On a sweltering Saturday in June three years ago, I trudged across the University of Michigan’s North Campus for a conference celebrating the 50th anniversary of The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. My wife and I were in the middle of packing up our life in Ann Arbor to move to Charlottesville, Virginia, and every bone in my body wanted to collapse on the couch that afternoon. But I wasn’t about to miss engineer and producer Ken Scott’s keynote address.
Few engineers and producers have been behind the board for so many pivotal albums or worked with such a diverse array of artists. Even the partial list of Scott’s credits is astounding: The Beatles’ A Hard Day’s Night (assistant engineer), Rubber Soul (assistant engineer), Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (assistant engineer), and The Beatles (a.k.a. “The White Album”) (engineer); George Harrison’s All Things Must Pass (engineer); Elton John’s Madman Across the Water (mixing) and Honky Château (engineer); David Bowie’s The Man Who Sold The World (engineer), Hunky Dory, and The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars (all as co-producer with Bowie); Mahavishnu Orchestra’s Birds of Fire (engineer); Bill Cobham’s Spectrum (engineer and mixing); Supertramp’s Crime of the Century (producer and engineer); and Stanley Clarke’s School Days (producer and engineer).
More than ten years before Scott’s visit to Ann Arbor, I’d missed a talk by Scott when I was an undergraduate at Ohio University. Afterwards, when I read an interview with Scott conducted by an OU audio production professor, I kicked myself. Scott was witty, informative, self-deprecating and unflinchingly honest. After that, I promised myself that I’d see Scott speak if I ever got the change again.
When Scott released his autobiography, Abbey Road to Ziggy Stardust: Off the Record with The Beatles, Bowie, Elton & So Much More (Amazon, Powells, Barnes & Noble) in 2012, I picked it up immediate. It’s no exaggeration to say that Scott’s is perhaps the best of the many memoirs released by famed pop and rock producers and engineers. With a scrupulousness missing from many autobiographies, Scott peppers his own recollections with long quotes from the artists, producers, and engineers he worked with throughout his career. For the audio geeks, Abbey Road to Ziggy Stardust includes meticulously detailed sidebars on the technical details of key recordings from Scott’s career. It is, in short, a must-read for anyone in the history of 20th century pop music, record production, or both.
That Saturday in Ann Arbor, Scott didn’t disappoint.
His talk, by then perfected from presentations around the world, interwove personal anecdotes with exclusive clips from various recordings, released and unreleased, including a stunning isolated track of David Bowie’s vocal on “Five Years.” In the lobby of the lecture hall, Scott chatted amiably with all the various Beatles nerds, including me, eager to pick his brain, providing his thoughts on everything from the then-new Giles Martin remix of Pepper to the state of the recording industry.
When I began planning "The Interview Series" — Audiophile Style’s new series of interviews with artists, engineers, producers, and more — Scott was near the top of list of interviewees. I was delighted when he agreed to talk with me.
What follows is a lightly edited transcript of our conversation.*
JM: I want to start out with some broader questions and then maybe dig into some specific albums. But I also want to encourage people to read your book, which is one of my favorites. So I’m going to try to avoid having you recount things in depth that you already cover really well in your book....
I thought I’d start with some general questions, then ask about specific albums.
One of the first things I wanted to ask you is about the character of different studios in terms of their sound. Obviously, you famously worked at Abbey Road then at Trident. I love Norman Sheffield’s book on Trident, and I think there are so many great sounds albums recorded there. You also worked at Electric Ladyland at the Château in France — lots of historically significant studios. What do you think of as some of the essential differences in sound between those studios? What made them special?
KS: In all honesty, because of the way I tend to close mic, so much stuff, it doesn’t make that much difference. Obviously, you’ll have a difference between say, number two studio at Abbey Road and a very dead studio. Like where I teach Leeds Beckett University, our main studio is very, very dead. So you could never get a massive drum sound from there for heavy metal or something like that. But for pop rock, its fine. Whereas you could get a much bigger sound in Abbey Road. But for what I do, the way I record doesn’t make that much difference.
The only time it has caused a problem [was when] I started work on the Mahavishnu Orchestra album Birds of Fire. And we started that at Trident, which was somewhat live room. And then we tried to continue at Criteria in Miami. Now Criteria was a ridiculously dead studio, which suited all of the disco stuff — the Bee Gees stuff that was being done there. It didn’t suit bands like Mahavishnu, and so we just had to pull out from there. Because I would mic up Billy Cobham’s drums and bass drums, have him hit them, and I was telling him, ‘Bill, there’s too much damping in there,’ and he told me there wasn’t any damping [in his drums]. It was the studio was so dead. It was just making the bass drum sound flat.
JM: Obviously, by the ‘70s, that really dead studio sound was coming into vogue. Was that the first time you encountered that?
KS: No, I think we started it over here in England, with the glam rock sound. The drum booth in Trident was very small and very dead. So in there, if you had the drums in the drum booth, you were going to get a very dead drum sound, and that’s what we got. That was the Bowie drum sound generally. That was the Elton John sound on the early stuff. For me, the change to an open drum sound came with Birds of Fire. Recording [Mahavishnu Orchestra] at Trident, Cobham’s kit was too big to fit in the drum booth. So I had to set him up in the main studio along with everyone else. That was that was a more live drum sound, and I loved it. And for certain things I kept doing it like that with that with the live drum sound.
