Bruce Swedien, who died on Monday at the age of 86, is straight-up one of the greatest to ever move a fader or hang a microphone.
He’s best known, of course, for his work alongside Quincy Jones recording Michael Jackson, but his career stretches back to 1950s Minneapolis, where he ran the recording studio owned by the Schmitt Music Company while still in his teens. He did well enough to buy it from them not long after, recording artists including Tommy Dorsey there. In 1957, he moved to Chicago to work for RCA Victor and then Universal (at the invitation of the legendary Bill Putnam), working with numerous jazz legends in the process, among them Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Oscar Peterson, Sarah Vaughn, Dinah Washington and Quincy Jones, with whom he forged a partnership that would endure for the rest of his career.
In the 1960s, he moved into pop and rock ‘n’ roll, recording Jackie Wilson, Lesley Gore and Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons, as well as collaborating with Q on his soundtrack work. In the 1970s, he recorded the Brothers Johnson and Chi-Lites, and did his most enduring work with George Benson and Jackson.
I understand that many are queasy talking about Jackson’s music, in the light of 2019’s Leaving Neverland. Swedien’s legacy being tarnished through no fault of his own is of course nothing compared to what happened to Wade Robson and James Safechuck. But almost no music is made by a single individual, and those records by Jackson are the product of extraordinary labour by a whole team of vastly talented individuals, most of whom are blameless.
Off the Wall and Thriller, in particular, are wondrous sonic achievements, and for all Jackson’s own artistry, they are what they are because of the contributions of Quincy Jones, of songwriter Rod Temperton, and of gifted musicians such as drummer John JR Robinson, guitarist Steve Lukather and pianist Greg Phillanganes. And, bringing everything together, the audio engineering and mixing of Bruce Swedien himself.
If you can’t listen to Jackson anymore (and if so, I understand; I don’t either*), try the work Swedien did around the same time on George Benson’s Give Me the NIght. Throughout that album, Swedien and Jones employ the arrangement style they developed for Off the Wall, filling every part of the frequency range with details and ear candy, sculpting a sound heavy at the bottom and airy at the top, mixing the latest synth sounds with brass fanfares that could have sat happily on a Sinatra swing record from the fifties. The drums, meanwhile, have a glorious, irrepressible energy that just leaps out of the speakers because Swedien, more than almost any other engineer, refused to rely on compression to make his drum tracks fit inside the mix. He always retained the belief that the transient energy of uncompressed percussion was where the excitement in music lived. If you compress that, you start to suck the life out of it. He was unrepentant, and would pretty much write off modern mix topologies as bad – or at least amateur – engineering. “Compression is for kids,” as he was fond of saying.
That philosophy is immediately apparent when listening to any of the records he recorded or produced, whether they’re big band, or pop, or R&B, from the fifties through to the nineties, when he began to slow down. Swedien stood among the very best, an artist and an artisan, a genius of microphone and mixing desk.
*I’m not going to get into any debates about “cancel culture”. Too many people take bad-faith positions to make it worth the time. I understand and have some sympathy with the idea that one should be able to separate the art from the artist. If you can, I don’t have a problem with that. I read, watch and listen to plenty of art by creators who didn’t lead morally pure lives. I think probably most of us do, even if unwittingly, because we simply don’t know what goes on behind closed doors. But I simply can’t feel the way now about Thriller and Off the Wall as I did when I heard them as a child, and that’s despite knowing about and wanting to celebrate the achievements of Bruce Swedien and the extraordinary musicians who played on those records. Maybe one day I’ll feel differently, but right now that’s how it is.