The Man who Recorded “Thriller” Speaks to Singers

The Man who Recorded “Thriller” Speaks to Singers
Bruce Swedien is a living audio legend. Now he reveals his tips on mics, effects and unleashing a memorable performance.

He’s recorded everyone from the Count Basie Orchestra, to Sarah Vaughn, Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons, Roberta Flack, Missing Persons, Barbra Streisand, Jennifer Lopez and Michael Jackson.

That’s why when Bruce Swedien speaks, people listen.

What’s your number one tip for singers for releasing their best studio performance?
The number 1 singer I have ever recorded was Michael Jackson – he was just phenomenal. He never recorded a song from paper; he always committed it to memory before he recorded.

What else did Michael do to release his energy in the studio?
He always had the lights out so that there were no distractions. I want to say to all singers: learn all there is to know about what you are going to record – this includes committing it to memory and knowing it so well so that you could record it with the lights out. Then, away you go!

I remember Quincy Jones saying, ‘Music is life’s only true magic.’

Bruce Swedien

A singer is heading into the studio for the first time – what do you most want them to know about the technical process? Signal chains? 
That’s a deep subject and the signal chain can be very, very involved. But what I would like to leave with young performers is this legacy: less is more. It’s all about the music. Also: I don’t like compression.

Why don’t you like compression? 
It alters the dynamic sense of the piece of music. If you’ve chosen the right mic, then you can stay out of the way and something great will happen. People think that if they just put a compressor on their recording, it will sound “right”. Well, it may – but you might lose the musical magic in the signal. Be careful. It’s all about the music.

Let’s talk about the mic: what did you use for Michael Jackson?
On Thriller and Billie Jean and so many other songs I used the SM7 – this is a dynamic mic but it fit his voice perfectly, like a glove. When we did Smile (Charlie Chaplin song) I used my original Neumann U87 that I purchased new in 1953 – it’s an incredibly versatile mic.

Most Famous Signal Chain?
Michael Jackson Thriller: SM7 – into Neve 1084 – into Urei 1176 compressor – into multi-track

What’s an example of a skillful use of vocal effects on a recording?
A good reverb is about the only thing I would want to discuss. A Bricasti reverb is just wonderful – it is very simple. I have the EMT 250 and EMT 252 Classic Electronic Reverb Plug-Ins – they are great sounding units. If you find an EMT 252 for sale, buy it!

Do you have any vocal effects warnings?
I frequently hear the overuse of reverb. Remember the Hi Lo’s? They were an outstanding 1950s a cappella group; Gene Puerling was a good friend. They were occasionally supported by Frank Sinatra. The Four Freshmen is another. I bring these groups up because their skillful musicianship did not require much in the way of added effects.

Final tip for singers wanting to make a great vocal recording?
Don’t be afraid to stay up late at night in the studio. I’ve seen a lot of musicians who just want to go home! But a great recording takes great talent AND hard work, sweat and commitment.

Check out Bruce Swedien’s Book, The Bruce Swedien Recording Method for Incredible Audio Insights, Details and Methods – you can find it on Amazon here.

Bruce Swedien is a Five-time Grammy winner and thirteen-time Grammy nominee who has recorded and mixed music for over 60 years including the best-selling album in the history of music, Michael Jackson’s Thriller. See his new book, The Bruce Swedien Recording Method (with Bill Gibson).

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