What I found was when I started to do more work over in the States, we in England had starting to move to the more live drum sound, whereas L.A. especially was still going through the dead drum sound. I was doing an album at A&M Studio D, and Jeffrey Porcaro was the drummer. He came in with a very, very damped down drum kit to suit the L.A. dead drum sound. And I told him to take off all the damping. For a brief instant he objected, because he said, ‘It’s taken me ages to get this right.’ But he was a true professional, and he did what I asked. He took out the damping, and we got a great drum sound out of him, and he loved it. I was told by others — I have no idea if it’s true or not — but I was told by others that he went around to other studios saying, ‘You’ve got to use these mics in these positions, you’ve got to do this,’ which was exactly telling them to record his drums the way I had. But it’s all personal taste...and what you want for the music.
JM: That’s an interesting story about how sounds were going in different directions in the ‘70s. Because that’s true if you think of Eagles records or things in the late ‘70s in the U.S., and then the Townhouse [Studio] drum sound, which was the total opposite by that time in the late-‘70s in England. I hadn’t really thought of it that way before.
KS: Yeah, I think, up to a point, for a change, the U.S. was behind England. They caught on to the dead drum sound later, and they moved into the live drum sound later than we did over in England.
JM: In your book you mentioned about “Woody” [Woodmansey], David Bowie’s drummer, complaining about his drum sound being too dead on Hunky Dory. Corn Flakes, was that the joke?
KS: Yeah, he said they sounded like Corn Flakes packets. So when we started Ziggy, before he came in, I had my assistant engineer go out to a grocers and get as many different sized packets of Kellogg’s Corn Flakes as he could find. And then we set up an entire drum kit just of Corn Flakes packets.
JM: Was there a transition in the Beatles recordings to when the close mic’ing became more prevalent? Because obviously with the White Album, at least to me, a signature sound of that album is that very dry sound compared to some of their previous albums.
KS: Well, they transitioned so much over the over their albums. Norman Smith was a great one for changing the sound, as much as he was allowed to, each album. And he I think he was the one that started them on that route of, “We want things to be different every time.”
The first album, he wanted them to sound the way they did in a live performance. So he set them up as they would be onstage and recorded them straight like that. And it slowly changed.
The close mic’ing, you know... I’ve been looking into Ringo’s drum mic’ing over time just recently for something, and there are certain aspects of it which [were] close mic’d right from day one. This the whole big thing about the close mic’ing of the bass drum. There are pictures of Norman’s sessions where his bass drum mic is right on top — it’s so close to the bass drum. So from that aspect, he was always close mic’ing Ringo’s kit, or at least the bass drum. What did happen was we started to use more mics. Originally, Norman was just using them with the one overhead mic. Then he put in a second one, I believe, on the snare. Geoff [Emerick] then took over. He did the same thing, but then added a couple more mics for the toms. Then I came in and probably did more.
The Beatles always wanted something different every single time. So we moved from their live drum sound to Ringo having tea towels on all of the drum aids to give it a really dead sound, with a four-neck sweater and his bass drum. It was just constantly changing with them.
JM: You’ve mentioned how listening to The Beatles prior to the White Album should really be done in mono. Then [there’s] the transition to stereo with them being involved in the stereo mix for the White Album. I was wondering if you could talk a little more about that? Obviously later you were involved in mixing some pretty notable albums into quad, and then even later on you remixed Bowie into surround sound. How do you think the evolution over time from mono to these multi-channel formats has changed the way you think about music and the way people listen to music?
KS: Unfortunately, the way people listen to music...I’d say it’s gone down the hill, but it probably just hasn’t changed that much. We used to listen to mono records on a record player that had this small built-in speaker. And so for most people, it was adequate, let’s put it that way. I can’t say it sounded shitty, but it wasn’t great. And these days, people seem to listen to music on MP3s through earbuds, and I think that’s even a worse way of listening to it. We’re used to it, but that’s what is being mixed for these days — or computer speakers.
There are very few people who seem to have good stereo systems these days. And I don’t think much is actually mixed for good stereo systems because of that.
The change from mono to stereo… with regard to The Beatles, over here in England, mostly we listened to it on a small record player with one small speaker. So no one was really interested in stereo except for jazzers and the classical people. They tended to be the ones with the money, so they would splurge to get a stereo system. We were making pop records. It was for the people that didn’t have the stereo system. So we were only interested in mono, and that was the Beatles: They were only interested in mono. The stereo [releases] that came out in the States were done specifically for the States. The Beatles had absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with them. And because we’re recording to four track, the ability to do decent stereo mixes — we couldn’t.... If you record the way we were recording pop music back then, you can’t make a decent stereo mix out of four tracks.
The move to stereo came about with The Beatles more so than anything because they’d started to receive letters from fans telling them that there were differences between the monos and the stereos. A classic example of that was with “She’s Leaving Home,” where Paul always liked his vocal to be sped up a fraction. He felt it made it airier. It was slightly higher. He just he just liked that vibe. So when they mixed “She’s Leaving Home,” they sped the tape up slightly. That was the mono mix. When they came to do the stereo mix some time later, no one kept notes, so George Martin and Geoff Emerick, they forgot that they’d sped it up, and they mixed it at normal speed for stereo. So there is a big difference in pitch and tempo on “She’s Leaving Home” between the mono and the stereo. The Beatles were told about those kinds of things by the fans. And Paul said that they were interested in the stereo for the White Album because they thought they might sell twice as many records because of people wanting to find the differences.
