Recounting the Creation of Michael Jackson’s ‘Thriller’ Sonic Masterpiece
Michael Jackson, Quincy Jones and an all-star group of engineers and musicians took eight weeks to record the best selling record of all time when they made “Thriller” in 1982.
Recently, the recording engineer and author Bobby Owsinski posted a BBC video documenting the making of “Thriller” and looking back on how the album was made it’s easy to see why the record still holds up today as an all-time audiophile classic.
Going into the production of what would eventually be the “Thriller” album Jackson, Jones and company had eight weeks to accomplish their mission of creating an album that would set a new benchmark for quality. “Thriller’s” recording engineer Bruce Swedien recalls that before production for the record started Jones informed those associated with the record that he wanted “Thriller” to become a benchmark for the music industry.
“Quincy goes into the control room … we’re all standing there waiting to see what he is going to say and you know what he told us; he said O.K. guys we are here to save the recorded music industry,” Swedien remembers. “Boy that is a heck of a mandate isn’t it. We wanted the sonic values of ‘Thriller’ to recharge the industry.”
With Jones’ mandate as the driving force behind the production of the record, Jones says that along the way even Jackson would question some of his methods for making the album. “Michael would say, ‘I don’t know what Quincy does’ … I listen to the orchestra. We are an x-ray machine because I’ve been around it [music] all my life. That’s what I do and if it’s too thick, too thin, too slow, too fast; wrong key … whatever it is, all I have to do is just listen and I hear it,” asserts Jones.
Before his death in 2009 Jackson points out that anyone that has ever worked with Jones knows all about the legendary music figure’s perfectionism. Anybody who has worked with him notices the way he’ll make you do it until it is perfect,” says Jackson in the BBC documentary. “He’ll say it is beautiful, ‘we have a take’ and he’ll say can, ‘can you give us one more?’”
One of the album’s best known singles was the rock influenced track “Beat It.” Jones says he called Eddie Van Halen and instructed him that he would have free rein on the song’s guitar solo. The solo which is now regarded as arguably the best guitar solo ever laid on a number one single also became the topic of studio legend. During the recording of Van Halen’s iconic guitar solo Westlake Studio‘s monitors literally caught on fire and looking back on the moment the joke among “Thriller’s” engineering team was that Van Halen’s playing was so hot that the studio monitors caught on fire.
Good but Not Good Enough
After the completion of the record the production staff assembled to listen to the album’s first pressing. Swedien says the initial version of “Thriller” did not meet their sonic expectations and they realized the record was too long. Swedien explains that recordings released on vinyl can be adversely affected by the length of the music. “In those days; the days of the LP if the playing time [of the record] is long the grooves will be too close together and it just doesn’t work,” he says.
Going back into the studio Jones and company spent a day on each song editing them down, remixing them and overdubbing them to get the record to a length that would support the best quality that vinyl could deliver. Now more than 25 years later the album is still viewed as a sonic masterpiece. Legendary studio session player and Toto guitar player Steve Lukather says “Thriller” represents a perfect confluence of talent and creativity. “It was a vortex of time where it all connected,” Lukather says. “You can really never anticipate something being like one of the biggest selling albums of all time.”