Michael Jackson Keyboard Sounds of His Signature Songs Then and Now

Part 1
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Part 1

On June 25, 2009, the world lost one of the most prodigious musical talents and greatest entertainers who ever lived. Keyboard had been in close touch with our friends working on the new This Is It concerts planned for London, including musical director and keyboardist Michael Bearden, supertech and regular Keyboard columnist Mike McKnight, and master sound designer Dave Polich. They’d intended to give us a comprehensive, behind-the-scenes tour of the talent and technology that went into this production, as soon as their work schedules and agreements allowed. We’d even been told that due to our June ’09 cover story on Bearden’s playing at President Obama’s inauguration, Michael Jackson himself was aware of the magazine and open in principle to doing an interview.

We can think of no better way to pay tribute to Michael than to explore the sounds that, for all keyboard players, are as indelible a part of his musical legacy as his soaring voice and inimitable dance moves. Below, we’re privileged to have Michael Boddicker — part of the Thriller dream team that included fellow keyboard titans Greg Phillinganes and Steve Porcaro — recall how key sounds on Thriller and Off the Wall were originally created. Also, recording legend Bruce Swedien reminisces on a life of working closely with Jackson. Then, Dave Polich goes into painstaking detail about designing sounds and dividing keyboard duties on recent This Is It rehearsals.

Above all, keep this music alive by playing the tunes and recreating the sounds yourself. —Stephen Fortner, Editor

THEN: The Vintage Keys of Thriller

by Michael Boddicker

The recording of Thriller, now universally known as the biggest-selling album of all time, assembled an incredible creative team that was a life-changing experience to be a part of. From Michael to Quincy Jones to us musicians, all the way down the line, everyone was completely focused on making this record a game-changer. Here’s how we originally did many of the keyboard sounds.

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The “Beat It” digital gong. Tom Bähler played a demo sound that came with his Synclavier — literally a factory patch, right out of the box. He had the good taste to discover and apply it in exactly the right place at the right time in musical history. Part of producer Quincy Jones’ production strategy was to assemble a team of people who were capable of writing, arranging, and producing records in their own right. Tom is a brilliant songwriter.

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The “Human Nature” signature synth string part. That was Steve Porcaro’s track. He used a Yamaha CS-80 with glide (chromatic instead of portamento) at the head — it’s got that nice little CS fuzz around the sound. That fuzz was also part of a multi-layered sound I used for the four-chord basic string vamp on “Billie Jean” — Michael Jackson himself played that part on a CS-80 in one take. No punches. No repairs. No sequencers or time correction. Seven minutes. Perfect performance.

We fattened the pad a little on the body, and the line that counters the vocal on the second half of the first “Human Nature” chorus is my sound playing a line written by Rod Temperton. The sound and part were later supplanted by background vocals, but the basic, main lines, solo and most layers are from Steve Porcaro — based on a demo he wrote when he was 17 years old!

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The “P.Y.T.” synth noodle that answers the chorus vocal. That was a Roland Jupiter-6 “wang bar”-style pitch bend doubled with, and controlling, a Sequential Circuits Prophet-5, thus the sort of smear you can hear on the “wobble” between the top two notes. I recall the keyboards were set on the very top of a stand so they were practically at ear level!

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The big synth blasts that begin “Thriller.” A Roland Jupiter-8 in double four-voice mode, with the modulation “wheel” opening the filter. I was always afraid it sounded cheesy, but it’s withstood the test of time. There’s no shape to the sound, just a sort of fizz or buzz, until the hold where I close the filter. It was tracked multiple times with a slightly different timbre and tuning each time.

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The main comping sound of “Don’t Stop ’Til You Get Enough.” Andy Leeds owned an Eddy Reynolds-modified, flat-top Rhodes 88. This was the same Rhodes used by David Foster and David Paich on so many hit recordings of the ’80s. We put that through my Paul Rivera-modified Roland CE1 chorus. The key ingredient, though, was keyboardist Greg Phillinganes, whose pocket is deeper than the Mariana Trench.

