Space Oddity: from song to track

If you’ve ever wondered what it is that a music producer does exactly, David Bowie’s “Space Oddity” is a crystal clear example. To put it in a nutshell, a producer turns this:

Into this:

It’s also interesting to listen to the first version of the commercial recording, which is better than the demo, but still nowhere near as majestic as the final version. The Austin Powers flute solo is especially silly.

Should we even consider these three recordings to be the same piece of music? On the one hand, they’re all the same melody and chords and lyrics. On the other hand, if the song only existed in its demo form, or in the awkward Austin Powers version, it would never have made the impact that it did. Some of the impact of the final version lies in better recording techniques and equipment, but it’s more than that. The music takes on a different meaning in the final version. It’s bigger, trippier, punchier, tighter, more cinematic, more transporting, and in general about a thousand times more effective.

The producer’s job is to marshall the efforts of songwriters, arrangers, performers and engineers to create a good-sounding recording. (The producer might also be a songwriter, arranger, performer, and/or engineer.) Producers are to songs what directors are to movies, or showrunners are to television.

When you’re thinking about a piece of recorded music, you’re really talking about three different things:

  1. The underlying composition, the part that can be represented on paper. Albin Zak calls this “the song.”
  2. The performance of the song.
  3. The finished recording, after overdubbing, mixing, editing, effects, and all the rest. Albin Zak calls this “the track.”

I had always assumed that Tony Visconti produced “Space Oddity,” since he produced a ton of other Bowie classics. As it turns out, though, Visconti was underwhelmed by the song, so he delegated it to his assistant, Gus Dudgeon. So what is it that Gus Dudgeon did precisely? First let’s separate out what he didn’t do.

You can hear from the demo that the chords, melody and lyrics were all in place before Bowie walked into the studio. They’re the parts reproduced by the subway busker I heard singing “Space Oddity” this morning. The demo includes a vocal arrangement that’s similar to the final one, aside from some minor phrasing changes. The acoustic guitar and Stylophone are in place as well. (I had always thought it was an oboe, but no, that droning sound is a low-tech synth.)

Gus Dudgeon took a song and a partial arrangement, and turned it into a track. He oversaw the addition of electric guitar, bass, drums, strings, woodwinds, and keyboards. He coached Bowie and the various studio musicians through their performances, selected the takes, and decided on effects like echoes and reverb. He supervised the mixing, which not only sets the relative loudness of the various sounds, but also affects their perceived location and significance. In short, he designed the actual sounds that you hear.

If you want to dive deep into the track, you’re in luck, because Bowie officially released the multitrack stems. Some particular points of interest:

  • The bassist, Herbie Flowers, was a rookie. The “Space Oddity” session was his first. He later went on to create the staggeringly great dual bass part in Lou Reed’s “Walk On The Wild Side.”
  • The strings were arranged and conducted by the multifaceted Paul Buckmaster, who a few years later would work with Miles Davis on the conception of On The Corner. Buckmaster’s cello harmonics contribute significantly to the psychedelic atmosphere–listen to the end of the stem labeled “Extras 1.”
  • The live strings are supplemented by Mellotron, played by future Yes keyboardist Rick Wakeman, he of the flamboyant gold cape.
  • Tony Visconti plays some flute and unspecified woodwinds, including the distinctive saxophone run that leads into the instrumental sections.

You can read a detailed analysis of the recording on the excellent Bowiesongs blog.

The big difference between the sixties and the present is that the track has assumed ever-greater importance relative to the song and the performance. In the age of MIDI and digital audio editing, live performance has become a totally optional component of music. The song is increasingly inseparable from the sounds used to realize it, especially in synth-heavy music like hip-hop and EDM. This shift gives the producer ever-greater importance in the creative process. There is really no such thing as a “demo” anymore, since anyone with a computer can produce finished-sounding tracks in their bedroom. If David Bowie were a kid now, he’d put together “Space Oddity” in GarageBand or FL Studio, with a lavish soundscape part of the conception from the beginning.

I want my students to understand that the words “producer” and “musician” are becoming synonymous. I want them to know that they can no longer focus solely on composition or performance and wait for someone else to craft a track around them. The techniques used to make “Space Oddity” were esoteric and expensive to realize at the time. Now, they’re easily within reach. But while the technology is more accessible, you still have to have the ideas. This is why it’s so valuable to study great producers like Tony Visconti and Gus Dudgeon: they’re a goldmine of sonic inspiration.

See also: a broader appreciation of Bowie.

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