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Tribute to Bruce Swedien, by Isabelle Petitjean for MJBackstage magazine

At the occasion of the death, Monday November 16th, 2020, of Mr. Bruce Swedien, emblematic sound engineer for the History of Recorded Music and with Michael Jackson, the magazine MJBackstage has republished the file I wrote 5 years ago about this wonderful and brilliant sound architect.

Thank you Bruce .... You will be missed

Sound engineer and architect of Michael Jackson's voice from 1979 to 2001, Bruce Swedien, nicknamed the "philosopher of sound", is the man who changed the status of the sound engineer from technician to co-artist. His career has spanned all the changes in studio work of the 20th century. Yet he has kept the same motto: "Music First", relegating to the background a recourse to technology that he often considers, in popular music, too systematic and artificial. One of the keys to the Jackson sound? Unmistakably...

Who is Bruce Swedien: elements of biography

​Bruce Swedien is a Scandinavian-born sound engineer and music producer born in Minneapolis in 1934. He is a celebrated collaborator of Quincy Jones and Michael Jackson, recording most of his albums between 1979 and 2001, and has won five Grammys and been nominated thirteen times. Bruce Swedien's recording career began with post-swing era music (Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Dizzy Gillespie, Lionel Hampton, Quincy Jones, Oscar Peterson, Herbie Hancock, Tommy Dorsey, and Jeff Oster) and has continued through to today's digital and multimedia technologies, He has worked with pop artists such as Patti Austin, Natalie Cole, Roberta Flack, Mick Jagger, Jennifer Lopez, Paul McCartney, Diana Ross, Rufus, Chaka Khan, Barbara Streisand, Donna Summer, Sarah Vaughan, and the zouk group Kassav'. He worked on the music of the films Night Shift, The Color Purple and Running Scared.

On November 10, 2001, King Carl Gustav XVI of Sweden awarded him an honorary Doctor of Philosophy degree at the University of Technology in Lulea for his achievements as a sound engineer. Bruce Swedien, who started his profession when studio work was in its infancy, gives masterclasses all over the world. He has lived through all the eras, experienced all the technical developments of the profession, and earned a reputation as a pioneer as well as a craftsman, whose motto: "Music first", evokes a philosophy of sound that does not rely solely on technological prowess.

With his original working method, named by Quincy Jones Acusonic Recording Process, he was able to turn sound into a three-dimensional architectural element and make a whole generation of engineers rethink the notion of stereophony. To realize this, you only have to listen to the tracks on Quincy Jones' Sounds And Stuff Like That! album, George Benson's Give Me The Night and Michael Jackson's albums.

Bruce Swedien was born and raised in Minneapolis, Minnesota. As the son of professional musicians (his mother sang with the Minneapolis Symphony Choir), he was immersed in a musical climate from early childhood. He used to attend the Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra rehearsals and this had an impact on his philosophy of sound. Having learned to play the piano for eight years, it is however his interest in recording that will take precedence. He was always encouraged by his parents who bought him his first recorder for his tenth birthday and allowed him to experiment.

During his adolescence, he had a deep admiration for Bill Putnam, founder of the University Recording of Chicago and of the U.R.E.I., one of the most innovative companies of the time. Bill Putnam pioneered many of the techniques still used in studios today, such as reverb and echo.

But before entering the University and working for him, he continued to record classical orchestras and choirs in Minneapolis, along with his first recordings of popular music and jazz. During his college years, he headed the recording department of the Schmidt Music Company in Minneapolis for a time and worked for the first time with such big stars as Tito Guizar and Tommy Dorsey. It was during this time that he bought an old theater and turned it into a studio, which is still used as such today and is the center of many master classes.

In 1957, Bruce Swedien joined the newly formed Putnam studio in Chicago and began working for Universal. It was while recording Dinah Washington and Sarah Vaughan that he began his collaboration and deep friendship with Quincy Jones, then vice president of Mercury Records. Already at that time, his approach to sound recording attracted great references such as Count Basie or Duke Ellington with whom he tested his first multitrack (a three-track) that he already used with a certain finesse to rebalance the relationship between the lead vocal or solo instrument (track 2) and the orchestra, placed in stereo mix (tracks 1 and 3). With his thoughtful practices, Bruce Swedien is the one who will gradually contribute to reshape the image of the sound engineer, who was still considered at that time only as a technician by the record companies.

Bruce Swedien's meeting and collaboration with Michael Jackson

Bruce Swedien met Michael Jackson via Quincy Jones in 1977, on the set of the film The Wiz. Quincy Jones composed and arranged some of the songs and did the musical direction, Bruce Swedien recorded the music and Michael Jackson played the supporting role in the film. Michael Jackson was at the time looking for a producer to take his solo career seriously, so he turned to Quincy Jones who accepted, won over by the young man's abilities and professionalism during the shooting.

Off the wall, in 1979, was born from this triple collaboration and marked a fundamental shift. It is also the first album opening a long collaboration and a deep friendship between Michael Jackson and Bruce Swedien, since they will work together until the release of Invincible, last album of the artist, in 2001. First sound engineer but also producer and composer, Bruce Swedien will play a primordial role in the shaping of the Jackson "sound", whose main ambition was the sound uniqueness. Thus, Off the wall, Thriller, Bad will be shaped with Quincy Jones, before this one goes to other projects and lets the duo Jackson-Swedien continue its road with Dangerous, HIStory and Invincible.

Bruce Swedien - Michael Jackson, A common quest: Music First

If the producer Quincy Jones is the vector of the meeting between Bruce Swedien and Michael Jackson in 1979, it is Michael Jackson himself, as a producer but especially as an artist, who will prolong and seal for many years his collaboration with the sound engineer, well after the split with his instigator. Providing precision work and taking care of the smallest details are two professional traits that brought the two men together. But beyond that, it is around the quest for a certain authenticity that their collaboration was sealed, implemented by the vocal corporality of the singer and by the most natural technical approach possible of the engineer.

Authenticity, for Bruce Swedien, begins with respect for the original musical substance of a song. He explains that, while most of the time, finished songs are, as a result of countless studio remodels, usually far removed from their original concept and end up dissolved in the fashionable soundscape, his approach, especially with Michael Jackson, was to do just the opposite. Anxious not to leave the initial concept always precisely defined by the artist (and often even recorded vocally in a very complete way, which allowed him to come back to it regularly), attentive to the musical spirit inherent in each song, he always tried to restore with fidelity the vocal intentions of the singer in a high fidelity which has, according to his own terms, nothing aseptic.

In the same way that mastering is not, for Bruce Swedien, a final stage where the music is saved, he affirms that he is not a fan of corrective technology (even in terms of equalization, which he prefers to manage directly in the musician's position in front of the microphone, instrument by instrument, even in the case of an orchestra) and clearly prefers a creative function.

It should be noted that the attention paid to the details of the sound field orchestrated by Bruce Swedien was made possible by an avant-garde choice, which remained his exclusive for a long time: the use of Monster Cables created by his friend Noel Lee. These were the first high-fidelity cables that definitively compensated for the varying degrees of audio performance achieved by standard zip-cords, cables that had previously been used indiscriminately for sound, household electricity and lamps. Thanks to the use of 24-carat gold connectors, these high-performance audiophonic cables were born, which would considerably improve for Bruce Swedien, as early as 1987 and the album Bad, the finesse of perception of the elements staged within the sound field and particularly the approach of Michael Jackson's voice, whose modes of expression, lyrical or pointillist, are scattered throughout the different strata of the songs.

Isabelle Petitjean

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