The Legendary Ken Scott Talks Mixing

Ken Scott and Bobby Owsinski

Ken Scott having some fun with yours truly

Legendary producer Ken Scott began his career at the Abbey Road Studios working with The Beatles on The White Album and Magical Mystery Tour; on six David Bowie albums, including the seminal Ziggy Stardust album; and with Pink Floyd, Elton John, Duran Duran, Jeff Beck, Supertramp, Procol Harum, Devo, Kansas, Mahavishnu Orchestra, and many more. To put it mildly, he’s an absolute icon in the recording industry, having been a part of records that have conservatively sold more than 200 million units.

I got to know Ken while co-writing his memoir, Abbey Road to Ziggy Stardust, which is filled with stories about him working with some of the greatest artists in the world, as well as a lot of technical bits that engineers love. During the writing of the book, I was scheduled to produce the third album for the band SNEW, and I sheepishly asked Ken if he would track the basics for me. Much to my and the band’s delight he agreed, which was the beginning of a great experience watching a man of such legendary status work.

I’ve learned so much from all the mixers featured in my Mixing Engineer’s Handbook, but Ken’s lessons are the most profound. A mix can sound great without a huge amount of tinkering if your tracks are great to begin with (which they were because he tracked them). Of course, the ears and experience of working on albums that we all hold as legendary helps as well. Here’s an excerpt from the interview that we did about mixing.

What’s your philosophy about mixing?

It all starts from recording. That’s why I don’t like mixing other people’s stuff—because I find that I can’t do as much with it. If I recorded it, there’s an inherent thing of everything finding its own place.

I like everything to be heard—not necessarily the first time you hear it, though. If you listen to something a second or third time, you might go, “Wow, I never heard that guitar part back there,” but everything has to have its own place. That’s probably a question of the EQ and general sounds I use, but I also like a mix to have depth, too, which I do by using distant mics when I’m recording and/or reverb.

The other thing is to make decisions as much as you can along the way. Everyone is too willing to let any decision wait until the last minute instead of making it on the spot. When I started, we had to make the decision on the balance of the instruments or how much reverb we added because we only had a limited number of tracks, but that was good training for later even when we had a lot more tracks to play with. Today you see people piling on track after track and waiting until the mix to sort it out. That makes everything take a lot longer and makes it harder to mix because you’re not sure how everything is going to fit together.

I’ve noticed that there are certain frequencies that you always use. How did that come about?

Because of what I was trained on. The EQ on the EMI desks [back at EMI Studios, where Ken started] was so limited that you tended to get used to certain frequencies. There was 100Hz and 5k on the desk, and then we had an outboard EQ that could give us either 2.7k, 3.5k, or 10k. I usually now EQ somewhere between 4 and 5k, 10k, and more like 60 or 80 these days. Times have changed in that we go for more low end now than we did back then.

The one thing that did change for me over time was my not liking 200Hz. That frequency couldn’t be touched in the early days because we didn’t have an EQ that was centered there, and it wasn’t until later on that I decided that I didn’t like it and began to pull it out. I don’t know exactly when that happened though, but I know that I was doing it by the time I mixed [Supertramp’s] Crime of the Century.

Do you pull 200Hz out on everything?

No, bass drum definitely and sometimes the bass.

I know that records from the ’60s and ’70s always seemed to be centered around the bass instead of the drums. When did the low end on records begin to change?

Probably with the advent of hi-fi systems at home, and when we finally got the option to EQ at a lower frequency. Once I got to Trident, I started to EQ the lower frequencies because I could, and with the Lockwoods [speaker cabinets with Tannoy speakers in them], we could then both hear it and feel it.

Can you hear the final mix in your head before you start?

No, not the final mix. The general mix, yeah, but quite often I try to get it as close to what I think the final mix is going to be during recording. Stanley Clarke even mentioned about how I had what sounded like the final mix going the entire time we were tracking.

It all comes from the idea that if you don’t have the mix going as soon as possible, how do you know what sounds work? You don’t know if a frequency on a keyboard or guitar will work together or if something will mask it. You can never gauge it. That’s why people take so long in mixing these days, because they don’t make the decision up front what it’s going to be like, so they never have the correct mix.

You’re pretty minimal with effects.

Once again, that comes from the old days, because I didn’t have much to use. What I’ve found is that the more reverbs you use, the more it tends to pull your attention away from the important things in the song because it’s not too natural. If there are many instruments playing in a room, everything naturally has the same ambient sound. If you put a different reverb on each instrument, it starts to sound totally unnatural. If you think about all of the Bowie and Supertramp stuff that I did, I used a maximum of two reverbs, and most of it was only one.

When I used two, it would’ve been an EMT plate and a Cooper Time Cube, so it was one long and the other short.

You’re pretty mild when it comes to using compression, even on individual tracks.

Sometimes I do it more than others. It depends upon the desired effect. I tend to limit heavier on acoustic guitars and sometimes the piano, but it depends upon the part and what is required.

I noticed that you don’t listen on the small speakers much.

I like to work mostly on the big speakers, but I always check things small. I used to check on Auratones, but these days it will be NS10s or something like that. When I work with people who bring their own set of speakers, it just gets more and more confusing.

Every speaker in every room is going to sound different. I can use almost any studio as long as the monitors are good, because then at least you have the confidence in what you’re hearing. It doesn’t matter whether you’re using crappy mics; if you’re getting a sound that you like coming off the monitors, then you know it works. If the monitors are off, you have no idea about anything. You can use the most expensive gear in the world, and it can still sound bad.

What would you suggest to someone who wants to become a better mixer?

First of all, always believe that you can get better. The hardest time that I ever had was when I thought I’d achieved perfection with Crime of the Century. It wasn’t until I started to find fault with it that I could move on. You should always be learning from everything that you do.

These days I can’t necessarily say that it’s me getting better, but I’m always striving for what I’m working on to be better than I’ve done before. Plus, you have to be accepting of the situation under which you’re working. If you don’t always have a guitar virtuoso to work with, don’t expect to get that kind of sound or performance out of the guitarist you’re working with. You can expect to get the best out of the player and have it add to the overall sound, though.

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