5. space oddity

david bowie

June 1969

Being on staff at a record label's studio gave us engineers an interesting look at the music business. New artists being gambled on by the decision makers in  A & R (Artists and Repertoire Dept.) would get sent up to the studios to make a demo recording, or a first single. And sometimes an engineer would just be handed a tape to remix or edit.

An executive might actually show up at a new artist's early sessions, if especially interested in them. Sometimes a new act would already have a producer attached. But often, these new kids were on their own. And so an interesting challenge for the engineers: how can we make this raw material into something sellable-- primarily to the decision makers at the label, and then, potentially, to the outside world? Thus engineers got to be a bit more creative, sort of almost like real producers. 


One morning in June I was handed a little reel of tape -- a  song by a newly signed artist. I was told that it was too long at 5 minutes plus. The radio would never play anything that long. Cut it down to 3 minutes, please! Oh, and do so before your one o'clock session, ok?

Wow, another interesting challenge— a song about an astronaut named Tom. Yeah it's too long, ok, but where to cut? There's a ton of exposition in the lyrics about his flight that I didn't want to lose, and not many repeated sections that could be left out. The "chorus" ( about sitting in a tin can), feeling more like a bridge, repeats, with some variation, at the end. With that gone, we are  15 seconds shorter, great! The thing was still almost 5 minutes long. I made a new ending— fading out on the repeated section,  "Can you hear me Major Tom?". Bit of unresolved suspense there.

Then I hacked away at the solos any way I could. Just shredded them, got it down to about 3 and a half minutes. I wasn't real happy with it. But there it was, David Bowie's first American single, the one still being played today.

Years later I met David at a party. I apologized for my terrible edit of Space Oddity. He laughed and said "Please don't think anything of it, really. It all came out fine."


Despite my dad's reluctance to explain why a pipe was male, and the thing it threaded into was female, I had no problem with the general concept. In fact my comprehension of this simple naming of parts became really important to me later in life. Meaning, in the studio...

Understanding the pipe and the coupler led to understanding outputs and inputs. In the studio world, this concept relates to hundreds of different electrical connections. In real life, you see it mostly on your walls, in the form of electrical outlets. The outlets on the walls are female. The plugs that fit into the outlets are male.

Now let's take the concept a step further. What is the source of the signal? What is the destination? In the case of your wall outlet, the source is the outlet, the female connector. The male connector, when it's plugged in, conveys electrical energy from the source outlet through wires that lead to a destination, something that needs that power to work. You can plug in a lamp to make light, or a drill to make holes in something, or a microwave oven to make lunch.

In the studio, male and female connections also carry electrical energy, but most of these are not the same as the energy that powers things like lights and power tools. This is electrical energy that represents sound. Most of the electricity that travels around in the studio starts with microphones. They translate the waves of sound into waves of electricity. The electrical waves vary a lot, and fluctuate quickly, just like sound waves.  These fluctuations form a signal.

When they are carrying signals, the outlets are usually (and cryptically) called jacks. The plugs are still called plugs. The activity of plugging in audio signals is called patching.