Being in the right place at the right time is sort of a mantra in the recording world — and a serendipitous moment that we all may hope for. Ken Scott has literally been in the right place a number of times, whether it was at Abbey Road Studios recording The Beatles, Trident Studios with David Bowie, in France recording Elton John, with Supertramp constructing their epic '70s albums, in L.A. recording and managing Missing Persons or producing DEVO. Ken has been at the ground floor of so many albums that we now consider classics — Transformer, Crime of the Century, "The White Album", Hunky Dory, ...Ziggy Stardust..., All Things Must Pass, Truth, Madman Across The Water, Honky Chateau, Don't Shoot Me I'm Only The Piano Player, Son Of Schmilsson, Aladdin Sane, Crisis, What Crisis?, Emerald Visions Of The Pure Beyond. What more needs to be said?
When you started in the sixties, how were producers different than they are now?
First and foremost, they worked for the record companies. They were the A&R guys. That was the most important thing. They were finding the talent. They were finding the repertoire for the talent, the songs that they would sing. They would take them into the studio and it would be their vision. Then they would also discuss with marketing — not that there were particularly big marketing departments back then — but they'd see it through. It was their baby and they'd sink or swim by it. Producers back then didn't get points, so that was interesting.
Would you say the producer in that era was also a kind of liaison between the technical and the artist?
It's like that these days, if it's not an engineer that's producing.
When you were doing work at Trident, there were a lot of producers that didn't engineer. You were an engineer during that period. How did that work — who did you like as a producer and what were their good qualities?
It's that whole thing of "familiarity breeds contempt." I hope I've taken the best. The strangest one was probably Bob Johnston, who I worked with on a Lindisfarne album, because he didn't appear to do anything. He said very little. He just sat at the back, but whatever it was, he pulled out the best of me and the best from the band. I've thought about him on many occasions and tried to puzzle out, "How the hell did he do that?" Nothing obvious.
I've heard a lot of times that one of Bob's greatest assets was being a buffer between the artists and the label.
But back then the labels didn't come down anyway — so there wasn't that much to do.
I guess this happened more so in the Dylan case.
He was so big and people wanted to go in and see him. With Bowie, moving into the '70s, I never saw a single record company person come down. I only had one contact with the record company with regard to any of the albums and that was just, "Could you remix one song?"
What was the reason for the remix?
I had purposely, when I set up the original mix — it was "Watch That Man" — and I had chosen [that] the power should come from the band and the voice should be mixed really low. It should almost just be one of the instruments. I got a phone call from MainMan [Bowie's management] first saying, "Could you try another mix with more vocal?" and I said, "Sure!" and I explained why I had done it that way, sent it to them and they said, "You're right. Go with the first one." Then about a week later I heard from RCA, "Could you try another mix on 'Watch That Man' and bring the vocal up?" I said, "I've already done it once, I can do it again." I did it without the original. Now I listen to the original and I think, "Oh why the hell did I do that? He's so far back, it's unreal."
Is there a tendency to want to go back and revise history like that? Or are you happy to accept how it is?
Oh, no. I have to accept the way [it is]. I always found that when it was vinyl, you'd go through the mastering process and get a playback acetate and listen to it and then you'd have to wait for the test pressings to okay those. That period of time between the playback acetate and the test pressing was, "Oh, why didn't I do that? Oh shit, I should've done that." Then as soon as I got the test pressing, I knew it was too late to go back and it was, "Bang. Yeah, now I can sit back and enjoy it." Much as when revisiting All Things Must Pass, both George [Harrison] and I would have dearly loved to have de-Spector-ized.
He mentioned that in the liner notes too.
We would have loved to. Sitting there, listening to it in the studio, it sounded so over-the-top and dated.
What elements of Phil's sound were you thinking dated it and made it.
I don't know. It was just so over the top — don't forget by the end there, for some time, George had been the one that didn't want reverb on anything. He wanted everything very dry.
You told me this story once about working with Phil Spector.
I was doing a track for Ronnie Spector and he was down in the studio teaching the session guys the song. I was upstairs turning knobs, getting to what I would consider to be my normal sound and he finished teaching, came up, listened to it. He said, "Okay, can you do this?" It was a minor change. "Can you do this?" A minor change. "Can you do this?" A minor change. Suddenly it had gone from my sound, completely to his. I've wracked my brains ever since. What did he make me change so that I can do it on other things? I have no idea. They were so minimal. I wouldn't have known five minutes later what that [was] that made all that difference.
