On production and working with MJ
When I first met Michael he was working on Captain EO (1985) and I was just a studio runner (the guy who goes to get the burgers). But I got a chance to sit in on his sessions after my regular shift was done.
Michael was a consummate professional. If his vocals were scheduled for noon, he was there at 10 am with his vocal coach Seth, singing scales. Yes, scales! I would set up the microphone, check the equipment, make coffee, and all the while he would sing scales for two hours.
Each of his projects was different, but usually there were eight or fewer of us working day to day. No entourage. No Elephant Man bones. No groupies. No drugs. Just music. And food.
When a small group of people are dedicated to creating great music, it is a great place to be… and it was.
Brad Sundberg, studio ingeneer
“Recording was never a static event. We used to record with the lights out, Michael on my drum platform. Michael would dance on that as we did the vocals. What an incredible experience. The talent was just indescribably huge. Michael combined elements of pop, jazz and soul into a new kind of music and galvanized the world. The way I want to remember him is as the ultimate musician. He was just fantastic and he brought a tremendous amount of musical integrity with him every time he came into the studio.”
"Damn near any chimpanzee could record Michael. I mean he is such a pro, it is unbelievable! ... Michael was not an ordinary vocalist or an ordinary singer. If any young people in the music industry take the decision to use Michael as an inspiration, that's about the smartest thing that they could possibly do. In the studio you hardly knew he was there ‑— he was extremely quiet and polite and kind ‑— but he really cared about the quality of what we were doing. Not only the technical quality, but the musicality, and his pitch, and the lyrics, the arrangements, and so on. For example, I don't think I ever saw Michael with the lyrics in front of him. He'd always been up the night before memorising the lyrics and he sang the songs from memory. And every day that we recorded vocals his vocal coach was there, and he warmed up for an hour beforehand. That made a big difference.”
Bruce Swedien, studio ingeneer
"What I do when I write is that I'll do a raggedy, rough version just to hear the chorus, just to see how much I like the chorus. If it works for me that way when it's raggedy, then I'll know it will just work... Listen to that, that's at home. Janet, Randy, Me... Janet and I are going "Whoo, Whoo... Whoo, Whoo..." I do that same process with every song. It's the melody, it's the melody that's most important, If the melody can sell me, then I'll go to the next step. The idea is to transcribe from what's in your mentality onto tape. If you take a song like "Billie Jean," Where the bass line is the prominent, dominant piece, the protagonist of the song, the main driving riff that you hear, getting the character of the riff to be just the way you want it to be, that takes a lot of time. Listen, you're hearing four basses on there, doing four different personalities, and that's what gives it character, but it takes a lot of work."
Three-page handwritten letter from Michael Jackson to William Pecchi Jr., written on Capitol Tokyu Hotel stationary c. 1988
I very, very seldom write letters, but in this moving occasion I couldn’t help myself.
I want to thank you for putting the effort forward to capture the magic and excitement of the people of the world. What you do is a very personal and powerful medium to me. It is the art of stopping time, to perserve a moment that the naked eye cannot hold, to capture truth spontaneous truth, the depths of excitement in human spirt. All else will be forgotten, but not the films. Generations from now will experience the excitement you’ve captured; it truly is a time capsule.
I will not be totally satisfied until I know you’re at the right angle at the right time, to capture a crescendo of emotion that happens so quickly, so spontaeously. What you have done was good, but I want the best, the whole picture, cause and effect. I want crowd reaction wide lens shots – depths of emotions, timing. I know we can do it. It is my dream and goal to capture TRUTH. We should dedicate ourselves to this. The person who makes a success of living is the one who sees his goal steadily and aims for it unswervingly. That is dedication. There is no other way to perfection than dedication, perseverance. Just tell us what you need to make it happen. Take the leadership to direct the other cameramen.
I enjoy working with you that is why I asked you to come, you have a gentle spirit that’s very likable. Maybe I look at the world through rose colored glasses, but I love people all over the world. That is why stories of racism really disturb me. You hurt my heart and soul when you told me of your boyhood in Texas. Because in truth I believe all men are created equal. I was taught that and will always believe it. I just can’t conceive of how a person could hate another because of skin color. I love every race on the planet earth. Prejudice is the child of ignorance.
