Breaking down David Bowie's 'Heroes' - Track-by-track
January 23, 2016 2:15 PM   Subscribe

 
This is great, and sort of what I hoped that the quite good Song Exploder podcast would do a bit more of.

Reminds me that I used to work sometimes at Chuck Hammer's studio in NYC, who did the Fripp type stuff on Scary Monsters. Those guys added a lot a lot a lot to Bowie's music
posted by C.A.S. at 2:40 PM on January 23, 2016 [4 favorites]


This is fascinating (technically) and thrilling (emotionally). I choked up at the 12 minute mark when Visconti first introduces Bowie's isolated vocal track.
posted by How the runs scored at 2:42 PM on January 23, 2016 [2 favorites]


This is one of the most fascinating things I've watched in a very long time. Thank you for this.
posted by shmegegge at 2:50 PM on January 23, 2016 [1 favorite]


Yeah, I kind of felt for Visconti there, even though this was (probably) filmed prior to Bowie's last ill months. It feels poignant enough just hearing the past coming through the speakers as alive as that, let alone in today's context
posted by C.A.S. at 2:51 PM on January 23, 2016 [1 favorite]


One of my top-ten-best-ever-very-most-favorite-songs. Thanks for this.
posted by WalkerWestridge at 3:03 PM on January 23, 2016


This is almost enough to get me to reinstall Flash.
posted by zippy at 3:04 PM on January 23, 2016 [1 favorite]


"David is quite impatient in the studio. If we want a cowbell and there's no cowbell around there we'll start hitting things. Its quicker to hit things and find a cowbell facsimile rather than phone up for one and wait an hour or two for a cowbell because already the idea will be old."
posted by Illusory contour at 3:30 PM on January 23, 2016 [8 favorites]


You know it intellectually, but it's amazing to see a song that sounds so inevitable, like it was carved out of the workings of history itself, carefully put together piece by piece. If you'd told me (a hypothetical me from an alternate dimension where "Heroes" was suppressed by MI6) that the pleasant rock groove they had at the very start would be remodelled into one of the most iconic songs in David Bowie's catalogue, well...
posted by No-sword at 3:46 PM on January 23, 2016 [6 favorites]


Poor Erin, relegated to space bar duty. She's probably going to go to her gig tonight like, "Hey, know what I was messing with today? The Bowie master tapes, yo!" and play Heroes two-handed on her eight-string guitar in 13/8 time.
posted by RobotVoodooPower at 3:51 PM on January 23, 2016 [27 favorites]


Gotta love things like "Fripp's tracks were all meaningless, so we used all three" and that bit where he only had one track left to spare for lead vocals so went with three microphones and a special gating setup instead.

The briefcase synth was one of these, btw.

And yeah, for even more about this recording, here's a long article from 2004 with even more details (including about Fripp's feedback technique).
posted by effbot at 3:57 PM on January 23, 2016 [9 favorites]


Wow, this is goosebump material for me. One revelation--of many--is how essential Carlos Alomar's track is to this. I had always read the Fripp was the guitar genius behind Heroes, but the groove is purely Carlos.
posted by superelastic at 4:01 PM on January 23, 2016 [5 favorites]


Imagine how good the song would have been if they'd found more cowbell though!
posted by maupuia at 4:14 PM on January 23, 2016 [13 favorites]


"David is quite impatient in the studio. If we want a cowbell and there's no cowbell around there we'll start hitting things. Its quicker to hit things and find a cowbell facsimile rather than phone up for one and wait an hour or two for a cowbell because already the idea will be old."

Might one say that he had a fever...?
posted by Strange Interlude at 4:18 PM on January 23, 2016 [16 favorites]


Man, that moment where the three Fripp bits come together into that song-defining wee-ooo bit is revelatory.
posted by invitapriore at 4:28 PM on January 23, 2016 [4 favorites]


It's so great to watch Tony Visconti talk through this. I wrote a joke for a show once that leaned pretty hard on the viewer being familiar with the recording process for Heroes. That was in the mid-90s. The host was generous enough to let it stand, but the audience was so small I'm sure no one got it. Heroes is on my list of perfect songs. It's thrilling to hear the isolated tracks. I'd love to get them for Logic or GarageBand.

superelastic, the Five Years documentary from Showtime makes Alomar's contribution abundantly clear. It's worth seeing.
posted by putzface_dickman at 4:29 PM on January 23, 2016 [1 favorite]


>>The briefcase synth was one of these, btw.

