Engineer Tom Perry on the making of the Jacksons’ 1980 album Triumph

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The Jackson 'Triumph'

By the end of the 1970s, the Jacksons experienced a lineup substitution, two label moves from Motown Records to CBS Records to Epic Records, and a recognizable name change. After their switch from Motown Records to CBS Records in 1975, the brothers began exploring the depths of their musical creativity and were given the opportunity to showcase their songwriting abilities on their self-titled gold selling debut, The Jacksons, in 1976. Under the tutelage of the legendary production duo, Kenneth Gamble and Leon Huff, they worked diligently to find their trademark groove and this experience served them well, as they entered the next phase of their respective careers. Two years later, the quintet regained the success that had been eluding them since their Motown days with the release of their multiplatinum selling album, Destiny. Itching to become a solo artist, Michael Jackson tested the waters by branching out on his own and recorded his second solo album that would validate his decision. Off the Wall placed him in esteemed company, and it set the stage for the collective to capitalize on this momentum. They returned to the studio to craft their next album. On September 26, 1980, Triumph was released by Epic Records. It became they’re second consecutive smash album. The record would spawn five singles, including the hits: “Heartbreak Hotel” (now known as “This Place Hotel”), “Can You Feel It,” “Lovely One,” “Walk Right Now,” and “Time Waits for No One.” In observance of Black Music Month and Michael Jackson’s legacy, we spoke with legendary engineer Tom Perry about his role in constructing this classic album.

 

How did you begin working with the group on this project?

Tom Perry: One day, I received a call from out of the blue from Latoya. She asked, “Are you Tom Perry?” I said, “Yes. I am.” She said, “Hold on for Michael Jackson.” I responded, “Okay.” [laughs] This little voice came through the phone and it was Michael. I believe he heard some of my work with Earth, Wind & Fire; Boz Scaggs; and other R&B acts I had worked with. He was producing some demos for his sister Janet. That was the first stuff I worked on with him. This was in 1977 and 1978, a couple years before I started working on Triumph. I went down there, and Janet was working on her TV show at the time. She was fifteen or sixteen. So we cut some tracks that Michael produced, and I don’t know what became of those tracks. He called me again, and we cut some stuff with Latoya. Another time he called me, and we began working on some songs that he was demoing. One of them was “Billie Jean.” I’m jumping ahead a little bit, but “Billie Jean” was the last thing I worked on with Michael. We spent about three months on that single because we kept redoing the strings and horns on the demo. At some point, it was taken over by Quincy Jones. So we were doing these various projects. He produced a song on Diana Ross’s album called “Muscles” and that ended up being number one on the charts. I was working with Michael on music that he was producing and music he was demoing. So we had quite a relationship going. We had a close friendship. I used to pick him up and take him home every day. In those days, he didn’t like to drive. He had a Rolls Royce, but he didn’t drive it. Then, the brothers’ album came up. I was working with Michael on these various projects, and I guess his brothers were okay with me working on their next album. This is how I started working on Triumph.

At this time in 1980, Michael just released his multiplatinum smash, Off the Wall, a year prior. Since you already had a relationship with him, what was the brothers’ focus going into the making of this record?

As I can best recall, it wasn’t easy for his brothers to get Michael involved. I’m not sure why, but I believe part of the reason why Michael agreed to do it is because, as a brother and family member, it would be a way for his brothers to do a tour and it might boost their careers. I think that was part of the motivation. I’m guessing Michael got some pressure from his mom and dad to do it. He and his brothers were getting along well during that time. When I say Michael was hesitant, I don’t think it was because of any animosity. I just think Michael was doing his own thing, and he was fine with that. Michael put one hundred percent into everything he did. He wanted the album to be excellent. I didn’t feel that he was reluctant or hesitant in doing the work on the project. His drive, determination, and desire to have it become a great album was there. He wasn’t the type of guy that would’ve taken it on, if he wasn’t going to give it everything he had. He always gave everything he had.

For this album, you guys recorded in a few different studios. Were you there at every studio session?

