What do we do about Thriller? On its fortieth anniversary, it remains the best-selling album of all time, a meteor of song and dance whose impact tremors still vibrate the ground beneath the feet of every would-be pop star today. And yet there is a reason it has been relegated to a small Q&A, rather than an entire commemorative issue, and I don’t need to tell you what that reason is. You know it. Perhaps you even felt it—the uncomfortable tightening of the guts as you clicked on this article and wondered if you should have.
Thriller is as much a part of me as my left hand. It came out the year I was born and was still the touchstone of the music world by the time I was old enough to pay attention. Watching Michael Jackson fling his hat and moonwalk across the stage at the Motown 25 concert; watching him turn into a zombie and haunt my nightmares in the “Thriller” video; watching him dance in that red leather jacket in the “Beat It” video and wanting one so badly it hurt—these are among my first memories, not just of music but of life itself. Michael Jackson was my first hero. I made my parents play the Thriller cassette so many times, the tape warped and we had to buy a new one.
And yet, I also remember the rest of the story. The descent into what looked, from the outside, like madness; the media circuses; the accusations of the worst crime short of murder.
The funk of forty years hangs heavy over Thriller.
Five years ago, I had the good fortune to meet Bruce Swedien and become friendly with his daughter and wife. Swedien, in addition to being the most important audio engineer in history, was the technical wizard behind all of Michael’s work from Off the Wall to HIStory (and he worked on parts of Invincible). As I thought about the fortieth anniversary of Thriller and what it meant in light of what came after it, I couldn’t help but think of Bruce and how many of the album’s monumental achievements belong to him. And to Quincy Jones. And to Rod Temperton. And to a dozen other artists who gave everything they had to this album. Michael Jackson didn’t record Thriller by himself. It was no bedroom masterpiece. It took the dedication, and sweat, and tears, and guts of several geniuses working at the height of their abilities. And that is worth celebrating.
Bruce died in 2020. Lying in his hospital bed, when a young doctor or nurse would ask about his life, he’d say, “You ever heard of Thriller?” This was a man who was nominated for his first Grammy in 1962 for the Four Seasons’ “Big Girls Don’t Cry,” and won his first twenty years later for Thriller. A man who recorded Duke Ellington and Dinah Washington, who had a picture of Oscar Peterson in his studio, on which Peterson had written, “To Bruce, the man who knows how to record this trio!” He recorded the Chi-Lites’ “Oh Girl,” George Benson’s “Give Me the Night,” and Quincy’s The Dude. But he knew Thriller was the one, above all others, that made him immortal.
To understand more about how Bruce and Quincy worked together to create a sound that shook the world, and what it was like to sit in the control room as the undisputed king of records was made, I spoke with Bruce’s second engineer, Matt Forger, who remembers it all. In his long career as an engineer, mixer, and producer, Forger has worked with Michael, the Jacksons, Patti Austin, Donna Summer, James Ingram, Herb Alpert, and Jeffrey Osborne.
How did you get involved with Thriller?
While we were working with Donna Summer, Bruce turned to me and said, “Matt, our next project is going to be Michael Jackson. You will be very proud to have your name on this album.” The team was Michael, Bruce, Quincy, and Rod Temperton, and I was sort of the fifth member because I was there all the time.
I’ve heard that after the success of Off the Wall, everyone came into this album intending to make the greatest thing ever.
Bruce and Quincy were very excited. They knew they were going to make something great. Quincy and Bruce, their mindset was whatever I’m working on right now is going to be the absolute best it can be. No compromising, no shortcuts. Nothing got by them. Working with professionals at that level causes anyone who steps in the room to raise their game. But they didn’t have any idea what Thriller was going to be. None of us did.
By this point, Quincy and Bruce had worked together on The Wiz and The Dude, among other things. What was their relationship like when you started Thriller?
