The cover of David Bowie’s Blackstar album was designed to reflect the musician’s mortality according to collaborator Jonathan Barnbrook
“He always wanted to do something interesting, often to the annoyance of the record company,” Barnbrook said. “He understood the value of the image on a record cover, when other people had forgotten about it.”
The designer added that Bowie was, more than anyone else, the artist responsible for bringing “art-school thinking into the mainstream.”
“This was a man who was facing his own mortality,” said Barnbrook. “The Blackstar symbol [★], rather than writing ‘Blackstar’, has as a sort of finality, a darkness, a simplicity, which is a representation of the music.”
“It’s subsided a bit now, but a lot of people said it was a bullshit cover when it came out, that it took five minutes to design,” he added. “But I think there is a misunderstanding about the simplicity.”
The use of abstract shapes was developed from Barnbrook’s previous controversial cover for The Next Day album. The design features a white square covering an old photo of Bowie and was influenced by Constructivist art.
The black star graphic also carries deeper meanings, said Barnbrook.
“The idea of mortality is in there, and of course the idea of a black hole sucking in everything, the Big Bang, the start of the universe, if there is an end of the universe,” Barnbrook said. “These are things that relate to mortality.”
For the vinyl edition, the star is cut out from the black sleeve so the record inside is visible.
“The fact that you can see the record as a physical thing that degrades, it gets scratched as soon as it comes into being, that is a comment on mortality too,” said Barnbrook.
He would look at the stuff, and talk about what he liked and what he didn’t like, not in a rude way, just clear and explaining his reasons why, he was also fulsome in his praise when he liked something. Sometimes he would throw a spanner in the works and ask me suddenly to do something completely different for the project for an hour. That was quite a refreshing way of working and often produced good results as it meant you put aside all of the responsibilities of the project for a moment and could just play.
He was always really respectful about the people who bought his music, so he wanted them to understand the ideas. There was no point in doing something when it was so obscure that people wouldn’t get the reference; it had to relate absolutely to the music.
He understood the value of the image on a record cover, when other people had forgotten about it. We had a renaissance in the 1970s and 1980s of album covers because the format of vinyl, but then it dropped when CDs were introduce. There are still good record/CD covers around, but a lot of time nowadays the cover just had to be “nice”, it wasn’t a thing that provoked discussion, our covers wanted to have that discussion again. Some people hated them, some people really liked them.
The Next Day was the most divisive one, because we didn’t do quite what people expected, which was a nice new picture of David Bowie on the front. We decided to play with that idea of image expectation.
Some people thought they’d been cheated because it’s a reprint of an old album cover, which is a bit ridiculous, because the cover was in the concept. I think it just puzzled a lot of people too who just “didn’t get it”, which we thought would happen.
However there were a lot of people who also recognised it was a very brave thing to do, something quite new. I dont think anybody other than Bowie would have taken that risk. He was really interested to see how people were reacting to it.
I’ve always been influenced by Constructivist art, so there was the influence of Kazimir Malevich and John Baldessari on The Next Day cover – the obliteration but also the spiritual, meaningful context of the abstract shapes. That followed through on ★, definitely.
The main thing of course is put over the emotional feeling of the music, that’s what a good record cover does, it lets you know somehow, somewhere within it, what the music is about, or what you believe the music is about is confirmed in it. And there’s not necessarily any logic to that you just have to get somewhere in that area which you have designed, and hopefully it will work.
He always wanted to do something interesting, often to the annoyance of the record company. Especially with Next Day, they were quite shocked with the cover, and they were pretty sure that it wasn’t going to work. It actually became a very successful viral campaign.
After all it’s an album called ★, with a cover that has a ★ on it, which doesn’t sound like a leap of imagination. But there was so many tangents we followed, until we realised that it has to cut through the noise of what is going on in the world. We see so many images every single second when we search the internet; it’s a directness that is needed. The simplicity of the design also left it more open.
It also has to appear in many different kinds of media: on a website, on iTunes, in reviews, and in newspapers. These are all practical considerations for it, and as a designer you would always work within for the parameters you have. For instance, it’s not actually written “Blackstar”, it uses a symbol ★, and that symbol goes through different technologies, so it can be used wherever.