I want a briefcase syth! Thank you effbot. And thank you catblack.
posted by cleroy at 4:37 PM on January 23, 2016


It seems so weird to describe Eno's Synthi, pretty much the core of his early sound, as a "little synthesizer he carried around in a briefcase," but I suppose this video is for normals and not deranged electronic noise hounds like myself.

He can remember the crappy ARP Solina, however. Sheesh.

Still, this video is fabulous beyond words.
posted by sonascope at 4:44 PM on January 23, 2016 [2 favorites]


I want a briefcase syth!
posted by cleroy


Of course, these days, I carry the same "little synthesizer" around in my messenger bag, along with most of the rest of my studio. WORLD OF THE FUTURE.

Now I just need to write a damn song a fraction as good as "Heroes." High standards, you know.
posted by sonascope at 4:50 PM on January 23, 2016 [7 favorites]


I pretty much knew most of this stuff (other than the tape reel cowbell thing) but it's awesome to hear it broken down a track at a time. I also did not know how much effects were printed to tape, though I'm not surprised. They were both very right about capturing the moment & not worrying about that stuff later. Smart, wise men.

Visconti saying "Now I want to re-mix it" made me chuckle, because yeah, it's never done -- you just run out of tracks & time.

And nope, I didn't get even the least bit misty-eyed, whatsoever, no sir.
posted by Devils Rancher at 5:03 PM on January 23, 2016 [3 favorites]


superelastic, the Five Years documentary from Showtime makes Alomar's contribution abundantly clear. It's worth seeing.

Thank you! What a lame fan I am, I was not even aware of this.
posted by superelastic at 5:13 PM on January 23, 2016


This is almost enough to get me to reinstall Flash.

Pretty sure you can use Chrome, which has its own Flash incorporated, and not have to actually install Flash. Pretty sure.
posted by hippybear at 5:46 PM on January 23, 2016 [1 favorite]


It's thrilling to hear the isolated tracks. I'd love to get them for Logic or GarageBand.

When Trent Reznor started releasing multi-tracks for fans to play with 10 years ago, I was sure that it was going to become The Thing That Musicians Do. Sadly, it didn't catch on, and hasn't even remained caught on with Trent himself.

Too bad. Many would love to hear individual tracks to learn how songs are constructed or to have individual tracks to play with for remixes and stuff. Probably a copyright nightmare, but was very cool for the short time in NIN history that it lasted.
posted by hippybear at 5:50 PM on January 23, 2016 [4 favorites]


Fripp also experimented with sound processors/tape loops/analog delays, known as Frippertronics.
posted by carter at 6:03 PM on January 23, 2016


I'd heard the triggered 3 mic story for Bowie's vocals, but hadn't realised it was because they only had space for one more track. Kind of lucky really, as with Bowie hearing the combined signal live he pushed his voice a lot harder to cause the triggering and that pushing really comes through in the vocal and is an essential part of how it now sounds. If they'd had 3 tracks left and they'd recorded them separately it wouldn't have sounded the same at all.
posted by drnick at 6:05 PM on January 23, 2016 [9 favorites]


I want a briefcase syth!

