Do you feel modern recording technology has made producers and engineers more indecisive?
I think the whole decision making thing is a problem that is affecting mankind completely. We are now at the point where we can’t make decisions. You will go to a video rental store and you will find at least 5 people on their cell phones saying, “Yes, hunny, you want this? OK, what about this one? Alright, never mind.” It’s the exact same thing as making records these days. I started off in 4-track. You had to make decisions right up front as to what it was going to sound like, and you lived or died by that. Luckily, we’re not in the business of operating on brains or anything that could kill someone. If we make a mistake, no one is going to die from it.
People shouldn’t be afraid to make decisions, these days. It’s so much, like, “We’ll record it and we don’t know if we are going to use it; we’ll make the decisions when we come to the mix.” It makes mixing so much harder, take so much longer. It finishes up not being anywhere near the way it could have been. In fact, too much now the decision is given up on and the mix is passed to the mastering engineer, who over here has become a God.
What is your experience with mastering?
As part of the EMI training, I had to do mastering. They wouldn’t allow you to sit behind a board and put sound onto tape before you knew all the problems that could later happen, because it’s so much easier to put things onto tape than it was onto vinyl. You had to learn what you were doing. Invariably, the first three days that anyone was alone in a mastering room, you’d put on a tape and say, “Ah, you know what? That needs a little more high end.” You go full ball at 10. “Oh you know what? It’s better but its lacking a little bass.“ You go full ball at 16, and it’s like, “That’s almost there. Now if we could just get a little mids on it.” That would last three days and then you’d start to realize this tape needs a little high end and you put one notch at 10 and say, “That’s perfect!” The engineer and the producer are the ones that know what it should sound like in the first place. It’s not up to someone who wasn’t there from the beginning, and has no idea what was intended. They shouldn’t be the ones in the position to completely change everything, in my humble opinion. These days, too many mastering engineers say, “Oh, you got to give me the stems of the guitars, stems of the drums, stems of the vocals.” They actually want to remix it themselves.
Do you think that the digital side of things necessarily requires a different approach to recording today?
I do feel that a lot of the people would gain an awful lot if they spent three months using a 4-track so that they could learn to make decisions. We’ve taken everything to such a ridiculous degree of coming back and doing another remix of something, because you want an extra half dB of hihat in the second chorus. It’s absurd, the level that we have taken it to.
I think one of the worst things that has occurred is the change in the recording contracts where artists no longer have to make 2 albums a year. That’s what it used to be and my God those albums are still classic. The records that were made under those conditions where we had to be fast, we had to make decisions, and there was no going back once you determined something. Those records are classic. All of the ones today, even with the ability to go in and bring up the hihat half a dB in the second chorus, I wonder how many of those are still going to be around in 40 or 50 years.
Obviously, technology is available to all and sundry these days — including the artist. You know they can sit in their bedroom with Logic or Pro Tools etc. on their laptop and record themselves. Do you think that this has made the artist more aware of the production process? And does that mean that it is different dealing with an artist today than it might have been before?
Yes, and finishing up being jack-of-all-trades and master of none. A guitarist should spend all of his time in the bedroom practicing guitar or bass. Or, a singer should be learning to sing properly. Everything starts in the studio. You have to get the sounds in there. You have to get the talent in there. The way it goes these days, with people just taking anything that’s done in the studio and then saying, “Oh yeah, that will work, we can cut and paste it together, or we can put all of these plug-ins on it to make it sound OK.” It’s all a half-hearted attempt to make something that isn’t great to start with sound great, and that’s not going to happen. You can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear if it’s not there in the first place. It’s going to be OK, but you are not going to make it great.
What is your opinion on a producer’s musical knowledge or an engineer’s musical knowledge? How much were you involved in writing, for example, David Bowie’s “Life on Mars?” How much were you involved in creating the arrangement for that?
With David [Bowie] I felt very early on that the reason that David and I worked together in the production arena was that he got fed up with having the bass player in his band producing the record, and basically doing all of the arrangements. Tony Visconti was a great producer but he sorted out all of David’s arrangements. David had very little to do with it, and I think one of the reason why David pulled away from Tony was he — much like why the Beatles pulled away from George Martin — he wanted to experiment himself, he had his own ideas that he wanted to put forth. Much like I learned from the Beatles situation, I felt the best bet was to sit back and make sure that he could do anything he wanted to do. He would create the brush strokes, and I would create the colors that he used, if you like, always knowing that right at the end he’s not going to be around so I get to finish it off exactly the way I want to finish it off, in the mixing stage.