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The lush pad on “P.Y.T.” (after Michael sings “I’ll take you there . . .”). It sounds multitracked, but really, it’s not. It’s a singletrack sample of Michael Jackson’s voice, done on an E-mu Emulator I — serial number 1, in fact! We then used this mode the Emulator had where you could sample the sound twice, then detune one of the voices while in “unison” mode. It was recorded with lots of top end added, and Bruce Swedien’s special reverb known as “spit.” Quincy Jones would say, “Sven, put some spit on it!”

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The synth basses on “Thriller,” “P.Y.T.,” and “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’.” Those were my two Richie Walbourn-modified Minimoogs, set side by side, with engineer Bruce Swedien’s special multiple-mono compression.

On all of the great records I’ve been involved with — Cheap Trick, Lionel Richie, Toto, Barbra Streisand, and Michael Jackson — the producers made real decisions along the way. They didn't leave everything to the mix phase. It takes guts to make commitments. Bruce Swedien has an approach to recording that says, “What are you afraid of? If you don’t like it, let’s erase it and get it right.” Quincy Jones had guts and a tight hold on the reins. The rest is musical history.

Bruce Swedien on Michael Jackson

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Left to right: Producer Quincy Jones, Jackson, and über-engineer Bruce Swedien, who worked on all of Jackson’s recordings. “Michael was the most focused musician I’ve ever known, with a supernatural work ethic,” Swedien told us by phone. “He’d do something over and over again until he felt it was perfect. At the same time, he was a warm human being — totally respectful of your time and ideas. He’d often do lyrics with the lights out, singing from memory. I don’t recall recording any other artist who didn’t have a lyric sheet in front of them. I also don’t remember him ever showing up to a session late; he was usually early. I’d also like to attest to the integrity of Quincy Jones, as Thriller changed pop permanently. At the first session, Q said, ‘We’re here to save the music business.’ And he meant it.” About the Michael Jackson whose personal life was subject to lurid media voyeurism, Swedien is emphatic: “Nope. I never met that guy.” -Stephen Fortner

Tracking the “Workin’ Day and Night” Brass

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[Though not originally played on keyboards, keyboardists in cover bands are often called upon to play this monster horn line from the Off the Wall album. It features a rapid-fire sixteenth-note figure with many layers, and sounds like every other note is panned to the opposite side of the stereo field. In fact, that’s just what they did. –Ed.]

This was Jerry Hey’s horn arrangement, with the usual suspects playing: Chuck Findley, Larry Hall, and/or Gary Grant on trumpets, Larry Williams and Kim Hutchcroft on saxes, Bill Reichenbach on trombone — all incredible musical athletes who, under Jerry’s direction, actually split the chart to play every other sixteenth-note on alternately-panned tracks! At the same time, they were working the mics to create spatial dynamics. This was the pre-DAW days, dudes and dudettes! There was no time correction, just brilliant musicianship, conception, and execution — and Bruce Swedien’s engineering.

We sweetened the punches to put some “special sauce” on the big hits at the end of the break — but did they really need it? Bruce Swedien tweaked the EQ on a Harrison console. It took what in those days seemed like forever, but it was only maybe 15 minutes. This era was pre-cell phone and pre-video game. Everyone in the room was completely and utterly focused on making the best possible record . . . but I digress. Maybe Keyboard — or Psychology Today — will one day ask me to write an article on why such great music came out before the Internet, video games, and cell phones took over our corporate attention spans. -Michael Boddicker

NOW: Sound Design and Keyboards for the This Is It Concerts

by Dave Polich

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On April 21st, Bob Rice, the synth programmer originally hired for Michael Jackson’s This Is It concerts in London, asked if I could replace him, as he was taking on another tour. It took me two seconds to answer “Yes!” The next day, I visited a rehearsal, and by the end of that day, I was hired. Over a celebratory dinner with my wife, the magnitude of the job I’d taken on began to sink in. This was to be the biggest music show on earth, and the sounds had to be the signature sounds from the records — only larger than life.

