Bruce Swedien has been the engineer of choice for Michael Jackson and his producer Quincy Jones, among many others. In a rare interview, he lays bare the techniques behind some of the superstar's biggest hits.
Bruce Swedien considers himself a lucky man. As the man at the desk for Michael Jackson's Thriller, which has defended its best‑selling album status in the Guinness Book Of World Records for more than 25 years, there's no denying that he found himself in the right place at the right time, and there can have been few doors closed to him since, given a CV point like that! But if you look beyond the glare of Thriller's nine‑digit sales figures, it's clear that there's a whole lot more to Swedien's story than good fortune: although the first of his five Grammy awards came with Thriller, his records with Quincy Jones and George Benson had already garnered three nominations for Best Engineered Recording before that.
The only child of classically trained musicians, he not only received a solid musical education, but also unquestioning support when their 10th birthday gift to him, a disc‑recording machine, revealed the strength of his true vocation. By the age of 14 he was spending his holidays recording all comers, and even set up his own radio station to broadcast the results to the neighbourhood! At 19 he'd already worked for Tommy Dorsey and was setting up his own commercial studio in an old cinema in his home town of Minneapolis. By 1957, the 21‑year‑old was recording the Chicago Symphony Orchestra professionally for RCA Victor, before moving on to Universal Studios the following year, joining Bill Putnam in his pioneering experiments with early stereo and multitrack techniques.
"Bill Putnam was the most gracious guy in life, and he took me under his wing,” Swedien recalls. "Universal was a fabulous studio. Studio A was a huge room designed by Bill, and was just gorgeous. The room itself was a musical instrument, it was so great, and I later did many, many big recordings there. Bill had me follow him around for quite a while before I really got started, but being with him was... whoa, what an experience! In particular, I remember him saying 'Don't just sit down here in the control room. Go see what it sounds like in the studio and listen to the music.' And I still love doing that.”
A couple of years after Bruce Swedien joined Universal Studios, Bill Putnam headed out to California to build his studios there. His place as the young engineer's musical mentor, however, was quickly filled by up‑and‑coming composer, arranger, and producer Quincy Jones. "Do you know how fortunate I am to have worked with Quincy?” asks Bruce Swedien. "Quincy is so musical it hurts, and his knowledge is so complete. He studied orchestration in Paris with Nadia Boulanger, who also taught people like Ravel, and Quincy was a star pupil.
"Let me give you an example. Quincy and I first worked together with Michael Jackson on the movie The Wiz. We were living together at a hotel in Manhattan, and we would go to Studio A at A&R Studios. We had a big session at noon on Monday to record some of the music with a big 70‑ or 80‑piece orchestra, and we had to leave for the studio at 10am. The night before, Quincy and I had guests at our hotel for dinner, and Quincy still hadn't even started on the orchestration for the opening titles. I was getting a little nervous, but he said not to worry about it. At about four that morning, I woke up and noticed under my door that all the lights in the apartment were blazing. There's Quincy at the dining‑room table with a billion sheets of manuscript paper, and he was writing orchestrations. I said 'Quincy, we've got to leave soon!', but he just said 'Don't worry about it' so I went back to bed.
"At about nine o'clock I got up again, and Quincy said to me 'I'm all set'. There wasn't even a piano or a guitar in the apartment; just Quincy and his manuscript paper! Off we go to the studio, and Quincy hands over his score to the copyists. He didn't even want to conduct — he'd hired a conductor because he wanted to be in the control room with me. The conductor gave the down beat, the orchestra played the entire overture, and there was not a single note out of place. It still gives me the chills to think about it!”
By the time of his first encounter with Michael Jackson, Swedien had already racked up recordings with Count Basie, Stan Kenton, Duke Ellington, Woody Herman, Oscar Peterson, Sarah Vaughan and Dinah Washington at Universal, before going freelance in 1967 and adding further artists such as Jackie Wilson, Buddy Miles, Tyrone Davis and the Chi‑Lites to his resumé. So when the opportunity of working with Quincy Jones and songwriter Rod Temperton on Jackson's coming‑of‑age album Off The Wall came up, there's no question that Bruce Swedien was already established and successful in his own right. Lucky? Don't you believe it!