I only ever did one I did one album in quad, and that was Stanley Clarke’s School Days. It was at a time when quad seem to be the happening thing and record companies, of course, wanted to jump on the bandwagon. They were having quick quad mixes done of some of the better selling albums. As an example, I was approached by A&M to do the quad mix of [Supertramp’s] Crime of the Century. They asked me how long it would take. I said, “Probably a couple of weeks,” and they said, “Oh, we can’t do that. We’ve got a guy here that would do it in an afternoon.” So that was the standard of quad that the record companies were going for at that point. So when it came time to do School Days, Stan and I said to Atlantic Records, “Look, all of this quad stuff is happening, but it’s all taking old stuff and mixing it again for quad. How about if we go in and we record the album’s specifically for quad? That way we can make a much better quad album, and it would be good promotion.” Atlantic jumped on board. They thought it was great. So we did everything for quad. Like with with Cobham’s drum kit — with his god knows how many tom toms he had — I’d set it up (because it was still crazy days) so whenever he played a tom fill they’d go all the way around the room. Just that that kind of thing. We were thinking ahead specifically for quad. The day we were going to master it, I got a phone call from Atlantic saying that they had changed their minds; they wanted to go in stereo. Now we’d never mixed the stereo for it. So they just say, “Oh, I’m sure you can deal with it.” So what we did, we just put the back and the front of the quad together. And that was the stereo mix. And unfortunately, no one has ever decided to put the what was the proper mix out in quad, which could easily these days be changed to surround.
JM: When I read that story in the book, I was kind of amazed, because I consider that album to be an audiophile-quality album. I never would have guessed that it was mixed in quad and then essentially folded down to stereo.
KS: It works very well, didn’t it! [Laughs] It’s amazing. It astounds me as well how well it worked. Now as another example — you mentioned about surround sound — the only surround sound mix I’ve done was for Ziggy. That came about because CBS were trying their SACDs or whatever they were called back then. They were pushing it, and they were willing to spend some money. Even though it’s not an artist on their label, they could release it under this new heading. Deals were being done across the board with other labels and all that to do it. And they wanted some of Bowie’s stuff. And David was great in as much as he insisted that...if the mixing was going to be done, it had to be done by the people who did it originally. So I got to do Ziggy. Tony [Visconti] did whatever it was [he originally mixed in stereo] in surround sound. We got to work on them, which was great. It didn’t sell. 5.1 music hasn’t sold.... People are more interested in 5.1 for movies than they are for music for whatever reason. But it came time for a reissue of the Ziggy album, and of course every time they want to somehow make it different. So for this this one remaster, whatever you want to call it, reissue, they took the 5.1 that I had done, and they folded that down to stereo and said I’d done a new mix. It was awful! It didn’t work in the slightest in my estimation. I wanted my name taken off it completely. It was terrible. So in that occasion, the folding down didn’t work. School Days it certainly did.
JM: I didn’t know that that, quote unquote, “new Ken Scott stereo mix” was just a fold down of your surround mix.
KS: Oh, yeah, it was awful.
JM: I know this is a touchy question, but do you have any thoughts that you’d want to share about the recent stereo remixes of The Beatles and where you are in terms of think thinking about the pros and cons of that project?
KS: Personally, I can’t see the reason for doing it. But assuming it’s going to be done — and I have no problem with it being done if people think it’s worthwhile spending the money and doing it, let them do it, that’s fine — my one big thing is the originals always have to be available. The trouble is that on Spotify and all of these [streaming services], it’s very difficult to now go back and find the originals or know which is a [remix]. There are so many different versions of every album, not just the Beatles — of Elton’s stuff, of Bowie’s stuff, of Supertramp’s stuff.... I just want to hear how it was the day it was released, [but] it’s very difficult to get back to that.
JM: No, I agree. I was kind of disappointed that on some of the recent Beatles remix reissues there weren’t just flat transfers the original stereo [mix]. I don’t know you know if you followed this, but some prog artists have had remixes where there’s a flat transfer of the original stereo mix included as part of the reissue. I was hoping the Beatles would go that way too, and it’s been kind of disappointing that they haven’t.
KS: As far as they’re concerned, they’d already done that.
JM: Yeah, those masters that came out [in 2009]. Digital technology, in terms of analog to digital converters, had obviously improved dramatically since the ‘80s [when the original Beatles CDs came out]. But [in 2009] they edited some little things, like John’s pickup switch click out of “I Want You” for some reason.... [Because of] things like that, I just wish they’d do a nice high dynamic range stereo remaster now that we’re another 10 plus years on with better analog to digital conversion technology, and include those as part of the [new] reissues. That’s my complaint as a fan.
KS: I guess what I would say is if you’re going for vinyl, then just keep it all analog. Why do you have to go to digital to try and improve it? You should be able to do it all analog. If you’re going for CDs, or downloads, or any of that — if you’re going for digital technology — then keep that different one, the digitized one, separate from the analog one so that people can find the two and decide which one they prefer.