It's just sort of amazing that someone could really carry that in their head, not being all that technical either, just coaxing stuff out of people it seems.
Sometimes it's that non-technical — that you don't know what's possible and what's not. That was The Beatles so much. They had no idea what they could do. Experiment, experiment, experiment. But along with that, knowing when it wasn't working, they wouldn't beleaguer it and take it to its death and, "Oh my god. What are we going to do now?" It would be, "Oh, let's try this. Oh, it's not working? Okay, on to the next thing."
With The Beatles, were they really quick to switch gears?
Sometimes, yeah. Not always, because there was just this thing where they seemed to know if something would work and if it wouldn't and if something was just slightly off.
Your first proper session in a studio as an assistant was working with them, right? Were you nervous?
Oh come on! If you don't mind my saying, that is a very dumb question. I was terrified. Actually, looking at Mark Lewisohn's book [The Complete Beatles Recording Sessions], I seem to remember that Richard Lush said how nervous I was on the first engineering session. The training at Abbey Road was such that, for me, I started off in the tech library to learn how the studio was run. Then it was second engineer, button pusher, tape op, to learn what actually happened in the studio. Then, because the limitations of vinyl were much greater than the limitations of tape, they'd put you through mastering, and the way you started that was cutting playback acetates, because they knew they were not that critical. Invariably, the first week, you'd go to that equalizer, "Oh that take needs just a hair more top" and you'd turn it full up, high end and it's, "Hmmm, maybe now it needs more bass," and wham, it's full up on the low end. It took you about a week to realize, if it needs a little top you just make one move — perfect. That's why they did it. They'd been doing it for so many years they knew how people reacted. It's always the same. If you go through mono mastering and you go through stereo mastering, and if someone died or got very sick and you were lucky, you got moved down. For me, it was someone got sick. Until you get your hands on those faders and that EQ and that limiter and that compressor — it's reversing back to that first week of having an equalizer in front of you. You go over the top, or you just don't know what you're doing. So that first session with them was a complete write-off.
Plus you had the pressure and stress of them being the world's most popular group at the time.
The great thing for me was having worked with The Beatles for so long as a second. There was enough of a relationship there that even though the first day was a complete write-off, they were willing to continue with me. Plus, they probably knew that no one else wanted to work with them.
Just because of the hours?
It was hours. The old timers were used to the ten 'til one, two-thirty to five-thirty, seven to ten, which The Beatles completely changed. Secondly, they could be assholes. Tell me an artist of that stature that at some point isn't an asshole. Certainly, they could be very boring. They took a long time to complete things sometimes and the old timers were used to doing an album in a day.
What was the "Glass Onion" story?
What happened, we were recording "Glass Onion", if you remember going through it there's a (singing softly) "blap, blap."
In all the breaks.
Yeah, and we had built up three or four snares and bounced them down to one. There was the original snare on the rhythm track and then we put three or four snares down on another track and bounced them all together. So we're right towards the end of the recording and I had a second engineer working with me that night that I hadn't worked with before. I was a little iffy about how good he was, so we had a punch that was going to occur immediately after the last "blap, blap." I think it was for some recorders or something. So me, being slightly cocky that night decided, "You know what? I'll do it. Don't worry." And I go over there and of course I punch early and get rid of — on the last set of "blap, blaps," it goes down to one. I've actually had people say, you know, "The Beatles are so bloody amazing. How would anyone just conceive of having that big sound and then coming down on the last one to that small sound? They were incredible."
And you were like, "Oops!"
That was me! I erased it. Back then, you couldn't just — well, I suppose you could fly it in, something like that — but no, that's the way it was for that last one. That was the way it was meant to be. Just like "Strawberry Fields" was meant to be the two takes perfectly. I was thinking about the memory thing. There's a story that came out of this whole book thing where — you know the Lewisohn book [The Complete Beatles Recording Sessions]?