By the time the Thriller sessions started in April 1982, Jackson's fifth solo record, Off The Wall, had already done brisk business, becoming the first solo record to spawn four US top‑10 singles and earning the singer his first Grammies for more than a decade. So how on earth did the same production team come up with a successor that managed to outperform Off The Wall's estimated 20 million sales by a factor of five? One slice of hindsight on the subject from Quincy Jones has always particularly intrigued me: "We had to leave space for God to walk through the room.” I ask Bruce Swedien to elucidate what this meant in practice.
"He wanted to leave an opportunity for the unexpected to happen,” he explains. "For instance, I was allowed the freedom to make microphone choices, and nobody ever said a word. I just did it. For example, I used a Shure SM7 on most of Michael's lead vocals — 'Billie Jean', 'The Way You Make Me Feel' — and boy, did that raise some eyebrows! But I love that mic, and I have six of them. Michael, Quincy, and Rod were also smart enough to leave me alone while I was mixing, and that meant I did my best work. They'd leave the room and I'd get it all shaped up and ready, and then they'd come back and we'd listen and make slight adjustments, but I don't remember being too far out.”
Sharp‑eyed fans scrutinising Thriller's liner notes quickly spotted the rubric "Recorded and mixed by Bruce Swedien using the Acusonic Recording Process,” and there has been continued speculation that some mysterious studio gizmo had given Jackson's record the edge, despite the engineer formally putting the subject to bed in a lecture in 1984. The Acusonic Recording Process (and the synonymous Quantum Range Recording Process) was not some kind of processing innovation, but rather a name for the manner in which Swedien synchronised multiple 24‑track tape machines to access a practically limitless track count.
However, despite the busting of the 'black box' myth, there are indeed fundamental ways in which the Acusonic approach affected the sound of Thriller, and indeed its predecessor. In the first instance, it allowed Swedien to circumvent one of the deleterious side‑effects of tape‑based multitracking: that repeated playback of the tape during the overdubbing and production process would progressively dull the transients of previous recorded tracks. "If you go back to the recordings I made with Michael, my big worry was that if those tapes got played repeatedly, the transient response would be minimised. I heard many recordings of the day that were very obviously done that way, and there were no transients left on those tapes. So what I would do would be to record the rhythm section on a 24‑track tape, then take that tape and put it away and wouldn't play it again until the final mix. And — holy cow — what a difference that made! It was just incredible.”
By using a SMPTE timecode track on each tape and then sync'ing the master rhythm‑section tape to new reels, any number of 'work tapes' could be generated for the purposes of overdubbing, each furnished with a handful of submixed cue tracks from the master reel. "At the end of the tracking sessions, I could premix each of those tapes down to only a pair of tracks during the final mix, and that would give me a huge number of tracks to use. So, for example, all the background vocals on 'Rock With You' were recorded on a separate 24‑track, and then I premixed them for the final mix.”
While transient definition is clearly a hallmark of these records, Acusonic's practically limitless track count was also crucial, because it allowed Swedien the freedom to indulge his passion for stereo recording, an enthusiasm reaching back to his days with Bill Putnam in Chicago. What this meant was that a large proportion of the overdubs on Michael Jackson's albums were actually recorded in stereo, thereby improving the sense of width, realism, and emotional immediacy. As he comments in his new book, In The Studio With Michael Jackson: "These true stereo images add much to the depth and clarity of the final production. I have a feeling that this one facet of my production technique contributes more to the overall sonic character of my work than any other single factor.”
Swedien continues to record the majority of things in stereo to this day, and when it comes down to preferred stereo techniques, he's forthright in his opinions: "I am a firm believer in Blumlein pair. It can do a lot to enhance the width of the sound, even if the stuff gets played back on small stereo speakers. I'm also not crazy about Mid/Side; it's a technique that is almost useless for recording like I do, so I'll always go for spaced or Blumlein pairs. I'll use cardioid or omni mics for the Blumlein pairs — omnis work great — but bi-directional mics make it a little difficult. Stereo mics are vastly overrated. You can do a lot more with a pair of microphones. I haven't heard any really good stereo microphones. I'm still waiting for the first one of those.”
