According to an interview with Gilmour on the 2006 documentary Which One's Pink?, the studio version of the song contained minor guitar work both from Gilmour and 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 overlap 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 Bruno McDonald book Pink Floyd – Through the Eyes of ..., 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." Mason later 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 featured Barrett and Waters switching guitars. The last ever performance with Waters took place on 13 October 1973 at the Stadthalle, Vienna. Waters performed the song during 1984–1985 and from 1999–2008.
On both the live Ummagumma disc and Live at Pompeii, the song was significantly extended with a wide range of dynamics, including a white noise midde section.
A version of the song, containing a saxophone solo, appeared 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" was 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 setlist 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, Waters' former Pink Floyd bandmate Nick Mason performed as guest drummer on the track for two nights at London's Wembley Arena, the first indication of a reconciliation following the acrimonious split of the mid-1980s.
2003: A cover version was done by prog metal supergroup OSI, included on the bonus disc of their debut album OSI.
2003: Drone/sludge metal band 5ive recorded the track "The Hemophiliac Dream, Pt. 1" for an EP of the same name. It served as a tribute to "Set the Controls...": Its tonal progression was similar to its parent song, the lyric "Set the controls" appeared once early in the song, and a chant of "The heart of the sun" served as a quasi-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.