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The miking secrets of David Bowie's 'Heroes'

Former KPCC engineer Peter Stenshoel used to do an Album of the Week feature for the former Off-Ramp blog. In 2011 he wrote this entry about the late David Bowie's landmark album "Heroes."

Darrell Perry, my media-savvy friend and the bloke who first lead a team of photographers at the Wall Street Journal, once shared his understanding of David Bowie. "Bowie wants you to think his work is ten years ahead of its time," he said, "but, in fact, each album perfectly captures the present."

In summer of 1977, West Berlin was the city of the future, representative of the same nervous energy fueling the music of international youth. "Heroes," an album recorded just 500 feet from the infamous Berlin Wall, captured the Cold War angst of its age with innovative musical techniques and high levels of lyrical ambiguity. Exactly 10 years later, President Reagan, speaking at the Brandenburg Gate in the summer of 1987, exhorted the Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, to "...tear down this wall!" In 2 years, the Brandenburg Gate was opened, and the Berlin Wall was effectively "torn down."

I'm not claiming this album in particular had anything to do with that remarkable reversal. But the late 20th Century spirit of grand adventure and change -- from new wave to punk, free jazz to minimalism, DIY to performance art, hyper-realism, and deconstruction of formal models of the past -- could have left its mark on East German consciousness.

Listen to "Heroes" by David Bowie

Regardless, "Heroes" is a cultural touchstone. Critically acclaimed as one of David Bowie's best albums, he was assisted by major talents including Brian Eno, Tony Visconti, and Robert Fripp. Producer Visconti achieved a remarkable vocal effect on the title track by spacing three microphones -- 9 inches, 15 feet, and 50 feet away in a straight line out into a huge orchestral recording room to catch Bowie's vocals echoing the entire room. His genius was to put "gates," or stoppers, on the farther microphones until Bowie's vocals got louder. So there's an intimacy at first, which begins to yield to the natural reverberation of the room as he sings an octave higher and louder. This is one of the reasons "Heroes" is such a memorable song. Fripp's musical guitar feedback and Eno's odd electronic sounds are other landmark elements.

German bands like Tangerine Dream, Kraftwerk, and Neu! also were paid tribute in atmospheric, minimalist instrumentals like Moss Garden, Sense of Doubt, and V-2 Schneider.  Other songs are downright noisy, but enjoyable romps.

Hear more wonderful details of the session in this interview with producer Tony Visconti.