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A Bruce Swedien Experience

A Memoir by Omar Ibouten
Table of Contents
1. Introduction ....................................................... ... .... ... ............................................ ................... 3
2. The Biography of Bruce Swedien .............................................................................................. 5
3. History of Music Recording in the 20th Century .................................. .. ...... ....... .... ...... ............. 8
4. The 'A-Tean1' .......................................................................................................................... 16
5. Thri!le1; The Album:
5-1 .Introduction ...................................................................................................................... 18
5-2 .The Recording .................................................................................................................. 18
5-3 . Mixing & mastering Thriller .......................................................................................... 31
6. Bibliography .............................................................................................................................. 37
7. l'd Like to Thank ....................................................................................................................... 38
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1. Introduction
During my early ages as a child, I used to hear Michael Jackson's sangs in
our home in Rabat, Morocco. My father was a huge fan. On Sundays, while my
mom would cook our family lunch, my father would put on a Michael Jackson
record before picking up a book he wanted to read or simply kept it playing
while he carried on with their day to day chores. The resonance of Michael
Jackson's records playing over and over again became a weekly, then later
daily habit. Little did I know that the echoing of Michael Jackson's sangs
throughout our home would be the turning pinnacle of exhilarating change in
my life entering my teen years.
I always had a fondness for records and deejaying as I believe that it was
one of the foundations that brought people together. Entering my teen years, I
started to take a huge interest in deejaying. Turning thirteen, I would scratch
on Michael Jackson's records and later understanding that the record that I
was scratching on was the best selling record of ali the time. It was the Thriller
In this memoir I will be taking you on a tour through this wonderful and
unique album, by giving a simple yet diverse overview about the making of
Thriller. I will mainly talk about it from the perspective of the genius behind
the recording and the mix of Thriller; Bruce Swedien. Throughout this memoir,
I will take you on a journey of discovery in which we will learn that a lot of
equipment was used, load of cables were applied, a number of studios were
used and a lot of ti me and energy were used to execute su ch a great record.
Thus, you will find some of the secrets that went into the production of
making this record and a great number of real talents involved and combined
put a lot of hard work into this record.
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This memoir will start by exploring the wonderful world of the mysterious
album Thriller viewed by one of the greatest sound engineers alive, Bruce
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2. The Biography of Bruce Swedien
Bruce Swedien was born and raised in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Throughout
his musical career, his music has been associated with ali styles of music. His
mother and father were both professional musicians to which he had that
meaningful musical input very early in his life. His mother sang with the
Minneapolis symphony women's chorus. When he was ten years of age, his
father gave him a dise recording machine for his tenth birthday and ten
minutes later he had decided on music recording as a lifetime career.
By the time Bruce was fifteen years old, he was working in a small
basement recording studio in Minneapolis where his summer vacations from
school were spent recording any willing musical groups. He recorded
everything from Minnesota type polka bands to black gospel singing quartets in
the living room. He a Iso had an illegal radio station in the garage to broadcast
his recordings to the whole neighbourhood.
Bruce Swedien attended the University of Minnesota where he was running
the recording department for Schmitt Music Company in Minneapolis. Later in
this period, he bought with his father an old movie theatre in Minneapolis
which they converted into a recording studio.
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-Control room at Universa/ studio in 1950's-
Throughout the years, Bruce became weil known for recording and
mixing jazz artists in Chicago between 1957 and 1976 such as Quincy Jones,
Oscar Peterson, Louis prima and Kelly smith, County Basie and Joe Williams,
Sarah Vaughan and many more.
In 1981 Bruce Swedien became weil known as one of the makers of the
best selling album of ali time, Thriller. Bruce recorded and mixed ali Michael
Jackson's albums including The Wizz, Off the Wall, Thriller, Victory, Bad,
Dangerous, History and Invincible. He has won five Grammys and has been
nominated thirteen times.
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- Bruce Swedien in the studio -
Bruce is a pioneer, an inventor who gives a lot to the music industry with
his famous process called the acusonic recording process which consists on
pairing up microphones together on vocals and instruments and using
multiplexed multi track recorders to enhance roomy ambient sound. This guy is
simply a musical genius.
Bruce Swedien has lived and seen the improvement of music from the
early 1950's until today, in the next chapter we will see how the technology
changed the process of music making in which the record, Thriller became the
best selling album ever.
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3. History of Music Recording in the 20th Century
In this part, we will study the history of recorded music. In other words,
we will back in time to understand what happened in the studios when it came
to music production and recording.
