Studio thrills and spills

Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Sarah Vaughan… and then there’s the small matter of recording the most successful LP of all time in the form of Michael Jackson’s Thriller. Producer/engineer Bruce Swedien reflects on selected highlights of a 60-year career.
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Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Sarah Vaughan… and then there’s the small matter of recording the most successful LP of all time in the form of Michael Jackson’s Thriller. Producer/engineer Bruce Swedien reflects on selected highlights of a 60-year career.
Bruce Swedien482

From Michael Jackson and Mick Jagger to Duke Ellington and David Hasselhoff (no, really!), Minneapolis-born Bruce Swedien has been at the controls for numerous landmark recordings of the pop era. But rather than be overly informed by technological change, he says that “the music itself has defined everything I’ve done – it all comes back to the music”.

As he launches an impressive new book, The Bruce Swedien Recording Method, and prepares to celebrate his 80th birthday on 19 April, Swedien spoke to PSNEurope about the thrill of recording Thriller, his love of great singers… and why (to put it mildly) he is no great fan of modern music.

What was your main objective for the book?
As opposed to producing a recording guide, I wanted to offer a kind of explanation of the way I do things. I get annoyed when people call me an engineer; I am really a music recording producer/engineer. I have always been a music-led person, rather than a technology-led one, and I expand upon that philosophy in the book.

What were your first recording experiences, and how quickly did you know that this was what you wanted to do?
I first went into a studio when I was about 18 or 19, and I knew instantly that I wanted to do it forever. My first recording sessions took place at a converted movie theatre in Minneapolis which had terrific acoustics. I really got my training there recording all these amazing polka acts like Whoopee John Wilfahrt – incredible musicians!

A little while later [in 1957] I moved to Chicago to work for RCA Victor and Universal Studios, and that period was really important in defining my technique. I think a lot of other people who were trying to achieve [similar results] were technically driven, but what I do is musical, not technical. Of course I had to have the technique down, but it’s music that I am really after… and that’s never changed.

During the rest of the ‘50s and ‘60s, you went on to work with some of the most iconic artists of all time. Any standout memories?
There are so many! Working with Duke Ellington was extraordinary – he was so unique in his approach to music. Oscar Peterson was a fantastic pianist and a wonderful man. Then there are the vocalists: Nat King Cole, Dinah Washington, Sarah Vaughan… Wow, Sarah Vaughan could sing! She frequently did complete vocals in one original take. Unbelievable ability.

It was during this period that you first came into contact with your great collaborator, producer and arranger Quincy Jones…
I first met Quincy in Chicago in 1958. He is probably the most honourable and unique guy I have ever met in that he lived in Paris for quite a while, where he studied theory and composition with Nadia Boulanger [who had taken classes with Maurice Ravel] and Olivier Messiaen. Couple that with his later film scoring projects and then production work and it’s clear that he has such a unique pedigree.

Although you’ve worked with Quincy many times, it’s surely your partnership on Michael Jackson’s 1982 album Thriller – still the best-selling LP of all time – that looms largest in the public consciousness…
It was a tremendous experience with a tremendous team – Michael, Quincy, [songwriter] Rod Temperton. We recorded it on a Harrison 32 series console at Westlake Recording Studios in West Hollywood, which helped to give it that fantastic sound.

There are so many great memories from those sessions. I remember the monitors at Westlake suddenly caught on fire. We liked to think that the music was so hot we set the speakers on fire, although obviously that wasn’t the case! Then I will always recall the sessions with Michael and Paul McCartney for [Thriller duet] The Girl Is Mine. They got on so well… it was an absolute circus.

So much has been written about Michael before and after his death… but what was he actually like in the studio?
One of the things that [gets overlooked] is that Michael was a fantastic guy to be around. He was so painstaking with his vocals. He would never sing anything with the paper in front of him; he would frequently stay up all night memorising something so he could sing the vocal from memory. Then we would spend hours comping the best performances – listening through the takes, going half-verse by half-verse to pick out the absolute best bits and then piece them together. His dedication was remarkable.

Equipment-wise, what were the mainstays of your work with Michael?
I mainly used Shure SM7s on Michael’s vocals, although I recall bringing in a Neumann U47 for a later recording, Earth Song. Neve mic pre/EQs were another fixture… I’ve always loved the Neve gear and still have quite a bit of it in my home studio. I also have a gorgeous Studer machine that I use to originate all my recordings, and I really believe in Pro Tools as well.

Really? That may comes as a surprise given your well-known love of analogue…
Pro Tools is incredible, but you do have to get the analogue pass first. Once a recording has the analogue sound quality in the sound field, it stays there – it does not change.

Conventional wisdom suggests that the evolution of recording since the 1960s has been a gradual opening up of possibilities…
I would say that it has actually been the opposite. I don’t really like what I hear now in terms of new music. It’s not original and it all seems rather small-scale. There aren’t any new records I like sonically, and for me the quality of the sound is a big part of the appeal of a record.

Given those reservations, what would be your advice to up-and-coming producers and engineers?
It is my belief that you can’t really teach someone how to record music well: it’s instinctive and you have to be born with it. But my advice to new engineers would be to do what I did as a youngster and go hear live music in great acoustical environments. I went to see the Minneapolis Symphony all the time when I was young, and I still haven’t got that phenomenal sound out of my hair.

The Bruce Swedien Recording Method is available now from Hal Leonard Corporation.