A growing snowball of Steinman’s artistic endeavors and experiences from his late teens and early 20s, “Total Eclipse of the Heart” arrived more like an avalanche of creative ideas on the doorsteps of The Power Station in 1982.
The writer/producer/engineer/composer was seemingly an unlikely pairing for the lead singer on the track, Bonnie Tyler. A country-rock artist from the Welsh town of Mumbles, Tyler had achieved charting success through a completely different style of rock. Despite this difference, or perhaps because of it, “Total Eclipse of the Heart” became something else entirely.
Steinman’s self proclaimed “exorcism you can dance to” was one of the first “charting” power ballads of ‘80s rock in the UK, and took no shortcuts in the studio.
Noone’s creative ideas were left untested, no rehearsals were rushed or cut short, and, reportedly, not one reverb fader sat below 100%.
Complete Confusion, From Everyone
When CBS Records first heard the collaboration request for Jim Steinman, the label genuinely seemed to think Bonnie Tyler had lost it. She admits, “They never in a million years thought that this would come off;” and, to their credit, his experience and style didn’t exactly align to Tyler’s previous work.
Leading up to 1982, Steinman had played a major part in Meat Loaf albums, especially 1977’s ‘Bat Out Of Hell;’ and particularly two megahits found on the record: “Paradise By The Dashboard Light” and “Two Out of Three Ain’t Bad.”
His other credits run parallel to this style of music—and at this point—his name within the industry was becoming synonymous with ‘hard-rock,’ ‘heavy-rock,’ and ‘metal.’
Hence, he mirrored the record label’s initial reaction to Tyler’s request: “I was a little bit surprised they would ask me […] it was a real challenge because of that […] I thought she had one of the most passionate voices I’d ever heard in rock ‘n’ roll since Janis Joplin.”
When considering the likelihood of creating a commercial success, one might consider the odds to be stacked against the duo; given the juxtaposition of creative styles at play. Thankfully, Steinman already had a head-start: “Its original title was ‘Vampires in Love’ because I was working on a musical of `Nosferatu,’ the other great vampire story.”
He drew upon other previous works too, like a college musical from his senior year at Amherst College in Massachusetts. This project from 1969—one of the earlier endeavors of his adult career—would render one of the most prominent and iconic lines for “Total Eclipse”:
“Turn around, bright eyes”
This culmination of dark, creative projects almost found its way onto the Meat Loaf record, Midnight At The Lost And Found. However, the two labels in play—‘Epic’ and ‘Cleveland International Records’— were unable to come to an arrangement with Steinman regarding the costs of producing the song.
This inability to reach a financial middle ground on the Meat Loaf record opened up the track’s availability; ultimately finding itself in the unlikely hands of CBS Records and Bonnie Tyler.
Jim Steinman began production efforts in 1982. That summer, the audio engineering teams got their first taste of working with the grandiose, broadway-style visionary…
Frank Filipetti, who was particularly responsible for recording and mixing the backing vocals on the track, recalls: “As far as I’m concerned, Jim is one of the greatest songwriters and producers of our era, [he] wasn’t as interested in adhering to traditional ways of doing things. He was always looking for something a little different. He was more interested in the emotional arc that the song was taking rather than going by the verse -chorus -verse -chorus -bridge formula. In doing so, his music took you on a journey.”
Given this unconventional approach to the production process, it makes sense that Steinman’s methodology for teaching the song was very hands-on. Tyler explains, “Jim never gave me a demo – I learned the entire song beside the piano as Jim played.”
Recording took place in Studio A at the Power Station in New York; with Jim Steinman leading the helm as Producer. Audio engineers Neil Dorfsman and John Jansen helped steer the ship.
According to Dorfsman, the recording process for this chart-topping success had humble beginnings, as first seen on the setup for drummer Max Weinberg: “We didn’t have a whole lot of esoteric microphones. It was pretty basic […] Ambience recording wasn’t a fine art then like it’s become now. So it was pretty minimal.”
To capture the bigger drums, they placed an AKG D12 and Neumann U47 Fet on the kick, and positioned 421s both above and beneath the toms. In a similar manner, SM57s were used above and below the snare.
The cymbals received AKG 451s on the hi-hat and overheads; and U87s for the rooms. Dorfsman recalls that he might have additionally added an SM7 for the room as well.
Roy Bittan was recorded in the piano booth on a Yamaha, with two AKG 451s in close proximity to the instrument.
Steve Buslowe was brought in for bass, and Rick Derringer for the guitar part. Derring was—especially at the time—known for writing and producing the Billboard-charting hit “Rock and Roll, Hoochie Koo” for Johnny Winter in 1970. His personal, 1973 rendition of the song as a solo artist was also a charting success—both in the US and abroad. According to Dorfsman, the guitar track was an overdub.
