Farewell Bruce Swedien, The Godfather Of Recording

Bruce Swedien image

Bruce Swedien was rightfully known as the “Godfather of Recording” because not only did he see it all from almost the beginning, he changed and adapted with the times and technology, breaking ground for the rest of us to follow. From engineering Count Basie and Duke Ellington at Universal Studios in Chicago in the 1950s, to the biggest hits for Michael Jackson in the 1980s, Bruce was the guy that every engineer looked up to. His ears were the golden bar that we all tried to reach, but never could. Bruce passed a few days ago peacefully in his sleep.

Bruce was always kind to me and made sure to make time to answer any questions that I had (and I had a lot). One of the my most memorable moments was the day he played a safety copy of “Thriller” at extra loud volume for me in Studio A at A&M Studios. I got goose bumps then, and I get them now just thinking about it.

I thought that the best way to honor Bruce is to post the full interview that Bruce did for my Mixing Engineer’s Handbook way back in 1998 (the one that’s included in the book is much shorter).


Bobby O: Do you have a philosophy about mixing that you follow?

Bruce Swedien:  The only thing I could say about that is everything that I do in music, mixing or recording or producing, is music driven.  It comes from my early days in the studio with Duke Ellington and from there to Quincy. I think the key word in that philosophy is what I would prefer to call responsibility. From Quincy (No one’s influenced me more strongly than Quincy) I’ve learned that when we go into the studio our first thought should be that our responsibility is to the musical statement that we’re going to make and to the individuals involved. And I guess that’s really the philosophy that I follow.  

Responsibility in that you want to present the music in its best light?

To do it the best way that I possibly can. To use everything at my disposal to not necessarily recreate an unaltered acoustic event, but to present either my concept of the music or the artist’s concept of the music in the best way that I can.

Is your concept ever opposed to the artist’s concept?

It’s funny but I don’t ever remember running into a situation where there’s been a conflict. Maybe my concept of the sonics of the music might differ at first with the artist, but I don’t ever remember it being a serious conflict.  

I would think that you’re hired because of your overall concept.

I have a feeling that’s true, but I’m not really sure. I think probably my range of musical background helps a lot in that I studied piano for eight years and as a kid I spent a lot of time listening to classical music. So when it comes to depth of musical experience, I think that’s one reason that people will turn to me for a project.

Do you think that starting out without the benefit of the vast amount of technology that we have today has helped you?

Oh, definitely. Absolutely. No question. And I think what’s helped me more is that I was the right guy in the right place at the right time at Universal in Chicago. Bill Putnam, who was my mentor and brought me from Minneapolis as a kid, saw or heard something in me that I guess inspired some confidence. From there I got to work with people like Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Woody Herman, Stan Kenton, Oscar Peterson and so on. One of the thrilling parts about the late 50’s at Universal in Chicago was that I literally learned microphone technique with Count Basie and Duke Ellington, and these guys were in love with the recording process.    

Really? I was under the impression they only recorded because they had to.

No. Absolutely not. Now there were some band leaders that were that way, although I can’t think of anybody offhand, but most of them just loved being there. The guy that I think was most formative in my early years as a kid was probably Count Basie. I did a lot of records with that band.

How were you influenced?

I came into the industry at that level as a real youngster. In 1958 I was only 20 years old and I started right out working with Stan Kenton, and a couple of years later Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Quincy and so on. But I was not in love with the status quo that was part of the recording industry at the time. The goal of music recording in the late 50’s was to present the listener with a virtually unaltered acoustic event and that wasn’t terribly exciting to me. I loved it, but I wanted my imagination to be part of the recording.  

Another guy who bumped into that who I didn’t work with but I got to meet in the early 60’s at Universal was Les Paul. There was one record that  I remember that came out when I was in high school in 1951 that changed popular music forever and it was Les Paul and Mary Ford’s  How High The Moon, which was an absolutely incredible thing. I couldn’t wait to get to the record store to buy it so I could try to figure out what that was all about. At that point in time, I think a whole segment of the record buying public made a left turn in that the records of the day were pretty much, as I said, an unaltered acoustic event and we were trying to put the listener in the best seat in the house. But all of a sudden this record came along without a shred of reality in it and a whole segment of the record buying public said, “This is what we want”.

That being said, can you hear that sonic space in your head before you start to mix?

No. That’s the wonderful part about it.  

Is your approach to mixing each song generally the same then? 

I’ll take that a step further and I’ll say it’s never the same, and I think I have a very unique imagination. I also have another problem in that I hear sounds as colors in my mind. Frequently when I’m EQing or checking the spectrum of a mix or a piece of music, if I don’t see the right colors in it I know the balance is not there.

