Interviewed by Jimmy Stewart
With Engineer Bruce Swedien
THE CONSUMMATE PRODUCTION TEAM
Interviewed by Jimmy Stewart
If the word “professionalism” can be epitomized by one of the most successful producers currently working in the recording industry, that man must surely be Quincy Jones. The reports of his humanity, care and response to the needs of his recording “family,” and an almost telepathic rapport with his favorite engineer, Bruce Swedien, truly makes Quincy Jones a consummate producer. During the many session hours that R-e/p spent with Quincy and Bruce in the studio, it became readily apparent that their complimentary skills – Quincy’s proven track record as a musician, composer, arranger, and record producer, married with Bruce’s mastery of the recording process – has resulted in a production team whose numerous talents overlap to a remarkable degree. Having worked with Bruce Swedien on so many innovative album sessions, including Michael Jackson’s Of The Wall, George Benson’s Give Me The Night, The Dude, and Donna Summer’s Summer of ’82, it came as no surprise to anyone in the industry that Quincy Jones should make such a clean sweep of this year’s Grammy’s, collecting a total of seven awards, including five for The Dude alone. The following conversations with this illustrious production team were conducted during tracking dates for Michael Jackson’s upcoming album Thriller, at Westlake Studios, Los Angeles.
JIMMY STEWART: How do you first get involved with a particular recording project? For example… Michael Jackson.
QUINCY JONES: We were working on The Wiz together, and Michael started to talk about me producing his album. I started to see Michael’s way of working as human being, and how he deals with creative things; his discipline in a media he had never worked in before. I think that’s really the bottom line of all of this. How you really relate to other human beings and build a rapport is also important to me; energy that’s a great feeling when it happens between creative people.
I’ve been in some instances where I have admired an artist’s ability, but couldn’t get it together with them as a human being. To truly do a great job of producing an artist, you must be on the same frequency level. It has to happen before you start to talk about songs.
JIMMY STEWART: Then the important aspect, to your mind, is fostering a family feel during a project?
QUINCY JONES: Yes. It’s a very personal relationship that lets the love come through. Being on the other side of the glass is a very funny position – you’re the traffic director of another person’s soul. It it’s blind faith, there’s no end to how high you can reach musically.
JIMMY STEWART: Is the special rapport you establish with an artist based on them saying something unique that triggers off an area in your creative mind?
QUINCY JONES: That’s the abstract part which is so exciting. I consider that there are two schools of producing. The first necessitates that you totally reinforce the artist’s musical aspirations. The other school is akin to being a film director who would like the right to pick the material.
As to what choice of production style I would adopt, your observations and perceptions have to be very keen. You have to be able to crawl into that artist, and feel every side of his personality – to see how many degrees they have to it, and what their limitations are.
JIMMY STEWART: Once that working rapport has been established, how do you plan the actual recording project?
QUINCY JONES: I think you have to dig down really to where you think the holes are in that artist’s past career. I’ll say to myself, “I’ve never heard him sing this kind of song, or express that kind of emotion.” Once you obtain an abstract concept or direction, it’s good to talk about it with the artist to see what his feelings are, and if you’re on the right track. In essence, I help the artist discover more of himself.
JIMMY STEWART: Do you become involved with the selection of songs for the album?
QUINCY JONES: On average, I listen to maybe 800 to 900 tapes per album. It takes a lot of energy! I hear songs at a demo stage, and would like to think that the songwriter is open for suggestions. It I say, “We need a C section” the writers with whom I’ve had the most success must be mature enough and professional enough to say, “Okay, I’m not going to be defensive about any suggestion you make.”
JIMMY STEWART: So what do you listen for in a song? The lyrics, melody, arrangement, instrumentation…
QUINCY JONES: I listen for something that will make the hair on my right arm rise. That’s when you get into the mystery of music. It’s something that makes both musical and emotional sense at the same time; where melodically it has something that resembles a good melody. Again that’s intangible too, because it’s in the ears of the listener. So basically I’m saying… it transcends analysis. A good tune just does something to me.
JIMMY STEWART: Once the songs have been sorted, what runs through your mind prior to the studio session dates?
