In The Studio With Michael Jackson: A MUST for fans of the King of Pop

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Last week, at Smash Studios in midtown New York, Michael Jackson’s long-time studio technician Brad Sundberg held two seminars, entitled “In The Studio With Michael Jackson”. Today I am bringing you some fascinating details from within those seminars which I hope will do the experience justice and encourage fans to attend future sessions.

For those who already intend on going to one (or more) of the future seminars – some of which are being planned for Orlando, Paris and Los Angeles – and would prefer to keep the details of the presentation a surprise; I suggest you stop reading now. For those who don’t intend on attending; keep reading. This article may very well change your mind.

Brad Sundberg was fortunate enough to have experienced musical greatness first-hand. Over the course of eighteen years, between 1985 and 2002, Sundberg worked intimately with the King of Pop; including on four albums, numerous short films, remixes and even on projects at Jackson’s Neverland Ranch.

Before the seminar officially begins Brad meets and greets the group with a smile and a handshake, while classic Michael Jackson tracks play in the background. Everyone then checks in, receiving a nice “In The Studio With Michael Jackson” travel mug, day bag/backpack, and a bottle of water. For obvious reasons, all phones, cameras and any other potential recording devices are surrendered. Once that’s been done it’s time for school; MJ school.

Brad opens with a quick informational about himself and his career. “He has a great way of talking,” commented one fan who attended, explaining that rather than using a schedule or reading from a script, he takes a more down-to-earth, off-the-cuff type of approach.

“He first and foremost says something to the effect of, ‘I’m just a regular tech guy. I was in the right place at the right time’,” recalls an attendee. “He told us, ‘I started as a “runner” getting burgers and coffee for the team’.”

He then introduces his daughter, Amanda, who operates a sound board and computer with audio and video samples at the ready. They have a cute banter between them. Brad is always asking her to cue the next fascinating clip he has in store to his audience. She’s always trying to keep her dad on course in an attempt to deliver all the information, tell all the stories, show all the video, and play all the audio within the allocated four hours – which ultimately, they couldn’t – even though the seminar went longer than it was scheduled to. Brad kept saying, “I just have to tell this 30 second story first.”

After all, he has so many!

The atmosphere in the studio was great. All in attendance had an amazing seat and view of the projector screen, which was quite large; probably six by six feet. You could pay more for a VIP pass, which allowed you priority entry and a seat in the first rows. VIP attendees also had the privilege of spending an additional hour or so with Brad where you could get more information, ask questions and even share Michael’s favourite meal.

Fans, of which there were approximately forty in total, were eager, hanging on Brad’s every word.

He brought along a fourteen-layer digital multitrack of “Bad” and spent fifteen minutes playing with it, showcasing Michael singing leads and backgrounds separately. He isolated, the horns and even David Williams on guitar.

“He created the most amazing remix right in front of your eyes. It was thrilling,” said one of the attendees.

Fans learned that the uptempo tracks recorded for the “Bad” album were originally around nine minutes in length and required some major trimming for the album. Once trimmed, the edits were sped up by 6% before being made public. The purpose of speeding the mixes up was to bring more excitement to them. As a result Michael’s voice sounded ever so slightly higher on the final album versions. Brad preferred the originals, pre-speeding them up.

Brad told the tale of recording the spoken intro to “I Just Can’t Stop Loving You”. They built a microphone into the head of a mannequin, which Brad showed the audience. To record the intro Michael hopped into a bed with the mannequin and spoke into its head. Brad wasn’t a fan of the results and radio and club DJs hated it, so they removed it from the next pressing.

Michael & Brad in the studio

Michael, being a perfectionist, was never satisfied with the “Bad” album. In fact, after they kicked of the Bad Tour, as they worked on radio edits, singles and dance mixes, they kept amended the album. Brad said that the version of “Bad” that came out in August 1987 was not exactly the same as the version that was issued merely months later. They just kept working on it; perfecting it.

Brad played three versions of “Streetwalker”, a track which was considered for the “Bad” album but was ultimate pipped at the post by “Another Part Of Me”, back-to-back. One was the version we know, from the 2001 “Bad” Special Edition and subsequent 2012 “Bad 25” release. The other two were different, featuring an eerie ‘Wild West’ style intro and different ad libs.

Brad personally preferred “Streetwalker” over “Another Part Of Me”, as did Michael.