Google this: Eurorack 500 modular

Basically, you can make or buy compatible widgets and modules and stuff them into whatever kind of box you like on some rails, and then you can patch them together in all kinds of different ways.
posted by loquacious at 6:06 PM on January 23, 2016 [1 favorite]


I just love how in the wake of Bowie's passing, this song has kinda been anointed his signature track. It's a great song but I feel like history passed it over because it's not dissimilar from a lot of 80s synth crap. Until you listen the parts like this.
posted by Slarty Bartfast at 6:10 PM on January 23, 2016 [2 favorites]


Sonascope: that briefcase synth on an ipad has a feature that boggles the mind. The original synth had a builtin spring reverb. This emulation on the ipad will recreate banging on the instrument case to shake up the springs just by shaking the ipad. The briefcase synth still lives.
posted by njohnson23 at 6:14 PM on January 23, 2016 [7 favorites]


that's the thing about 16 track analog - they were forced to be creative because of the limitations they were working under - nowadays, you can have as many tracks as you want and of course, you end up delaying decisions about what to use because you can just try it a whole bunch of different ways and decide later - which tends to take forever when you have 100+ tracks

not to mention they would take fripp's not quite right tracks and edit the hell out of them until they were perfect

the philosophy that one printed the tracks with fx instead of adding the fx later seems to be a british thing with americans tending to add them later - i think the advantage is that it forces you to make decisions right away instead of delaying them

it's rare that i'll use more than 16 tracks in my own recordings even though i could easily use a lot more - usually, it's less than 10 - (not counting where some are stereo vs mono)

it's too easy to get lost in all the possibilities and precision of what a modern DAW is capable of - i think it's greatly affected the way today's music sounds - one can squeeze the life out of a track by trying to make it perfect

this was a great and revealing video and thanks for posting it
posted by pyramid termite at 6:22 PM on January 23, 2016 [4 favorites]


Many would love to hear individual tracks to learn how songs are constructed or to have individual tracks to play with for remixes and stuff.

mmm - things like that can be found online, but i'm sure i'm not allowed to give you specifics here
posted by pyramid termite at 6:31 PM on January 23, 2016


Sonascope: that briefcase synth on an ipad has a feature that boggles the mind. The original synth had a builtin spring reverb. This emulation on the ipad will recreate banging on the instrument case to shake up the springs just by shaking the ipad. The briefcase synth still lives.

One of my musical compatriots has an original and well-kept VCS3 and uses the iPad version as well, and his seal of approval is that the main differences between the two are equivalent to the differences between any two original VCS3/Synthi units, which were built to shaky standards even for their time. When you use the camera kit to run a USB audio interface, you can replicate the same processing chain Eno used, albeit, with Audiobus running, you can also run a whole studio's worth of additional outboard processing. It's an amazing time to be a musician, this.
posted by sonascope at 6:32 PM on January 23, 2016 [1 favorite]


I love this song. It's always on my iPod. It never fails to make me happy. Visconti briefly mentioned another song from that same album, Beauty and the Beast. It tends to be an overlooked gem, but it's well worth a very loud listen.

That was fun to watch and listen to him describe the process. People forget just how much being in the studio can facilitate the creative process.

There was some pretty amazing music being made at that time.
posted by Thorzdad at 6:32 PM on January 23, 2016 [2 favorites]


that's the thing about 16 track analog - they were forced to be creative because of the limitations they were working under

I remember seeing a documentary about the recording of Queen's A Night At The Opera and how for The Prophet Song they took the tape out of the player and used a pencil stuck in a chair some feet from the tape machine as a pivot point and it went back into the tape machine in order to get the correct delay on the multi-tracked recording.

There is much to say about how limitations foster creativity, and it is not a new idea. The wealth of possibilities available for artists today (whether they be audio or digital painting or video) are not necessarily a boon for artists. Sometimes it is the constraints that forces things into a new track, and without those constraints, we end up with something much less than what we end up with.
posted by hippybear at 6:33 PM on January 23, 2016 [3 favorites]


The Classic Albums series in the 90's was great for 'how was it put together?' insights. For instance, in this one on Dark SIde of the Moon you get to see David Gilmour and Alan Parsons separately at the mixing desk showing the parts, and well as other band members explaining their parts and how they came up with them. There's a complete list of episodes on Wikipedia and many can be found on YouTube. The one on A Night at the Opera.
posted by drnick at 6:47 PM on January 23, 2016 [18 favorites]


I love this kind of breakdown of how songs get put together in the studio. For more geeking out on recording, I recommend the Weathervane Music channel on youtube.
posted by zchyrs at 7:06 PM on January 23, 2016


One of the great things this does, as well, is to point out just how wrong so much of studio theory is now, when we're so obsessed with a kind of bizarre need to unscramble every omelette that the word is law—never print effects. There's a logic to it, but it's the logic of marketing, that we have to prevent all accidents and never make commitments, so we can always "fix it in post," as they say.

