Saying that Tony Visconti produced some of David Bowie's most innovative albums is the same as saying he produced some of the most innovative albums in rock. It's hard to listen to dance music, alternative rock, electronica, or ambient music without hearing the influence of the Visconti-helmed Bowie/Brian Eno trilogy Low, Heroes, and Lodger. Add to that his work with bands like T. Rex, Strawbs, Thin Lizzy, Sparks, and Luscious Jackson, and you have one of the most inventive producers to ever man a recording console.
It's not surprising then that Visconti - without prompting from a record label or his colleagues or anything other than his own love of experimentation - decided to dive into surround sound. When I talked to him at Philip Glass's Looking Glass Studios in New York City, he had just done a multichannel version of "Slow Burn" off Bowie's latest CD, Heathen, which he originally produced. It got the attention of Bowie's distributor, Columbia, which okayed a remix of the entire album, due on Super Audio CD later this fall.
"Surround is an ideal format for music," Visconti told me. "And Heathen, because it was recorded with a lot of ambient mikes in a very large studio, is perfect for surround." Most producers just capture the sound of the instruments and not the performance space around them, but Visconti's philosophy is: "You don't record the instruments so much as you record the room they're in. Some rooms are the equivalent of a Stradivarius; some aren't." This approach has made his work especially ripe for multichannel mixing.
"I've been thinking surround ever since I heard what a distant mike could do to a mix," he said. "With my early T. Rex stuff, I always had one or two ambient mikes in the room. If I remixed those tracks for surround, you'd really hear the size of the room and be more enveloped by it than you are in stereo." Visconti is looking forward to opening up the dense Heathen mix. "David Torn plays the most beautiful ambient guitar, and we always recorded him on three tracks because he's got his guitar coming out of his middle amp and his effects coming out of two amps nearby on the left and right. I positioned the mikes a little back from the amps so that the room sound would blend in. I'm going to experiment with, say, putting his primary guitar in the center of your head, in the four left and right speakers, but the ambient sounds in the rear speakers.
There's a wealth of information on his tracks that you can't hear in stereo." Does Visconti have any reservations about the essential unreality of that kind of mix? "Pop and rock have had artificial soundstages since the 1950s. If I recorded classical music, I would be very religious about where the mikes were placed and how true the mix is to the original venue. But in rock, I have the advantage of just going crazy, which I intend to do."
I asked him how he handled Bowie's voice on the "Slow Burn" remix. "I just have him in the center speaker. His voice is all by itself, so it's not competing with anything. It's very audible. But the way I mix it, David doesn't sound too focused. To me, it sounds as if he were really singing in your room."
When I mentioned that a lot of other producers seem unsure about the center channel, Visconti responded, "I love the center channel. I don't know why they're afraid of it. True, you can't guarantee how people will have their home system set up, but the speaker's there and it should be used. No one would be foolish enough to put a bass there or a kick drum - but then again, there's nothing etched in stone about mixing in surround."
Visconti recently did a surround remix of D. A. Pennebaker's classic concert film of Bowie's Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars. (The DVD-Video is due in late fall). I asked him how it differed from the artificial soundscapes of his studio albums. "I mixed it so you feel like you're in the 12th row. You can actually feel the applause tickling the sides of your ears.
I've been in the Hammersmith Odeon loads of times, and when the mixing engineer and I got the balance right, I told him, 'This is my memory of sitting in that theater.' At first he tried to create a stadium, and I said, 'No, this is a small theater, with a thousand seats. It's not 10,000.' So we took all of the artificial reverb off to stay true to the space.
"One thing I did that was artificial was to bring the piano away from the front of the stage and wrap it to the left. I did the same thing with the horns on the right. But enough sound bleeds to the front to make them not appear to be only in the back. So you can now hear those parts a lot clearer."
After Heathen, Visconti would like to move on to the rest of the Bowie catalog. "If all of the albums were available in surround, a lot of people would go out and buy more equipment so they could hear them. They might not want to buy a new stereo version, but a surround version would be really attractive." Given the wealth of material to choose from, where would he jump in? "Everything would sound good, but the ambient stuff - Low, Heroes, and Lodger - would sound amazing."
Musing over the eclectic mix of performers he's worked with, Visconti admitted it would be hard to decide who besides Bowie would be best suited for the surround treatment. "Aside from the T. Rex stuff, I think my Thin Lizzy albums would sound huge in surround. I could put two guitars in the front and two in the back, and I could pan the solos."
What does he think of other mixes he's heard? "Missy Elliott's Miss E . . . So Addictive was great. Jimmy Douglass put all the cuss words in the back. [laughs] Elliot Scheiner's mix of 'Bohemian Rhapsody' for Queen's A Night at the Opera was stunning, but his mix of the Eagles' Hotel California was very disappointing. I was listening to it with a good friend, and she said, 'It sounds smaller than the stereo. When you have six speakers, shouldn't it sound bigger?' I think the Eagles mix is a little too discrete - there's no blend."
Given all of the producers who haven't yet ventured into surround, I asked Visconti who of his peers might do some intriguing work. "Steve Albini [the Pixies, Nirvana, P J Harvey] has a studio in Chicago that's perfect for surround. He records a lot of ambience, so his stuff would sound wonderful. Butch Vig [Nirvana, Smashing Pumpkins, Garbage] records lots of information to create a very dense mix, so his stuff would sound great. So would Trent Reznor's. His would be amazing."
One of the biggest problems with both DVD-Audio and SACD is the paucity of releases from younger, cutting-edge bands. Having worked with groups like Luscious Jackson and Gay Dad, Visconti feels the potential is even greater there than with Boomer-oriented releases. "The trend today in recording is not to use reverb and to be as low-fi as possible. But that would actually sound quite big in surround. I would love to mix the Strokes or the White Stripes, because it would be fantastic."
Visconti has heard all of the arguments against music in surround, but he's not buying them. "A lot of people complain that no one's got the time anymore to sit in that sweet spot in the middle of six speakers, that nobody listens to the music that intently. But you don't have to sit. Surround can sound just as attractive if you walk around the room. You're always getting a new perspective on the mix."
As someone who approaches surround purely out of his passion for its potential, Visconti isn't shy about offering advice to his colleagues. "I would tell everyone to be adventurous and don't treat it with kid gloves. Abuse it and mangle it. Make it a very exciting format, and make it worth buying. There are no rules. Use the center speaker, don't use the center speaker. It's interesting to read what other people do with surround, but because Elliot Scheiner did it one way, that doesn't mean we all have to do it that way. And that's what makes horse races, you know."