Bruce Swedien, a shaper of Michael Jackson's sound, dies at 86

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Bruce Swedien, a shaper of Michael Jackson's sound, dies at 86
Mr. Swedien won Grammys for his work on “Thriller” and two other Michael Jackson albums.

by Richard Sandomir

NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- Bruce Swedien, a Grammy Award-winning recording engineer best known for his collaboration with Michael Jackson and producer Quincy Jones on hit albums “Thriller” and “Off the Wall,” died Nov. 16 in Gainesville, Florida. He was 86.

His daughter Roberta Swedien said the cause of death, in a hospital, was complications of surgery for a broken hip. He had also tested positive for COVID-19 but was asymptomatic.

Raised by parents who were professional musicians and encouraged his love of music, Swedien (pronounced swe-DEEN) was a masterly studio technician who, in a career of nearly 60 years, captured the sound of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Barbra Streisand, Dinah Washington, Jackie Wilson, Sarah Vaughan and Jennifer Lopez.

His most fruitful partnerships were with Jackson and Jones. Swedien met Jones in Chicago in the 1950s and worked with him on several projects, including records by Billy Eckstine and Dinah Washington, and then on “The Wiz,” the 1978 film adaptation of the Broadway musical based on “The Wizard of Oz.” Jackson played the Scarecrow; Jones was the film’s music supervisor and arranger; Swedien was the music recording engineer.

By 1979 they were working on “Off the Wall,” the first of their many ventures with Jackson. Swedien would win three of his Grammys for engineering Jackson’s next three albums, “Thriller,” “Bad” and “Dangerous”; his other two were for his work on Jones’ “Q’s Jook Joint” and “Back on the Block.”

In Jackson, Swedien found a willing participant in studio experimentation.

While recording Jackson’s background vocals, Swedien had him take two steps back from the microphone after each of the multiple takes and then layered them all into a Jackson “choir.” For the sound of Jackson’s “Don’t think twice!” exclamation on “Billie Jean,” he had him sing through a 5-foot-long cardboard tube.

For “Thriller,” he rejected digital technology despite its clarity and recorded all of Jackson’s songs in analog, synchronizing multiple 24-track machines. “The sound of pure analog — 24-track, two-track or even mono — is very warm and musical,” he told Reverb, an online music marketplace that includes news and interviews, in 2018. “It captures music with great realism.”

Swedien chose microphones for Jackson without interference from the singer or from Jones, and he was free to mix the sound as he desired.

“They’d leave the room, and I’d get it all shaped up and ready, and then they’d come back, and we’d listen and make slight adjustments,” he said in an interview in 2009 with Sound on Sound, an audio technology publication.

Swedien described his experiences with the singer in a 2009 book, “In the Studio With Michael Jackson.”

In 2010, a year after Jackson’s death, Swedien was part of a panel of six former producers and engineers who were asked by the singer’s estate to determine if it was his voice on “Breaking News,” the first track released from the posthumously assembled album “Michael.”

The panel listened to the raw vocals of “Breaking News” and two other songs recorded in 2007 and confirmed that Jackson had indeed sung them.

Bruce Frederick Swedien was born April 19, 1934, in Minneapolis. His mother, Louise (Perusse) Swedien, was a singer, pianist and composer. His father, Ellsworth, was a classical pianist, composer and choir director.

Knowing that young Bruce loved music, his father bought him a disc recording machine when he was 10. Four years later, he was working at a recording studio on weekends and in the summer. He also studied classical piano technique for several years until graduating from high school.

His graduation gift was a professional tape recorder that he toted around Minneapolis, recording any willing jazz bands, polka groups and choirs while studying electrical engineering and music at the University of Minnesota.

He never graduated, but he cemented his future when he started working as the operator of a local music company’s recording studio; at age 20, he bought the equipment and moved it to an old movie theater. In 1957, he sold it and moved to Chicago to work for RCA Victor Records, where the artists he recorded included the Chicago Symphony.

Less than a year later, he left to work for renowned engineer Bill Putnam at Universal Recording, also in Chicago.

“A lot of times I’d be doing Basie’s band, and the sessions would start at 7 at night,” Swedien told Tape Op, a music recording magazine, in 2012. “I remember sitting at the piano talking to Duke Ellington. He was such a fabulous guy. He’d tell me that things don’t happen in music until after dark.”

Swedien was encouraged to tinker in a studio so well designed that he called it a “musical instrument.” While recording the Basie band’s performance of “Night Time Is the Right Time” for the album “Just the Blues” (1960), Swedien mused about the trombone solo.

“I thought to myself, ‘Wouldn’t it be great to give that trombone solo a unique sonic image?’” he told Sound on Sound. “So I told the soloist that, when it was time for him to solo, he should get up and tiptoe over into the corner of the studio and play his solo into the corner, away from all the mics. He did that, and everyone went bananas! I’m still so proud of that recording.”

He earned his first Grammy nomination for engineering the Four Seasons’ single “Big Girls Don’t Cry,” which hit No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart in 1962. After going independent in 1969, he recorded a range of artists including Muddy Waters, the Chi-Lites, Hall & Oates, Lesley Gore and Roberta Flack.

When “Lena Horne: The Lady and Her Music,” recorded during Horne’s Broadway run at the Nederlander Theater, was released in 1981, John S. Wilson of The New York Times praised Swedien’s work.

“She is an intense performer who shapes every syllable that she sings or speaks to achieve the full impact that she intends, from soft to soothing, from anger to joy,” Wilson wrote. “Whichever way it goes, Miss Horne is in it all the way, completely, and Bruce Swedien’s recording has caught the full flavor of it.”

By then, Swedien had been nominated for four more Grammys, including two for albums produced by Jones, one by George Benson and one by the synth-pop Electronic Concept Orchestra.

His collaboration with Jackson also led to nominations in the 1990s for songwriting (the single “Jam,” written with Jackson, René Moore and Teddy Riley) and for coproducing (“HIStory: Past, Present and Future, Book I”).

In addition to his daughter Roberta, Swedien, who lived in Ocala, Florida, is survived by another daughter, Julie Johnson, and his wife, Beatrice (Anderson) Swedien, a close partner in his work since they married as teenagers.

After Swedien’s death, Jones said on Instagram that he was “without question the absolute best engineer in the business” and a “sonic genius.”

© 2020 The New York Times Company

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