A Look Back At The Creation Of Michael Jackson's Thriller

 

Michael Jackson’s Thriller may be the most significant piece of recorded music in human history. On the first day of recording, producer Quincy Jones walked into the studio and said “OK guys, we’re here to save the recorded music industry.”

And then they did.

35 years on, Thriller is the still best-selling album of all time. At its peak, it sold more than 1 million copies per week. Since its release, it's sold an estimated 66 million copies in America, and over 105 million worldwide.

In light of the title track's horror film-like lyrics and the album's upcoming anniversary, we decided to take a look at what it took to create a modern masterpice.

Production
Released Nov 30, 1982 by Epic Records, Thriller was Jackson’s sixth studio album. It blended pop, rock, dance, and funk, and allowed Jackson to explore darker themes like paranoia and the supernatural.

In a 2007 interview with Ebony magazine, Jackson said, “I wanted to make an album where every song was a killer.”

Only 24 at the time, Jackson wrote 4 of the 9 songs for the album himself; "Wanna Be Startin' Somethin'", "The Girl Is Mine", "Beat It”, and "Billie Jean”. The others were penned by songwriter Rod Temperton.

Producer Quincy Jones worked with Temperton to select the perfect songs for the project. In his 2001 autobiography, Q: The Autobiography of Quincy Jones, he said, "Rod Temperton and I listened to nearly 600 songs before picking out a dozen we liked.”

Thriller was recorded by Bruce Swedien at Westlake Recording Studios in LA, with a budget of $750,000. That’s over $1.8 million in 2017. Making one of the greatest records of all time isn’t cheap, or easy. The entire production team worked around the clock. In an interview with the BBC, Quincy said, "They would carry the second engineers out on stretchers. And the musicians too. Bruce and I... would stay up for 5 days, 5 nights. The passion drives you.”

Of course, it wasn’t all fun and games. According to Jackson, "Quincy was a perfectionist. He always asked for another take.” Quincy would often get frustrated with Jackson for spending so much time rehearsing his dance moves. But underneath all of the tension, Quincy was like a father, or a big brother to Michael.

Quincy: "I called Michael 'Smelly' because when he liked a piece of music or a certain beat, instead of calling it funky, he'd call it 'smelly jelly.' When it was really good, he'd say, 'That's some smelly jelly.' I said, 'Smelly, it's getting late. Let's do it.'"

Recording
The recording process for Thriller was remarkable, even for a legend like Bruce Swedien. In an interview from 2009, he said, "Michael was not an ordinary vocalist or an ordinary singer. I don't think I ever saw Michael with the lyrics in front of him. He'd always been up the night before memorizing the lyrics and he sang the songs from memory.”

Bruce also recalls Quincy Jones telling him to "leave space for God to walk through the room.” He clarified by saying Quincy "wanted to leave an opportunity for the unexpected to happen.” That became the underlying philosophy of the Thriller sessions.

In a 2009 interview with Future Music, Swedien detailed some of the techniques that made it onto the record, like his custom kick drum cover:

"I had a kick drum cover made. I used to take the front head of the kick drum off and place a couple of real heavy cinder blocks inside to hold it still and weight it. Then, I'd put this cover on and the mic goes inside through a zipper opening in the cover, then you zip it up tight and turn it on and the rest is history.”

Although some of Swedien’s methods were experimental, some of them were tried and true. Vocals for the entire album were recorded through a Shure SM7 (serial number 232), a Neve 1084 preamp, and an EMT 250 reverb — with all of the lights turned off.

Swedien: “The human being is primarily a visual animal, hearing is our second sense. People can be distracted by too much light in the studio to the extent that it can take away from the music.”

In an interview with Music Radar, Bruce recalls his drum tracking methods, specifically for “Billie Jean”:

Kick: Sennheiser MD421
Snare: Shure SM57
Hat: RCA 77DX
Toms: Neumann U 67
Overheads: Neumann U 67 pair

Swedien: "I had a wall of gobos set around the drums which helped the separation quite a bit."

The drums weren’t the only thing they experimented with, though. While recording vocals overdubs for "Billie Jean", Jackson sang through a six-foot-long cardboard tube. (Listen for the “Don’t think twice!” line on the left.)

"Beat It" was the last song recorded for the album. After finishing the others, Quincy still felt that the album was missing something. He asked Michael to write a “ghetto rock and roll song” inspired by The Knacks’ “My Sharona”, and “Beat It” was born.

Swedien says the intro synth was a stock Synclavier patch, which he and Quincy argued against, but kept because Michael liked it.

Unfortunately, the guitar sound didn’t come so easily. Quincy and Swedien spent weeks trying to find on the perfect guitar tone. Something soft and subtle that would appeal to disco fans, but raw enough for a rock track. They eventually hired Steve Lukather of Toto to play rhythm, which was recorded with stereo Neumann U 67s in XY position.

The lead guitar was famously performed by Eddie Van Halen. Of course, he nailed it in three or four takes. Which is good, because he played so loud he literally set the studio monitors on fire. Maybe that’s why Quincy never paid him...

Mixing
After they finished the record, the production team was surprisingly somber. No one was happy with the way the tracks had turned out, so they decided to re-mix every single song. They spent an entire week on each track.

Swedien: “We wanted the sonic values of Thriller to really recharge the industry.”

In an interview with Sound on Sound, Swedien discussed his mixing process for Thriller:

"If you go back to the recordings I made with Michael, my big worry was that if those tapes got played repeatedly, the transient response would be minimised. I heard many recordings of the day that were very obviously done that way, and there were no transients left on those tapes. So what I would do would be to record the rhythm section on a 24‑track tape, then take that tape and put it away and wouldn't play it again until the final mix. And — holy cow — what a difference that made! It was just incredible.”

Quincy: "Bruce liked to record our rhythm tracks on sixteen-track tape, then go to digital to get that fat, analog rhythm sound that we all loved and called "big legs and tight skirts.”

Some songs came easier than others. Bruce Swedien did 91 different mixes of “Billie Jean.” It was a constant quest for perfection. Quincy Jones said they "did the final mixes up until nine o'clock in the morning of the deadline. We had three studios going at once.“  Little did they know, they had already found it. They ended up going with mix #2, and submitting the record on November 8, 1982 — just 22 days before it was released.

Impact
They had done it. They had finally made a record that “made people want to go to the record stores again,” and “saved the recorded music industry.” Thriller set world records for sales, Grammy awards (8, including Album of the Year in 1984), and radio play. Not to mention it changed MTV forever, and paved the way for dozens of future artists.

Thriller has been a part of our pop culture for over 30 years. It’s a part of our weddings, our Halloween parties, and even our prisons. It’s a truly timeless record that stands as a testament songwriting, producing, engineering, and music as we know it.

For no mere mortal can resist,
The evil of the Thriller.

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