I’ve always said about the mono and the stereo with the Beatles that if you want to hear them the way The Beatles okayed them, then you should hear the mono. The problem was for many, many years the only things that were available were the stereo, especially in the states, which is totally wrong. So finally when the monos came out, people are blown away because...on the whole, they’re so much better. They should have been available the entire time. But record companies will do what record companies will do.
JM: Well, I’m curious, in your personal listening, are you a vinyl person, a digital person, or a mix of both? What’s stereo at home look like?
KS: [Laughs] I don’t have one.
JM: You don’t have a stereo at home! You’re kidding?!
KS: I’m not. I listened to very little.
JM: Really? Why is that? Is that sort of a separation between home life and professional life?
KS: No, it’s [that] I’ve heard it all before. So much of it is that. I’ve listened to so much music in my life. It’s almost, “Okay. I’ve had enough.”
JM: You don’t even have a pair of headphones and an iPod or something?
KS: When I have to listen to stuff, I’ll listen to it on headphones on my computer.... Most of the time in the car, I’m just listening to a local radio station up here in Yorkshire. And they’ll play music sometimes. Sometimes it’s talk. And, yeah, I have a lot of a lot of music on my iPhone which at times I will play in the car, but I don’t listen to that much.
JM: I’m curious as to which, if any, of the artists you worked with were really interested in the sound of albums in a deep way. Because I’ve heard a range of things, from artists who really couldn’t care less about how the albums sound — they themselves might not have had a stereo at home or didn’t really have any critical evaluation of how things sounded once they were done recording — to, on the other end of things, some artists who have multi-hundred thousand dollar stereo systems at home and are audiophiles themselves.
KS: Going back to my heyday, I would say most of the people that I worked with didn’t have big stereo systems at home. Because if you think about it, so many of the people I worked with, it was right at the beginning of their careers. You take Bowie, he had one hit record and one hit single before I started to work with him, and we built up through four albums to the start of an incredible career. But he was seeing very little money at that point. Supertramp, they had very little money in the beginning. Elton, I guess, did. But like all of them, they had faith in who they weren’t worked with. Like, with Elton, it would be that Gus would get what was needed. If they didn’t like the final product, they’d moved to someone else for the next project. So I think that’s the way to gauge it. If they worked with someone a couple of times, they liked what they were doing. They were into the sound that that person got.
JM: How do you think that change from tube to solid state boards affected the sound of albums? You talk a little bit about it in your book, but I’d love to hear more. There are lots of stories about The Beatles being disappointed at first with how Abbey Road [the album] sounded with the new board. But in the long run, obviously, it opened up a lot of possibilities for multitrack recording, going to 16 and 24 tracks. But it’s definitely a different sound [from tube boards].
KS: Yeah, the comments that we made back then [about solid state] were the same as the comments we made when we started to move over to digital [from analog]. It was that analog was much warmer — it felt more musical, whereas digital was cold and harsh. Same [comments]. Slowly but surely, digital has improved. The quality of digital has improved. Plus, we’ve gotten more used to how to work with it. And it was much the same with tubes versus solid state. It was that the tube [gear] was definitely much warmer, and more musical, whatever that means. And so solid state, it felt harsh, it felt cold. But we got used to how to work with it and proceeded from there. It’s just a question of getting used to what you’re dealing with....
I always say that the most important thing in the studio are the monitors. You can have the crappiest gear in the world and still come out with great sounds if you know what you’re listening to. But if the monitors are bad, everything else can be the best gear in the world, and you’ll still come out with something sounding shitty.
JM: That relates to the “Hey Jude” story you tell [in the book] about how the early monitors at Trident exaggerated how things sounded on the top end.
KS: Yes. That’s exactly that. That was the whole thing. The studio monitors were hyped so that they sounded fucking amazing in the control room, but they didn’t sound that good when you got them out. Whereas at Abbey Road, it was the complete opposite. The monitors that we had there were shitty, but we knew them, because they were all over...and we knew that once we got a good sound out of those speakers, the Altecs...it would sound amazing everywhere else.
JM: If it’s okay, I’d like to ask about some specific albums.
KS: Go ahead.
JM: You didn’t write very much about The Jeff Beck Group’s Truth album in your book, but it’s an album I love. I remember my dad gave me a CD of it when I was, like, 13 or so for Christmas, and I wore it out. I just think it’s a great sounding album, even now. I wonder if you have any more thoughts about the experience of recording it, particularly with the people in that group (right) before they became famous, like Rod Stewart?
KS: We had fun. It was great. It was a young band that were all really good at what they did. We worked, we had fun, and we it was done very quickly.
The interesting thing for me is that the producer was supposedly Mickie Most. But Mickey was never there during any of the recording. He was only there for the mixing, and the person that was there for the entire recording was his assistant, a gentleman by the name of Peter Grant that went on to manage, and helped form, Led Zeppelin. A lot of people have said that...Led Zeppelin was just the next step [in sound] from the Truth album.
JM: Honestly, I can hear that. The sound of that album is so huge, and it has that feel that I think the early Led Zeppelin albums seemed to be trying to recapture or emulate.
