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Interview: Ken Scott

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

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.

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?

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).

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.