Yes. I was the only engineer on this project from start to finish. We did ninety-five percent of that work in Hollywood Sound Studios, but we didn’t start at Hollywood Sound, though. As I recall, I did a lot of work at Hollywood Sound. I’d worked at Hollywood Sound since 1967 when I started out as a staff mixer there. There were two studios in Hollywood Sound: Studio A and Studio B. I was equally comfortable in both, but mostly in Studio B. I worked there and George Massenburg worked there. A lot of the hot engineers were working there at the time. It was kind of a small studio, and it wasn’t as well-known as Capitol Studios, Westlake Audio, or Record Plant Studios. I had never worked with the Jackson brothers, and I think they were wanting to go with a studio that had a bigger reputation. So we started out doing a couple tracks at different studios. Any engineer will say they can work anywhere, even in a garage, but an engineer builds a relationship with a studio, and they begin to learn every nuance in the studio. Engineers know exactly what they have there, that they’ve had success there, and records that sounded good, so they have a formula. An engineer will know if a record sounds good or not. All engineers have studios where they feel most comfortable. So we cut a couple tracks, and I didn’t feel like those first couple sessions were going that well. It’s hard to know what I had, when I was going in trying to learn the studio.

The thing is, I was working on a project as big as the Jacksons, and from an engineering standpoint, I wanted to go where I was comfortable because I had a lot on my plate, and what I didn’t want to do is to have to learn a room. I spent thirteen years working at Hollywood Sound and that gave me an advantage. So one day I sat down with Michael, and I said to him, “Look, Mike. We should go to Hollywood Sound. You know the room works because that’s my home base. Let’s go there.” So we did. We went to Hollywood Sound after trying out three different studios. The tracks started coming together and the brothers saw the difference. We got locked in there. We did overdubs at Sound City. I remember doing strings and horns at Sound City because they had a big room over there. It was a good room for that kind of stuff. We tried to mix the record at Olympic Studios in West L.A. because they had just put in one of the early Neve automated consoles. We went out there to do some automation mixing, but in the end, we mixed the album at Hollywood Sound. They didn’t have automation there at that time. We were synching two twenty-four-tracks together at that point with time code. We had forty-eight tracks and that was a lot of mixing to corral without automation.

Take me into the studio atmosphere of Hollywood Sound Studios when you were recording there with the group.

Well, I had a standard set up for doing tracks. We cut drums, bass, two guitars, piano, and keyboards. The studio wasn’t that big, so we didn’t do any live horns or strings. There was a vocal booth and Michael would sing in there when the tracks were going down. We didn’t have more than four or five musicians playing at the same time. We would complete one song per day. Once we got the track and if there was any time left in the day, we would start to do some guitar, keyboard, and synth overdubs. Then, we would go on to the next song. Generally, we would work on one song per day working on rhythm tracks and we wouldn’t get into recording any serious vocals, background vocals, strings, or horns until later. Back then, we didn’t have any Pro Tools or sampling. We’d work on getting all the basic instruments down such as percussion, guitar overdubs and solos, and synthesized added parts. When the brothers were satisfied with how everything sounded, then we would get into doing string and horn sweetening. Lastly, we would cut lead and background vocals. This album was a six month project.

Typically, we spent twelve or more hours in the studio. We didn’t work seven days a week, but as I recall, we had some weekends off during that six month period. There were a couple times when the brothers took days off to finish up writing lyrics. The brothers would arrive at the studio around noon, depending on what the task was. If we were cutting the tracks, it would be pretty hard to get all the brothers there at twelve o’clock. They would wander in, depending on whose song it was. Generally, Michael would be the earliest to arrive. They weren’t known for being on time, and they weren’t concerned about the budget. The session players, my assistant, and I would be there. Sometimes, we didn’t get rolling until two or three o’clock. Technically, we would start at twelve. On an early day, we might end the session at ten or eleven at night. Depending on how involved they were, Michael tended to work later, and the session could last until two or three o’clock in the morning, then we’d go back in at noon and start the process all over again. So there were a few fifteen to sixteen hour days in the studio. Also, it would depend if Michael was doing a vocal. If he wanted to finish his thoughts, he tended to not pay attention to what time it was. He wanted to get down his thoughts and ideas while they were in his head and make sure he finished what he wanted to finish by the end of that day. There were a couple times where we would be working on a song that Jackie had taken over producing. During one session, everyone went home early and it was around seven o’clock in the evening. Jackie was the only one left and he said, “Well, I guess we’re folding up.” My assistant and I looked at each other like, “Are you kidding me? It’s seven o’clock.” [laughs] As it turned out, there was a Los Angeles Lakers game that night. He was a huge Laker fan, and he had those courtside seats.