In the mid 1940's, it was ali about big bands. The recording process was
simple, putting a microphone in front of the main singer will actually capture
the singing and at the same time ali the musicians behind the artist; a good
placement of the different sections together was the key to mastering a good
recording. The recording to disk format was the standard at this period of time.
But in the early 50's, a big change has come to the industry, the switch
from direct to dise recording format to magnetic tape recording format. The
Ampex model 401 was the first magnetic recording tape that Bruce Swedien
had while he was working at Schmitt Music Company as recording engineer.
The next important change was the introduction of multi-track recording;
it was the segment of the music recording process where we freeze the
musical sound sources of a song or piece of music on separate, discrete tracks
on one piece of magnetic tape. This process allows the mix down where the
relative balance values can be altered to effect a change in the emotional
character of the music.
There were sorne of the important facts in the evolution of music
recording studios and the music recording medium from the mid 1940's.
Recording companies and the allied music industries played an important role
in this evolution.
In the middle 1940's, after World War II, the recording industry was
dominated by the major labels Columbia Records, RCA Victor, DECCA Records,
and the younger Capital Records. In 1946, Mercury Records (now called
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Phonogram) was introduced in Chicago, and by 1948 was an important label in
which MGM Records came on the scene at about the same time.
In 1947, more and more independent record labels came onto the music
scene where these small labels specialized in certain types of music and their
products targeted specifie markets. Here are a few of the areas of genres that
these independent labels supplied: rhythm & blues, country, religious and
gospel music, jazz and skating rink music.
The studios and facilities of ali the major record companies were quite
similar in design and scope, and studio processes and the internai discipline of
the studios were quit rigid. The studio atmosphere and decor were very clinical
and institutional where the control rooms were quite small.
For most of the late 1940's and early 1950's, the major labels continued
to record most of their pop music acts with their traditional, highly disciplined
techniques, and the groups were required to record their music in the label's
limited facilities.
Columbia Records was the first of the major labels to allow musicians and
technicians outside the controlled studio environment and attempt to get more
of a live sound on record. They used beautiful-sounding Liederkranz Hall in
New York for some big band recordings. The sound of this elegant, large room
on those records was a giant step forward from the pinched, narrow, little
studio sound.
Not long after Columbia's pioneering efforts to improve recorded sound,
RCA began using Webster Hall in New York to record the Sauter-Finnegan
Orchestra . The records produced during that period are outstanding examples
of this type of sanie advancement. Decca followed by using the Pythian Temple
in New York.
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This effort on the part of band leaders, record producers, musicians and
technicians to record a deliberately more reverberant sanie sound played a big
part in the development of the echo chamber.
The acoustical treatment of the label's studios of the day was fairly dead
in which below will be explained:
The recording room had acoustical treatment which mainly consisted of
drapes, acoustic tile, poly cylindrical diffusers on the walls and carpeting on the
floors. Some of the music studios had an area of floor that was wood or tile; in
a half-hearted attempt to achieve a live atmosphere.
The main attention of the acoustical technicians of this era was paid to
sedating rooms with a great deal of soft material. This made the reverb time in
the high and mid-frequency ranges quite short and gave a fairly dull effect to
the resultant sound . A little attention, if any, was given to the mid-low and the
low frequency end of the spectrum. This treatment gave a muddy and
unseparated sound of many recordings from th at period. In fa ct, the
recordings made during and prior to the mid 40's had little apparent separation
of the instruments in the sanie image for this very same reason.
This dulling of the high frequencies and lack of attention to the low-
frequency absorption of music recording rooms resulted in a great deal of
secondary pick-up (sound that a microphone picks up of the instruments that
are not in its intended hearing pattern) by the microphones used during
Most of the recording studios that were experimenting with the use of
controlled reverberation for an artistic effect had to employ spaces designed
for other, less classy uses.
Bill Putnam who was one of Bruce Swedien's Mentors was occasionally
using his favourite men's room as a reverberation, or echo chamber.
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Trespassers would ignore the out of arder sign and go ahead and use the
facilities. Then the sound of the watery flush of a toilet will be recorded along
with a historical recording.
In 1947, one of the first pop records to exploit reverberation for artistic
impact in recorded music was Peg-0-My Heart by Jerry Murad and The
The 33-1/3 micro-groove record and the 7" 45 rpm single format was a
battle between two majors Columbia records and RCA Victor. A lot of people
don't know that the standard before 1951 wasn't really known, in fact there is
still sorne old 33-1/3 micro-groove record pressed only for a single.