Naked we came into the world and naked we shall go out. And a very good thing too, for it reminds me that I am naked under my shirt, whatever its color. I’m sorry to bring up such past news, but in the car I was hurt by what you said. I’m so happy that you have managed to overcome your childhood past. Thank God that you’ve graduated from such beliefs of ignorance. I’m glad I’ve never experienced such things. Teach your kids to love all people equally. I know you will.
I speak from my heart saying I love you and all people, especially the children. I’m glad God chose me and you.
Pecchi was a camera operator on Jackson’s film Moonwalker (Ultimate Productions, 1988). After Moonwalker, Pecchi was asked to travel abroad with Jackson during the Bad tour. Pecchi rode to and from venues to capture the crowd’s reaction to Jackson.
"One morning MJ came in with a new song he had written overnight. We called in a guitar player, and Michael sang every note of every chord to him. “here’s the first chord first note, second note, third note. Here’s the second chord first note, second note, third note”, etc., etc. We then witnessed him giving the most heartfelt and profound vocal performance, live in the control room through an SM57.
He would sing us an entire string arrangement, every part. Steve Porcaro once told me he witnessed MJ doing that with the string section in the room. Had it all in his head, harmony and everything. Not just little eight bar loop ideas. he would actually sing the entire arrangement into a micro-cassette recorder complete with stops and fills."
Rob Hoffman, sounds engeneer
"I normally record a singer about a dozen times before getting enough to mix together a perfect vocal track for an album. With Michael, it only took two to four takes. And one of those takes would be perfect on its own. But hours of preparation preceded recording. We would change lyrics, tempo and pitch, working for days and hours on getting the song just right before finalizing the track. Thriller was recorded and completed in six months."
Bruce Swedien, engineer and music producer, author of 2009 book, "In The Studio With Michael Jackson"
“‘Heartbreak Hotel’ was the most ambitious song I had composed. I think I worked on a number of levels: You could dance to it, sing along with it, get scared by it, and just listen. I had to tack on a slow piano and cello coda that ended on a positive note to reassure the listener; there's no point in trying to scare someone if there isn't something to bring the person back safe and sound from where you've taken them."
Michael Jackson in his autobiography Moonwalk (1988)
“Before the advent of digital technology, you needed to be creative acoustically and electronically. In the song “Billie Jean,” when Michael sings the line “Do think twice” at end of the third verse, he’s singing through a cardboard mailing tube. We often would record elements in the bathroom (tiled) because it would give it a short early reflection quality. The main percussion sound on the song “Beat It” was Michael beating on fiberboard drum cases with 1x3 inch pieces of wood in the mirrored room of Westlake Studio A.”
Matt Forger, a sound engineer
"In the studio, Michael was a hard worker, a really hard worker. He would stand there until he got it right. He likes to perform with the lights out and just a single light on the stand. And he likes to do some of his dances during songs. On "The Lady In My Life", I needed Michael to express an emotion that goes way, way back. I said ‘Smelly, I need you to beg on this. I want a serious beg on this one, which is convincing the lady that this is the way that she should go. Michael knew exactly what I was talking about. He got all embarrassed and started to blush. But he did it and then he ran out of there."
Quincy Jones, legendary producer/composer
“Mick (Jagger) didn't hesitate when Michael told him to warm up his vocal cords before recording their duet "State of Shock" in 1983. It was a classic recording session a year after "Thriller" had cemented Michael’s reputation as the King of Pop.] By then, everyone knew how good Michael was. If Michael Jackson says, 'Warm up', you warm up - even if you are Mick Jagger. […]
[I normally record a singer about a dozen times before getting enough to mix together a perfect vocal track for an album. With Michael, it only took two to four takes. And one of those takes would be perfect on its own. But hours of preparation preceded recording. We would change lyrics, tempo and pitch, working for days and hours on getting the song just right before finalizing the track. Thriller was recorded and completed in six months.]
[…] “Off the Wall' and 'Thriller' showed Quincy Jones kaleidoscopic approach. […] But it was Michael’s talent and drive for perfection that kept the singer practicing all night before a recording. That's why a typical recording session started late.] We were up at the crack of noon.] Michael never started singing until after he warmed up his voice thoroughly for a typical 10-hour day.
