Each month we take a look at a classic track and discuss it from a music production perspective, examining any sonic innovations that took place during its recording. This month we investigate David Bowie's 'Heroes'.
The story of the recording of 'Heroes' is the story of a collaboration between four of the most innovative musical minds of the era. In 1976 Bowie moved to Berlin, and in early 1977 he released 'Low'; the first album of the so-called 'Berlin Trilogy' that would continue with 'Heroes' and conclude with 'The Lodger'. For the recording of 'Heroes', Bowie was joined by producer Tony Visconti, as well as Brian Eno and guitarist Robert Fripp.
The story of the recording of the album's title track is fascinating, and unfortunately, too intricate to discuss here in full. We want to highlight just one of Visconti's startling studio innovations from the session; the unusual way in which Bowie's vocal reverb sound was created.
The reverb you hear on the track is all the sound of the room in which the vocal was recorded. What is unusual, is that the vocal was recorded with three microphones set up at three different distances from the singer. The first mic was set up a few inches away from Bowie, with the second mic 15 feet away, and the third right at the other end of the large room being used for recording.
Mics two and three both had noise gates set up on them, so when Bowie sings quietly at the beginning of the song, those mics don't activate, and all we hear is the intimate close mic. As he starts to sing more loudly, mic two opens up, and we begin to hear more of the sound of the room. Finally, when he breaks into the loudest parts of the song, mic three activates, and we hear a big splash of reverb across the vocal.
A particularly interesting aspect of this process is that the reverb was committed to tape right from the moment at which it was recorded. In the era of digital recording, we can delay making final decisions on a mix until the very last minute, and perhaps this is not always a good thing.
In an interview for Howard Massey's 'Behind The Glass', Visconti explains his ethos; 'David Bowie and I have discussed this many times, that [having] fewer options in mixing is a positive thing… [A lot of people] have no idea what the texture of their album is until they get into the mixing room, and then they'll sometimes spend months mixing to find the album's sonic personality… We just used to go for it.'
Audio Ear Training for Music Producers and Sound Engineers