QUINCY JONES: I try to get the feeling that I’m going into the studio for the first time every time. You have to do that because if we started to get to a stage where Bruce (Swedien) and I had a specific way of recording it wouldn’t work for us. I’m sure some things overlap, because that’s part of our personality, but we try to approach it like every time is the first time; we’re going to try something so that we don’t get into routine type of procedures.
With Rufus and Chaka Kan I’ll do one kind of a thing, where we will have rehearsals at their home, and talk about things. Maybe even come in the session with everybody and do it like “Polaroids.” That way you can hear what everything sounds like rough, and feel what the density, structure and contour of the song is all about.
Other times, like The Brothers Johnson, we used to go in with just a rhythm machine, guitar and bass, and do it that way. We did the Donna Summers album with a drum machine and synthesizer, so that I could really focus on just the material. But with Bruce Springsteen everyone played live, as in a concert. For George Benson’s album, Lee Ritenour came over and helped us with different guitar equipment to get some new sounds. At the same time that Lee was there dealing with the equipment, and George was trying it out, Bruce Swedien came over for a whole week to just listen to George with his instrumentals and vocals, like a screen test.
JIMMY STEWART: You have obviously established a close affinity in the studio with Bruce Swedien. How do the pair of you interact with one another, and how does he make the moves with you?
QUINCY JONES: The thing is, what’s great about working with Bruce is I like him as a human being. In a funny way, we’ve the same kind of background. The first record we did together was probably Dinah Washington. During that period of time we recorded every big band in the business. We did a lot of R&B in Chicago in those days… a lot of big records.
Bruce’s first Grammy nomination was in 1962 for Big Girls Don’t Cry. He studied piano for eight years, and did electrical engineering in school. Along the way he recorded Fritiz Reiner and the Chicago Orchestra. And a lot of his time was also spent recording commercials. So, from the sound aspect, and the musical aspect, the two of us kind of cover 360 degrees… well at elast 340. We feel comfortable in any musical environment.
Take, for instance, The Wiz, for which Bruce handled the pre-recording and shoot. He also designed some of the equipment for the location sound, did the post scoring, the dubbing and the soundtrack album. To do all of it, that’s unheard of! Usually there are three to four different people to handle all those facets.
JIMMY STEWART: Is there a standard procedure you use for recording the various parts of a song?
QUINCY JONES: Each tune is different. “State of Independence” for the Donna Summer’s album is a good example of a particular process I might use. We started with a Linn Drum Machine, and created the patterns for different sections. Then we created the blueprint, with all the fills and percussion throughout the whole song. From the Linn, we went through a Roland MicroComposer, and then through a pair of Roland Jupiter 8 synthesizers that we lock to. The patterns were pads in sequencer-type elements. Then we program the Minimoog to play the bass line.
The programs were all linked together and driven by the Roland MicroComposer using sync codes. The program information is stored in the Linn’s memory, and on the MicroComposer’s cassette. At this point all we had to do was push the button, and the song would play. Once it sounds right we record the structured tune on tape, which saves time since you don’t have to record these elements singly on tape with cutting and editing. This blueprinting method works great when you’re not sure of the final arrangement of the tune. “It’s the song itself that’s the most important element we are dealing with.”
We can deal with between three and five types of codes, including SMPTE on the multitrack. With all these codes, we have to watch the record level to make sure it triggers the instrument properly. Sometimes we had to change EQ and level differences to make sure we got it right.
JIMMY STEWART: Do you try and work in the room with the musicians, or stay in the control room with Bruce?
QUINCY JONES: I like to work out in the room with each player, running the chart down, and guiding the feel of the tune. We will usually run it down once, then I’ll get behind the glass to hear the balance and what is coming through the monitor speakers, which is the way it will be recorded and played back. Once I get the foundation of the tune on tape, and know it’s solid and right, it is easy for me to lay those other elements to the song. It’s the song itself that’s the most important element we are dealing with.
JIMMY STEWART: Any particular “tricks of the trade” that you’ve developed over the years for capturing the sounds on tape?
QUINCY JONES: Bruce is very careful with the bass and vocals, and we try to put the signal through with as little electronics as possible. In some cases, we may bypass the console altogether and go direct to the tape machine. Any processing, in effect, is some form of signal degradation, but you are making up for it by adding some other quality you feel is necessary – we always think of these considerations.
