Photo: John Parra/WireImage
Remembering The Musical Genius Of Master Engineer Bruce Swedien
When Bruce Swedien was mixing the Michael Jackson tour de force "Billie Jean," he and the pop star were agonizing over the most granular details of the recording. "I adored Michael, he was the greatest," Swedien once recalled. "He'd say, 'Bruce, that was perfect but let's try one more.' This was mix 80, [but] I said no problem."
By the time Swedien and Jackson were on the 91st mix of the track, the song's producer and frequent Swedien collaborator, Quincy Jones, walked in the studio and implored the two to go back and listen to their initial cuts. "So we played [the second mix we worked on] and it blew it all away. I mean that was the most badass mix and that's what [was released]. Mix two."
It's a story that not only exemplifies Swedien's attention to detail, but also his innate natural talent that earned him legendary status among the titans of the music industry.
"He was without question the best engineer in the business," Jones wrote in an Instagram post upon learning of Swedien's death last month (Nov. 16). "For more than 70 years I wouldn't even think about going into a recording session unless I knew Bruce was behind the board."
This combination of respect and pedigree earned Swedien 12 career GRAMMY nominations, including five GRAMMY wins for engineering for his work on Thriller, Bad and Dangerous, all for Jackson. He also earned two additional engineering GRAMMYs for his work on Jones' albums, Q's Jook Joint and Back On The Block.
"Bruce Swedien's masterful work behind the board helped create iconic music with renowned artists," Harvey Mason jr., Chair & Interim President/CEO of the Recording Academy, said of the celerated engineer in a statement. "His imaginative approach helped shape the sound of pop music, and he was one of the most revered engineers in our industry. We have lost a remarkable talent, but I'm thankful for the music Bruce gave us."
Hailing from Minnesota, Swedien was born to classically trained musician parents; he became enamored with music after his father gave him a rudimentary disc recorder. By 21, Swedien was an engineer for RCA Victor. After honing his craft with jazz icons like Duke Ellington and Stan Kenton, he released his first musical firework from his generation-spanning discography in 1962 with "Big Girls Don't Cry," the seminal Frankie Valli And The Four Seasons hit. With its high falsetto and kinetic drumming, it rocketed to No. 1 and earned the group its first GRAMMY nomination. At the time, Swedien, then 28, was working in-house at Universal Music in Chicago. He later fondly remembered the appearance of "four scruffy-looking guys from New Jersey who headed straight to the vocal booth. It was a great session."
In addition to a zigzagging career, which saw the prolific engineer collaborating with everyone from jazz greats like Ellington and Sarah Vaughn, rock gods like Mick Jagger, divas like Barbara Streisand and contemporary stars like Jennifer Lopez, it was his creative partnership, and close friendship, with Quincy Jones that would define Swedien's career. First meeting in the late-'70s while collaborating on the music for the classic film, The Wiz, the two also crafted hits for the likes of George Benson, including his own GRAMMY-winning song, "Give Me The Night," as well as the gargantuan charity single, "We Are The World."
"[Along with Temperton], we reached heights that we could have never imagined & made history together," Jones, on Instagram, recalled of the partnership, which resulted in Thriller, the best-selling album in music history. "I have always said it's no accident that more than four decades later no matter where I go in the world, in every club, like clockwork at the witching hour you hear 'Billie Jean,' 'Beat It,' 'Wanna Be Starting Something,' and 'Thriller.' That was the sonic genius of Bruce Swedien and to this day I can hear artists trying to replicate him."
In tangent with his ace ear, Swedien was also deft in the technology of production, helping revolutionize new techniques of engineering and evolving the craft. While working on Thriller, he developed a technique to record the tracks in analogue first in pairs, subsequently creating stereophonic recordings. "Digital recording was available and we were all quite impressed with its clarity," he said in 2018. "But if you start the music in digital you can never go back to analogue and it won't sound as good."
His thirst for innovation also forced him to think outside the box, like building a special drum platform and a cover for the bass drum, complete with an integral piece of wood to give the percussion on "Billie Jean" a distinctive sound. When recording Jackson's vocals, he had the pop star stand a few inches from the microphone, then step back even farther for another cut, then another, with Jackson physically moving his mouth along the microphone; once layered, they all created a unique depth. "Here's what I think it really boils down to," Swedien once explained, offering valuable insight into a master at work. "The importance of any musical sound lies not in any inherent acoustical value, but what it signifies in the soul of the listener."
His friend Quincy Jones summed up Swedien's loss on both a personal and creative level. "I am absolutely devastated to learn the news that we lost my dear brother-in-arms," he wrote in the Instagram post. "I'm going to miss your presence every single day 'Svensk', but I will cherish every moment we shared together laughin', lovin', livin', & givin'."