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 me. [Laughs.]

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 tremendously exciting.
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 session. [Laughs.]

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:

Legendary recording engineer and producer Ken Scott recently put pen to paper for the biography, Abbey Road to Ziggy Stardust.

1. Make decisions as you record. Don’t wait until mixdown. According to Scott, “No one likes to make a decision, and it’s not just in music—it’s in life it seems. Everyone is second-guessing 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 bloody decision!”

2. Listen to many different musical genres and 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 creative discretion.

3. Your idea of sound should be constantly changing. “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 with the gear you have. Great recordings can be made with any level of equipment if the sources and performances are great.

5. Invest in good monitors and learn how they sound. Everything starts with being able to hear your tracks accurately.

6. Play out live as much as possible and learn from the audiences’ response to your performance. You’re bound to benefit from being exposed to other perspectives.

7. Pare down performances to the essentials. Focus on making the best song, don’t fixate on the individual parts to the point of losing the forest for the trees.

8. Go into recording sessions 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.