It is in about 1951 when RCA and Columbia made peace. The 33-1/3 rpm
long play micro-groove record became the standard in the industry for the
album package, while the 45 rpm 7" record became the industry standard for
the single-release package.
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The quality of pressings has also improved greatly in the mid 50's. The
success of the audiophile equipment market, known to the general public as
the "hi-fi market", and the success of the independent audiophile record
companies, caused a certain amount of healthy competition between major
label recording studios and independent studios. The result was that the
studios had to respond and find ways to improve and innovate. During this
period, the music recording industry was compelled to produce better sounding
records than were made during the 1940's. The hi-fi equipment buying and
record buying public demanded it.
Along with the development of a more live sound and hi-fi in the popular
recorded music of the early 1950's, a great deal of experimentation and
improvement in microphone placement and technique was going on at the
same time. Much energy and effort were put into the development of
innovative microphone design.
-Craig Johnston and Bruce recording-
Most of the American microphones design technology and technique were
handed down from the broadcast industry to the recording industry, many of
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the so called unidirectional and bi-directional mikes of the time were actually
omni-directional in the low-frequency range of the audio spectrum. This is
accentuated the problem of too much reverb time in the low-frequency end of
the spectrum. The off-axis response of most of these older mikes cause very
unpleasant and unmusical-sounding time and spectral coloration of the sound.
In the early 1950's, a new range of microphone called exotic was
introduced in which these microphones improved the recorded sound of music.
The Telefunken U47 known as Neumann U47 from Germany is the perfect
example. It was the first post war microphone produced by George Neumann
in West Berlin. It was designed around World War II military radio tube with a
capsule design from 1929. It was very popular vocal microphone. There were
many U47s and U48s used for the famous Beatles recordings. The aggressive
sound of a U47 or U48 makes them an excellent choice for lots of rock
applications; they also bring shininess to drums, guitars, amps, and brass
A few years later, Telefunken introduced the Neumann model M 49
condenser microphone, designed in 1949 it was introduced to the buying public
in 1950. it had three different stand mounts and it came in a variety of boxes.
There were various models, including the M49, M49b, M49c, M249b and the
M249c. The M249b and the M249c were designed with and RF (radio
frequency) suppression-type screw-on connecter designed for the German
broadcast industry. They usually utilized a "cassette system" power supply
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known as the N-52. It is a superb vocal mike, maybe also used for miking an
electric guitar amp to recording French horns. It can be used from omni
directional mode from room miking to figure-S for background vocals.
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Stereo was also introduced during this period, but it started as kind of an
underground movement, almost guerrilla effort by the more progressive
engineers and producers who were thinking "stereo" at that time. Because of
the reluctance of the major record-company moguls to acknowledge the
importance of stereophonie recording of music, and the hesitation of the folks
who held the purse strings to pay for the additional reels of recording tape, the
future of stereo music recording came very close to being a "strangled baby"
before it was out of the crib. One of the biggest problems for studios was that
the control rooms built in the 1930's and 1940's were designed only for
monaural recording. And thus were very small. United Recording studio in
Hollywood, designed and built by Bill Putnam, was one of the first studios with
control rooms created expressly for recording stereo music products. We
should make a little break a talk very shortly about what does stereo or
stereophonie means:
In the dictionary the first half of the word "stereo" means solid, firm, or
three-dimensional. The second half of the word, "phonie" means "pertaining to
the nature of sound". That may be as close as we get to a definition of stereo
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music reproduction, there is another definition of stereophonie given by Bruce
Swedien (make mine music- hall Leonard Books) which I find more real and it
says : "stereophonie sound is a reproduction system consisting of two or more
microphones, placed in front of a sound pick-up area, recorded discretely on
two or more channels of a multi-track recording deviee, and then played back
on two or more loudspeakers placed in front of a listening area".
The stereo began to be very important in the end of the 50's and the
beginning of the 60's, a time where the first multi-track records started to be
commercialized and the vinyl stereo record did its first appearance. That
development was a big, big breakthrough.
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4 - The 'A-Team'
after taking a little tour through the history of the music recording industry and
the different changes that had a tremendous impact of the development of the
music industry, I will be telling the story of how Bruce Swedien (sound
engineer) Quincy Jones (producer) Rad Temperton (songwriter) and Michael
Jackson (singer) first met the form one the strongest team in the history of
pop music. Quincy Jones called it affectionately the 'The A-Team'.
First it was the meeting of Bruce Swedien and Quincy Jones, it was in
1959 at Universal Recording Studios in Chicago; Quincy was about 23 and was
the vice president of Mercury Records. He was the youngest executive with a
major label in the industry, and the only black executive with a major label in
the entire industry. Bruce Swedien had just turned 22; they were recording a
Dinah Washington album for Mercury. That first session, was the beginning of a
long and durable friendship.
