NOTE: I need to start this post off by saying it was months and months ago that I approached Brad Sundberg to bring his seminar to Toronto, it was just a “Pie in the Sky” dream and never in a million years did I think it would happen. Brad let me know what we needed to do and connected me with another MJ fan who was interested in making it happen as well. We contacted each other and the rest is history. We made it happen because it was so important to us. That being said, it was worth every tweet, every post, every email, every poster we taped to trees and cement posts to get the information that Brad has stored away in his head, on audio on video, etc. Thank you Brad for making our dream come true.
Michael Jackson was definitely in the building! On November 23, 2013 in D.C. Studios in Toronto, Canada, Brad Sundberg brought his fantastic seminar “In the Studio with MJ” to our fair city on a cold and snowy day. Brad is a remarkably kind, generous, and humble man. He greeted and introduced himself to every attendee as they walked in (he would step away from setting up his equipment just to come over and shake hands) and I know all of us were pleasantly surprised by the gesture.
To our great surprise, we also had the incredible honour of having Joe Vogel attend the seminar driving all the way from Rochester, New York. An added bonus for us all. He, too, is a very kind and humble man and very happy to accommodate all the fans. Joe seemed to just enjoy the music and insights that Brad was offering and every so often Brad would ask “Is this your take on it Joe?”, it was usually a “yes, that’s right”. Joe was there to learn and listen just like the rest of us.
In 1985, Brad got his first job as a “runner” at his first music studio and met Michael Jackson while he was working on Captain EO, the first true surround sound movie. He would see him walking down the halls while he was getting coffee, cheeseburgers, vacuuming and even holding Bubbles. He did anything he could to get himself into the music industry, something he always loved. He was a 19-year-old who wanted to get into the business and was dying to make his mark. He got that chance when he grew from being a runner to an engineer. Bruce Swedien was Michael’s primary engineer and with the approval of Michael, Bruce invited Brad to sit in on the “Bad” recording sessions. As Brad says, “I was still learning my way around the studio, and it was an honour to be asked to sit in and watch, learn and help on the “Bad” album”.
The business relationship between Michael and Brad changed when Michael brought a book about the Sycamore Valley Ranch to the studio during the recording of Bad and MJ later hired Brad to do some sound technical work at Neverland. There were no birds at Neverland so Michael wanted the sound of birds, chirping and tweeting piped into the grounds. Brad was also asked to pipe music into every single ride and every corner of the ranch, even in the train. There was music everywhere but never Michael’s, as he insisted it not be his. It was classical or Disney songs and occasionally on the carousel, Childhood would play. The Zipper, Michael’s favourite ride, was his sister’s Janet’s music, particularly “Black Cat” and “Rhythm Nation”… two songs Michael loved.
Brad ended up working with Michael for 18 years and assisted on four studio albums “Bad”, “Dangerous”, “HIStory”, and “Blood On The Dance Floor.” Brad’s overall responsibility in the years with Michael was to have whatever recording studio Michael was working in to be up to Michael Jackson quality. Ever microphone, every patch-point, every machine and device in the studio had to tested and, if possible, calibrated to perfection. His involvement also included the involved in day-to-day recording, setting up microphones, headphones, booking studios, keeping tapes organized, getting Michael’s hot water ready for his vocals, even making coffee and even cleaning off jheri curl substance from microphone.
Scared of the Moon: Matt Forger and others had worked on the beautiful and mysterious song “Scared Of the Moon” for a very long time. Unfortunately for Matt, Michael asked for the original master with Michael’s voice so he could work on it. He gave him the original and kept the cassette, which were used at the time. The problem was “you never give anything to MJ, pens, papers, ANYTHING because you would never see it again,” says Brad. One day, Matt Forger got a phone call from Bruce Swedien and Michael asking to bring that original master of “Scared of the Moon” over to the studio so they could work on it. Unfortunately, because Matt had given it to Michael, he had to do something that should never be done and rarely ever works: he transferred the cassette to a master and then mixed it. Brad could never understand how it sounded so fantastic due to the way it was mixed. He personally feels it was Michael’s voice that makes it work and sounds so wonderful to this day.
