4 David Bowie Recording Studio Tips and Tricks

A creative pioneer in many ways, Bowie not only pushed the boundaries of songwriting, but broke new ground and broke new ground in production style as well. Here, we look at four influential approaches Bowie took in the studio.

Post invited by Carla Malrowe of Soundfly’s fly paper

It goes without saying that david bowie was a brave artist and pioneer of many firsts.

He was both influential and inspiring in the way he approached his art. When we dive into some of the sonic explorations that went into the making of two of Bowie’s most beloved albums, moo and Hero (both from 1977), we are starting to see a certain pattern emerge. Bowie’s music was produced and recorded in a way that boasted courage in new sounds and the means to give meaning, and spontaneitya central principle of sound songwriting style.

With singular producers Tony Visconti and Brian Eno by his side, Bowie had a one-in-a-million production team in the studio himself, perhaps even allowing him to take risks that other pop artists wouldn’t. New technologies were adopted and other techniques developed, which to this day have an influence on many producer.

Matthew Fink.

My mission to find out more about Bowie’s recording moo and Hero called for a conversation with a distinguished producer and avid Bowie fan, the fascinating Matthew Fink.

Together, Fink and I have identified what we believe to be among the four most influential things Bowie and his resourceful gang did in the studio as they recorded and produced some of the greatest pop music of the 20th century – pushing the boundaries of listeners and artists in the process.

Adopt radical electronics

Bowie was keen to experiment with electronic effects at the time of creation moocurious about the strange and radical sound development.

In 1974, the Eventide H910 Harmonizer was launched as the first commercially available digital audio effects device. As Visconti was one of the first producers to get their hands on a (the second person in all of Europe), allowed them to achieve a mysterious new sound in the studio – a sound that no other producer could quite clearly identified at the time. .

Fink tells me how Bowie and Eno were on a conference call with Visconti one night. Visconti expressed his excitement about acquiring the Eventide H910 Harmonizer. When Bowie asked what the device did, Visconti replied, “It fucks with the fabric of time.”

The combined harmonizer unbridled pitch change with delay and feedback. It could be controlled by a keyboard remote to instantly change the pitch in half steps. It featured a two-octave range and up to 112.5 milliseconds of delay.

Blast from the Past: Eventide Clock Works H910 |  MusicRadar

The use of the harmonizer in the studio was revolutionary, being particularly effective on drums and vocal takes. Visconti notes that the specific sound, “The moo Sound”, has been used on hundreds of albums since.

Voice recording with Gates

Hero was recorded at Hansa Tonstudio in Berlin – a unique setting that has been embraced and wonderfully exploited for its acoustic. It is also known to be essential to the sound of Hero.

To capture Bowie’s multifaceted vocal sound, three microphones were used: one up close, one at 15 feet, and one at 20 feet.

Fink explains to me that the first microphone was relatively compressedwhile the second and third pickups were configured with doors who would open once a certain volume threshold has been reached. The one closest to Bowie would pick up the soft, vulnerable timbre of Bowie’s voice while the farthest would pick up his bold baritone, resonating through the room and creating a rising reverberation.

This technique was so successful because it adopted said environment-created reverb without any muted detail being captured – which, in turn, encouraged Bowie’s unique vocal performance.

+ Learn more about Flypaper: “5 creative ways to use delay in your mix.”

Tape Flange on Bass

The bass on Heroplayed by George Murray, served as the foundational rhythm tracks of Bowie’s songs. A technique known as band edging was used on these bass tracks; a revolutionary sound effect.

The technique involves running two tapes at the same time on a tape recorder, with one slightly offset from the first, Fink explains. The slight delay of a tape (less than 20 milliseconds) creates a rustling sound that sweeps forward and backward out of time, as well as up and down the frequency spectrum.

This effect, says sweep swooshwas characteristic of the entire album and has inspired the origins of many effects pedals ever since.

+ Learn audio production, composition, songwriting, theory, arrangement, and more, anytime, anywhere. Click here for unlimited access!

Ebonie Smith, mixing engineer

Recording effects directly to tape

The most common technique at the time was to record dry and add effects afterwards. Defying the norm, Bowie and his team decided to record effects directly to tape.

It was a way to get an “honest” sound and capture an “honest” sense of passion. As the sonic triumphs unfolded, whether distorted, delayed or echoed, they would be captured as they happened, in the moment. It’s a technique that required courage and confidence because once captured they would be stuck with it.

At the end of the day, however, the result was worth it.

Fink explained how he learned this technique from Bowie and Visconti decades ago and how he follows it to this day:

“I compress to tape, I limit to tape, everything I do, I do it straight to tape because that’s how I hear it in the room during the day and that’s how I want it. ‘hearing back. Engineers always tell me you can’t limit yourself to the band… which I always say… “F*^ #ing watch me.”

Choose the alternative

Musicians brave enough to explore alternative means of creating and capturing sound are always the ones who end up having something valuable to teach us. And from Mr. Bowie, we have tons to learn. His courageous zeal for artistic expression and experimentation really paid off in his music and still influences decisions made in recording studios today.

Keep looking for new sounds, keep scrolling the tape, and keep looking for the most interesting way to say what you want to say. This is how you stay relevant for 50+ years.

Carla Malrowe is a passionate alternative songwriter and singer from South Africa. Its electro-industrial project, Psychoco, has just released his new single “Stay Awake”. Malrowe’s music is a haunting juxtaposition of electronic and analog sounds with lyrics that explore a post-apocalyptic conflict between love and loss. His solo album is in progress.

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