They had a language between themselves because they had worked so much together. Sometimes Quincy would say, “Make the color a little more vibrant,” and Bruce knew what he meant. They also loved to eat together, and Quincy would use food metaphors. Quincy would say, “Put a little salt on that.” Bruce would do it, and they’d just share a smile. They didn’t even need to speak to each other. Once you get into that state of flow, you share the wavelength. You start anticipating what someone else is thinking or feeling. You get to a point where you are so focused on the creative expression, it doesn’t matter what task you’re performing. Quincy would ask Rod Temperton, “Can we put some counterpoint here,” and Bruce would have an idea maybe to make a sonic contrast. His concept of sound was like no one I’ve ever met. He understood it in such depth. When someone was doubling their voice, on the second take, he’d say, “Take two steps back from the microphone.” And on the next take, “Take two steps back again.” He was painting with sound.
What was the studio technology like back then?
In that era of work, even though we weren’t working on computers, there was still an amazing amount of technology. A lot of the equipment was microprocessor controlled. We were using multiple tape machines, an automated console that could remember the moves Bruce was making on the desk, and some of the outboard gear—the guys from Toto would bring in a ton of synthesizer gear. This was pre-MIDI; this was all control voltage instrumentation. Interfacing that into the studio environment. When Quincy talked about building a team, you desire to build a team with people who have multiple disciplines so you get the strongest person in multiple fields. That’s what the dynamic was in the studio. It got to the point where I could anticipate what Bruce was going to say. He’d turn to me and say, “Matt, we need—” and I’d say, “Yep, got it.” It’s like when you see a flock of birds and they all go this way and that way together. Every day was an exciting challenge. What’s going to happen today? The thing I learned working with Bruce and Quincy was that the technical side followed the artistic vision. Technology now often dictates the creative end, but for Bruce and Quincy, their inventiveness, their creativity, their way of finding a place to go that would set it apart was unparalleled. Bruce would always talk about a “sonic signature,” something that makes each song unique.
What was the writing process for Thriller? Were the songs already set when you began recording, or were you writing as you went?
It was a process of exploration and discovery. We started the record, and it kind of took on its own life. When Michael’s energy and vision moved it forward, the other things started to coalesce around it. One example of that is that when we originally went in, Rod had written a song called “Starlight,” and it was a good pop song, but when we got into things and everybody started to see the strength of the material we had, plus the energy of the songs Michael had written, Rod assessed the song in his mind and realized “Starlight” wasn’t quite the right song for the unique direction this album was taking. So, using the same music, he rewrote the lyrics, and that song became “Thriller.” Rod said to me, “I went to sleep, thinking about, ‘Where could this song go, what could it be?’ I woke up in the morning, and the word ‘thriller’ came in my mind, and I had it.”
What was Michael’s writing process?
He would bring in a song in demo form. He had a funky sixteen-track studio in his guesthouse. He worked with an engineer at that studio. He’d bring in the demo that would be a good indication of what the song was about, but we were using hundreds of tracks, so he couldn’t do the whole production by himself. He didn’t play any instruments, but the songs would come to him in many cases, nearly fully developed in his mind. He’d beatbox the drum pattern. I have never heard anyone beatbox like Michael. Then he’d say, “Next track,” and sing the bass line. “Next track,” and he’d sing the guitar line. “Next track,” and he’d sing a synth or a string line. Now we had something to play to a musician who could put the sounds on an instrument. Maybe he’d sing the guitar to David Williams, who was the guy we used most often. If David wouldn’t do it exactly the way he wanted it, he’d make him do it again. He knew precisely what he wanted on every part.
You had the guys from Toto writing as well, right?
They did “Human Nature.” It’s a great story. [Keyboardists] Steve Porcaro and David Paich worked together so well. David was more the musician and Steve was more the programmer—though Steve is an excellent musician on his own. But David had written several songs to submit to Quincy, because Quincy realized we needed a few more songs to fill out the emotional touchstones. Steve had an old cassette tape with some of his ideas recorded on it, and they just recorded over it and put some songs David had written on the A-side to give to Quincy, not even thinking about what was on the rest of the tape. Quincy was at home listening to the tape, and he had an auto-reverse tape deck, so when it got to the end of David’s songs, it started playing the other side of the tape automatically, and the other side was Steve’s sketch, not even a fully formed demo, of “Human Nature.” Steve had a young daughter who liked this guy at school, but he wasn’t treating her very nice, and Steve had to give his daughter advice as dad, and he said, “Sometimes, that’s just human nature.” And of course, once he uttered the phrase, it rolled around in his mind and he composed it. It comes from a very pure emotional and personal and sincere place. That’s the vibe. The emotional vibe of any song, the DNA, the fingerprint is in the songwriting.
