The 80s music I grew up on did have so much influence in the way I interpret music to this day therefore I have chosen Michael Jackson to examine the aesthetics and production techniques explored. The knowledge I hope to explore it in the project I & Roy with artist Nick Holmes are producing a track called “Dreams”, and I will use “Billie Jean ” as my reference track for the mix.
Billie Jean is a single produced by Michael Jackson and blends with post-disco rhythm & blues & dance-pop from the 80s with the use of deep flat tones of the bass with a groovy melody.
The lyrics describe a woman Billie Jean who claims the narrator as the father of a her new born son which he denies & the they were inspired by Michael’s brothers who toured with him as the Jackson 5.
The song begins with a fast up-beat drum rhythm of kick drum, snare and hi hats starts off moderately at around 110-120 bpm for 2 bars at a 4/4 signature in F#m key , joined by a shaker which brings a contrast bringing colour and warm feel with the change to the high and sharp that excites the tempo then immediately a prominent synth bass line with a heavy influence which accompanies the kick drum which is upbeat but yet still relaxed.
The drum is probably a programmed drum machine on a range of Roland T808 or T909. But according to Bruce Swedien, Jones had earlier instructed engineer Bruce Swedien to create a drum sound no one had heard before”. What I found fascinating about this article is that the kick drum was indeed a live recorded one and then the rest snare, hats and toms recorded from the drum machine. Pairing both did produce a distinct product making the rhythm solid because of the drum cover with a draw string applied on the kick drum, isolating any spillage from any other microphones or sounds. This is an appealing aesthetic I would like to explore in on of my projects reason being it works effectively in producing the solid groove upbeat for a funky style of song. It does also encourage me to experiment further more on the use of different mic techniques just like the figure below which show the mic technique of inserting it right to the middle part inside the kick drum, which is deemed to be the sweet spot of a solid kick drum take. The bass drum cover was made out of furniture blanket with a zippered hole for the mic to go through & cinder blocks to hold the drum still. It is surely an unorthodox way of recording but it worked perfect and hence why the record made a huge hit.
A progression into the chorus is still loosened up and a stereo effect of either a whisper vocal or a high pitched shaker sweeps across from left to right which gives an interesting sonic element. The heavy influence of the bass gives room to swerve from the melody. The arrangement has a couple of counter melodies that compliment the bass along with the drums. However the synth bass feels like it was overdubbed with a bass guitar but then EQ is applied why, to take out as much the high frequency end in the bass to give that thick warm flat sound as mentioned before as an aesthetic tactic to keep the grooviness in the deep flat tones contrast to the high range of vocals in the chorus and back down in the verse. I would say playfulness of automation to balance the dynamics of the song.
The synth keyboard plays a nice smooth soft warmed like strings which plays within the centre of the mix picking g out underground notes in the song to help the listener poise into the song. There is quite a couple of vocal overdubs to make the song sound pretty thick with the bass (synth bass) sounds like it was given a deep EQ boost range. Why so, probably to eliminate high end in its sound. I hope to explore this technique of overdubbing vocals as it enriches the song. Why does it enrich the song one may ask, it solidifies the vocals and makes the mix sound fuller and accentuate the exisiting track which adds a new element which is the umm mph . And that is what I would like to achieve.
Amazingly the type of microphone Michael Jackson used to record main vocals was a Shure sm57 dynamic and a 6 foot cardboard tube for the backing vocals. That is out of the ordinary choice for me as I have learnt that it is more of a instrument mic but that I say it revolutionised pop music and removed all limitation. I would like to use this tech with a Royer mic together for the vocal with the sm57 to see if I manage to get some sort of unique sound emulating Billie Jean. It also takes the vocalist to have energy and excitement to get a great outcome especially using MJ as a point of reference in the way he sings in this particular song. I aim to ensure the vocalist/vocalists have the energy to grab a perfect take.
The drum track, laid down by session drummer Leon Ndugu Chancler in Westlake Audio’s Studio ‘A’, was in fact an overdub. The rest of the music including vocals had been already put down against a drum machine. This is of course a particularly unorthodox way of recording as the drums in most cases very much form the foundation on which other musicians build their parts and feel (ahead, on or behind the beat etc). This may in part explain the incredibly simple drum pattern, although producer Qunicy Jones suggests the live drums simply copied the drum machine pattern verbatim. The drums were recorded in a handful of takes (Jackson’s lead vocal was famously recorded in one on an SM57, with the BVs sung through a 6 foot cardboard tube)!
The reverb which could be a plate reverb was probably applied slightly to the backing vocals. The main vocal does have a reverb more like a plate reverb too but then there is a delay effect with a quick decay which balances the reverb and the delay to allow the next line as the song is such like swing feel adding a body rocking beat. Why using plate reverb one may ask? The reason is Plate reverbs add a distinguished brightness to a vocal making it superior presence in the track.
On the other hand the guitar is pretty nice and crisp, clean with a moderate reverb to hold on from sounding too dry. The cleanliness of the guitar would suggest it being put through a Di box avoiding it going through the amp. It also sounds like the EQ applied has more high end on it and low frequencies have been rolled out quite much to bring the cleanliness. At regular intervals the guitar gets surface melodies within the song in a call and response with the main vocal in one of the verses which I think is a very effect aesthetic making the song vary here and there but staying within the structure groove until the songs slowly fades to the finish. It is so amazing how the the guitar changes the shape and scope of pop music. Why I say so is that it communicates a feeling to me with that hook of ching ching style of play that is catchy combined with some highly fascinating sonic values that instantly catch my attention. And that is a great strategy of making a song great.
As for use of compression probably there was not too much of it, there is more automation playing through balancing out the dynamics of the song. Being an 80s style of song I am sure they did not think of future streaming platforms in future. Dynamic range is pretty impressive controlling the signal without over compression of audio. I find also the concept of stereo imaging in the track. When I export the mp3 file into the Daw it has the loudness of -13.9 LUFS and the short term loudness does not go higher in than -10.9LUFS and the dynamic range is never compressed than 9.1DR. The level of control of the signal is great without over-compressing the audio. I aim to use some of this idea of consistency and a balanced mix without squashing the transients in any of the songs for our project during mastering.
Overall it is a great song with an exclusive structure and excellent use of clean instrumentation, vocal overdubs & good use of reverb. I aim to explore these ideas during recording, mixing and mastering for my major project.
Recording Michael Jackson’s Thriller. ( March 2020). Retrieved from http://btecsplthomas.blogspot.com/2015/09/the-recording-of-michael-jacksons.html
Billie Jean drum cover. (April 2020). Retrieved from https://www.acousticsciences.com/
Bruce Swedien: Recording Michael Jackson. March , 2020) Retrieved from https://www.soundonsound.com/people/bruce-swedien-recording-michael-jackson