Get Back To Mono: Beatles’ Recording Engineer Ken Scott Explains The Best Way To Hear The Fab Four

For most music lovers, there can be no such thing as “too much Beatles.” But there have been stray notes of skepticism surrounding the much-hyped Beatles In Mono vinyl box set that hit stores last week. Particularly among millennial fans, the very concept of mono recording conjures images of quaint lo-fi discs intended strictly for purists and those stranded in the past. Surely this 14-record set is a dive into minutiae, an extraneous curio designed solely for the Beatlemaniac audiophile?

This could not be further from the truth. The Beatles In Mono is perhaps the most crucial Beatles release for those who were not privileged to live in a time when the four Fabs roamed the Earth. For a start, just use your ears. Far from a relic, the sound is more alive, full, and frightfully contemporary than ever before. And that’s not just our opinion- it’s also the opinion of Ken Scott, the music industry great who got his start as the Beatles’ recording engineer. Prior to his groundbreaking work with a list of legends including David Bowie, Elton John, Jeff Beck and Supertramp, Scott was in the room when some of the Beatles’ classic recordings were being made, and had his hand on the fader when the original masters were created. Who better to say how these records are meant to sound?

All but vanished today, single speaker mono mixes were the standard for most of the Beatles’ recording career. Through 1968’s The Beatles (better known as The White Album), these were the only versions actually approved by the band themselves. Stereo was then seen as an aural oddity, and those mixes were a distant second priority, allotted a tiny fraction of the time and done with little of the Beatles’ input. In later years, George Harrison recalled being baffled with stereo came into existence. “I remember thinking ’Why? What do you want two speakers for?’, because it ruined the sound from our point of view. We had everything coming out of one speaker; now it had to come out of two speakers. It sounded very naked.”

Mono is how the band wanted you to hear the majority of their work, but these analog mixes have been out of print for decades. Until now, that is. Thanks to the labor of engineer Sean Magee and Grammy-award winning mastering supervisor Steve Berkowitz, the session tapes have been painstakingly recut using authentic ’60s equipment and techniques, plus original hand-written notes. The technologically inclined should check out Analog Planet’s excellent article on the extensive process, but the final product is the first non-digital album pressings available in nearly 30 years.

Obviously, there’s no wrong way to listen to the Beatles. But these mono vinyl discs represent the best way. They are the definitive version, in full sonic technicolor, exactly how the Beatles are meant to be enjoyed. We were lucky enough to savor the results at an advance listening party held in Studio A of New York City’s iconic Electric Lady Studios, and we can tell you: there is a major difference. The set allows listeners to hear the familiar songs fresh, as if for the first time. Considering that the music is practically a part of our DNA, this is no easy feat.

It was at this event that Ken Scott was gracious enough to sit down with VH1 and share his memories of his first day on the job with the Fab Four, his experiences with them in the studio, his view on The Beatles In Mono box set, and thoughts on the current state of the recording industry.

[Photo: Ken Scott, flanked by Paul McCartney on the left and George Harrison and producer George Martin on the right, recording the White Album at EMI’s Abbey Road Studios, 1968 [Photo: BBC]

It’s September 1967. You’re 20 years old and you’ve just been promoted to recording engineer at EMI’s Abbey Road Studios. Your first lead session ever is with the biggest band in the world, re-recording “Your Mother Should Know” for what would become Magical Mystery Tour. What is going through your mind?

Oh, I’m petrified. Absolutely petrified.  I didn’t know what the hell I was doing! I just had to try my best. And luckily because of our relationship from working with them on [1964’s] A Hard Days Night through [1965’s] Rubber Soul as a second engineer, they just put up with me and we continued from there on.

You had learned a lot from the Beatles’ original engineer, Norman Smith, who left the band to become a producer in 1966. Can you tell me about your experience with him?

A great gentleman, an incredible engineer. Completely forgotten, unfortunately. He was the one, as far as I’m concerned, that started the Beatles on their sonic road to what they got to. He changed the sound on each individual album. He had very specific ideas of how he wanted to change each one. The very first one [1963’s Please Please Me], he wanted to be as close to live as possible, so he set them up as if they were onstage and got that live sound. And he moved on through different things, “I want more echo on this album, I want to dry it up for this album,” that kind of thing. And he started to teach them what could be done, how things could be changed. To me, their big jump started with Rubber Soul, which was the last one he did, by starting to experiment more with sounds on that. Then of course the drugs kicked in and they wanted to take it even further and Norman, the old timer Norman, wasn’t around anymore. He was off discovering Pink Floyd! But for me, it all started with Norman, without a doubt. And he was a great teacher for me as well. Incredible. Just watching him work.

