There are few audio engineers and music producers as legendary as Bruce Swedien. If all he had done was engineer Michael Jackson's Thriller, the world would know his name. But he has done far more. In his teens he worked in studios, as well as opening his own, Swedien Recording, in Minneapolis. Soon he was off to Chicago to work for RCA Victor, and later for Bill Putnam at the legendary Universal Recording. Eventually Bruce ended up in Los Angeles and, along the way, began working with Quincy Jones, which led to his long-standing recording relationship with Michael Jackson. He's won five Grammy Awards. He's recorded big band and jazz greats like Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Dizzy Gillespie, Lionel Hampton, Oscar Peterson and Herbie Hancock. He's made memorable pop records with Roberta Flack, Mick Jagger, Jennifer Lopez, Paul McCartney, Diana Ross, Chaka Khan, Barbra Streisand and Donna Summer. He is a legend, and we were lucky enough to spend an amazing afternoon talking with Bruce and his assistant, Ramsees Mechan.
So, let's talk about your past. I read that your dad gave you a disc cutter when you were young.
Yes, when I was ten years old. My dad saw my interest in capturing music. It was actually a wire recorder. It recorded magnetically on wire. The quality was really bad — everything was mono. I started working when I was in high school, in the '50s. I had a basement studio in Minneapolis with a guy that really understood equipment. Above all, he understood cutting lacquers.
Were you cutting sessions live to disc in that studio?
No, we never really did. It was the most literal interpretation of a basement studio that I've ever been in. It was in a room next to the furnace. We had a beautiful disc recording setup. We would go out and record. Most of the stuff was actually weddings and things like that. I've even done some funerals. You have to remember that I started very young. When I started in music recording in Minneapolis, I was 14 years old.
You worked in Minneapolis for a while. You even took over a theater and opened Swedien Recording, right?
Yeah. It was on Nicolett Avenue South. It was an absolutely gorgeous old movie theater. Of course it had a slanted floor. Our first project was to fill in the floor and make it level. In those days concrete was very, very cheap — so we did it with solid concrete. I did a whole bunch of recordings with some pretty well known artists. To this day it is still a highly respected music studio. Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis had it for a while. Later it was called Creation Audio. A guy by the name of Steve Wiese ran it.
It's amazing that the place would remain a studio after all these years.
Yes. I literally started when my oldest kid was born, and she's 50 now!
When you opened Swedien Recording you were with your wife Bea [Anderson Swedien], you had a child on the way, and your family was supportive.
Oh, yes. There's a little bit of my mom and dad in everything I've done. They were both musicians and both well educated and trained. All they wanted me to do was record music and do it properly. They just wanted to help.
One of the nice things is that you see that support. Bea has obviously been behind you all the way.
Oh, she's incredible! I saw early on in my career that her support was going to be really important to me, so I included her in all my work. I never did a major project without bringing her to the studio. She's stayed up all night with Duke Ellington and Count Basie. Bea and I traveled with Michael Jackson all over the world — she actually drove for him for a while.
I can imagine early on that you had some lean years.
I think I was lucky. I was always busy and made a little money.
That doesn't hurt!
That doesn't hurt at all. Although I do have a distinct memory of when Bea and I were first married. We were in the studio in Minneapolis and we went home on Christmas Eve and bought a Christmas tree for 25 cents.
Work took priority at that point.
Well, it's like anything else — either you do it or you don't. Music recording is not very forgiving. That is a lifetime commitment, you have to do it. It isn't going to come to you; you have to go after it. I'm 72 years old, and to this day there's nothing else I'd rather do. Isn't that something? Think about that. How many guys my age can say that?
Do you find that you ever get sick of it?
Never. When I was in Chicago I did some commercials that got a little bit trying, but that was only because of the people involved, not the project.
JJ: Not the musicians?
Never the musicians. I've been very lucky.
So you sold the studio in Minneapolis to move to Chicago and work for RCA Victor?
