Memories of Michael

June 23, 2010

By Dean Blinkhorn - Tuesday, December 01, 2009

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 Grammys—5 in all—to 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 other—Michael Jackson.

Bruce collaborated with Michael through the singer’s 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 Man’s 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

“It’s very important to me that the public understands that the Michael I knew was very different than the one they think they know. I’ve 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 platform—eight 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 Michael’s 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. I’ve 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 Mac—Mick Fleetwood, Stevie Nicks, Lindsey Buckingham, and Christine and John McVie. Christine smiled and said to me, ‘We hear you’re making a hit record over here. May we hear it?’ At that moment, I noticed that about a hundred people—the most famous music people that you could imagine including Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr—had 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 Michael’s 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 subwoofers—on 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, I’ll have him double the same track at the same position at the mic. After that track, I’ll 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 isn’t really there.”

6.The Crying Game

“When we were recording Michael’s vocal [on ‘She’s Out Of My Life’], he cried at the end of every take. When we finished the last take—we recorded about six or seven—Michael 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 Westlake’s 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 Jehovah’s 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. That’s not the norm, especially nowadays. The newer artists don’t seem to care as much, but Michael’s 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 Michael’s 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 crying—he was heartbroken. I felt like saying, ‘I told you so,’ but Quincy came to the rescue. He told Epic that the album wasn’t ready and that they’d need another eight days, one for each song, to edit them down so they’d 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 didn’t want to be. We worked for days. We put Max out by the barn to listen to the coyotes… nothing happened. So Michael said, ‘I’ll do the wolf.’ And he did.”

12. From One Star To Another

“Do you know what his favorite song in life was? Charlie Chaplin’s ‘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. Who’s 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 don’t know what happened. It couldn’t have been money, because it would’ve sold so many copies that that wouldn’t have been a problem. Anyway, when Prince left the studio, he turned to all of us in the control room and said, ‘Even if I’m not on this song, it’s 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 this—Joe instilled in Michael a strong work ethic. Janet’s 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. Isn’t 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 they’re 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 wouldn’t 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 that’s when Quincy left the project. That’s why I don’t think you’ll hear any better music than what’s on Thriller.”

19. A Perplexing Playback

“Michael hates doing playback sessions, where we play the new album mixes for the record label bigwigs. Michael’s 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, ‘I’ll never do this again.’”

20. An Unheard Masterpiece?

“I recorded a song with Michael, ‘Don’t Be Messin’ Around,’ one of my favorites, and it’s never been released. His passion for the music was unlimited.”


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