June 23, 2010
By Dean Blinkhorn - Tuesday, December 01,
Grammy-winning engineer Bruce Swedien, who
owns a small horse farm in Ocala, shares his 20 most personal
recollections of the beloved-and controversial-King of Pop.
Bruce Swedien looks about as far removed from the high-pressure
world of Top 40 radio as you can get. A quiet man with silver
hair, a simple wardrobe, and a bit of a sweet tooth, Bruce could
pass for your grandfather if you saw him roaming the concourse
of the Paddock Mall. But looks can be very deceiving. You see,
Bruce is one of the best sound engineers in all of music history,
and he has the Grammys5 in allto prove it. But beyond
all the technical details of a five-decade career in the music
industry (see sidebar), Bruce remembers the stories, especially
those of the artist he recorded more than any otherMichael
Bruce collaborated with Michael through the singers early
solo hits until his untimely death earlier this year and remembers
a rarely seen side of the reclusive artist. To the ever-gracious
Bruce, the enigmatic singer should be remembered for far more
than the underage sleep-overs, the Elephant Mans bones,
the hyperbaric chamber, or even the generation-defining dancing.
To him, Michael will go down in history as the ultimate
musician. These are his stories.
1.The Cordial Superstar
Its very important to me that the public understands
that the Michael I knew was very different than the one they
think they know. Ive never met the Michael that they talk
about in the press. The real Michael is the ultimate in politeness
and kindness, with a real passion for his art. He always said
please and thank you in an industry
where you never hear those words. He got that from his mother.
2. A Rockin New Vocal Technique
When we were recording Rock With You for the
Off The Wall album, I wanted the drums to have their own unique
space. After thinking about it for some time, the only answer
was to have the studio carpenters build me a drum platformeight
feet square, ten inches off the floor, heavily constructed,
braced, and counterbraced. Not long after, I put Michael on
my drum platform to record his vocals. I used the unpainted
plywood surface to reflect Michaels voice back to the
microphone. Keeping the platform unpainted maintains a surface
as porous as possible, to keep some reflective surface in the
sound field. Ive been using it for his vocals ever since.
3. An Impromptu Party
When I finished mixing The Girl Is Mine, it
was about eight in the evening. I was busy making safety copies
of the 1/2-inch mix master in the control room when I turned
around and saw all of Fleetwood MacMick Fleetwood, Stevie
Nicks, Lindsey Buckingham, and Christine and John McVie. Christine
smiled and said to me, We hear youre making a hit
record over here. May we hear it? At that moment, I noticed
that about a hundred peoplethe most famous music people
that you could imagine including Paul McCartney and Ringo Starrhad
quietly come in while I was busy. I played them the master mix
for the next three hours and they were having a great time.
Michael hid with me in the control room, but he had a huge smile
on his face.
4. How Low Can You Go?
I was in the studio one day making a special mix of The
Way You Make Me Feel for one of my seminars when I had
a brainstorm. I put in Michaels big-block vocal harmony
chorus, which knocks you against the wall. Michael said, Wow!
Call Epic and tell them to put your mix out, exactly like this,
as a dance record. It went to number one on the dance
charts and stayed there for three weeks. Then the owner of a
popular dance club in Frankfurt called me and said, in a thick
German accent, You owe me eight woofers! It seems
that one of my huge low notes had knocked out eight of his very
expensive subwooferson the very first note!
5. All Michael, All The Time
Of course, Michael sings all the backgrounds himself.
Michael is such an expert at doubling his backgrounds and other
vocal parts that he even doubles his vibrato rate perfectly.
His pitch is flawless! Next, Ill have him double the same
track at the same position at the mic. After that track, Ill
have him step back two paces and record a third pass of the
same melody. Blended with the first two tracks, this has a wonderful
effect, tricking the ear into perceiving a depth of field that
isnt really there.
6.The Crying Game
When we were recording Michaels vocal [on Shes
Out Of My Life], he cried at the end of every take. When
we finished the last takewe recorded about six or sevenMichael
was too embarrassed to come into the control room. He just tip-toed
out the back door, got in his car, and left the building.
7. A Flash Of Brilliance
I clearly remember one rather interesting event that happened
while we were working at Westlakes beautiful Studio D
on Beverly Boulevard in Hollywood. A young lady walked slowly
by the front window of the studio, made of a one-way glass facing
the sidewalk and the street. All of a sudden, while we were
watching, she pulled her dress high above her head. She was
wearing absolutely nothing underneath! [Producer] Quincy [Jones],
[songwriter] Rod [Temperton], and I turned around and there
was Michael, devoted Jehovahs Witness and all, hiding
behind the mixing console, getting an eyeful.
