Interview for PremierGuitar • Thursday, February 25, 2010

Interview: Ken Scott - Recording with The Beatles & Inside the Studio

Interview of Ken Scott
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Elianne Halbersberg
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What was it like to lead Beatles sessions? Were they open to input and direction?

By the time I started working with them as an engineer, they ruled the roost. Even George Martin did not have much say at that point. They were in complete control, but they were absolutely open to input.

Sometimes that input was purely accidental. I erased a whole bunch of snares accidentally on “Glass Onion.” When we laid down the basic tracks, it was obvious that a single snare would not be enough, so we overdubbed and bounced them. We were working with eight-track and came to what we thought was the last overdub. Paul and Chris Thomas were playing the recorders, but unfortunately all the tracks were full and so we could only put them after the last snare, so I did a punch. It took several takes and I finished up punching early and erasing the overdubbed snares. My immediate reaction was, “I’ll never work with them again!” But John said, “It actually works. We’re coming out of the biggest part of the song, and where you expect it to get bigger, it gets smaller. It works perfectly.” They were amazing about going with mistakes and humanness all around this way. Now, of course, that could never happen because everything is computer controlled and it sucks the life out of everything.

Sometimes that input was meant as a joke. When we were working on “Not Guilty,” George was trying to do a vocal overdub and it wasn’t happening for him. We tried various ways to get him to feel more comfortable. He asked to sing in the control room with the speakers up, like a live situation with a PA. After one playback I was standing by John and I said, rather facetiously, “You’ll want to record the next song in there,”—“there” being a tiny room next to Studio 2 that had only been used to house a four-track, when they were too big to fit in the control rooms. His reply: “Yeah, OK.” The next song we did was “Yer Blues,” and John said, “Let’s do it in there.” We had to fit all four of them in that tiny room and they literally couldn’t move. They had to find a position with their guitars and not move, or they would hit someone in the face or in the guitar. And that’s where we cut the track. So input came in a lot of different ways, and they were always up to trying anything new.

What was their work ethic like on A Hard Day’s Night, and how had it changed or remained the same by the time of Magical Mystery Tour?

A Hard Day’s Night was still the early days and they were coming in on time to sessions, starting at 2:30 in the afternoon and finishing around 10 or 11, or midnight. By Magical Mystery Tour, they were coming in whenever they wanted or not showing up. The work ethic was there, but they chose the times when they wanted to use it. They still worked just as hard and long; they just started and finished later. […]

Were the Beatles underrated as musicians?

No. As musicians, the technical prowess was not there. It got better as they went on. On one level, no, they weren’t that good. But as talents and how they used the skills they had, it was absolutely brilliant. And no one has ever come close to it. Ringo is one of the greatest rock drummers. There were times when he’d get in the middle of a drum fill and not know how to get out, and that’s what made it great.

How much did the room sound of Studio 2 have to do with the ambience of the White Album?

Any room has a certain amount to do with what goes on. “Yer Blues,” as we discussed, was recorded in the small room. “Piggies” was recorded in Studio 1, which was huge. “Martha My Dear” and “Dear Prudence” were recorded at Trident, which had a totally different sound, so it’s hard to say what affect the room sound of Studio 2 had, because the album is so varied. If they were playing quieter, there was more pickup of Ringo. If they were loud, you wouldn’t hear as much of the room.

Was there anything different about the way it was set up acoustically—more live or dead?

Every session was set up exactly the same way, at least to start with. At Abbey Road you followed your predecessors, who had determined the best place for everything. On occasion we changed it slightly, but what they spent years finding out was normally the best.

Did they generally record with the floor uncovered or with rugs?

Always with rugs. In Studio 2 it helped with the drums at least not sliding forward too much. With the wood floor there was no way to stick spurs in without ruining it. Generally there weren’t rugs throughout, just under their instruments, so when needed there was enough ambience from the room.

