Ken Scott recommends making recording decisions early in the studio, on the spot, rather than waiting until later. Photo courtesy of EMI Archives

How much do you feel that preamps and other gear factor into the sound that you get?
From my standpoint, very little. I’ve worked in so many different studios and they’re all different. For me, the most important part of a studio—and the thing that has to be right in the studio, there’s no two ways about it—is the monitor system. Because if the monitors aren’t right, then you have no idea what you’re doing. You’re not listening to the true sound. How do you work with the sound if you don’t know that what you’re listening to is right?

I put it that way—as being “right”— because we all like to hear things slightly differently. You get to know what you like to hear. You hear that inside the studio and outside the studio. Wherever you listen, you’re listening for a particular kind of sound.

How important is the actual recording space that the amplifier or speaker is in?
It’s not. You work with what you’ve got. As far as guitars go, I don’t think it makes that much difference. There are times that I’d love to have a guitarist in a big hall so you can get all of that amazing reverb from the distant mic. But generally speaking, it doesn’t matter… [Pauses.]

I suddenly realized as I’m saying this, to a point I’m wrong! [Laughs.] There’s an example with Mahavishnu Orchestra where we started recording at Trident [Studios in England], and everything went great. This was Birds of Fire and we didn’t have enough time to do the entire album, so we came over to finish it off in the States. We were booked into Criteria, down in Florida. John [McLaughlin] immediately blew up two 100-watt Marshalls. What it was, the room was so dead. It was that time with the Bee Gees and disco, and the sound was very, very dead. John couldn’t get the sound out of his amp without blowing it up. Everything was turned full bore and it just sounded quiet. Everything was being sucked up. We finished up canceling the sessions and moving to [NYC studio] Electric Lady, which worked great. So that’s an example where, yeah, the room can affect everything.

What’s your recording process?
It depends on the musicians and the music. With Missing Persons, because Terry was one of the main writers, he knew exactly what needed to happen from the very beginning. Terry wanted it to appear that the drums were pulling everything along. He wanted to be ahead of everyone the entire time. So the way we worked with him was, it was just him playing, no one else, no guide tracks or anything. He just played the track. Once we got a drum track that really swung, that felt great, we knew we’d gotten the basis for the track. Then we started to overdub things. I felt so sorry for Patrick O’Hearn, the bass player, because we’d be doing a take and so often it was just eighth-notes and Terry would be, “No, no, no! You’ve got to hold back a bit. I’m pushing, I’m pushing!” It was so minute and Patrick was going through hell, but it all worked in the end.

So in that instance, it was just drums. Other times, it’s bass and drums, just going for those. There are obviously times where I’ve gone for guitars, bass, and drums. And then I’ve overdubbed from there. It depends.

You’ve said that the best way to learn to record is to limit yourself to 4-track equipment.
Absolutely! It’s the thing of making decisions. Because that’s something that, for me, is missing these days. No one likes to make a decision. That’s why albums are taking three years now. They’ll record something: “Tell you what, I don’t think it will work, but let’s keep it until the mix and make the decision then.” So you finish up with 199 almost useless tracks and you’re going to decide at the end as to whether they work or not. It makes mixing horrendous. Just make the bloody decision up front. Have an idea of the final product and make the decision during the takes.

I always used to do it. We’d be going through, “No, that’s not the take,” and go back and erase it. I’d record over it and keep on doing it. The decision was made then and there: “Yes, that’s the take, we’ll keep it.” That’s why I would love engineers and producers to spend some time working on 4-track because obviously you have to make decisions.

Are you committing to compression and EQ as it goes down?
Oh yeah, do it right. I like to hear the record as we’re putting it together, the final thing.

When it comes time to mix, you’re basically able to push the faders up and then just be creative with what you want to do with the mix. You don’t have to worry about making the tracks work.
Yes, absolutely. You already know it works to 75-percent certainty, and it’s just zeroing in on the other 25 percent to make it magic.

Do you have a specific approach to recording acoustic guitar?
My normal way of doing it would probably be an AKG C414. I do it really close, it’s angled at the hole or it’s angled more toward the bridge end. I’ve found that acoustic guitars are a little touchy. You have to do more with the mic and the mic placement with an acoustic guitar. So I will experiment more with an acoustic guitar, trying things.

Have you found any modern microphones that are useful to you?
No—but there are always exceptions to the rule. When I did Missing Persons, the first set of recordings that I did with them—which were originally supposed to be demos, and they finished up being amongst their most popular songs—we went into Frank Zappa’s studio to record. Frank had just had that studio built. He was on the road and he wanted to come straight back in and start working in the studio. He knew my reputation for finding every possible fault that there is in a studio, so he allowed us to have it for free knowing that I would find all the faults and get them fixed before he came back off the road. The problem was that all of his best mics, which were the ones that I would normally use, he had on the road because he recorded every single performance. So we had to work with his sort of “B” mics. When you hear the album, there’s a mix of some of those tracks that we did there with the “B” mics and the rest of the stuff I did at my regular studio with the “A” mics and you can’t hear the difference!

As I say, it’s down to the monitors, because if you know what you’re listening to, you can adjust to anything. For someone who’s working at home and they’re trying to do a professional sounding recording, do you recommend that they go rent some of those A-list microphones or should they try to get the sounds with microphones they can afford?
No, try and get the sounds with the microphones they can afford. But make sure that what they’re listening to is good.

So put the money in the monitors.
Yes, absolutely, every time.

How can an artist keep their creative spark and be willing to take chances?
You have to make music for yourself, to make you happy. You can’t make it to have a hit. Too many acts these days, they’re out there to get a record deal or to make money or to become famous. The Beatles never started that way, The Who never started that way. Jeff Beck never started that way. They started because they wanted to make music. U2—the same. They made music because they enjoyed making music, and people started to like it. That’s the way to do it.

If you’re doing it purely to make money, you’re never going to be happy. Because more often than not, you’re not going to make that money! If you’re making it to please yourself, at least you’ve always pleased yourself. If other people like it, that’s the icing on the cake.

The other thing is, play out live as much as possible. You learn your gig from the audience, from what they give back to you. You don’t learn your gig in the garage, rehearsing, rehearsing, and rehearsing. You don’t get to know what people think of what you’re trying to do.

Any other tips for capturing great guitar recordings beyond what we’ve talked about?
It needs to come from the guitarist in the first place. If you take Mick Ronson, his sounds were always unique. He’d get his tone by going through a wah-wah, finding the place where we all liked the sound and then leaving the wah-wah there. You find your own techniques to get what you want across. It’s just a question of experimenting and finding what works for you.