Music first, and love what you do: Not some weird new-age-isms but legendary recording engineer Bruce Swedien’s secret weapons. Well, those and his trusty collection of mics old and new. An explanation as to why he’s a five-time Grammy winner?
And talking with Swedien about his use of mics invariably comes back to these values, along with the amazing list of musical luminaries he’s crossed paths with along the way, each and every one of whom hasn’t just inspired Swedien’s career in music recording, beginning with the music of the post-swing era and on through to his contemporary multimedia digital projects, but his view of life and music in general.
The Florida-based Swedien began his career by studying electrical engineering at the University of Minnesota. “But it didn’t take me too long to figure out that schooling wasn’t going to help me a lot. A lot of the basic stuff was interesting, but my interest in recording music didn’t really materialize until I built my own studio in Minneapolis and really learned to work with microphones.”
He’d been an intern at the campus radio and TV station at school, and had a significant chance encounter. “We broadcast the Minneapolis Symphony, and I got to meet a young engineer from New York who came to Minnesota for the sole purpose of broadcasting and recording the Minnesota Symphony on RCA Red Seal. And he brought with him a microphone that was going to change my life forever. The mic was a Neumann U47, designed in 1929, and in fact, strangely, not all that different from mics of any previous recording era.
The New York engineer’s name was Bob Fine, a specialist in classical recordings. “To this day,” says Swedien, “I get goose bumps when I remember. We were recording the Minneapolis Symphony, and the definition that this microphone brought to those recordings was absolutely incredible. And Fine’s technique was to suspend one U47 about 15 feet above the conductor’s head, and that picked up darn near the whole orchestra. The U47 was actually designed around this World War II military radio tube called the VF14, and it was probably done because there were probably a whole lot of ‘em left over; eventually Neumann made somewhere in the area of 10,000 U47 microphones.
At that time, the early ’50s, the U47 sold for $390 dollars, which was very pricey. “But people like me found out quickly that the sensitivity of this fantastic microphone greatly enhanced the detail in the recording,” says Swedien. “I had worked with other condenser microphones, such as the Altec Lansing, and they were good, but until this Neumann U47 came around, there was nothing that was even close.”
Then. Or since. “I don’t think anything truly new has happened, particularly in condenser microphones, just refinement and better components. But my friend in Finland, Martin Kantolo, is a microphone genius who’s built a custom-built mic that I’ve been using, and while it doesn’t have anything truly new, it really refines the art of microphone building.”
Swedien’s love for the U47 mic had to do with its extremely wide frequency response and sensitivity. “When we were recording the orchestra, you could hear the triangles and cymbals in some of it, and it was absolutely perfect; the definition and detail that mic provided was so unique at that point in time. It went on to be the Beatles’ favorite mic, and my pal George Martin, who produced those records, says to this day it’s his favorite microphone.”
Techniques such as suspending the microphone above the conductor’s head prefigure much of the thinking about sonic spatiality in today’s recording studios. “I’m speaking from the viewpoint of 1952 here, but we were doing only monophonic recordings of orchestras. And a few years later, ‘58 or ‘59, we began to experiment with stereo, and eventually I would record a large orchestra like that, with two or three mics over the conductor’s head. But in mono, picture this: the microphone was suspended about 12 to 15 feet above the conductor’s head, so that the goal of that microphone technique was to hear the orchestra in the same balance that the conductor did. Of course later on we would use what we’d call sweetener mics, if there was a solo or something like that — we’d close-mic that.”
Recording a large orchestra means that the engineer can’t just spread mics throughout the room without having to worry about the balancing of the elements. To gain insight into this sort spatial intelligence, it helps that the engineer himself is musically sensitive. “I’ve found that my musical training was very helpful,” says Swedien. “I had a music minor at the University of Minnestoa, and I studied voice, and I studied piano — long enough to figure out I’d better do something else. I wasn’t all that talented musically, but I do have a good ear, and one of the real benefits of all that is to be able to read music. So when I record a large orchestra, I will have the score in front of me; it’s much easier to balance an orchestra, especially when you’re recording classical music.”
Capturing an accurate sound was the original and admirable job of any recording engineer back in the old days, but it eventually became clear to Swedien that that wasn’t his primary goal in recording, a lesson he learned in his work recording Count Basie and Duke Ellington in the ‘50s and ‘60s. “About 1960, I began to get very bored with just capturing an accurate sound of the bands. I learned that the real value of microphone technique is to be able to present to the listeners my concept of what the music should sound like. That allows me to use my imagination. It allows me to create a recorded sound field that probably does not occur naturally. When I discovered that, I got really excited about recording music. The real joy of what I do is to create an image — you know, I like to call my recordings `sonic sculptures’ rather than just a recording. To me, re-creating an acoustical event is not terribly exciting. To do it well is exciting, yes, but that’s not really what I do.”
Working with Basie especially found Swedien “really going crazy with combining microphone techniques, and finding out what could actually be done in music recording by not capturing an acoustic event — by creating a recording that could only occur in my imagination.”
