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FEATURE: Ken Scott

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Recording engineer/producer Ken Scott knows a thing or two about recording. Check out just a few of his credits:

The Beatles (Magical Mystery Tour, The White Album)
Jeff Beck (Truth, There And Back)
Pink Floyd (Apples And Oranges, A Saucerful of Secrets)
David Bowie (with Mick Ronson; Aladdin Sane, The Man Who Sold The World, The Rise And Fall Of Ziggy Stardust)
Mahavishnu Orchestra (with John McLaughlin; Birds of Fire)
Dixie Dregs (with Steve Morse; Night Of The Living Dregs, What If)
George Harrison (All Things Must Pass, Wonderwall)
The Tubes (Young And Rich)
Gamma (with Ronnie Montrose; Gamma 1)
Kansas (Vinyl Confessions)

In addition to his storied career as a recording engineer and producer, Ken is releasing a new drum/loop library in partnership with Sonic Reality. It features some of the best drummers he worked with in the ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s, with the goal of precisely re-creating the sound and vibe of the classic songs and sessions. The drummers on Epik Drums include Billy Cobham (Mahavishnu Orchestra), Rod Morgenstein (Dixie Dregs), Terry Bozzio (Missing Persons), Bob Seibenberg (Supertramp), and Woody Woodmansey (David Bowie), and Sonic Reality and Ken Scott went to tremendous lengths and expense to track down the original drums and the original gear. They used similar recording spaces and had the original drummers play the drums, all in pursuit of creating the ultimate sampled drum instrument: Epik Drums. There are also multitrack grooves, some duplicating the original tracks and some (as Ken puts it) with the drummers going mad. In every case, you’re getting the sound of real drums, as only Ken Scott can capture them.

I was fortunate to be able to spend a good portion of a day with Ken, and along the way, I sat down with him for a chat about the technical aspects of how he makes his amazing recordings.

You’ve worked with so many stellar guitarists – Jeff Beck, David Gilmour, Steve Morse, John McLaughlin, George Harrison, Mick Ronson, and many others. Let’s start with how you approach recording guitar.

Ken Scott: Generally speaking, with electric guitar, it will be a Neumann U 67 [vintage tube-based large-diaphragm condenser microphone] or a Neumann U 87 [large-diaphragm condenser microphone]. It will be a foot or 18 inches away. I tend to put it center [on the speaker]. I’m sort of old school; I haven’t found that moving it off [axis] makes it sound any better. I will quite often use room mics; there is no particular room mic I prefer. It’s just whatever is around.

I love double tracking. It can be on the same guitar or on a different guitar, but playing the same part. I tend to pan them on either side. What I’ll generally do when I double track is I’ll change the speed [of the tape] very slightly. Now I’m thinking analog here, so I put the VSO [variable speed oscillator] in and take the tape speed up a fraction. See, the thing with something like a violin section is that all the players are slightly off from each other. If they all played at exactly the same time, exactly the same note [tuning], it would sound like one violin player. It’s those tuning and timing differences that make it sound big. So I put the VSO on the tape and change the speed slightly, so the tuning is just slightly off, and it just makes it sound that much bigger. It creates this natural chorusing thing; just a little.

[Editor’s note: a similar effect can be achieved in a digital system or DAW by using a small amount of pitch shift on one of the guitar tracks in a double-tracked situation.]

With someone like Mick Ronson, to get his sound, he played through a wah-wah pedal. We discussed what kind of sound it should be and he would go to the wah-wah pedal and find the sound that we wanted and just leave it set there. He used a Marshall half-stack, and he always had that set the same. That’s how he got his sound.

With Steve Morse, the mic setup was very much the same. On some of his stuff I would have used a DI [direct box] as well, I seem to remember.