The completion of the “Bad” album and world tour in 1989 saw a changing of the guard in regards to the direction Michael wanted to take with his music. For starters, Quincy Jones would not serve as head producer on his newest studio venture. Instead, Michael spread the creative duties between a combination of collaborators; some new and some old.

Sundberg was invited back, as were the old firm Bruce Swedien, Bill Bottrell and Matt Forger. New on the scene was talented musician Brad Buxer.

The early sessions in 1989 and 1990 saw Michael working with producer Brian Loren. However, as the album evolved, Loren was seemingly phased out, being replaced by ‘New Jack Swing’ producer Teddy Riley.

As work on the project heated up the collaborative sessions became quite competitive. There were three studios in action at once; one headed by Bill Bottrell, one by Bruce Swedien and one by Teddy Riley. Brad would drift between Bottrell’s studio and Swedien’s, but wasn’t required in Riley’s. Michael would frequent between all three, often arriving with comments to rev the teams up. “Oh boy they got some smelly jelly going on in there,” he would tell the rival production groups, just to make sure they were on their toes.

Every team wanted their songs on the album.

Members of the group Toto were involved in much of Michael Jackson’s musical journey, including varying contributions to “Thriller”, “Bad”, “Dangerous” and even “History”. Steve Porcaro, a member of the group who had previously written the music to the song “Human Nature” from the “Thriller” album in 1982, had contributed a track that he hoped would make the cut of Michael’s latest endeavour.

The new track, “For All Time”, for which Michael recorded a demo in May of 1990, was Porcaro’s answer to “Human Nature”, eight years later. Brad explained that Steve would say, “Brad, I gotta get this on the album,” to which Brad would respond with something to the effect of, “As if I have any pull!”

“It was as if getting a song on a Michael Jackson album made you a millionaire all over again,” opined a fan. And it probably would have.

Michael, of course, loved the songs that he had personally written. They were his babies. But, if you could get his attention, if he fell in love with a song of yours, there was every chance it would make the final track list. Michael knew what he liked and he knew what would work.

Siedah Garrett is one songwriter who had been lucky enough to land a song on a Michael Jackson album.

In 1987, Michael recorded a rendition of her track “Man In The Mirror”, which she had co-written with Glen Ballard. The song ultimately featured on the “Bad” album, and following its release as a single in early 1988, shot to the top of the charts around the world, giving them a #1 hit on the Billboard Hot 100.

For his next new project, which would eventually become the “Dangerous” album, Michael was to record a piece he had co-written with Siedah and Glen; a gospel-driven track called “Keep The Faith”.

In the seminar Brad shared an amazing story about the recording of the track:

Michael loved “Keep The Faith” and always intended to include it in the new album. Michael and the team worked very hard, long hours on preparing the track, the music, everything. However, when belting out the final vocal, something happened that threw the entire song out of whack; Michael’s voice cracked.

Brad had never heard Michael’s voice crack before. Michael was really taken aback and got upset about it. Because his voice was cracking, the pitch of the song would need to be dropped in order for Michael to deliver the vocals the way he wanted to.

Everyone was supportive, and they started over.

The final version that we all know and love from the “Dangerous” album, Brad recalled, is Michael delivering the track as if to say “I’m sorry” and “Thank you.” He said you can hear it in his voice.

Brad told that Michael always had scalding, almost-boiling Evian water in the studio; for his voice. Michael would warm up for two hours before a session with his famous vocal coach, Seth Riggs. Brad missed that stuff the most, he said – just taking for granted Michael warming up, doing scales, or moonwalking in circles while they worked on something.

He broke down and got emotional a couple times throughout. Although Brad and Michael were professional colleagues; they were also close friends. Michael loved and trusted Brad, and Brad felt the same, repaying Michael with unconditional loyalty throughout the years.

Brad loved the feeling of the studio because it was a “dark cave”, like he, Michael and the team worked in back in the day. Sometimes Brad would ask if he could turn the lights all the way down because that’s how Michael recorded; with just a single light for the music stand.

Sometimes, however, the lack of light backfired in the studio. For example; whilst recording the original demo for “Dangerous”, Michael attempted to move the wall behind him. Unfortunately the legs became unstable and the wall ended up falling straight on Michael’s head. You can actually hear the incident unfold in the beginning of the demo (see below) which was ultimately released on “The Ultimate Collection” in 2004.