Key Choices

The first order of business was to decide what gear we’d use. For musical director and keyboardist Michael Bearden, we went with a Yamaha Motif XS8, a Korg M3- 73, and an Open Labs Neko LX5 and Muse Receptor 2 Pro, both running many VST soft synths.

Morris Pleasure, our second keyboardist, got a Yamaha Motif XS8 and XS7, another Korg M3-73, and a Korg CX3 organ run through a new Leslie 3300 miked below the stage. The Motifs all had 1GB of sample RAM, and the M3s each had EX-MB memory and Radias virtual analog expansion boards. Both keyboardists had MacBook Pros running MOTU Digital Performer 5.13 to control patch changes. [For keyboard diagrams, and more info on program changes, click here. –Ed.]

Props for MVPs

Putting together and maintaining all this gear, designing and ordering cases, trunks, cable connection systems, stands, snakes, seats, even lights for each keyboard rig, wouldn’t have been possible at all without two amazing techs — Tim Myer, a veteran of past Michael Jackson tours, and a producer/musician in his own right, and Keith Uddin, an upand- coming mixer/producer who has twirled the knobs for No Doubt, the Cure, Bono and many other artists — Keith dropped everything for the Michael Jackson gig. Tim and Keith kept track of everything in “keyboard world,” and were true beacons standing in the middle of all the craziness that surrounded this gig.

Making Audio Tracks into Synth Patches

Next were the sounds for the songs themselves. For each song, I got split-outs of the separate keyboard tracks from Mike McKnight — he always came through! If he didn’t have isolated tracks, I’d get them from Mike Prince, who had all the original multitrack sessions. One afternoon, I saw them both walking towards me with faked looks of horror on their faces, like the last thing they needed from me was another track request. That cracked me up for the rest of the day!

For sounds like strings, brass, pianos, EPs, and organs, I would listen to the isolated tracks as references, then decide which synth to use, then try to match it as closely as possible. For signature sounds such as the “Beat It” gong, nothing but the original sound from the record would do.

So, I’d cut the original track up into individual notes in BIAS Peak, then use Celemony Melodyne to re-create the missing notes, so I’d have at least a full octave of samples. I then loaded those samples into either a Yamaha Motif XS or a Korg M3, and created a patch using the samples, so each player could trigger them in real time. I always wanted at least an octave for each sound, because we weren’t always sure whether the song would be performed in the same key as the record.

Other signature sounds for which I took this approach included hits and stabs, originally done mainly on Roland samplers. For incidental sounds such as the “Smooth Criminal” machine gun or the footstep and suitcase noises for the bit Michael would do right before “Billie Jean,” Mike McKnight recorded new sounds from scratch.

The synths were always in their multitimbral modes — “Performance” on the Yamahas and “Combi” on the Korgs — so there could be up to a four-way split or layer of patches.

Sound Sources

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Without question, our go-to source for string sounds was the “String Ens Sustain” patch in Project Sam’s library Symphobia [See our review in the Dec. ’08 issue. –Ed.]. It just sounds like a real string orchestra in a hall. Michael Bearden played Symphobia from Native Instruments Kontakt 3 running on his NeKo. Morris Pleasure triggered Symphobia strings and brass in Kontakt 3 as well, only running in a “V-rack” in DP on his MacBook Pro. The Motif string and brass sounds came from my own DCP libraries, specifically Complete Orchestra and Brass.

Generally, Michael Bearden played most of the acoustic and electric piano sounds, along with some strings, pads, and signature sounds. The majority of his Motif acoustic and electric pianos were custom voices I’d done — a few electric and acoustic piano sounds were on his M3, and a couple of Synthogy Ivory pianos came from his Receptor, triggered from his Motif XS8.

