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Bruce Swedien

An excerpt from "The Mixing Engineer's Handbook" By Bobby Owsinski
Perhaps no one else in the studio world can so aptly claim the moniker of ďGodfather of RecordingĒ as Bruce Swedien. Universally revered by his peers, Bruce has earned that respect thanks to years of stellar recordings for the cream of the musical crop. His credits could fill a book alone, but legends like Count Basie, Lionel Hampton, Stan Kenton, Duke Ellington, Woody Herman, Oscar Peterson, Nat ďKingĒ Cole, George Benson, Mick Jagger, Paul McCartney, Edgar Winter and Jackie Wilson are good places to start. Then comes Bruceís Grammy winning projects which include Michael Jacksonís Thriller (the biggest selling record of all time), Bad and Dangerous, and Quincy Jonesí Back on the Block and Juke Joint. As one who has participated in the evolution of modern recording from virtually the beginning as well as being one of its true innovators, Bruce is able to give insights on mixing from a perspective that few of us will ever have.

Do you have a philosophy about mixing that you follow?

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 ó no oneís influenced me more strongly than Quincy ó Iíve learned that when we go into the studio our first thought should be that our responsibility is to the musical statement that weíre going to make and to the individuals involved. And I guess thatís 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 artistís concept of the music in the best way that I can.

Is your concept ever opposed to the artistís concept?

Itís funny but I donít ever remember running into a situation where thereís been a conflict. Maybe my concept of the sonics of the music might differ at first with the artist, but I donít ever remember it being a serious conflict.

I would think that youíre hired because of your overall concept.

I have a feeling thatís true, but Iím 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 thatís 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 whatís 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 50ís 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 canít 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 50ís was to present the listener with a virtually unaltered acoustic event and that wasnít 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 didnít work with but I got to meet in the early 60ís 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 Fordís How High the Moon, which was an absolutely incredible thing. I couldnít 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, ďThis is what we want.Ē

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

No. Thatís the wonderful part about it.

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

Iíll take that a step further and Iíll say itís 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 Iím EQing or checking the spectrum of a mix or a piece of music, if I donít see the right colors in it I know the balance is not there.

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