Recording engineer Bruce Swedien, whose work on Michael Jackson’s albums Bad, Off the Wall and Thriller helped define the sound of 80s pop, has died aged 86.
Swedien’s daughter, Roberta, wrote that he “passed away peacefully” on Tuesday, in a message shared on Facebook.
“He had a long life full of love, great music, big boats and a beautiful marriage,” she said. “We will celebrate that life. He was loved by everyone.”
Quincy Jones also paid tribute, calling Swedien a “sonic genius”.
“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,” wrote the legendary producer on Instagram.
“Along with the late great Rod Temperton [writer of Thriller and Off The Wall], 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 won five Grammys over the course of his career, three for his work with Jackson and two for his work with Jones, on the albums Back on the Block and Q’s Jook Joint.
The engineer also worked with BB King, Paul McCartney, Mick Jagger, Curtis Mayfield, Rufus and Chaka Khan, Barbra Streisand, Diana Ross and Jennifer Lopez across his long and storied career.
Born in Minneapolis in 1934, his interest in music started at the age of 10, when his father gave him a disc recording machine. Four years later, he scored a holiday job at a small local studio, and even set up his own radio station to broadcast the results.
By 21, he was recording the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, but his big break was engineering Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons’ single Big Girls Don’t Cry, which sold more than a million copies and reached number one on the US R&B charts in 1962.
Swedien first met Quincy Jones when he was in his 20s, and discovered a kindred spirit. “We liked each other a lot,” he later recalled. “We think alike and our tastes are alike.”
They went on to record jazz artists like Duke Ellington and Dinah Washington together, but it was their work on Michael Jackson’s records that really cemented Swedien’s reputation.
A key component of those records was the “Acusonic Recording Process”, which Swedien pioneered. Essentially, it allowed the engineer to synchronise multiple 24-track tape machines, enabling him to record an almost limitless number of vocal and instrumental takes.
He also came up with several techniques that gave Jackson’s albums their unique feel.
To record drums, he built a braced, wooden platform raised 10 inches off the ground, to stop low-frequency sounds reflecting off the concrete floor and colouring the sound. That led to the distinctive, crisp thump that propels songs like Billie Jean and Rock With You.
He also encouraged Jackson to record backing vocals multiple times, taking two steps back from the microphone on every subsequent take. Layering them up, created a “Michael Jackson choir” which, Swedien wrote in his book Recording Michael Jackson, tricked the ear into perceiving depth of field.
Other times, he took a more home-made approach. To create the special effect in verse two of Billie Jean (“do think twice”), he made Jackson sing through a five‑foot long cardboard tube.
The star’s estate posted a tribute to Swedien on social media, calling him “one of the most imaginative audio engineers to ever walk into a recording studio”.
“Bruce’s professional collaboration with Michael became a close friendship they both cherished,” it continued.
“Bruce was a kind, generous soul who as he grew older continued to share his knowledge of his craft with younger generations.
“He will be missed by all those whose lives and careers he touched.”