Morris Pleasure played a lot of orchestral sounds, pads, bells, guitar sounds, some special effects, and organ parts — always from the Korg CX3. Sometimes I layered string and brass sounds from the soft synths, along with strings and brass on either the Motifs or the M3s.

Who Played What

Here’s a breakdown of what each keyboardist played on key songs from the This Is It set list. To get this info for even more tunes from this set list, read this story at keyboardmag.com.

“Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’”

Michael Bearden: Wurlitzer electric piano on Motif XS8, string pad on Korg M3, and orchestral hits from Symphobia on NeKo LX5.

Morris Pleasure: Pads on both Yamaha Motifs, horn parts on his M3, and agogo bell sound for the chorus vamps on his XS8.

“Human Nature”

Michael Bearden: Main FM piano sound, which I custom-built using Native Instruments FM8, running on the Receptor and triggered from his Motif XS8 keyboard. Also played a high string sound on Korg M3.

Morris Pleasure: Analog string and pad on Motif XS8, signature synth-horn lead sound on Korg M3.

“Beat It”

Michael Bearden: For the signature intro “gong” sound, I took the sample from the original record, and using Melodyne, created an octave of “gongs” which then were loaded into a Motif voice mapped to the lowest octave of his XS8. Above that was a layer of DX electric piano and chorused Rhodes. Additional analog strings on the choruses came from the Korg M3.

Morris Pleasure: Analog strings layered with pads on XS8, more strings on M3, and sound effects on Motif XS7.


Michael Bearden: The primary sound was the “Thriller Rhodes,” a layer of FM and Rhodes-like electric piano and on the Motif XS8. The pipe organ during Vincent Price’s “rap” is “Majestic Pipes,” from one of my own DCP libraries for the Motif XS — it’s a slight variation on the “Toccata” voice from that library. The acoustic and synth brass layer for the big chords at the top of the song was programmed on the Korg M3s.

Morris Pleasure: Sweeping analog pads, the synth marimba from the middle section, and additional brass stabs on XS8, the eerie theremin sound (from my DCP library Vintage Keys) on XS7, and dark brass comps on M3.

“Billie Jean”

Michael Bearden: Signature brass and vocal “hooh, hooh” sound on Korg M3, along with a chorused FM electric piano and Rhodes layer on his Motif XS8. He also triggered a layer consisting of Symphobia strings and NI Pro-53 strings on the NeKo LX5.

Morris Pleasure: Fast string runs on M3, which was triggering Symphobia strings. Analog strings layered with an emulation of the famous Roland D-50 “Fantasia” patch on the XS8, and analog synth horn lead, programmed on his XS7.

Off the Wall Medley: “Shake Your Body,” “Don’t Stop ’Til You Get Enough,” and “Rock With You.”

Michael Bearden: Piano and electric piano duties on Motif XS8, and sforzando brass parts for “Don’t Stop” on Korg M3. Additional string lines were Symphobia layered with the Vienna Instruments French horns in Kontakt 3 on the NeKo LX5.

Morris Pleasure: Fast string lines from Symphobia in DP, triggered from a zone on his Motif XS8, and layered with some XS8 strings. He doubled the brass parts on the Korg M3 as well. For “Shake Your Body,” staccato brass morphing into a brass “fall” cluster was called for, so I created a staccato voice on the XS8 which would switch to the “fall” when assignable switch 2 was pressed. Then, I put that voice in the song’s Performance on his XS8. This was probably one of the most complex Performances I had to set up for the show.


Michael Bearden: Signature “Jam” stabs on his Motif XS8, sampled from the original record’s stabs created by Teddy Riley. Bright analog synth brass on the XS8, and a split on the Korg M3 which had a pad in the lower octaves and some section horns in the upper ones.

Morris Pleasure: Doubled the “Jam” stabs on his Motif XS8, and played a vocal/synth pad on his XS7, plus section brass on Korg M3.

