Join us for our traditional look back at the news and features that floated your boat this year. This story was originally published in January.
Best of 2023: You might know which synths were used on Michael Jackson’s Thriller album - we’ve told you, in fact - but have you ever seen Greg Phillinganes, the man who played keyboards across the record, recreating the synth parts from the title track?
We suspect not, but you can now do exactly that thanks to the Stories in the Room podcast, which sees synth programmers Anthony Marinelli and Steven Ray - who also worked on Thriller - taking Phillinganes back more than 40 years and giving him everything he needs to play the song’s chords and bassline.
Written by Rod Temperton, Phillinganes confirms that, in terms of instrumentation, Thriller arrived pretty much fully-formed, though it was originally called Starlight and had different lyrics.
“All the parts came from Rod,” he says. “What we did was we added occasional nuances and bits of our personalities. Tasteful additions. But the essence of the parts - the crux of the parts - were all from Rod”
What’s more, it transpires that Temperton went to great lengths to ensure that his arrangements were spot-on.
“The details in Thriller are staggering,” says Phillinganes. “Multiple guitar parts; electric piano; multiple synth parts. And they’re all finely weaved together - it’s fascinating.”
Produced by Quincy Jones, the track was mixed by Bruce Swedian, who Marinelli and Phillinganes say worked almost like a conductor, sitting at the console with the score in front of him and making notes on it.
Much of what you hear on Thriller is played on the Roland Jupiter-8, which Phillinganes plays throughout, with some real-time tweaking from Marinelli helping to recreate the original vibe.
As the playthrough progresses, Marinelli also fires up the familiar Linn LM-1 drum machine pattern and turns his attention to the ARP 2600, the synth that was used for the bassline. Phillinganes is then able to play both keyboards together to create a pretty good approximation of the original song.
There was far more to Thriller than this, though; as well as the guitar flourishes, played by David Williams, there’s a Rhodes electric piano in the mix, though you might not notice it at times.
“You definitely hear it in the verses - you hear less in the choruses because the pads pile on,” Phillinganes explains, “but you hear it in the bridge.”
Does Phillinganes still remember how to play all those parts, though? Of course he does. What a pro.