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The 40 greatest synth sounds of all time, No 30: Michael Jackson - Billie Jean

Not many songs are instantly recognisable just from a couple of synth chords, but Billie Jean is one. The song remains one of the biggest singles of all time with over 10 million copies sold to date.

Yamaha CS-80

(Image credit: Future)

Year: 1983
Original Synth: CS-80
CM Plugin: DuneCM, ThornCM

Co-produced by the legendary Quincy Jones alongside the king of pop himself, the song is a masterpiece of music production thanks to its stripped-back grooves, unique drum sound, clever recording techniques (backing vocals sung through a cardboard tube, anyone?) and creative use of then pioneering music tech. 

And painstaking doesn't really cover it; even the mix by Bruce Swedien, who normally nailed his mixes in one take, was done over 90 times.

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The iconic, string-like chords in the intro were laid down by Jackson himself using a Yamaha CS-80 alongside a splash of reverb for effect. Here, we’ll be using DuneCM alongside ThornCM, included free with every issue of Computer Music, to create our own version of this iconic synth sound.

Synth sounds, Billie Jean

(Image credit: AudioThing)

Step 1: "This was created using two distinct preset voices on the Yamaha CS-80 (String 1 and Brass 2), we’ll take a pair of synths to mimic it, so load DuneCM and ThornCM on separate channels. Open DuneCM and String Section preset. Reduce the channel to -6dB to balance the volume.

Synth sounds, Billie Jean

(Image credit: AudioThing)

Step 2: The original has a more staccato feel than this string preset, so reduce the Amp Env Release to 35%. Turn to the brass layer. Open ThornCM, and load the PAD Brass preset. Increase the Max Voices from four to eight, so ThornCM doesn’t run out of voices on the third chord.

Synth sounds, Billie Jean

(Image credit: AudioThing)

Step 3: Disable the onboard delay and reverb effects, then reduce output Volume to 15%, so our two layers are balanced. Reducing the Amp Env’s Release to 25% gives a tighter sound to our layered synth combo. Reducing Filter Cutoff to 150Hz lets the string patch shine.

Synth sounds, Billie Jean

(Image credit: AudioThing)

Step 4: Change ThornCM’s Master Tuning to -24, so the patch shifts down an octave for thickness. Add reverb to glue the patches. Group both synths, and add HY-FX CM. Choose the reverb preset, and set Decay to around 8 o’clock. Set Wet/Dry to around 20% to finish.

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