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Rad Temperton is a British musician and songwriter. He was born in
Cleethores, on the north Lincolnshire Coast of England. In 1949, Rad was one
of the original members of the popular funk/disco band, Heat Wave. Quincy
Jones called Bruce Swedien one day telling him to listen to Heat Wave album
which was such a big success in 70's and those they were going to be working
with Rad on Michael's new album. The first session with Bruce Swedien, Quincy
Jones and Rad Temperton was in 1978 for the Michael Jackson's first solo
Michael Jackson was born on the 29th of August, 1958, in Gary, Indiana.
He was the seventh of nine children. Michael and his aider brothers (Jackie,
Tito, Jermaine, and Marion) were thrust into the spotlight when their father,
Joseph Jackson, a steel mill worker, formed a singing group out of his sons and
called them the Jackson 5.
The meeting between Bruce Swedien and Michael Jackson was in 1977, wh en
Quincy Jones asked Svensk (the nickname that Quincy Jones gave to Bruce
which means Swedish man) to go to New York with him to do a musical movie.
It was The Wizz where Michael Jackson played the role of Scarecrow. While
they were working Michael asked Quincy to produce and Bruce to record and
mix his upcoming solo record. The result was Off the Wall 10 million copies
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5 - Thriller, The Album
5.1 Introduction:
Thriller was released in late 1982, and was in 1983 the best selling
album worldwide and became years after that the best selling album of ali time
in the United States as weil as the best selling album of ali time worldwide,
selling an estimated 110 million copies so far.
When you take a break and think about this numbers, you start
wondering what is different about this album? I can simply respond by saying
it is because of dedication and hard work, Quincy has listened to about 600
sangs just to pick 12 for Thriller and Rod Temperton submitted about 33
complete demos to Quincy for the project. Now that's dedication!
Bruce asked Quincy how he felt to when he went in the studio to make
Thriller and Quincy responded : you have to do something that gives you goose
bumps and makes you say: "yeah man, that really turns me on".
There are nine sangs on Thriller, Michael wrote four: The Girl is Mine (with Paul
McCartney), Wanna Be Startin' Something, Beat It, and of course Billy Jean.
Rod Temperton wrote three: Baby Be Mine, the title song Thriller, and The
Lady in my Lite. Human Nature was written by Steve Porcaro and John Bettis
and P. Y. T (Pretty Young Thing), was written by James Ingram and Quincy
5.2 The Recording:
Let's talk about the recording of the album. In this chapter, I will talk
about ali the equipment that was used for the recording as weil as the miking
techniques that Bruce used to come out with the particular sound of Thriller.
I should emphasize the fact that little information was revealed by the
engineer and that the information that I will give in this memoir is a mix of
what Bruce uses in his day to day recording session and what he's done duri ng
the Thriller project.
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The centrepiece of the album Thriller is of course the title song. The song
Thriller began life as Starlight. In Bruce's persona! tape collection, there is still
that demo of Starlight with Rod Temperton singing the lead vocal.
The first session on Thriller was at 12:00 noon on Wednesday April 14,
1982. The studio was Westlake Audio's Studio 1 on Beverly Boulevard i n
Hollywood. The first recording was "The Girl Is Mine" by Michael Jackson and
Paul McCartney.
In this first session, Bruce Swedien used for the first time the David
Harrison 32 series 40 i nput Inline music recording Console. He didn't really
know that this console will be its closer friend until the present time. In fact,
he still own and uses a Harrison 3232 series music recording console in his
own music studio at home.
Now let's talk about the console for a while, the design behind the
Harrison 4032 (the console used during the recording of Thriller) is very simple
and pretty straightforward.
The Harrison 4032 is a 40 inputs mixer and 32 busses. The sources can
come from either a microphone or a line-level signal directly from an
instrument or any audio source (like a pre-recorded effects or real-life sounds)
the channel strip includes input gain control and 4 band E.Q section with high
and low cuts as weil as ali the routing to the busses of the mixer.
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The Harrison 40 series input/output modules contain ali the necessary
circuitry for a complete input channel and a complete output channel. The 40
I/0 module has a full 40 channel output assign matrix with odd/even buss pan
capability. Three are contrais for line and mike trims with switching for the "B"
line select, "PING" switches (reversai of mike or line-in as determined by the
console status switching), mike phase reverse and mike pad.
