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Recounting the Creation of Michael Jackson’s ‘Thriller’ Sonic Masterpiece

Before the first note of Michael Jackson's "Thriller" was ever recorded, Quincy Jones told everyone associated with the record that his goal was to redefine the recorded music industry with the making of the record.


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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.

It doesn’t happen too often, but every now and then a music release comes out and captures the attention of mainstream consumers and audiophiles. Back in 1982 a young Michael Jackson teamed up with producer Quincy Jones and an all-star list of musicians to create the best selling record in music history.

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.”

 

 





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Article Topics

Blogs · Audio · Miscellaneous · Bobby Owsinski · Michael Jackson · Thriller · Westlake Recording Studios · Billie Jean · Quincy Jones · Steve Lukather · All topics

About the Author

Robert Archer, Senior Editor, CE Pro
Bob is an audio enthusiast who has written about consumer electronics for various publications within Massachusetts before joining the staff of CE Pro in 2000. Bob is THX Level I certified, and he's also taken classes from the Imaging Science Foundation (ISF) and Home Acoustics Alliance (HAA). In addition, he's studied guitar and music theory at Sarrin Music Studios in Wakefield, Mass.

5 Comments (displayed in order by date/time)

Posted by bob  on  11/06  at  08:36 AM

The article has got it’s quotes the wrong way around.

It was Quincy Jones who pointed out Jackson’s perfectionism not the other way around. Similarly it was Jones who revealed Jackson would often say “it is beautiful but can we have another take?” and “give us one more”.

Posted by Barbara  on  11/06  at  03:48 PM

No, the article is right-Michael said this in an interview with Ed Bradley in a story about Quincy.  It’s on YouTube and he also tells Ed about the “begging” part of “Lady in my Life.” He’s adorable.

But Michael was just as a perfectionist as Quincy-more so, I’d say.

Posted by Martin Flanagan  on  11/07  at  03:19 AM

Q is the man but this was Michaels creation as far as I’m concerned, he never gets the credit his genius deserves people love to attribute the sales & quality to Q, or indeed anyone but Michael himself.  MJ delivered WBSS, Beat It, Billie Jean, easily the best songs on the album, listen to his original home demos they’re almost good enough on their own, he knew what he wanted in his head before anyone ever got their hands on the songs.

Posted by David Dever  on  11/08  at  07:32 AM

This record was a pivotal moment; the favorable dollar-yen ratio at the time enabled Japanese CE manufacturers to flood the U.S. market with inexpensive TVs and receivers; these, in turn, helped to develop the market for converged video and music delivery over cable TV, which begat the media room concept as we know it today.

The record might also represent the high-water mark for American pop music production from a sound-quality perspective, and certainly before the commoditization of the electronic musical instrument industry a few years later.

Posted by Robert Archer  on  11/08  at  08:30 AM

To clear up any confusion, the quotes in this story are transcribed from the video that is posted on Bobby Owsinski’s blog post.

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