Interview: Ken Scott, Part 1: Recording with The Beatles & Inside the Studio
February 26, 2010
Photo: Mike Banks
For many people, life is measured and recollected by a series of milestones: what they were wearing at a particular event, whom they were with, calendar dates marked in red each year. For the rest of us, life’s milestones are commemorated by music: what we were listening to, which song was on the charts, the riff that wouldn’t leave our brain.
If you’re one of us, your milestones include the work of Ken Scott, who has been engineering and producing records since he was 18 and has played a part in creating music history, including A Hard Day’s Night, the White Album, Magical Mystery Tour, Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars, Honky Chateau—the list goes on.
Scott stays busy both in the studio and holding workshops and presentations. Right now, he is also promoting a Ken Scott Collection—EpiK DrumS, a software package released by Sonic Reality that features five drummers that Scott worked with over the course of his career: Bill Cobham, Bob Siebenberg, Terry Bozzio, Woody Woodmansey and Rod Morgenstein. What does this mean to you? “A guitarist can use this to put together backing tracks on demos of his songs, and he can also learn to mix real live drums, which is valuable whether he’s recording at home or taking a band into the studio,” says Scott.
Premier Guitar spoke with Ken Scott at winter NAMM, where Sonic Reality was debuting EpiK DrumS, and again a few weeks later. He offered insight into his production techniques, getting guitar sounds, and of course some fond recollections about his years with the Beatles.
Do you have plans for other EpiK series?
I certainly want to do more of these. Over the next couple of years I want to produce The Ken Scott Collection. Part 2 should be ready in time for the next NAMM [winter 2011]. I always had a sensibility about drums and it made sense to start there. It’s what you lay down first: drums, bass, and you overdub the other things. Everything will be based on the records I did, and as much as possible I will be using the original artists.
What is your technique for mic’ing drums—is there a Ken Scott sound?
With drums, the mics I use are a Neumann U67 on toms, an ElectroVoice RE-20 or AKG D20 on bass drum, a Coles 4038 ribbon for overhead, and a Neumann KM56 or Sony C38 on the snare. It’s been primarily the same thing through the years. Anyone interested can go to epikdrums.com and from there they can find videos of the making of the collection and see exactly how everything was set up.
It’s funny, I remember an engineer who, when mixing, would zero out everything every night just so that no one could copy how he got his sound. To me, that’s such bullshit, because you can copy to the nth degree and it still will not come out like it’s him or me doing it. There’s a sensibility that’s indefinable. It has nothing to do with EQ and reverb. You take a recipe from a cookbook written by the greatest chef, and your food won’t come out tasting as good as his. People getting these drums is a start. They’ll get closer to emulating what I did, and hopefully make something new and fresh.
What are your key pieces of gear when mic’ing and recording guitars?
It basically comes down to the same way I mic’ed drums back in the day: a Neumann U67, now a U87, and normally some kind of compression, maybe an LA-3A [Audio Leveler] or something like that. With acoustic guitar it has changed a bit. With the Beatles I used an AKG d19c. It was a general-purpose mic and I liked it for a lot of things. I also used U67s and AKG C12s.
What are you listening for when positioning the mics and recording guitars, and also when producing or engineering tracks overall?
I wish I could answer that and bottle it—I’d be a multi-millionaire right now! It always comes down to getting the sound in the studio first and the sound that works for the track, or for a section of the track. There are no specifics. These days, everything is overpowered by volume and it feels great until I go into the control room and listen to it at a reasonable volume and it sounds so small. I prefer to record guitars in the control room with a long cable so that the guitarist can hear the sound the same way I do, and we can modify it until we find something we’re both happy with.
There’s no right or wrong way to get a sound. It’s what other people consider it to be, and luckily, they’ve considered what I’ve done more often right than wrong.
How do these techniques change from electric to acoustic guitar?
There’s less room to mess around with acoustic guitar in the studio. With the electric guitar you can use a different guitar, different strings, different amps. You can change the sound to a point with mics and EQ. But an acoustic guitar is an acoustic guitar and there’s not much you can do with it. You’re purely going for the sound of that guitar.
How do these techniques change when recording more than one guitar?
I haven’t recorded more than one guitar at a time in God knows how many years. When I did, we were still monitoring in mono, so we would work on trying to get each guitar so that it stood out and was not enmeshed into an indistinguishable sound. We were trying to get two individual sounds coming out of one speaker at the same time.
