By Jack Sharkey, February 18, 2014.
On Thursday, February 13, KEF America hosted an evening of discussion and music at MSR Studios in mid-town Manhattan. Our emcee for the evening was KEF Brand Ambassador Johan Coorg, and our featured guest was studio legend Ken Scott with special guests Staying for the Weekend, an indie rock outfit from Nashville.
We've been having a heck of winter in the Northeast, so true to form, Thursday morning dawned with sub-freezing temperatures, near gale force winds and about ten inches of snow. Needless to say, there weren't a lot of other cars with us on the drive into Manhattan, but as the saying goes the show must go on.
One of the moving parts to the event was a recording session with Staying for the Weekend, which was produced by Ken Scott and co-produced and engineered by engineer Derik Lee. Spending any appreciable amount of time in a recording studio, you learn that recording sessions are often hours of sheer boredom punctuated with minutes of utter terror interspersed with a generally fun time, but watching musicians who know their way around a studio being led by the likes of Scott and Lee, you'd be led to believe that recording music is as much fun as we all hoped it is.
Basically, SFTW had about thirty minutes to record two songs in the afternoon and then one chance each to perform two songs that evening in front of a roomful of New York media. No pressure whatsoever. But, the rapport between Lee and the band was a great thing to witness. Here was a guy who has worked with the best of the best setting up a band that in spite of their recent experience and success, is about half populated with guys who can't get a legal drink. But to an outsider you would have thought this was a team that had worked together for years. Professionalism at that level is a joy to behold.
The best part for me about spending time with Ken Scott over the course of the event was that Ken's been a role model to me throughout my journey in the audio engineering world, but he's as regular and unconsumed by his own place in rock and roll history as a person could be. That being said, a highlight for me was a brief exchange he had with the band while they were recording their second track. It's pretty normal for musicians to hit a spot in a session where things just don't flow the way they would like them to.After a couple of really good takes, the band was still not satisfied. Ken walked into the Control Room, hit the IFB (Intercom From Board), simply said "I'm here now, get it right," then turned and walked out of the room after giving a riotous smirk to those of us in the room with him. The tension in that entire part of mid-town Manhattan suddenly just lifted. Here was a guy who has worked with an amazing array of talent making gentle light of himself to remind everyone there to just have fun–if Ken Scott isn't going to take himself seriously, why should anyone else? By the way, the next take was killer.
Shortly after 7:00 PM, Coorg opened the evening with a quick introduction of KEF and the evening's agenda. This was a different kind of evening for everyone present, and Coorg's smooth and affable style lit the temperature in the room perfectly.
After a few minutes, Coorg handed the floor over to Scott who proceeded to take us on a journey of recording history that was an immense pleasure to witness firsthand. First up was a scratchy recording of Enrico Caruso–"we started here"–followed by Katy Perry's Roar–"and we ended up here." The look on the faces of the Katy Perry fans in the room was priceless, but the point was made when Scott then played Tomorrow Never Knows, a Beatles track he engineered–"and in between we had this." Music has come a long way, and all music is valid, but the listener deserves the very best writing, arranging, production and replay available, but most importantly, music fans deserve emotion and innovation.
Scott co-produced (with Bowie) and engineered David Bowie's Ziggy Stardust and the Rise and Fall of the Spiders From Mars album in 1972. The next track up was the anthemic Suffragette City: The first segment was compressed as if it were a modern recording, and the second segment was how it was originally mixed and mastered. Back-to-back the difference between the two is remarkable, but to ears that are used to modern musical dynamic compression the difference can at first be jarring. Scott played the comparison three times: The first time, most people preferred the compressed track as it was closer to what they are used to hearing, but by the third run through, everyone preferred the natural spaciousness, expanse and clarity of the uncompressed original far more than its "modern" counterpart. Dynamic compression (Loudness Wars: Where There Is No Quiet There Can Be No Loud, KEF Blog 1-24-2014) tends to squash the signal making it louder and smaller at the same time. Dynamic compression also adds clipping which is generally heard as noise (and yes, if you listen, it's there).