Wow! Can you elaborate on that?

Well, low frequencies appear to my mind’s eye as dark colors,  black or brown, and high frequencies are brighter colors. Extremely high frequencies are gold and silver. It’s funny, but that can be very distracting. It drives me crazy sometimes. There is a term for it but I don’t know what it’s called [synesthesia].  

What are you trying to do then, build a rainbow?

No, it’s just that if I don’t experience those colors when I listen to a mix that I’m working on, I know that there’s either an element missing or that the mix values aren’t satisfying.

How do you know what proportion of what color should be there?

That’s instinctive. Quincy has the same problem. It’s terrible! Drives me nuts! But it’s not a quantitative thing. It’s just that if I focus on a part of the spectrum in a mix and don’t see the right colors, it bothers me. I have a feeling it’s a disease, but people have told me it isn’t.  

How do you go about getting a balance? Do you have a method?

No, it’s purely instinctive. Another thing that I’ve learned from Quincy, but started with my work with Duke Ellington, is to do my mixing reactively not cerebrally. When automated mixing came along, I got really excited because I thought, “At last, here’s a way for me to preserve my first instinctive reaction to the music and the mix values that are there”. You know how frequently we’ll work and work and work on a piece of music and we think, “Oh boy, this is great. Wouldn’t it be great if it had a little more of this or a little more of that.” Then you listen to it in the cold gray light of dawn and it sounds like shit. Well, that’s when the cerebral part of our mind takes over, pushing the reactive part to the background, so the music suffers.  

Do you start to do your mix from the very first day of tracking?

Yes, but again I don’t think that you can say any of these thoughts are across the board. There are certain types of music that grow in the studio. You go in and start a rhythm track and think you’re gonna have one thing and all of a sudden it does a sharp left and it ends up being something else. While there are other types of music where I start the mix before the even musicians come to the studio. I’ll give you a good example of something. On Michael’s History album, for the song Smile, Charlie Chaplin, I knew what that mix would be like two weeks before the musicians hit the studio.  

From listening to the demo?

No. It had nothing to do with anything except what was going on in my mind because Jeremy Lubbock, the orchestra arranger and conductor, and I had talked about that piece of music and the orchestra that we were going to use. I came up with a studio setup that I had used with the strings of the Chicago Symphony many years before at Universal where the first violins are set up to the left of the conductor and the second violins to the right, the violas behind the first fiddles and the celli behind the second fiddles, which is a little unusual. So I had that whole mix firmly in mind long before we did it.  

So sometimes you do hear the final mix before you start.

Sometimes, but that’s rare.

Where do you generally build your mix from?

It’s totally dependent on the music. Always. But if there was a method of my approach, I would say the rhythm section. You usually try to find the motor and then build the car around it.  

Some people say they always put the bass up first…some from the snare, some the overheads………..

No, I don’t think I have any set way. I think it would spoil the music to think about it that much.  

I guess you don’t have any kind of method for setting balances.

Starting the bass at -5 or something? Boy, that would be terrible. I couldn’t do that if my life depended on it.

Do you have a method for panning?

I don’t think I have any approach to it. I generally do whatever works with the music that I’m doing.

So it’s just something that hits you when you’re doing it?

Yeah, that’s really the way it works. It’ll be an idea, whether it’s panning or a mix value or an effect or whatever, and I’ll say, “Ooh, that’s great. I’m gonna do that.”

What level do you usually monitor at?

That’s one area where I think I’ve relegated it to a science. For the nearfield speakers, I use Westlake BBSM8’s and I try not to exceed 85dB SPL. On the Auratones I try not to exceed 83. What I’ve found in the past few years, I use the big speakers less and less with every project.  

Are you listening in mono on the Auratones?

Stereo.

Do you listen in mono much?

Once in awhile. I always check it because there’s some places where mono is still used.  

I love the way you sonically layer things when you mix.  How do you go about getting that?

I have no idea. If knew, I probably couldn’t do it as well. It’s purely reactive and instinctive. I don’t have a plan. Actually, what I will do frequently when we’re layering with synths and so on, is to add some acoustics to the synth sounds. I think this helps in the layering in that the virtual direct sound of most synthesizers is not too interesting, so I’ll send the sound out to the studio and use a coincident pair of mics to blend a little bit of acoustics back with the direct sound. Of course it adds early reflections to the sound, which reverb devices can’t do. That’s the space before the onset of reverb where those early reflections occur.

So what you’re looking for more than anything is early reflections?

