The “Billie Jean” Bass Sound

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by Dave Polich

There are actually two bass lines for Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean” — the snaking main figure, and a secondary accent played a fifth above the root, falling only on the first and fourth eighth-notes of each bar. For the live version at the This Is It concerts, how was bassist Alex Al going to accomplish this? Two Minimoogs — that’s how! Here, we’ll replicate this using two instances of Arturia Minimoog V.

Alex dialed in the primary line, using a dark, rubbery bass sound, on his restored vintage Minimoog D, and played it with his right hand. Set the first two oscillators to sawtooth waveforms, both at the 16' pitch. Filter Cutoff is almost all the way down, filter Emphasis (resonance) is just a bit up from minimum, and Amount of Contour (filter envelope amount on other synths) is set to 3. Set the filter envelope Decay to about 210ms and the sustain level to 8 to get a sound shape similar to an electric bass guitar. The decay switch is off, Loudness Contour (Moog-speak for volume envelope) decay time is at about two o’clock, and loudness Sustain level is all the way up.

The accent line was a job for Alex’s left hand on his Minimoog Voyager Select. On this synth, while oscillator 1 was still a 16' sawtooth, oscillator 2 was outputting a sawtooth set to a fifth above oscillator 1. Filter Cutoff, Emphasis, and Amount of Contour were all at about nine o’clock, with the filter envelope Attack set to 200ms, Decay to 600ms, and Sustain level to 2. These settings give us a sort of “wow” sound. The Loudness Contour Attack and Decay are set to 300ms and 600ms, respectively, but the Sustain level is zero, because we want a very short-duration sound for this accent.