I was going through that when I first got a copy of it and I had doubts about certain parts that he got in there. Finally, I came across something where he says on George's birthday I did three demos — the rest of the band didn't come in — he came in and he and I, in number three studio, did an acoustic and vocal demo of three songs. There was "Old Brown Shoe", there was "Something", and "While My Guitar Gently Weeps". Finally I thought, I now know he is full of shit because I definitely did not do that recording. I would have remembered that. I didn't do it. Then several years later, I'm working with George and I'm down in his library going through all the tapes and I come across a 1/4" tape and there are those songs with my name on the box label and I thought, "Fuck me, I did do them." Unbelievable. Until a time later I'm talking to Brian — and he's talking to a guy who used to work at Abbey Road the same time as me, called Brian Gibson — he was a maintenance guy. Brian said, "I know exactly what happened." He said, "I did the recording, but as a maintenance man I wasn't allowed to, so I used Ken's name." So it finished up, I was right but also Lewisohn was right because it did have my name on there.
Oh my god, that is hilarious.
Oh, that freaked me out for a bit — that I was that wrong.
Do you find that doing multiple records with an artist produces better records?
It depends. Every situation is different. So, if I'd done two albums with DEVO, I don't think the second one would've been as good, because we were both learning from each other. The Tubes' much the same. They did actually ask me to do the next one and I just knew we had done all we could there, whereas with Bowie we could grow together and with Supertramp, to a point.
When producing, I worry about stamping things with the way I'd like to do it.
I try desperately not to. The albums that I have been least happy with throughout my career have been ones that I've had too much control — that the artist was nervous, or didn't have the ideas or whatever to put forward, so it ended up being all my ideas. The reason I don't like them is because I feel it is my job to pull the best out of the act, not the best out of me. My part will come along with it. If I pull out the act, then that's the best part of me. To me it's always teamwork. It's collaboration, totally. That's the way I like it.
You mention control, which is an interesting issue nowadays. With the power that engineering and producing type people wield, the control has shifted quite a bit. Do you think it's a good thing or a bad thing?
Bad thing. Absolutely.
You've spent some time doing records like Supertramp, where the drum sound was very controlled. Do you like that?
How do you mean, it was very controlled? We spent a long time getting the drum sound that we're all — I was going to say, "We're all happy with." They were probably happy with it well before I was. That's why it took so long. They had no idea what to expect coming in. I think spending the time on that drum sound, it set the whole thing in motion. It was, "Okay, here's this guy that's willing to work to this degree. Let's go along with it." So they knew that they could come up with things and it didn't matter if it took a long time. Once Jerry Moss had given us the go ahead, it didn't matter if it took a long time. That was probably the only time that I would have had total control — from then on it was mutual.
But you say that control is a bad thing at this point?
Well, when the control area becomes the technical side, that's when it's really bad. The way most people use Pro Tools, the technical side is taking control of the artistic side, in my view. It's ridiculous.
At some points in your career you were also doing management type stuff, like with Missing Persons.
Yeah, I tend to look at management in a slightly different way to most. I don't do it like the MBA guys. I look at it more as an art within itself. Once again, it's sort of walking fine lines. It's bridging that gap between the record company and the act, and it's trying to make the art palatable to the record company and the money side of things palatable to the artist — figuring out how that can be done and caring about the music, which so many managers don't do. Just trying to give the act their space and let them come up with what they want to do — much like in the studio as a producer.
What led you into that?
It was a necessity more than anything. I found Missing Persons or they found me, whichever way you want to look at it. We'd gone into Frank Zappa's studios, done demos and we then shopped it. We'd shopped it to every label in the states about three times and they kept on passing. We tried England — nothing. We tried Australia — nothing. All the time we were doing amazingly well here in California. Each show got bigger and better and finally we decided that we had to put it out ourselves, which we did. We put out a 7" EP. One of the tracks on it became the most requested record of the year on KROQ and that day we got an offer on Capitol and they put it out again. During that period of time, as well as trying to find a record deal we were trying to find a manager. We found lots of managers that didn't want the band — they wanted Dale [Bozzio]. There were just things that didn't quite work for any of them and it was finally, "Put up or shut up." I believe in this band and I know what they need to have down, so it was, "Look guys, I want to manage you." "Oh, yeah. That would be great." And it went from there.
How long were you doing that kind of management work?
With them it was two, maybe three years, I guess. Then I did the odd other thing — nothing ever became of any of the others, unfortunately.
Besides working with George Harrison's estate, what other projects have you worked on in the past few years?
Not much. I got fed up with the music business for a while and rather than continue to drive myself crazy it was just sort of "Pull back from it." Now I'm excited about music again.
