What was it like to work with Bowie? Meet the man who mixed Ziggy Stardust

The Audiophile Ken Scott
Vernon Dewhurst

“That’s been his entire career — he said whatever he wanted.”

Ground Control to Major Tom: David Bowie has bid adieu, and there’s nothing we can do.

The legendary recording artist, actor, and all-around creative chameleon passed away on January 10 after a long battle with cancer, and he’s since been duly feted from all corners of the galaxy, including a special remembrance here on DT by our very own Ryan Waniata.

I had the privilege of seeing Bowie on his A Reality Tour at Madison Square Garden in New York on December 15, 2003, and the man turned in a nonstop, balls-out set worthy of his longstanding showman’s showman reputation. I met him once in the mid ’90s, outside a small club in lower Manhattan called Don Hill’s, and he was as charming and humble as you might expect. (Certain aspects of that conversation are better told than typed, so feel free to ask me about it if we ever meet somewhere out and about in the big cool world.)

Bowie’s keen ear for both capturing and pushing the boundaries of sound quality was a hallmark of many of his recordings. That was especially true during his electronic-minimalist Berlin Trilogy collaborations with Brian Eno in the ’70s — i.e., 1977’s Low and “Heroes,” and 1979’s Lodger. A man very much made of equal parts Sound and Vision, you might even say.

The Audiophile Ken Scott

His early-career output was recently collected in Five Years: 1969-1973, a top-drawer 13-LP box set from Parlophone that’s best experienced on vinyl. Of course, you can download all 135 songs via 192-kHz/24-bit files at HDtracks if you choose to go the digital Thin White Duke route.

However you choose to listen, you’ll find the 2015 stereo remaster of 1969’s Space Oddity as prime Bowie, with Terry Cox’s militaristic drumming anchoring the left channel and acoustic guitar ringing into the right during the fade in. Bowie’s lead vocal then takes charge in the right channel, while he also does double duty with countdowns and counter vocals in the left. Rick Wakeman’s mellow mellotron takes up perfect position right down the middle of the mix, floating in and out of the proceedings seemingly at will, but always present when and where it most belongs. Check ignition, and may God’s love be with you…

A few years ago, I spoke with early Bowie producer Ken Scott about the 5.1 SACD mix he did for 1972’s seminal The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and The Spiders From Mars. That conversation has essentially sat on the shelves — until now. Fully resurrected here for Digital Trends, Scott — who’s also worked behind the boards for The Beatles, Pink Floyd, Jeff Beck, Elton John, and Supertramp, among many others — discusses Bowie’s specific requirements for the surround version of Ziggy, how to avoid “gimmicky” mixes, and how bootleg recordings can actually sound more authentic.

Digital Trends: So here we are, Ken, some 40-plus years after Ziggy learned to play guitar. How did you know the 5.1 mix you did for it back in 2003 was going to be part of the Ziggy Stardust reissue?

Ken Scott: The original thing was when EMI had a deal with Sony for the SACD, they got me to mix that in 2003. When it came to the 2012 reissue, I was approached by a friend of mine at EMI who’s in charge of the reissues there, and he said, “Ken, who would you recommend to do it?” I knew that the original guy, [mastering engineer] Ray Staff, was still working and doing well, so I suggested him. He has the same reference points as I do with regard to all of that because he did it in the first place. And it worked out really well.

Did David himself have any direct involvement with you on this project? Did he approve the mix?

One of the things I’ll say in regard to the 5.1 is that David had the right idea, as far as I’m concerned. As soon as 5.1 was mentioned, he said he would only allow it if the original producers and engineers did the mixes — which was really good.

The way I look at his “retirement” now is, he’s changed personalities again, and the personality he’s enjoying at the moment is the doting father. I believe he’ll change his personality again, and who knows what he’ll be when he comes out of that one.

This interview was conducted some time before Bowie’s passing, of course. Scott posted the following comments about Bowie on his Facebook page on January 11, 2016:

I have finally had enough time to come to terms with David’s passing. Firstly, I would like to thank everyone for your very kind words.

Now, my thoughts. For those remaining, death is always sad. Normally, it is just a small circle of friends and family that feel the pain, but this genius touched so many lives. His circle is worldwide, and thus the pain and tears flowing are unfathomable.