The more you speak to Bruce Swedien, the more it becomes apparent that, like many of the most celebrated engineers who cut their teeth in the '50s and '60s, he focuses a great deal of effort while recording on tailoring the sound he's getting in the room. In particular, though, he makes a point of pursuing a unique sonic personality for each record he works on. Take, for example, this situation he recalls from his early career at Universal, recording the Count Basie Band and singer Joe Williams for the album Just The Blues — a bit of recording bravado that almost cost him his job! "I remember one song ['Night Time Is The Right Time'] that had a gorgeous trombone solo, and I thought to myself 'Wouldn't it be great to give that trombone solo a unique sonic image?' So I told the soloist that, when it was time for him to solo, he should get up and tiptoe over into the corner of the studio, and play his solo into the corner, away from all the mics. He did that, and everybody went bananas! I'm still so proud of that recording. It's very unusual and it really works. That's what I call sonic personality.”
This kind of studio experimentation is all over the Michael Jackson records, and has frequently been mistaken for post‑production electronics. The special effect on the 'Don't think twice!' interjection in verse two of 'Billie Jean', for instance, was created by singing through a five‑foot long cardboard tube. The drums on the same track are no machine, as is often assumed, but a single live drum take recorded with extreme separation: the hat was isolated from the snare using a purpose‑built foot‑square wood and mu‑metal panel, and the kick was recorded using another piece of bespoke baffling. "It was the first time I took the kick drum apart,” remembers Swedien. "I took the front head off, put a special cinderblock in it for weight, and then had this cover made out of furniture blanket with a zippered hole for the mic to go through.”
The 'Billie Jean' drum sound, like that on many of Swedien's records, also relied on a purpose‑built drum riser the engineer originally had constructed for recording the previous album's 'Rock With You': a braced, eight‑foot-square wooden platform raised 10 inches off the ground. "The reason I wanted the drums to be up off the floor,” he wrote in his autobiography, Make Mine Music, "is to keep the low‑frequency drum sounds (such as the bass drum and tom‑toms) from coupling with the surface of the floor and entering the sound pickup area of the microphones on the other instruments in the session. This secondary pickup of the low‑frequency end of the drum kit can travel through walls! By putting the drum setup on my drum platform, those low sounds never had the chance of connecting with the floor and creating off‑mic, obscure, second‑hand pickup.”
'Rock With You' is also an excellent showcase for another of Swedien's creative live‑room production techniques. Each of the backing-vocal lines was first double‑tracked with a close mic, then Jackson moved a couple of steps back from the mic for another pass, while Swedien increased the preamp gain to match his level with the previous takes. Finally, an even more distant pass was captured using a Blumlein stereo pair, again matched for level. The result: an increased density of early reflections, which creates a natural depth and width to the soundfield.
Early reflections were also an important part of the lead vocal sound on Jackson's later records from Bad onwards, where the singer was set up on Swedien's aforementioned drum riser to amplify the sound of his dancing, and then surrounded by Tube Traps (the common studio nickname for ASC's tubular Studio Traps). Not only did this approach create a dense and controllable pattern of early reflections to support the singing and dancing sounds, but it also kept the sound at the mic much more consistent as Jackson moved while dancing. "The Tube Trap, to me, is one of the greatest things since sliced bread,” he enthuses. "Michael loved my Tube Traps — he was fascinated with them. We would try all sorts of different setups with the Tube Traps to get a soundfield that was really interesting. They save a lot of time.”
While the Acusonic Recording Process clearly played an important role in delivering Thriller's unique wide‑screen, percussive sound, it's clear from speaking to Bruce Swedien that there's more to the recipe than fresh tape. Credit must also go to his own personal collection of classic mics, which he ferries around to all his recording sessions. (See the 'Bruce Swedien's Microphones' box for more details.) "All of my mics I bought new, and all of the really important ones are sequential serial numbers. No‑one else has ever used them, so they're all in really good condition. That's part of the secret.”