But the best was yet to come. After a few fascinating anecdotes that I lack the talent to translate to you properly (plus I was too busy listening to them to make proper mental notes), Scott played a specially prepared track of David Bowie singing the outro to Five Years, the opening track to Ziggy. Even the Katy Perry fans in the room were on the edge of their emotional seats after listening to an isolated vocal track of Bowie absolutely breaking down while singing the refrain to the song. The stark recording captured every nuance and tear streaming down Bowie's face as he took his vocals to a primal place that was astounding to behold. Listen to the track for yourself and listen to Bowie's raw emotion. After the 30 second track was complete, Scott simply said "Today a record label would reject this and tell us to run it through auto-tune and clean it up."
Coorg then walked us through a sampling of music through a variety of speakers, with an accessible explanation to the assembled press of how we do what we do here at KEF. We heard our flagship Blade, then we heard a pair of inexpensive (cheap?) computer speakers that are commonly found on everyone's desk followed by the same track through a pair of our X300A digital audio speakers. Yes kids, there is a difference!
Next it was time to walk everyone through the live recording process. We split the assembled 40 members of the press in half–the first group stayed in the tracking room while the second group went into the Control Room. Staying for the Weekend's frontman Mitch Davis introduced the band, and suddenly Studio A at MSR went from being a recording studio doubling as an intimate lecture hall to a recording studio doubling as a very cool East Village club. In the Control Room, the guests listened to Scott and Derik Lee prepare the band to play and then the performance itself through the console and our LS50 mini-monitors. In the tracking room, the guests got to hear the raw energy of SFTW, without actually being able to hear Davis' vocals–the drums were live and the guitars were amplified, but to eliminate bleed and feedback and all of the other nasty things that can happen in a recording session, Davis was only audible to the crowd in the Control Room. Davis' unique and textured vocals without any amplification were no match against a band that plays delightfully loud. After SFTW's first song, the press groups switched locations and experiences. Being in a Control Room with Ken Scott and Derik Lee while listening to a band who may very well make your "gotta have it list" in the next few months was a musical experience and statement that was not lost on anyone.
After the performance, the crowd made its way back into the tracking room where Coorg played back the two songs on our Blades via a fresh burned CD. The cycle from inception, to preparation and production, to performance, to listener experience was complete.
Coorg, Scott, and the members of Staying for the Weekend then all took part in a Q&A session with the press which was followed by a casual after-show meet and greet. Scheduled to run until just before 9:00PM, the lights in the still-crowded room finally came up a little after 10:00–a sure sign a good time was had by all.
A great big thank you goes out to the staff at MSR Studios, especially Chief Engineer Brad Leigh who helped us navigate a few self-imposed technical issues and Studio Manager Matt Carter, who went above and beyond the call of duty, without us ever really noticing it, which is an awesome thing.
Derik Lee, who recently won a Grammy for his recording of the cast album for the Broadway hit Kinky Boots also went above and beyond the call of duty to get the best out of Staying for the Weekend and the event in general. It was a complicated, non-stop 10 hour day that with his help flowed as easily as any number of cliches I could hackishly impose upon you all right now.
Staying for the Weekend were an absolute joy to work with, and to put it bluntly, they kicked ass, and that's pretty much what it's all about. If you're in Nashville on March 21, I'd recommend you head over to Exit/In around 7:00 PM to catch them with supporting acts The Keeps and Astrochimps.
Most especially, we're grateful to Ken Scott for providing us an evening of amazing anecdotes, opinions and education, as well as an afternoon of invaluable production assistance as he shared his amazing knowledge and experience with us. Having read Scott's book Abbey Road to Ziggy Stardust: Off the Records with the Beatles, Bowie, Elton and so much more... and then having heard a few of the anecdotes in the book directly from Ken, I can heartily recommend it to you rock and roll fans out there.
Simply put, we've got to do this again!
Except where noted, all photographs courtesy Lily Szabo Photography.
The opinions expressed in this piece are the author's own and not necessarily those of KEF or its employees.