Each 40 series I/0 has a fully parametric reciprocal four-band equalizer
of proprietary design. Additionally available are parametric, second arder high
pass and low pass filters, switching is included for low frequency peak or shelf
select, Individual EQ and filet in/out, EQ insertion to monitor chain rather than
program channel, and EQ solo.
In the monitor section, the function of the monitor pot on each l/0 is
under the control and direction of the FET switching card as directed by the
console status programming. In the prime microphone recording modes it acts
as the multi track monitor fader for either the console or record outputs. In the
remix modes, it is reassigned to the microphone portion of the circuit where it
becomes the level control for the microphone preamplifier. With this feature,
the full facility of the console to record microphones is always available.
Depressing the "MON" button on the equalizer inserts the entire equalizer
section into the monitor to be equalized in the microphone recording modes
and/or the microphones to be equalized in the mixing modes. The button "FIX",
when depressed, defeats the variable monitor pot, and sets up a fixed nominal
gain. This feature can be advantageous at the beginning of a session. Before a
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critical monitor mix is required. The "SOLO" butten, when depressed, routes
any signal present at the output of the monitor pot to the solo buss, which is
displayed on the control room monitors. Depressing the "MUTE3" butten
eliminates any signal flow through the monitor pot.
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This photo above shows a track-sheet for the Thriller intro, as you can
see ali the tracks were recorded in stereo, you are wondering why Bruce took
ali these sounds in stereo instead of using mono tracks. Weil this is what
distinguished Thriller from ali the ether albums. A roomy sound of ali the
different instruments, this evolution started when Bruce Swedien decided to
think of things in stereo pairs. It was way back in the late 50's when he first
got his first multi-track machine an Ampex 300; a 3 track 1/2" tape machine,
then he got the 4 track, the 8 track, the 16-track and of the course the 24-
track machine which was used in Thriller. Actually it was more than one
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machine. Bruce came up with a simple idea that will revolutionise the recording
music process, the idea was to link two or more multi-track machines to have
more tracks available. The name of this concept is the "Acusonic Recording
The "Acusonic Recording Process" is a name that Quincy Jones and Bruce
Swedien came up with to describe the recording technique with multi-track
recording machines. The phrase is essentially a combination of the words
"accurate" and "sonic". The accurate part of it referred to the accuracy of true
stereophonie sound imagery. The "sonic" part of it referred to the fact that it is
sound that we are trying to characterize.
It is ali started in 1964 when Bruce decided to experiment with locking
up two four-track machines. The idea was to have more individual tracks to
work with in order to realize production values that were becoming important
in that time. One of those production values was the doubling or the stacking
of vocal tracks that was just beginning to be done in popular music production.
This was long before time code was being thought of in relation to the audio
recording field.
1t was on The Wizz that Bruce began seriously using two or more multi-
track tape machines together to realize the production values that he and
Quincy Jones were interested in. in this project, Bruce didn't use SMPTE time
code but used Mag-Link time code (it does the same thing as SMPTE time
The concept was to record a 60-Hertz sync pulse track on both tapes,
then made a physical start mark on the two tapes at the beginning of the
track. Next step would be to resolve the tape speed of the two machines with a
pair of magnatech film transfer resolvers so that they would run at precisely
the same speed. Thus, by pressing the start buttons on both machines at
precisely the same instant, the two machines ran together in very close sync.
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It was a real difficult method; but it did give Bruce at that time a lot of extra
tracks to work with.
It was also during the recording the score for The Wizz that Bruce came
up with the basic analogue system of organizing the tracks, the master tapes,
and the slave tapes. He called it Multi-track Multiplexing. This is actually the
basic concept that spawned the catchword phrase that withheld to the
"Acusonic Recording Process".
The most important feature of this technique is the ability to use pairs of
tracks i n abundance, to record true stereophonie images, and then retain them
in discrete pairs until the final mix, as weil as allowing the engineer when using
analogue recording to play the master tape only few times during the initial
stage of the project, and then put it away until the final mix. This feature
retains much of the analogue master tapes transient response by not
diminishing those fragile transients due to repeated playing during overdubbing
and sweetening.
In those early days of the Acusonic Recording Process, Bruce would often
use 16-track, 2" analogue tape without noise reduction, because the additional
track width on the tape gives less self-generated tape noise, as compared to
24-track analogue, also because to his ear the sonic quality of 16-track as
music recording medium is the most convincing.
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Later on in the 1980's, when recording Thriller, Bruce Swedien used 24-
track, 2" tape as his initial recording medium, at a tape speed of 30 inches per
second at a record level of approximately 6dB over 185nanoWebers known as
a record level of +3.