Given Swedien's repeated emphasis on maximising pickup of transients through mic selection and careful use of the recording medium, it makes sense that he has trenchant views on the use of compression. "I'm not a big fan of compression or limiting at all — I can't emphasise that enough. On many of the recordings that you hear today, all the excitement and all the colour is gone because they're so over‑compressed. I never did that. I would never have a compressor or limiter on the [master] bus, for instance. I want all that transient information there. And no compression or limiting on any drums or percussion. That's one of the biggest mistakes that I hear, I think, in modern pop recording. The stuff is so compressed they've limited the living doo‑doo out of the sound.”
That's not to say that he leaves the dynamics of the performance completely untouched, but is much more inclined to achieve the required dynamic control through to‑tape fader rides while overdubbing and automation while mixing. "I'm a nutcase about details in the mix, so I'll use automation to a degree, but only very subtle compression. I have a pair of the new variety of [Universal Audio] LA2As that I just love, so I will use those, but it'll only just be tickling the meter, at the most one or two decibels. I don't like what happens to the sound when you compress any further, and that's very important to me.”
Talk of compression turns our conversation towards the mixdown process, and here Swedien is quick to point out that, as a colour‑sound synaesthete, he works in a world where there is a direct connection between sounds and colours. Although this mode of perception is rare, he's by no means the only musician who has been touched by it. Classical luminaries such as Liszt, Sibelius, Rimsky‑Korsakov, Messiaen and Ligeti have all correlated colours with keys, chords and timbres; and, beyond that field, musicians such as Duke Ellington, Leonard Bernstein, Billy Joel, Eddie Van Halen, Tori Amos and Aphex Twin have all shown evidence of synaesthesia, as have well‑known producers such as Geoff Emerick, Pharrell Williams, Rollo Armstrong... and Quincy Jones!
"I have synaesthesia, and Quincy does too,” confirms Swedien. "The low frequencies are represented by dark colours like black and purple, while high frequencies are bright colours such as silver and gold. When I listen to a mix I want to see all those colours. I mix in the control room with very low light level, because I think that the human being is primarily a visual animal, but the way the music hits us is purely an aural experience, so I try to minimise the visual aspect of what is affecting me while I mix, by keeping the control room rather dark. And, of course, I'll close my eyes for some of the time.”
When it comes to specific mixing techniques, Swedien proves tricky to pin down, but not on account of any defensiveness on his part — it's just that he feels that he doesn't actually rationalise the process, and relies as much as possible on intuition. "You can't pre-think choices like those. That's a mistake that I see often, and I'm devastated by what I hear in the mixes of some modern recordings, because it's obvious that people are thinking about the technical aspect of it and not the music. You've got to make that separation early in your career: the technical part of it is meaningless. For example, I usually start with the rhythm section, but it kind of depends on the music. There are no specific rules that you can apply. If you do you're going to be asking for trouble, because some music is different.”
However, he does make clear in his autobiography that he regularly refers back to his earliest rough balances while mixing, in order to remind himself of his initial gut reactions while mixing, gut reactions which he has learned through long experience to trust. "The clarity of the lyric and the passion of the music are what's most important to me, and it's really easy to put those values out of sight and just mix until they're not there any more. For example, I did 91 mixes of 'Billie Jean', and finally Quincy said 'Let's go back and listen to mix number two.' And we did, and it blew us all away! I had overmixed that song right into the pooper, so the mix that went onto the record was mix number two.”
Looking at Bruce Swedien's monitoring setup at his own West Viking Studio in Florida, I immediately spotted some familiar little cubic speakers sitting atop the meterbridge: a pair of Auratone 5Cs. Does he recommend them? He almost jumps out of his chair: "I love Auratones! You know what Quincy calls them? The Truth Speakers. There's no hype with an Auratone, and it's sad that you can't buy them any more. I knew the guy who made them out in San Diego, but he died a couple of years ago. If you see any Auratones on eBay, buy them! I have about three or four sets of them. Probably 80 percent of the mix is done on the Auratones, and then I'll have a final listen or two on the big speakers — I have Westlake speakers which I absolutely love, with special custom‑built power amps. I don't listen very loud on the Auratones; the SPL is maybe 85dB for the bulk of the mixing work. If I were to allow conversation to go on in the control room while I was mixing, it would be easy to do, but I hate distractions when I'm mixing, which is another reason why I usually ask everybody to leave.” Many engineers use a single Auratone in mono, but Swedien has no truck with that: "I hate mono, and I'm not a big fan of surround either. I love stereo. If you've got your shit together, and you know what you're doing, you can do as much with two‑channel stereo as most mixers can do with surround.”