So in the production sense, you were there as a facilitator?
For him [David Bowie]. But my involvement, musically, varies with different artists. For Supertramp, I was much more involved with arrangements and even came up with a few musical parts, if I remember correctly. Although I can’t play an instrument, I obviously have temperament.
Are there any particular key skills that you feel bring the producer’s role together?
I think it really does depend. There really is no right or wrong. With making music and making records, it’s such a personal thing. I am not one of these producers that can work on a project and make it for a certain area of the record buying public…. I make it for myself and I’ve been lucky that a lot of other people have liked the same things I have.
What about the role of pre-production? How did this differ working with David Bowie on Hunky Dory compared to Supertramp?
Once again, it varies so much. With Hunky Dory, David and I sat down with his publisher Bob Grace, and we went through material and picked out basically what we were going to record on the first album, so that everything was demoed, and we went in and continued from there. On The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars, I actually heard nothing before we went into the studio
How did that alter the production process?
With [Bowie] it was fairly easy and straight-forward, because the band hadn’t even heard it either, so we were all learning from the same point. That was great because, to quote Woody Woodmensy, the drummer, “They were on the edge of their seat because David didn’t like doing a lot of takes.” David didn’t like the studio. He wanted to be in and out as quickly as possible. I think that’s why he never came along to mixes. The musician was always on the edge of their seat: “Am I going to get it on this take?” They knew they only had a couple of takes to get it, because David would get bored. There was an excitement that one got from that, unlike today where it’s like, “Oh, we didn’t get it today? OK, we will come back and still keep going for another three weeks on the same title.”
I went through a situation at laboratory 2, where it was one of the hardest projects I’ve worked on. There wasn’t even any material before we went into the studio, or very little. They tended to like to play in the studio and come up with a groove. That groove would then be turned in to a song. I found that very hard because, at least with demos, even if we hadn’t worked it out and gone into pre-production at the start, at least with a demo of a song, I have an idea of how I can see it being at the end. With a band that’s already done a lot of work on it themselves, you can hear where they feel it should go and you say, “Look, that’s wrong you need to change this. Or, yeah its sounding great, let’s just carry on this way.” But when the song isn’t even there to start with, you don’t know where it’s going to finish up going and that was a little disconcerting for me to say the least.
At what point does somebody jump into the process and say, “Look that just isn’t going where it’s supposed to go, so we need to change it”?
I think it’s experience and inherent knowledge. Starting off my career with the Beatles, they would literally try everything. They would say, “No, that doesn’t work,” and then move on to something else. They didn’t just batter it to death if it wasn’t working. They would realize quickly, and move on. So I guess I got a lot from that as well.
What were the most significant changes that you can perhaps remember from your earlier period to when you gained control for the “White album”?
I was learning what the hell I was doing. I have been asked so many times what it was like when Eric Clapton came in and played on “My Guitar Gently Weeps.” I know I was the engineer on that but I have absolutely no recollection of that happening. I was learning my gig. During my career, I’ve jumped from one style of music to another, and I’ve done that because, basically, although I have a ridiculous amount of patience in the studio, I like to jump around. I get bored. I can’t be doing the same thing, time and again. I like to learn all the time. By moving on to a different genre, I’m learning. Right from the beginning, I’ve been learning my gig. I am still doing it till this day.
Could you think of the two most entraining examples of styles or genre that you have worked on?
Probably, just in sound and content, from Ziggy Stardust to [Mahavishnu Orchestra’s] Birds of Fire.
How is one individual such as yourself able to make a big jump from, say, Ziggy Stardust to orchestral production?