To synchronise two or more tape machines, he used SMPTE time code,
30 frame, non-drop frame, and recorded this on the tape at a level of about-15
VU. He would allow 60 seconds offset (pre-roll sync-up time) at the beginning
of each song, starting always the SMPTE time code at zero time base for each
song. This gives him handy time position reference throughout the song.
He would then make severa! of what he called work tapes using the
original master SMPTE track and regenerating it through a code restorer so
that the time code was always first-generation quality. He would then mix the
rhythm tracks and make stereo eue mix on the work tape using as few tracks
as possible. Generally speaking, he wou Id make stereo mix of the bass, drums,
and percussion on a pair of tracks. Then he would make a stereo mix of the
keyboards and guitars on a separate pair of tracks. Bruce used an entire 24-
track reel just to build the spooky intro. This is how Thriller was recorded ali in
stereophonie pairs of tracks.
Now let's talk about the intro for a bit and more specifically about how it
was produced. Bruce had a large dog whose name was Max, he thought of
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getting him to do the word howls for the intro, he bribed Max with
hamburgers, he put him out the barn to listen to the coyotes at night but Max
wasn't interested in being part of Thriller in the end they had to have Michael
Jackson do the wolf howls.
In the second intro section (after the scary introduction), Bruce tried to
create a low-end-of the spectrum illusion, by starting the kick drum (that
appears only in that part of the intro) with very minimal low frequency
response on it. The ear quickly adjusts to that spectral response. Then, when
the bass and the real kick drum come in, with ass-kicking low end, the impact
is startling.
In this paragraph, we will talk briefly about sorne of the microphones
being used in the recording of the album. One of Bruce favourite microphones
is the Shure SM-7, it is a super high quality music-recording microphone, used
in many of Michael Jackson's lead vocals including thriller and Billy Jean.
Ribbon microphones played a big role in the production of Thriller. The
air movement associated with the sound moves the metallic ribbon in the
magnetic field, generating an imaging voltage between the ends of the ribbon
that is proportional to the velocity of the ribbon, this is characterised as the
velocity microphone. In most cases, due mostly to the physics of its
construction, a ribbon microphone cornes with a figure of eight pattern
The advantages of this type of microphone are:
- It adds warmth to the tone by accenting lows when close-miked.
- Can be used to discriminate against distant low frequency noise in its most
common gradient form.
Wh ile the ir disadvantages are:
- Accenting lows sometimes produces "boomy" bass.
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- Very susceptible to wind noise. Not suitable for outside use unless very weil
Ribbon microphones are something totally different when it cornes to
recording. Ali ribbons, like the RCA models 44 and 77, are extremely fragile
due to the physical limits of the microphone; they even need to be stored in an
upright position in order not to damage them.
Bruce used ribbons microphones to record almost ali the percussion
tracks on Thriller, here is how it works : using ribbon microphones in the
recording of percussion tracks makes life easier when it cornes to mastering a
recording .
The microphones used are RCA 77DXes and RCA 44BXes, the heavy
mass of the ribbon element, suspended in the magnetic field of a ribbon mie,
makes it impossible for a ribbon microphone to trace the complete transient
peak of a percussive sound like a glass bottle. In fact, when using a condenser
microphone with the condenser microphone's ability to translate the entire
transient peak of the sound, the percussion (e.g. botties) would have sounded
great, played back in the control room, but when it cornes to master, such an
incredible transient peak would have minimised the overall level (on dise,
cassette or CD) of the entire piece of music, in other words, a condenser
microphone would have compromised the dynamic impact of the sonic image,
of the entire piece of music.
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The Neumann U47 is by far Bruce -'s favourite microphone, used on
every track for Thriller, there were also another models of Neumann that had
being used like the Neumann U 149s with the selector for pick-up patterns.
The drums for Album Thriller were recorded with as tight powerful a
drum sound as possible. The drum was set on the plywood drum platform, a
special treatment was used, and you will see it is pretty genius :the
microphone used was D-12, Billie Jean was the first time Bruce used his
custom-designed kick drum caver, that isolate the kick-drum from the other
element of the drum, there was a slot in the caver with a zipper, where the mie
fits through, the drums from Billy Jean where recorded with portable, 12-
channel mixing console, this same console was used to record the bass and
guitars on Bruce's analogue 16-track with no noise reduction equipment.
For the snare drum, bath condenser and dynamic microphones has being
used, AKG 451 and Shure SM57, For the snare drum, and especially for Thriller
a little 12" square baffle made of plywood and mu-metal, this baffle was
carefully placed between the snare and the sock cymbal, or hi-hat. With that,
the separation between the hi-hat and the snare is perfect.