Trouble is, it's the work of the brilliant haphazard bricoleur that's been involved in a lot of our best and most beloved work. You try things, make mistakes, have accidents, patch things together to try to solve a problem, then fail and generate something new that isn't what you expected and is instead a million times better.

Tape was a limitation, but not as significant as you'd expect. The Beatles never had a multitrack recorder with more than four tracks. Noise was a limitation, and tape wear, and straight-up mechanical things, but it was harder to make recordings sound great then, so people worked harder, and tried out more left-field solutions, and took the approach of the bricoleur, just stringing anything they could together until the magic came. It's more a zen task of blocking off the too-easy current wisdom about getting good sound in favor of a desire to reach for new things in service to the songs than a limitation, necessarily, though reducing options makes it easier to explore the options in a limited selection more fully.

Eno's Synthi was another great limitation. I'm a very well-seasoned synthesist and I get completely lost in the bizarro architecture and occasional inexplicable interaction between elements of the instruments. It's not particularly versatile, but when it comes to a resource for happy accidents, particularly when you do what he did, which is to run guitars and other things through it, it's unbeatable...and still, it's limited enough to encourage experimentation without just getting lost in it, which is an increasing problem of contemporary boutique modular systems (IMHO). They're amazing at adding little inexplicable sounds, like the weebly sound in Eno's "Baby's On Fire" that you'd pretty much never set out to make from scratch, but once it reveals itself, it becomes the air in which Baby burns.

Of course, the pendulum is swinging back to this kind of work, and there's a whole generation sick of gorgeously produced pop without the shaggy heart that makes some of the best music some of the best music.
posted by sonascope at 7:11 PM on January 23, 2016 [20 favorites]


I will never hear that song the same way again. Thank you.
posted by St. Peepsburg at 7:22 PM on January 23, 2016 [1 favorite]


i think the advantage is that it forces you to make decisions right away instead of delaying them

Which reminds me of this bit from a Meshuggah documentary, where Mårten Hagström discusses the virtual amps setup they use in the studio, and cannot help giggling over how silly the raw guitar sounds: "So the line signal we record sounds like this..." (and moments later he talks about how irritating it is with these endless options, since you're never done...).
posted by effbot at 7:23 PM on January 23, 2016 [1 favorite]


I gotta say I actually teared up when he talks about the kiss he had, mentions that Bowie saw it, and then plays the isolated, incredibly emotional vocals of Bowie singing about it. Hit me right where it hurt.

.
posted by flatluigi at 7:24 PM on January 23, 2016 [4 favorites]


The Beatles eventually got an 8-track:

Abbey Road's first eight-track, the M23 was rejected by George Martin for various technical issues. The tape deck remained out of use for months while the studio's technicians modified it to his specifications. Fed up with recording on four-track, The Beatles "liberated" the M23 on September 3, 1968, and used it to record 10 tracks on the White Album.

But they were masters of the 4-track bounce, even if it did add some generation loss. The overdub-free version of I Am The Walrus shows how much cleaner the track could have sounded.
posted by RobotVoodooPower at 7:33 PM on January 23, 2016 [1 favorite]


This is freaking great. I could sit in that room and listen to that all day.

When Trent Reznor started releasing multi-tracks for fans to play with 10 years ago, I was sure that it was going to become The Thing That Musicians Do. Sadly, it didn't catch on, and hasn't even remained caught on with Trent himself.

Lots of people wanted this to happen and were excited for it to be an extra income source, I think it was mostly that the customers just weren’t that interested.

the philosophy that one printed the tracks with fx instead of adding the fx later seems to be a british thing with americans tending to add them later

I think this has much more to do with the personality of the producer, and of course sometimes the constraints of the gig. Still happens a lot. Don’t print FX if you’re going to second guess yourself later. If you know what you want and can get it don’t fuck around and make things more complicated. Commit.