Larry Fast and Steve Margoshes were responsible for the synth parts, which were notably used to create those cannon sounds found in the track. Now would be a good time to note that Steinman was still early in his career when it came to experience. Dorfsman says that fellow engineer John Jansen had to, “talk Jim down from an idea like, ‘We need more cannons in the bridge.’… ‘Jim, we can’t have any more cannons.’” Like his recollection of the guitar track, Dorfsman believes the synths were overdubs.
When it comes to the vocals, Steinman leveraged an unheard, gritty side of Tyler’s voice; leveling listeners with a powerful vocal delivery by the artist. In 1976, Tyler had undergone surgery on her larynx, developing a completely different voice after the months-long recovery process. While the singer’s performance retained some of its original characteristics, which can be heard on her post-surgery records, Steinman fully dove into her newfound grit for “Total Eclipse.”
Vocal recordings were cut in two locations. Bonnie Tyler’s leads and Rory Dodd’s backups were captured in separate ISO booths at the Power Station. Still recalling the Power Station sessions from memory, Dorfsman confidently boils down the recording gear to either: U67’s, Telefunken 251’s, or some combination of those two microphone models.
The other vocal sessions took place at Right Track Studios, in New York. Frank Filipetti, who ran point, recorded Rory Dodd, Eric Troyer, and Holly Sherwood. The team at this location ended up capturing what would be the majority of ‘backing-vocal’ takes for the entire project.
Filipetti explained that the vocalists “would sing a vocal line for the chorus, perhaps a harmony part. Then they would double them doing the same line again […] they would sing the next step in the harmonic sequence and they would probably do the tonic note first, then the third, then the fifth and we’d double each of those. Then we’d probably add an octave over the original and that would vary somewhat, but that was the basic idea […] Then we would go back and do the same thing again, but this time Eric and Rory would sing in harmony instead of in unison, and then when we did the double, they would switch the parts, so if Rory was on the top and Eric was on the bottom on the first pass, Rory would be on the bottom and Eric would be on the top on the second pass and we’d do the whole thing that way.”
At the time of recording, Right Track Studios sported an SSL4000 console. It was further armed with EQP and MEQ Pultecs, LA2As, UREI 1176s, Massenburg EQ, TubeTech 1A, at least two EMT plates for reverb, and “a bathroom or two where we would occasionally [throw] vocals in and [use] as a chamber.”
While Filipettie is slightly less sure about the mics, he remembers that AKG C12’s and Neumann 269’s were the norm for that location. All together, Dorfsman deduced that—between the Power Station and Right Track Studios locations—the two teams collectively captured 20 takes of the track.
The end result—best expressed in Filipetti’s acclamation of the song: a “vocal tour de force.”
Dialing It In
The multi-day, back-to-back mix sessions first took place in Studio C at The Power Station, but then moved to Studio B and its 8068. They were attempting to, at least, match the bar of the initial “rough mix” created back in Studio A, a task they were struggling to achieve in Studio C.
Upon hearing the final recording, the usual reaction of the engineers and musicians was some form of gleeful shock. Dorfsman characterizes his experience in detail: “I remember very clearly the first time they ran ‘Total Eclipse of the Heart’ down, turning to Jim and saying, ‘This is going to be the biggest song you’ve ever recorded […] I knew it halfway through the recording. I thought it was quite brilliantly put together. I mean it’s super cartoonish with the explosions and synth solo; a very iconic Jim Steinman production—more is better; more of everything is better. But I just knew from the structure of it […] I just knew—and I was right.”
Steinman and his decisions are a perfect case-study of someone in the midst of their breakout period as a producer. The vision was lofty; and the hour-count on multiple sessions frequently reached double digits.
However, he seemed to strike the necessary balance between giving enough “hands-on” direction—the kind needed to convey his complicated vision to others—and allowing the other professionals to achieve that vision by their own means. Filipetti recounts his experience with the producer as someone who kept a collaborative peer-to-peer attitude and often stayed late. Also, it didn’t hurt that he frequently ordered great food for the team, especially after long sessions. “Jim really treated everyone first class, so it made all the hard work something you wanted to do.”
Though his ideas were large, and arguably new to the artists involved, Steinmann crafted a mundane, realistic approach for achieving the behind-the-scenes work. And, as multiple people on the project have expressed, this is likely why they followed him into the fire.
“Total Eclipse” hit #1 in the US on October 1, 1983, where it stayed for 3 weeks. The same year, it reached #1 position in Canada, New Zealand, Norway, and South Africa. In addition to charting success, the song racked up impressive sales numbers, going gold in Portugal, Germany, and France; and platinum in the United States, the UK, Italy, Denmark, and Canada. In Australia, Total Eclipse went 4x Platinum.
Written by Kieran Vaughn