Decoding The Mix: Thriller - Michael Jackson
Not much introduction is needed for the title track of Michael Jackson’s sixth studio album Thriller. Just a year after its release, it became the worlds best selling album and has since sold an estimated 66 million copies. As of August 2018, the song has sold 7.024 million copies in the US. Thriller picked up Best Pop Vocal Performance and Best Engineered Recording at the 26th Grammy Award Ceremony in 1983 (Jackson won 8 Grammys that night).
Thriller was written by songwriter Rod Temperton who wanted to create a theatrical song to suit Jackson's love of film. It was produced by musical genius and 28 time Grammy winner Quincy Jones and engineered by Bruce Swedien. Let’s unravel the production process to see what we can learn about this smash hit.
Recording The Vocals
Capturing an excellent performance always helps bring the best out in a song. Jackson had an approach that would get him in the zone and deliver his best when he was in front of the microphone.
He never had the lyrics in from of him when he was recording. He’d always make sure that he knew every word, and was confident in how he was going to sing every utterance. This meant that he was performing the vocals with every last drop of his focus. There was no wasted energy in reading or trying to remember a melody. The performance flowed out of him effortlessly.
He’d also spend an hour with his vocal coach warming-up before recording a single word. This meant he was at his best when the tape was rolling.
Swedien and Jones both have a history of synesthesia, which means they visualize colors when they hear sounds. This direct connection between audio and visual lead to Swedien keeping the lights low when recording helping Jackson focus on his performance and avoid visual stimulation from his surroundings.
Create an environment that brings out the best in your delivery when you’re capturing a performance.
One characteristic of Jackson’s sound is that the transients all sound incredible, and Thriller is no exception. It turns out engineer Swedien had a unique approach to dealing with tape that gives his mixes an edge over similar productions in that era. He worried that the rhythm section tapes would get played over and over, which would minimize the transient response. He’d heard this happen on many recordings around that time during the production process. So, he recorded the rhythm section on 24-track tape, and he wouldn’t play it again until the final mix, thus retaining the punch.
Swedien’s love and affinity for transients drive his disdain for over-compression and over-limiting. He never uses a compressor or limiter on the master bus as he wants to retain the detail in the hits. He believes over-compression is the biggest mistake in modern music and believes it sucks out all the excitement and color.
He manages volumes using automation and fader rides. He admits to owning two Universal Audio LA2A’s that he uses to tickle the signal, only ever compressing by one or two decibels at the most. He doesn’t like what happens to the sound when you compress any further, and that’s an approach that he never waivers on.
Tweaking Until It’s Ready
The album had a production budget of $750,000 (about $2 million in 2019 adjusting for inflation) which meant the team could work through ideas until they were perfect. Thriller began its life as ‘Starlight’ with the lyrics "Give me some starlight / Starlight sun.” But Jones and the production team felt it wasn’t marketable enough. ‘Thriller’ had already been chosen as the album title (from a list of over 200 possibilities), so they moved forward working it into the theme.
After the whole record was finished, the team weren’t entirely happy with the final sound. So they re-mixed every song, spending at least a week on each one. Billie Jean was famously mixed 91 times before they decided to go with mix 2. If you know you’re onto something big, give it everything you’ve got until you’re happy with it. It’s essential to have the wisdom here to know when a project is ready for the world as you don’t want to end up not releasing it because it’s not ‘100% perfect’ in your eyes.
Thriller is complex, deep, bright, wide, and above all, an impressive mix. The brightness of the brass and crispness of the hi-hat is so perfectly balanced with the weight of the synths, organ, and mid-range of the bass that they don’t feel even slightly harsh or too sharp. The lack of limiting and compression most likely plays a part in keeping the tonal balance in the high-frequencies clean rather than gritty.
The guitar lead in both the left and right channels are mixed quite low in the song. Rather than playing the same melody in unison, they play countermelodies and have slightly different tones from each other. The different melodies and rhythms make the sound feel wider. As a subtle feature of the mix, they enhance the groove and feel of the track without obstructing the main melody.
The bass plays a dominant role in the track and spans a broad range of frequencies. It’s filling the mid-channel with a rich sound while the synths, guitars, brass, and BV’s fill the sides of the mix. Interestingly, the click of the kick is prominent around the highest frequencies of the bass which gives a sense of gluing the kick and bass together from their lowest range to their highest.
The eerie lead synth is only heard in the right channel, whereas the majority of the other instruments are counter-balanced on both sides of the mix. This helps pull it out of the mix while not obstructing the vocal or poetry reading towards the end of the arrangement.
EXPOSE is showing that the original CD for Thriller has a loudness of -13.9LUFS integrated. Of course, when they released the song in the 80’s they weren’t thinking of future-proofing their music for streaming platforms, they were simply shooting for the best possible sound. Notice how the short-term loudness never goes higher than -10.9LUFS and the Dynamic range is never more compressed than 9.1DR. What this shows is an impressive level of controlling the signal without over-compressing the audio. The listening experience is consistent and balanced without the need to squash the transients.
What Did We Learn
- Create an environment that brings out the best in your delivery when you’re capturing a performance.
- Swedien chose not to play the tapes over and over, which would minimize the transient response. He waited until working on the final mix to maintain the punch.
- To get the ‘Michael Jackson’ sound, avoid heavy compression and limiting and go for a more dynamic and open sound. Use fader rides and automation for volume control.
- Tweaking a project until it’s world-class can have incredible benefits. It’s essential to have the wisdom here to know when a project is ready for the world as you don’t want to end up not releasing it because it’s not ‘100% perfect’ in your eyes.
- Having different and subtle guitar riffs panned far left and right can add some serious width and groove to your mix.