KS: Yeah. There’s not much more to say other than it was fun. None of them had egos at that point, because they weren’t known. So it was fun. It was after the album had been released, and they played the States, where they believed all of the hype that followed them around in the States. And they came back in to do the next album, and the egos were through the roof. So we ended up not working together for very long.
JM: But then, of course, you got to work with Jeff Beck at different points later in his career.
KS: Oh, yeah. I’ve seen him as the normal guy, the tremendous ego, back to the normal guy, to no ego whatsoever, in fact, the complete opposite — not thinking he’s good enough to play with the musicians he’s playing with — back to being a normal guy. And being brilliant the entire time through all of those phases.
JM: Honestly, he’s probably my favorite of all of the guitarists from The Yardbirds. He’s so unique sounding. You never will mistake a Jeff Beck guitar line for someone else or vice versa.
KS: Yeah, and there’s also the thing that he’s experimented. He’s moved through different styles of music. Where you take Clapton, and he has tended to stay very straightforward in style. So you always know it’s Clapton. Jimmy Page, I don’t know much of what he’s done other than Zeppelin. I know he’s done other things, but I haven’t heard them. So I don’t know how much he experimented. But I know that Jeff has done an awful lot of different things. I love him for that.
JM: Well, of course, I want to ask about All Things Must Pass. What was it like going quickly from interacting with Peter Grant to interacting with Phil Spector? And [can you tell me about] also working with George later on the reissue and the discussion of potentially de-“Spectorizing” All Things Must Pass at some point?
KS: Phil Spector, I had very little dealings with, luckily, because the basic tracks which he was around for were done at EMI by Phil McDonald. Then, because they were still only eight track at Abbey Road, they came to Trident, which was 16 track, and I did a lot of overdubs and mixing. So for the overdubs and all of that. Phil wasn’t around at all. It was [just] George and I, basically.
Then when it came time to mix, George and I would start at maybe two o’clock in the afternoon. Phil [Spector] would come by 7:30, eight o’clock — round about dinnertime — listen to what we’d got [and] make some comments. If we agreed with them, we’d put them into the mix. If we didn’t, we wouldn’t. He would go, then we’d finish the mix. George would go. I’d set up for the next day. He’d come in [the next day], and we’d started again at 2:00. The same thing [again]. Phil would come in at about dinnertime, pass his comments, we’d do the next one. So the interaction with Phil wasn’t that much for me with All Things Must Pass.
With regard to getting back to working with George again later, it was just...that was such a blessing. Because he was such an amazing guy. He was a sweetheart. He was one of the funniest people I’ve ever met. And it was great.
When we were going to deal with the reissue of All Things Must Pass — I believe was the first CD version of it — the first thing we did was we sit down in his studio at Friar Park, at his desk, listening to the original album. Within a very short period of time, we just looked at each other and burst out laughing. And that was for two reasons: One, we couldn’t believe that we were both sitting there in exactly the same positions, listening to the same album that we’d done god knows how many years before. And the other thing was just how much reverb there was. We’d both moved away a lot from reverb. George more than me. George hated reverb at that point. And just there was so much of it was it was hysterical.
So we discussed the possibility of remixing it all without all of that reverb and that kind of thing. Unfortunately, the record company said, “No. We’re reissuing it in exactly the same way as it was before. It’s a great idea. But that on down the road.” Of course, George dies, and we never get to do it. My hope is that it won’t be done without George’s participations, which means it will never be done.
I have a feeling that pulling off all of the reverb is going to show some things that... It would be better they’re not heard.... We spoke about the mono and the stereo... [and] when you record something for mono — even the White Album, which we knew they were going to be part of the stereo mixes — we only ever monitored in mono. So we heard everything [in mono]. And there are errors that don’t show up when you’re listening to it all coming out from one speaker, mostly timing things. When it’s all together, you don’t notice timing things quite so much. When things are split, so you have drums on one side and the tambourine or claps on the other side, you hear where those claps or tambourine go slightly out with the drums. But when they’re together you don’t. I have a feeling that all of the reverb is going there, not specifically to hide those kinds of differences, but it certainly does make it so they’re not as noticeable. I think if you take that reverb off, those kinds of problems will be more noticeable, and I don’t know that it would be a good thing.
JM: I also love the Procol Harum album you worked on [A Salty Dog]. You talk about it briefly in the book, but I was wondering if you could talk a little bit more about that? I like that album partly because it sounds so much better than some of the previous Procol Harum albums. I’m wondering how you got that sound, what your experience was on that album, and what you think of it today?
KS: How I got that sound? The way I always get sounds. My mic technique, the whole thing, hasn’t changed in decades. And the mics I used back then, I still tend to use most of them today.
One of the problems is [that the album was] done so long ago there aren’t many specific memories of a lot of it, because it was so much a day in the office. It sounds terrible. And I hate saying that. But that’s the way it is. You’re in the studio every single day. Sessions tend to roll into the other sessions. So...we had a lot of fun. It was great doing it.
Actually, the title track, “A Salty Dog,” I think is one of the best things I’ve ever recorded. I love the sound of it, I love the music of it, [and] the whole thing about it. It works so amazingly well. And that was on the TG desk. That was a very short time after moving from the REDD tube desks to the solid state TG. And it worked!
