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How Tony Visconti recorded David Bowie's vocals on 'Heroes'

By 1976, David Bowie and Iggy Pop moved to Berlin, Germany, to get away from the cocaine trap that LA was quickly becoming. Little did they know that Berlin happened to be the heroin capital of the world. Either way, in this particular story, that’s irrelevant; Bowie’s Berlin-trilogy albums were some of his best work, and for the first time in Bowie’s career, these albums were seemingly not influenced by drugs

Bowie has called these albums, and in particular, Heroes, “the closest to his musical DNA,” he ever contributed to his canon. His previous two albums, Young Americans and Station to Station, culminated in a strange American plastic soul character Bowie called the ‘Thin White Duke’. With these albums, Bowie sought music’s answer in American soul and R&B, and it was through these records he attempted to conquer the United States. While the two did garner some success for the starman, it wouldn’t be until 1983’s Let’s Dance when he truly conquered the States. 

By 1976, America had won the battle against Bowie and other sorry victims of the money machine and the fanatical craze for fame. As a result, he began looking back to Europe for some creative answers. German electronic groups like Neu! and Kraftwerk had caught his eye. 

Music writer, Simon Reynolds put it in a good way: “Bowie and Eno’s new Europeanism chimed with the post-punk feeling that America – or at least white America – was politically and musically reactionary.” In other words, there was no vision or ideal; succumbing to the ever-growing presence of a corporate America.”

Bowie’s 1977 Low and Heroes were completely new ways of expression for Bowie. They were heavily based on Eno and Bowie’s new creative partnership they had developed based on Eno’s ‘Oblique Strategies’: a deck of cards that had random cues written on them, like, “if a thing can be said, it can be said simply.” Another example that Eno used was based on something he wrote in his diary, stop thinking about artworks as objects, and start thinking about them as triggers for experiences.”

After Bowie released Low in 1977, the first album of the trilogy, he went on tour with Iggy Pop to play Iggy’s solo debut, The Idiot, which Bowie helped write and produce. Once Bowie completed another album with Iggy Pop, his amazing Lust for Life, the Starman reconvened with Brian Eno and producer Tony Visconti to create the epitomistic Heroes.  

“Every song on Heroes starts with a backing track, and by that time, David had a great backing band,” Visconti began on BBC Four Programme Music Moguls: Masters of Pop. “He had George Murray on bass. Carlos Alomar on guitar was with him for 30 years, starting with Young Americans and Dennis Davis on drums,” Visconti added. Not only was this Bowie’s well-oiled machine, but it was also an extremely eclectic group of musicians. With the added ambient master, Brian Eno, things were off to a wholly unique start.

“Off in the corner, Brian Eno was playing with his briefcase synthesizer and making these beautiful spatial noises,” Visconti also said. The way Bowie’s band came together was akin to Bowie’s cut-up technique and Eno’s ‘Oblique Strategies’, in that they were all different musicians stylistically and would create different musical phrases which Bowie pasted together as if by random chance.

Once the backing tracks were recorded, Bowie and Eno then began adding synth parts together. This was only the beginning; “we were shooting in the dark,” Visconti commented. “We were getting closer and closer to what the song is called, and a week later, we still don’t have lyrics, but we might be calling it heroes; we invited Robert Fripp to come to the studio,” he added.

While the King Crimson guitar player’s creativity and skill would have probably been enough — this is not how Bowie operated. Both Eno and Bowie wanted to add randomness to the equation. “He comes and lays down three tracks. Brian Eno can take things into his synthesizer and manipulate them. That’s a treated guitar,” Visconti said about Fripp’s guitar sound before adding, “it was like a celestial Fripp sound.”

Bowie’s vocals and lyrics would be added at the very end, but they were running out of tracks. Indeed, they only had one track left. “You’ll notice that the sound is very echoey, very roomy, and that’s when I set up this three microphone technique where I wanted the room, but I didn’t want it all the time. We only had one track left for the vocal.” Since Visconti only had one track left for the vocals, he wanted to create the illusion that there were more than just one vocal track.

Visconti continued to describe how they created the illusion that there were more than just one vocal track: “So I set up a mic in the middle of the room to capture how the sound travels that far, you know, maybe 15-20 feet. And then I set up a third mic in the rear of the room where it travels the whole length, probably 50 feet. And David was on the other end of the room with a mic close up in front of him.”

This three-microphone-technique worked via an electronic gate placed on the audio signal. Depending on how loud Bowie would sing, each microphone’s electronic gate would open and pick up the signal of his vocals. The one vocal track was not treated with reverb whatsoever. What you hear on the record is complete natural reverb due to the placement of the mics.

And this is the way Tony Visconti and David Bowie created the vocal effect on the iconic track, ‘Heroes’. Listen to the song below and try to picture this technique in your mind as you re-discover the beautiful song.

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