THE CREATIVE DIRECTOR FOR CIRQUE DU SOLIEL’S MICHAEL JACKSON:
The Immortal tour, Jamie King, has been a longtime friend, and he’s the one
who asked me to be the musical designer for the show. Jamie was actually a
dancer with Michael Jackson a long time ago, and currently puts all the largest
pop shows together, from Madonna to Britney Spears to Jennifer Lopez. Jamie
introduced me to the executors of Michael’s estate—John Branca and John
McClain—and through them, Cirque du Soleil, and everyone at Sony Music, I
was given complete and unfettered access to all of Michael’s multitrack recordings,
delivered via hard drive. My job was to arrange and update the music for
the live show—no pressure! Here’s a brief chronicle of what I did.
Obviously, we wanted to have Michael’s biggest
hits in there, but we followed Jamie’s performance
storyline to craft the musical design and
song choices for the show. We were also given
the authority to completely rework his songs.
Once we had arranged the show and brought
the live band in, it was also my job to show
them the arrangements I’d put together, and to
make sure every musician had the right sounds
for them. Then Greg Phillinganes, the musical director, had to make sure everyone was playing
the parts the right way.
The entire show was built in MOTU Digital
Performer. I’ve been using it for years—it doesn’t
crash! Th e way it treats audio prevents it from
bottlenecking like some other programs often do.
It’s extremely responsive, and no other software
has the “chunks” feature. For example, right now
as I’m piecing together Madonna’s next tour, I
can have several songs open in the Chunks view, all in the same project file. With other programs,
you’d have to close one session and open another.
With DP, multiple multitrack songs can exist all
at once. That’s how I’m able to jump between
songs. I can drag-and-drop Chunks into other
Chunks, and I can save different arrangements
and interpretations of the same song. That happened
numerous times working on Immortal.
I assembled the music for Immortal in studios
all over North America. Some of the gear
I used included a 17-inch MacBook Pro, Glyph
hard drives, a MOTU 828 audio interface, and
later, an Apogee Symphony. I also used a Roland
Fantom-G7 and V-Synth GT, an Access Virus TI
Polar, and a Minimoog Voyager. My soft synths
included MOTU MachFive, EastWest Stormdrum,
and Native Instruments Massive and B4.
I also have a gigantic sound library—much of
which I’ve collected over the years from Foley
artists and DJs. Many of the show sounds came
from there as well.
I never worked with Michael Jackson personally,
but I’m one of the biggest fans on the planet.
I paid incredibly close attention to all the sounds
that the band uses and how closely they matched
the original records. For instance, I always make
sure the drummers I work with have hybrid kits
with multiple triggers, multiple snares, and electronic
pads. I helped the Immortal [and longtime
Jacksons] drummer, Jonathan “Sugarfoot” Moffett,
get “Billie Jean” to sound like the record. You
can play that beat on any kit, but it’s the sound of
those drums that makes that song recognizable
in the first bar. So I sampled the kick and snare
from the original recordings, and put them on an
electronic kick pedal and pad for him. The goal
since the start has been to sound like the records,
but with the band free to develop its own groove
and pocket. Many of the bass sounds came from
the Roland V-Synth GT. I made sure that the bass
player, Don Boyette, had a V-Synth, and I gave
him all the patches I used to create the sounds.
Another example is “Smooth Criminal.” There’s
a little solo in the middle of the song on the record.
So I went to the master recordings, sampled it in
MachFive, added a little bit of plate reverb, and then loaded it into Greg Phillinganes’ Korg Kronos
so he could play it live. Another interesting
technical thing about the Immortal sound design
is that because some of the key musical passages
in the show are medleys, I had to lay two
multitrack mixes on top of each other when this
happened. For example, there’s a moment where Jamie King wanted to use Naomi Campbell’s
spoken word part from “Keep It in the Closet,”
but in the song “Dangerous.” So I said, “Let’s take
it a step further!” I took the entire multitrack,
time-compressed it, pitched it to the same tempo
and key as “Dangerous,” and then used the entire
pre-chorus from “Keep It in the Closet” inside of
“Dangerous.” If you listen to the CD, you’ll hear
what I’m talking about. That happens a lot during
It’s easy to go so deep into technical details that
we forget the most important thing: What made
Michael Jackson so deep was his ability to break
things down to their essentials and go minimal.
That’s what we did when we incorporated “I’ll Be
There” into the show. We needed a minute and a
half of a song towards the end. So we made it a
Greg Phillinganes moment, because he was close to
Michael and he’s a legend in his own right. Greg and
I went to the studio where Celine Dion records, and
in three takes on their beautiful Steinway piano,
he duplicated the part that you hear on the record.
Each take was great, but the third one had the magic.
It’s just Greg on piano, and Michael’s 11-year-old
voice singing “I’ll Be There.”