Can you describe the collaboration and creativity that existed between the brothers in the studio?

Well, we didn’t stop working on music until Michael was happy with it. I keep saying Michael because he was the driver and creative force behind the brothers. He drove the sessions. The brothers had great input: Tito, Jackie, Marlon, and Randy. There was respect between them. Michael had respect for his older brothers. He would give them their say and some input. Quite often, Michael would double the harmony parts that his brothers sang to enrich the sound and give it more polish. So Michael was the driving force. I worked on independent projects with Tito and Marlon and I loved those guys. Marlon was a sweetheart and Tito was a great guy. I have all the respect in the world for the brothers. I didn’t work on anything with Randy. I think he was eighteen when we recorded this album. I did a few things with Jermaine as well but not on this album. They all had a hand in making this album, but the driving force behind it was Michael. Michael was a brilliant guy when it came to making music.

As an engineer, what was your approach to the recording process during the making of this album?

Basically, we had twenty-four tracks. This was in the early days where we were able to sync two twenty-four-tracks by using time code. The two machines would lock in and run in sync, so that it could give us additional tracks. Dolby noise reduction was available in those days and there were a lot of engineers that liked Dolby, but I didn’t because I felt that Dolby colored the tape, and I didn’t feel that the frequency response was as broad with Dolby. The fact that Dolby was processing the tape I believe there were limitations in the frequency response. Engineers, like myself that didn’t use noise reduction, would run two inch tape at 30 IPS which meant thirty inches per second. It was a faster speed. If you ran a faster speed, you tended to get less tape hiss. So that’s how we countered Dolby noise reduction. Dolby noise reduction would get rid of tape hiss, but I felt it dulled up the high end and made things a little muddy. But that’s just me. So I ran the machines at 30 IPS non-Dolby. We had a good console and outboard equipment by then. I’d been engineering for years, and I was pretty confident that I could get a good sounding album. I was an old school engineer and my background included experimenting with microphones, the placement of microphones, and making sure things weren’t over processed. What I mean by over processed is, when more outboard equalization is used or more compression or more sound enhancing of any type that is put on a sound, you have to send a signal through a compressor, filter, and various reverb. Every time you run signal through another processing system, you’re deteriorating the signal.

I started engineering records before there was a lot of electronic help. When I first started recording, I had a board with eight inputs. Four had high end EQ and four had low end EQ, and you couldn’t select the frequency. It was just bass and treble. If I wanted to color the sound and make the drums sound different, I had to learn how to tune the drums, muffle or tape the drums or use a different microphone or find a different spot in the room, if I wanted drums live. Sometimes, we’d find hardwood crates to set the drums on to get more reflection, or if I wanted a dead sound, we set the drums on carpet and place a blanket over the kick drum. So I had this elaborate background in engineering along with knowledge of modern electronics of the day. This allowed us to spread the tracks out wider. We could use eight or ten tracks for the drums. We could put the kick drum on one track and a snare drum on another track, a hi-hat on another track, so we could spread the drums out on eight tracks. Spreading out the tracks gave us the flexibility to record the drums in stereo, keyboards, left and right piano, left and right synthesizer, and in some cases, stereo guitar. All of that helped me get the best sounds I could on individual instruments. It gave me flexibility in the mixing process as well because everything was on a separate track. So I could go in and equalize the toms without changing the sound of the kick drum, snare or cymbals because they were on separate tracks. That was my approach in trying to get everything to sound as good as it could.

It was in my DNA as an engineer, but it was also what Michael wanted. Michael always wanted whatever he was working on, whether it was songs, sounds, or players, to be the best. Between Michael knowing what he wanted and not accepting sounds that weren’t first class and me having those same desires and background in engineering, made a huge difference. Also, the fact that the budget wasn’t an issue, so we could spend the time getting everything right, plus having the best musicians made this a special project. Michael Jackson was a genius producer. He was a phenomenally talented human being. He wasn’t a schooled musician, but everything was in his head. He would have to try and convey his ideas to me, the arranger, and musicians. He wouldn’t stop until the music sounded the way it did in his head and that is not always easy. He didn’t know engineering, so I was trying to interpret what he was hearing and make it a reality through the equipment and my ability to give him what he wanted. When it was going well, I would try to give him what he wanted, and we ended up with something he liked better. [laughs] That’s when the creative process was really working. Everyone worked well together.