I think that’s a much overlooked part of sound because there are no reverb devices that can generate that. It’s very important. Early reflections will usually occur under 40 milliseconds. It’s a fascinating part of sound.

When you’re adding effects, are you using mostly reverbs or delays?

A combination. Lately though I have been kinda going through a phase of using less reverb. I’ve got two seven foot high racks full of everything. I have an EMT250, a 252, and all the usual stuff. All of it I bought new. No one else has ever used them. It’s all in pretty good shape too.  

Do you have any listening tricks?

You know what? Since I moved from California (I live in Connecticut now and I’m not going back), one of the things that I miss is my time in the car. I had a Ford Bronco with an incredible sound system and I still kinda miss that great listening environment.  

Do you do all your work at your facility now?

No, wherever they’ll have me. I love it here, but my studio’s dinky. I have an older little 40 input Harrison and a 24 track. The Harrison is a wonderful desk. It’s a 32 series and the same as the one I did Thriller on.  Actually I think that’s one of the most underrated desks in the industry. It’s all spiffied up with a beautiful computer and Neve summing amps. It’s just fabulous. 

Didn’t you used to have a couple of Neves strapped together?

I did have a beautiful Neve but after I finished Michael’s History album and Quincy’s Juke Joint, I was kind of burned out and very, very tired, so I told my wife as we were having breakfast one morning, “Honey, I’m gonna get rid of this damn studio at home and I don’t ever want to have another at home.” Six months later I was buying a console. I guess once a junkie, always a junkie.

How long does it usually take you to do a mix?

That can vary. I like to try not to do more than one song a day unless it’s a real simple project, and then I like to sleep on a mix and keep it on the desk overnight. That’s one of the advantages of having my little studio at home.  

I know that a lot of your projects are really extensive in terms of tracks.

But that’s not so much true any more. I start a mix tomorrow here at home for EMI in Portugal of a Portuguese band. It’s all on one 24 track tape.  

How many versions of a mix do you do?

Usually one. Although when I did Billy Jean, I did 91 mixes of that thing and the mix that we finally ended up using was mix 2. I had a pile of half inch tapes to the ceiling. And we thought, “Oh man, it’s getting better and better.” [laughs]

Do you have an approach to using EQ?

I don’t think I have a philosophy about it. What I hate to see is an engineer or producer start EQing before they’ve heard the sound source. To me it’s kinda like salting and peppering your food before you’ve tasted it. I always like to listen to the sound source first, whether it be on tape or live, and see how well it holds up without any EQ or whatever.  

That being the case, do you have to approach things differently if you’re just coming in to do the mix?

Not usually. But I’m not really crazy about listening to other people’s tapes, I gotta tell you that. But I consider myself fortunate to be working so that’s the bottom line [LAUGHS].

Do you add effects as you go?

There’s probably only two effects that I use on almost everything and that’s the EMT 250 and the 252. I love those reverbs. There’s nothing in the industry that comes close to a 250 or a 252.

What are you using the 252 on?

I love the 252 on vocals with the 250 program. It’s close to a 250, but it’s kinda like a 250 after taxes. It’s wonderful, but there’s nothing like a 250.  

What do you do to make a mix special?

I wish I knew. I have no idea. But the best illustration of something special is when we were doing Billie Jean and Quincy said, “Okay, this song has to have the most incredible drum sound that anybody has ever done but it also has to have one element that’s different, and that’s sonic personality.” So I lost a lot of sleep over that. What I ended up doing was building a drum platform and designing some special little things like a bass drum cover and a flat piece of wood that go between the snare and the hat. And the bottom line is that there aren’t many pieces of music where you can hear the first three or four notes of the drums and immediately tell what piece of music it is. But I think that is the case with Billy Jean, and that I attribute to sonic personality. But I lost a lot of sleep over that one before it was accomplished.

Do you determine that personality before you start to record?

Not really. But in that case I got to think about the recording setup in advance. And of course, I have quite a microphone collection that goes with me everywhere (17 anvil cases!) and that helps a little bit in that they’re not beat up.    

Are most of the projects that you do these days both tracking and mixing?

I don’t know what’s happened but I don’t get called to record stuff very much these days. People are driving me nuts with mixing and I love it, but I kinda miss tracking. A lot of people think that since I moved to Connecticut I retired or something, but that’s the last thing I’d want to do. You know what Quincy and I say about retiring? Retiring is when you can travel around and get to do what you want. Well, I’ve been doing that all my life. I love what I do and I’m just happy to be working, so that’s the bottom line.”

Bruce Swedien was one of the true innovators in our field and we’re going to miss him.


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