Recording, mixing: David Live

Tony Visconti began mixing the David Live album on 17 July 1974.

The album had been recorded at the Tower Theatre in Upper Darby, Pennsylvania, from 812 July. David Live was conceived by Bowie’s management company as a contractual fulfilment release, and a way to claw back some of the huge costs of the elaborate Diamond Dogs Tour.

The shows had been recorded by engineer Keith Harwood, who had previously worked on Diamond Dogs. Visconti, however, soon discovered that the recordings lacked quality and definition.

I missed the recording of the Philadelphia concerts by a day because of transportation problems. I wasn’t as happy with the basic tracks that I had to work with as I might have been. The most important thing in recording a live album is to keep the instruments as acoustically separate as possible. A rule of thumb is to maintain the level of instruments like the bass drum throughout the set. Although Keith Harwood is a good engineer, the levels he set for recording Bowie live were a bit inconsistent, and it took ages to clean up the master. We had that trouble on ‘Diamond Dogs’ where the bass drum and the bass guitar weren’t distinguishable enough from each other.
Tony Visconti
Circus, December 1974

To salvage the tapes, new backing vocals and horns were recorded, using the same musicians from Bowie’s tour: singers Geoff MacCormack (Warren Peace) and Gui Andrisano, and David Sanborn and Richard Grando on saxophone and flute.

That was really what you might call a salvage job, and it was one mix that I didn’t enjoy doing. If you listen to the recording now, you’ll hear that it’s very brittle and lacks depth, and for the twelve musicians or so that he had on stage, it sounds very puny. We also mixed it at Electric Ladyland, which is a fine studio today, but at the time was run in a very poor manner. There also had to be an immediacy about when it came out, for contractual reasons, because RCA were crying out for another album, and David and Tony Defries, who was involved then, just threw it out, and it was one of the quickest and shoddiest albums I’ve ever done, and I’m really not proud of it at all. I was just flown over full of jet lag from England to mix it in New York, and on the night we listened back to it, David invited about sixty people to the playback. And we mixed that album in quadrophonic, because RCA demanded it, although they never released it in quad, so we sat with about sixty people between four enormous speakers in a studio, and everyone was saying how fantastic it was, except David and I, who were the only people present with big frowns on our faces – we looked at each other, and we were just cringing. Part of the problem was the number of musicians – we discovered that a lot of the people on the right side of the stage didn’t know what the people on the left were playing. That’s why symphony orchestras have conductors, to remind one lot of people what the other lot are doing. But it was a mess, and like a lot of live albums, if we’d had the time, we could have salvaged it, but at least it was an honest live album, and David didn’t replace a single note of his vocal. The only thing we did replace were the backing vocals, because the backing vocalists were also dancing, and they were better dancers than singers, added to which they were usually out of breath by the time they got to the microphone, so we got them back – and Warren Peace was one of them – and they re-did their parts. But we just didn’t have time – we could have fooled the public by making it very glossy, but there was no time.
Tony Visconti
The Record Producers, John Tobler and Stuart Grundy

David Live was mixed at Electric Lady Studios in New York City. The in-house engineer, Eddie Kramer, insisted he should man the mixing desk.

Since the console and the studio were alien to me, I felt Kramer should play an active role.

First we had to fix a few backing vocals and the backing singers were brought in to re-sing their parts; poor stage monitoring was the cause of this as the singers had a great deal of difficulty hearing themselves and the other performers. This took a day. Kramer proceeded to engineer the mixes the next day. This was a tough album to mix and Kramer’s habit of throwing back his head as he ‘played’ the mixing console like a concert pianist was a little overdone. The ’70s was a crazy decade, and ‘Cocaine is a hell of a drug’, as funkmaster Rick James said.

One day during the mixing of David Live, David and I stood side by side at urinals having a pee. The men’s room was crowded with a Latin American band recording in the next studio, taking a break. They were a really friendly bunch of guys, and recognized David instantly. As we were peeing two band members held a spoon of cocaine under our noses and insisted that we each have a toot before we finished peeing. Very decadent… very ’70s.

Tony Visconti
Bowie, Bolan And The Brooklyn Boy
Last updated: 25 May 2023
Live: Music Hall, Boston, Massachusetts
Live: Bushnell Performing Arts Center, Hartford
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