What was the name of the console you used during the recording process?

The console we used was an API hybrid board. It had API equalizers and George Massenburg preamps. We brought in a side board because it didn’t have enough inputs to mix forty-eight tracks.

 Who was responsible for bringing some of the greatest musicians ever to play on these records?

It was Michael. I think the brothers used these guys on some of their other records. These guys were some legendary players like Greg Phillinganes, Michael Sembello, Nathan Watts, Thomas Washington, and Paulinho da Costa. I believe they were used on their previous albums. Some were from Michael’s Off the Wall album. Quincy Jones used these guys, obviously. It was a great experience watching these guys work.

Let’s go in-depth on a couple songs that were released as singles from the album?

“Can You Feel It” wasn’t one of my favorite songs, but it became a big hit. I know the video received a lot of play on MTV when it was just starting out as a network. Michael was the driving force behind this song. We spent a lot of time on this song. We brought in two different choirs to sing. During the mixing process of this song, I wish I would’ve put a little bit more low end in the drums. I thought it was too sharp sounding overall. I think we worked the longest on this song and “Heartbreak Hotel” [“This Place Hotel”]. If I had to do it again, I would’ve put more warmth in that mix. Typically, it would take four or five days to complete the final mix of the songs. Sometimes you work on something so long that you lose any kind of perspective and you don’t know what to do next. I think “Can You Feel It” was a little overworked. It ended up being a classic song, though.

I thought “Heartbreak Hotel” [“This Place Hotel”] was a phenomenal song. It should’ve been a bigger hit than it was. It may have been a little bit ahead of its time. I thought the song was really creative and interesting. It was a great, great record. It was a composition written by Michael. It had the same title as the Elvis Presley hit from the 1950s. The song had a great groove. The lead vocals and harmonies from Michael were spectacular. He did all the harmonies. He sung every part including the backgrounds and his brothers voices were used as depth on the record. I’m still amazed by his vocals on it from his low to high harmonies. We would double each harmony. We had enough tracks to do that. If he sung a third, fifth, or seventh, we’d double or triple them to make them sound fuller. In my opinion, this was the stand out track from the album. It’s one of the better mixes on the album. The horn arrangement by Jerry Hey was just outstanding work. Latoya screaming on the record was one of the ideas Michael pulled out of his hat. He heard it in his head, and he called her to come down to the studio to record it. He’d hear something in his head and just make it happen. I couldn’t have made it through without my assistant engineer Ross Palone. On every song, we gave them everything we had.

One of the interesting anecdotes from that project was that Michael loved babies. My son was a baby when we were doing the session for this song. My wife would come to the studio sometimes and bring my son Andrew. As soon as my wife came through the door, he would just rip the baby away from her arms, play with him, and walk around the studio. There would be two other studio sessions going on and he would go in them and say, “Tom’s son is here. Isn’t he cute?” He really loved kids.

As you look back on the impact the album has made on popular culture, what are your feelings about the significance of the album and your role in shaping its sound?

Well, that’s an interesting question because I’ve been involved with a couple of albums that are held in the same regard. At the time, you’re doing it as a profession. I’ve always had a proprietary interest in my recordings. I’ve always felt like, whether I just engineered or produced, I felt that those records were my records. I think when you have a proprietary interest, you never feel like you’re there for hire. We were creating music that would have some kind of impact. If that album is thought of as a landmark album or a significant album, it’s probably because people have to come to recognize it as such. Sometimes, you have an inkling that you’re on to something, and that feeling was there when we made “Heartbreak Hotel” [“This Place Hotel”]. Generally, you’re just trying to do your best and please your clients. We left it all on the console. There was a great sense of camaraderie between us within the walls of the studio. It was a great experience. Being a part of this album was one of the highlights of my career.

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