In the studio
The recording of Hunky Dory went smoothly over several weeks. The sessions took place at Trident Studios in central London, where Ken Scott had been the in-house engineer and where David Bowie had recorded much of his previous two albums.
I used microphones that I had grown completely accustomed to, most of which I still use today, and we always made sure that the sound was right in the studio first, therefore I didn’t have to do too much up in the control room.
On Woody Woodmansey’s drums it was an AKG D12 on bass drum, with the front head off and the mic close to where the beater hits. Neumann U67s on toms and a Sony C38 on snare, all as close as I could get them to the drum angled to the centre of the head. Overheads were probably STC, now Coles, 4038s. I wasn’t into cymbals at this point so tended to use these sparingly.
For Trevor Bolder I used mostly direct inject (DI) and if any amp sound was needed it would have been through a Neumann U67.
Mick Ronson’s electric guitar was a Neumann U67 about a foot away from his Marshall amp and acoustic guitars, both David’s and Mick’s, were recorded using AKG C12as.
The acoustic piano, played by the inimitable Rick Wakeman, was Trident’s amazing Bechstein grand built in 1898. For this I used a Neumann KM56 on the high end and yet another U67 for the low end. And last, but certainly not least, David’s vocals, probably a C12a. It must be noted that most of the vocals are one take from beginning to end, often the first take, with no autotune or time correction. They are all true live performances.
I EQ’d to tape using only the board EQ and compressed/limited using either one of the two Teletronix LA3A limiters or the Universal Audio 175 B.
All the mixes were done in the mix room using Trident’s original Sound Techniques 20 in 8 out desk and the mix down machine was a Studer C37 running at 15ips (inches per second) with Dolbys. Much like the studio, the outboard gear was limited. We had two EMT140 plates for reverb, two Teletronix LA3A limiters, two UREI 1176s, one Universal Audio 175 B and six Astronic A1671 graphic equalisers. Oh yes, one Countryman 967 phase box as well.
Five Years book
The first session took place on 8 June 1971, with the recording of ‘Song For Bob Dylan’. There followed a break of several weeks, and towards the end of the month Bowie and Ronson appeared at the first Glastonbury Fayre festival.
Work on Hunky Dory resumed on 9 July, this time with Rick Wakeman in attendance. The band recorded ‘It Ain’t Easy’, which was held over for the Ziggy Stardust album and featured Dana Gillespie on backing vocals, and two takes of the unreleased song ‘Bombers’.
Wakeman later recalled some conflict in the studio on that day, during which Bowie reportedly admonished the band for not having learnt the songs.
He said, ‘You’ve had good rehearsal facilities, you’re being paid, this is a wonderful opportunity – and you haven’t learned them.’ He said, ‘You can pack your stuff up, go and practice them, and we’ll come back in the studio when you’ve learned them… If you want to go back and be a small band up in Hull or wherever, that’s fine.’
Golden Years, BBC Radio 2
His account, however, was rejected by Trevor Bolder and Ken Scott, who both denied it happened. Bolder expressed a belief that the band would not have survived such a dressing-down, with Ronson and Woodmansey having already left Bowie once before.
The band worked from Monday to Saturday, starting in the early afternoon and normally ending around midnight. According to Scott, there were no drugs in the studio and very little alcohol – the main exception being Ronson’s occasional fondness for a few beers.
It was July 1971, David and I had already worked together several times at Trident Studios and so that was the studio of choice for this next set of recordings. A logical decision as Trident was my home base at this time and, as David and I were both cutting our teeth as co-producers, it made sense to work where we were both completely comfortable.
The recordings, eventually released as Hunky Dory, were recorded on a 3M M56 2″ 16 track. The mixing console was a Sound Techniques 20 in 16 out desk and the monitors were four Tannoy Red speakers housed in Lockwood cabinets.
Five Years book
The musicians and producer all gelled well, and were able to realise Bowie’s creative vision without conflict or compromise. Often they had an intuitive understanding of what the songs needed, and Scott knew to give Bowie the space to worked unhindered.
We each had our own roles and we didn’t have to talk about it – it was instinctive. There were often moments where David would say to Ronno, ‘OK, it’s time to…’ and Ronno would cut him off and say, ‘I know. I’ll do the guitar at the end of the song.’ Before any of us could say anything, he’d be in the studio playing the new part brilliantly. He always knew exactly what was needed.
I guess you could say that we were in each other’s heads right from the start of our collaboration. We all knew our places, and I knew when to shut up if David was sure of what he was doing. In fact, the hardest thing for me during David’s sessions was just making sure I always had enough tracks. If he suddenly wanted to add another vocal or a 120-piece orchestra, I had to be sure we could do it. It was more of knowing when to be silent than knowing when to say something, yet I knew that I always had complete freedom at the end when it came to mixing.
Abbey Road To Ziggy Stardust
This smooth process meant that the songs were recorded quickly – often in just two or three takes. According to Scott, Bowie’s vocal performances were among the easiest to record, due to the singer’s ability to capture the song in a single attempt.
David was always exceptional with the vocals, and 99% of the time it was the first take, beginning to end, with no punches [overdubs]. I’d get the level and he’d sing the song down and that would be it. Sure made my job easy. You’d think there was a mistake when he was laying it down, but when we’d listen to the playback we’d find that what we thought sounded odd the first time through was intentional and worked perfectly.
Abbey Road To Ziggy Stardust