The Ken Scott Interview
Most music fans probably don't know the name, but they certainly know the records he's worked on...200 million sold and counting. Ken Scott isn't a rock star and he doesn’t sing or play an instrument. He's a producer and engineer who started out at EMI studios around the same time four charismatic musicians from Liverpool were taking over the world. In due time, he would sit behind a console, capturing their sounds, making his mark as one of five engineers who recorded the Beatles.
It worked out to be a pretty good gig that lead to all kinds of opportunities — from engineering albums for Procol Harum and Elton John to producing albums for David Bowie and Supertramp. And in a bizarre twist of events, Ken Scott's experience in the music business qualified him to be the producer as well as the manager of Missing Persons when they first broke in the early 80s.
Scott is a known perfectionist in the studio who has recorded some of most iconic records in rock and roll. The next time you hear those drums and punchy dynamics on David Bowie’s The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars, keep in mind that it was Scott molding and finessing that sound. And it continues today.
There are two major projects occupying Ken Scott's time these days: EpiK DrumS, a library of drum samples based on his past work; and Abbey Road To Ziggy Stardust, his personal memoir chronicling his amazing career. During the following interview, we spoke about his book and touched on many of the highlights. We also talked about why surround sound (it kept coming up) is so cool, why George Harrison was so cool, and cool artists he’d like to work with. Yeah, it was cool. While many of his peers have withered away or spend their days on the golf course, Ken Scott is still letting his experience and ears lead the way.
Your story is truly remarkable. There are a gazillion books out there that reference the Beatles — I mean, let’s face it: it seems like anyone who ever sat in a room with the Beatles has written a book about it — yet your book offered fresh, non-sensationalistic insight on actually working with them, along with all the other artists you engineered and produced, in a very humble, forthright tone I found very engaging.
Ah thank you. I’m going to hang up now; otherwise I’ll never get through the door (laughs).
Looking back, did you ever once think: I should be taking notes.
We were just doing our jobs. Rock wasn’t even that old at that point, so to be talking about recordings 50, 45, 40 years later…we had no concept that we might be. So taking notes — why? We were making with records back in the day, not so much with the Beatles, but with other artists. Their recording contracts were such that they had to do two albums a year, every six months. As far as we were concerned, if people were still interested in the album we made six months after it came out, we’d done a job. That was how far we expected to talk about any given album. Forty years, later…ridiculous.
The month of July in 1968 was a very busy month for you. I think my favorite revelation in your book was that the single snare at the end of “Glass Onion” was a mistake.
Absolutely. A complete blunder on my part.
In hindsight, do you think it had anything to do with you becoming a specialist at recording drums?
There’s a picture in the book of me as a baby. That was in a fancy dress costume and I was the fairy baby. My parents put me in and I got second price. If you look closely at the picture, what I’m standing immediately in front of is a big bass drum. I just had this whole thing of, “Oh, I knew I was going to be working with drums when I was 18 months old” (laughs).
Do you play the drums?
No, no. I wish I could. I have no idea why that seems to be my signature kind of thing, drums sounds. But for whatever reason, it is.
Another thing you recorded in the midst of The White Album was “Hey Jude.” My understanding is that it was initially mixed in stereo, then from that mix it was remixed in mono, which was released as a single. Is that the mix that you said didn’t sound right through Abbey Road’s monitors?
I have actually tried to find out what we worked on. My recollection is that we worked on a mono version.
Was stereo still a bit tentative at that point?
Absolutely. In the book, the only reason the Beatles were interested in stereo at that point was because they thought they might sell twice as many records. If the mono and the stereo were different enough, the fans would buy both. They were getting letters from fans saying, “Did you know the stereo version of such and such is very different from the mono version of such and such.”
The reason there was so much difference up to that point was that stereo mixes were just throwaways. So some time later, because we didn’t keep notes back then, we’d just try to guess: “How did we do that on the mono mix?” And sort of try to put it together. Quite often, it wasn’t the way it should have been, but no one cared. It was stereo, and we in England weren’t that interested in stereo at that point.
The stereo mixes were always kind of funny in that you hear the instruments panned to one side and the vocals panned to the other side.
We were only working with four tracks and there’s not much you can do. It’s kind of limited when you only have the four tracks to mix.