Music Memos offers so many ways of organizing my clips that I’m finding myself recording more just because I can.
For as long as I’ve had my iPhone, I’ve used Apple’s built-in Voice Memos app to record my song ideas, collecting iterations of a riff or melody I don’t want to forget. But Voice Memos is clunky, has no built-in organizational system, and the editing tools are borderline nonexistent.
For me, the songwriting process usually goes something like this: I sit down with an acoustic guitar and play around until I stumble upon something I like. Then I play it on a loop, letting myself get comfortable enough to twist it around and see how it works with other notes and different voicing. Once I can hear a song in the noise, I’ll start singing gibberish lyrics until I come up with a vocal melody that works.
Then I record it, over and over, in Voice Memos.
That’s kind of a problem; I see “New Recording 233” and I sigh. Sure, I could have given the clip a real name, but why bother? I have hundreds upon hundreds of clips, with no way to search or filter them. I occasionally go spelunking in the Voice Memos table view list to discover long-forgotten ideas that I really wish I’d taken the time to flesh out. My entire musical idea system is a ghetto.
If Voice Memos are Post-Its — a quick and dirty tool to make sure I didn’t forget an idea — then Music Memos is a sketchbook. This is where I start the songwriting process, and every part of the app is designed to help facilitate the process and, most shockingly of all, guide me to the next step in fleshing the song out.
This level of organization also makes me want to start recording practice sessions and charting progress. Having that much raw material available and easily searchable also means more clips we can share on Connect, more early listens we can share with our Patreon supporters, and more options for comparison and background content for our podcast. That’s a whole lot of upside for one feature.
Music Memos has so many other tricks up its sleeves that I almost feel like someone at Apple has been reading my dream journal. An app for recording song ideas that uses a robust tagging system is something I’ve personally wanted to build for a long time, but throw in a guitar tuner, chord and tempo detection, exporting to GarageBand, and magical automatic backing instruments, and the dream becomes borderline pornographic.
My experience with the chord detection feature has been mixed, with me watching the app struggle to average out the chords I play with the notes I’m singing. I had the idea to try using it for something else: I’ve been writing a new song, starting with just a vocal melody. Because I’m a self-taught musician with only an intuitive understanding of music theory, this gets a little tricky. Rather that spending time working out what the chords should be, I decided to just sing the melody into Music Memos and see what it suggested.
This is obviously a bit of a mess, but that’s perfectly okay for my purposes. Playing exactly the chords of the vocal melody would be really boring (and on guitar, hard to pull of), but this gives me a great view of the chord set I should be working from. From here, I can start singing over one or two of these chords and work my way out from there. Music Memos has taken one of the most annoying parts of songwriting and made it fun for me. I really can’t overstate how great that feels.
The other major songwriting tool in Music Memos is backing tracks. Record your song the way you normally would, and the app will put drums and/or bass behind it. As with everything else in this app, the controls are dead simple: turn drums on by tapping the drums icon, bass by tapping the bass icon.
My other favorite feature is a subtle one: “Auto”. With this option turned on (again, via a dead-simple button in the main UI), Music Notes does exactly what you’d expect: it sits and listens, and starts recording automatically when it detects that you’re playing a song.
The magic behind this feature is pretty easy to guess: the app listens passively, Siri-style, recording everything, and simply saves the recording starting at the beginning of the waveform. But it’s these little details that add up for me. Since many (if not most) of my clips and recordings are full of dead air at the beginning while I pull up a lyric sheet or get my capo set properly, this is a big win for me. Sure, I could edit by hand, but I don’t, and I never will.
Or, if I just want to show off a snippet of something I’m playing around with, I can send it off to Apple Music Connect, SoundCloud, or YouTube. I couldn’t get Connect sharing to work in my testing — unsurprising if you’ve ever tried to get Apple Music Connect to do anything — but given Connect’s place in the iTunes ecosystem, the day is definitely coming where an artist could write, record, produce, and distribute an entire album using nothing more than their telephone.
