Russ Ragsdale Career Reminiscence
It's hard for me to believe that over 20 years have passed since I first met Bruce Swedien, Michael Jackson and Quincy Jones. I remember specifically thinking in 1987 when I was just beginning my professional career in music, "I wonder what I’m going to be doing 20 years from now, just how all of this music will play out." Well, I'm here to tell everyone my career turned out just fine and I wouldn't change a thing about how it unfolded. My story is an interesting one; please let me tell you how it all started and how much of a mentor Bruce Swedien has been in my life.
I was bitten by the music bug upon buying my first album, Meet The Beatles. At the time I was a pretty shy kid and when my parents saw how music was affecting me, they bought me an electric guitar and enrolled me into lessons by the second grade. Little did they know that music would be my career of choice. I was never a very good student in school. However while on a holiday break years later, I discovered that those report cards included in the childhood memorabilia my mom had saved in her attic all had a common thread. The back of every report card had teachers’ comments: “If Russ would concentrate on his studies as much as he concentrates on art and music, he'd probably be a pretty good student." Well, that discovery made me puff my chest out and say "yeah!"
In 1982, a friend suggested I get a 4–track tape machine, which I did and still have as sort of a memento. It was after writing and recording tons of songs with my friends that I discovered I enjoyed engineering more than being a musician. I could hardly see the carpet on the floor for all of the cables running everywhere, and knew I needed to do something about that. I went directly from my 4-track to getting up the courage to knock on the door of the local 24–track studio in my hometown of Tyler, Texas. I spent a couple of years helping out with the recording of music primarily used for radio and television commercials. This satisfied me for a while, but I wanted to record real songs, with real artists, and just instinctively knew that Los Angeles was where I needed to be.
Here's where my story gets pretty interesting. I knew absolutely no one in Los Angeles; I just knew that this was where I was supposed to be. In 1986 I loaded up my truck and a U–Haul and headed west. I'd just figure it out once I got there. I had just enough money in my pocket to pay my rent two months in advance (later I found out Michael Jackson owned the apartment I was living in), but after that, I was going to need a job. So I started knocking on studio doors, just cold calling. Fortunately, I found that everyone I talked to was very nice and encouraging, which helped me keep my spirits up. After three weeks I started getting several offers. I was feeling pretty good about an interview I’d had with Westlake Audio in Hollywood, and finally my prayers were answered. Westlake Audio thought I would be an asset to their studios and Michael Jackson's Bad album would end up being my very first gig in LA! I swear it wasn't any harder than following a dream, but more importantly putting that dream into action.
The album project had just started, but Michael was in New York shooting the video for Bad while work was still in progress at Westlake studio D. I first met Bruce, then Quincy. Very soon after that I met Michael, and for the next two years we rolled up our shirt sleeves and made the most fantastic album that I've ever been involved with, still to this day. It was sink or swim – I was thrown into the deep end of the pool. Luckily I'm a pretty good swimmer. Back then, I didn't even know what questions to ask. It all makes more sense to me now, but man, was I ever at the right place to learn! It didn't dawn on me until months after finishing the Bad album just how big a piece of history that album would become and how it would be embraced around the world. What a thrill to witness all of those soon–to–be #1 songs being crafted track by track.
One of the things I quickly noticed about Bruce's sessions is how he and Quincy got the best performances out of people. I've seen the fear of stepping up to the plate just disappear with an embrace of encouragement. Love is everywhere; everyone is family and truly loved. I think Bruce is well aware of the effect good, positive influence has on raw passion.
One of my fears was that I knew there would come a day that it would be just Michael and I in the same room, one on one. I had rehearsed it in the mirror over and over; just what was I going to say to this guy? Well, that day game, and what was probably seconds seemed like a very long time. Catering had arrived at the studio and here Michael and I were standing by ourselves. I was looking at the floor and said to myself, "this is it, this is what I've been afraid of. I'm going to have to break the ice." I took a big deep breath and raised my hand to speak and… Wham! I got hit with a handful of corn! I thought, "Oh no, this is going to be war." I picked up some pickles and threw them at Michael, then he threw something else and it went back and forth for a while. We were laughing so hard (I had to clean it all up later, of course), but for three weeks we couldn’t look at each other without laughing. What a great way for him to make me feel at ease. Michael really had a great sense of humor; he just loved seeing people do a Three Stooges act and fumble all over themselves. I wish there were more people in the world like Michael Jackson. He was truly one amazing human being.
Although Bruce has a set of rules – "screw up once and you're out of here" – I've never seen anyone fail him. Bruce is so detail–oriented and his instructions are so specific, it almost makes it impossible to fail. Having said that, Bruce has a special gift of delegating duties to other people in order to make them feel like they’re a very much appreciated part of the process. Heck, I think he even pulls the janitor aside and makes him feel like this thing wouldn't fly if it weren't for his contribution.
The musicianship, textures, orchestration and drama on a Bruce/Quincy session is undeniably hand-picked from the best of the best. I remember standing next to Stevie Wonder as he laid down the most ripping synth solo I'd ever heard on “Just Good Friends." My jaw just about hit the floor when Stevie said, "Bruce can you just burn that one and give me another?" Just about any other engineer would try to save the first take, but later it dawned on me: with Stevie Wonder at the keyboard, you're going to be in pretty good hands. I once heard someone ask Bruce a question regarding how he would deal with a singer who had the tendency to sing off key a bit, and his response was, "get a better singer." It's no wonder where Bruce is in his career, with the company he keeps.
I have learned a lot from Bruce about what illusions can be created with music. If I were using a 4-track machine, I'd make you believe I was using a 16-track; if I were using a 24-track, I’ll create the illusion it's 48 tracks, and so forth. This was also my first exposure to using multiple bass and snare drums in the same piece of music. Everything gets recorded in super-duper STEREO. At one point during the making of Bad (on “Smooth Criminal"), I saw two Mitsubishi 32-track X-850 digital machines, one Studer 24-track, and a one-inch 16-track machine, all synchronized together to play in sync. Bruce's tracks are so well crafted that what he's taught me to do makes the faders feel different, the stereo buss act differently, and the dynamics act differently and it all translates into smiles on the clients' faces as wide as the Grand Canyon. What an experience!
Bruce taught me how to trust my own feelings and not pay so much attention to what other people are doing. Copying sounds from records that you like is third or fourth hand information by the time you hear the final product. Trust what’s in your heart and get out there on the cutting edge, because that’s where all the fun is. He taught me to pay close attention to goosebumps; they don’t lie. Often when I'm working at a home studio, I’ll just close my eyes and reference back to what that big studio sound was all about. I'll literally transport myself back to Westlake Studio D. I've even been known to get on a plane and go back there just to play the current record I've been working on, just for one last final check.
When it comes to technology, Bruce always reminds me that if you have one microphone, one mic pre, EQ, a pan pot and a fader, you can make a hit record. One of the most important things Bruce and Quincy taught me that still gets used every day in my life is the importance of a strong melody in a song. Those guys can carve out a melody with just the hi-hat! Is breathtaking. I live in Nashville now, and we use the term "legendary songwriter" pretty loosely around here. If you look at the songs Michael Jackson has written, he redefines just what "legendary" is really all about.
I'm very much looking forward to what’s around the next corner. Something big always happens musically to mark the end of each decade. I think it’s anybody's ball game. Country music saw all-time peaks in much of the 90s; however the pop scene is gaining strength once again and the new alternative rock bands are all doing fine. These are exciting times we live in. Bruce's presence in what I've learned and share with other dedicated listeners of great music will assure them an exciting ride for decades to come.