In Studio with Michael Jackson
by Rob Hoffman (Sounds 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.