A prominent pair of illuminated VU meters also dominates the meterbridge. "I love VU meters. Mine were found for me by Allen Sides at Ocean Way Studios, and they're gorgeous meters. They will register some sounds, for example low frequencies, which may not be audible on the Auratones, so I do rely on them heavily. I am quite fussy about mix levels and bus levels. If you're trying to make your mixes as clear and clean as possible, you kind of have to keep it at zero or less on the bus, because those meters are designed to resemble our human hearing, and the peaks, although they may not look like much, may be tremendous. If you're not careful, they can make mixes that sound rather ugly.”
The engineer's 'less is more' approach to EQ is already well documented: "The trick is to use as little EQ as possible to achieve the desired result,” he writes in his autobiography. However, he has also been a long‑time advocate of the EQ in the Harrison mixing consoles, and has owned a 3232C desk himself since using the 4032 at Westlake Studios for Thriller. 'Spectacular' and 'dynamite' are epithets that come up in our conversation, not just in relation to the main swept bands, but even to the high‑pass filter: "It isn't 'just a filter'. It's so dramatic — if you put it at 40Hz, that's exactly what you get. And if you use the high‑pass filter wide open, it is wide open. And the important thing is that the audio the filters lets through is absolutely untouched.”
Credits on Michael Jackson's string of hit solo albums would be ample excuse for any engineer to rest on their laurels, but that's clearly not Bruce Swedien's style. He continues to produce records for such renowned artists as Santana and Jennifer Lopez, as well as dedicating himself to nurturing new generations of engineering talent via courses and seminars. Who knows? You might bump into him yourself one of these days. If you're lucky.
Bruce Swedien: "What I frequently hear in many modern mixes is over‑treated, over‑compressed music with no sense of reality at all, which to me is on the verge of disgusting. I always try to put some element of stark reality into my productions, a little patch of blue sky. I'll give you an example. There's a string line in 'Billie Jean', and I recorded that absolutely classically in Studio A at Westlake, with violins left, violas slightly to the right, and celli to the right. If you listen to that song it just jumps right out at you. It's so natural and so basic it's just pathetic, but it adds so much to that mix.”
While researching for this interview, I happened on the following comment from Bruce Swedien regarding recording Michael Jackson's vocals: "Damn near any chimpanzee could record Michael. I mean he is such a pro, it is unbelievable!” I asked him to elaborate. "Michael was not an ordinary vocalist or an ordinary singer,” he explains. "If any young people in the music industry take the decision to use Michael as an inspiration, that's about the smartest thing that they could possibly do. In the studio you hardly knew he was there ‑— he was extremely quiet and polite and kind ‑— but he really cared about the quality of what we were doing. Not only the technical quality, but the musicality, and his pitch, and the lyrics, the arrangements, and so on. For example, I don't think I ever saw Michael with the lyrics in front of him. He'd always been up the night before memorising the lyrics and he sang the songs from memory. And every day that we recorded vocals his vocal coach was there, and he warmed up for an hour beforehand. That made a big difference.”
Bruce Swedien's microphone collection, spanning many of the best‑known models in studio history, is his pride and joy. "My microphones are prized posessions,” he writes in his autobiography. "To me, they are irreplaceable. Having my own mics that no‑one else handles or uses assures a consistency in the sonics of my work that would otherwise be impossible.” Here are some of the highlights, complete with a round‑up of some of his comments about them, collated both from his books and our conversations together:
AKG C414 EB
"My first application would be for first and second violins. It's really great mic for the classical approach for a string section.”
