Sound and Vision

  • Artist: David Bowie
  • Album: Low
  • Label: RCA
  • Year: 1977
  • Producer: Tony Visconti, David Bowie
  • Engineer: Tony Visconti
  • Studio: Château d'Hérouville, Hérouville, France
    Hansa 1, Berlin, Germany

Pitch Shift -
The first commercial release using the first commercially available digital pitch shifter is David Bowie's album Low. The record has proven influential and inspiring. Imagine a time when pitch shifting was all but impossible. Imagine then getting your hands on the first one. What sort of track, what sort of instrument would you try it on? Vocal? Bass? Make it part of a new synth sound? Those are all good ideas. Producer Tony Visconti was first to the control room with this new signal processor, and what did he choose to pitch shift? He made the inspired decision to apply it to snare drum.
The snare may not have musical pitch, but it still responds to pitch shifting, becoming lower, more powerful.
The musicality of the effect doesn't stop there. As he told Electronic Musician in an article by Michael Molinda (April 19, 2007),

"About that time, Bowie asked whether I'd mind making an album with Brian Eno in France, and we commenced to make Low. I unveiled my secret weapon, patching the snare mics directly into the Harmonizer and recording the effect on track 24. When drummer Dennis Davis heard the sound, he begged to have it routed into his headphones. We soon discovered that the rate of the Harmonizer's drop off was controlled by an envelope at its input. So now that Dennis could hear the effect as he played, he was able to control the sound by how hard he hit his snare. This is why hardly anyone has duplicated that snare sound—we didn't do it in the mix, we did it live!"
A whole new sound was created and immediately put in the hands of the musicians for them to embrace, to play like a musical instrument. The producer, engineer and artist didn't settle for what was obvious. They didn't fabricate another short-sighted pop music gimmick. Instead, they pushed limits. They innovated. The album, Low, became a favorite of critics. This song from the album is just one of many examples of the wholly unnatural sound that comes from layering pitch-lowered snare into the mix.

Distortion / Gating -
The snare sound in this tune is unique, not only in the spectral modification brought about through pitch shifting (see above), but also in that it sounds gated. True gated snare must wait until Peter Gabriel's Intruder in 1980, but the dense spectral burst of Sound and Vision's pitch shifted snare, starting the instant the snare is struck, and then ending abruptly -- unnaturally abruptly -- almost certainly motivated the search that led to gated snare.
The Eventide H910 Harmonizer is one of the first digital processors available for the recording studio. It is an analog in, analog out, digital delay and pitch shifter. It has analog to digital converters, and digital to analog converters. The digital processor in between handles delay and pitch shifting, while compression, expansion and filtering are in the analog domain before and after the digital signal processing block. Metering was limited. A hot input into the H910 causes wild distortion. There are opportunities for overdriving the analog inputs, hitting the analog dynamics processors hard, as well as clipping the converters. The harmonic distortion is so strong -- a combination of analog overdrive plus over compression plus hard clipping at the converters -- that when the amplitude of the decaying snare waveform falls back below the threshold of distortion, the harmonics of distortion stop, and it sounds as if the snare sound stopped. The burst of heavy clipping snapping on and off with each hit makes the snare sound as if it had been gated.


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