Hear It From the Man Who Can See Sound
Bruce passed away November 16, 2020. Read more about his life and work here.
Bruce Swedien is able to “see” sound, a skill he says doesn’t always help him in the studio, since it’s usually a distraction. But one thing he finds indispensable: TubeTraps. He has a traveling set of 14 for recording and another set for the ATTACK Wall at his mix-station.
“I have synesthesia, and Quincy [Jones] does too,” says Bruce. “The low frequencies are represented by dark colours like black and purple, while high frequencies are bright colors such as silver and gold. When I listen to a mix I want to see all those colors.”
Art Noxon, inventor of the TubeTrap, recalls his realization that Bruce could “see” sound, “In 1987, Bruce was interviewed in Mix Magazine and… I was mesmerized by what I read.. I realized that he could see sound! I could tell from the words he used and the way he chose to use them in sentences.”
Fascinated, Art had to get in touch with Art, to talk to him about the Quick Sound Field. Art recalls, “I was so taken with his obvious ability to see and track sound that I just had to describe this discovery, a new mic technique, and I asked if he might be willing to audition the QSF system.” Art was not talking about Bruce’s synesthesia, of course, but his ability to see how sound reacts to the surfaces in a room, a skill Art and Bruce share. In Bruce, Art saw someone who could appreciate the full potential of the QSF System.
“Suddenly I was hearing microphone placements that I knew I’d used on the recordings but which I’d never heard clearly on any system before… this was the way the recordings were meant to be heard.”Bruce Swedien
Bruce agreed to audition QSF and started employing TubeTraps in the recording studio shortly thereafter, most notably in Michael Jackon’s 1987 album, Bad.
This began a friendship and collaboration that Bruce and Art carry on to this day. Art has acoustically engineered the design and construction of Bruce’s last 4 home recording studios, and is a guest lecturer in Bruce’s workshop for recording engineers: In the studio with Bruce Swedien.
Some time later, the same principles behind the Quick Sound Field had been perfected for the mixing environment in a configuration of TubeTraps called the AttackWall. When Art outfitted Bruce’s co-writer, Rene Moore with an AttackWall, Bruce was amazed at the results.
“I was very enthusiastic about what I heard. The imaging was panoramic, and yet the clarity was phenomenal. I was so impressed that I decided to do the same thing in my own home studio.”
Bruce used his own low generation master recordings to benchmark the system. He regularly travels with a collection of his hits which he uses as a reference for evaluating remote recording locations. Once his AttackWall was in place, Bruce found he was re-evaluating his own recordings.
He recalls, “I got out a couple of the mixes I’ve made over the years that I’m very familiar with. As I listened I was absolutely amazed to hear, and in my mind’s eye, to see, microphone positions in the stereo panorama that I hadn’t seen in decades!
“Suddenly I was hearing microphone placements that I knew I’d used on the recordings but which I’d never heard clearly on any system before. It wasn’t a matter of making allowances for differences any more, this was the way the recordings were meant to be heard.”
Hearing the clarity he had captured in his own recordings years before made him a believer in the AttackWall environment. He would use the TubeTraps in his mixing environment with the same conviction he had employed them in his recordings. “I was absolutely knocked out, just floored. I ordered an AttackWall right there, and it’s been a part of my studio world ever since.”
Though he speaks about his TubeTraps in glowing terms, Bruce is less favorable when it comes to his synesthesia. To him, it’s a mixed blessing at best. “Synesthesia is damn near like a disease. It can actually be very distracting. I’ve done everything I can to eliminate it from my recording and mixing process.” Even so, Bruce does admit there’s a upside. “It can be distracting, but it’s almost like cheating.”
The TubeTraps That Captivated Michael Jackson Capture Jennifer Lopez
Bruce Swedien has been using TubeTraps since Michael Jackson’s BAD album in 1987. When recording Jackson’s vocals, Bruce surrounded the popstar with TubeTraps to capture early reflections, a process he has repeated with Jennifer Lopez and many others.
“I have used my TubeTraps in an array around Michael Jackson when I recorded every one of the vocal tracks on all of his albums since Bad. The acoustic space created by the Traps allows for consistency of sound at the mic, regardless of position shifts on the part of the performer. I find the StudioTraps particularly useful for recording an artist like Michael Jackson because Michael always dances as he sings, even when he’s recording. This combination helps create at the mic a dense pattern of early reflections on both the vocal and the footstep sounds,” says Swedien.
Capturing the King of Pop
“I have a technique that I’ve been using for many years where I have a plywood drum platform that I use to get the drums up off the floor. The reason for wanting to get the drums up off the floor is to minimize what you call secondary pickup. If you don’t get the drums off the floor, the low sounds—from the kick drum and toms and so on—will couple to the floor and they’ll spread, and end up having a huge impact in the other microphones in the studio. So by building a heavy-duty drum platform eight-feet-square and about 8 inches off the floor—heavily braced and with the surface not painted or varnished in any way, so that it’s porous and there’s a little bit of sonic absorbency to that—really works.