It's a funny story. I was asked by the CBS network to accompany a team of space explorers and record them. And I did that. What happened was that I did really, really well. We went all over Minnesota, South Dakota, North Dakota and so on. It was before spaceships — it was actually a manned balloon. I evidently impressed the people. When they got to Chicago, they were talking about me. "Oh, you've got to meet this crazy kid. He really knows how to record!" Next thing I knew, I was on my way to RCA Victor studios in Chicago.
And that was out on Navy Pier?
Yes, it was. Chicago is a fabulous city for music. I literally cut my teeth on big orchestral recordings with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. At that time, it was under the baton of Dr. Fritz Reiner. Recording an orchestra, at that point in time, was a team effort. You didn't have one guy that sat down at the console and did the recording. It was such a learning experience. And the musicians? Oh, wow! I worked with the best.
Do you feel the musicians' talents were better quality than they are today?
I don't think, no. I've met a whole lot of young people today and I'm really amazed at the quality of musicianship. Where I'm a little bit disappointed are the people in popular music recording. They don't really seem to want to spend the time or the money to do it right. When I started in the business, money was no object. I'd go out and rob a bank if I had to in order to buy another microphone. It was almost like we were more serious in those days than they are now.
Did Dr. Reiner give you specific instructions on what he was looking for?
No. Well, only if it was wrong! He liked me and made me part of his "incentive" program. That was interesting; I'll never forget it. Dr. Reiner's incentive was, "One mistake and you're through." It's real simple — you just do it right. [laughter]
Did you ever make a mistake?
No. I was really lucky. I knew the musicians. Dale Clevenger was the principal horn player and Ray Still was oboe and English horn. I'd worked with a lot of the string players on projects in the studio, so I got to know the musicians really well. What an education! Whew. We weren't thinking in terms of stereo at the time in a typical Chicago orchestra session. It was all done on 3-track 1/2- inch for rebalancing. The end result was almost always mono, until the late'60s when stereo became interesting. I bumped up against a lot of really fabulous musicians in Chicago I also met producer Don Costa and I even did a record for Hugh Hefner. I recorded Johnny Janis — a pop singer of incredible quality — with a big orchestra in Studio A. [Playboy Presents... Once In A Blue Moon]
Live vocal. I was fortunate in that I did a lot of work with Count Basie and Duke Ellington; major big bands.
Were those done at RCA?
RCA, and later at Universal Recording. But what was interesting was the bands followed me to the next studio. I guess I was doing something right! [laughter]
So Bill Putnam brought you into Universal Recording?
Bill Putnam had heard about me from Minneapolis. He was my mentor at Universal. What a fabulous, fabulous guy. He was the most giving, intelligent man that you could imagine. He really cared about what was going to happen to me.
Did you meet him before you moved to Chicago?
Actually, it's funny — my mother and dad met him first. Like typical mother and father, they were bragging about me and he said, "Yeah, send the kid down here. I want to meet him."
There probably weren't that many people in the recording field at that time.
Especially ones with a classical recording background. I'm able to read music. I can read a score and use it in my work. That helps.
Did you use that when you were doing projects for RCA with the orchestra?
Yes. But those recordings were a team effort. There was a music producer, Richard Mohr; a very giving guy. I was lucky to be in the right place, at the right time because these people cared about what I was learning.
What was it like to go to Universal Recording?
It was a bit of a shock. Universal was a big recording center! One day I'd be recording Woody Herman and The Third Herd and the next day I'd be recording Count Basie. A lot of times I'd be doing Basie's band and the sessions would start at 7 at night. I remember sitting at the piano talking to Duke Ellington. He was such a fabulous guy. He'd tell me that things don't happen in music until after dark.
Like playing shows!
Right. I thought, "Well, that makes sense to me."
Was the studio doing back-to-back sessions, like tracking jingles during the day?
Lots of jingles. The problem with that music, for me, is that jingles are derivative. It's almost always a copy of a big, popular music production that's very successful. I hated that! As soon as I could, I left jingles in the dust. [laughter] But I'll tell ya — the musicians who were recording the jingles were wonderful.
How many years did you work at Universal Recording?
