Thursday, March 8, 2012

A Chat with Ken Scott, Legendary Engineer/Producer

By Lee Waites

A legend in the music business, Ken Scott definitely has some stories to tell. Keep your eyes open for his soon to be released memoir, Abbey Road to Ziggy Stardust. BFP Music was lucky enough to talk with him while he was in town working with the music department at UAB.

For anyone not familiar with Scott, his resume is one of the most envied in recording history. The list of artists he has worked with, both producing and engineering, is phenomenal. The Beatles, David Bowie, Pink Floyd, The Rolling Stones, Elton John, America...the list goes on.

His memoir might be a bit premature given that he is still active in the business. Certainly he will need to write a sequel at some point. Along with projects such as the one with UAB and promoting his book, he is spreading the word about his latest endeavor, EpiK Drums.

BFP Music: Could you tell us a little something about what brings you to Birmingham? Is this trip primarily to promote your upcoming book?

Ken Scott: Well, it's actually a combination of two things. It's trying to give back. I've had such an incredible life. It's trying to give back a little to the people that are trying to make a break into the business these days, and learn their way through it. And also at the same time pushing the book, and some other products I have out at the moment called Epik Drums.

BFP Music: Here at BFP Music we network with a lot of up and coming local musicians. There are a lot of musicians in town that are trying to break into the business. Is there anything specific you could say to these musicians that are trying to make a go of it?

Ken Scott: I assume you mean anything but become a doctor or a lawyer.

BFP Music: Yes. Anything but "give it up." I believe the general consensus for these guys is that music is an addiction they have no control over. They're going to do it no matter what. (We're both laughing at this point by the way.)

Ken Scott: If that's the way it is, just keep plowing on and work. Get better at your craft. And hope you're in the right place at the right time. It's so much...I've seen a lot of talent that didn't make it for one reason or another. There's so much luck involved in it. But the better you become at your craft, hopefully the more people will come and see you. And finally one day that right person that can sign you up or point you in the right direction...hopefully they'll come along. It has to come from inside. Because the chances of making a lot of money in this business are slim. So at least, if you're doing it for that passion, because of what's inside you, at the end of the day, if finally you do have to give it up and get a normal job then, at that point, at least you've got that inner feeling of I did the best I could and enjoyed every minute of it. If you're only doing it for the money, and you end up with no money, you've got nothing but disappointment.

BFP Music: Can you touch on what you're doing on your visit to UAB?

Ken Scott: Well, the first night was me giving my presentation, Abbey Road to Ziggy Stardust. Which is basically stories from my life. That's what the book is all about. It's not a technical manual or anything like that. I'm not a techie. I know...a conversation going on last night about speakers. And I have no idea what they were talking about. If I hear something I like, that's it...that's what I'm interested in. So the book...neither the book nor the talk are technical oriented. They're stories that fans will like...and hopefully musicians will like as well and possibly get some inspiration from.

And at UAB, yesterday we went to three different classes. The first one was my writing partner Bobby Owsinski. He gave one on basically media these days, the Internet and how future agents, managers, producers and musicians can use it to sort of break through a little more. Then we met with five of the students that were putting on a show. I think it's called Life in a Box. To me it was so inspiring. Here you have these five musicians, each coming from completely different places and the music put across their personalities, each composition completely different. Each one really, really good. It was so inspiring to me. Between that and yesterday evening when we went down to the studio where some of the students were and just gave advice on recording techniques. And all of this just inspired me so much. Because with all the gloom and doom that is surrounding the music industry at the moment, there's a future for it. There is talent out there. And eventually that talent will win through and take over from the attorneys and accountants that are running it at the moment. It will get back to what it used to be, where it's run by music people, and talent is allowed to do what it should do...and that is create.

BFP Music: In the state of Alabama, there's a wide range of genres and styles getting attention. What...

Ken Scott: Yeah! Yes, I'll tell you the one thing that I've seen. It's not just here. It's in general. The one thing that worries me. When I grew up, we had very few radio stations. And so, if you were listening to the radio, which is basically the only way you got to hear the new music, you would here some great stuff. But interspersed with that was some really crappy stuff. And also just various types of music. So the musicians of my time period had all this other stuff that they could pick from to blend in with the music that they create all different kind of things. These days it' is so genre oriented, the internet is so genre oriented, a lot of these musicians are just listening to this one style of music that they like. And so there's a certain amount of regurgitation of what has come before. They're not grasping the other aspects of music that they can blend in with it to make something new and exciting of their own. That's the one scary part for me. I think that young musicians need to look at other genres, a lot, find pieces of that as well that they might need to bring in.