It is a love of what you are doing and I think it’s doing it to please yourself. For me, I’m doing it to please myself. I’m not doing it for anyone out there. It’s always for the act and for myself. As long as we are happy with it, that’s all that matters to me. This hasn’t enamored men from record companies quite often. They would have liked me to bow down to them a little more than I did. The principle of how I make records is there no matter what the genre of music is. So I guess I see them all the same. People ask me, “OK, you recorded Woody Woodmensy, which was 3 toms and a very dead drum sound. They you moved to Bill Cobham, with Mahavishnu, and his kit was huge and really live. How did you make the change to that?” I didn’t. I did exactly the same for Bill as I did for Woody. I just had to use more microphones. But they were still the same microphones, still the same equalizers. It was all the same for me. The change came from a different musician who tuned his drums differently, and that’s why I say everything starts in the studio.
Is the artist to a certain extent is the most important person in the room?
I tell you, in my humble estimation, without the artist we are nothing. So they are the most important. We are there to back them up. There are other producers that look at every record they make as if it were their record, who forget the artist and change it.Richard Perry, an American producer, who did Harry Nielsen and some Ringo Starr stuff, produced an album for the major English act Leo Sayer. Previously, Leo was produced by Adam Faith, who had made some completely unique records that were unlike anything else. Then Richard Perry came on the scene and produced an album and suddenly Leo Sayer became exceedingly successful. But he was like everyone else. Richard Perry takes over and it becomes his record and not the artist’s. I’ve always tried to avoid doing that. I look at the artist as the one that’s important. They are the one that came up with it in the first place, and [my work is] just trying to put what they want to put across as best as possible.
On All Things Must Pass with George Harrison, there is just a certain unique sound. What contributed to this?
All Things Must Pass has a unique sound, which comes, of course, from Mr. Spector’s input. I didn’t do the original sessions with Phil McDonald at Abbey Road. However, Abbey Road was still 8-track at the time. Once they ran out of tracks, George then came to Trident and hooked up with me, and we completed it there with overdubs and mixing. Spector had his own thing, which was why he was brought in to work on it with George. He was regarded particularly highly at that point, when George and I were working on the master together. We were sitting behind the console of George’s house, and the first time we put up an original multi-track and listened to it, we turned to each other and burst out laughing, because here we were 40 years later, sitting in the exact same positions, listening to the exact same thing, and it was just hysterical that we both would have loved to have remixed the entire album without the Spector influences. George had got so fed up with reverb, he hated reverb and so it would have been bone dry if he had anything to do with it. We were out to re-issue it so we couldn’t remix it, and if he lived we may have been able to.
The producer/artist relationship is running through everything you have just said. How do you go about coaxing that performance out of an artist that might be a bit tricky to get?
Anything that can get a good performance out of them. It might be giving them as much booze as they can take, just to instill confidence in them some way. It’s so wide open. There is no right or wrong. Do whatever you have to do as a producer. You’re the spouse, the shrink, the school teacher. You could be the general. All these roles come to play in record production. The art of it is to know what roles to take on in different contexts.
A key things that is very difficult to teach someone is interpersonal skills. How does somebody actually learn that other than by experience and doing it? How do you know when to apply a certain attitude?
I was blessed with the training I had at Abbey Road as a second engineer, because I got to watch some of the top classical and pop engineers. You got to sit there and see how they reacted. You were in the same room, and the great thing was it was so varied, so you got more of an example of how to deal with all the different situations, which doesn’t happen very often these days in today’s studios. If you get success by doing a hard rock album in the studio, from then on that’s basically all that the studio will do.
So you get pigeon-holed a lot more?
Absolutely, and you don’t get that training. One of the things that I have heard is that so many students come out at the end of their course with a piece of paper saying that they’ve succeeded in this course of how to become an engineer and a producer, but when they finally get a job in the studio and they expect immediately to be working with U2 and other superstars. Whereas what they are actually going to do for the next three months is picking up Chinese food from Kung Pao’s, or going to Dino’s and picking up a pizza down the street, and every now again they will be cleaning out the toilets. They don’t like that. They feel like they are far above that kind of thing, so after a couple of months they get fed up and leave and go to do something else. Now I think It needs to be instilled in them that, even though going through theses courses they have been given a great starting tool, they still have to learn from other people, and they need to take every opportunity to sit there, shut up and watch. If doing that means that every now and again they go out to the Chinese restaurant or pizza place or clean the toilet, so be it. They are getting another part of their training, which can’t be taught in a school just by sitting there and watching what goes on.
