When MoFi offered to send me an advanced promo for one of the most famous albums of all time, I really couldn't pass up the opportunity and the thrill of revisiting a classic forty years after its initial release. That's right, "famous" is the key word here, so let's explore why?
By all accounts, Thriller did not alter the course of music as Elvis did with "Heartbreak Hotel" and "Hound Dog", or invent a brand new genre such as James Brown did with funk, nor creatively innovate such as The Beatles' groundbreaking Revolver and Sgt. Pepper. What it did accomplish is setting a record–pardon the pun–for the biggest selling album of all time.
How many you may ask? At last count, a worldwide whopping 70 million copies! It was Jackson's sixth studio album but first "number-one" on the charts–37 non-consecutive weeks holding that position, comprising 7 singles making it to the top 10, and winning 8 Grammy Awards; a feat in and of itself.
On top of that, through the medium of MTV, Michael Jackson "broke the color barrier" by being the first black artist to receive regular rotation on that channel, opening up the gates for others to follow. The album further amplified and diversified his already impressive fan base around the globe. Powered in part by his strong stage presence, plus the tight choreography seen in the sophisticated cinematic-like music clips extracted from it, this catapulted him to "King of Pop" royalty rank. But as the Royal Family's KIng Charles might say, you don't get crowned "King" overnight!
Honed from a very young age, surrounded by brothers–Jackie, Tito, Jermaine, and Marlon–and managed by their father Joe, the Jackson 5 were part of the Motown family, climbing the charts with huge hits starting from 1969 to 1973 such as "I Want You Back", "ABC", "I'll Be There", and "Dancing Machine".
From the get-go, showing immense talent, showmanship, and determination, Michael demonstrated he was the rising star of the group, dominating the dance floor with his "robot dance" routine on television specials spanning the decade. In 1976, after a lull of hits, the quintet switched from Motown to Epic records, with Randy replacing Jermaine.
Swapping the suffix "5" for an "s", they soon gained greater artistic control over their music direction, enjoying such major hit singles as "Enjoy Yourself", "Blame It on the Boogie", and "Shake Your Body (Down to the Ground)".
A major turning point arrived in December 1978, when Jackson joined forces with renowned producer, composer, and arranger Quincy Jones, for his fifth–but first for Epic–studio album, Off the Wall, originally released in August 1979. Clearly departing from the past "Jackson sound", the albun signaled the increased individuality of the maturing singer just shy of his twenty-first birthday, who was now developing his own unique style.
Comprising the dance floor hits "Don't Stop 'Til You Get Enough", "Rock With You", and the title track, Off the Wall offered a glimpse of what lay ahead. A solid disco album, it would go on to sell over 20 million copies worldwide. Message to MoFi: please add that LP to our collective One Step 45rpm wish list.
In October 1980, the Jacksons would release two final disco hits with "Can You Feel It" and "Walk Right Now". In the interim, Off the Wall had garnered many accolades from music critics, and strong sales success, therefore it became imperative to try to surpass it.
By 1982, disco's popularity was in sharp decline, and in order to conquer the masses, Michael needed to pivot towards a different Beat. In April, he and Jones teamed up once more but this time the musical palette expanded to include a stronger pop feel, with fresh ingredients stemming from post-disco, dance music, dance rock, hard rock, boogie, funk, afropop, and ballads. Engineer Bruce Swedien who was in the pilot seat on Off the Wall reprised his role recording and mixing Thriller at Westlake Audio, and Ocean Way Recording, Los Angeles, California.
A disciple of Universal Studio's whiz engineer Bill Putnam, Swedien is one of those old school guys whose impressive resumé lists countless jazz and big band greats as well as sixties and seventies soul singers among others. Preferring to get the sound right in the studio rather than "fix it in the mix", he shared one point in particular with many audiophiles, he was an imaging and soundstage maniac. In fact, in order to preserve or perhaps enhance the soundfield cues, he created what he called the "Acusonic Recording Process", wherein rather than record an instrument with a single microphone and track, then "panning" it between left and right channels, he used a pair of mikes feeding two tracks on every instrument to capture an instant stereo image. In other words, instead of employing a traditional 24-track tape machine to record 24 individual instruments or sounds in mono, his method used 12 pairs of individual instruments or sounds in stereo greatly increasing the breath, depth, and width of the soundstage.