Poor Erin, relegated to space bar duty.

Fuck that, Erin is sitting in a pretty sweet studio with Tony Visconti working the Heroes tapes. Erin is doing all right. I seriously doubt Erin would rather be wanking on a guitar somewhere, and if so should be. I’ll run the machine for Tony Visconti if he wants.
posted by bongo_x at 7:54 PM on January 23, 2016 [6 favorites]


As for finding the individual component tracks, all one shout say is that all sorts of trouble "stems" from Google.

I've been mucking around with electronic music for many decades, and still get transported for hours by just playing/stealing/finding snippets into the simplest of tools, lime Audacity, and looping/layering/transforming. If you love hearing beneath the surface of music, give it a go...
posted by Devonian at 8:00 PM on January 23, 2016 [1 favorite]


I thought that some of the magic of this song would go away for me if I saw how it was made. Happily, I was wrong.
posted by Halloween Jack at 8:25 PM on January 23, 2016 [1 favorite]


Erin is doing all right.

Is Erin a guitarist? I thought she was an engineer, up-and-coming producer, and occasional Bowie backing vocalist (e.g on this one and this one)?
posted by effbot at 8:37 PM on January 23, 2016


Love how much Bowie and related stuff has surfaced in his memory. I enjoyed this New Yorker article the other day too about Harmonia and the other Krautrock and electronic groups Bowie and Eno were hanging out with during the Berlin period. As a Kraftwerk and Krautrock fan, the Berlin albums have always been at the top of my Bowie playlists.
posted by p3t3 at 9:04 PM on January 23, 2016 [1 favorite]


It has always bothered me, how the backing vocals echo "over our heads" when Bowie clearly just sang "above our heads"...
posted by littlejohnnyjewel at 9:44 PM on January 23, 2016


Is Erin a guitarist?

RobotVoodooPower made a joke about it and…You're just going to have to go back and read it.
posted by bongo_x at 10:30 PM on January 23, 2016


Ooooo... backing vocals that change a little here and there from the original and how that affects the meaning of the song is one of my favourite things.

RIP again sir.
posted by Cosine at 10:37 PM on January 23, 2016 [2 favorites]


One of the great things this does, as well, is to point out just how wrong so much of studio theory is now, when we're so obsessed with a kind of bizarre need to unscramble every omelette that the word is law—never print effects
Totally. This video was so validating for me.
When I was starting to figure out how to multitrack stuff on my shitty little Tascam in the 80's I had no idea what the fuck I was doing. I always tracked with effects because that was the song in my head, that's how I heard it. I only learned later that it was "wrong." Same with room sounds, I LOVE hearing the room. All this shit about recording in a dead room so you can add reverb later, I hate it. It's fake and dead and synthetic. That big room at Hansa is ALL OVER Heroes.
I just wished Tony had let that solo'd vox track play out for the rest of the song. God I'm getting emotional again.
posted by chococat at 11:02 PM on January 23, 2016 [2 favorites]


it's rare that i'll use more than 16 tracks in my own recordings even though i could easily use a lot more - usually, it's less than 10 - (not counting where some are stereo vs mono). it's too easy to get lost in all the possibilities and precision of what a modern DAW is capable of - i think it's greatly affected the way today's music sounds - one can squeeze the life out of a track by trying to make it perfect

Exactly. Ralph Ellison never finished his follow-up to the incredible "Invisible Man," in 50 YEARS, because he got lost in the ease of revision that the friggin' word processor brought.

That's why I like the White Stripes -- they tackled this head on. It's not a new idea either, arguably going back at least to Asian ink wash painting in the Tang Dynasty.
posted by msalt at 11:10 PM on January 23, 2016 [2 favorites]


Same with room sounds, I LOVE hearing the room.