BFP Music: Can you talk a little bit about... well...the production capabilities are so dispersed, a lot more people can do stuff... analog had a particular sound. Now, since we're able to control so much of the sound, it seems like, while some music is overproduced, other music has lost a certain essence through the use of digital recording. Can you talk about what you're seeing on the production end with new techniques, with new styles of production?

Ken Scott: What, to me is happening...and it's more throughout human's not just within production of music. It's, people don't want to make decisions these days. So within home recording, studio recording, we all have a different set of plug ins that are available, all of that... People will put off making decisions for as long as they possibly can. That, to me, is killing a lot of the spontaneity. Mistakes aren't allowed now. If someone makes a mistake...oh, don't worry, we'll cut and paste something new. Mistakes are human. That's what doesn't have to be perfect. The greatest records ever are nowhere close to perfect. But they work very well. All of the bits and pieces work very well together. People are striving too much for perfection these days, losing the soul of it all. The two worst words, to me, in the English language, are "the grid." It doesn't have to be on the grid. Take something like Honky Tonk Women, by the Stones. Great Fu%#ing record, excuse my French. But if you check the sound at the beginning, then check it again at the end, there's such a difference. But it feels great! It has soul. It lives. That's what makes music able to listen to. So much music today, it's the same thing from beginning to end. It becomes background music. The saving grace of music is going to be, a band is going to break through. And they're not doing what is the norm these days. They're not using stuff to put them into tune. They're not on the grid all the time. And the humanness will come back through. People will suddenly enjoy listening to music again. It won't just be elevator music. They will start to pay attention again. And when that happens, that's when things will start to turn around again. It's just getting to that point.

BFP Music: There are a lot of guys trying to get studios going in Birmingham. The scene is really trying to take off. One last question then I'll let you go. Do you have any advice for these guys with studios that are just getting started?

Ken Scott: A couple of things. It all comes down to making decisions. One of the biggest things, to me today, is people won't make those decisions. I started out working four track. Which meant, when we laid down a basic track, we would be mixing bass, drums, guitars and maybe piano all together on one track. We had to make the decision of how things were going to sound right up front. For me, the best advise to give to a young engineer is, spend three months just working four track. Only allow yourself four tracks. Learn putting things together, and making decisions.

BFP Music: I know I said one more question. But before you go could you tell me a little something about what you're doing with drums?

Ken Scott: That's Epik Drums, Epik with a K. What it is, a couple of years ago I wanted to do...I've spent a lot of time in the control room, as a lot of producers and engineers have, going through drum samples from time to time. And you get "well, do you like large snare number 102 or Big number 562 or..." It's ridiculous trying to find the drum sound. I wanted to put something together that was very genre specific. My career has spanned many different genres, different types of music. So I got together with five of the drummers I've worked with in the past. There was Terry Bozzio from Missing Persons, Billy Cobham from Mahavishnu Orchestra, Woody Woodmansey from Bowie's Spiders from Mars, Bob Siebenberg from Supertramp and Rod Morgenstein from the Dixie Dregs. We went into the studio, and recreated as close as we possibly could the sounds that we got on the original records. So if someone wanted, y'know, they liked the sound on Ziggy they could go straight to this and they're got exactly the drum sound we had at that point. So, Epik Drums consists of straight samples of all of those drum sounds. Then we had them play along with the records. So we could get two and four bar grooves... I thought, there are a lot of young engineers that only work with samples. they don't get to work with live drums. So if they get a live drum kit set up in front of them, they're not going to know the problems that come from, like leakage from symbols to tom mics and all of that kind of thing. So I've put together, like, three and a half to four minute grooves, one from each of the five different drummers. All of it multi track, every mic on it's own track. So they can practice mixing live drums with these incredible drummers. And that's EpiK Drums Edu.

BFP Music: Mr. Scott, thank you so much. There are about a thousand other questions I could ask you. But that would be very selfish. You've been so great. I hope you enjoy your time in Birmingham.

Ken Scott: thank you very much. I appreciate your time. Cheers Lee.

I will put together a podcast of our conversation and make it available as soon as possible. The sound quality will be poor. But it's worth it to hear the tone of voice of Mr. Scott. He truly conveys a passion for the music industry. You can hear that in his voice, in a way print just can't match.

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