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Recording The Human Voice: Bruce Swedien

Recording The Human Voice: Bruce Swedien When Bruce Swedien talks about the way he records and mixes sound, people listen – Bruce recorded Thriller, the best-selling album of all time.

Bruce Swedien has been at the top of his game, leading the way as a true music engineer since the ’50s.

He’s recorded everyone from the Stan Kenton Orchestra to the Count Basie Orchestra, to Sarah Vaughn to Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons to Roberta Flack to Missing Persons to Barbra Streisand to Jennifer Lopez to Michael Jackson.

Now he shares insights on recording the human voice for today’s singers and engineers.

The Shades of the Human Voice

The most interesting and capable musical instrument of all is the human voice.

It has the ability to communicate a wide variety and range of emotion and an amazingly wide dynamic range.


The most interesting and capable musical instrument of all is the human voice

A well-trained vocalist can easily provide delicate tonal shading; the range of instantly recognizable vocal personality is astonishing.

Two voices can have the same range classification—we could say that they are they same instrument—but exhibit amazingly different personality, color, and emotional impact.

The human voice can be regarded as a musical tone–generating system consisting of an oscillator and a tube resonator called the vocal tract.

The vocal tract contains the individual physical peculiarities that produce a unique sonic character.

The fact that we hear distinct differences in timbre between virtually every singer—and that there is such an incredible sonic range among all singers—is very fascinating and important for the music engineer to realize.

Acoustic Experiences that Shaped Me

My father was a choir director in our church and my mother was a fine vocal soloist, so I guess it’s only natural that recording the human voice has been of special interest to me since the beginning of my recording career.

My mother sang with the Minneapolis Symphony’s Women’s Chorus as a choir member and featured soloist.

So, as a kid I went to chorus rehearsals with her and I also heard many Sunday afternoon concerts with that world-class musical organization.

My early years in the business were spent in my hometown of Minneapolis, listening to and recording many of the fine church and college choirs of that area.

Hearing those excellent vocalists sing in good acoustical surroundings gave my ear a benchmark that has been impossible for me to ignore.

This valuable experience has stuck with me and has been a big help throughout my career.


Microphone choice and recording technique are fundamentally important parts of the recording process

The Importance of Microphone Choice

Because of the intricate detail that defines vocal character, microphone choice and recording technique are fundamentally important parts of the recording process.

For example, if I were looking for a very breathy or sensuous vocal recording sonic image, I would place the singer as close as is physically possible to a single microphone, thereby eliminating almost all early reflections.

I would even use no windscreen, if possible.

Monophonic Single-Microphone Technique

When using stereo mic technique, it’s the timing and phase incoherence between the right and left channels that set the sonic stage for the listener.

However, when using monophonic single-microphone technique or placement there is no incoherence so the off-mic (off-axis) sounds tend to confuse the sonic image rather than enhance it.

Therefore, it is best to close-mike the source when using a single monophonic microphone to avoid risking any undesirable loss of intimacy.

Though the preceding statement is a generalization—and it is indeed usually best to close-mike when using a mono microphone—that’s not always the case.

To paint something as that black and white runs the risk of seriously limiting creativity in certain recording situations.

In any creative endeavor, there are no absolutes; but, there is great value in understanding the typical prescription for capturing a certain sonic type, style, or timbre.

-Bruce Swedien

See Bruce’s Exclusive Interview with VoiceCouncil Magazine: The Man who Recorded “Thriller” Speaks to Singers

The Man who Recorded “Thriller” Speaks to Singers

Check out Bruce Swedien’s New Book The Bruce Swedien Recording Method for Incredible Audio Insights, Details and Methods – you can find it on Amazon here.

Bruce Swedien is a Five-time Grammy winner and thirteen-time Grammy nominee who has recorded and mixed music for over 60 years including the best-selling album in the history of music, Michael Jackson’s Thriller. See his new book, The Bruce Swedien Recording Method (with Bill Gibson).

This piece is from The Bruce Swedien Recording Method by Bruce Swedien with Bill Gibson. © 2013 by Bruce Swedien, published by Hal Leonard Books, an imprint of Hal Leonard Corporation. Reprinted with permission.

  • For me much just exposing about how bad my equipment is yet again. While some interesting history on the author and some nice ideas but that is not what the title suggests.
    It amazes me the amount of written material yet again on how to record vocals in a small home studio that are just sales pitches for more expensive equipment or more books or tutorials to buy. None that I have found to date tell you exactly what you really need to know or how to use the exact equipment you own in regards to levels and compressions and yes even eq’s. There are some video Tutorials but unless you have again the same equipment ( Oh Yes most push the Pro Tools software, a very nice program but if you do not wish to use that or if the DAW program that comes free with most interfaces no matter the price point today is not Pro Tools what good does this do you ) you are still left to spend hours trying to dial it in. Most information and here again in this book no matter how in depth are just mostly generalized statements with examples using equipment the author has used or recommends.

    Now if the book title says, ” Recording vocals using equipment I recommend and I will show you exactly how “, this would at least be more open and you would know going in if it works for you. But no one can do that due to so many different vocalists, styles and equipment which includes the computer ,the interface, the mics, the mic pres yet alone the room itself and your knowledge of all this or not.
    Bottom line is you have to know how to sing and record so maybe for some just save the money and go into a pro studio to do the vocals for the finished product for your song or songs ( at the very least then you may learn what equipment works for your voice and how the studio handled this all ) and add them to your home studio DAW or just be satisfied with what you can get on your own. Most name brand fair priced mics will get you a good recording and the same is said of mic preamps if you know what you are doing and is not this why you would purchase this periodical for the know how ? . I bet there are very few Michael Jacksons and Frank Sinatras out there if any now a days .
    There is no one size fits all , this is why pro studios have tons of equipment on hand for almost any type or style of singer that walks through the door. A bad voice or singer is just a bad voice or singer and all the equipment in the world will not help. And that is subjective today anyway whether someone is good or bad. Just research the internet independent sites and you listen for yourself and see that no matter where the talent lies there is always someone who likes them. And yes now a days allot of bad vocal takes can be fixed or manipulated in the box ( you think some of those country singers sing that low and perfect ? Or the Metal guys ? ) . Allot is manipulated with all the effects and auto tunes that are given free with most new DAWs as part of the package today . If you set up your Home studio with good research and advice given and invest in a decent PC and mics with a good interface with a decent preamp with a good packaged DAW you are almost there for the instruments and decent vocals if you can sing . The vocals unless you are very lucky to get what the pros can get or have a huge budget and unlimited time to learn it all on your own just accept what you get or go to school for recording or to the pros . Or Just as the pros do manipulate it all . I’m Just Saying. Vocals are extremely hard to record and get pro sounds at home. Yes anything is possible with PCs and it Can be done, but this book will just be one of many on your road to finding that great home recording sound . If I had to do it all over again before investing so much on so much home equipment and periodicals and DVDs I would have just go to a pro studio first to see what I could learn or go to a recording school. Would have saved me money and headaches with allot of lost time.