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For the Hi-Hat cymbal, there were several choices of microphones
depending on the sound of the sock cymbal. The RCA-77dx ribbon mike was
used and AKG C 451, occasionally a Shure SM 57 dynamic mike was used as
weil. During the recording of drums tracks no limiting or compression was
used, and a little equalisation was used, only on kick, hi-hat, and the snare
mike, boosting the kick bout 4dB at l.SKHZ and maybe a 2dB peak at 100HZ,
on the sock cymbal a high pass filter set at 100HZ was used.
The bass was generally recorded with a direct box (whether it is a bass
guitar or synthesiser bass). A special custom-made direct box made by Bruce
himself was used, it utilises a very special, highly unusual transformer-very
large and heavy (lots of iron) as weil as bass amp assigned to independent
track from the direct pick- up, this technique allows to combine the two into
one track using the microphone sound to get a little more attack from the bass
For the guitars (acoustic) Bruce used his favourite stereo pair or
microphone which is large capsule condenser mikes, the Neumann U 47 FET's;
about 6' back from the instrument and placed in an X/Y configuration . This
gave a very natural sound with excellent phase coherency. Fio electric guitars
he quite often used direct box which is inserted at the output of the guitar' s
pick-up before the sound reaches the guitar amplifier. This eliminates any hum
or noise that might be present in the amplifier, but it also eliminates any sound
contouring or colouring that the musician may be putting into his amplifier. His
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favourite mike of course would have be the U 47 for electric guitars. We will
skip to talk briefly about the rap part, as a part of this amazing story.
The rap part of the horror speaking part was performed by Vincent Priee
an American actor weil known for his distinctive voice and serio-comic attitude
in series of horror movies made in the late part of his career.
The same mie was used on Vincent Price's voice: the SM 57 from Shure. Two
takes were recorded for three verses but they ended up using only two.
The Shure SM57 was used pretty much on ali Michael Jackson's vocals,
and the singer did ali his vocals on the same platform that Bruce made to
record the drums. It was used to reflect Michael Jackson's voice or whatever
sound source that was recorded. Back to the microphone, it also preserved the
rhythmic effect of him dancing happily away while he sings, as part of his sonic
image. Keeping the platform unpainted maintained a surface as porous as
possible. The reason was to keep sorne reflective surface in the sound-field,
but not too much.
Here is how Bruce Swedien used early reflections to create both presence
and depth of field in his recording work with Michael Jackson. When he wanted
to recorded the background vocals and harmonies on ali Michael Jackson' s
album, he' ll begin by recording a monophonie melody track with Michael fairly
close to the microphone. Next, he will have him double the same track at the
same position at the mie. After that track, he will have him step back two
paces and record a third pass of the same melody with the gain raised to
match the level of the previous two. That raises the ratio of early reflections to
direct sound blended with the first two tracks. Finally he might even have him
step back further and record a stereo pass of the same line using the
microphones set up in an X/Y pair, or "Biumlein pair", and blend those tracks in
as weil. This technique tricks the ear into perceiving a depth of field that isn't
really there, though the addition of discreet early reflections. When Bruce used
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reverb on vocals, he was always making sure that the pre-delay is long enough
so that the reverb doesn't cover those early reflections.
Speaking of stereophonie techniques, the Blumlein is the favourite
stereophonie technique for Bruce Swedien, used in the Album Thriller and after
that on ali Michael Jackson's albums was invented by Alan Dower Blumlien.
Two figure of 8 mikes crossed at 90 degrees.
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5.3. Mixing & Mastering Thriller
- Westlake Studios - - Bruce mixing Thriller-
Thriller was mix by Bruce Swedien at Westlake Audio on Beverly
Boulevard in Hollywood. The board was a David Harrison 4032 series and the
speakers were the Westlake Audio's Lc3W-12 speakers systems.
Bruce used very particular outboard equipment; he actually takes until now
from session to another, here is a little list of the Thriller rack used in the mix
of the album:
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The first stack from left is, top to bottom:
Eventide 1745 Delay
Two Techniques M-85 cassette decks
Eventide 1745 Delay
Lexicon Model 97 Super Prime Time
Second stack, top to bottom:
GML 8200
UREI 565 Little Dipper
Eventide 910 Harmonizer
Innovonics Compresser
Two Dolby 361
UREI 964 Digital Metronome
Orban 526A De-Esser
Eventide H-949 Harmonizer
Third stack, top to bottom:
Lexicon 480L LARC
Publison Fullmost relief-enlarger High frequency enhancer with de-essing.