John McLaughlin was always Marshall. I remember my first time in the States, we were working on the [Mahavishnu Orchestra] Birds of Fire album. We’d started work at Trident [Studios, in London], and it had gone very well. Then we were going to complete it at Criteria down in Florida. Well this was during the Bee Gees disco era, where a lot of the recordings were very, very dead. So we went into Criteria, and I didn’t quite realize how dead the studio was. John turns his amp up, and you just about heard it [laughs]. Turned it full bore, still, only just heard it, then the amp blew up. Okay, it’s a bad amp, we’ll bring another one in. Brings another Marshall in, turns it up, don’t hear it, it blows. And with Billy’s [Cobham] bass drums, even with no damping in them whatsoever, they were dead. We couldn’t get them as live as we had them at Trident. So we ended up having to cancel the recording, the studio didn’t work for that band. Great studio, didn’t work for that band. The manager didn’t like me for it!

I’m very much old school, where you get the sound in the studio. Once you get the sound that you want, then mess with it as much as you want to. I’m not the kind for today’s thing where you seem to get any sound and you can doctor it in the control room. Get a good sound first and then make it better in the control room, as opposed to a bad sound and trying to make it sound good in the control room.

That requires that you have a good aural/mental picture of what the guitar should sound like before you begin. How can people learn that kind of thing?

You learn that kind of thing by experience. You make mistakes. You experiment. I recommend to anyone starting off learning to engineer, for three months, start off only recording to four tracks. You have to make decisions very quickly, because if you mess it up, there’s not much you can do about it. So you learn that way. I was lucky in that I started off with The Beatles and they were willing to experiment and to spend the time to try different things.

Obviously, when I tell you the mics I use, they’re bloody expensive – it’s ridiculous – and there aren’t many of them around these days. I’m talking about really high-end mics, which not many people can afford. So just get some mics and try them. Find what you like as a guitarist or as an engineer or as a producer. Find what you like. Line up several in front of the same amp and just go between each one. That’s the best way to do it.

With acoustic guitars, I use the U 67 and the U 87. I will sometimes use an AKG 414 [large-diaphragm condenser microphone] or C12 [vintage large-diaphragm tube microphone]. And the mic is generally angled over the soundhole.

I’ve heard you say several times today that the key is to make your decisions about sound and commit. Don’t leave the decisions for later.


Do you feel the same way when you’re working on keyboards, drums, and other instruments?

Yes. I came from when you had to make decisions. That stuck with me. I consider the training I got at Abbey Road to be the best training you could possibly have. We were trained as sound engineers, working with lots of different engineers and artists and producers. You get to pick up, “Oh, the classical guy does it that way. That’s great. I’ll remember that. And this guy does all the dance bands, and this one does the brass section that way. Okay…” The whole thing is, you turn a knob and it changes the sound. I’m not interested in why turning the knob changes the sound; I just want to know that it does.

I feel a great responsibility to pass on, from my era, anything that I possibly can. Because it’s disappearing and nothing is taking its place, I’m afraid. I was blessed to start working during the most amazing period, when that thing between an artist and technology was coming together – and the technology, we had to struggle for it back then! It wasn’t there, it hadn’t been developed yet. We were doing it on the fly. It was absolutely astounding! So, as I say, I feel very responsible for passing it along to the forthcoming generations.

The drummers you work with on your Epik Drums collection are all very different – from Rod Morgenstein to Terry Bozzio to Billy Cobham. Does your mindset or approach have to change when you work with musicians that are that disparate?

[long pause] I didn’t find that my mindset had to change that much. [another long pause] I was blessed with working with great talent, and that always makes it easier. If I let my ego talk, I guess it would be that my talent met their great talent, and that just made it very easy. It clicked.

There were other times when, with some drummers, it didn’t click. I was doing a Stanley Clarke album, and whoever the drummer was, I was taking my time getting the drum sounds, like I always do. And he said, “I’m here to play, not to mess around like this.” The way I work just didn’t work for him. So I guess part of the thing is, as opposed to having to change my mental attitude dealing with the artist, is that I happened to pick artists to work with where we had the same kind of philosophy and we were looking for the same thing, so we’d just go for it.

