Abbey Road Engineer Ken Scott Says The Beatles' White Album Sessions Were a "Blast"
Ken Scott — one of only a handful of recording engineers to have worked side by side with the Beatles — has stories to tell. Good stories.
And lucky for us, he loves telling them.
To emphasize the point, Scott recently publishing a 500-page memoir, Abbey Road To Ziggy Stardust: Off The Record with The Beatles, Bowie, Elton & So Much More, through Alfred Music Publishing.
The book, which was co-written by Bobby Owsinski, recounts the many events of what Scott calls his "blessed life" working with innumerable rock legends.
Scott began working in the tape library at London's Abbey Road Studios in 1963 at age 16. Abbey Road was a place where The Shadows, The Hollies and, most famously, The Beatles had already started making history.
Scott quickly segued into sound engineering at Abbey Road, eventually manning the board for several of the Beatles' Magical Mystery Tour sessions and creating mono and stereo mixes for the band.
But a pivotal moment came when he replaced Geoff Emerick in the engineer's seat during the 1968 sessions for The Beatles, better known as the White Album. Besides witnessing the band at their post-psychedelic creative high point, Scott was instrumental in helping The Beatles shift from four-track to eight-track recording.
Scott also debunks the myth that the White Album sessions were miserable. "We had a blast," he says. "Those other stories are bullshit."
Scott went on to engineer and produce (often at the same time) singles and albums by scores of other artists, including George Harrison, John Lennon, Ringo Starr, David Bowie, Jeff Beck, Stanley Clarke, Dixie Dregs, Lou Reed, Elton John, Mahavishnu Orchestra, Devo, Kansas, Supertramp, Elton John and others. For a selected discography, see the photo gallery below.
Below, Scott discusses recording sessions for the White Album
GUITAR WORLD: So many people cling to the image of the Beatles constantly being at each other's throats during the recording of the White Album in 1968. How much of that is true?
It’s very heavily disputed in the book — the myth about how bad the feelings were during the White Album. We had a blast doing it. This was a six-month project, almost. And I haven’t done a project, even a two-week one, where someone hasn’t lost their temper at some point. They’re artists; they’re touchy at times. Obviously, if it happens during a two-week project, it’s gonna happen more frequently during an almost-six-month project. But it wasn’t like that the entire time. It was fun, we had a blast.
I did an interview for the book with Chris Thomas, George Martin’s assistant, and at the end, I used the same question I’ve been asked every time I’m interviewed: "Is there anything you’d like to say that I haven’t asked you?" Chris said, “Yes, please let everyone know we had a blast. It was fun. They were great to work with.” I’ve spoken to other people from the sessions, and we all agreed. We had a blast. So those other stories are all bullshit.
While making the White Album, had George Harrison developed into more of a leader and decision maker in the studio, like John Lennon and Paul McCartney?
Absolutely — but they all were. When laying down basic tracks, there was that whole collaborative effort. They were the old band — having fun in the studio. They kept on playing and playing and enjoying themselves altogether. But then when it moved to overdubs, a song became more of the songwriter's song, and often you wouldn't see any other member of the band besides the writer of the song you were working on at that time.
So different sessions were going on at the same time, like when Paul and Ringo went off to record "Why Don't We Do It In the Road" by themselves?
Yes, because there was so much material, and, for almost the first time since they'd stopped touring, they were under time pressure because the White Album was the first release on their own label [Apple Records]. Everything was set up for a very precise date; we had to be finished by this date to get the album out. So we tended to use different studios. I would be in, say, Number Two with George mixing "Savoy Truffle," and "Why Don't We Do It In the Road" was recorded in Number Three by Ken Townsend, one of the maintenance engineers.
The last 24 hours when working on that album — we were using every room we possibly could. It was very strange [Laughs].
What can you tell me about the session for "While My Guitar Gently Weeps," when Eric Clapton came in to play the guitar solo?