Were there issues using sensitive condenser mics on cranked AC30s, etc.?

No, I certainly never had a problem with the U67s and U87s.

Did each Beatle have a particular intrinsic idea about what they thought both a guitar and amp should sound like? Did they walk into the studio and plug into whatever was there and just play, or did they fiddle around with settings a lot?

They would always walk in, plug in and work through the songs to determine what the songs would be. Then they might change guitars and amps, and we’d EQ it once we knew the direction of the song and what was needed. In the early days, they didn’t have much gear to mess around with, and they didn’t have the time. They were doing sessions from 2:30 to 5:30 and 7 to 10. When they eventually gave up touring, they didn’t have to worry about budgets or time anymore and people gave them plenty of gear.

On the title track to A Hard Day’s Night, is the solo on George’s 12-string Rickenbacker doubled by harpsichord or something?

That was George Harrison on the Rickenbacker and George Martin on piano at half speed. When you play it at normal speed, that’s what you hear.

What can you tell us about “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” from White Album? Any details on the crazy cool guitar solo by Clapton?

Clapton only played on the one track, and with regard to the recording, I have no recollection of him playing! It’s one of the most historical moments in Beatles history and I have no recollection of it at all! I do remember that Eric didn’t want his guitar to sound like a normal Eric Clapton guitar solo, so we used an effect designed by Ken Townsend, which was called either ADT, automatic double tracking, or phasing or flanging. Each is dependent upon how fast you moved this one dial. Chris Thomas remembers sitting and turning the dial fast every time we had to run the track, so that it would make Eric’s guitar sound weird. It’s the original tape flanging used a lot at Abbey Road.

Were there times when you felt that the White Album was a collection of four solo projects under one label?

I guess so, because at the time that overdubs were being done, it was just the songwriter there, controlling everything. The basic tracks were cut as a band. They were together and had a great time. On a couple of occasions, yes, it felt like four solo albums, but overall it was a band project.

What did John use on “Revolution” to create the fuzz tone? Was it a fuzz box or did he blow a speaker?

Neither. They were overdriving two of the mic preamps on an EMI REDD desk that was being used at the time. I was a mastering engineer at the beginning of the White Album recordings, and I happened to go to Studio 3, where they were recording that track. John, Paul and George were all in the control room and had their guitars plugged directly into the board, and Ringo was all on his own on the drums in the studio. Geoff Emerick came up with a very cool way to distort by going in one preamp to overload and into another preamp to distort it even more.

Do you have a favorite Beatles song, and is it one you worked on?

I have several favorites. “We Can Work It Out” is my favorite from Paul. From George, “Something.” From John, “A Day In The Life” and “Strawberry Fields.” From Ringo—not a Beatles song—“It Don’t Come Easy.” […]

What is your opinion of Let It Be: Naked?

It was a different way of looking at the album. There’s no right or wrong way to make a record. Some of it I like and some I don’t, and it’s just another look at it. It was OK’d by everyone around and connected with the Beatles, so they must have liked it. There’s good and bad about both versions. I have no problem with something like this as long as the original is still available. I feel the same about mono and stereo versions. So many people never got to hear the music the way the Beatles heard it. We did it all in mono. Stereo back then was Saturday morning with the television on the BBC channel in one corner and the radio on the BBC station in the other corner and you’d spend an hour listening to trains pass by, or a car, or the high spot, a stereo tennis game. Everything was mono until Abbey Road.

Do you prefer the mono mixes on the White Album to the stereo ones?

Probably. I’m still awaiting the mono re-masters from EMI, and I have yet to hear them. From what I remember, yes, because that’s what we spent all the time on. On the White Album they became interested in stereo mixes, because fans would buy both versions and write and tell them of all the differences, so they began making mono and stereo mixes with planned differences.

What do you think of the new remasters?

I have only heard them in stereo and they’re really good, just not as good as the original vinyl. I like vinyl; there’s a warmth to it. […]


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