What was it like to lead Beatles sessions? Were they open to input and direction?
By the time I started working with them as an engineer, they ruled the roost. Even George Martin did not have much say at that point. They were in complete control, but they were absolutely open to input.
Sometimes that input was purely accidental. I erased a whole bunch of snares accidentally on “Glass Onion.” When we laid down the basic tracks, it was obvious that a single snare would not be enough, so we overdubbed and bounced them. We were working with eight-track and came to what we thought was the last overdub. Paul and Chris Thomas were playing the recorders, but unfortunately all the tracks were full and so we could only put them after the last snare, so I did a punch. It took several takes and I finished up punching early and erasing the overdubbed snares. My immediate reaction was, “I’ll never work with them again!” But John said, “It actually works. We’re coming out of the biggest part of the song, and where you expect it to get bigger, it gets smaller. It works perfectly.” They were amazing about going with mistakes and humanness all around this way. Now, of course, that could never happen because everything is computer controlled and it sucks the life out of everything.
Photo: Mike Banks
Sometimes that input was meant as a joke. When we were working on “Not Guilty,” George was trying to do a vocal overdub and it wasn’t happening for him. We tried various ways to get him to feel more comfortable. He asked to sing in the control room with the speakers up, like a live situation with a PA. After one playback I was standing by John and I said, rather facetiously, “You’ll want to record the next song in there,”—“there” being a tiny room next to Studio 2 that had only been used to house a four-track, when they were too big to fit in the control rooms. His reply: “Yeah, OK.” The next song we did was “Yer Blues,” and John said, “Let’s do it in there.” We had to fit all four of them in that tiny room and they literally couldn’t move. They had to find a position with their guitars and not move, or they would hit someone in the face or in the guitar. And that’s where we cut the track. So input came in a lot of different ways, and they were always up to trying anything new.
What was their work ethic like on A Hard Day’s Night, and how had it changed or remained the same by the time of Magical Mystery Tour?
A Hard Day’s Night was still the early days and they were coming in on time to sessions, starting at 2:30 in the afternoon and finishing around 10 or 11, or midnight. By Magical Mystery Tour, they were coming in whenever they wanted or not showing up. The work ethic was there, but they chose the times when they wanted to use it. They still worked just as hard and long; they just started and finished later.
How much of John and George’s playing and solos do you believe were direct reflections of their personalities? Could the guitar parts have been interchanged yet still had the same musical “attitude”?
Absolutely not. George was very patient and spent a lot of time getting things just the way he wanted them. He was a perfectionist. John would do a couple of takes, say, “Yeah, fine,” and move on. He was far more impatient.
Every guitarist wants to believe that his tone is distinctive and that fans can immediately recognize his playing. This was true for George Harrison’s playing, for example, but to your discerning ears, is it true of today’s guitarists?
Nowadays, fans know who it is from the material being played, rather than the sound or style of the guitarist. George could play on someone’s record and you knew it was him. These days, you hear a guitarist on someone’s record and you have no idea. With George, his tone wasn’t always the same, but you could nearly always tell his style.
Guitars are harder to record than other instruments because there are so many variables involved. With guitars, you have so much more flexibility and so many more settings that the guitarists use.
Today’s guitarists are fond of modern guitars. When I was working on a Duran Duran album with Warren Cuccurullo, who also played with Frank Zappa and Missing Persons, he had modern guitars that all sounded the same, all with a high-end, buzzy-type sound. I said, “Look into getting an old guitar.” He has since started the most amazing collection. There is something about the warmth of old guitars.
One way to get guitar sounds now is effects and filters in the control room. The control room is there to get the best sounds possible, but the sound starts in the studio. You’re not supposed to take something OK and try to make it great. You start with great and make it greater. Mick Ronson, for example, used a Marshall half stack and a Cry Baby wah in the studio. He put his foot on the wah, found the tone, took his foot off and that would be it.
Were the Beatles underrated as musicians?
No. As musicians, the technical prowess was not there. It got better as they went on. On one level, no, they weren’t that good. But as talents and how they used the skills they had, it was absolutely brilliant. And no one has ever come close to it. Ringo is one of the greatest rock drummers. There were times when he’d get in the middle of a drum fill and not know how to get out, and that’s what made it great.
Coming up in part two of our interview: You asked. Ken Scott answered.