David Bowie typically recorded his vocals three times for each Reality song. A scratch vocal was overdubbed once the initial rhythm track was laid down, followed by another, more refined, attempt in February.
He then recorded a final version towards the end of the sessions in May. According to Visconti, the album tracks were often composites of the February and May recordings.
Any vocals that we did in February were matched up with any vocals we did in May. We could easily cut from one vocal track to another. Each time, David would usually do two passes and call it quits, because he goes for feel and passion. He sings great, he’s always singing in tune, he always sings full voice, so there’s never any need for eight or nine David Bowie vocal takes. I know it and he knows it, so there was never any point where I had to do an enormous comp. It would just be down to a choice between track one or track two, and maybe we’d comp in a particular line that he’d recorded two months earlier.
Again, even though he likes to get the vocals done really quickly, David was very patient when, in the beginning, I told him I wanted to play with his vocal sound a bit. I said, ‘I’d like a few hours or maybe half a day to get a great sound, and then afterwards we can just punch in at any point.’ So, everything was well thought out and I didn’t have to do anything by the seat of my pants. I really appreciate it when an artist affords me that amount of time.
Recording David’s voice is very easy. He’s got great chops. He just goes in front of the mic without warming up at all. He’s gifted and he’s also intuitive – he knows how to sing. Sometimes I would coach him if I needed to remind him about something he’d done earlier, or I might make a suggestion – some line might require more angst or whatever – and he’s receptive to anything like that. He’s a consummate professional, and I’m really blessed to be working with such a great singer. Also, he recently gave up smoking, so he’s recaptured some of his high range. He’d lost at least five semitones, and he’s now gained most of them back. I mean, in the old days he used to sing ‘Life On Mars’ in the key of C. Now he has to sing it in the key of G.
The Looking Glass recordings were captured onto analogue tape before being transferred to digital for further overdubbing.
We initially recorded to 16-track analogue tape because I just love the sound. I’d talked David into working that way on Heathen – I told him it was really worth doing, because we’d capture the analogue compression and warmth on digital. When we’d transfer it, the sound would still be there, and that proved to be right on Heathen, so we started this new album in exactly the same way. I used about 10 tracks for drums, as well as one or two tracks for the bass and one or two tracks for the guitar. We’d then fly those 13 or 14 tracks over into Logic.
Lead guitar and additional overdubs were recorded once Bowie had a clearer idea of the songs’ directions.
The melodies were sketchy, the lyrics were sketchy, and so there was no point in recording lead guitars and other things at that stage. Sterling, Mark and David would often play along to a click track that we had on the demos, consisting of a basic drum loop from a drum box, together with a scratch keyboard or scratch guitar and David’s vocal. That would already be on tape – in this case, Logic – and then he would play another rhythm guitar along with the other two guys just to give the track some feel.
Bowie’s weapon of choice during the sessions was a white Supro Dual Tone guitar, similar to the model used by Link Wray on the 1958 single ‘Rumble’. Bowie went on something of an eBay buying spree in September 2001, buying two early 1960s Supro Dual Tone guitars for $500 and $850, as well as a 1960s 12-string ($299), plus three amplifiers: a 1951 Supro valve combo ($245); an Airline Valco Supro rectifier tube amp ($153.50); and a Valco Supro ‘Super’ tube amp ($456).
One of the guitars, a 1961 hardtail model, featured on the cover of the ‘New Killer Star’ single. The other was entrusted to Staten Island-based luthier and restorer Flip Scipio.
They brought me the second guitar and needed it done very fast, within one day. That is why I did not reinstall the top frets. The fret filler is made of dyed Japanese maple. David loved the way this guitar looked and sounded, so I chose the colors based on what I thought would look cheerful. I felt that if I can be happy with the guitar, then David would be happy with the guitar as well.
Bowie was indeed happy with the results, and according to Visconti, the guitar was “was never meant to sound so good”. Bowie played the restored Supro throughout A Reality Tour, and held one on the cover of the accompanying live album. In 2018 Supro brought out the David Bowie Limited Edition Dual Tone, based on the Supro restored by Scipio.
We’d either put a Supro amp in another little room that we found off to the side of the studio, or David would play through his little Korg Pandora DI box which has a load of effects in it. Often he’d play that for the vibe track, and then when the band left he would redo his parts through the Supro.
The other guitarists on Reality were Earl Slick, Gerry Leonard and Mark Plati from Bowie’s live band, plus Heathen alumnus David Torn.
Each guitarist had a different style and sound. Torn, whose parts were recorded over a 10-day period, provided textures and experimental sounds, including the jagged riff at the beginning of ‘New Killer Star’. Leonard’s contributions, meanwhile, included the flamenco guitar which opened ‘Pablo Picasso’, and Slick played many of the lead guitar parts.
Mike Garson, one of Bowie’s longest-serving sidemen, played the Yamaha digital piano he normally used on stage. Garson then took the MIDI files back to his Los Angeles home, fed the parts through his Yamaha MIDI Grand piano, and recorded the results with overhead microphones. Garson was then able to send Bowie and Visconti a Pro Tools file of the grand piano, allowing the producers to switch between the two sounds.
On ‘Bring Me The Disco King’ we actually preferred the sampled Yamaha piano, whereas the ‘real’ piano won out on ‘The Loneliest Guy’. So, we had a mixture in terms of Mike’s piano contributions, while David took the lion’s share of all the synthesizer parts. He loves his Korg Trinity, he knows it intimately, and he can just dial up sounds at will. When he was writing his songs he made notes of certain sounds that he wanted to use, and he ended up playing most of the sonic landscape parts; the big string parts, choirs and so on. He’d do a little work at home and then we’d refine it in the studio, and sometimes we’d record it direct, not using MIDI at all. Then, at other times, there might be an idea that neither he nor I could play – I’m a guitarist, not a keyboard player, but I could certainly play something into MIDI and make it sound a lot better with some judicious editing.
In addition to guitar and synth, Bowie added Stylophone and saxophone to some of the tracks – and even, on ‘She’ll Drive The Big Car’, played harmonica for the first time since the 1980s. His old Selmer baritone saxophone, meanwhile, appeared on ‘Pablo Picasso’, ‘She’ll Drive The Big Car’ and ‘Try Some, Buy Some’.