I’ve got a video interview with Cobham, where we were talking about first working together. He said, “I was just the drummer in the band, and I didn’t know what was going on. Suddenly Ken was there, and I’d recorded with lots of engineers before, but I’d never had a drum sound like that.” But I did exactly the same for him as I did for Woody [Woodmansey, from Bowie’s band] as I did for Bob Seibenberg [Supertramp]… exactly the same thing. It worked for all of them.

For a typical drum session, what would your microphone selection be?

U 67s or U 87s on toms. They’re at the edge, with just the head of the mic showing, angled as much as I can toward the center of the drum. But they’ve got to be in a place where drummers won’t keep hitting them! [laughs] That has happened before… happily not too often!

That’s painful with a vintage U 67!

Yes [more laughs]. For bass drum, it would be an [ElectroVoice] RE-20 or a [AKG] D20. Snare is either a Sony C38 or a Neumann KM56, 54, or 84. For overheads, I love ribbons. I tend to use the Coles 4038s or Beyer M160s, which are really good. Both those mics are really good on brass as well.

Does the bulk of your drum sound come from the individual mics on the drums, or do you use mostly the overheads, or…

It’s very much a mixing of all of them. I can’t say I really favor one thing over another. It really is just putting it all together as a complete package.

With someone like Bozzio, you need more of the overheads because he’s playing all of those different cymbals. Other people don’t use the cymbals quite so much, so you’ve got to favor the close mics a bit more. There is no set thing for me with that. It’s just how it works for that given act, for that given song at that given time.

That was one of the things, working on Epik Drums – trying to deal with the technical aspect of it. It got difficult at times because I needed to do things a certain way, and it didn’t necessarily correspond to the way they [the programmers] were used to doing it. There was a lot of meeting of the minds, which was great. It was a learning experience for all of us.

For example, I came up with the whole thing of doing the 3-track mixes as opposed to the normal stereo thing. [Epik Drums features stereo mixes of all the drums except the kick drum, which is on its own track.] It was exactly that thing of, I can’t blend the bass drum in, because I don’t have the bass – it has to be a complete thing.

It was like, there was a track I did with Jeff Beck on the There and Back album. It was Simon Phillips drumming. We were doing it in #2 at Abbey Road. I had him set up at one end, and I’ve got a couple of distant mics set up. It was the biggest drum sound I’ve ever heard in my life! It was amazing! Then we put the bass on, and it suddenly got a bit smaller. Then we put another instrument on, and the drums got smaller. Because you have to leave room for the other instruments, it just keeps getting quieter and smaller. You always have to bear in mind the overall thing.

You can get the most amazing sound – be it a keyboard, be it a guitar – but it has to mesh with everything else. If it doesn’t, either it sounds like crap or the track sounds like crap – and you’re after the whole thing sounding great. So everything’s got to mesh, same with mixing drums.

So having the three tracks in Epik Drums allows you to tailor the kick drum to the context of the track.

Yes. You can put reverb on the rest of the drums without it getting all muddy on the kick, and balance the kick with the bass.

Do you record drums dry so you can use EQ and processing after you’ve tracked, or do you EQ and process as you’re tracking?

As I track, I get it. I know what I have to do to those particular mics. I could almost set up the EQ on the mics without ever hearing the kit. I know it so well now. It’s always the same kind of frequencies. So it’s the choice of mic and knowing what to do with the EQ.

I don’t understand the “having the drum kit untouched” kind of thing. You’ve got the untouched drum kit, because you know you’re going to EQ it later, but you’re trying to match other things to it. How can you gauge the other things that you’re putting on top of the drums if it’s not the correct sound to start with? You’re building upon a base, and you have to get the base correct first and then start building on top of it; otherwise, it all comes tumbling down.

So you’re committing all your drum EQ and processing right to tape.

Basically, yes. You change it slightly as you go, but not very much.

Do you use compression very much?

I will always compress bass. I will always limit vocals a bit, sometimes guitars; it varies. I tend to put a limiter on the overall mix – just slightly, not that much.

