The man with the white walrus mustache and ergonomic cane sat at the front of the Minneapolis recording studio he founded. He entertained questions from students from local high schools and music colleges.
“I’m not as old are you are,” began one whippersnapper.
“What do you mean about that?” snapped the still-active Bruce Swedien, 79, godfather of the Twin Cities studio scene and recording engineer to the stars.
The 100 students in Creation Audio’s Studio A listened intently as the five-time Grammy winner told stories about working with Michael Jackson, Barbra Streisand and Miles Davis. Swedien also reflected on his homecoming to the studio he opened in 1953, which has recorded songs by the Trashmen (“Surfin’ Bird”), Dave Dudley (“Six Days on the Road”), Hüsker Dü, Steve Miller Band, the Jets, Paula Abdul, Lorie Line, Connie Evingson and countless others.
“My wife helped glue up the egg cartons,” he said, referring to the dozens of empty containers still visible in Studio B. “They were a superb and very cheap acoustical treatment.”
On a recent trip to visit his sister-in-law in Minnesota, Swedien returned to Creation for the first time since he left for Chicago 55 years ago.
“I built those doors; if you look carefully at them, you’ll see they’re very solid, very thick,” he said proudly, peering at the dark-pink 4-inch-thick doors to Studio A. “This place is unbelievable. My whole life started here.”
Quincy Jones connection
Swedien (he’s part Swedish, part French Canadian) realized while taking piano lessons as a youngster in south Minneapolis that he wasn’t going to be a classical pianist — he preferred boogie woogie. At 10, he received a disc-recording machine from his father and became fascinated with the recording process.
After majoring in electrical engineering (and minoring in music) at the University of Minnesota, he opened Bruce Swedien Recording in an old movie theater at 26th Street and Nicollet Avenue S. Self-taught, he recorded such local acts as Six Fat Dutchmen and the Herb Pilhofer Octet and national jazz stars Herbie Mann and Art Blakey & the Jazz Messengers.
When a CBS Radio broadcaster traveled through the Dakotas on assignment, Swedien got hired as a sound engineer. That led him to Chicago, where he joined RCA Victor studios and recorded the Chicago Symphony and many jazz artists, including Duke Ellington and Stan Kenton.
His break came as engineer for Frankie Valli & the Four Seasons’ smash single “Big Girls Don’t Cry” in 1962. But his best move in Chicago was getting to know jazz trumpeter-turned-producer Quincy Jones.
“Quincy was the first man to pay me big-time royalties,” Swedien said.
After moving to Los Angeles in 1975, Swedien was summoned by Jones to New York in ’77 to engineer sessions for the movie “The Wiz.” He met the film’s star, Michael Jackson, and went on to engineer the superstar’s biggest albums.
“Michael was phenomenal,” Swedien said. “He had such musical integrity. He’d love to go to Hit Factory [studio] in New York and we’d go through the upper floor of that facility and look through pieces of plywood, all sorts of things, to make unusual percussion sounds. In one case, Michael sang through a mailing tube.
“He was one of only two artists in my entire career that I never used pitch correction on because they didn’t need it.” (The other was Siedah Garrett, who duetted with Jackson on “I Just Can’t Stop Loving You” and co-wrote his No. 1 hit “Man in the Mirror.”)
Swedien spent 19 years in Chicago, 17 in Los Angeles, then seven in Connecticut and the past seven in Ocala, Fla. Well, that’s according to Bea, his ever-present wife of 60 years, who keeps track of the details and bakes the peanut-butter cookies Jones so liked in the studio.
Swedien still records (he produced a single for Garrett in 2012) and conducts master classes at his studio in Florida. He imparted some master-class wisdom for Twin Cities students: “Take care of your ears.” His secret for success as a producer and engineer? “A little bit of kindness and a little bit of psychology — and a little bit of pitch correction.”
One more recording session
No return visit to “the house that Bruce built” would be complete without a recording session. So Creation owner Steve Wiese arranged for pianist Jeanne Arland Peterson, 91, whom Swedien recorded there in 1954, to bring her bass-playing son Billy and singing daughter Patty.
Swedien meticulously set up the microphones, telling how Streisand would bring her own mike to the recording studio.
When you get the Petersons together, there’s no rehearsal; they’ve been playing together for so long it’s just feel and instinct. But occasionally they talked through an arrangement, as on “The Shadow of Your Smile.”
Swedien suggested a ballad feel.
“So not a Latin feel?” Patty Peterson asked.
“Patty, just sing it Acapulco,” Swedien joked.
After the Petersons performed it, he opined: “It sounds wonderful to the untrained ear.”
Patty wanted another take.
“Your pitch is good, and I’ve recorded every goddamn singer there is,” he replied. “Tape is cheap. Music is expensive.”
After recording five tunes, he and the Petersons listened to the playback.
“Jeanne, you have a real future,” Swedien announced.
“Well, thank you,” she said.
When she returns this spring from visiting her daughter in California, Wiese plans to record at least three more selections so Swedien can have one final album credit from his studio at 26th and Nicollet.