To compensate for this "loss of separate sound tracks", he'll use multiple 24-track tape machines synchronized in parallel to provide him with ample flexibility. This more elaborate process accounts for the increased ambiance, detail, and definition found on Off the Wall as well as on Thriller, along with better preserving the transients of the music–which tend to dull when overdubbing multitrack tape, and responsible for a loss of attack on many recordings. In interviews Swedien says he stays away from compression and limiting as much as he can, preferring to ride the faders when need be. As we shall see that does not seem to be always the case. Ditto for EQ, where he mentions he minimizes its use most of the time. Armed with a personal collection of 105 microphones which he carried with him, his favored mics were Shure SM7 for vocals–into a Neve 1084 mic preamp–and Neumanns for drum toms. He's not afraid to experiment to get the sound and texture he's after. Case in point is the famous drum track behind "Billie Jean" that leaves no foot resting in place. It is a real drummer–and not a drum machine as was often the case in 'dance' during the 1980s and other tracks on this album–captured in a live take with the drum kit elevated on an unvarnished eight feet square floor riser ten-inches high. He placed a couple of heavy cinder blocks inside the kick, replacing the front head with a home made drum cover with a zipper for inserting the mic.
This fanatical hands-on approach for getting a clean punchy articulated kick sound was first explored on Off the Wall's "Rock With You" but employed here with greater emphasis. He kept the lighting very low, almost in the dark during Michael's vocal tracks as both prefer depriving the visual senses of any distractions, enhancing the auditory senses instead–which concurs exactly with my listening preferences.
If we focus our attention strictly on the intro of "Thriller", we can see on the track sheet how the first 24-track reel was organized. Once more, we notice that every sound effect–doors, wind, thunder, footsteps, wolf, etc.–are paired in stereo for superior ambiance, and that the last track, number 24 is reserved for the SMPTE timecode to synch the multiple tape machines as one giant doomsday machine.
Now onto MoFi's 40th Anniversary Edition...
Unlike previous UD1S releases that consisted of two 45 rpm LPs, this one is the label’s first to comprise a single 33 1/3 rpm LP, which explains the slip case's thinner half-inch profile, and will be welcomed by many collectors that yearn for more shelf space. I particularly like the simple side opening that dispenses with needing to open a box cover to retrieve the LP. If you store the record library-style with the opening towards you, you can simply pull out the LP from its slip case. If this same method could be applied to the UD1S double-45 rpms by increasing the side opening thickness and eliminating the need for inner foams, it would greatly improve simplicity and be more environmentally-friendly. The deluxe charcoal background with gold-colored lettering and trimmings, which frame the original cover art–by famed photographer Dick Zimmerman–in a reduced 8 1/2 x 8 1/2 inch square, has a nice soft texture to the touch. The whole fit is very elegant and classic–well done!
Pulling out the contents we first find a "full-size" gatefold rigid paper-thin carboard reproduction of the original cover art with MoFi's Original Master Recording band at the top in the same pink hue that matches the back cover lettering.
Opening it, you get the exact centerfold of the singer as found in the original jacket. Plus they included a rigid reproduction of the original inner sleeve which carried the lyrics and credits.
Contrary to previous One Step releases, there is no sheet explaining that process.
For those not familiar with this more elaborate method. In a nutshell, whereas a normal 'three-step' release utilises the following chain: [lacquer + father + mother + stamper], the 'One-Step' method skips the father and mother intermediary steps, going from master lacquer directly to stamper or 'convert' in this case. There is a limited number of pressings that the delicate convert can withstand in the typical press before audible deterioration creeps in–around 1000 or so for 180g LP's. That means that between 30 and 40 sets of lacquers-converts were required to complete the run of 40,000 copies. Of course like any pressing, there may be some minute sonic differences between lacquer-converts but I'm told they keep all the settings "locked in" for the entire run to maximize sonic uniformity. Think about it. Engineer Krieg Wunderlich had to do the exact same cutting job 30 to 40 times over! Now the use of a DSD source instead of the original analog master tape–played over and over–makes perfect sense. It should also put to rest or at least into perspective the notion advanced by some that by converting to DSD, MoFi should lower their price and eliminate limited quantities for One Steps implying they save time, and just push a button and press as much as they need. That's true with the three-step method, because you only cut the master once and go back to the mother when the stamper needs to be replaced. Remember here there is no mother to fall back on; the whole job must be redone!