After the Beatles, you went on to work with Procol Harum, Elton John and David Bowie. I’ve been listening to the Ziggy Stardust album quite a bit lately, and am really knocked out by the sound of the drums. Did this record define your abilities as a producer and engineer with a proclivity for capturing the drums just right?
It’s always been there, for whatever reason. That’s just been what I’ve been drawn to, I guess. The bass and the drums are the basis of everything. Drums cover such a wide frequency range — from the bass drum up to the cymbals. So you get that right, and fit everything else in around that because the drums are so damn important. Let’s face it: so much of rock and roll is the rhythm, so that comes from the drums and the bass.
Well, the drums are just great. And you did the 5.1 surround mix of Ziggy Stardust?
Yes, I did that. I went back and did it at Abbey Road, which was great.
You also did a few things with Pink Floyd and the Rolling Stones. Would you have liked to have worked with them more?
I actually had the option of working with the Stones later on, but I turned it down because I didn’t feel there was anything whatsoever I could add to them. Their feel and their sound are so different to what I go for that it didn’t make sense to me. I’m more of a perfectionist than they are, so I don’t think it would have gelled well.
Floyd? Yeah, it would have been cool to work more with them, but unfortunately the Beatles got in the way, so what can I say? It could have been anyone so it might just as well have been them.
Another great band you produced in the 70s was, of course, Supertramp. Even though Breakfast In America went on to become their biggest record, I still think Crime of The Century is their best. Definitely a candidate for 5.1 surround mix, which hasn’t happened yet as far as I know.
Unfortunately not. As soon as I finished Ziggy, I contacted the (Supertramp) management, who happens to be the wife of Rick Davies, and she said it was already being dealt with. Basically, what she said, was that it was being done as cheaply and quickly as possible just to try to make a few extra bucks. I guess what happened was, it wasn’t good enough so it was never put out. Which is a shame because that album screams for being 5.1.
Yeah, maybe someday. Of all the artists you’ve been associated with, I have to say that your work with Mahavishnu Orchestra, Stanley Clarke, Billy Cobham, Dixie Dregs and Jeff Beck is what really what excites me, because I’m a bit of progressive rock and fusion freak. It would have been interesting to see what you could have done with Miles Davis, Weather Report, Return To Forever or maybe some of the prog rock bands like Yes, ELP or Genesis.
I did do a few sessions with Genesis as an engineer. I write in the book how Robin Cable was in a bad car accident, so we all sort of had to jump in quickly and take over sessions. And he was in the middle of doing some work with Genesis with John Anthony producing, so we all sort of took over those sessions and I did a few of them, but not many.
There was a friend of mine in England who said, “You should do Genesis,” but they did quite well without me. I did meet with Peter Gabriel with the possibility of doing his first solo album. It was fascinating because it was just about as I was to move to the States. So we met, and the big downside was I was moving to the States and he wanted to record in England. And, if I’m not mistaken, he finished up recording in Canada. Bob (Ezrin) did such an amazing job on ‘Solsbury Hill” and that whole album. I’m glad I didn’t do it because it turned out so damn well. I would have enjoyed that.
I really enjoyed reading about your adventures with Missing Persons, whom, out of all the so-called “new wave” bands of the 80s, were by far my favorite, partly due to the Zappa connection, Terry Bozzio’s work with UK, and Dale Bozzio looking quite fetching at the time.
She had her moments.
I also liked the fact that Missing Persons was “new wave” with balls. Your production of Bozzio’s drums was a big part of it, but, as you say in the book, they changed their sound and went downhill from there. If they had listened to you, do you think they would have stayed together and evolved into something bigger?
It’s so hard to say because there was so much of a personal thing within the band that transpired that certainly helped to break them up. The whole marriage breakdown between Terry and Dale created so many problems. Much like Fleetwood Mac and the problems they had. Look what happen to them with the marriage break-ups. It’s very difficult when you’re in a band, which is enough of a relationship to hold together anyway, but then when you’re married to one of the people and then that starts to split apart…I don’t envy anyone in that situation.
I was surprised to read that you never got into drugs, a very admirable trait in the music business. So that means you never snuck off with any of the Beatles to smoke a joint or got dosed by the Grateful Dead?
Oh, luckily…no (laughs).
Were you ever tempted?