While always professional, you’ve said that the Beatles could be almost childlike in the studio. They always maintained this wonderful sense of curiosity that kept them constantly exploring. Do you have any favorite memories of the band experimenting? 

You always had to be very careful of what you said to them because sometimes a joke would be taken a little too seriously. We were recording a vocal with George, and he was finding it difficult to get the feeling of the song. It was a song called “Not Guilty,” which finished up not being on The White Album, and George re-recorded it later for a solo album. But to try and get him into the feeling he wanted to record in the control room with the sound coming out of the speakers to make it feel more like a live performance. We tried that, and during a playback John was by the side of me and I said “Bloody hell, the way you guys are going, you’re going to want to record in there next,” and pointed to one of these very very small rooms…And he just sort of looked, and he looked over at me and didn’t say anything. And I thought, “Oh well, it was a bad joke, I guess.”

A couple of days later, [John says] “Okay we’re going to record a new number, it’s called ‘Yer Blues’ and I want to record it in there,” and he pointed to the room. We had to fit all four of them into that room. It was so small that if one of them had swung around too quickly, the Beatles would have been finished as a band much sooner than they were! [*mimes whacking with a guitar neck*] And it was live. There was so much pickup of all of the instruments, in all of the instruments, you just had to get a blend. You couldn’t mess with it too much; it just had to be the way they played it and it worked amazingly. But that was them always wanting to try something different.

From Paul, recording a bass drum down at the bottom of the stairwell for “Mother Nature’s Son” -you hear boom boom boom. That was him with a bass drum down there, and we had the microphone at the top of the stairwell. Just all of that kind of thing, weirdness all around. Paul and I went into the mic room one day just looking around and he said “Oh, I like the look of that mic, let’s try it!” And he wasn’t interested in whether it would sound good or not, it looked cool. So that made it good. Just that kind of thing.

As a trainee engineer not knowing what the hell I was doing, it was the most amazing training I could have had because there I was with the one band that had absolutely no time constraints, no money constraints and didn’t want traditional sounds, so I could experiment all I wanted to. I had the time to experiment, knowing that if it didn’t work, I can just go back to my normal way of doing it. I could completely mess everything up… Let’s say I’m recording a piano. I could use completely the wrong mic, put it in completely the wrong place, the EQ could be completely off, I could completely over-compress it, make it the worst it could possibly be and there was as much chance of them coming up, hearing it, and saying “Oh no, it sounds like shit,” as there was them coming up and saying, “Oh no, it sounds like shit but I like it, we’ll use it.” It was that kind of situation. Which, for me, learning my craft, it was amazing, unheard of. It would never happen again and it didn’t happen up to that point. I was just lucky or blessed, whichever way you want to look at it. But it was incredible. Incredible.

At the time, many of the older engineers used editing to splice together many different takes of orchestral recordings to get a technically perfect performance. But in your book, Abbey Road To Ziggy Stardust, you mention that the Beatles tracks are littered with accidents and little surprises. You give the example of accidentally erasing  overdubs of a drum break for “Glass Onion” [1:19]. Luckily, the band liked it, left it in, and it’s since become part of the song. And if you listen closely to “Hey Jude,”  you can hear John Lennon swearing  [2:57]! Can you explain the kind of perfection that you after when making these records?

It’s trying to keep it human. That to me is something that’s missing these days. Today, everything has to be perfect to the most ridiculous degree. Everything has to have auto-tune on it to make it right, and it takes away all of the humanity. I give talks to universities, and I’ve recently put in this section at the end to deal with the overuse of modern technology and I play various vocals from stuff that I’ve recorded. I use the complete vocal takes from beginning to end, no messing around. I use Rod Stewart doing “Ol’ Man River” off of the [Jeff Beck’s 1968] Truth album, and with his vocal you hear the band in the background, because he’s singing it live with the band. It’s not perfect but someone described it as it’s perfect in its imperfections. It come from here [*pats heart*].

And the final vocal I always play is the end of “Five Years,” the David Bowie track off of [The Rise And Fall OfZiggy [Stardust (1972)]. When we recorded it with David, he was the most amazing vocalist that I’ve ever worked with and as much as 95% of the vocals that we did were first takes from beginning to end. I would get the level, would go back to the booth, and what you hear is what he sang- that one performance. At the ending of “Five Years,” we did actually have to punch [edit] one phrase in at the end because he was crying so much at the end of it, you couldn’t understand what he was saying! So we had to punch in for that. But the rest of it, you can hear.