On the technical aspect, one thing that I feel is the most important part of a studio is the monitors. If the monitors aren’t good, you have no idea what you are listening to, even if you are using the most expensive microphones and the most expensive mixing console. If the monitors are off, what’s the point? Here’s an anecdotal to go with that. “Hey Jude”, by the Beatles, we started off doing it at Abbey Road. We spent two nights trying to do a basic track and it got messed up because there was a film crew there and they were driving everyone crazy, so we finished up getting a good basic track, which then the Beatles took to Trident where they wanted to try the 8-track. Trident was the only studio in London at that point that had 8-track. So they went there and, for one reason or another, they couldn’t use the basic track that we recorded at Abbey Road. So they re-recorded the whole thing. I went down there the last day that they were at Trident to hear what was going on, and I was played the mix of “Hey Jude.” I sat down in front of the console and I had never heard anything sound that good in my life. It sounded amazing! Cut to a couple of days later at Abbey Road while the playback acetates were being cut. I got up to the cutting room and I listened and it sounded like there were a couple of pillows across the speakers. Basically, Trident’s monitoring system was set up as pure hype. There was a lot more high-end that was coming out of there then there actually was, so when it was mixed there wasn’t enough high end on the tape and it sounded kind of muffled. We spent the next 5 or 6 hours just trying to EQ the tape that came in from Trident to get it anywhere close to decent, and luckily we did. Trident had the most modern gear at that point – they had everything going for them, but the monitors were wrong so it kind of defeated the purpose. So it doesn’t matter what anyone gets, just make sure the monitors are good and then you can work from there, because even with the cheapest microphones you can work with them, as long as you know what you are hearing is the way it will sound everywhere else.
What are you favorite speakers now Ken?
Oh, I don’t have any particular favorite ones as long as I can get them loud. I’m certainly not a fan of near field monitors. I like big and brash and enjoyed Cadac speakers. They were absolutely astounding, 7-feet tall weighing a half a ton each, and they used to have them at a studio called Scorpio. I mixed Crime of the Century, Some Crisis, What Crisis?, some Billy Cobham stuff, and some Stanley Clarke stuff on them. With these speakers were just, you could just turn them up so loud and you could hear it crystal clear. They were phenomenal; I would love to find a pair of those again. I’m in the midst of writing a book and I tried to find them, no one seems to know about these speakers and I wanted to try and find a picture of one of them. You won’t find them. I even contacted Cadac. They asked me to let them know if I found some. They were phenomenal, absolutely amazing, and still my favorite speakers.
What are your thoughts on the loudness war in terms of mastering engineers? What can or can’t they do? Are their hands tied these days?
Ultimately, I think it all comes down to one thing, and that’s good riddance to the majors. I know that mastering engineers are told that you’ve got to have a brick wall. They are told by the majors and the record companies, and they are being told it by attorneys and the money people. These aren’t music people. I think the day that the majors disappear, the music business is going to suddenly arise again like a Phoenix out of the fire, and it’s going to be amazing again. Talent will always win out as far as I’m concerned. It will turn around the whole mastering thing. The actual brick walling thing is very easy. My answer to that is just rubbish. There are a lot of records I love musically that I cant even listen to just because of the brick walling and how it has affected the sound. The Beatles couldn’t have done a lot of the things they do with brick walling. Supertramp certainly couldn’t have done what they did. It’s absurd and its just going to take a couple of acts to be successful and having the guts to stand up against the brick walling. There will be some success with that and suddenly people will say, “Oh, why didn’t we ever do that? It sounds so much better without it!”
I can understand the purpose of doing different mixes so that if someone wants to listen to an .mp3 and they need it to be compressed a bit more because of that, that’s fine. Sure, have a mix specifically for that. It’s much like the Beatles. I’ve always pushed that people should listen to the mono mixes of the Beatles stuff over and above the stereo, because the stereo was always just thrown together. For so long the mono mixes weren’t available to the public, which to me was completely wrong. The stereo was forced down their throat. As long as the originals are still available to the public, you can do whatever you want, I don’t care, but the original thing has to be there for the public.
Has this led to a sort of homogenization of music these days?