“David would only allow the surround mix if the original producers and engineers did them.”

Personally speaking, will I miss him? No. We had our moment of glory together and went our own separate ways, with only the occasional email and even less occasional meeting. But that time we had together will never be forgotten. I am so very proud of the work we did, both trying to find our new directions and somewhere along the road creating a few “classic” albums and affecting thousands of people, each in their own way.

The amazing thing is that when Ziggy broke up the band, he continued on to even greater heights. David, thank you for trusting me to help your dreams come true, thank you for making me a part of your life, and most of all, thank you for the music. May you rest in Peace.

Are you pleased with the Ziggy 5.1 mix? Some surround mixes can sound a bit “gimmicky,” but this one sounds natural to me.

Thank you. I have to admit, there’s a bit in my book [Abbey Road to Ziggy Stardust: Off the Record With The Beatles, Bowie, Elton & So Much More] about recording Stanley Clarke’s School Days in quad [in 1976], and having problems with the toms going all the way around when he does a big fill. That’s a bit gimmicky. (laughs)

Well, I happen to like the way Five Years unfolds in surround on Ziggy 5.1. There’s a bit that’s in the back channels when it starts, then it moves to the front, and then the track ends the same way it began, where the coda brings it all full circle. It’s a complete mix that makes total sense to me, and it’s a great way to start the Ziggy record. It literally pulls you into the overall tone and how the record is going to reveal itself as it progresses.

That’s good to hear, thank you. That’s the way I was thinking. To start and end it that way was so right. That’s how I always work it. It has to feel right for me.

In your book, you talk about how Ronno [Mick Ronson, lead guitarist for The Spiders From Mars and Bowie’s then-frequent onstage foil] arranged the string sections, and how he wanted to hear them in the mix. Did you have an idea of how to present the string section in 5.1?

Each mix unfolded as we went. I hadn’t done 5.1 before, so it was all sort of experimentation for me. Ultimately, it was whatever felt right.

The Audiophile Ken Scott
Brian Ward
Brian Ward

There was one thing that I found very strange because I had completely forgotten it. That was how much leakage there was into the orchestral mikes because of having to blast it through speakers. That affected it slightly, as you couldn’t have the orchestra entirely in the back with everyone else in front because of so much leakage. So just the original recording set the tone of how it had to be.

I like leakage sometimes because it sounds more real to me, rather than having so many tracks and layers flown in digitally. It’s real musicians playing in real time, and you, the listener, are in the middle of it.

Yes, right. Agreed.

And I love what you say in the book about the “horns” on Suffragette City that aren’t actually there, because it’s actually a synthesizer playing that part. And then David is saying it is in fact horns, because that’s what he does…

(chuckles) That’s been his entire career! He says whatever he wants to at any given point. It’s great, because you never quite know.

Is there one specific 5.1 mix that you can say, “This is the one I was looking to do, exactly how it came out,” the one that set the bar for you as a then-novice 5.1 mixer?

(slight pause) The entire thing. I couldn’t pick any particular one. I just like the entire thing.

“I’ve shared my vision, so why should anyone be interested in hearing anything other than what I put out?”

Fair enough. Did you mix it in order, or ping-pong around from track to track?

My recollection is ping-ponging, because it was new to me. When I was doing it at Abbey Road Studios, things had changed so much there that I had to get used to it. I already had a relationship with (producer at Abbey Road) Paul Hicks who I worked on it with, but we had to get to know each other really well. It started simply, and we took it from there.

You’ve stated elsewhere that Moonage Daydream is your favorite Bowie track. Whose choice was it to include the instrumental version here? I like it because you get to hear the chord changes literally move around in space.

That was EMI’s decision. I always have mixed feelings about things like that because you work to make things sound a certain way. You achieve that goal, but there’s a part of me that says, “That should be it. That’s the only thing that people should hear.” But I also understand the other side of it, of wanting to hear things slightly differently.

I look at demos or working tracks as hearing how you got from Point A to Point B.

When I was back working with George Harrison [on his vocals for My Sweet Lord 2001, for that year’s All Things Must Pass reissue] before his passing, we had quite a few discussions about that very thing, and ultimately he wanted to put out official bootlegs — that is, to properly put out the bootlegs so that everything was of the best quality.