Finally we reach the treasured vinyl, inserted in a cardboard sleeve printed with similar art work as the slip case cover, with the track titles printed on the back side, and the LP's further protected, by MoFi's inner HDPE sleeves inside a white folded cardboard. As usual with MoFi, no attempts were made to duplicate the original Epic label, replaced instead with the same design as their other UD1S LPs.
Engineers Krieg Wunderlich, assisted by Shawn R. Britton transferred the original 1/2" 30 IPS analog master source to a DSD256 format; this then passed through their analog console and onto the cutting lathe. He left about half-inch of dead wax for side A and just a bit less for side B with A4 and B3 inscribed, indicating the 4th and 3rd master cuts respectively for my copy. Plating and pressings were done at RTI in California. Both sides were visually perfect, glossy, and dark, though when held up to the light you can still see through it. RTI's pressing was well centered and flat. On the first run-through of the album I detected a few low level noise cracks between some songs, but then seemed to become quieter upon second playing. This could be because MoFi choose not to dehorn their stampers, preferring our stylus to "polish" out the tics with every playback–this policy going way back to the first thin JVC pressings they started with. In my experience the NEOTHECH-developed SuperVinyl formula first used on Marvin Gaye's UD1S is more an improvement in treble refinement and delicacy than a lower noise floor per se than the regular vinyl formula.
I don't have an original pressing nor any of the other early US pressings, originally done by Bernie Grundman. In interviews on the web, he explained that Thriller was such a big seller that he had to remaster and cut it on multiple occasions because the metal parts kept getting used, and he found that he preferred his later pressings that were cut at a lower level than the earliest one cut louder. So my closest comparison I had on hand is the Canadian first press on Epic distributed by CBS [Epic QE 38112] and cut at CBS Records Canada Ltd. in Toronto, which does not credit the cutting engineer. I also had a Mexican first-press [Epic LNS-17406] to compare. Both had similar-sized dead wax with the MoFi.
I always felt the 1982 Canadian pressing as well as what I heard played on the radio and in clubs was disappointing, and slightly below average for that period. I say 'slightly below' because truth is, the average record sound in 1982-83 was already going downhill in comparison to just a couple of years back. More and more studios were introducing primitive digital instruments, samplers, and equipment, and the music industry as a whole was heading towards a higher level of dynamic compression, squeezing out warmth, life, and fatness for increase loudness. There is typically quite a big demarcation between pre-1982 and post-1982 in sonic quality, with 1984 and up really worsening. Sure there are some exceptions, such as a few Depeche Mode UK 12-inch singles that are awesome-sounding, and some tech house well mastered but these do not make up the majority.
So I was curious to see to what extent MoFi could improve upon this scenario.
If you wanna start an album, then "Wanna Be Startin' Somethin' " seems a good choice. With it's three snare strikes, it catapults us into a frenzied funky shuffled groove built upon a Univox SR-55 analog drum machine input directly into the console with brisk brass riffs, and highly repetitive lyrics.
The song's coda is an interpolation of Manu Dibango's 1972 hit "Soul Makossa", and which Rihanna's 2007 hit "Don't Stop the Music" sampled Jackson's track. Interestingly, it was first recorded in 1978 to be included on Off the Wall but was left out in the end, and re-recorded in 1982 for Thriller. We can speculate that "Working Day and Night" being in a similar style perhaps replaced it. Contrary to Off the Wall which I've listened to several times on my present system, know by heart, and love its sonics, I realized I had never listened entirely to Thriller on my present system. I started the short shootout on this track with what I thought would be the least impressive-sounding of the three pressings, the Mexican. The treble was awfully-grainy and dirty, there lacked transparency all over, the soundstage was quite limited and the voice was veiled with lots of sibilance. The only small redeeming quality was the synth bass riff had more meat or weight in the ratio than I expected, but that was it. My overall take? Boring and compressed.