Bruce has some special direct boxes for feeding a signal direct to the multitrack, and which minimally affect the signal. With a synthesizer we very often can go line-level directly to the machine, while with the bass you need a pre-amp to bring it up to a hot level.
Lots of times we will avoid using voltage-controlled amplifiers, because there will be less signal coloration. Also, if possible we avoid using equalization. Our rules are to be careful, and pay close attention to the signal quality.
JIMMY STEWART: The rhythm section is often considered to be the “glue” that holds a track together. What do you listen for when tracking the rhythm section?
QUINCY JONES: I listen to the feel of the music, and the way the players are relating to that feel. My energy is directed to telling the players what I want from them to give the music its emotional content, and Bruce will interpret technically the best way in which to capture the sound on tape. And we may try something new or different to highlight that musical character. Because Bruce has a good musical background, he is an “interpreter” that is part of the musical flow.
I like players who have a jazzman’s approach to playing. They have learned to play by jamming with lots of different people, and you can push them to their limits. I don’t like to get stuck in patterns, so I need players who can quickly adjust to changes in feel. They must also be able to tell a story through their instrument. I look for players who can do it all! (Laughter)
JIMMY STEWART: You obviously have a keenly evolved sense of preparation for a recording project. How do you go about planning a typical day in the studio?
QUINCY JONES: We do our homework after we leave the studio. Bruce will always have a tracking date planned out, with track assignments for the instrumentation, and so on. For overdubbing, he will work out how the work-tape system will be structured, and Matt (Forger) our assistant will be responsible for carrying out that task. I zero in on what my day’s work is going to be by listening to the musical elements; how they interact and work in the song in my listening room at home. Bruce does the same by working out in his mind the best method of capturing the music, and structuring these elements so they can be used in future overdubbing and mixing.
I keep a folder for each tune, and make notes as the tune progresses. It may be that changing a stereo image to mono is one way to strengthen an element: stereo for space; mono for impact. It it’s a wrong instrument or color it will be redone. Bruce understands the music and musical balance, and never loses his perspective. Our communication after all these years working together is very spontaneous. This is one of the reasons for our success!
JIMMY STEWART: It’s obviously important to you that Bruce is able to read music. How does this help you in the studio?
QUINCY JONES: The way we work with music charts, I can get to any part of the tune. It’s fast for drop-ins, and you never end up making a mistake. Bruce will make notes on his music chart to be used later in the mix.
JIMMY STEWART: How often do you listen to work cassette during an album session?
QUINCY JONES: I’ll listen over and over again to a song until it’s in my bones. Some songs have just a chord progression and no tune. Others may be a hook phrase and a groove, and sometimes the song may call for a lot of colors. Each song is different… when it’s played on the radio and jumps, I’m happy.
To keep the session vibe up, I use nick names for the guys I work with: “Lilly” for Michael Boddicker; “Mouse” for Greg Phillinganes; “Boot” for Louis Johnson; “Worms” for Rod Temperton. And Bruce has many nicknames; it depends upon the intensity in the control room. If things are going a little rough and I need a hired gun, I call Bruce “Slim”! (Smiles across room at Bruce Swedien)
And the way I keep in touch with the tracking musicians is to use slang: “Anchovy” is a mess up; “Welfare Sound” is when you haven’t warmed up to the track or the tune; “Land Mines” are tough phrases in an arrangement.
JIMMY STEWART: How do you gauge that a track is happening in the control room?
QUINCY JONES: I listen on Auratones for energy and performance at about 90 dB SPL. I’m coming from a radio listener concept. I have two speakers set up in front of my producer’s desk. I don’t have to ask Bruce to move so I can listen to his set of speakers, and we never play the two pairs of speakers at the same time. When it’s a great take you can see through it!
JIMMY STEWART: With such wide experience over the years in so many state-of-the-art facilities, it’s perhaps surprising that you haven’t opened your own studio.
QUINCY JONES: I’m not at all interested in owning a studio. I’ve got enough things to take care of, and I like to leave the studio right where it is when I get out of it. I don’t want to have to think of what’s going on in the studio… if the 24-track heads are clean!