Do you have particular “go-to” compressors and limiters?

I tend to stick with [UREI/Universal Audio] 1176s, LA-3As, and LA-4As. For special effects, I love Fairchilds. I have an Altec compressor. I can’t remember the number, but it’s the same as we used to use at EMI. It’s been modified to be exactly the same as the EMI ones. It’s amazing on bass and great on piano. I tend to go back to what I was trained on.

Do you record bass direct?

I tend to, yeah.

Do you also mic the amp?

No. I like it more in your face, and the DI makes it that way. I sometimes mix both. I remember, with Stanley Clarke, we used to take DIs out of the back of his preamp. I think he used a Trace Elliot or an Alembic… I know the guitar was an Alembic, but I’m not sure if the preamp was. But it would come out of there, and it would be a low and high [using the preamp’s crossover]. It was great, you’d mix the two of them together, and you’ve got that in-your-face thing, but you still had all of the EQ from the amp. It worked really well.

Back in the early days, with the Beatles, it would have been miked amps, and later on we used some DI.

What about vocals?

It’s always one of two microphones: a U 87 or a C414. I’d place both up, tight together, at a 45-degree angle, and have the singer sing between them. I could immediately hear which would be best for the voice, and it avoided problems with p-pops. You’ll quickly find, with all of these, that I always go to the same mic selections. I know what works, and I use that.

How about recording Elton John’s piano?

For Elton John, we did many tracks on the beautiful Trident Studios’ piano. When we went to the chateau in France to record [for Honky Chateau and Don’t Shoot Me I’m Just The Piano Player], we tried to duplicate that sound. But everyone was recording in the same room, so we had to have carpenters come in and build a wooden box around the piano and lower it down over it, so the piano was closed in, with just small holes to stick the mics in through.

Did that cause phase problems?

We didn’t worry about phase in those days. The only place phase was a problem was when we were mixing for LPs [vinyl records] because things would cancel in the grooves. But we just moved the mics around until it sounded good. If that was in phase, then great; if not, then okay!

Which mics did you use?

The same: a U 67 or U 87 on the low strings, a KM 56 or KM 54 on the high strings. If I had a third mic, it would be a U 67 on the mids. The mics had to be placed close to the strings to help isolation and to cut down on room ambience and background noise.

Let’s talk about mixing. Because you commit to your sounds as you’re tracking, were the tracks pretty much ready to mix – just push up the faders – or were the mixes pretty involved?

No, the mixes were always a lot of work. Bowie hated mixing, hated the studio, just hated it. So I worked alone to mix most of those things, sometimes with a second [assistant engineer]. I’d create a great-sounding mix, then just go crazy adding reverb, phasing, echo, and other processing.

I came up with this thing for mixing, because I like things to change: I’d do it in short sections and just edit it all together. So, I’d get everything set for the intro – get that right, then put it off to one side. Do the first verse, get that, then edit it onto the intro. And I worked my way through like that. But the whole thing was, you had to make good decisions. You couldn’t go back and go, “Oh, I don’t like that… oh, if only I’d just lifted the voice up for that bit. You can’t, you make the decision and you go through it, and that’s it. So that’s how the Bowie mixes were done, and I carried on doing it that way with other people as well. That’s the way I used to mix.

So you were actually doing all these separate mixes, recording them to 2-track tape, then editing all those tape pieces together to create the finished song?

Yes! I met today with a guitarist I worked with back in the ’70s or ’80s that’s now out in this area, and he said that one of the things that he most remembers was my editing. I’d just go straight up to a tape machine, whether it was multitrack or 1/4-inch, and it was just, cut it, boom, as if it didn’t matter. He said, “I could never do that!” But you can always put it back together again! It’s no big deal! [laughs]

Our thanks to Ken Scott for so generously sharing his time with us. For even more of Ken, check out our additional conversations, which are in episodes 11 and 12 of the Sweetwater Minute videos on YouTube and Facebook.

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