Give In To Me: Brad presented us with Michael’s true creative process when he turned off all the lights in the studio. Brad believes that you must listen to any music in the dark, that way you have no distractions, you only listen and let the music take you away. Nothing could be more true when he turned on the audio of Michael, Brad and Bill Bottrell in a jam session creating “Give in to Me”. It started by Michael just talking with Bill while Brad played a simple programmed drum beat. Bill played while MJ began to ad lib, beat box, make some sounds and then slowly, because it took around 3 hours, you could hear these sounds morphing into this incredible song. You could hear it change and develop and we could feel Michael’s process flow through the room. This to me was one of the highlights of the seminar and something that will be forever cherished. To actually hear Michael create a song from just a programmed drum beat and a guitar was a dream come true. Michael always said “ Magic is created in the moment”and this proved it.
Childhood: A visual that Brad shared with us was the Andrae Crouch Choir warming up with a beautiful gospel song. Michael was listening in and smiling as they were singing in pitch perfect voices. Later on we saw Michael recording “Childhood” while the New York Philharmonic accompanied him in the studio. While singing this biographical song in this very small recording room, Michael had a look of pure joy on his face, because he knew he was “nailing it” and it showed in every movement he made, every note he sang, and a smile that was indescribable. You could see this song meant everything to him. While watching him sing you could see him take a breath and annunciate every single word…his face was perfect, never contorting, as you see some do when they hit a particular note, as it was so easy for him. When he finished, he clenched his fists and with complete excitement and release, muttered “yes”, walked out of the booth and the lights came on. It is said that the orchestra rose and gave him a standing ovation. I could see why.
Some very beautiful raw tracks of Michael’s work that were recorded before the release of the original songs were ever heard. These tracks sound much different in the studio than the final commercial tracks. To keep the “up/pop tempo”, these original tracks were sped up before ever being released. When hearing the original track, Michael’s voice was deeper, richer, and much more soulful than the commercial versions. They were incredible to listen to.
“I never made a pitch correction on Michael’s voice on the songs he worked on” Brad admitted. A testament to MJ’s beautiful voice and hard work as well as his true genius. It is something people tend to underestimate, the power and perfection of Michael’s pitch and the preparation he took to make that happen.
The wonderful memories of Brad seeing Michael in the corner of the room drinking his scalding water, preparing his voice with musical scales, and Brad, with a lump in his throat recalled a time when he was part of music history. Brad recalled a time where music was made without the bells and whistles, it was just Michael and the music. Only when he matured and nostalgia came rushing forward did he realize that he hadn’t really grieved; he shared his personal feelings with us and was very appreciative to bring these seminars to Michael’s fans. It was not until fans asked him to do this that he brought his experiences and memories to fruition. You could see that Brad misses those days and it is noted in his voice and the lumps in this throat that he gets when relating the innermost personal stories. Brad says, “I could write page after page of simple acts of kindness I have seen firsthand.” This tells you how MJ has touched every single person that he has worked with. Brad blessed us with his personal stories of Michael… we laughed and we cried but it was impossible not to feel a sense of love and understanding of how Michael was and what it was like to work with him. There was never anything too small that he wasn’t appreciative of. This is one story that proves the point:
Michael always had Cherry Chapstick lying around and he used it all the time. One day, Brad was driving to do some work at Neverland. He stopped by a 7-Eleven to purchase a few things and picked up a 3 pack of Cherry Chapstick. As he drove into Neverland, Michael was driving up on a golf cart towards him. They greeted each other and Brad said, “I have something for you Michael” and Michael replied with childlike excitement “What is it, What is it?! Brad handed him the Chapstick and said “Here you go Michael!”. Brad said he will never forget how appreciative he was. Michael said, “Brad, no one has ever done anything like this for me before, thank you so much”. It was only a $2.00 purchase but Michael was always so grateful for everything. Brad choked up while relaying this story and had us all in tears. This was Michael Jackson.
Amid the trials and the hate that sometimes occur around Michael, I felt a beautiful calm and love in every song that Brad played. It made me realize what Michael really wanted us all to know: it was his music that mattered, the integrity of it, the message of it, the magic he could create. Something happened to me in that seminar listening to that music, his spoken word, hearing his laughter and the personal stories and pictures that Brad shared, and I am so blessed to have been there. Thank you Brad for bringing Michael to us, even for a short time, and allowing us that sensitivity and heartfelt compassion that he had in everything he did.
Anyone that has a chance to see one of Brad’s seminars will be more than moved and grateful that they went. It is something that you will cherish for a lifetime. What is written above is only a small portion of what goes on in “In The Studio With MJ”. Go, be amazed and bask in Michael Jackson.
NOTE: Special thanks to @Coleen4MJ for her additional input into this article.