When Quincy heard it, his instincts immediately kicked in. The lights went off. He called and said, “What is that? I’ve gotta have that.” They didn’t even know what it was. It was just some forgotten snippet of a song. They were just reusing the cassette. Some people don’t believe in accidents. The universe works in ways that everything happens for a reason. However that works out, that’s how we ended up with “Human Nature.”
Were any of the songs created in the studio?
The song that came closest to being written in the studio was “P.Y.T.” Quincy realized we still needed a couple more songs about the same time “Human Nature” showed up. Michael said, [imitates high Michael Jackson voice] “I do have this one idea. I call it ‘P.Y.T.’ Pretty young thing.” James Ingram was hanging with us in the studio because he was scheduled to work with Quincy on his album after we finished Thriller. So Quincy said to James and Michael, “Okay, this is the hook: P.Y.T. Pretty young thing. Write a song around that, and we’ll see who comes up with the best idea.” Michael went home and wrote a song in his studio. James came up with a funky thing and played that with Quincy, and they collaborated on developing that idea. When they heard Michael’s song, they said, “That’s good, but…” Michael’s version [is] slower. It’s a great song, but that’s what Quincy brought to producing. He knew it wasn’t right. Quincy understood the business cold. Every week, Quincy would get Billboard, and he’d circle songs on the charts and figure out what was succeeding. He knew how to have a collection of songs on an album.
Bruce was famous for using creative techniques in his recordings. For instance, there’s the kick drum cover he made to get that sound on “Billie Jean,” which was played by Ndugu Chancler. And I’ve heard he had Michael sing through a cardboard tube to create an effect on the backing vocals. Tell me about that sort of creativity coming from the technical side.
The kick-drum cover came from the Chicago days. He had that for a long time. When you get a live set of drums in the studio, the kick is so big and has so much energy, it bleeds out into the room. The cover isolated the drum and deadened the ring. Bruce knew all these tricks like that. He created a plywood platform and would always record drums on it. He wanted raw wood, not finished or painted. There’s a certain sonic quality of the reflection that comes back off raw wood. The more you smooth out the surface, the more reflective it becomes. You get a higher-frequency reflection. His ears were so good, he could hear the difference. He was ahead of his time.
In the room we recorded Thriller in, they had a drum booth, a riser built into the corner of the room. Above it was a large amount of absorptive acoustic material. Bruce refused to record drums there because they were too deadened. It took the life away from the drums. The tube was Michael’s idea. It was a mailing tube [that] Michael brought into the studio himself. Quincy and Bruce looked at him with questioning eyes, and Michael said, “This is for that line, ‘Do think twice,’ in ‘Billie Jean.’” Bruce said, “Ohhh, I know exactly what microphone to use on that.”
Everybody was operating at 120 percent. There’s never been an experience like that in my career. When it was time for a playback, Bruce would do a rough mix, and I’d say, “You know, I haven’t heard anything like this before.”
I’ve heard Eddie Van Halen made the speakers catch fire with his guitar solo on “Beat It.” Is that true?
It’s become urban legend, but in fact what happened was the workload got so heavy, Bruce and Quincy were working in Studio A and they sent me to engineer in Studio B across the hall at Westlake Studio [in Los Angeles]. Eddie’s amplifier shorted out the circuitry and sent straight DC current to the woofer. The speaker started smoking because it was heated up to such a high degree. In terms of there being flames shooting out of the speaker, there weren’t. But it was glowing red and smoking. We did have to hit it with a fire extinguisher. It was just an electronic malfunction. I know; I was the person who recorded it.
I’ve also heard he did it in one take.
That’s another urban legend. He did three or four takes. They were incredible performances. He knew what he wanted to play. It was just a matter of executing the phrasing. The engineer who did the Van Halen albums was there to make sure the sound was pure Eddie.
How did the sessions work? Did Michael cut the songs live, singing with the band?
“The Girl Is Mine” was a live tracking date. Basically, it was Toto, Michael, and Paul McCartney singing live. The rest of the songs were recorded one musician at a time and layered.
