"Gramination" With Bruce Swedien

January 21, 2009 11:14:11 AM PST
Bruce Swedien sitting at console
Bruce Swedien

I recently had the pleasure of telling Bruce Swedien that UA is the recipient of the 2009 Technical GRAMMY® Award. “Isn't that great? Wouldn't Bill Sr, be happy?” he exclaimed. As you may recall, Bruce worked with Bill Putnam, Sr., in the early Chicago days, and is a close friend of Universal Audio. We recently modeled his classic Harrison console for the Harrison 32C plug-in. I thought it might be fun to ask Bruce about his GRAMMY® experiences. He’s attended many ceremonies and personally received five GRAMMY® awards for Best Engineer for:

Q's Jook Joint by Quincy Jones

Dangerous by Michael Jackson

Back on the Block by Quincy Jones

Bad by Michael Jackson

Thriller by Michael Jackson

All those albums also received GRAMMY® awards in other categories. Bruce has been nominated thirteen times for Best Engineer. “Quincy and I have term for that--being nominated for a GRAMMY®," he laughingly told me. "We call it being 'Graminated.' But it is the most incredible experience. The feeling is indescribable. I've been up there accepting my own GRAMMY®s five different times. That was fun--a lot of fun. I have several GRAMMY® certificates, for recording and mixing projects that have received GRAMMY®s. Then the Academy sends you your own plaque. A GRAMMY® is the highest award that our peers--other people in our industry--can bestow on someone. It doesn't get any bigger than the GRAMMY®s. I mean, the Oscars, maybe, but that's not about music. Music is the only real magic in life.”

Bruce shared that he and Quincy have been reminiscing about Thriller recently. “Twenty-five years ago! I can’t believe it!” He reminded me that Thriller is the best-selling recording in music history. That’s pretty amazing.

"The guys from Epic thought they were taking Thriller home with them, the release.
But we took it back."

These days, people crank albums out pretty quickly because studio time can be so expensive. I asked Bruce if Thriller took a long time to record. “Surprisingly, it wasn't as bad as some records I've worked on," he laughed. "We did work on it quite a while, though." Bruce recalled some tension toward the end of the process. "Throughout recording, I'd been telling them all this time, 'There's just too much time per side on the album.' At that point in time, we were doing LPs of course. Because of the groove width and spacing and so on--that controls the quality. Or, the amount of low end material that can fit greatly affects the quality of sound we can carve onto it. CDs are so simple, there's nothing to it. But back when we were making LPs, that was a whole other thing.

“So I got the master disc back from Bernie Grundman's, and we're in the control room at Westlake. Michael, Quincy, Rod Temperton, and I were all were listening intensely. When we were almost halfway through, we noticed that Michael had snuck out of the control room, and went across the hall to Studio B. I went over there to check on him. Michael's in the corner, sobbing … just sobbing his heart out. Because, well, the sound quality wasn't very good. There was way too much material on the record--it was way, way over time. In those days of the LP, the quality and the low end that you could get out of a record was directly influenced by the length of the music. Now, the guys from Epic thought they were taking Thriller home with them, the release. But we took it back. Quincy said, 'No, you're not getting this record right now. It isn't done.' Then sent the guys from Epic home. Ooooh man, were they pissed! So Quincy did some fast editing. He cut time everywhere that he could, so that we could get the sides down to where I could get some real level on the master. Then we gave it back to them. You know, I don't think that many people know that story.”

And now twenty-five years later, Universal Audio has released a plug-in that models the very same Harrison Console model that Thriller was recorded on. Cheers Bruce, and thanks again for the stories!

— Marsha Vdovin