Second in line, same song, volumes matched of course, was the Canadian first press. First thing apparent was a bit less bass and groove which was a bad thing, but for the rest, a very slight improvement in treble textures, vocals had a veiled lifted but unfortunately showed upper mid forwardness displaying more artificial reverb. So between these two it was a toss-up between two mediocre presentations.
I then put on the MoFi, which sounds very different than the previous two and any version I've heard on the radio when it first came out. First off, it is much more transparent for all frequencies. The biggest improvement is in Michael's vocals, they are much more dynamic, natural, cleaner, tonally more balanced, extended in his high end phrasings, and display a jump factor. Some sibilants were still present, but these seemed inherent in the recording, and while frequencies over 6kHz or so still sounded a bit sandy, they were definitely less distorted than on the two other pressings. Perhaps the dynamic-type Shure SM7 that Swedien loved so much and is highly popular with podcasters and broadcasters was not the best choice with this singer. There is also elimination of that unpleasant upper mid peak I mentioned heard on the two other pressings, and here it blends better the dry vs reverb ratio in the mix. The guitar riff on the left is much clearer to follow–as are all the instruments–helping to differentiate the actual playing. Most intriguing is the soundstage that has improved dramatically in depth and width, with some sounds appearing as phantom side-surround channels, so much so that I thought MoFi had used an alternative mix from 1982 whose existence I was unaware of. Same thing when the multiple percussive triplets startled me. The many rhythmic handclaps were especially impressive during the song's break towards the end. One of the strangest effects is when he sings "You're a vegetable", the voice is so clear and the imaging in the "side surrounds" of the soundfield so spooky real, it made me turn my head! When I went back to the Canadian copy to confirm if all those effects were present or if it was a different mix, I was astounded that is not a different mix. They are there but buried in the haze of tape degeneration or pressing-step losses! Clearly, there was no contest that MoFi's remastered version trumped the others handily. My only nitpick is I would have welcomed a touch more bass to augment the groove factor.
"Baby Be Mine" which was not a hit but is nevertheless a good song had better bass heft in relation to the rest of the tonal balance, and it helped that the recording was less compressed than the opening track making the sibilance lower and the treble finer.
In general I am not a big ballad fan, and "The Girl Is Mine" sung in duo with Sir Paul McCartney is not musically my cup of sweet tea, being more of a dance enthusiast after all. Having said that, sonically I must admit that the One Step transparency opened up the soundstage, lifted veils, shining a light on both singers distinctive timbres and ranges, reinforcing once more the conviction that normal record industry practices contribute to the homogenization of sound.
It is somewhat strange that "Thriller", the title-track closes side A instead of opening the album, even more so given the "spooky" intro. By the way those howling wolves sounds were in fact done by Jackson mixed in with some library-sourced material, and the door sound effects came from real rented doors which they miked to record the hinges creacking. I compared all three pressings and again the MoFi easily came out on top. For starters, the intro is very impressive in its soundstage transparency and size. You feel the solid low end thwack of the door, the footsteps panning the stage are startling in clarity. The slow crescendo of the hi-hat was better rendered–the two others seemed veiled. Then when the main beat and bass line take over, you finally get the full measure of what the MoFi can deliver when tonal balance and detail are au rendez vous. All three pressings proved that this track for whatever reason had lots of bass output in the original recording but as opposed to the two regular LPs which lacked definition in the highs dulling everything into a fat potato, the MoFi maintained its superior articulation right to the very end despite being placed last–the worse position on a record for the top end. The sequencer break towards the coda has a thrilling clarity. The outro featuring the legendary voice-over of horror movie actor Vincent Price is distinctively crisp during the music, making it easy to follow his words even when the mix gets full charged with the organ creeping in. The song rises and expands toward its macabre finale, until it abruptly ends on a reverberantly glorious, gory note.