I’m a firm believer that record sales have fallen not because of piracy – it’s because the records are crap. Unfortunately, the public has been forced by majors to listen to a certain style of music. Over here the vast majority of music radio stations are owned by one radio company that just makes tapes that are played all day, and keep on repeating the same things. It’s just ridiculous. We need to get back to people like John Peel that have a personality, that people either like or dislike, but they are bringing new things to the audience the entire time, and playing things they like. Each week there is a new thing. We need to get back to that, not the homogenization that we’ve reached at this point. But that all comes because record companies and the majors are only thinking about bottom line.
What are your thoughts on programs such as X Factor or American Idol?
I’m not completely against those programs. There has been some incredible talent that has come out of American Idol. For example, Carrie Underwood is doing amazingly over in the country market. But there has also been some contestants that have just been abysmal. Any way talent can get in front of the public, I am all for. But as with everything, you’ve got the good side — which is some of these talent’s getting to the public that would never have got there before — but you’ve also got the point where suddenly everyone thinks they can sing. and everyone seems to think they have talent (or at least their mothers think they have talent), so you get all of this other backswell of non-talent trying to get up front. That waters down the market so much for the ones that really do have talent, and it makes it that much more difficult for them to break through.
What products are you currently developing/working on?
The last four years, I have been working on something called “EpiK drumS.” We were going to put it out as epic drums with a ‘c’, and then we found out there was already something [with that name and spelling]. So someone said, “How about messing around with the spelling?” Anyway, I got together with 5 of the drummers I’ve worked with over the years, and we emulated as closely as possible the drum sounds that we got on their records, and put it out. It’s available as “Epik drumS.” There are samples of the drums, and grooves of the drummers playing along with the original recordings, so it’s the same parts they originally played. Plus, we had them jam a lot, so there is other stuff as well. It’s all-available, complete multitrack, every mic on its own track, so people can mix it the way they want to.
This led to “EpiK DrumS EDU,” which is an educational thing. We are waiting for copies of it at this moment. It is due out any second. What I did was put together 4 ½ grooves — one from every drummer — and all multitracked so that people can learn to mix live drums. So much is done with samples these days, and so many engineers have never had to record live drums, so this gives them the opportunity to learn what happens with live drums. For example, you’ve got the Tom microphone. There you are going to have the cymbal bleeding through on it. How do you cut back on some of that to get it to sound good? They can mess around to their hearts content. It comes in a package that can be used on 7 different DAWS. There is Pro Tools, Logic, Reaper, Cubase, etc. It also comes along with a DVD that I did on how I record drums, which is very specific because I go through the microphones I use. I haven’t compared microphones in twenty years – I know what works for me and I just use it every time. There is information on how I record, how I mix the different frequencies (I tend to always use the same plug-ins), plus there are interviews with the drummers, and they give tips a little on how they tune the drums.
When did you start creating these educational products?
I love giving back to the community, whoever it may be: fans of the artists, or young up and coming engineers. This all started a few years ago when I was working with Duran Duran. One of the ridiculous things with that band is that money was not an object. It was absolutely stupid, but I took full advantage. I was in LA and we needed to do an acoustic overdub on one track and Warren Cuccurullo, the guitarist, was in London. They asked me where they could do this and I said “Studio 2 Abbey Road.” They agreed, we booked it for Saturday next week, they flew me over, and I think that the guitar overdub took me 15 minutes.
What this is leading to is that the engineer that was working at Abbey Road that Saturday afternoon picked the time specifically so he could talk with me. Bryan Gibson started at Abbey Road the same time I did, and he just wanted to chat after the session. So, we were just sitting down talking, and said, “Do you remember when we started here and there were all these old timers that used to tell us these great stories about recording and how it all came about and the way they used to do things?” I said, “Of course, that was amazing!” And he said, “We have now become them. We are the old timers and the kids today want to hear our stories.” Then I suddenly realized that no one bothered to write down or videotape all these original stories from those amazing guys. Now only those stories are left, and so it just occurred to me at that point that I can’t allow this to happen again. People have to hear what it’s like. I came up with an audio/video presentation where I tell stories of what it used to be like. I break down multitracks of either Bowie or Elton [John] or a George Harrison track, so people can actually hear the bass, the drums, the piano, and what they sounded like before we mixed them. So they get a feel for it all, and so I do that as often as I can. I don’t do it anywhere near as much as I like to.