He was a perfect gentleman and a consummate professional throughout all meetings. He never drank coffee. He never drank alcohol. He was a fussy eater. I guess he was what you would call a health nut. [I will remember him as one of the best prepared artists he ever worked with.] He never came in half-stepping. Michael was always prepared. I never recorded Michael when he had the lyrics in front of him. [His dedication to his craft was unique. During album recordings, which would sometimes last more than six months, he rarely rested.] He would work on the lyrics all of the time. […]”
Bruce Swedien, American audio engineer and music producer, author of 2009 book, "In The Studio With Michael Jackson"
In Studio by Rob Hoffman (Sound Engineer):
Back Row: Craig, Andrew Scheps, Rob Hoffman, Brad Sundberg, Matt Forger
Front Row: Bruce Swedien, Michael Jackson, Eddie Delena
I was fortunate enough to work with MJ early in my career. He was an incredible artist. TALENTED BEYOND YOUR WILDEST DREAM. Extremely generous, and a hard worker. I actually went from a staff assistant at the Hit Factory in NYC to freelance engineer under Swedien and MJ. They were due to start in Los Angeles when the Northridge earthquake hit so they moved to New York. One room was all Bruce, the second room was the writing room. I started assisting Bruce’s writing partner Rene Moore. I would track stuff with Rene, and Bruce would come in and tell me what I did wrong, sit in for a few hours and set us straight.
After a couple months MJ arrived and the entire tour rig was moved in along with Brad Buxer, Andrew Scheps, and Eddie Delena. I continued to assist them until the whole crew moved to L.A., they decided to take me with them. I would assist Bruce during the day, and help out every where else at night – assisting, engineering, programming, and on one song playing guitar. We had two rooms at Record One, and two rooms at Larrabee where I met John. At one point in NYC we had just about every room at the Hit Factory. The crew was great, and I learned so much from all of them. I learned to engineer from Bruce Swedien, John, and Eddie, and got to sit in with producers like MJ, Jam And Lewis, Babyface, David Foster, Teddy Riley, and Dallas Austin.
I was actually asked to leave the project early on because there were too many people around and MJ didn’t know me. Luckily, I was rehired about 10 days later. At the wrap party MJ apologized profusely, and expressed his gratitude. Truly the most sincere man you will ever meet.
Some random memories:
One morning MJ came in with a new song he had written overnight. We called in a guitar player, and Michael sang every note of every chord to him. “here’s the first chord first note, second note, third note. Here’s the second chord first note, second note, third note”, etc., etc. We then witnessed him giving the most heartfelt and profound vocal performance, live in the control room through an SM57.
He would sing us an entire string arrangement, every part. Steve Porcaro once told me he witnessed MJ doing that with the string section in the room. Had it all in his head, harmony and everything. Not just little eight bar loop ideas. he would actually sing the entire arrangement into a micro-cassette recorder complete with stops and fills.
At one point Michael was angry at one of the producers on the project because he was treating everyone terribly. Rather than create a scene or fire the guy, Michael called him to his office/lounge and one of the security guys threw a pie in his face. No further action was needed . . . . .
During the recording of “Smile” on HIStory, Bruce thought it would be great if Michael would sing live with the orchestra. But of course, we didn’t tell the players that. We set him up in a vocal booth off to the side. They rehearsed a bit without vocals in, then during the first take Michael sang, just about knocked them out of their chairs.
His beatboxing was without parallel, and his time was ridiculous.
His sense of harmony was incredible. Never a bad note, no tuning, even his breathing was perfectly in time.
Once, while we were taking a break, I think we were actually watching the OJ chase on TV, there was a news program talking about him being in Europe with some little boy. I was sitting next to the guy while the news is making this crap up. He just looked at me and said this is what I have to deal with.
I spent close to 3 years working with him, and not once did I question his morals, or ever believe any of the allegations. I wasn’t even a fan then. I saw him interact with his brothers kids, other people’s children, and at one point my own girlfriend’s kids. I got to spend a day at Neverland with them. A completely incredible human being, always looking for a way to make all children’s lives better. Every weekend at Neverland was donated to a different children’s group – children with AIDS, children cancer, etc., and most of the time he wasn’t there.
He was simply living the childhood he never had. In many ways he never grew up.
I was assisting Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis while they recorded the background vocals for “Scream” with MJ and Janet. The two of them singing together was amazing. Super tight, no bad notes. One part after another. When they took a break they sang the showtunes they used to sing as kids. Again, perfect harmony. Mj refused to sing the “stop f*ckin’ with me part” because he would NOT curse.