“Smooth Criminal”

Michael Bearden: The machine gun came from Mike McKnight — I put those samples on the lowest keys of Bearden’s Korg M3, and a chorused electric piano on the upper octaves. The signature FM “comp” sound was on the lower half of his Motif XS8, up to middle C, and above that was a shakuhachi-like lead.

Morris Pleasure: He triggered strings and pads on his Motif XS8, along with a Minimoog- style lead on his XS8, and some brass ensemble sounds on his XS7 and his M3.

“The Way You Make Me Feel”

Michael Bearden: The brass comp sound for this song, originally a Yamaha CS-80, came from Bearden’s Motif XS8. He also played Symphobia string lines on his NeKo. I created some brass and string stabs for him on his M3 — he played these to accentuate some of the dancers’ moves. Those hits weren’t on the original record, but Michael Jackson wanted them for the show.

Morris Pleasure: Additional string lines using Symphobia (again, running on the V-rack in Digital Performer), layered with strings from his XS8 and M3. He also played additional Symphobia brass hits triggered from his XS8 and XS7. Morris had a lot of moves to handle — what seemed like a ton of zones and splits!

Jackson Five Medley: “The Love You Save, “ABC,” and “I’ll Be There”

Michael Bearden: Acoustic and electric piano on his XS8, with additional strings on his M3.

Morris Pleasure: Covered strings and brass parts on both Motifs, which were also triggering Symphobia string sounds from the Digital Performer V-rack. The signature harpsichord and vibes for “I’ll Be There” were on his M3.

“We Are the World/Heal the World” Medley

Michael Bearden: Acoustic piano layered with DX7-style FM electric pianos on his XS8, along with a deep analog synth pad, which was also on the XS8 and levelcontrolled via a slider in Performance mode. He also triggered Symphobia strings layered with Vienna Instruments symphonic brass on his NeKo.

Morris Pleasure: A soft, Rhodes-style sound on Motif XS8, along with some analog-style synth pads on Korg M3, for “We Are the World.” For the start of “Heal the World,” Morris played a glockenspiel sound on XS8 to accompany Bearden’s piano lines, then switched to an arpeggiated acoustic guitar on his XS7 with his right hand while playing string lines on XS8 with his left — quite a workout!

Except for synth pictures and where otherwise noted, photos in this article are used by permission and courtesy of Hal Leonard, publishers of recording engineer Bruce Swedien’s new book, In the Studio with Michael Jackson. You can order it at musicdispatch.com, and just for reading Keyboard, get a 25% discount — enter promo code NY9 at checkout.

Bass and Percussion

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Synth bass and percussion called for two of the best musicians on the planet: Alex Al on bass and Bashiri Johnson on percussion.

The synth portion of Alex’s rig (left) included a Minimoog Voyager Select, a refurbished Minimoog D, and a rack with two each of Studio Electronics SE-1s, Roland D-550s and XV-5080s, and ’80s-era Yamaha TX802 FM synth modules, controlled by Roland Alpha-Juno synths. On some songs, Alex actually played bass guitar and synth bass at the same time!

Bashiri (right) had tons of acoustic percussion, but played electronic parts from two Roland SPD-20s, plus six Flat Pads and four Fat Pedals from DrumTech. “I was actually Michael’s first live percussionist,” he explains. “My mission was not only to lay the groundwork for myself, but for future percussionists who might tour with him. So [tech] Brian Girard and I really pushed the envelope on this rig.” Sound sources included the SPD-20 internal sounds and a Roland TD-12 (V-Drums) sound module. Dave Polich

The Michael Jackson gig was three months of 14- to 16-hour days, seven days a week. It was without a doubt the most demanding gig of my life, but also the most unique and rewarding. It surely wasn’t a job for the faint of heart or weak of knees, but it definitely made me a better programmer and led me to think up solutions to problems I’d never have otherwise encountered.