That’s the strange thing for me. We bitched like mad about the solid state desks. “They’re not as good as the tube,” or that kind of thing. But then you look back at what was made on that TG desk very shortly after it was put in: There’s that [A Salty Dog], which to me is one of my best record recordings ever. You’ve got Abbey Road, which sounds amazing. You’ve got Dark Side of the Moon, which was amazing. How much better they would have been through a REDD desk? I can’t see how much better they could have been. So it’s just that at that time we hated it. We thought it sounded terrible..
JM: As you said, it seems like that’s kind of an allegory for technological progress in general and immediate reactions to it.
JM: I’d like to ask you more in-depth about Ziggy Stardust. It seems like you have a lot more memories of that. I remember when I saw you give your talk in Ann Arbor, you had the amazing isolated vocal from “Five Years,” which is probably my favorite Bowie song in his whole catalogue. That that was really astounding hearing that isolated vocal, and I think one thing that stood out reading your book is that I always have thought of Bowie as someone who really crafts things in the studio. But finding out [from your book] that most of his vocal takes are first takes with a few exceptions...that was that was pretty astounding. Really, the whole sound of that Ziggy Stardust album I think holds up today. So I’d love to hear your memories of recoding that. I’d also like to hear more about your thoughts on Mick Ronson, who I think is underrated. He did such great stuff with Bowie and then on [other artists’] subsequent albums.
KS: Ronno was great. I don’t think David would have had that initial success without Ronno being a part of it all.
David was very good at picking teams, is the way I look at it. The team that he put together for the Ziggy era worked perfectly — between Ronno, Trevor Boulder, Woody, and myself. We were all in the same headspace. He changed the team slightly between Hunky Dory and Aladdin Sane by the different keyboard players. Bringing in the different keyboard players affected us as a team, and we all sort of went in the same direction. Then when he wanted to change his sound, he very briefly tried it with, not quite that team, but almost that team, and it wasn’t working. So he knew that the way to get what he was after was to use American musicians, because that’s what he wanted — that more American sound. He just kept on putting teams together for groups of albums.
Whilst he was, if you want to call them characters, personas, whatever it was, whatever style he was in at any given time, he would find the right team to put that across. And he trusted everyone implicitly, because he put them together so well. He knew.... “I’ll teach them the basics of the song and everyone can do what they want,” knowing that they would want to do it in the way he wanted it.... He was completely open to whatever we wanted to do 92% of the time. So that that was amazing working with him.
His vocal performances were astounding. I’ve never come across anyone quite as good as him for that.
We made records really fast back then. So there’s very few stories to tell because we were working. We were having fun working, but it was it was working. We’d go in at midday — two o’clock, whatever — and go until we finished any given day. Ziggy took maximum two weeks recording, and then I took a week to mix it.
JM: You were pretty much delegated, with both Hunky Dory and Ziggy, with mixing on your own?
KS: All four that I did with him, yeah.
JM: Did you ever get much feedback from Bowie? Or you had his trust...and you just went ahead and mixed it while he was already off to the next thing?
KS: Basically, yes. We never discussed any of it. I figured at the time, if he liked what I did, then I’d be doing the next one. So I guess after Pin Ups, he didn’t like what I did [laughs]. So he moved on. Now we did try it a little bit more — that’s what I saying [earlier] about the American thing. We recorded something that was for the next album, Diamond Dogs. It was a track called “1984/Dodo.” It was two songs put together. We recorded that and that was one of the only two mixes [Bowie attended]. He came to “Lady Grinning Soul,” off of Aladdin Sane, and he came to the mix of “1984/Dodo.” One of the things was, while we were mixing that track, he kept on wanting it to sound more Barry White [and] Philadelphia. He wanted that American sound. So it was obvious at that point that he was already heading in that direction. And I couldn’t give it to him. So he moved on. Now Diamond Dogs, he tried to do himself. It didn’t work. He couldn’t mix it. So he called Tony [Visconti] in to mix it, and then he did the American thing. But, yeah, we never discussed anything.
JM: With Elton John, you first were brought on to mix the Madman Across the Water album. What was it like coming in to mix this album that you weren’t involved with — obviously, an album that was kind of a breakthrough album for him?
KS: It was tough because [of] everything surrounding it. Because Robin [Geoffrey Cable], who was a good friend, we didn’t know if he was going to live or not and what he’d be like if he did live. [Cable was in a serious car accident that hospitalized him during the making of Madman.] So on top of suddenly coming into something you haven’t worked on, it was recorded by a friend of yours who you don’t know if he’s gonna live or die or whatever. There you are trying to mix it. It was it was rough. It was it was rough. For both Gus and I — and the assistants that we had. It was tough for all of us. But it had to be done. Commerce always wins out. So we had to do it, and we got through it.
JM: Do you have any memories of mixing the album? Were you left pretty much on your own mixing that one?
KS: That was all done... before I ever worked with Bowie. So... for me, it was it was back in the all-hands-on-deck time. Gus, I think, always used to look after the bass and drums and maybe a guitar or two. I’d look after the vocals, the orchestra, piano, [and] maybe some guitars and other things. And then every now and again the assistant engineer would lean over, and he’d turned some knobs and everything. It was a performance. Every mix was a performance, and it was just finding the best performance from all of us.