Michael and the team continued to record for approximately an hour and a half after he was struck by the wall. When they wrapped the session Brad called the doctor, who advised that Michael should be professionally assessed for concussion. In the “Bad” and “Dangerous” sessions security was pretty loose. There wasn’t really anyone around, other than the technicians, and Michael. So, Brad drove Michael to the hospital himself, in his little old car.

Attendees were treated to a number of exclusive pieces of Michael Jackson magic through the course of the seminars – things that have never circulated the fan community.

One item was a two hour audio recording Brad has of the collaborative session in which “Give In To Me” was conceived.

Originally “Give In To Me” was being drafted as a dance track, with a drum beat programmed to play while Michael (on vocals) and Bill Bottrell (electric guitar) jammed, ad libbed and figured out the melody. However, over the course of the two hour recording, the song evolved into the form that it was eventually released in. Michael realised it was not meant to be a dance track. The music took a direction of its own, and the pair ended up with a rock song. Brad shared portions of the the two hours, which he had personally trimmed down to around twelve minutes. Brad feels the world needs to hear this type of thing.

“Boots Groove” was an unreleased demo that Brad shared with the group. “It really sounded similar to ‘Get On The Floor’,” commented a fan. “That Brothers Johnson bass line.” Another unreleased track that Brad let one group hear is being referred to by fans as “Faces”.

He played the “Don’t Stop Till You Get Enough” demo too, which was just Michael and the drummer doing percussion. “The bottles and drums were thrilling.”

Another great exclusive was ten minutes of personal video Brad shot of Michael and Sean Lennon experimenting with a theremin (musical instrument) during the HIStory sessions. Michael really is a big kid in the footage. He’s just having a blast, wide-eyed and giggling as if he had not a worry in the world.

But perhaps the most special moment was the full-length video of Michael in the studio singing “Childhood” live with the NY Philharmonic. “It’s truly breathtaking,” beamed a fan who was lucky enough to have witnessed it. Michael can be seen in a soundproof room of glass, standing behind a huge room with the New York Philharmonic Orchestra and their conductor, giving Michael cues and entrances.

His vocals are incredible. He sounds amazing, and does this interesting “voice clear” away from the microphone between difficult phrases – which they edited out, of course. When the sweeping orchestra comes in mid-song – “Have you seen my childhood? Dah dah dah dah dahh dahhhh” – Michael is conducting, triumphantly swinging his arms saying, “Yes! Yes!” He grabs the sky and pulls down like a child. You’ll never see Michael look happier. He looked great, grinning from ear to ear. Truly amazing stuff.

The orchestra playing through “Earth Song” is also thrilling. “It sounds like Tchaikovsky or Brahms,” said one fan. “You almost don’t recognize MJ’s art in it.”

There’s also a great gospel “vocal warm up” with the Andrae Crouch choir for “They Don’t Care About Us”. They’re in a circle, singing a capella; “They don’t care, they don’t care. They. Don’t. Care. About us. They. Don’t. Care. About us!” It’s fabulous.

Brad apologized during the seminar, saying he can’t imagine how many priceless lyric sheets, music sheets and things of Michael’s that he just swept off the music stand into the trash when they were done. But he said, in hindsight, if he had kept every thing, every item, he would have been a fan and not a co-worker. And if he were just a fan then he wouldn’t have belonged in the room with Bruce Swedien, Bill Botrell, Matt Forger, Teddy Riley, Rod Temperton, and Michael Jackson.

“One of the best things about the seminar was that it was held in an authentic recording studio,” said one attendee.

Michael always said, “Hurt me! Bring the volume up to 11,” and that’s what Brad did. Out of courtesy he did ask the group if anyone wanted the volume to be lowered, but everyone said, “No!” The audio and video examples were played loud and clear. It was amazing. The bass, horns, strings; everything was played on an array of amazing hi-fi speakers. “You really got to examine the music.”

“This was $150 and exceeded my expectations,” concluded one fan. “Four hours in the studio with no cameras, no video or recorders allowed in. It was school for four hours and he could have gone on. The fans wanted to keep going or attend another one. Brad is a true ally of Michael’s.”

So, enough from me regarding the contents of the seminar. After all, this is not intended as an event spoiler, but more of an appetiser to encourage fans to attend. Reading about the details and experiencing the magic in person are two completely incomparable things. And each seminar is different, so you’re bound to learn something new at each and every session.

For more information and updates on future seminars, visit the “In The Studio With Michael Jackson” Facebook page here: facebook.com/inthestudiowithmichaeljackson

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