There’s another famous story that after finishing the album, you played it for the record-label brass and it sounded terrible. What really happened there?
We were working nonstop around the clock. The hours were horrendous. Everyone was stretched to the maximum. One night, Bruce wrapped himself up in a packing blanket and took a nap under the console. Everyone was so fatigued, we didn’t have the opportunity to do a test of assembling all the songs and seeing what the running time was. They figured out the sequence but didn’t cut it together and take it home and listen. There wasn’t time. I was working on a final mix of “Billie Jean,” and Bruce had already left the studio with the reels of the album to go master it. It wasn’t until seven or eight in the morning that I finished “Billie Jean,” and a messenger drove the tape over to Bruce, who was in mastering, and they cut that song in. We literally didn’t finish until the very last moment. Michael loved a long intro in a song because he loved to dance. So all the songs were long. Once they had it assembled and had it in mastering, they realized it was too long. When you’re on vinyl, the compromise is between how much time you can put on each side, and the volume and low-frequency response. The longer it is, the more you have to cut the volume and the low end. So we were giving up a huge part of the sound because it was so long. Everyone wanted it to sound phenomenal, but it didn’t have that quality. At that point in the process, when you’re finishing an album, you need to have the best perception, but everyone had nothing but fatigue.
After working so hard and so long, that must have been devastating.
I was breaking down the studio, and here comes Bruce back in from mastering. He has a long face. He’s not in a good mood. He said, “Matt, go home.” I started to respond, but before I opened my mouth, he said, “Go home.” He knew how bad it was. I had been awake for two days. I went home. They did their listening party on Friday, and the executive was popping the champagne saying, “You did it,” but every musician in the room is thinking, “This is horrendous. We cannot let this out.” Whatever Quincy was able to do, speaking with Walter Yetnikoff to push the deadline back a week, he made it clear that if that album was released, it wouldn’t succeed. I got a call later from Bruce. “Matt, this is our plan. We’re taking the weekend off, and we’re hitting it Monday morning. We’re remixing the album. It sounds terrible, but we know what we need to do. Shorten the songs, do some more editing.” In the course of the next week, we remixed every song, tested it all, and got it to the optimum length, satisfied ourselves artistically and technically.
Why was it so hard to change the deadline?
The reason the deadline was so imposing was that the single “The Girl Is Mine” was already released. And 1981 and 1982 were huge slump years for the record industry, so the label knew the Michael Jackson album would make or break them. They had booked every pressing plant they could find around the country just for this album. So there was a huge commercial, financial interest in getting the record out on time. To push back the date at that point meant ruining all those plans. When we finally did finish mastering the album, they ran the pressing plants around the clock to meet demand for the number of albums they needed to have.
What was it like to watch the album succeed the way it did?
I remember one day Bruce, Quincy, and I were in the control room during the recording. I turned around and was making notations on something, and Bruce was working on the console, and all of a sudden Quincy was behind me. He said, “Matt, what do you think of this album? What do you think this album’s going to do?” Quincy was just curious. None of us knew. None of us could predict. The first single released was “The Girl Is Mine,” and when people heard it they thought, “It’s just another pop song.” Then “Billie Jean” comes out and Michael does Motown 25. Then “Beat It” comes out and the video was such an event. It was a phenomenon. Then the record label didn’t think there was another single. Michael said, “There’s ‘Thriller.’” But the album had been out for a year by that point. They didn’t want to spend the money to promote an old project. Michael said, “We gotta do a short film.” He was a big fan of John Landis [who directed American Werewolf in London], and Rick Baker, who did makeup. As soon as the label heard what he wanted to do, they said it was too expensive, so Michael looked at how to finance it himself. He and John came up with the idea of filming the “making of” and preselling the rights to it. Then they lined up the world premiere for television and went full bore. Up to that point, the album was doing really well, but when it hit that video, it went out of the stratosphere and out of the atmosphere. I remember we were working on the James Ingram album It’s Your Night, and Quincy came in and said, “Guys, the Thriller album has gone platinum—in Los Angeles.” It sold a million copies in L.A. alone. People were wearing out the record and going back and buying a second copy. Bruce’s daughter told me she was in the foothills of the Himalayas and she heard it blasting from a shop there. It shrunk the world.