That's a question I'm asked so frequently, and I have absolutely no recollection of it whatsoever. For the book, I wanted to try and get back to that session because I know it's a very important session and a lot of people are interested in it. I actually tried regression therapy to take me back, and, unfortunately, it didn't work [laughs]. I still have no memory of that session.
Given the song's heaviness, was there anything special about the “Helter Skelter” session?
Not much different — they just played a lot louder than usual.
What about “Yer Blues”?
That was different. We were doing a vocal with George Harrison on a track that turned up not being used on the album, a track called “Not Guilty” [which surfaced on Harrison's self-titled 1979 album].
George was having difficulty getting into doing the vocal, so we were trying various things, some of which were fairly madcap. At one point during the playback, I stood up, and I was standing next to John, and there was this little room outside of Number Two control room where one of the Telefunken four-track machines was.
Originally with EMI they only had two four-tracks. These particular four-tracks were really large, so they kept them in two small rooms, both next door to Number Two control room. And they could be plugged into any of the studios. By now we’d moved to Studer four-tracks, which were in the control rooms, so these two rooms were empty.
So I stood up next to John, and as a joke, I said, “God, the way you guys are going, you’re gonna want to record in there now," pointing to one of these two rooms. John just sort of looked over there and didn’t say anything. A little later on we were gonna start a new song called “Yer Blues,” and John turns around and says, “I wanna record it in there,” and he points to the room I’d been joking about.
We had to fit them into this ridiculously small room. If one of them had suddenly swung his guitar around, he would’ve hit someone in the head. It was all so close to each other. But for me, I think the drum sound on that is the best on the album. I love that drum sound. And just the whole thing. There was no separation between anyone, really. So you had to just sort of get the mix as best you could — because everything was on everything. You had to meld it all together.
I think John even did the vocal live. We had to; somehow we screwed up on the second half and there was leakage. So redoing the vocal immediately changed the sound. But John being how he was, said, "Well, if we’re going to change the sound, we might was well completely change the sound" — and you can hear in the middle of it – the sound on the vocal completely changes. That was part necessity and part John saying, "Well, let’s go mad on it."
Did you do the mono mixes for Magical Mystery Tour and the White Album? And why are the mono and stereo mixes so different?
Absolutely. Normally we went to mono first. Up until the White Album, they had never been interested in stereo. But they became interested around that time. Paul told me they wanted to make the stereo mixes different from the mono mixes because they’d started to get fan mail about how people were buying both the mono and stereo mixes.
Fans were sending The Beatles letters, telling them how the mixes were different. So they realized this was a good way of selling double the amount of albums. So we had to actually make stereo mixes that were different.
Up until the White Album, the stereo mixes were throwaways. England just wasn’t interested in stereo mixes. So they were done a little later, and we didn’t take massive amounts of notes. So if something was sped up, no one actually kept a note on how much it was sped up. It was just, “Oh, just speed it up a bit.” They were just thrown together, really.
A reader on Facebook would like to know how Ringo’s drums were recorded.
There really wasn’t a standard way. They were so experimental, they wanted to try different things all the time. There were a number of occasions when I’d go into the microphone room with Paul, and he’d just be looking around and say, “That one looks good. Let’s try it.”
It didn’t matter what it sounded like. It looked cool, so he wanted to try it. But there were some fairly standard things. I think it was a [AKG] D20 on the bass drum and generally [AKG] D19Cs on the toms. The overheads would tend to change from ribbon to condenser. The snare was a Neumann KM56. That would be how we’d start, but we’d change mid-session.
Would you say The Beatles were underrated as musicians?
That's so hard because you have to define what you mean by a great musician. There’s the technical kind, for instance, and they weren’t, in the slightest, technically minded. They learned by playing things and didn’t have the rules that someone who’s been schooled has. And that’s what led to a lot of their greatness, because they had no fear of doing strange things — putting certain chords after other chords, for instance. There were no rules for them. So in that respect, they were great musicians and probably were underestimated. But as technical players, no, they were OK. They were good. Certainly not the greatest.
For more of this interview, head here.