Abbey to Ziggy

Ken Scott came to fame recording the Beatles, Supertramp, David Bowie, and other rock icons. He revisits the sounds and stories of his tenure behind the studio glass in his book "Abbey Road to Ziggy Stardust," out now.

It’s always funny being asked questions like, “How did you come up with your style?” I didn’t really know I had a style. I’ve simply tried to work from my heart and my ears. Here are some things I’ve learned about recording keyboards along the way.

1. Experiment with Miking

I learned my craft starting with the Beatles, who were probably the most experimental band around at the time. For recording piano, I’ve used both cheap and expensive mics, put them over and under the soundboard, and left them completely flat or EQ’ed and compressed them like mad. There’s no right or wrong way to record something. It just depends on what type of sound you are after.

2. Run Synths Direct

I normally record synths directly into the console. Good examples would be the ARP 2500 we used on David Bowie’s “Suffragette City”—so many people think that’s sax section—or the link between “Fill Your Heart” and “Andy Warhol” on his album Hunky Dory. With synths and most electric keyboards, there’s little one can do to get a good sound except to have a good sounding instrument to begin with.

3. Try a Leslie

I love to put things through a Leslie speaker. Good examples are Elton John’s piano on “I’m Going To Be a Teenage Idol” from the album Don’t Shoot Me, I’m Only the Piano Player, and the bass synth on the B-section of Supertramp’s “Hide In Your Shell” from their album Crime of the Century.

4. Success is in the Struggle

Before plug-ins, we had to struggle to make things sound different. A good example is the piano effect on the Beatles’ “Birthday” at about 1:29. We fed the piano through one of the band's Vox Conqueror amps while I worked the midrange boost control in time with the music. Another example is Elton John’s piano on “Elderberry Wine,” created by Elton double tracking his piano with the tape slightly sped up, which put the second piano slightly out of tune with the first.

5. Go Easy on the Reverb

Many great recordings of the past were crafted using one or maybe two forms of reverb. Everything shared the same one [usually on a send bus] and it brought things together. Today, I see mixes that have different reverbs on all 199 Pro Tools tracks! That pushes everything apart.