You've mixed Bowie in surround. Will you mix other people's albums you didn't track?
I don't like mixing other people's stuff because my sound, what I'm known for and what I'm happiest with, comes from the beginning, from the drum sound on up.
How do you describe your sound? What characteristics?
I have no idea. Look at my choices in acts that I've worked with. I can't live in one world. I've got to keep jumping around and keeping it interesting. I think that's why I sort of backed off for a while — it was becoming boring. I didn't see the excitement with the business and that didn't make me excited. Now I'm actually starting to see some excitement coming around again and that's got me up and out again.
What do you want to work on?
Something that turns me on. That's it. Something that I find exciting. I could very well have screwed myself business-wise a long time ago because the times I've had managers it's, "Okay, we can get you lined up for the next three years doing this, this, this, this and this." "Uh no, sorry, I will wait until I finish this project, see what's available, and see what turns me on the most." Because I'm going to want to do something very different from what I've just done, and it's been like that all the way along the line. So I never got that sort of three-year plan. A three-month plan was, "Finish the project I'm on, then I'll see."
In the heyday of the '70s, how long did it take to make records?
On average, toward the end of the '70s, six weeks. It started off — beginning in the '70's — it would be two weeks plus one or two weeks mixing. Then by the end, it was probably six weeks recording and two weeks mixing, except for the odd — like a Supertramp — which took much longer. It's just making the decisions. People won't make the decisions now so they'll just drag it out. But it's also getting the sound out in the studio as opposed to in the control room. It makes all the difference in the world and back then because the EQ was so infantile, basically, that it had to come from out there because you didn't have too much choice in the control room.
More things would be printed to tape with other things.
Yeah, absolutely. You had to know the mix before you ever started the song. You had to know what direction, what sound we were aiming for right from the basic track because everything was going to be mixed together at a basic track. These days I try and get things the way they're going to be in the mix, if I can. Obviously not reverb — I'm not recording that.
Then again, the mix can also become a creative thing too.
Yes, but the whole remixing thing is a whole interesting area I've never quite come to terms with.
You mean modern remixing.
Yeah. Someone that had nothing whatsoever to do with the original recording. There are two steps to this. My first major thing is there are certain people in this town that record companies love to use to mix and make things big, compress the shit out of them and they've got everything set up. It's like a factory — they always use the same EQ — the whole thing, and they were never on a single session so how do they know what was wanted? They don't. They just push it through and the record companies love it for some reason. The other thing is, you've got the original album, it's all done and these people come in that were never there and completely turn it all around and re-record things and all that.
Like some of the U2 remixes where they just grab a vocal and put it on a new beat?
Yes, it's kind of weird. I can understand that as an art form but it's still kind of weird.
You recently did some David Bowie surround remixes.
Well, one of the things I had completely forgotten about when I had done that — the first song I mixed had the strings on. I pulled the strings off and I hear the track blasting out and I had completely forgotten that back then, the string players refused to wear headphones. So, you had to give it to them through these PA speakers and that almost always started your mix, because you had so much going through there you had to blend it all together.
What was your approach on the Bowie surround thing? Did you approach the new format with the old material?
It was to keep the same feel as it originally had, sonically make it as close to the original as possible — as opposed to the depths that one could achieve through reverb — and all of that coming from two speakers, you actually had depth and you got to play with it a bit more.
Did it thin out the sound?
I don't think so. I enjoyed it, absolutely.
Are you going to do more?
I'd love to.
Is that out now?
Yes, it's been out some time.
I have no playback for it, so...
Oh, I know. Nor do I.
Nor do I.
You know what I think would be a perfect one? Crime [of the Century by Supertramp].
I was thinking that too. That hasn't been done has it?
It's being done. Probably cheaply. As soon as I got back from doing Bowie, I managed to contact their manager and was raving about it, "We've got to do this!" and I got an email back, "Already being dealt with." Get the people that were there. If we're deaf by now, fine, use someone else, but we know how we did it in the first place so we can get it quicker and we had the feel for it. Let us do it.
Have you been in situations where you kind of step in and really make it run the way you like?
