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Bruce Swedien, 1934-2020

Legendary engineer worked with Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Paul McCartney, Diana Ross, J-Lo and so many others But his relationship with Michael Jackson and Quincy Jones was something special.

It was right about this time a year ago that I wrote about the passing of a dear friend and world-class engineer, Ed Cherney. Today I write about the passing of his mentor, Bruce Swedien, a legendary engineer given the nickname “Sven” by his longtime collaborator, Quincy Jones. Ed Cherney was dubbed “Big Julie.” Bruce told me that story one night at dinner in Orlando, where we gathered after a day of meetings on the Full Sail University Audio Advisory Board. He passed away in his sleep on November 16; his daughter, Roberta, broke the news.

Bruce Swedien, all set for a session with Michael Jackson. Photo by Mr. Bonzai.

I won’t pretend to have known Bruce as well as others did. We met occasionally, and he knew my name. I had met his wife, the wonderful Bea, a number of times, and I even had one of his ever-present Great Danes put his paws on my shoulders and lick my face, just outside the revolving doors of a hotel. He was a generous man, a kind man, and boy could he tell a good story. He had plenty of them.

When I joined Mix in 1988, Bruce was already well-established as a legend, mentioned in the same breath with Tommy Dowd, Rudy Van Gelder, Al Schmitt and the like. The last time we crossed paths, about eight years ago, he was still mixing on his 32-channel Harrison console at his home near Ocala, Fla. And he was filled with optimism, always smiling, always with a positive thing to say to someone.

Lots of people sought out Bruce for advice, whether in their careers or in getting a good drum sound. I remember one nugget in particular he would consistently impart to students regarding critical listening. He would ask students, “How do you become a better mixer?” Inevitably, they would say, “I listen to records by Bob Clearmountain, or Jack Joseph Puig, or XYZ engineer…”

“No!” Bruce would say. “That teaches you how Bob Clearmountain became a great mixer. What you need to do is find yourself a good concert hall, get a good seat, and listen to a quality orchestra in a great space. Close your eyes. Listen to the music first. Listen to the sections. Listen to the oboe, the French horn. Then go home and become your own mixer.”

It’s been awhile since Mix last interviewed Bruce. Associate editor Matt Gallagher sat down with him for a few minutes back in 2009 to talk about his new book from Hal Leonard called In the Studio With Michael Jackson.

When I searched out the piece, I couldn’t help thinking of a bit by comedian Chris Rock years ago, when Michael was in the news for all the wrong reasons, and as he talks about Michael to the audience, sometimes awkwardly, he pauses for an overlong second or two and says, “I know all that… [long pause]…but the dude did Thriller!

Bruce Swedien worked with so many amazing artists, from Count Basie, Duke Ellington and Lionel Hampton, to Paul McCartney, Diana Ross and J-Lo. From the way he talked about him, Michael always had a special place in his heart. And yes, dude did Thriller.

Fare thee well, Bruce. And thanks for the music.