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Hang on to your (analogue) self

Forty years ago, Ray Staff mastered David Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust LP. Still fighting the good fight against excessive ‘diginess’, he’s just returned to one of rock’s most influential albums for a special anniversary edition, writes David Davies.

The album commences with an unsettling drum pattern and dire warnings of apocalypse in a mere ‘Five Years’. It concludes with a dramatic depiction of a rock star running out of time in ‘Rock ‘n’ Roll Suicide’. Between these two points are nearly 40 minutes of thrilling music that helped to cement David Bowie’s worldwide appeal and confirmed beyond all doubt his status as one of rock’s greatest innovators, writes David Davies. The album, of course, is Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders of Mars. Released a frankly astonishing 40 years ago next month, it proved to be a high water mark both for its creator and for Trident Studios – the legendary Soho facility that hosted Bowie, Genesis, Queen and others throughout the 1970s. “Every day another big record would come through the door,” marvels former Trident engineer Ray Staff, understandably nostalgic for a time when one might have been working on Elton John’s newest opus one day, then applying the finishing touches to Led Zeppelin’s latest the next. “An incredible amount of astounding work went through the studios in a few short years. It was a very special place to be.” Even by Trident’s monumental standards, however, Ziggy Stardust was built to last. Following hot on the heels of 1971’s breakthrough Hunky Dory album, Bowie’s fifth studio release found the singer/songwriter embracing both an eponymously-named alter ego – the first of several dazzling transformations in style and presentation – and a more muscular rock sound created with the invaluable assistance of mastering engineer Staff, producer/co-engineer Ken Scott, bassist Trevor Bolder, drummer Mick Woodmansey and, in particular, the prodigiously gifted (and much-missed) guitarist/arranger Mick Ronson. Several of the resulting songs – ‘Starman’, ‘Hang On to Yourself’, ‘Suffragette City’ – helped to define the musical landscape of the early 1970s. In the longer term, their success helped to grant Bowie a remarkable level of creative freedom, allowing him to explore soul, electronica, minimalism and more before the decade was over. Returning to the original 1/4-inch tapes after 40 years for new CD and vinyl/5.1 mix DVD reissues to be released in early June, Staff – these days a long-serving mastering engineer at Air and administrator of the MPG Mastering Group – sought to restore some of the “openness and vibrancy” that he felt had been missing from the most recent version (in which he played no part). Resisting the “desk-smashing diginess” that he perceives in some artists’ remasters, Staff set to work with a purely analogue signal path built around a Studer A80 tape machine (with custom tape replay technology from D.A.V. Electronics), an EMI Chandler EQ and a Maselec limiter. And just in case you missed the point… “no digital processing at all. AT ALL!” Staff adds: “One of the reasons we didn’t want to go down the ‘loud CD’ route is that the album is already mixed very tight and has plenty of density in certain places. So to go through digital limiting to get the levels up would have been really inappropriate. We wanted to preserve a sense of edge and attack that’s present in a lot of those tracks – and I think we’ve managed it.” While Bowie himself appears to have slipped into a graceful semi-retirement (his last album of new material was 2003’s Reality), Staff expects to be bound to the lathe for some time yet. “I’m still going strong,” he confirms. “Most of the time I am fortunate in that I have very interesting projects to work on – such as Ziggy Stardust – and that’s tremendously rewarding.”