Music Memos is less a tool than a toolbox. Each tool works remarkably well for a 1.0 release, and most of them feel like they were designed with my exact needs in mind. The designers could have approached this like recording software, with a series of menus and sub-menus of options, and that would have been more or less fine. But instead Music Memos has the weight and simplicity of spirit of a guitar effect pedal. One button and a handful of dials. Beautiful. My iPhone is only further solidified as an indispensable part of my composing process.
Microphone technology may not be making the same quantum leaps as digital cameras, but putting them to better use is a good start. After all, the best recording studio is the one you have with you.
I’ll break them down, no mercy shown
Heaven knows it’s got to be this time
avenues all lined with trees
picture me and then you start watching
The sanctum sanctorum of Abbey Road is Studio Two, the room where the majority of The Beatles’ recordings were made.
Standing at the threshold of Studio Two, it doesn’t look all that different from a small school gymnasium: a big rectangular box with white walls, 24-foot-high ceilings, and a parquet floor. But as soon as we entered, any thoughts of dribbling basketballs fell away, as I began to remember images of John Lennon and Paul McCartney standing around a microphone at the far end of the room, working out their harmonies.
When each of the tools in that display was first introduced, many music experts were totally wrong about the impact they would have on creative culture. “Records will kill live music,” they said as the phonograph gained popularity. Tape recording was initially viewed with suspicion by recordists accustomed to using disc-cutting lathes.
As digital technology arrived, many people thought it would surely relegate analog recording equipment to the scrap heap. In what seems like a stunning example of shortsightedness, some of Abbey Road’s most noteworthy gear was sold off in a 1980 sale as “memorabilia” at bargain-basement prices. One example—A 4-track recorder used on “Sgt. Peppers’” went for just $800 (that’s $2,300 in today’s money).
For melodic pop music, Studio Two has physical, tonal qualities which transcend its humble appearance. “It emphasizes the midrange,” Kehew says, ”and has a warm, short reverb unusual for a room its size.” These reverberant qualities are so well known that Abbey Road’s rental contract actually prohibits any sampling of its distinctive acoustic signature. As I stood in the room, I could hear the echoes of the vocals and kick drums on some of my favorite recordings of all time.
Kehew agrees that every tool can have a place as part of an artistic palate. “Old is not good or bad,” he said. “Question it. Try it. Listen. Buy weird bad gear and great quality gear—see what it does for you. I love Jon Brion’s quote—‘I don’t want to be Lo-Fi or Hi-Fi, I want to be ALL-Fi!’”
Scott touched on this in the lecture too, recounting that this was the approach that caused Beatles producer George Martin to turn down Abbey Road’s first 8-track recorder for use on the White Album. The 4-track recorders used for years by The Beatles had been specially modified to help create some of their signature sounds. Because the new 8-track recorder lacked those modifications, Martin declined to bring it into the session. His thinking, Scott said, was that it would be better for the process to maintain continuity.
In an ironic twist, Scott mentioned that The Beatles themselves had a different idea. They decided to use the 8-track without Martin’s permission, which got Scott and another engineer into a fair amount of trouble. The fact that the device was used to track parts of “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” probably helped accelerate the forgiveness. Even though new technologies can kill off old ways of working, it’s ultimately up to humans to decide the hour that they should.
“It was the 60s,” Scott said of the incident. “Rules were meant to be broken.”
At the beginning of the Beatles era, technicians had to complete what amounted to an extended apprenticeship program—and were even required to wear white lab coats (Winston Churchill once quipped that Abbey Road made him feel like he was visiting a hospital). Prospective engineers were brought up through the ranks slowly and instructed on the “rules of the process” at each stage.
But as the 60s went on, culture—specifically counter-culture—began seeping into the studio and changing that dynamic relationship between the engineers and their tools. Over time, the room became filled with incredibly skilled people who were willing to break any rule if it helped their artists create new and interesting sounds.
It was this combination of playfulness, openness to risk-taking, and deep professionalism which enabled Abbey Road’s technicians to respond to seemingly off-the-wall requests from The Beatles. Engineers began to record amps inside cupboards to get unique sounds. The studio’s tape recorders were rewired to automatically double-track performances. The tapes themselves were sped-up, slowed-down, sliced, and looped—to great effect. Even a joke, Scott says, was turned into an engineering puzzle that he had to solve when John Lennon took him up on his “suggestion” to fit the entire band in a small utility closet for the recording of “Yer Blues.”
