Bruce Swedien, the celebrated audio engineer and producer who worked on records by Michael Jackson, Mick Jagger, Donna Summer, Duke Ellington, Paul McCartney and many more, died Tuesday at the age of 86.
Swedien’s daughter, the musician Roberta Swedien, confirmed his death on Facebook, writing, “A legend in the music industry for over 65 years and five-time Grammy winner, he was known for his work with Quincy Jones, Michael Jackson and many more. He had a long life full of love, great music, big boats and a beautiful marriage. We will celebrate that life. He was loved by everyone.”
On Wednesday, Jones posted a tribute to Swedien on Instagram, writing, “I am absolutely devastated to learn the news that we lost my dear brother-in-arms, the legendary Bruce Swedien. There are not enough words to express how much Bruce meant to me… He was without question the absolute best engineer in the business, and for more than 70 years I wouldn’t even think about going into a recording session unless I knew Bruce was behind the board. Along with the late great Rod Temperton, we reached heights that we could have never imagined and made history together. I have always said it’s no accident that more than four decades later no matter where I go in the world, in every club, like clockwork at the witching hour you hear ‘Billie Jean,’ ‘Beat It,’ ‘Wanna Be Starting Something,’ and ‘Thriller.’ That was the sonic genius of Bruce Swedien, and to this day I can hear artists trying to replicate him.”
Swedien’s interest in audio engineering began when his father bought him a disc recording machine for his 10th birthday (per a bio on his website). Four years later, he scored his first job in the industry, working at a small basement studio in his hometown of Minneapolis, Minnesota. In college, where he studied electrical engineering with a minor in music, he began recording any artist he could, from jazz groups to polka bands to radio jingles.
Swedien and his family moved to Chicago in 1958, and over the next decade he recorded an array of jazz legends, including Ellington, Count Basie, Oscar Peterson, Sarah Vaughn and Dinah Washington. It was during this time that he met Jones, who would go on to be one of his closest collaborators. Jones brought Swedien to New York in 1977 to meet Michael Jackson and help out with the music for The Wiz; Swedien would go on to work with Jackson throughout the rest of his career, playing a crucial role on classic albums Off the Wall, Thriller, Bad and Dangerous.
A key component of Thriller in particular was a recording technique Swedien pioneered called the “Acusonic Recording Process” (it’s even highlighted in the album’s liner notes). “Quincy wanted a name for the process that I used when I recorded Michael’s stuff, because what I did was record all of the tracks analogue first,” Swedien explained in a 2018 interview with Reverb. “Digital recording was available and we were all quite impressed with its clarity, but if you start the music in digital you can never go back to analogue and it won’t sound as good.”
He continued: “The sound of pure analogue 24-track, two-track, or even mono is very warm and musical. It captures music with great realism. So I recorded it in analogue, but took it a step further. I decided to use all of the analogue tracks in pairs to create stereophonic recordings. Every sound source in those recordings is recorded on two tracks in real stereo.”
Swedien would win five Grammys over the course of his career, three for his work with Jackson and two for his work with Jones on his albums, Back on the Block and Q’s Jook Joint. Other artists Swedien worked with include B.B. King, Herb Alpert, the Four Seasons, Curtis Mayfield, Rufus and Chaka Khan, Barbra Streisand, Diana Ross and Jennifer Lopez.