Instant classics are hard to come by. That’s what explains all the excitement around David Bowie’s new album, The Next Day.
When was the last time in music history that a record has earned so much global adulation – before it’s even been released? But the record is a thrilling listen for rock listeners the world over, because one of the craft’s most experienced practitioners has pioneered even further.
A big part of Bowie’s accomplishment was enabled by his devoted band and production/engineering team, all of whom sacredly respected a vow of secrecy about the album’s creation. Amazingly, word never leaked about its recording – a process that unfolded over two years, with three different in-studio bands.
SoHo’s Magic Shop was the proud audio HQ for The Next Day, an artful and driving record that provides the unique feeling that David Bowie alone can deliver. As Bowie’s first studio record since 2003’s Reality – and the 30th of his career – this album was going to have to be special.
No surprise then, that Magic Shop was host not just to Bowie and his world-class bands of musicians, but to the famed Tony Visconti, who’s been the producer on many of Bowie’s landmark works. The pair’s collaboration starts with 1969’s Space Oddity, and goes on to include The Man Who Sold the World (1970), David Live (1974), Diamond Dogs (1974), Young Americans (1975), Low (1977), Heroes (1977), Lodger (1979), Scary Monsters (1980), Heathen (2002), and Reality (2003), among them.
But of course, David Bowie’s right-hand man needs a right-hand man himself, and that distinction goes to the NYC-based engineer Mario J. McNulty. In addition to engineering for Visconti for the past 11 years, McNulty has built up a GRAMMY-winning career nailing down sounds for artists including Prince, Laurie Anderson, Angelique Kidjo, Lou Reed, Nine Inch Nails, Imelda May, Manic Street Preachers, Kashmir, Anti-Flag, Alejandro Escovedo, and Lucy Woodward.
McNulty earned the extreme privilege of being onsite for the recording of The Next Day at the Magic Shop. But more than just bearing witness, McNulty – along with Magic Shop engineer Brian Thorn and project manager Kabir Hermon — was a critical vessel for Bowie and Visconti’s audio vision, swiftly putting their plans into action so the masters could make music.
“It’s been a dream come true to work with David in my career,” says McNulty. “He’s my biggest influence, so being in the studio with him and Tony is fantastic every time. David is so charismatic, and also so extremely smart, that working with him is always a fulfilling situation for me.
“There’s something exciting about David’s songwriting,” McNulty continues, “whether he’s playing riffs on a keyboard or a guitar, that’s unmistakably the sound of David. It’s a little abstract, but you know it when you hear it. Every day was fantastic, and it just doesn’t get better than that, working in a studio with an artist like him. That’s what we all want to do when we’re making records, is work with somebody of that caliber.
“When you’re working with a producer like Tony Visconti who’s obviously a veteran, an icon like David, and his band is a supergroup of some of the best players in the world, your job is not to just get the right sounds to tape, but make it seamless and easy. People have to come into the studio and not worry – instead get to their station, put the headphones on, and just create in a very comfortable fashion. You also have to know how to get sounds extremely fast. That’s probably the most important part of all in making a record like this.”
Between the ultra-secret nature of the Next Day sessions, and the fact that Tony Visconti generally prefers to keep his hard-earned engineering techniques to himself, the inside audio story of David Bowie’s latest album would seem pretty hard to come by. Fortunately, McNulty was willing to provide an engineer’s perspective on how the unmistakable sounds of Bowie’s latest/greatest came together.
Read on for our Q&A with McNulty, and discover some invaluable in-studio information that you’ll only find on SonicScoop:
How would you describe David and Tony’s working relationship – what makes them a high-functioning artist/producer team, in your opinion?
David and Tony have been working together for so long and know each other so well, that the work in the studio is very natural, never forced or tense. Tony is used to what David will expect in most situations, so I think that saves an immense amount of time.
Is there a way to characterize the sound that Tony Visconti wants to achieve when he’s recording David Bowie?
That’s a hard question to answer. Usually there’s a process in which I am recording in the way Tony is happy with and gives him enough options to work with, but also not going crazy so he doesn’t have to make too many decisions when it’s time to mix.
David and Tony both want the recording to sound like a record on playback, so dynamics go to tape all the time. There are times when a special sound is called for — if so then we will talk about it and change what might be my usual approach. Mostly though, it’s about not missing anything and getting all the performances to tape.
How would you describe the working relationship you have with Tony — how do you approach getting him the sounds that he wants in the studio?
I’ll always have a conversation with Tony about the sound of the record before we start, sometimes weeks or months before. Sometimes the artist or band might call for a traditional sound, but of course there are other times when a very specific technique is needed. I’ll have game plan in advance every time.
Be prepared! Next, tell us about the Magic Shop live room – what made this a good setting acoustically to capture Bowie and his bands?
The Magic Shop live room is what I would consider a medium-sized recording room. The room is treated so the reflections aren’t too crazy, plus the tall ceilings help. There were never any strange frequency pockets in the room that I had to worry about.
For many of the songs there were five people performing live in the room at once, that also changes the sound of the room a bit. I used Magic Shop’s two isolation cabinets for guitar amps and the bass cabinet, but even with those cabinets you have to deal with the small amount of bleed.
Because of this bleed and the fact that the performances were captured live, this might be a nightmare for many bands… but this band was incredible. When a group plays together that well you can record this way.
David finished lyrics after the basic tracking was done so there were no issues with keeping the scratch vocal. There were lots of overdubs of course, but all the live takes were kept and that’s what’s on the record.
You mentioned to me that David Bowie had a “recording station” – what was it equipped with, and how was it ergonomically laid out to allow him maximum creativity?
David’s station was laid out around the Baldwin piano. I made sure there was plenty of room for him to move about and also take notes if he needed to.