It is so moving. I’ve had people in the audience, tears rolling down their faces when they hear it. It wouldn’t be allowed today. It would be thrown out by the record company. “No, it’s not good enough. It’s not in tune. It’s not in time.” It’s ridiculous. Music should be human. And the Beatles were everything that one has come to expect from a human, from the good points to the bad points, and that humanity comes across in their music and that’s one of the reasons we’re still talking about it. I think that’s one of the reasons why we’re talking about older music so much today more than the modern day music, because the humanity is not there. So it doesn’t mean anywhere near as much.

We live in an age now of seemingly limitless choice in the studio. You can have 300 tracks, 27 different kinds of echo, 19 types of reverb, whatever you want. Do you feel like these infinite options are actually hurting music, and you can make better records on an old 4-track machine where the technological limitations force you to make decisions?

Precisely. That’s one of the things that all of these tracks have done. People won’t make a decision. I’ve heard of people getting something to mix and there are 53 guitar solos because no one will make the decision which is the right one. It’s stupid. It’s lunacy. And there’s that thing, if you have 150 different types of reverb in the plugins, now they have to use all 150 -one on each different track. We got by using one reverb for everything. And we just had to work with that and make that work for us.

And there was that sort of symbiotic thing: we had to go along with these limitations, and they would affect how we worked and we would affect how we use them. So we had to fight for everything. These days, it’s too simple. It lacks feeling. It’s not organic, the way it used to be. [Even with] mixing. I used to love the old way [before] the whole computerized mixing consoles. It used to be a performance. You’d have everyone’s hands over faders and you literally were playing the mixer. And once everyone got their performance right, that was the mix. Nowadays, you just keep on going through, you push it up a little, pull it back, and it remembers it every time. And it doesn’t have that organic feel that it used to have. In my humble opinion. All of this is my opinion, but it’s based on 50 years 7 months of being in the bloody business.

If the Beatles had access to digital equipment in 1967, do you think it would have made the music better, worse, or the same?

Worse, absolutely. So much of it came from that struggle. And “Glass Onion,” the snare, it would have been copy and paste one of the earlier ones and put it in place. You wouldn’t get that, “Oh my god, it suddenly goes to a small sound.” The great thing is that most people don’t even realized what happens there. That it suddenly goes that much smaller on that last “blat blat.” It’s there, it’s part of it and they accept it and it’s wow, this is amazing, the whole thing. And it’s those kind of things that make it stand out. Even things that you don’t grab hold of. They’re there and they are all part of it. And it works together in the human psyche. Yeah, that’s great music.

Today people are accustomed to hearing music on MP3s that are compressed all to hell and are missing up to 90 percent of the original sound quality. Most of us, especially children, simply don’t know any differently. Do you feel that with the exposure from The Beatles In Mono vinyl box set, music lovers will start to learn that there is a better option and begin to demand more?

That’s why I keep on saying, please spread the word. If you liked what you heard [on the vinyl reissues], tell everyone. Cause this is the way it should be. I’m a firm believer in that we should be going to schools and taking a great hi-fi system -it doesn’t have to be that big or that expensive- but go and play for kids as young as possible what it can and should sound like. Get them used to something better cause now they’re just being raised with earbuds, with Beats, MP3s. And as you said, that’s all they expect. They don’t know how much better it can be and we need to educate them to that, but it’s not easy.

I’ve always said, if you want to hear the Beatles properly, you have to hear the monos. If you then want to move and listen to the stereos, that’s fine. But they were to the side, the mono is the important one. People have asked me what I think about the Love soundtrack that Giles [Martin] and Paul [Hicks] did. It’s great, it’s amazing. I love what they did. As long as you can always get the original. Which is, for the Beatles, it’s the mono. So we put out a vinyl record. Okay, you give some site where you can also download an MP3. If you need it fully compressed for the car, fine, you can get that version but that’s not what you’re initially buying. That’s a secondary thing, so you can hear it in different ways, you can listen to in the car. There are so many things that we could be doing that aren’t happening that would make it better for the consumer. Because that’s what it’s all about. It’s the people that buy these things, they’re who you have to cater to. And the record companies didn’t and still don’t.

That’s why I’m so happy to take part in something like this [vinyl reissues box set]. Because spreading the gospel is what it’s all about and that’s what has to happen and that’s why hopefully people will come and hear it and it’s: “Wow! It’s so much better.” They’ll spread the gospel and slowly but surely we’ll start to take over again. Might not be in my lifetime but it will happen, eventually.

[Photo: EMI/Abbey Road Archives]

VH1 Music Editor + Seltzer Enthusiast
@jordanruntagh