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Bruce Swedien, the Genius behind the Sound of Michael Jackson!

Having to deliver a  follow up to the greatest selling album of all time, must have been no easy feat for Michael Jackson and his team.

And so it proved as his next album Bad was nearly 5 years in the making and saw Michael’s sound change with the times being heavily influenced by Digital instruments and recording processes. 

 It also saw him develop further as a producer in his own right and ultimately see the demise of his partnership with Quincy Jones that had been so successful with Off the Wall and Thriller.

This is the story of the album’s creation featuring the people involved and equipment they used to create this iconic 80’s classic!

The initial work on the album began in 1983-1984 when Michael was working on "Liberian Girl" and "Dirty Diana," initially intended for The Jacksons' "Victory" album. However, due to the Victory Tour itself, the project was put on hold until January 1985. The album's creation continued throughout that year, with Jackson writing and recording many of the tracks at his Hayvenhust  home studio with the producers, musicians and engineers that became to be known as the The B team’.

Jackson nicknamed his home studio at Hayvenhurst as "the Laboratory." This place served as the creative hub where he collaborated with a select group of musicians and engineers, including Matt Forger, John Barnes, Chris Currell, and Bill Bottrell.

As well as working on Liberian Girl and Dirty Diana, they had also worked on Another part of me for the  1986 Disney 3D film Captain Eo directs day George Lucas.

Although the team were aware of Michaels contract with Quincy as head producer for the forthcoming album, the Hayvenhurst team believed they were very much there to work on the record and not to merely create demo’s.  This did lead to a misunderstanding when Michael brought his recordings to Westlake studios to work with with the so called ‘A team ‘of Quincy Jones, Bruce Swedien and the studio musicians such as Greg Philangains who had previously worked with Michael to great effect on Thriller.   

By the time Michael and the team gathered at Westlake west , most of the fundamental elements of the songs were already in place and Michael was very satisfied with what he had and the sounds they had created..   So much so that Michale wanted to further include the guys from Hayvenhurst whilst working on Westlake.  

Quincy apparently wasn’t too enamoured with this arrangement as he felt he was being undermined as  producer, this led to Michael having to ask the Hayvenhurst crew to stay away form Westlake to keep the peace.  This disagreement was likely the catalyst that led to Quincy not being asked back to produce Michaels next album ‘Dangerous’, although he would continue to work with the Hayvenhurst team, most notably with Bill Botrell and John Barnes featuring heavily on the dangerous album.

The mid 80’s really saw a shift away from the purely analog world and into the realms of digital synthesis, the biggest player in this game were Yamaha with their implantation of FM synthesis in their DX series of Synthesizers and the most popular by far was the DX7.  Released in 1983 , it quickly gained popularity due to the fact it sounded so different anything that had gone before it.  Its ability to create punchy bright sounds captured the imagination of producers looking for an edge on the competition.  The downside of this new synth star though was that it was notoriously hard to program.  The sleek design in keeping with the age meant that to program it, there was a lot of menu diving on an impossible tiny screen.  As a result of this a lot of keyboard players and producers instead relied on the provided ROM cartridges supplied by Yamaha.  Quite a few of the sounds on BAD can be found on these cartridges including E . Piano and E.Bass1 on Cartridge 3A.  This is featured on Another Part of me and Leave me Alone.

Another digital  synthesiser that featured on the album hadn’t even been officially released when they got their hands on it.  The Roland D50 was a cutting edge instrument that used  Linear Arithmetic synthesis combined with sample playback and on-board effects. Elements of it van be heard on a few songs but most noticeable on Man in the Mirror playing the electric piano sound plus the intro melody. 

Michael was very keen on having some brand new sounds created from scratch as well in order to really stand out.  This task was undertaken by Denny Jaehger , Chris Currell and John Barnes on the incredible Synclavier from New England Digital.  The synclavier was a revolutionary instrument that could be used to create original sounds, manipulate existing sounds and also store them in its computer based hardware system.    

At that time in the mid 80’s the synclavier was the reserve of the very wealthy and a full system could set you back up to 200, 000 dollars.  Of course for Michael, budget was no barrier and he commissioned the most expansive and feature ladened model for his hayvenhurst home studio.  The Synclavier was cutting edge technology that featured synthesise and sample manipulation plus a sequencer that could sequence up to 200 tracks so whole arrangements could be constructed on it.    They even used it for effects, processing Michaels vocals through it and famously creating the heartbeat sound for Smooth Criminal with the initial sound being Michael own heart beat recorded specially by a doctor.

The sounds created on the syncalvier can be heard clearly on the intro to Dirty Diana and the bass sound on Smooth Criminal which is a low bass piano note played pitched up, this sound was also layered with another bass sound.

They didn’t just confine themselves to the very latest in technology though, the Moog came out to play quite often for percussive and bass sounds in particular.  Michael Boddicker was a Moog whiz and created parts like the shaker in the way you make me feel manually by moving the filter dials.  They quite often has sub parts fro the bass that would accompany the synclavier or DX7 given them more weight, this works really well for the title track Bad.  

A lot of the drum and percussion sounds seem to be  created or heavily processed using the synclavier although listening through some of the stems there are some very recognisable sound like the Linn Drum for kick’s , Oberheim DMX for Toms.  The sounds were often processed through either the Synclavier or the AMS RMX 16.  Other effects being used were the Yamaha Rev 5 and the lexicon  PCM 70 favoured for its Gated chamber reverb press sound on the synthetic horn parts. The Rev 5 was favoured for creating width with a favourite patch being the  Pitch Change “C” this worked by tuning the pitch down 8 cents on the left and up 8 cents the right.  These types of width effects seems to be fairly noticeable on a few of the stereo parts especially the guitars resulting in an ‘out of phase’ beyond the speaker sound.

Other notable synthesisers being used were the the Roland MKS-50 (bass on Man in the Mirror)  , Roland jx10, korg dw8000 and the Oberheim OB-1.   Midi was being utilised as much as possible during production and the organ solo on Bad  played by the great Jimmy Smith was a genuine Hammond B3 but it was specially converted to generate midi notes too in order to layer synth textures, the actualy solo on Bad is two different takes blended into one with completely different sounds going from B3 to synth, here are the unused bits.

Acoustic horns and strings were also layered into the synths sounds also created really interesting textures, here are some examples….

switching  from analog tape to digital tape was very much a sign of being at the cutting edge at his time and a popular choice of recorder was The Mitsubishi X850.

The X-850 was Introduced in late 1985 and was the  result of a partnership between Mitsubishi and Otari and records 32 digital tracks across a 1" wide magnetic particle tape. It featured a selectable sample rate of either 44.1kHz or 48kHz at a bit depth of 16 bits.

 The whole recording process yielded around 62 songs and Michael was keen to release a triple album but Quincy had other ideas, instead insisting that the record be 10 songs or 11 if you bough the CD, and each one would be of single release quality.  

Michael had famously written himself a note on his bathroom mirror saying 100 million,  his sales target for the album and his hopes to double the sales of Thriller. That never quite happened as Thriller remains the greatest selling album of all time and Bad has always seemed to be very much in its shadow due to Thriller’s huge cultural influence and astronomical sales of 66 million to date.  Bad is though currently the 5th best selling album of all time amassing 45 million sales to date which is incredible even by Michael Jackson’s standards!


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