JIMMY STEWART: So you look upon the studio equipment as just being a production tool?
QUINCY JONES: Absolutely… as an instrument; matter of fact, just like a part of an orchestra. I think even a variable speed oscillator is an instrument.
JIMMY STEWART: Do you have a favorite studio in which you feel most comfortable?
QUINCY JONES: My favorite studio at the moment is Westlake (Los Angeles). I like the vibe there very much. The people are fantastic – great maintenance handled by Jimmy Fizpatrick and Dave Concord. Matt Forger, the assistant engineer we work with all the time, is incredible; he share in the vibe. His duties have gone beyond the page. In fact, we have given him a new title: “Technical Director.”
Glen Phoenix, the president of Westlake Audio, has a well rounded knowledge of the whole studio scene. We can give him feedback for new designs. When you walk in the door you feel the flow, and everyone’s tuned in. At the technical level in a studio, Bruce is a real perfectionist. If something is not working right he’ll find it! We have to have good maintenance.
JIMMY STEWART: Are you a “hands-on” producer, or do you leave it all to Bruce? Do you ever get behind the faders?
QUINCY JONES: I’m a hands-off producer! When you’ve got Bruce Swedien taking care of that area, we can’t go further. I’m not the “Do it all type.” If you can concentrate on other things, I think you can take the plane much higher. To let my deficiency as an engineer be a limitation… that doesn’t make sense.
JIMMY STEWART: Although you might leave the hands-on side of running the session to Bruce, you seem to have a pretty good grasp of the technology of the recording process. Are there any aspects with which you are uncomfortable?
QUINCY JONES: Automation sometimes bugs me, because after a while it kind of tells you how to mix and, if you want to re-adjust things, it sometimes gets difficult. It happens sometimes that you can get so far with automation, and then want to make a little left turn there; sometimes the system makes it difficult for you to do it.
I found I’m going to wait a little while with digital too. So far, digital doesn’t give me what I’d like to hear – it doesn’t sample enough of the regularities. It nails the characteristics of a sound, but it doesn’t get the dirt… the build up… that I think is necessary to have in a record. Digital sometimes gets a little too squeaky clean for me. But I know it’s going to improve, because it’s a wonderful direction.
JIMMY STEWART: With album sessions becoming more and more complicated, both technically as well as artistically, do you think a producer has to be a good arranger too?
QUINCY JONES: I don’t know, because everybody produces with his strength. That ability can come from the strength of an engineer, player, singer, instrumentalist, arranger, or a combination of these things.
JIMMY STEWART: As a founder and president of your own record company, Qwest, do you find it hard sometimes to combine the creative ability of a producer, with the business side of running a label?
QUINCY JONES: Let me give you some background. In 1960 I got in trouble with a jazz band I had on tour, and when I came home with my tail between my legs from Europe I took a job with Mercury Records for about seven years, in A&R, and eventually vice president. During the course of that time I had to understand a whole different area of the record business that I wasn’t even aware of before. It was a big company because Mercury merged with Philips, which is now Polygram, and we stared Philips Records in this country.
It was an incredible education, because I use to think that all these companies get together once a week to plan how to get new artists on the label. You should be so lucky that you get past being an IBM number on a computer with a profit and loss under your name or code number. That gave me an insight into understanding what corporate anatomy was all about.
Understanding the rules of the game is important for a producer with a huge company like Philips, which is dealing with raw products, television sets, vacuum cleaners, and all the rest, at that time we were doing $82 million a year worldwide, and music was only about 2% total.
JIMMY STEWART: So how do you communicate with the business person?
QUINCY JONES: Somewhere along the way it’s got to make sense if it’s going to cost money. If you want to go to Africa and make a drum record, for example, you’re going to have to figure out how to get it done for the people who put up the money. Somewhere along with your creative process you have to ‘scope out what the situation is, get your priorities straight, and don’t let that interfere with your creativity. If they put a pile of money right in front of you, there’s not way to correlate the essence of what that means, and yet still tie it into the creation of music.
Being a record company president is a lot or responsibility, but it’s going to be okay. To become a successful record company president, you have to apply and reinforce your creative side with a business side, but you can’t lead with the business side.