An extreme example is Will Oldham's "No More Workhorse Blues" from Palace Brothers' "Days in the Wake" (1993). You can actually hear thunder in the background around 0:49 and later (1:35, esp 2:26, 3:12)

The only recording I could find on YouTube or Vimeo also has a buzz that I'm almost certain was not on the original album, as much as it was part of the "lo-fi" movement.
posted by msalt at 11:36 PM on January 23, 2016 [3 favorites]


Same with room sounds, I LOVE hearing the room. All this shit about recording in a dead room so you can add reverb later, I hate it. It's fake and dead and synthetic.

That was mostly a 70’s thing. Most rock records since the 90’s have room sounds, at least on the drums. Vocals and guitars, not as much, but still fairly often. A lot of those studios that were built in the 70’s had those dead drum booths and rooms that hardly anyone recorded drums in after that so they rebuilt or repuporsed them.
posted by bongo_x at 1:11 AM on January 24, 2016


Is Erin a guitarist? I thought she was an engineer

yes, I found it interesting to watch her because she clearly knows exactly what bits he is thinking about replaying, they have a nonverbal communication going on aside from what he is saying for the camera.
posted by 5_13_23_42_69_666 at 2:11 AM on January 24, 2016 [2 favorites]


That was mostly a 70’s thing.

So was drenching the bass with flanger....
posted by thelonius at 2:37 AM on January 24, 2016 [3 favorites]


The bones of the song, the lead, bass and drums are so rock-solid. It's like the rest is all pretty drapery. ("…he recorded three tracks but they were all kind of meaningless…") …except that it's not just pretty drapery - it's its own kind of brilliance - that probably couldn't live without that skeleton. I fucking love this song, and the album, the albums from this period.
posted by From Bklyn at 3:00 AM on January 24, 2016 [3 favorites]


There's an analogy here with film. When I started in TV, we shot on super 16mm film, editors worked actually physically cutting work prints, assistant editors organised the work prints, apprentices helped. It was a 5 year process to work your way up to the chair.

The pace of this meant that you screened material and understood it as you worked, you thought about each cut and revision as it was labor intensive, and by the time you sat in the chair you understood the craft of edits.

On the shooting end, you had 10 minute mags of film and so shots were considered.

Digital non-linear editing offers so much choice and instant change, and the process of learning the craft has been destroyed. Shooting tapeless cameras, producers deliver material shot without discipline in the "fire hose" method of pointing a camera at everything with the trigger pulled.

Now, an editor is handed shooting ratios of 20 to 1 and expected to craft a story in less time because of the technology, and the thinking time has been removed from the process to boot.

Endless possibilities are not always liberating but sometimes actually constraining.
posted by C.A.S. at 5:10 AM on January 24, 2016 [13 favorites]


we always had this constant Fripp thing going...a celestial Fripp sound

there's a MeFi name in there for the taking
posted by kokaku at 5:57 AM on January 24, 2016


This is fascinating; I would love to see him break down other songs like this.
According to Visconti, Bowie was planning another album after Blackstar.
posted by Dr. Zira at 9:04 AM on January 24, 2016


'Nice? It's the ONLY thing,' said the Water Rat solemnly, as he
leant forward for his stroke. 'Believe me, my young friend, there is
NOTHING--absolute nothing--half so much worth doing as simply
messing about in boats the studio. Simply messing,' he went on dreamily:
'messing--about--in--boats the studio; messing----'
posted by Trochanter at 11:08 AM on January 24, 2016 [3 favorites]




Watching the episode this came from, by the way - a tour through the great record producers with Nile Rodgers, from Motown and Joe Meek to Mark Ronson (well, it's their programme, and he's probably more TV friendly than Nigel Godrich, who does turn up as a talking head). Episode one of the series was about managers and presented by Simon Napier Bell. Don't know what ep three will be, but it's a perfectly fine BBC4 Friday night rock doc.
posted by Grangousier at 3:58 PM on January 24, 2016 [1 favorite]


No Flash and youtube-dl isn't working for this, can someone post a direct link to wherever the video file is?
posted by Bangaioh at 4:15 PM on January 24, 2016


youtube-dl was just updated on Jan 23rd, if you re-install it the new version works.
posted by Lanark at 4:39 PM on January 24, 2016 [1 favorite]


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