Recording the big bands presented special challenges owing to their particular instrumention. “I was recording both of the Dorsey Brothers in the late ‘50s, and the biggest problem was getting bass on the records. It’s not hard to get low frequencies on tape, but transfering it to disc properly was, because the grooves have to really load up with lower frequencies. But then, I’m kind of a frustrated bass player.”
Recording of the brass sections presented other challenges. “Basie’s band was four trumpets, four trombones, five saxes, drums, guitar, and vocals, as were a lot of those bands. At one point we wanted to try something a little different, and we decided to record the band after they played a gig. So, the band was just slammin’. We started the sessions at 2 a.m. but that was probably some of the best fun I’ve had in the studio. I had my Telefunken U47.
I recorded Basie in Studio A at Universal Recordings in Chicago, a beautiful, big studio, about 75-80 feet long with a 30-foot ceiling and 50 feet wide. We had risers, and I used the Neumann U47 on the trumpets, one mike; I used a Neumann 49 on the three tenor trombones and then another 49 on the bass trombone; then for the saxophones, five of them. I was experimenting at the time — Universal was one of the only studios that had really good microphones, and I think that was because of Bill Putnam, the renowned guy that built that studio. We had two Neumann U48s, made after the 47, and it was bi-directional, whereas the 47s were directional.”
The advantage with the U48 though, didn’t hit until Swedien recorded the sax sections. “I’d use the two mics, bidirectionals, one on top of the other, and record the saxes with a co-incident mic technique, or using cross figure of eight mics to record a stereo sound field. Then I thought to myself, ‘geez, what about putting a carpet down on a 20-foot square of carpet and have the five saxes in a circle and use two Neumann U48s above each other, in bidirectional, and record the saxes and spread them across the image?’ And it just worked beautifully. It was quite a departure from ordinary recording at that time.”
Of course, the musicianship of the band itself played a big part in the beauty of the recorded sound. Says Swedien, “The saxes in Basie’s band would pretty much balance themselves. But my idea was to have the saxes in a circle around these two mics, the lower mic was vertical and set for bidirectional or a figure of eight; the upper mic was suspended as close as I could possible get to the lower mic, almost touching, an eighth of an inch or less, and then the saxes around these two microphones. And these guys were so incredible, if there was a solo or something, I would ask them to stand up or move in or whatever . . .”
The advent of stereo was not exactly heralded as the coming of a new dawn in recording technology though. “In 1960,” he says, “the record labels didn’t want to know about stereo; stereo was a non-issue as far as recording music. But there were a few of us guys who were very interested in it — me, Al Schmitt, Phil Ramone, and Tom Dowd. A few of us would talk about it all the time, and for a few of us, stereo was gonna be a big deal, but the record labels didn’t want to know about it. As a matter of fact, some of the labels, if they saw a stereo tape machine in the control room at the start of one of these big band sessions, they would make you move it out. You know why? They didn’t want to pay for the tape.”
Neo-post-modern Luddites aside, it’s the people he’s worked with that’ve made Swedien the musical thinker, forward-thinking engineer, and sonic philosopher he is today. Such as Bill Putnam, “literally the father of modern recording,” he says. “He built Ocean Way in L.A., as well as Universal in Chicago. If you look at a modern recording console, the position of the dials and effects, the way things are located on a console, all that originated with Putnam’s imagination. He was my mentor. I literally followed him around in Chicago, and he would let me do things. I was with him for a year before he went to California, and actually the second Studio B at Universal was not completed, but was going to be my studio to work in. I was at Universal for 11 years; then I built a studio for an advertising music company. For Richard Marx’s father, who was an incredible piano player, Dick Marx.”
Swedien’s old friend Quincy Jones, too (with whom Swedien did The Wiz soundtrack, among many other projects) was a huge inspiration, not just for the genius of his musicianship but for his gourmand’s way of enjoying food, fun, and life itself. “And you could call him in the middle of the night with a problem, and he’d be there for you. He was a lot of fun to be with in the studio.”
But it was Duke Ellington who ultimately changed Swedien’s life in the most major way. “When I got to Chicago from Minnesota, as a young Swedish-American, I’d come from a place where you weren’t supposed to like what you did for a living; that just wasn’t done. That always bothered me ‘cause I didn’t understand it. In Chicago, one of the first bands I worked with was Ellington’s. And just the way he dressed, you could tell that he was excited about music and his life. I remember sitting and talking with Duke and asking him, Is it okay to like what you do?”
“This is all I’ve ever done,” says Swedien. “I’ve been lucky. All I’ve ever wanted to do is record music. Liking what you do is a plus, in fact. I’ve always loved what I did, and I’m just as excited about it today as I ever was.”
“I’ve got two last bits for you. Music first. And another thing: Microphones are the secret weapons of recording engineers and producers. Microphones are literally voodoo. They’ll capture you.