That was that sort of thing he felt as the artist: “I’ve shared my vision, so why would anyone be interested in anything other than what I’ve put out? Why should I allow them to hear it in any other form than what I originally wanted it to be done?” Through much discussion, he did turn around to, “Well, if it is out there, it should be at the best quality possible.”

What’s your view on updating pre-existing quad mixes into 5.1 mixes?

What I would do is, I might throw some things into the sub, and I might not even bother with the center speaker. It would be the exact same quad mix, basically. I don’t know if it would be 5.1. Sometimes, it doesn’t need to be there. You get enough as a listener just being in the center of two speakers. You don’t need to have that speaker in the middle to have it.

I think there’s also the possibility of people saying you’re now getting a 5.1 mix, but there’s nothing going through one of the speakers. They can be sued for false advertising!

Gaming

As deaf gamers speak up, game studios are finally listening to those who can’t

Using social media, personal blogs and Twitch, a small group of deaf and hard-of-hearing players have been working to make their voices heard and improve accessibility in the gaming industry.
Movies & TV

'Prime'-time TV: Here are the best shows on Amazon Prime right now

There's more to Amazon Prime than free two-day shipping, including access to a number of phenomenal shows at no extra cost. To make the sifting easier, here are our favorite shows currently streaming on Amazon Prime.
Movies & TV

The best shows on Netflix in October, from 'Mindhunter’ to ‘The Good Place’

Looking for a new show to binge? Lucky for you, we've curated a list of the best shows on Netflix, whether you're a fan of outlandish anime, dramatic period pieces, or shows that leave you questioning what lies beyond.
Music

From 'E.T." to 'Lord of the Rings,' these are the best movie soundtracks ever

Whether you're a lover of beautifully composed original scores or a fan of perfectly compiled popular music, these are the best movie soundtracks of all time — from Star Wars to Garden State.
Music

Spotify is the best streaming service, but its competitors aren’t far behind

It can be hard to decide which music streaming service is for you, so we've picked out the individual strengths of the most popular services, aiming to make your decision a little easier.
Music

Here are the best internet radio stations for your listening pleasure

Even in the streaming era, radio stations get some of the best exclusives and curate some of the finest handpicked playlists around. Here are the best internet radio stations, for your listening pleasure.
Home Theater

Genius gives Apple Music a brainy boost with new lyrics integration

Genius has announced its most in-depth partnership to date with Apple Music, bringing lyrics to the app as well as making it the default player for the Genius mobile app and website.
Music

A wealth of rich tunes: Cash in with the best songs about money

There may not be as many songs about money as there are songs about love, but it's a close second. If you're looking for a skrilla-inspired playlist, check out our picks for the best songs about money.
Home Theater

5 gorgeous turntables that spin stacks of wax in style for less than $500

Vinyl records are awesome, but they're also finicky. To get the best out of your stacks of wax, it's best to play them on a quality turntable. Here are the best turntables to be had for under $500.
Music

Spotify vs. Pandora: Which music streaming service is better for you?

Which music streaming platform is best for you? We pit Spotify versus Pandora, two mighty streaming services with on-demand music and massive catalogs, comparing every facet of the two services to help you decide which is best.
Music

The best new music this week: Kurt Vile, Valley Maker, and more

Are you looking for the best new music? Each week, we scour the internet to find the most compelling new releases. On tap this week: Kurt Vile, Valley Maker, Broncho, The Dodos, Colter Wall, and Ambrose Akinmusire.
News

Amy Winehouse is coming back as a ‘hologram’ for a 2019 world tour

Amy Winehouse is set for a holographic return to the stage in 2019 in a global tour featuring her greatest hits, though how fans of the late singer feel about the "comeback" is another question entirely.
Music

Jam out in style with the 25 best playlists on Spotify

Music is the world's most potent drug, and the best playlists on Spotify will make you catch feelings. We've scoured the service for its top collections, and brought them together in one place -- for you.
Music

How to convert and play FLAC music files on your iPhone or iPad

The high-resolution revolution is upon us, and FLAC files are a popular way to store hi-res sound. But what if you’re an iOS user? Check out our article to find out more about FLAC files, and how to use them on Apple devices.