According to an interview with David Gilmour on the 2006 documentary Which One's Pink?, the studio version of the song features minor guitar work both from Gilmour and Syd Barrett, making "Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun" the only Pink Floyd song that features all five band members, though some listeners may not fully discern the guitar tracks as Richard Wright's keyboards and organs are overlapping the guitars.
The song's recording commenced in August 1967, with overdubs recorded in October of that year and in January 1968. In an article reprinted in the book Pink Floyd – through the eyes of ... by Bruno McDonald, Roger Waters admitted to "borrowing" the lyrics from a book of Chinese poetry from the Tang Dynasty period (which was later identified as the book Poems of the late T'ang, translated by A.C. Graham).
Among the borrowed lines from Chinese poetry (as translated by Graham) were those written by Li He, whose poem "Don't Go Out of the Door" contains the line "Witness the man who raved at the wall as he wrote his questions to Heaven", and Li Shangyin, whose poetry contained the lines, "watch little by little the night turns around", "countless the twigs which tremble in dawn" and "one inch of love is one inch of ashes." Nick Mason has since stated in a 2015 interview that "Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun" is his favorite Pink Floyd song.
Pink Floyd performed the song from 1967 to 1973. A performance on 9 September 1967 feature Barrett and Waters switching guitars. The last ever performance with Waters took place on 13 October 1973 at the Stadthalle, Vienna. In 1984/1985 and from 1999–present, Waters has performed the song.
On both the live Ummagumma disc and the Live at Pompeii, the song is significantly extended with a wide range of dynamics, including a white noise midde section.
A version of the song, containing a saxophone solo, features on Waters' In the Flesh – Live DVD, as well as Disc 1 of the 2002 album of the same name.
The song has been a staple in Waters' solo tours. Beginning with the 1984–1985 tours, "Set the Controls" has been presented in a radically rearranged rendition - with female backing vocals, saxophone solos and a guitar solo (and even a shakuhachi solo in 1985). A truncated version (just the three verses) of the song featuring a simple acoustic guitar part was performed on a handful of occasions during the Radio K.A.O.S tour of 1987. The song was included in the set list for Waters' 2006–2008 tour, and previously his In the Flesh tour, featuring stills from the promotional videos of "Arnold Layne" and "The Scarecrow" projected on large screens. In June 2002, audiences enjoyed a surprise when the two nights at London's Wembley Arena saw the appearance, as guest drummer for the performance of the track, of Waters' former Pink Floyd bandmate Nick Mason, the first indication of a reconciliation following the acrimonious split of the mid-1980s.
Drone/sludge metal band 5ive recorded the track "The Hemophiliac Dream, pt. 1" for an EP of the same name. It serves as a tribute to "Set the Controls...": its tonal progression is similar to its parent song, the lyric "Set the controls" appears once early in the tune, and a chant of "The heart of the sun" serves as the closest thing the song has to a chorus.
^Palacios, Julian (2010). Syd Barrett & Pink Floyd: Dark globe. London: Plexus. p. 265. ISBN978-0-85965-431-9. Waters borrows a succinct line from 9th-century poet Li He's 'Don't Go Out of the Door', which appeared in the original poem as: 'Witness the man who raved at the wall as he wrote his questions to Heaven.'
^Palacios, Julian (2010). "Summer Tempests". Syd Barrett & Pink Floyd: Dark Globe (Rev. ed.). London: Plexus. p. 271. ISBN0-85965-431-1.
^Manning, Toby (2006). "The Albums". The Rough Guide to Pink Floyd (1st ed.). London: Rough Guides. p. 160. ISBN1-84353-575-0.