Sources: In The Studio With Michael Jackson | Edited By – All Things Michael
I wrote a note to a good friend of mine describing the amount of quality control we used to put into our studio projects, and how fanatical (in the best sense of the word) Bruce Swedien and Michael were about getting the records to sound just right. You see, once the recording is finished, there were still two major steps left in the process before the music would reach the consumer: mastering and actual physical production.
School is in session!
Mastering is when the final mixes are cut onto an acetate (record), or prepped for CD or streaming distribution. It is a unique step in the process, as mastering engineers use their experience and tools to make the mixes sound as good as possible for consumers. Master engineers EQ the mixes, and sometimes add a bit (or a lot) of compression. They are sort of a “second set of ears” to prep the product for the public.
At the conclusion of an MJ album, Bruce would have acetates mastered by Bernie Grundman in Hollywood. Bernie has mastered many/most of Bruce’s projects over the years. We would then evaluate them back in the studio. Many of you already know the story about how “Thriller” (before my time) failed at this point – as the mastered vinyls sounded so thin compared to the studio mixes. This was due to the physics how wide the record groove has to be to produce the low frequencies Bruce wanted vs. the allowable length of music that can fit on each side of vinyl. That’s why a spoken word album (vinyl) with very little low end could be a lot longer in length than a musical album with a lot of bass and drums. In CDs and steaming, this is not an issue – but it was back then.
Once they passed the initial acetate test, they would be sent off to a record pressing plant, like the MCA plant that used to be in Gloversville, NY. Gloversville would create something called the “Mother and Father”, to create the vinyls from. This is where Bruce’s attention to quality really comes into play. Most production teams would basically trust that the plant would handle everything fine, and maybe go on vacation. Not Bruce.
Before the record went into full production, a test run would made and those test units would be sent back to us in the studio. Bruce insisted that we evaluate those test units before giving the green light for full production.
For HIStory, I custom built a listening system in the studio, consisting of a Technics SL1200 turntable, Shure cartridge, Sony Professional CD player, Sony consumer Mini Disc player, Nakamichi MR-1 cassette deck, Crown Pre-amp, Bryston 4B amplifier, and a pair of new Westlake BBSM-8 monitors. It was great sounding, but not so high-end as to be far above what most consumers would use.
For many days I had one of the best jobs in NY, sitting in a comfortable chair with fresh coffee listening (carefully) to each song in a very quiet studio. And getting paid to do it! In essence, I had to be Bruce’s and Michael’s “ears”, to either reject or approve each sample.
Just for fun, I went back and re-read some of my notes, and we rejected several of the first pressings of HIStory album – mostly discs one and two. They were rejected several times, until the plant got them just right. Disc 1 B and Disc 2 B were also rejected due to a problem with the intro to the first song sounding too thin on both. The other discs were approved for each run. I have note from 4-20-95 saying that “Todd from Gloversville found a problem with the stamper and created a new one. I remember feeling quite justified that my ears did not trick me – the plant found a problem!
Bruce and I went through this exact same process for the cassettes from the Carrollton plant, CDs from the Pittman plant and Mini Discs (!) from Terra Haute. I actually visited the Pittman plant personally and met with some of the engineers. HIStory was such a huge run, everything had to be as close to perfect as possible.
I don’t know of any other artist that went to anywhere near this level of quality control. The associated costs with keeping us in New York – at the Hit Factory – for an extra week couple weeks of product evaluation had to have been huge. I wasn’t complaining, but this could have been done at a Holiday Inn in Barstow, but we were all set up at Hit Factory, so it was easier just to stay. I have a notebook full of notes and comments from the various product runs. Funny how seriously we took every detail, but Bruce was insistent on an amazing product. I think it showed.
New York is just over three weeks away! Tickets for our full-day seminar are available at www.inthestudiowithmj.com
Keep The Faith!