I did smoke joints for about a week. The way I stopped, I had some of the Spiders From Mars to the house. My wife and I were trying to hook Ronno (guitarist Mick Ronson) up with the receptionist from Trident (Studios). We had him, her, Woody (drummer Mick Woodmansey) and Trevor (Bold, bassist) and their, what I think were girlfriends at the time, although they may have been their wives over. We did what was the in-thing at that time — we had a fondue. And we’re all sitting around on the floor and the joints are being passed around, and we’re also drinking.
First off, I was told that everything I said was in rhyme, which I’d love to recreate straight (laughs). The other problem was that whenever I got up to go and do something, I would kick my drink over. It didn’t matter how hard I tried not to, I would kick it over. After that, I realized I prefer drinking to the smoking of the joints. So, it was just down to having some drinks every now and again as opposed to the rest of it.
Do you think that not getting into drugs, keeping a level head and not acting all star struck and overly impressed with any of the artists you worked with is part of your success?
When the first band you ever work with are the biggest band in the world, it takes a hell of a lot more to impress you. When you work with them, you find they’re just as nice or just as bigger arseholes as everyone else. They have their ups and downs; they’re people as well. From then on, it’s…so what.
We touched on you remixing Ziggy Stardust in 5.1. I’ve talked to a number of people who like 5.1 and even a few who don’t like it. What’s your general outlook on surround as a way to hear music?
What I don’t quite understand is that there are so many people these days buying these huge surround sound systems, but they are purely for watching movies. They haven’t moved over to listening to music. The only thing I can think of that is that the quality of the 5.1 matrix hasn’t been good enough to move them to do it.
I personally don’t like the whole thing of 5.1 mixes being given to someone else to do. One of the great things with David (Bowie) was when he was approached to have 5.1 mixes done of some of his material, he said he would only agree if the original people did them, meaning Tony Visconti for some stuff and me for Ziggy, which was great.
Unlike Elton’s (John) 5.1’s, which were all given to Greg Penny. Greg did a great job, but it would have been nice to pass them out to the people who originally did them, where possible. Obviously, Robin Cable couldn’t do them these days. I don’t thnk no one would find him. We knew how we got the sounds back then, we knew what we did we knew the EQ that we used to use, and that kind of thing. So I can’t help but feel we’d get a lot of closer to it than bringing in someone from the outside.
You talk about recording in quad with Stanley Clarke and Billy Cobham in your book.
It was School Days.
Any chance we'll see a 5.1 remix of that?
It wouldn’t need it. We could take the quad and easily make up the center and sub, and it would then be 5.1. I have a friend who manages to go in the Warner vaults from time to time. He deals with a lot of the reissues. I asked him to look around at one point to see if he could find any of the mixes and he said he found quarter-inches, but he couldn’t find any half-inches, which is what it would be on. So maybe the quad mixes aren’t even around these days. That was certainly a fun one for that whole surround sound type situation, especially with Cobham’s toms whenever they went around your head. It was, “What the hell was that?”
What did you think of the surround mixes they did for the Beatles’ Love?
I loved it. I thought that Paul Hicks and Giles (Martin) did such an amazing job with that whole thing. It was brilliant what they did. I just wish that the original five engineers got credit for what they put into it originally.
What about the 2009 Beatles Remasters? Did you consult on any of that?
No, I didn’t consult on it. None of the original engineers consulted, so maybe that’s why we didn’t get the Grammys, but everyone else did. But that’s my grumpy side, so let’s not go there (laughs).
You have to admit they sound pretty good.
I actually did an A/B test at CES in Las Vegas between a 2009 remastered CD of Abbey Road up against a vinyl copy of Abbey Road in a room filled with audiophiles, and they all liked the vinyl better.
Interestingly enough, the guy that was in charge within Abbey Road of all the remastering, Allan Rouse — he and I were close friends and we used to speak all the time. At one point, we were discussing the whole remastering, and he was telling me how they put it all across onto the digital machine at the highest quality possible and all that. And I said to him at one point, “Did you ever compare, do an A/B, between the original vinyl and the digital?” And he sort of hemmed and hawed a bit and said, “Yes, we did.” And I said, “And?” And he sort of hemmed and hawed a bit and said, “The vinyl sounded better.”
Wow. So it wasn’t only in Vegas. Do you prefer vinyl? Analog over digital?
I think they both have their uses; they back have their good points and bad points. If I had my druthers, I will always start a project on tape, analog and shift it over to digital to do some of the things you can only do on digital. There is certainly a sound you get from analog that I have yet to hear on digital. We’re getting closer. I’m sure eventually it’s going to get to the point where we can’t tell the difference.
