Learn from the Master - Bruce Swedien

Make Mine Music

Make Mine Music

In Bruce Swedien's autobiography, the recording legend reveals techniques that made hit records and insider looks at the artists themselves. Purchase Your Copy Here.

 

A Living Legend Shares His Experience

Five-time Grammy-winning engineer/producer Bruce Swedien has recorded and produced some of the biggest names in the business, from Duke Ellington to Paul McCartney to Michael Jackson. Swedien opened his first studio at age 19, worked under the late, great Bill Putnam (founder of Universal Audio), and collaborated with music icon Quincy Jones. Swedien cemented his reputation while working on a string of Michael Jackson singles and albums (including Thriller, one of the top-selling albums of all time). In addition to teaching master classes at UCLA and California State University, Swedien travels worldwide presenting lectures and seminars at academic institutions and industry events.

In His Own Words

As the keynote speaker at Sweetwater's GearFest '08, Bruce shared dozens of insights into the art and craft of recording with the packed auditorium. In the following clips, he recounts legendary sessions and techniques.

1 The Paradox of Popular Music 7 Late Nights with Count Basie's Band
2 The Early Days at Universal Recording 8 A Basie Session with a Unique Miking Technique
3 Inside Universal Recording Studios, Chicago 9 Quincy Jones's Goal for the Thriller Album
4 Recording with Duke Ellington 10 Recording Thriller: Stereo Tracks, Reluctant Dog
5 Ellington's Genius in the Studio 11 The Inside Story on the Thriller Intro
6 The Beginnings of Stereo Recording 12 Bruce Leaves Us with an Important Concept
Special Interactive Feature: Music First - Bruce Swedien Answers Your Questions!

Bruce Swedien graciously agreed to answer selected questions about recording, music, and his amazing career. Here's a sampling of the most popular questions.

You've mentioned before that the rule of recording is that "there are no rules." Can you give an extreme example of a convention you've broken to achieve the right sound for the recording?

– Danielle, Indiana

I do believe that there is no such thing as a wrong way of doing things. As long as it accomplishes your musical objective. What we are doing with the sound must elevate our musical objective first. I think that we certainly must know the technical values, so that we can make the most of our equipment and take it the furthest. Don't be afraid to try to stretch the envelope.

Take Quincy's album Back On The Block for instance. There's one song called "Places You Find Love." To realize Quincy's musical concept of the song, I finally ended up using 96 tracks of audio for this one song! Of course, there are many stereo pairs of tracks used. Three 32 track tape machines involved!

I've heard it said, "Why does Bruce need ALL those tracks?" Here's why... I guess if there is a common thread in the sound of my work, it would be the fact that I absolutely love the emotional impact of true stereo images in music recording. Because of that, I use an awful lot of tracks. Most of my recording work is done in stereo pairs as a matter of fact. True stereo recording plays a big part in the overall image of my work.

When it's time to mix, where do you start? Do you have any personal "rules" about building a song's foundation and placing instruments?

– Kevin, Florida

I have always felt that mixing is an extension of arranging in popular recorded music. Music mixing is an extremely intuitive or instinctive part of the popular music recording process. During the mixing process we must make an effort to turn off the analytical part of the mind so that we can respond at the gut level of our sonic personality.

It is fascinating, to me, that some of the most interesting rhythms are those that relate to the human work process. In other words, we have certain biological rhythms that make music more meaningful. For example; the rhythm of the human heart beat. The asymmetry of the heart beat makes it very meaningful when thought of in music terms.

I think that Michael Jackson's Thriller was such a phenomenal success because the music that was on it, reached everyone! Great songs! Killer songs! Thriller went everywhere, it appeals to people from 8 to 80. Everywhere in the world. I don't think that's ever happened before. It broke down so many racial and cultural barriers and was a uniting influence on many millions of people all over the world. That never happened before. I am intensely proud of being a part of the making of Thriller. The biggest selling album in the history of recorded music!!!

You've recorded a wide range of drum sounds and styles over the years. When it comes to placing drum microphones, what seems to be the method you go to first?

– Brendan, Texas

In a pop recording generally speaking, I feel that the drum set should be treated as a combination of instruments, rather than a single instrument. This is because many of the effects that the drummer desires - or the producer desires - in a drum recording, often may have to be emphasized electronically. If the drums were heard in a natural acoustical balance, much of the impact of the drum sound would be lost. Multiple miking on the drum set therefore is the only answer.

Lately, I have been miking the overhead perspective of the drum set with a pair of Royer R-122 active ribbon-velocity microphones. They sound fantastic! Fabulous new mikes!

The two drum overhead microphones "hear" the drum set in a fairly natural acoustical balance and usually include a good pick-up on the overhead cymbals. I place individual mikes on the tom-toms around the drum set. These tom-tom microphones I mix together on a pair of tracks to complement the left/right stereo image of the drum set. I then mike and record the kick, snare and hat separately on discrete tracks to be balanced in the mix later.

The choice of microphones for recording the drums, of course, varies considerably with the natural sound of the drum set.

The individual mikes on the tom-toms are always in cardioid position for maximum isolation of the individual toms. I then place them about three to five inches, sometimes even less, away from the tom-toms. The closeness of the mikes to the tom-toms depends on the natural low frequency content of the toms. If the tom-tom sound needs a lot of help in the low-frequency end of the spectrum, in other words, if the toms sound thin and lacking in low frequencies, I will, generally speaking, place the mikes closer to the toms.

This technique utilizes the proximity effect present in many large-capsule condenser microphones to boost the low-frequency end of the sound source. Proximity effect in microphones means that as the sound source is moved closer to the capsule, or diaphragm, of the microphone, the more the low frequencies are enhanced.

The reason for this "proximity effect" is that as the distance between the diaphragm of the microphone and the sound source is decreased, the sound pressure on the front of the diaphragm is greater than the sound pressure on the rear of the diaphragm, thereby increasing the low-frequency response of the microphone.

The stereo image, or panoramic placement of the drum set, in a mix, is purely a matter of personal taste. I mike and record the drum set viewing it from left to right, as though you were looking at the drum set. (Since not much of the recording and reproduction of modern pop music should be taken literally, this subject, I have always felt is a matter of personal taste.)

In the summer of 1982, when we were recording Michael Jackson's Thriller album, I was very intent on making sure that the drum sound had as much impact and real "sonic personality" as was possible at the time. I had a tailor make a special kick drum cover from a heavy furniture blanket. He made it with a zippered hole, or slot in the middle, for the microphone, and strong elastic around the edge, so that it fits the kick drum perfectly. An additional advantage of the cover is that it reduces the leakage on the kick mike, of the other drums in the set. If you listen to "Billie Jean" from the Thriller album, you'll hear the first time I used my custom-designed kick drum cover.