JM: What was it like working with Gus on the albums going forward with Elton John? I think those early-to-mid-’70s albums of his sound so great. You talk a little bit in the book about working really hard to keep a consistent piano sound from Trident to the Château, and I think those albums all stand up as, for lack of a better word, audiophile albums and some of the best sounding albums from that era.
KS: Well, that’s nice. Thank you. We were just doing what we what we did. Gus and I had worked together at Abbey Road, and it was it was Gus that suggested that I go to work at Trident. The person that he worked with as an engineer, Barry Sheffield, was one of the owners of the studio, and he wanted to move out of engineering and get more into the managerial side. So Gus thought it would be a good idea [for me to come to Trident]. We already worked together and gon on well together. “Get Ken down to Trident, and I’ve already got someone I can work with straight off.”…
One of the one of the things back then [is that] there was no second guessing anywhere along the line.... I never saw someone from a record company — an A&R guy or anything like that — come along to a session until the mid-’80s. Then they’d come along, and they’d start to nitpick and [say] “Change this. Do that.” Suddenly it all started to fall apart a little. Back then [in the 1970s] the record company had total faith in the talent that they had signed. So we didn’t see anyone from the record company.
The artists had complete faith in the producer and engineer that they were working with. Elton never came along to any of the mixes. He’d come along eventually, so we could play him a bunch of them. But he didn’t come along to any of the mixes.
When we were recording, he would be there for the basic track, playing the piano as he had to, then he’d disappear. We wouldn’t see him until we need him for the vocals. Everything else was done with Gus, the members of the band, and myself. There was that complete faith that was there. No second guessing. Everyone knew and trusted that everyone would do the best they could and make it a great album.
And do it quickly! We had to work quickly back then. So there was no time to second guess [or] look up the whole time and [say], “Oh, you know, what? Can we have the hi hat, half a dB louder in the third verse?” It makes fuck all the difference! I’m sorry. We did a mix. That’s it. Move on. Boom. I think that there’s a spontaneity to what we used to do that isn’t there today. And it’s what makes [the older recordings] feel human. That’s why they’re still so popular today.
JM: Yeah, you mentioned in your book that in some ways you think that the limits of four tracks and trying to put out two albums a year forced a lot of creativity that got lost as technology allowed for more tracks and as budgets allowed for taking years and years between albums.
KS: It’s not so much that technology has changed anything. It’s the effect that technology has had on us. We used to control technology. We controlled it because we had to find the things. It wasn’t there at the push of a button. We had to find out. Ken Townsend had to invent automatic double tracking (ADT), flanging, and phasing. We had to find things. So we were, as such, in control of the situation.
Nowadays, technology is in control of us. It starts in everyday life with just a cell phone.... When I was growing up, we didn’t have a phone. If I wanted to make a phone call to my girlfriend, I’d have to go a couple of blocks away to the phone box to do it. Now we’re linked them. Soon, they’re just going be implanted in our fucking heads. We can’t get away from them. It’s 24/7, and it’s having an effect on life in general. And, for me personally, definitely within music production.
You can change everything [now in music], and what that’s leading to is no one wants to make a decision. It’s along the lines of...there was one band that I did a little work with — I can’t remember who it was — but I remember that each member of the band brought their own home speakers in to listen to a mix. And obviously, on every fucking set of speakers, it sounded different. “On that one, it needs a little more bass.” “On that one, we need more high end.” Just like that. No one could make a decision. You listen to it on one source that you know, make the decision, that’s how it should sound. And from then on, you know it’s going to [sound] different everywhere else. So you just have to accept that you can’t get it right for everyone.
JM: What are the pros and cons of technology allowing for home recording and that becoming the way that a lot of chart-topping albums are being recorded? Not to make the question leading, but I think on the one hand, you can see that technology allowing for more spontaneity. On the other hand, the role of producers and engineers and people who can be outside, objective sounding boards or who know how to get albums to sound like they weren’t recorded in a living room has declined. Obviously, that shift has gone along with streaming and how that’s upended the economics of the industry. Do you see this increase in home recording as a good thing that could lead to more spontaneity? Or do you think that — because it’s reducing the role of producers and because it’s a reflection of the changing economics of the industry — it’s a net negative?
KS: As far as I’m concerned, the technology that’s allowed people to record at home has produced some talents that would never ever have got heard the old way. It’s also produced a lot of people that should never have been heard in the first place. So, there’s always pros and cons to everything.
I don’t think that there are many people on this planet that can produce themselves. I think that everyone needs the outside ear. Singers always think they can do better. And maybe they can. But at some point in time, you have to say, “Enough is enough! It’s perfect for now.” When I did Crime of the Century, the Supertramp album, I thought it was the best I could ever do. I had achieved my perfection. But eventually I heard it, and [I thought], “Why did I have that drum sound there? It could have been much better if it was [different].” And as soon as I started to find one fault with it, I found lots of faults with it. They weren’t faults, they were just changes in my mind of things that I liked. And it’s always going to be like that. A singer, no matter if they do a performance, and they think, “Oh, that’s perfect!” Four days later, four weeks later, they’re gonna listen to it [and say], “Oh, God, I could have done that bit so much better.” There is no such thing as perfection. You’ve just gotta know when to say enough is enough. And that’s what the outside ear will quite often do. It’s there to say, “You’re not going to you’re not going to get it any better now. It’s perfect for everyone out there. Let’s call it quits on that and let’s move on.”
