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An afternoon with Ken Scott

An afternoon with Ken Scott

Earlier this month, I had the opportunity to attend a lecture, sponsored by Solid State Logic, given by the thoroughly interesting, entertaining and downright nice guy, Ken Scott.

I had been invited to hear his lecture at the Craiglockhart campus of Edinburgh Napier University. Being no stranger to university lecture theatres around the world, I was quite impressed with the space, before the lecture even started.

Engineer and Producer Ken ScottKen Scott is a recording heavyweight. When you start out at EMI (Abbey Road) Studios in the sixties, it’s a good bet you’ll have a couple of “I engineered that, you know” stories, but Ken’s time in the business is pretty special.

Having decided that all he wanted to do was record, he stayed on at school, as the usual way into the industry was to start by getting yourself a degree in electronics. Having then decided that continuing his academic education wasn’t for him, he posted ten letters to studios on the Saturday, heard back from EMI on Tuesday, interviewed Wednesday and started on Monday, age 16.

He recalls the moment in the interview when he felt fairly confident that he’d got the job. When asked who his favourite band was, the obvious answer at the time was to say The Beatles. Ken answered “the Dave Clark Five”.

When asked why, Ken said that the addition of the saxophone completely changes the sound. This impressed the studio manager who wanted people who were interested in the sound first, rather than the band.

Ken Scott started his time at EMI as a tape runner. This might seem like  a fairly trivial way to start your time in the studio, but was an education into how the studio worked organisationally.

From there, it was on to being an assistant engineer, known as the ‘button pusher’. This role was about as old-school tape-op as it got, standing by the tape machine hitting play, record and stop. Repeatedly.

That said though, when your first session as 2nd engineer was button pushing for the flip side of the A Hard Days Night album, it might not seem too monotonous! After paying his assistant engineer dues, it was time for a couple of years as cutter, up in the mastering studio.

Then came the promotion to engineer and again, the first session was with popular beat combo The Beatles, recording Your Mother Should Know.

It was while engineering Glass Onion, that a particular good anecdote was recounted (one of several!). The snare sound for the hits that finish each section was the result of several overdubs to get the sound ‘thick’ enough. When the time came to record the recorder part, they were out of tracks on the tape, so someone suggested that they punched in after the snare overdub track and use that.

The Beatles record the White AlbumKen had a new 2nd engineer and decided to take charge of the button pushing himself. After multiple attempts, the recorder part still wasn’t down and tensions were running high. On one take, rather than hitting play then record after the snare hit, he just hit record, recording over the last snare overdubs. He thought he was about to be fired, but John Lennon commented that no-one would expect the smallest part of the song to follow the biggest part of the song, so all was well.

In 1969, Ken Scott moved to Trident Studios and continued his successful career engineering and producing some of the world’s most famous artists and albums including Elton John, George Harrison and David Bowie.

The lecture, which was interesting, informative and entertaining was also very well presented. It would be quite easy to turn my notes into another 5000 words, but that seems a bit superfluous, as you can watch an interview with the man himself here.

What was perhaps more interesting, was to hear Ken’s perspectives on modern music technology and the music industry itself. He talks about Bowie’s vocal on Five Years (the opening track of The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars), where he has completely broken down in tears at the end of the take and how this wouldn’t be allowed today and would likely be sent back by the record company.

He also gave the example of the Stones’ Brown Sugar, which starts at 111 bpm and finishes at 128, again, something unlikely to be allowed today with performances recorded to click tracks and everything placed ‘on the grid’. Have we lost the human aspect of the performance in order to produce a ‘perfect’ production? As a further example, just listen (carefully) right to the end of Bowie’s Life on Mars!

The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars

However, those are perhaps philosophical discussions for another blog post, so we’ll leave things there and just wrap up by saying that Ken Scott was a great speaker, clearly has a lot of passion for what he does, but also comes across as a top bloke. He had plenty time to take numerous questions, answer them fully (and then some!), and had time to speak to me afterwords.

That night, I was forced to listen to Ziggy Stardust [my favourite album of all time] uninterrupted, beginning to end with the new perspective of having shaken the hand of the man who produced it…

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