I was the tape op for the recording of the background vocals on “Stranger in Moscow”. Scared the hell out me. Michael was dropping in and out on syllables, rearranging the notes and timing as he put it down. No Pro Tools at the time, just 2″ tape, and my punches.
I erased a live keyboard overdub that he played one night. He came in the next morning, replaced it, and never uttered another word about it.
I was there when Lisa Marie was around. They acted like two kids in love. Held hands all the time, and she hung out at the studio for quite a while. I never questioned their love for each other.
We recorded a Christmas song during the summer of ’94 that needed a children’s choir. Michael insisted that the entire studio be decorated with xmas lights, tree, fake snow and a sled for their recording. And he bought presents for everyone.
The last weekend of recording on HIStory he came to me and Eddie Delena, and said “I’m sorry, but I don’t think any of us are going to sleep this weekend. There’s a lot to get done, and we have to go to Bernie on Monday morning”. He stayed at the studio the entire time, singing, and mixing. I got to spend a couple quiet moments with him during that time. We talked about John Lennon one night as he was gearing up to sing the last vocal of the record – the huge ad libs at the end of “Earth Song”. I told him the story of John singing “Twist and Shout” while being sick, and though most people think he was screaming for effect, it was actually his voice giving out. He loved it, and then went in to sing his heart out. . . .
Later that night, while mixing, everyone left the room so MJ could turn it up. This was a common occurrence during the mixes, and I was left in the room with ear plugs, and hands over my ears, in case he needed something. This particular night, all the lights were out and we noticed some blue flashes intermittently lighting up the room during playback. After a few moments we could see that one of the speakers (custom quad augspuergers) was shooting blue flames. MJ liked this and proceeded to push all the faders up . . . .
MJ liked hot water while he was singing. I mean really hot !!!!! It got to the point that I would melt plastic spoons to test it.
Bruce and I were talking about walking to the studio everyday in NYC, and what routes we took. Michael looked at us and said we were so lucky to be able to do that. He couldn’t walk down the street without being harassed. It was a sad moment for all of us.
The studio crew got free tickets to the Janet show so we all went right from work one night. About halfway through the show we see this dude with a long beard, dressed in robes dancing in the aisle behind. I mean really dancing . . . it was Mj in disguise. Kind of like the costume Chevy Chase wears in Fletch while roller skating.
He got one of the first playstations from Sony in his lounge . . . we snuck in late at night to play the games that hadn’t been released yet.
A couple people on the session hadn’t seen Jurassic Park while it was out, so MJ arranged a private screening for us at Sony.
He was a huge fan of Nine Inch Nails Downward Spiral . . . .
I was lucky enough over the course of 3 years to have access to the multitrack masters for tour prep, videos, and archive purposes. To be able to pull these tracks apart was a huge lesson in production, and songwriting. A chance to look into the minds of geniuses.
Of all the records I’ve worked on, MJJ was the only company to give platinum award records.
One day we just all sat in the studio listening to his catalog with him for inspiration. He loved the process, he loved the work.
“As a producer, this is the song… ANOTHER PART OF ME. Just admire the instrumentation. It’s so funky and it’s got instruments doing these intricate patterns, and it doesn’t have a chorus-chorus. It’s the setup. That’s the best pre-chorus ever written. And then the pay off is ‘It’s just another part of me.’ The song shows why Michael is the King.”
The MJCast: To celebrate The MJCast’s 100th episode, Jamon and Q put the focus back on music and welcome a particularly special guest, Brad Buxer. Buxer was one of Michael Jackson’s key artistic collaborators, who worked with Jackson from the Dangerous album onwards, and who would become one of his closest producers, musicians, and songwriters. Along with Michael Prince, there was no one else who Michael Jackson trusted more to capture his most personal creative visions.
The guys dive into an incredible in-depth discussion with Buxer about his early life and music career, how he came to work with Jackson, creating the Dangerous, HIStory and Invincible albums, acting as Musical Director for both Dangerous and HIStory World Tours, what it was like playing music and writing songs with Jackson, insights into Jackson’s life as a father, details about working together in the final years of Jackson’s life, Buxer’s thoughts on unreleased tracks, and much more:
Interview with the Dance Cast of CAPTAIN EO, Starring Michael Jackson
The amazing thing, I was only meant to be on the film, the project for three days and it turned out to be like three and a half weeks, almost a month of filming and the thing I took from it the most was watching Michael Jackson perform at performance level in his rehearsals. I said ‘wow that’s the consummate artist right there, that’s the pinnacle of where I would like to go and the kind of skills I would like to have as an artist that I can come and my rehearsals are performances, you know. So, I took that from him and that’s what I’ve been trying, to be consistent with in my work as well.”