I don't know. I think nine or ten. I actually worked for a while as a freelancer in Chicago, with a guy by the name of Dick Marx. I finally realized that jingles weren't for me. I had to get away from it, or I was going to die musically.
It seems that would be hard after working with Duke Ellington and Count Basie.
Yeah, recording The Jolly Green Giant is a little bit of a step back! [laughter]
JJ: Come on, I used to really dig, "Ho ho ho!"
That's it. The voice was Elmer "Len" Dresslar Jr. Nobody remembers those guys. But nobody forgets Joe Williams or Count Basie.
JJ: You told me a story about working with Bill Putnam and how he let you know you'd "gotten there."
Well, what happened was we were in Studio A and we were working together on a Stan Kenton album. It was a big band with a frightening quality of arrangements and musicians. We were right in the middle of a song and Bill said, "Hey, sit down kid. You finish this one." So, I did; and then I didn't see him until three years later in California!
What prompted you to move to Los Angeles?
The music business moved. It left Chicago and moved to Los Angeles. I was out there and it finally hit me one day, "I can live anywhere." You don't have to be in any
one place. I've also spent a lot of time in New York. I've recorded Jennifer Lopez and her most successful albums. She's incredible to work with — perhaps not the best singer in the world, but the best worker.
When you've worked with someone like Jennifer Lopez or Michael Jackson, do you find that other parts of their lives get in the way of making records?
It's funny — I've been asked that before and I've never seen that. Michael, in particular, was one of the hardest working dudes I've ever met. His musical standards were astronomical. And his knowledge was incredible, even of classical music. Michael was something else.
Did you feel that he was focused and present when you were working with him?
Totally. He was a fabulous guy. I never recorded a Michael Jackson hit single where he had the lyrics in front of him. That's all you need to know. He'd be up all night the night before, learning the song.
Was producer Quincy Jones the taskmaster, or did Michael take that on himself?
Quincy is not a taskmaster. The first thing you have to remember with Quincy is that Quincy is probably the most honorable man I've ever met. Secondly, his musical training and taste is without compare. He lived in Paris for many, many years and studied
composition and orchestration with Nadia Boulanger. When we did The Wiz, we'd be recording a part and Quincy would hire a conductor. He never conducted himself. We'd be running through a complicated orchestration and all of a sudden I'd see him frown. He'd stop and say, "Second violin, third chair; that note is a D, not an A." My experience with Quincy was learning a lot about quality.
When you listen to Thriller and Off the Wall, the sounds are very focused and have a certain place.
You know what's funny? I don't ever remember being told by Quincy or Michael that I had to do anything a certain way, ever. For instance, when we were mixing "Billy Jean," I did 91 mixes on that song. Michael and I were in the studio one day, just going crazy. We finally grabbed Quincy to listen to it and he said, "Well, mix 91 is great, but I'd like to hear mix two." Of course we listened to it and mix two blew mix 91 out of the water. Mix two is the one that's on the record. I've got to tell you, to pay respect to Michael and Quincy — they always listened to me. Always. It was a fabulous time in my life.
During the course of your recording career you've gone from recording a live orchestra to working on Thriller. Was it an interesting transition to work in more of an overdub situation while creating in a different light?
I really didn't notice anything different. It was so natural. But I think a lot of that is due to Quincy's overview of the music.
What do you think of the changes in recording mediums? Obviously you've watched tracks go from one to infinity, and from tape to digital.
See that thing on the left hand side? What do you see there?
I thought I saw an A827 Studer deck.
That's right. My favorite thing. With a lot of the new groups that I work with, that's the format that I originate the sound on. Once you get the analog sound and quality in the sound field, it stays there. From there, you can go to digital and it still sounds the same.
What is your "Acusonic Recording Process?"
It's nothing more than a way of verbalizing the way I record. A lot of stereo pairs, a lot of ribbon mics and a lot of great condenser mics. Years ago Quincy
and Michael and I were working. I got a call from an excited secretary who told me a camera crew was flying in from Tokyo to photograph the Acusonic recording machine. I said, "Oh, my god! Send them home!"
Maybe you should've put a label on an empty box and set it on the shelf.
I thought about that! I can't do that. It's my honest Scandinavian background. To me, the most thrilling element in music recording was when I discovered that I could put fantasy — in the form of stereo music landscapes — into my recordings. If you go back and listen to a lot of Michael [Jackson's] recordings, you'll hear where I was able to put a lot of sonic fantasy into the soundscape. I was absolutely given free rein by Quincy and Michael and I will be forever grateful because it allowed me to develop.
You hear a lot of depth.
Well, there is one dimension we can't get. You can get right or left with depth; but you can't get height in music recording. As soon as you realize that, life is a lot more pleasant!
It's true. There's no way to get that perception.
Right — it can't be done. Yet we're perfectly capable of hearing it. The human ear and its ability to hear spaces in music recording is the most amazing thing to me. It's really wonderful. I've been one to treasure my hearing. I've always been very careful not to listen too loud for too long. You'd be surprised at how loud you can play music back. You can push 100 dB if you don't do it for very long. I spent a lot of my time mixing on Auratones, which of course you can't get anymore. The Auratones were such a wonderful tool for music recording. Quincy used to call them "The Truth Box." They're not flattering, but they shouldn't be.
Would you say that recorded sound is always a "let down" of some sort when compared to live music?
Not to me. The reason I can say that with some authority is because recording allows me to put myself in the music and then what I hear is something totally different. Adding the element of my own sonic fantasy to the soundscape really makes a difference. A lot of people think the goal is to recreate the original sound field. To me, that's the biggest crock of shit I've ever heard in my whole life. That's definitely not the goal for me.
Well, it's never really going to happen. No, and everybody's music is subject to the same
conditions. It's a funny thing.
In the '80s, weren't you making slave reels to record onto? The original rhythm tracks would be sync'd to and set aside.
Yes. The reason for that was because we were recording analog and, after repeated playing, the high-end started to deteriorate. What I did was to take the master tape, play it one time and make what I call a "cue mix." Then I'd take those [new] tapes to overdub on. Don't play that original master tape again until the final mix. Listen to "Thriller" or "Billy Jean" — the transient response is still there because of that reason.
JJ: And no compression?
I hate compression. [laughter] I have a favorite saying, "Compression is for kids."
But say someone is cutting a vocal and his or her parts are jumping up too loud. Do you ride faders or use more compression?
No. First thing you learn to do is to hire good singers. I learned that a long time ago. You don't work with half-assed musicians, because then your product is going to be that way.
Have you been in a position where you haven't had that choice?
No. You know what I'd do then? Say, "Bye. Where's the door?" [laughter] But you know what? That's never happened.
JJ: I've seen you work with people and you seem to bring out the best in them. How do you explain that?
I don't know. That's the magic! You know, I have a saying, "Music is life's only true magic; because you can't explain it." You know what? You're not supposed to! There's something called "bad taste" and "good taste." It's important to know how to define "good taste" in yourself.
When you do your workshops, I gather that you do a lot of critical listening while working with students.
I have my daughter come. She's the pianist my mother and father had hoped that I would be. I have her play for the class and we record it. Then they can understand a little better where that comes from. You need to know what a piano sounds like in order to mic it. I've seen some of the weirdest piano mic setups and people standing around in ecstasy over something that sounds funny to me.
What kind of techniques would that include? Just odd placement?
Yeah, odd placement. I go for a pretty basic X/Y — I use X/Y a lot. Actually, take that a step further. I think the Blumlein Pair is probably my favorite microphone technique.
Keeping the capsules close...
Yes, so that there's very little, or no, phase difference.
You've built up a stellar mic collection.
I own 105 mics. All of them, practically, I've bought new. My house has a room in it just for microphones. It's called "The Safe House." It's in the middle of the structure and it has one door that's locked. That's where the mics are. I've found that if you go to a generic studio and you want to use a mic, that I know sounds a certain way, and you ask the studio to provide their version of that mic, it doesn't sound right. A lot of the mics I've owned are ribbon mics and they may be consecutive serial numbers. Most people don't care about that. To me, the microphone is the entryway to sound; it's how we capture what we do. I have a lot of respect for microphones.
I see a lot of Universal Audio's reissues in your studio, like the 2-610.
That's the microphone preamp I grew up on — Universal Recording and Bill Putnam. I love the sound of those mic pres.
When they reissued the 2-610, did that sound pretty familiar right off the bat?
Instantly. It has that warm tube sound. The EQ is also very, very warm.
JJ: You still have the Neumann U 47 mic you bought in 1953.
Yes. You won't often see a [Neumann] U 47 in this condition.
I've seen some that are so beat up.
Isn't that disgusting? Many versions of this mic were made.
Where did you buy mics from back then?
Gotham Audio in New York. Steve Temmer — I don't know if you remember that name. He's long been gone. He was very influential in getting this mic to the masses.
I assume a lot of different singers have sung through that mic.
Ramsees, since we've looked at this microphone, we should listen to it. Will you go in and find the Count Basie/Joe Williams CD of "Nighttime is the Right Time?"
JJ: Was that song sung on this mic?
Yeah. It was a straight-ahead session with the band and the vocals in the same room. I had gobos around the vocals. It was two or three in the morning. We were at Universal [in Chicago] and it was Count Basie's band.
JJ: You told me that sometimes the audience would come with the band to the studio after the show.
No, all the time the audience would come! On this song the audience was there. Bea was there. I had set up folding chairs around the studio. It was a huge studio — 85-feet long and a 30-foot ceiling — people everywhere and you didn't hear a sound. Not a fucking sound.
Did you have to tell them to be quiet?
Never. These were studio rats. They'd all been at the club and they were all dressed to the nines. One of the owners of the studio showed up and I thought, "What in the hell is he doing here?" So, I'm telling the trombone player [Penny Reed] to go over and play his solo in the corner, away from all the microphones. I told him, "Don't pay any attention to the mics. Walk away from the mics." The studio owner went off on me. He said, "Are you crazy? They probably won't even pay for the session! If this backfires, you're fired." He was the one who lost his gig; I'm living in this place and that guy ain't!
Did you have this studio built when you first moved to this property?
Actually the building was here. There was a giant John Deere tractor sitting right here. Acoustic Sciences Corporation did all the acoustic treatment. It's very scientifically designed. If you've noticed, there are no two parallel surfaces.
Why did you pick Ocala, Florida?
There are more winning racehorses that come from Ocala than anywhere else in America.
So it was a good place to be for horses and room for the dogs?
Yep. Boo-Boo and Gordy are a huge part of our lives. Also we kind of indulge our dogs. There's no sacred furniture in this house!
What have you been working on recently in your studio?
I'm recording a Swiss act. It's really interesting.
Are they coming out to work with you here?
You're going to go to Switzerland?
No. I don't need them. It's so made up of parts and pieces that we'll be able to put it together. It's fascinating.
So collaborating online, virtually?
Did you ever think you'd see this kind of world?
No. Thank god for Ramsees, because he can pull all of these pieces together. Of course, it keeps him up at night! He's never been the same since he showed up at my door!
What brought on the idea of doing your "In the Studio with Bruce Swedien" workshops?
I needed something to do!
I get the feeling that you don't want to sit still.
No, I don't! Neither Quincy nor I have any interest in retiring. We've talked about that. I have no interest in sitting around watching my chickens run around.
JJ: It's also preservation of life. I think Bea would kill you if you did! [laughter]
Yeah, but I'm really lucky. Bea loves and understands what I do and how crazy it can be. She just fits right in.
Have you enjoyed doing the workshops?
Yes, very much.
Do you feel like you get to pass on a lot of good information, as well as teach people?
I haven't ever really looked at it that way, but I guess that would be part of the thing. I meet some really interesting young people. I'm surprised with my students and how much they leave here with. I see myself in some of them. And what's really fascinating is they all know everything I've done! I don't understand that!