David Bowie delegated most of the mixing of Reality to the album’s co-producer, Tony Visconti.
David no longer likes to do anything technical. However, his years of experience when he produced without me – producing Lou Reed and his own albums like Station To Station – have left him with a great knowledge of what can be done in the studio.
What’s more, he also hasn’t forgotten a thing. He’ll suddenly just turn around and, referring to a very tight digital delay, he’ll say, ‘You know that sound you got on my voice on Young Americans? I want that for the chorus.’ He’s got a good mental picture of how something should sound.
Then again, he and I are so close in terms of our tastes that we sometimes don’t even have to communicate at all. I’ll set up a mix and he’ll approve of 95 percent of it: ‘I think that’s great. Just keep going in that direction.’
During the mixing process, concern grew that the drum tracks in particular compared less than favourably to their Heathen counterparts. The decision was therefore made to take the drum tracks to Allaire Studios in upstate New York, play them through the huge monitor speakers there, and record the results with the natural ambience of the studio’s Neve Room.
We put the monitors exactly where we’d put the drum kit two years ago and we pointed them slightly upwards at a 45-degree angle so that they were shooting upwards and outwards. We also had a pair of Earthworks mics hanging from the rafters, about 25 feet above the monitors, which is exactly where they were above Matt Chamberlain’s drum kit during the Heathen sessions. We put them through the same preamp and the sound was there automatically. We then recorded this on a pair of tracks in Logic and brought it back to Looking Glass to use in the mix. The result is that there might be a slight difference, but overall it sounds as if the drum kit was at Allaire. This is especially so on ‘Pablo Picasso’, while about 40 per cent of the drums on ‘Looking For Water’ was captured in the Allaire room. It’s got a nice one-second decay in there, which is ideal for drums.
Visconti had intended to mix Reality at Looking Glass’s spacious Studio A. However, Visconti had been preparing virtual mixes throughout the overdub stages, within the audio program Logic.
When the results proved favourable, it was decided to proceed with mixing the album in the more confined Studio B, with a 5.1 surround sound mix created in Studio A.
In order to record and recall the mixing desk settings, Visconti took a series of reference photographs.
In order to do the recalls, I had a digital camera which I set to high resolution. I would photograph the board in three or four sections, and then when we’d recall we would bring up each shot in Photoshop and magnify it, and we could actually get a single knob measuring about nine inches in diameter! That way we were able to see precisely where we left the mix, and I can tell you, the results were just as good as any SSL recall.
Visconti had previously created a 5.1 surround mix for Heathen, as well as a reissue of Ziggy Stardust: The Motion Picture. He was tasked with doing the same for Reality; the 5.1 mix was created shortly after the stereo version.
Having listened to a lot of other people’s 5.1 mixes, I find that traditionally they tend to put all of the music in the front and ambience in the back. In some ways that sounds even weaker to me than stereo. The whole approach to 5.1 has been a very skittish one – people are really cautious about what they put in the subwoofer and whether or not they’re going to use the centre channel, but I think the rear speakers should have more of a purpose than just ambience.
“So, what I do is take the opportunity to actually make things clearer in 5.1 by assigning some of the keyboards to the rear speakers. On Heathen I put all of the ambient effects in the rear speakers, like the wash of keyboards, and while there wasn’t so much of that on Reality, I would still take the keyboards that we had towards the left and place them partially in the front and about 70 percent in the back, left-right. At the same time, I used the centre speaker exclusively for Bowie’s voice, and I bled some of that to the left and right front speakers…
“Normally I’ll put the snare and the toms and the cymbals in the front left and right speakers. With Heathen and Reality I also had the benefit of Allaire’s big room, and so I would always put the drum room mics in the rear, creating the feeling that you’re actually in the room itself when it was recorded, and it is an awesome sound. Ironically, when I did Electric Warrior I always made sure I had at least one track of ambience – back in the ’60s, my mentor Denny Cordell told me that it would always be useful to keep an open mic in the room, but I don’t think he realised how useful this would be in the year 2003 when you’re doing a 5.1 mix and you have an ambient mic that gives you a kind of time delay. It makes you go ‘Aha, so this was the size of the studio that the band was in.’ You get more reality that way.