Hear it on... the first and second violins in Michael Jackson's 'Billie Jean'.
"This is a fantastic mic, and I have four of them. It's an omni condenser, and [for jazz recording] what you do is wrap the base of the mic connector in foam and put it in the bridge of the bass so that it sticks up and sits right under the fingerboard. It wouldn't be my choice for orchestral sessions, though.”
Hear it on... Swedien's numerous recordings for Oscar Peterson between 1959 and 1965.
RCA 44BX & 77BX; AEA R44C
"[The 44BX] is a large, heavy mellow‑sounding old mic with a great deal of proximity effect. This is very useful in reinforcing the low register of a vocalist's range if that is desired. If I am asked to do a big band recording of mainly soft, lush songs, I almost always opt for ribbon mics for the brass. I suggest AEA R44C or RCA44BX on trumpets, and RCA 77DX on trombones. Ribbon mics are great for percussion too.”
Hear it on... trumpets and flugelhorns in Michael Jackson's 'Rock With You' (at 0:54); percussion in Michael Jackson's 'Don't Stop Till You Get Enough'.
"The kick is about the only place I use that mic, and I mike very closely. I frequently remove the bass drum's front head, and the microphone is placed inside along with some padding to minimise resonances, vibrations, and rattles.”
Hear it on... the kick drum in Michael Jackson's 'Billie Jean'.
"For the snare I love the Shure SM57. In the old days it wasn't as consistent in manufacture as it is now. I must have eight of those mics, and they're all just a teeny bit different, so I have one marked 'snare drum'. But the ones I've bought recently are all almost identical. On the snare drum, I usually go for a single microphone. I've tried miking both top and bottom of the snare, but this can cause phasing problems.”
Hear it on... snare drum in Michael Jackson's 'Billie Jean'.
"These mics have a beautiful mellow quality, but possess an amazing degree of clarity in vocal recording. The 251 is not overly sibilant and is often my number one choice for solo vocals.”
Hear it on... Patti Austin in 'Baby, Come To Me', her duet with James Ingram.
"I still have one of the two U47s that I bought new in 1953, and will still frequently be first choice on lead vocal. This is a mic that can be used on a ballad or on a very aggressive rock track. It has a slight peak in its frequency response at around 7kHz, which gives it a feeling of natural presence. It also has a slight peak in the low end around 100Hz. This gives it a warm, rich sound. For Joe Williams, another mic would never have worked as well. I figured out that it was the mic for him when I heard him speak. After you've been doing this for as long as I have, you begin to have instinctive sonic reactions, and it saves a lot of time!”
Hear it on... Joe Williams in the Count Basie Band's Just The Blues
"I have a pair of these that Neumann made just for me, with consecutive serial numbers, and they sound so great. That's what I use now in XY stereo on piano.”
"This is very close sonically to the M149, but not quite the same. It's a three‑pattern mic and the first that Neumann came up with which had the pattern control on the power supply... you could have the mic in the air and still adjust the pattern. I use these for choir recording in a Blumlein pair, which is one of my favourite techniques because it's very natural in a good room. When I was recording with Michael and Quincy I was given carte blanche to make the greatest soundfields I could, so what I also did was pick a really good room and record the synths through amps and speakers with a Blumlein pair to get the early reflections as part of the sonic field. The direct sound output of a synthesizer is very uninteresting, but this can make the sonic image fascinating. You have to be really careful, though, to open up the pre‑delay of any reverb wide enough to not cover those early reflections. They mostly occur below 120ms, so with 120ms pre‑delay those sounds remain intact and very lovely.”
Hear it on... Andre Crouch choir in Michael Jackson's 'Man In The Mirror', 'Keep The Faith'.
"The predecessor to the U87, and an excellent microphone, but it's not one of my real favourites, as a purely instinctive reaction. It's just a little bit too technical perhaps, and it doesn't have sufficient sonic character for me to use it on a lead vocal, for instance. It's a good choice of microphone for violas and cellos, however, and the U87 can also work well in this application.”
Hear it on... violas and cellos in Michael Jackson's 'Billie Jean'.