"Beat It" of course is the hardest-rock-sounding song of the album where Eddie Van Halen–nearing his peak of popularity–displays his virtuosity and bravado captured with a Neumann U67 directed at the guitar amp. The iconic cold-sounding gong-like intro comes from a Synclavier digital synth which was very popular in that decade. On all three pressings this seems the most dynamically compressed track of the album, and even the MoFi which is better and cleaner has trouble escaping its inherent recording trappings, but keep in mind that was often how hard rock was sonically presented in the early-1980s. The VU meters musn't be swaying far from the zero line. I remember when it came out, even on the radio and in clubs it sounded less impressive than the other singles from the album.
"Billie Jean" remains the club favorite even after all these years, and my favorite song from the album. The winning recipe relies on Louis Johnson's–from the Brothers Johnson–bass instrument plugged into a DI (Direct Input) with a UTC transformer inside, giving it that warm fat meaty sound, plus the drums driving it underneath. These had a Sennheiser on the kick, Shure SM57 on snare, Neumann U67's on toms and overheads, RCA 77DX on hi-hat, and don't forget that cinder blocks' trick inside the kick. The entire drum and rhythm section were done on a separate 16-track machine (with no noise reduction) to keep the noise lower than on the 24-track–normal for both are 2-inch formats and the greater the number of tracks, the more your noise floor goes up. Reverb came from a EMT 250. By the way, those are real strings comprised of violin, viola, and cellos.
The original version which Michael favored had a longer intro–kick and snare drums twice the length followed by that unforgettable bass line–before his vocals start. But in the end they had to shorten it–and other tracks for that matter–by about a minute and a half to maintain an acceptable LP side duration, balancing the usual issues of cutting level and bass extension and dynamics. Ironically, Jones preferred the shorter intro finding the original too long for a pop record. Fortunately the full-length version was retained for the original twelve-inch single–cut at Allen Zentz Mastering [Epic 49-03557]–and is impressive for its club-style punch. But coming back to the album, out of my three LP pressings, the MoFi remained the best one, especially for the clarity of the vocals, hi-hat cymbal, and top end extension.
The smooth sophisticated arrangements of "Human Nature" seems to suggest sprinkled magic dust tumbling from the sky. Here the tonal balance is excellent, and as is a recurring theme in this MoFi remastering, the vocals and soundstage are utterly transparent and airy.
Finally "P.Y.T. (Pretty Young Thing)" is the second best-sounding track on the MoFi just after "Thriller". The instrumentation has mostly Minimoog and analog synths giving it an electro-funk boogie style. The tonal balance is near-perfect, with the bass articulation and crunch sounding so darn good that you crave for more. The crispy staccato bass is sharply defined and fast. One of the sonic highlights of the song is the panned robotic vocoder-type vocals in the chorus creating that future-funk feel.
For those still sitting on the fence on this new release because of the DSD element in the remastering chain, I've been on record, both figuratively and literally a few months ago when after extensive listening and comparisons I came to the conclusion that this digital intermediate stage did not interfere in producing some of the most impressive-sounding records in my collection such as the One Step's of Santana, Monk, Marvin Gaye, Yes, B.S.&T., and Carole King, as well as regular MoFi's such as Alan Parsons, Aretha Franklin, Bacharach-Costello, Grateful Dead, Jeff Beck, and many others. So I am simply stating that DSD should not be a factor to get it or not, even more so given that the recording, though originally analog, features many early-digital instruments that were leagues inferior in resolution than how DSD256 operates.
The One Step minimalist approach–just like an accurate crossoverless single wide band driver–can be wonderful but also a two-edged knife. It is so transparent than any sonic subtleties, multitrack layers, overdubs will become clearer and more detached from the forest. It is like rediscovering an acient painting after its restoration, you'll magically discover hidden layers shrouded in time.
In the end if you enjoy Michael Jackson or Thriller, and also perhaps the sonic pecularities of the period, then this new 40th anniversary MoFi One Step remastering is the best version I've heard on my system to fully appreciate the album in an entire new way. Paradoxically you'll perhaps perceive that you are listening to a remix on some songs, and yet you are in fact getting closer to the original master tape sound!
To the Thrillers that came before it, MoFi’s message is clear: "Beat It"!