UA Heritage: Bruce Swedien Discusses his Mentor, Bill Putnam, Sr.
By Marsha Vdovin
I recently spoke to Bruce about his early years working with Bill Putnam.
What was the first time you met Bill?
Well I knew about Bill. I grew up in Minneapolis, of course, but he was already famous. It was my mom and dad that met him before I did. They were in Chicago on business, and I told them they had to go see Universal Studios, which at the time was at 111 East Ontario. Of course Bill, being Bill Putnam, was so gracious. Took them in, and wanted to know all about me, and he treated my mom and dad like royalty. She met Patti Page and all that. And then Bill said that they had to bring me by so that he and I could meet.
So later on I went to Chicago and ended up eventually moving there. It was Bill who prompted that move to Chicago. He was just building the new Universal Studios at 46 East Walton, and didn't have a studio for me to work in right away. So he got me a job at RCA studios, where I worked for a year until a position was open for me at Universal.
"I was messing around with stereo recording of the piano and drums and stuff that people, in 1957, weren't thinking about."
About what year was this?
Well, it must have been '57. 1957.
And how old were you?
I was twenty- two. Maybe twenty-three.
Wow. So you worked at RCA as an engineer—
Yes, as an engineer. They found out that I had done a lot of classical music in Minneapolis—both my parents were involved, and my mother sang in the women's chorus of the Minneapolis Symphony--so I had a pretty good exposure to classical music. So I ended up working on the Chicago Symphony Orchestra sessions, at Orchestra Hall, for RCA Victor.
How long did you work there?
At RCA? I was there for a year. Then I went to Universal and I was at Universal for ten years. I can't say enough good things about Bill. I literally learned by following him around the studios at Universal in Chicago.
"Bill's mandate to me was, ‘Go for it, kid.' I will never forget that."
How many studios were there?
Well, there were three main studios, A, B, and C. A was one of the most incredible live music studios. It was 80 feet long by probably 45 feet wide, with a 30-foot ceiling. I can remember so well how big it was because in about 1965, I did a series of recordings for RCA Red Seal at Universal in Studio A with the strings of the Chicago Symphony. And we fit the entire string section of the Chicago orchestra, we were doing some Mahler, and I think the orchestra must have been sixty players. They all fit with room left over in that unbelievably great studio.
But Bill was instrumental—I remember in that studio seeing some design and construction techniques that I've never heard of or seen before. For instance, Bill, when he built Studio A, B, and C, the floors of those studios were floated, apart from the building on cork. The walls of the building were further floated on some Bill-Putnam-designed spring clips. So the quality, especially of Studio A, which was a pretty sizable room, was just unbelievable. My first assignment, when Bill brought me from RCA to Universal, was in Studio A. My first assignment was six weeks recording the Oscar Peterson trio. In that enormous room! And I don't know if you've ever met Oscar, but he's such a fabulous guy, just friendly and down to earth.
"Bill always used to . . . set up the French horns facing away from the control room glass . . ."
I was messing around with stereo recording of the piano and drums and stuff that people, in 1957, weren't thinking about. And actually, to be honest with you, I don't think the studio owners of Universal, apart from Bill Putnam, were even interested in stereo. But Bill was, of course. I'll never forget, with Basie's band, for instance. I'd be doing a project with Basie, and Bill would sit in with me for the first few hours. If I wanted to try a different set up--like one of the first things I did with Basie's band was use a Bloomline pair with a couple of Neumann U48s for the saxophones. And Bill's mandate to me was, ‘Go for it, kid.' I will never forget that.
Do you remember any specific things you learned from Bill? Technically?
Probably Bill more than anything taught me to do what I wanted to do. I do remember one thing. Bill always used to, when we were doing an orchestra, set up the French horns facing away from the control room glass, and playing the horns—like if it would be two, three, or four horns, whatever, would be faced away from the control room glass, but playing into the glass. And then we miked the glass as though someone were singing.
Yeah. [Laughs.] And holy cow.
And what kind of sound did that produce?
Oh, unbelievable. I still do that.
"A young Scandinavian kid from Minnesota, recording Count Basie? No way."
That's a great tip. So that was during the period of time when he was starting to experiment with stereo, and he encouraged you to experiment?
Yeah. I think he had grown out of Chicago. He was wanting to go to California, and building a couple of studios there.
Did you consider going with him?
I didn't. Because I was so excited by what I was doing. I mean, think about these people that I was working with. A young Scandinavian kid from Minnesota, recording Count Basie? No way. Bill was just . . . oh . . . he was so free and so giving. He loved to, I think, talk about what we do, and had an approach to what we do that I have tried to keep alive in my approach to this, and that is: No secrets.
Bill Putnam had no secrets. What a guy. I remember one of the owners at Universal being a nasty, grumpy guy. Not to mention any names. But he used to write down the microphones, and have his studio setups in a little book. Never showed them to anybody. His whole life in the studio was nothing but secrets. And I don't remember that guy ever amounting to anything. But Bill was an open book and shared all his techniques. He was a very generous guy.
Bruce Swedien is one of the world’s foremost recording engineers. He is highly esteemed for recording just about every type of music, including numerous movie scores such as Running Scared and The Color Purple. He has won 13 Grammy Awards including those for his engineering of Michael Jackson's Thriller, Bad and Dangerous albums and for two Quincy Jones albums: Back on the Block and Q's Jook Joint.
Bruce published an autobiography last year, "Make Mine Music" and is working on a second book.