Without that, people just keep on going back and changing this and changing that. And I know from the students that I lecture and listen to what they do. So often, the first mix that they come with...is the best one. They’ll go back home, and they’ll change a little here, a little there. And they’ll start to lose some of the best parts of it. Until eventually after they’ve gone back and revisited it 15 times, it sounds like crap. Being able to go back and change things isn’t necessarily for the best.
JM: I have one last question. I love the Mahavishnu Orchestra, Bill Cobham, and Stanley Clark albums that you worked on, particularly Birds of Fire, Spectrum, and the self-titled Stanley Clarke album. You mentioned School Days a little bit earlier, but I was wondering if you could reflect on how recording that type of [jazz fusion] music was different from recording some of the pop albums? Thinking in terms of audiophile or audio nerd albums — stereo audition albums — those albums that you recorded are the ones that I think a lot of people use to see how good a piece of equipment sounds, because they’re such fantastically recorded albums.
KS: Yeah, I’ve had an interesting career, haven’t I? [Laughts] And, you know what the interesting thing is? Everything I’ve recorded, I did exactly the same way, from a technical aspect. I used exactly the same mics on Cobham as I used on “Woody” Woodmansey. I just used more of them, because [Cobham’s] kit was bigger.
Having come from working with The Beatles on four track, we had to get the sound in the studio, because the REDD desk [gave us] so little control over the sound. Everything had to start in the studio. The performance had to come from the studio. The sound had to come from the studio. That’s where it all happened. And I’m still very much a firm believer in that.
To me, the person in the control room is there to add the icing on the cake. Everything else starts and ends in the studio. That’s the way it was being able to move from Ziggy Stardust to Birds of Fire to Devo. I did exactly the same [things]. What did change were the musicians, what they played, their instruments, and how their instrument sounded. That’s what made the difference everything else was exactly the same for me.
JM: Is it strange when nerds like me — people who analyze these recordings in depth — ask you about minute things that you did years and years later? Are you sometimes baffled? I don’t know if you’ve that Simpsons episode where there’s the [Itchy and Scratchy] convention and all the nerds are asking [the show’s creators] about minute things in the episodes [and the creators get frustrated]. Do you ever think, “Why are people analyzing this thing I did 40 years ago very quickly?”
KS: It’s cyclical for me. Sometimes it’s amazing, it blows me away, [and] it makes me so proud. There are other days of, “Oh, fuck off please. Enough is enough.” It’s it depends on my mood at any given time.
I used to hate to talk about records I’d done in the past. I was always very much on to the next project, onto the next project. It wasn’t ‘til getting back together with George and also doing the surround sound of Ziggy that suddenly my past was my present again. Also someone that I used to work with at Abbey Road said, “Do you remember all of the stories that we used to hear when we first started from the old timers?” I said, “Yeah, they were amazing. It was incredible!” And he then said, “Well, we’ve now become them. The kids want to hear our stories.” And that...started me thinking more about what I done, and that people were interested in it. So that started me on this whole talk thing [and] teaching thing.
I’ve had an amazing life more than I could ever, ever have imagined it to be. And a lot of that is thanks to EMI recording studios...taking me on as a naïve 16 year old, the training that I got there, and the people I worked with allowing me the freedom to experiment to find what worked for me — and ultimately what worked for them. It’s just been amazing.
So at times, [the questions] can get a little bit too much for me. But most of the time, I’m pleased to pass on as much as I can [about] what it used to be like [and] how we did things, because we are losing so much of it these days.
One of the things I always try and pass on to the students these days is, “Don’t do a mix looking at the computer monitor. Listen to the mix. Cover up the computer monitor.” Because no one buys a record because of the way it looks [on a screen]. They buy it because of the way it sounds. That’s what you should be going with. And there was a student who came up to me next semester saying, “You know, when I was your lecture last year, you said about covering up the computer monitor. I started to do it, and my mixes are so much better now.” And it’s that kind of thing. Anything I can impart to take it back to what it should be — listening, not watching, the entire time. Don’t just push a button to get something to happen. Work at it. Get a fucking good singer. Don’t get some lame artists that you have to Auto-Tune the whole thing. It’s trying to push what it used to be like. We can still keep a lot of what used to be like with modern technology, and I think it would be even better, I think.
That’s why I do what I do these days and why most of the time I’m okay with it.
* Mostly, I removed verbal tics (especially my newly discovered predilection for “you know”) and repetition. In a few instances, questions and responses were rearranged to provide for greater flow, provided that doing so didn’t interfere with the original meaning.
About The Author
Josh Mound has been an audiophile since age 14, when his father played Spirit's "Natures Way" through his Boston Acoustics floorstanders and told Josh to listen closely. Since then, Josh has listened to lots of music, owned lots of gear, and done lots of book learnin'. He's written about music for publications like Filter and Under the Radar and about politics for publications like New Republic, Jacobin, and Dissent. Josh is currently a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Virginia, where he teaches classes on modern U.S. politics and the history of popular music. He lives in Charlottesville, Virginia, with his wife and two cats.