UREI 545 Parametric EQ
Three UREI 1176
Fourth stack, top to bottom:
UREI 545 Parametric EQ
Two DBX 160
Two U REl LA-4A
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Twi DBX 160X
While mixing the album, Bruce was always making sure that the pre-
delay putted on vocals or drums is set around 100ms, in fact, 100 ms is close
to the shortest reverb pre-delay that he would use. More often than not, his
pre-delay amount would be in the order of 125 to 132 ms, with this setting,
the reverb attack is never muted (this setting is combined of the good
acoustical sound space in Westlake studio). This technique enhanced the early
reflections of the sound source, recorded in a good acoustical space. Thus, by
opening up the pre-delay, larger in number, he accommodates the early
reflections because they are a very important component of sound.
-Bruce Swedien and Quincy during the mixing of Thriller-
When the mix in finished, Thriller, the album had too much playing time
on the sided of the L.P. Of course Thriller came out in the days of the long-
playing album. It was over 25 minutes per side. 1 should emphasise the fact
that is on LPs, if you have too much time on a side, it minimises the volume
level, and low frequency response that you can put on the record during
mastering. In those days, 18 minutes per side on an LP was just right for good
sound. But Thriller had more than that!
Bruce took the tapes to Bernie Grundmann Mastering to master them,
and returned to Westlake studios to play the mastered album. Quincy had
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scheduled a meeting with Michael, himself, Rod Temperton, Freddy De Mann
(Michael's manager), Bruce Swedien and ali the moguls from epie Records.
The reference LPs was played In the control room. They listened, and the
sound on the LP was dog doo. It was simply horrible. Quincy remembers there
were 28 minutes on each side.
Bruce and Quincy edited down the songs, The Girl Is Mine was already
out, so they had to edit 8 songs (the album contained 9 songs), they have
remixed and overdubbed. In eight days they did eight songs and Bruce was
back at Bernie Grundmann Mastering. After that, the sound on the LP was
Speaking of mastering, ali the Michael Jackson albums including Thriller
were mastered by Bernie Grundmann.
Bernie Grandmann began his mastering career with the jazz label
contemporary Records after arriving in Los Angeles from Phoenix in the 1960's.
He later joined the staff at A&M. Before long, he was made head of the A&M
Records mastering department, after he left to open his own shop Grundmann
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Bernie is one of the first mastering engineers to cater directly to an
artist's needs. He developed and uses one of the first 1-B mastering systems in
the world. What this means is that Bernie can use two sets of EQ, level, and
limiti ng contrais. While one set of EQs and levels are playing for the cutting of
one song, the ether side can be set up with alternate settings; this allows
incredibly fine control of the mastering process.
The rest of this remarkable album is history: The Guinness Book of World
Records listed Thriller as the biggest-selling album of ali time, and by October
1984n it had sold over 20 million copies in the U.S alone. It remains the
biggest-selling album to this day. At the World Music Awards in November
2006, a Guinness World Records representative presented Jackson with
certificate for Thriller for achieving worldwide sales of 104 million.
Thriller was such a phenomenal success because the music that was on it
reached everyone. Great songs, ki lier song!. Do you think an album will top
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6. Bibliography
Daniel Sweeny, 2009. An Incredible New Sound for Engineers, Acoustic Sciences Corp.
http :/ jwww.asc-studio-acoustics.comjswedien. htm.
Bruce Swedien, 2009. In the Studio with Michael Jackson. Hal. Leonard books. New York
Bruce Swedien, 2003. Make Mine Music. Hai.Leonard books. New York.
Bob Plotnik, 2008. In the Studio with Bruce Swedien, Grace Recording Studio.
http :/ /
Jelsoft Enterprises, 2009. (Google images)
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7. 1 wou Id like to thank ....
This memoir is dedicated to my dad, the guy who supported me since I was
a kid, he is always supportive and understanding, without him I would never
have had the opportunity to write this memoir and to study sound engineering.
I would like to thank my mom, my sister and my family and ali the people
that helped me financially to study at SAE Institute.
I would also like to thank Samar Afuni, who helped putting this memoir
together and whom I really show alot of respect and love for.
Special thanks to my professors and supervisors at SAE Institute Brussels:
Thierry Boqu, Hicham Benamrah, Nicolas Debois, Michael Frennet, Xavier
Gueurten, Wannes Loosvelt, Pierre Coher, Luc Tiga, Alexis, Hatim Ham, Nicolas
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