8. No Cue Sheet Needed
Michael was such a dedicated artist that he would stay
up the night before a recording session to learn the lyrics
from memory so he could record in the dark. Thats not
the norm, especially nowadays. The newer artists dont
seem to care as much, but Michaels easy to deal with in
the studio. For instance, when we record vocals, there are seldom
more than five or six takes. Michael is always totally prepared.
9. The Kid Is Not My Son
Billie Jean was a true story. There was a
little gal that climbed over the wall of Michaels house
and was out there lounging by the pool. She eventually accused
Michael of being the father of one of her twins.
10. A Thrilling Finish
In those days, the principal medium was the LP and the
more playing time, the less physical volume, minimizing the
sonic impact of the music. When we played back the Thriller
album, I saw Michael sneak out of the control room and go to
the other studio. Quincy saw him too and followed him. I was
next. I remember that Michael was cryinghe was heartbroken.
I felt like saying, I told you so, but Quincy came
to the rescue. He told Epic that the album wasnt ready
and that theyd need another eight days, one for each song,
to edit them down so theyd sound better. We had to get
the sides down to 20 minutes each, although the second side
was still a little long, so I got smart and put all the loud
songs, which take the most physical space, on side one. The
rest is history. By October 1984, Thriller had sold 120 million
copies in the U.S. alone and remains the biggest-selling album
to this day.
11. The Doggone Truth
For me, the centerpiece of Thriller is the title song,
a definite study in contrasts and layers. I used an entire 24-track
reel just to build the spooky intro! Originally, I wanted Max,
my Great Dane who weighed 200 pounds, to be the wolf, but he
didnt want to be. We worked for days. We put Max out by
the barn to listen to the coyotes
nothing happened. So
Michael said, Ill do the wolf. And he did.
12. From One Star To Another
Do you know what his favorite song in life was? Charlie
Chaplins Smile. I recorded it with Michael
singing live with the New York Philharmonic on the HIStory album.
13. Have You Seen My Childhood?
That song [Childhood] was gorgeous, just beautiful.
When we finished recording, Michael asked me if he could go
out in the studio and meet the orchestra. They gave him a standing
ovation. Every member of the 50-piece orchestra stood up and
tapped their music stands with their bows as loud as they could.
Michael was thrilled.
14. Whos Bad?
I love Prince. He was going to do a duet with Michael,
Bad, so he came and we recorded a scratch track,
but I dont know what happened. It couldnt have been
money, because it wouldve sold so many copies that that
wouldnt have been a problem. Anyway, when Prince left
the studio, he turned to all of us in the control room and said,
Even if Im not on this song, its going to
be a big hit. He was right.
15. All In The Family
I made myself scarce when it came to the rest of the family
because they could be a handful. His father, Joe, was not a
nice man. But, you can say thisJoe instilled in Michael
a strong work ethic. Janets a nice girl and the most like
Michael of all the siblings. When I first started working with
Michael, they used to say that Janet and Michael were one and
the same. Isnt that terrible? He did Scream
just to prove people wrong.
16. Daddy Daycare
The kids loved their daddy. I spent a lot of time with
them and theyre good little kids. We were working at the
Hit Factory in New York and Michael was changing diapers, doing
all the things you would not expect him to be doing. The kids
were just thrilled whenever they saw him.
17. Not Allowed To Phone Home
Walter Yetnikoff [CBS Records president] was a rough dude.
I did a recording with Michael, E.T.: The Storybook Album, but
Walter wouldnt let it come out. Michael was just brokenhearted.
It was beautiful.
18. He Wants To Be The One In Control
Starting with Dangerous, I had a feeling that Michael
wanted to be in charge of everything, so thats when Quincy
left the project. Thats why I dont think youll
hear any better music than whats on Thriller.
19. A Perplexing Playback
Michael hates doing playback sessions, where we play the
new album mixes for the record label bigwigs. Michaels
then-managers talked him into attending the one held for the
Sony executives to hear the HIStory album for the first time
at Larrabee North Studios in Hollywood. When the last note sounded,
all these geniuses from the label simply got up and left the
studio without saying a word. No applause, no comment, no reaction.
Michael said to me, with tears in his eyes, Ill
never do this again.
20. An Unheard Masterpiece?
I recorded a song with Michael, Dont Be Messin
Around, one of my favorites, and its never been
released. His passion for the music was unlimited.
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