“Michael loved my TubeTraps — he was fascinated with them. We would try all sorts of different setups with the TubeTraps to get a soundfield that was really interesting. They save a lot of time.”Bruce Swedien
“And after I used that platform for the drums, I got to thinking about it, and I used that same platform to record Michael on, because he dances when he sings, and I didn’t want to lose those sounds and lose the impact of his dancing sounds. And I’m not a purist; I’m not the kind of a guy that, with an artist like Michael Jackson, wants to have his vocals pristine and pure. I think that would be rather boring because there’s a lot of ‘street’ in what Michael does, and I figured it would be best to use this drum platform and reflect those dancing sounds back to the microphone, and it works out really well. Then I hooked up with my pal Art Noxon of Acoustic Sciences, who introduced me to TubeTraps, which I use then to go on that platform around not only the drums, but later when Michael was singing, I’d put the TubeTraps around Michael on the drum platform.”
Captivating Jennifer Lopez
“What attracted me to Jennifer’s album project is, first of all, I love the sound of her voice, but equally important is that I heard that she is not afraid to work hard on a project. I love to work hard on all my projects and with that kind of commitment from an artist, I felt that I could help take Jennifer to a new level of musical and sonic excellence,” says Bruce.
“Jennifer fell in love with the vocal sound space inside the Quick Sound Field. She insisted that I use them again.”Bruce Swedien
“When we did some earlier work at New York’s Hit Factory, Jennifer fell in love with the vocal sound space inside the Quick Sound Field. She insisted that I use them again. In fact, we stopped recording for a day until we could get them shipped down to the studio in Philadelphia.”
Bruce continues, “I had all 14 of my ASC StudioTraps shipped; they are my ‘traveling set.’ I use them exclusively for critical vocal work, regardless of where I work. I have to accommodate an artist’s hectic and irregular work schedule, so I find myself working in numerous professional as well as home/project studios. For consistency, I always depend on my ASC Traps to create the exact acoustic space I want, in whatever studio I’m working in.”
“In addition to all the vocals on this project being recorded with my Quick Sound Field StudioTraps, they also helped considerably by creating a wonderful-sounding ambiance for the album’s numerous string section overdubs.
“StudioTraps have been one of my ‘secret weapons’ all these years. They are an incredible product— durable, portable, extremely flexible and most important, they give me the ability to achieve precise, repeatable sound results with whatever microphones I choose, wherever I work. I haven’t done a project without them.
“I also always take my StudioTraps with me to my recording sessions. I have the Traps that are 4′ high and 9″ in diameter. The StudioTrap is adjustable for height. Each Trap actually has two sides with little marks to identify them; one side is reflective and the other is absorptive. In many recording situations, I don’t pay too much attention to those little marks. In other words, I don’t carefully organize them, aimed in one direction, or face them all in one neat little row, or something. I generally make a random TubeTrap set-up. I’ll try to make the room sound as natural as I can.
“I usually put the Traps more towards the outside perimeter of the room and not between the sound source and the microphone.
“If the room has an area that might be perhaps too reverberant, or if I hear a reflection or a standing wave I don’t like, or if the area I want to record or mix in is simply too sonically belligerent, I can use my TubeTraps to immediately modify the soundfield.
“Every time I looked at a record [I liked], it would be engineered and mixed by Bruce Swedien. I was like, ‘Who is this guy? I want this guy.’ So I tracked him down.”Jennifer Lopez
“I find that TubeTraps make a dramatic difference. In this situation, I always pay attention to those marks that identify which side is reflective and which side is absorptive. You can experiment by starting out with a lot. Then just remove them two at a time – you will hear the sound liven up incredibly. They allow you the ultimate control of the room reflections mixed in with the direct sound. It’s like having moveable walls.”
Lopez sought out Bruce to record her album on This Is Me…Then because she was inspired by the sounds captured by Bruce in Jackson’s Off the Wall album.
“Everything was so placed in Michael’s records to make you feel a certain way. Everything was so clear and spacious, and it felt like there was air on the track. … It has such a beautiful quality on it, and every time I looked at a record [I liked], it would be engineered and mixed by Bruce Swedien. I was like, ‘Who is this guy? I want this guy.’ So I tracked him down.”
Lopez was determined to create an album a few notches above everything else she had done before. Working with Bruce “made a huge difference,” she says.
Bruce Swedien Demystifies the AttackWall
“One of the additional advantages of the AttackWall is its portability. It can be moved from place to place with a great deal of predictability and reliability.”
Bruce describes the AttackWall: “Basically, it is a group of various size Traps that go around the perimeter of the recording desk. There are two sides to a TubeTrap — a reflective live side and an absorptive dead side. With the AttackWall it’s the absorptive side that faces in. You put them as close as you can and all the way around the desk, and even behind your mixing environment if you have the space.”
“It acoustically loads the monitor speakers, and causes them to play as if they’re actually mounted into a wall. This gives the monitor speakers increased acoustic efficiency.”
“With an array of StudioTraps behind the listening space, the AttackWall makes a 100 percent acoustically ‘dead’ space. This creates a reflection-free zone for music mixing and recording. I have found that with the AttackWall, no monitor EQ is necessary.”
In the Studio with Bruce Swedien
In his hands on course, Bruce demonstrates the benefits of the AttackWall, along with all the other aspects of his Grammy Award winning recording method. Students also hear from Art Noxon about the particulars of the Quick Sound Field and the acoustic properties of TubeTraps.