A sort of positive feedback loop was happening: Culture was driving the development of technologies which, in turn, emboldened that creative culture to go even farther to create new tools and techniques. This embrace of the unorthodox didn’t mean that the Abbey Road staff abandoned everything they had been taught in the “white coat days,” though. In fact, Scott says it was that training which gave engineers the necessary skills to successfully and intelligently break the rules and develop all those new sounds and techniques.
When you listen to recordings from a generation or two ago, though, you often hear all sorts of rough edges: large dynamic transitions between loud and quiet, the sounds of oversaturated tape and tubes, instruments bleeding together. Chunked notes. Vocals that are out of pitch. Drums that drift in and out of time. Mistakes. Lots of mistakes.
Today’s creative paradox is that this human element, which often makes a song distinct or artistically interesting, is the thing which is almost always erased from modern productions.
“Do mistakes make music better?” I asked Kehew. Not really, he responded. It’s just that, when it comes to what people like about music, there was actually only one thing worse than these imperfections: perfection.
“I’ve done it and seen it many times,” he said. “Take something flawed, work on it ’til every part is ‘improved’ then listen. It’s worse. How could that be? Every piece is now better. But it’s a worse final product.”
This tendency towards incessant improvement has been encouraged by the power of modern tools. These days, sounds are almost always passed through a computer at some point in the recording process. These computers have their own working paradigms—things like cutting-and-pasting, the automated repetition of tasks, and “infinite undo”—which gives them incredible power to alter performances. It also adds more potential for overpolishing and something recording engineers refer to as “option paralysis,” a state where the sheer number of choices available prevents decisions from being made. Almost any element of a recording can be changed, right up until the moment that a song is released to the public.
The limitations of Beatles-era technology were substantial by comparison, and they forced a commitment to creative choices at earlier stages of the recording process. If, for example, an engineer wanted to exceed the number of recorded tracks that their tape machine allowed, two or more tracks had to be mixed together and “bounced” to an open track elsewhere. Cuts were physical, done with razor blades and tape. Mixes were performed by engineers in real time. Big mistakes at any point in the process could force an entire recording to be scrapped.
It was because artists were often stuck with the mistakes they made that they sometimes decided to embrace them. Once while recording a Beatles song called “Glass Onion” Scott accidentally erased a large number of drum parts that had been painstakingly overdubbed. Certain that he’d be fired, he played the tape to John Lennon. To Scott’s surprise, Lennon said that he liked the unexpected effect created by the glitch—and both the track and Scott stayed.
Scott was clear in his opinion: It isn’t so much the use of these new tools as it is their overuse that serves to undermine musicality.
“The trick,” Kehew says, “is a savvy or talented producer or engineer knows when to be bold and stop. To let character and roughness and lack of polish exist. I can bet most people spend more time polishing something than writing or creating the substance of it. The only cure is to work faster, more often, so you don’t treat every damn thing as being so precious that ‘It Must Be Perfect For All Time.’”
I asked Kevin Ryan if he was able to heed Scott’s warning in his own work. He laughed and acknowledged that knowing the risks of overusing digital tools didn’t make it any easier for him to resist that temptation. Kehew’s final word on the subject was, I thought, an especially Beatle-like principle for not overworking something: “Let it be what it was,” he says. “If it’s not that good, you shouldn’t be recording it.”
Today, Abbey Road straddles a line between modern culture and English Heritage. It has become Pop Music’s Westminster Abbey: partly a tourist attraction, partly a working cathedral where all the traditional rites and rituals are still observed.
Abbey Road is still producing hits though—even as tighter budgets and rising costs have caused many other recording facilities to close. An almost unbelievable number of influential artists and projects have worked (and continue to work) at the studio. Even if you eliminated the entire Beatles oeuvre the list is impressive. Pink Floyd’s “Dark Side of the Moon” was tracked there. Acts like Kate Bush, Elton John, Oasis, Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, Green Day, U2, Radiohead, and Kanye West have all recorded there. Countless film scores, too—Star Wars, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Lord of the Rings.