All In Your Name [Official Music Video] - Michael Jackson Feat. Barry Gibb 
“Michael wanted to revolutionize the way tours were being done. He was always thinking like a great producer, too. He was telling us we needed to design a way to maximize the audience that could see him with less travel time for him and the company. So, he proposed setting up the show for 2 or 3 months in a single location, make that portal, as opposed to being on a plane, jumping from city to city twice a week. Just as he did on the History Tour, when we went to Northern Africa. The idea was to get up in a region that was struggling and could really benefit economically from having us there. Everything Michael did came from a place of love and commitment to do good. That’s the way he was with us working on the show. You felt like you were being nurtured, constantly stimulated and encouraged to come up with the best ideas in a collective situation. And that’s where his art was coming from. His concept was not just to make a great song you could dance to. His way was to reel you in and get your attention so then you’d get the deep message. That was the science to it. That’s why his music transcended generations, appealed to children and older people…everyone.”
Travis Payne about Michael Jackson’s This Is It Tour Plans
Keith Harris - Michael Jackson Flew Us Out To A Castle In Ireland:
“I do know that in his life he would struggle with being so well known, that was sort of a constant struggle throughout his life. But I do have to say, I spent a lot of time with Michael alone on set, he and I had a lot of scenes together and he taught me so much. He was so dedicated. We would go through – before we even shot he and I would spend sometimes like half an hour together just improving, ’cause he was so committed to it.”
“Michael was magic, pure and simple. He was a man who believed in the goodness of mankind and embodied pure unconditional love for the world. I am so sad on so many levels. For the loss of an innovative genius and who was music and dance personified, for the loss of a man who loved the whole world and touched so many lives, but mostly, for me personally, the loss of a friend that I loved so dearly. Most people don’t know about how close I was to Michael for many years following ‘Moonwalker/Smooth Criminal’ because I was never one to exploit that, even to this day I rarely talk about it, for that was a friendship that I honored and respected as private. I feel compelled at this time though, to speak of my amazing friend, as a witness to his life, and the gentleness of his soul. He taught me so much, both as an actor and as a person, he continually inspired me to reach beyond my boundaries. He and I spent a great deal of time, one on one, while filming ‘Moonwalker.’ I remember that he told me once to never rush an emotion, that everything in life has a rhythm, and that it is the pauses and silences that speak the truth. He understood this better than anyone, he had a way of quietly inspiring everyone around him to be better than ever thought they could be. He helped so many, and inspired us all. Michael believed in Magic, he believed that we could change the world, and he had such unconditional love that when you were around him, you couldn’t help but believe it too. He is intertwined in all of who I am, I became a dancer because of him, I became an artist because he inspired me to dream, and a writer because he taught me the power of moving people through words and actions. I love you my friend, and I know you are in a better place, we were blessed to have you for as long as we did.
Kelley Parker who was the young girl in Michael Jackson’s 1988 movie Moonwalker. From 2009 interview.
In The Studio With Michael Jackson
Immerse Yourself in Recording Studio Magic
Experience Michael Jackson in the recording studio, at the very heart of his creative process.
You’ll hear music and behind-the-scenes stories. You’ll see video and photographs. You’ll learn how Michael interacted with his team and how they combined focus and discipline with creativity, fun, and food.
Learn how Michael wrote songs, and how they progressed from the original demo to the album version. Brad will explain and demonstrate how the songs changed and progressed along the way, as they were edited, remixed and restructured for various dance mixes, short films and live tours.
Discover Michael’s vision and exacting standards for the sound and video systems at Neverland Valley Ranch – including his dance studio and personal listening systems – to give his family and guests an incredible experience.
All of this takes place inside an actual recording studio, for a full multi-sensory experience that will leave you feeling as if you were really there. Each seminar is limited to an intimate group of people, so you can ask questions and share conversation with Brad and other guests.
MJ recording in studio: