fusion, blues, rock, new wave—all sorts of different things. What drives you to work in new musical styles?
I get bored. I used to drive my managers crazy. Because they were getting a percentage, they would like to book you up as an engineer/producer for the next two, three years, and know exactly what you’re doing. I could never do that, I had to wait until I finished a project and then say, “Okay, bring me stuff.” Stuff would come in, “No, no, I just did something like that.” It was just trying to find something I felt like doing. Although, the weird thing is, I am a total creature of habit. Recording drums, I can literally set up the EQ before the kit is even in there. With guitars, I always mic exactly the same way. But musically, as a producer, I need it to be different every time.

What is your approach to mic’ing an electric guitar?
A Neumann U 87 about 18" away and whatever you want for a distant mic.

How far away is the distant mic?
No specific distance.

Do you “tune” the placement by ear?
Yes.

Do you aim the close mic at the speaker cone, the center of the speaker, or another spot?
No. Actually, I just put it where it looks right! [Laughs.]

Do you fine-tune it from there or just set it and go?
Just set it and go, generally speaking. Obviously, there are times that you try different things. There was a track on the Devo album, Duty Now for the Future, where we wanted a very small, distorted sound. We messed around trying to get it, and we finished up taping some headphones to a Neumann U 87. That gave us a really small sound and it was exactly what we were looking for.

So there are times that you modify it, of course. But generally, 90 percent of the time it would just be the U 87, set it in front, and that’s it.

Given your approach, it must be essential to get the sound right at the source—at the amp.
It’s always from the source, from the performance to the sound. That’s one of the things with the way we were back in the day. Because we had so little EQ, so few effects, the sound had to start in the studio. I’m a firm proponent of the performance has to come from the studio. It really annoys me, all of the stories about someone will do something and it’s, “Yeah, that’s okay, we can just put it all together in the computer.” No, get them to bloody sing it right in the first place! Don’t use Auto-Tune, don’t move everything around so it’s on the grid. You’ve got to get the performance. That’s the thing with Bowie’s vocals. No, they’re not perfect. There are places where they’re not quite in tune nor in time. But they’re from his heart, they’re from his soul. They’re performances. That’s why, 40 years down the line, we’re still talking about them.

Simple is Better


Left: Neumann U 87. Right: AKG C414.

Ken Scott calls himself a “creature of habit” when it comes to recording—he trusts specific techniques and gear. For electric guitar, he relies on a Neumann U 87 microphone, placed 18" in front of the speaker, plus a “distant” mic, placed farther away from the speaker. The type of microphone used for the distant mic isn’t critical, though the polar pattern will make a big difference. A cardioid mic will be more directional and pick up less room, a figure-8 mic will capture more room sound, and an omnidirectional mic will capture the most room.

Scott works to get the sound right at the source—at the amplifier—then captures it with his straight-ahead mic’ing techniques.

For acoustic guitar, a single condenser microphone—in Scott’s case, an AKG C414—is placed near the body, looking at the soundhole or bridge. The mic is adjusted by ear to find the ideal location.

If you don’t have access to these higher-end microphones (a basic Neumann U 87 costs approximately $3,200 and the AKG C414 is around $1,000), try using another largediaphragm cardioid condenser microphone. During his days recording The Beatles at Abbey Road, Scott often relied on an inexpensive AKG D19C condenser microphone for acoustic guitar, piano, drums, and many other sources. Today there are many large-diaphragm condensers on the market to choose from. Some affordable substitutes include the Behringer C-1 ($44), Samson C01 ($80), AKG Perception 120 ($99), Audio-Technica 2035 ($150), Studio Projects B3 ($160), Shure PG42 ($200), Rode NT1a ($230), and Mojave Audio MA-201 ($695).

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