I suppose the closest to that, which it wasn't quite the same because I was officially only the engineer, was with Duran Duran on the Thank You album. I was brought into that project by Warren Cuccurullo, the guitarist who had been in Missing Persons. We had a long relationship and we respected each other and we both knew what we brought to the party kind of thing. It was great when we were working together, but a lot of that album was done individually because everyone was in different countries. I had to go and record different parts. It was silly. But there were times in France when I was working with Simon and Nick and it got — luckily as I was only the engineer, most of the time it was just sort of sit back and let it happen because they're controlling it, but just every now and again I managed to get my way on the vocal for "Perfect Day" — it was, "Okay this is how we're going to do this. Let's try it my way for once," and it finishes up that Simon says it's the best vocal he's ever done. It's tough. I, quite honestly, am not over keen on working with established acts because they have their own way of working, as do I, and it becomes so much harder to deal with it — it pulls away from it rather than gives to the thing from me.
How do you feel about someone mixing something you engineered or produced?
I was doing Pop Trash, another Duran Duran album. The way that went, they started doing it in Warren's house, got to a certain point and they needed to go into a proper studio to complete it. I was brought on board, again because of Warren, and we were over there doing it and this was without a record deal. They were all paying for everything themselves. Whilst we were recording it, they were shopping it. Well, it finally got interest from Hollywood and Rob Cavallo came over to listen and we're mixing it and he passed the comment to me one day that, "You know what, Ken? I think you should lay off the compression a little — the limiting. I think you're overdoing it a bit. You're making it too flat." Okay. Now, talking to the guys afterwards they said, "It sounds fine! Just do it." So we finished up doing the entire album the way I would normally do it. Then what happens? He passes the whole thing to [Chris] Lord-Alge. He [Rob] had the audacity to say that I was over-limiting it, which may be two dBs or something — it's the same kind of thing I always do. Then he hands it to him [Chris] — and that's not too much compression?
Well, he's mixing all the top ten records, so it must be the right amount!
Yeah, right. It did nothing. I wasn't happy, the band wasn't happy, the public wasn't happy, the record company wasn't happy, so it was dropped. I think it escaped for a week or two and then it was given back to the band and they were dropped.
That must be a frustrating feeling for those guys too.
Well, that's when it all broke up and re-formed as the original Duran.
Did you ever reference back to traditional Duran Duran sounds or anything?
Absolutely not. It was what we felt was right for each given track. One of the most interesting things to me about it, with the original mixes — the ones that I did — it ranged from a very '70s sound on some tracks and went all the way through to the '80s, the '90s. We covered the gamut and it was very unusual. It wasn't the normal Duran album, whatever that is. Look, I can only do something that I feel inside. I can't do it for anyone else and if it sells that's great, but I don't make it to sell.
At what point in your career were you able to be rather picky about what jobs you chose to do and how?
As soon as I stopped engineering for other people I became picky, or had the ability to be picky.
Were you only producing when you did the Bowie stuff?
I was still engineering at that point. I would do Bowie and then go and do an engineering gig where I didn't necessarily have any choice because you were given the gigs by the studio — what they thought would be a good match. So look, it wasn't too hard for me — I'd do Hunky Dory and then go over to France and do Don't Shoot Me I'm Only the Piano Player, so it's not, "Oh, I'm not going to go over and record Elton John. No, I don't feel like it."
So you were getting good choices.
Yes, absolutely. During the recording of Honky Chateau, I think it was, when we'd sit down for dinner every night — the normal communal dinner that you have at those type of studios — one of the guys would put on this record and I'd hear snippets of it over chatter and I just thought it was these drugged out jazz guys that made absolutely no sense to me. A few weeks later I'm back in England mixing something — I get a phone call from CBS saying, "John McLaughlin will be in London doing a TV show with the Mahavishnu Orchestra. He would very much like to meet with you with regard to doing his next album." I thought, "John McLaughlin. That's the guy that they've been playing. They were raving about him. Yeah, maybe I should check it out." So I asked CBS to send me a copy of the first album, The Inner Mounting Flame, took it home, sat down, and it just blew me away. When I could listen to it without people chattering over the top — "Wow! This is astounding."
There was a brief period there when you did a lot of what we call "fusion records." It seems to be the kind of music that's gone away now.
Well, it's become elevator music now. No one's taking any chances with it. They're trying to do the same kind of thing. It's not new. It's not exciting.
It's hard to do anything now that's new and exciting.
Something new and exciting has to happen. Otherwise music is going to die.