REVIEW album Old Subbacultcha Old Subbacultcha

Exclusive interview with Beatles engineer Ken Scott

Old Subbacultcha

Old Subbacultcha

“John Lennon would change the pitch of everything... He called it flanging”.

Abbey 1 Ken Scott is something of a legend among musicians. From getting his first job at Abbey Road at the age of 16, his CV encompasses being thrown in at the deep end to engineer
Magical Mystery Tour and
The White Album at 21, to producing David Bowie’s
Hunky Dory,
The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and
Aladdin Sane. At a rare visit to Abbey Road Studios – where he is currently lecturing in Studio 2 – Ken talked
Subba-Cultcha through his views on modern music, his favourite new bands, and of course working with the Fab Four.
Subba-Cultcha: What exactly is a studio engineer? Ken Scott: “It’s like the director of photography in movies. The engineer will pick the mics, decide where in the studio the band is going to set up, and what equipment they are going to use in the control room to adjust the sounds. It’s twiddling the knobs and pushing up the faders to put the icing on the cake and to make it sound good.”
And how did you get into it? “I knew what I wanted to do when I was 12 and a half, when I got a tape recorder for Christmas. Later, at the end of school I wrote to a few places on a Friday, and 9 days later I started working at Abbey Road. I was 16 and it was astounding.”
And you were 21 when you first took on engineering The Beatles? “Yes, on
Magical Mystery Tour, though I had worked with them as a second engineer from side 2 of
A Hard Day’s Night through to
Rubber Soul.”
You worked with The Beatles first engineer Norman Smith and others. What did you learn from them? “So much. I got to work with and watch seven of the greatest recording engineers around at that time. That was so amazing because I got to see all of their different techniques. And when you got to do it yourself, you would try what you had seen them do. One of the most important things I learned was how to deal with artists. 75% of the job is how you deal with people.”

Ken Scott with Subba-Cultcha writer Gary Shepherd

Did you have to work with haste back in those days? “I was lucky as I never had to do that because the first act I worked with had no monetary problems or time constraints! We just worked on and on, which was great for me to learn. Although of course there were certainly some sessions where you had to work fast.”
Most records in the 1960s were mono. What was The Beatles’ approach to recording in stereo? “In England the only stereo that most people got to hear was on every Saturday morning for half an hour when the BBC would broadcast in stereo. One side was the radio, the other side the TV, so you would set them up in your room and get exciting things like the sound of a train going from left to right or stereo tennis. “The Beatles only okayed the mixes in mono right up until
The White Album, when they first started to get interested in stereo. They started to get fan mail from people telling them the differences between their mono and stereo LPs, so they purposely went ahead to start making differences in the stereo mixes hoping to sell twice as many records!”
Abbey 3

An Abbey Road Steinway, which The Beatles used on numerous records

I have a laptop at home, and some recording software and the possibilities are endless. Is modern home recording liberating? “I personally love the technology, but I don’t love our use of it. Modern technology has allowed some talents to be heard that would have otherwise never seen the light of day, but it has also allowed some people who should never have been allowed to be heard to come out! We tend to overuse everything as humans – using a different reverb on every track to me is ridiculous. We used to make those records with just one reverb for everything, and they still sound great. “Also, with the number of tracks available today, people don’t make decisions. I’ve seen people get something in to mix and have 25 different guitar solos because no-one wanted to make up their mind about which was the best. We couldn’t do that; we had to make the decision then and there, and that’s still the way I work today. I use Pro Tools basically like a tape machine. “Abbey Road engineer Ken Townsend developed automatic double tracking (ADT), and John Lennon being as he was would not use it gently – he started to do it fast which would change the pitch of everything. He called it flanging and that’s how we got that term!”
What’s your take on modern music formats? “We need to start educating kids at an early age as to what music can sound like because they are becoming a little too used to MP3s, which is such a bad medium. I’m annoyed by the whole ‘loudness war’ where, because of ear buds and all of that, music is completely squashed. “There is a part of me that has no problem with that amount of compression if it is for use on the go, but the music should be put out also in its proper form where it is mixed properly and has some dimension to it and is not all crammed together. I’m all for giving as many different versions of albums as possible for different uses.”
Abbey 2

An ancient 4-track tape recorder

So you would still encourage people to listen to The Beatles on vinyl? “Absolutely, so long as you can get a good pressing. In the 1960s the quality of vinyl was getting so bad at one time. For pop music especially, record companies would take returns and just mash them up and putting that vinyl back into make more LPs and so the quality of the vinyl was getting worse and worse. If we continued down the route we were going, music would sound even worse than it does on CDs these days. We were just using so much vinyl back then because records were selling so much. Now that vinyl has come back in popularity, the manufacturers are able to go back to making thicker records, such as 180g pressings which sound great. “The problem with CDs is the record companies haven’t changed their format since they first came out. But digital recording has improved so much since then, and they should improve the CDs so that people can start hearing things so much better.”
In terms of modern music, who are your favourite bands today? “Of successful bands, I love the
Foo Fighters. Dave Grohl is such a great entertainer and they have so much fun and don’t take themselves too seriously. There is a young talent called
Carina Round who is English but moved to LA and is doing very well there. I also think Dave Stewart’s sons are amazing [Samuel and Django in a band called
Nightmare & The Cat].”
Are modern bands innovative enough? As soon as they emerge, they are compared to another act from the past. Do you see this as a hindrance? “When I was growing up there were only three radio stations –
Home Service,
Light Programme and
Third Programme. It was hard to hear good music or the type of music that we liked. So we as well as listening to what we liked, we also heard a lot of rubbish. But in hearing that, it stays at the back of your mind, but you’ll pick something that didn’t work on one record, but might work on another. “These days, if you’re in to hard rock you’ll only listen to a station that plays hard rock so all you ever finish up doing is regurgitating old hard rock records and trying to emulate what has already been done. You are not pulling in things from other places to make them different. That was the great thing with working with David Bowie, who was always picking things from different places.”
The Sound of Abbey Road Studios, a series of lectures held in the legendary Studio 2, is being held this weekend. Details here.