I was doing a film soundtrack for a movie that never got completed because the funding got pulled out of it. But they wanted it to be very Brit, very 70s glam rock. When they were sorting out the music, they were always listening to Ziggy, so they called me in to do it. And I used Woody on drums and all. The reason I’m telling you this is because the second engineer of the studio where I was working at had never actually worked with tape before. I was standing there and he had the plastic bag with tape and he pulled the bag out and he got this awful look on his face. I said, “What’s wrong?” And he said, “I think this tape is bad.” I said, “How can you tell? You just pulled it out.” “It smells bad.” There’s that smell to analog tape, which is so gorgeous. Of course, he never smelled it before, so there was something wrong with it. There are so many tactile things. I love splicing tape with a razor blade, I love editing that way. I hate doing it on a computer. But that’s where we are.
You talk about working with George Harrison in the book — first on All Things Must Pass and then, many years later, on his tape library. So, here’s my question: Who or what is stopping you from doing a reverb-free remix of All Things Must Pass? George Harrison didn’t like the original mix, Phil Spector’s in prison, Paul McCartney had no problem remixing Let It Be and releasing Let It Be …Naked. Why not All Thing Must Pass…Naked?
I think without George, it wouldn’t be the same thing. If he’d still been alive, I have absolutely no doubt it would have been done. Without him around, I can’t see it. It’s out there the way he originally heard it. That should be testament enough.
So you guys didn’t even go back and just remix one track (laughs)?
No. That would have been too tempting. The other thing is we never got into it. We discussed doing a reverb-free one, but we never got into finding out how much the reverb covered up mistakes. There’s a huge possibility that as soon as we take everything off, we might start hearing timing things between instruments, that when it’s all blended together with the reverb, it sounds huge and massive and it works. But take it off, and suddenly, “Take it off! We can’t use that.” That’s another reason George would have to be around for it. At that point, he could have made the judgment call.
Let’s talk about EpiK DrumS. I know you have various configurations. I have a double-DVD set and there’s also a box set. Can you give me a brief overview?
The initial one with the five drummers (Terry Bozzio, Billy Cobham, Rod Morgenstein, Bob Siebenberg and Woody Woodmansey) has complete samples on all of their kits. We used the same drums that they did originally, the same mics, matched up the studios as close as possible. It’s got the samples you can play MIDI or on an electronic drum kit or however you want to do it. Then it’s also got grooves, which are two- and four-bar grooves, which are the same from the records that they played on and we recorded together. Then we got to do jams, so we’ve got two- and four-bar grooves, all multi-track of different grooves in their own and unique styles.
What we‘re about to do is putting out the drummers individually. Woody’s is coming out. And within that package, I’m working on doing MIDI for everything so people can take the grooves and use MIDI to use whatever drum sounds they want with the grooves played by the original drummers.
Any plans for another EpiK DrumS with other drummers you’ve worked with, like Ringo Starr, Nigel Olsson and Simon Phillips?
Ringo would never do it, in the first place. Interestingly enough, Nigel was approached at one point to do the first one and turned it down. I have to say, it finished out being a blessing for me as far as I was concerned. The reason I say that: I love Nigel’s playing, but one of the things that made EpiK DrumS so good, was that all of the five drummers I’ve worked with have moved on. They are playing totally differently now than they did back in the day. So they literally had to go back in time to play the way they did on those original recordings. Because of that, there’s an excitement and an energy there because it’s all new, it’s all fresh to them again. So it comes across more like it did originally.
Nigel is still playing the same songs. His style is exactly the same as it was. So he would just be sitting there playing, and I think it would almost sound like a drum machine other than a real drummer. And with Simon (Phillips), I did so little with him, just the one album (Jeff Beck’s There & Back). I would love to do more of them with other instruments. I’d love to do an orchestral one. So we’ll see.
Any newer artists you’d like to work with?
I think it would be a lot of fun to work with the Foo Fighters. I love them. Dave Grohl is such an amazing entertainer. I think that would be a lot of fun. There is an English artist who is based here in L.A. called Carina Round and I really like what she does. She and I have sort of spoke about it. Her records are very different from how I would produce her. If it were to happen, she would change quite drastically. But that would be fun doing that as well.