Recording the vocals

With the exception of ‘No Plan’ and part of ‘I Can’t Give Everything Away’, all of David Bowie’s Blackstar vocals were re-recorded at New York’s Human Worldwide Studios.

The studio, owned by Tony Visconti’s son Morgan, was where Bowie had laid down most of The Next Day‘s vocals.

He sounds really good when we do this effect called ADT, automatic double-tracking. Then we fooled around with some rippling, repeat echoes. They’re all custom-made effects.
Tony Visconti
Rolling Stone, 23 November 2015

‘Blackstar’ was the first song to have re-recorded vocals. These were laid down on 2 and 3 April, and completed on 15 May 2015.

Vocals for ‘Girl Loves Me’ were recorded on 16 April and 17 May, and ‘’Tis A Pity She Was A Whore’ was completed on 20 and 22 April. Bowie recorded the ‘Lazarus’ vocals on 23 and 24 April and 7 May, ‘Sue (Or In A Season Of Crime)’ on 23 and 30 April, and ‘Dollar Days’ on 27 April.

David always loved to do complete [vocal] takes, maybe as many as four. Usually, take one was the keeper with some words or lines used from the other takes. On rare occasions, he’d punch in. He always liked a good mix to sing to with some reverb on his voice. He didn’t like hanging around if he was raring to go, so before he arrived I would create a very workable mix and my assistant would get the levels on my voice trying to sing as loud as he would. No matter how loud I would sing he’d always sing louder.
Tony Visconti
Grammy.com, May 2017

The final batch of vocals were recorded in May 2015. ‘When I Met You’, from the Lazarus soundtrack, was completed on 5 May; part of ‘I Can’t Give Everything Away’ on 7 May; ‘Killing A Little Time’ on 19 May; and ‘Blaze’ on 22 and 25 May.

Mixing the album

In the credits for Blackstar, Bowie and Visconti are credited for mixing the album. However, the album contains an unusual additional credit: “Final master mix by Tom Elmhirst”.

The credit was explained by Visconti shortly before the album’s release.

David and I were mixing in my studio, and David says, “Let’s do this at Electric Lady. When I worked with Arcade Fire a couple of years ago, I loved that room.” But Electric Lady gave us a smaller analog room; the room he wanted wasn’t for hire because Tom Elmhirst leases it. He’s mixing Adele, Frank Ocean… although he’s British, he’s the Number 1 mixing engineer in the US. So we weren’t getting anywhere in our little studio. We went to see Tom and he started playing some of his recent mixes. David took me aside: “Do you mind if I ask Tom to mix the album?” I said, “You go ahead.”

Tom started mixing and his basic sound was brilliant but he was missing a few cues. I personally don’t like to mix “unattended” – this is a new term in the business. Tom always works unattended – Adele never comes to the studio. But we live in New York so we attended. David and I would show up about 5pm and correct a few things. Initially Tom said, “I do a mix a day, that’s how I work.” David and I looked at each other and said, “I’m sorry but it takes a little longer to mix a David Bowie song…”

Tom did a fantastic job, really worked hard. But the things he gets… Music is so simple these days, pop music is so simple, that it’s a no-brainer. I’m sorry, but it doesn’t take a lot of brains to mix an Adele record. A Bowie album is almost as complicated as the galaxy we live in. It was the first time ever that David and I worked with another mixer on something that we produced. If Tom did a terrible job then I certainly would have fought to be back on the board, but he was doing exquisite work… It’s got a dazzling low end and all the dreamscapers are there too.

Tony Visconti
Mojo, January 2016

Tom Elmhirst later recalled the moment when Bowie and Visconti invited him to work on Blackstar.

I was in my room, Studio C, at Electric Lady Studios, when Tony Visconti and David booked the room next to my studio. Suddenly, David just walked into my control room, sat down and said, “Will you mix my album?” I said, “Of course!” And then we got on with it.

It was really easy to work with David. He was incredibly liberating. He’d say, “Just go. Go and have fun with it. Do what you do.” I am really into reggae and dub, and he loved all that, and said, “Go for it.” Not that there’s much of that on Blackstar. But his attitude was very much “do what you do.”

The record was mixed quite quickly. Maybe 10 days. This might be because I mixed the song ‘Blackstar’, which had been created out of two separate songs as one piece of music, and I also mixed the last two songs on the album as one piece of music, because they flow into each other. The vocals were there, the performances were there. I didn’t have to do a lot of work. It was quite painless for me, the whole process, because it was recorded and produced so well.

‘Blackstar’ was the first song I worked on. It took a couple of days, which for me is quite long. I like to work quickly. But it is about 10 minutes long. It needed form. Obviously, not a lot of people put out 10-minute singles. So you have to approach it slightly differently. You can’t give it all away too early. You have to allow the natural dynamics to come through. When it drops into that middle section, the solo voice, there is a sense of relief. It’s really quite restrained up to that point, and then it opens up more.

Tom Elmhirst
Grammy.com, May 2017

Bowie and Visconti visited Elmhirst daily in the studio to make changes to the balance and effects.

Often I do mixes unattended, without the artist there. But Tony and David were very involved. They’d come around three in the afternoon and stay a couple of hours. We’d go through stuff together, and then they’d take a mix away with them and live with it. That was the process. Sometimes they would suggest changes in different vocal balances. But a lot of the mixes didn’t really change hugely from what I handed them, which was really lovely. Quite often you end up changing stuff for months afterwards. David was quite decisive. He would say he loved it, and be very onboard and happy with how the mixes were going. I had a lot of freedom.

I could tell that David wasn’t well. He couldn’t stay very long. He didn’t have a lot of energy. But when he was there, he was incredibly present, funny and really encouraging. He was really incredibly encouraging. And he really enjoyed the process. I think on other projects for them, the mixes took longer. This seemed to come together quite quickly, and to everyone’s satisfaction.

I didn’t know it would be his final album. We even talked about working on another record soon. And he was very keen. There wasn’t a sense that this was it. Obviously, in the reflection, lyrically, it really was his last statement, wasn’t it?

Tom Elmhirst
Grammy.com, May 2017