If a great mix truly contributes to the commercial fortunes of a record, then Mick Guzauski has got to be the King Midas of pop music. By a recent count, he had mixed 27 Number One singles by such artists as LeAnn Rimes, Eric Clapton, Mariah Carey, Earth, Wind & Fire and Boyz II Men. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Factor in the artists Guzauski has worked with who didn’t happen to peak at Number One, and you’ve got names like Kiss, Aaliyah, Kirk Franklin, Whitney Houston, Jennifer Lopez, Quincy Jones, Britney Spears, Joan Jett, Talking Heads, Barbra Streisand and many more.
Given Guzauski’s impressive track record, it’s no surprise that the self-proclaimed King of Pop himself — Michael Jackson — called on the veteran engineer to mix the 5.1 channel version of his 1982 masterpiece Thriller, still the best-selling album of all time.
Without a firm deadline or a specific release plan for the new version of that classic LP, Guzauski has been able to approach it at a leisurely clip, starting with two mixes (“Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’” and “Billie Jean”), then moving on to other projects and eventually returning to Thriller. We caught up with Guzauski at his Barking Doctor studio in Mt. Kisco, N.Y., just after he had completed those two mixes. He seemed to take great pleasure in playing them for visitors, while also talking about some of the other work he has been doing recently.
For Thriller, Guzauski had transferred the original analog masters — which were on two synchronized reels of Scotch 2-inch tape — to 24-bit DASH reels, using the converters on his Sony Oxford digital console to feed his Sony 3348HR multitrack. Once in the digital domain, the tracks were mixed through the Oxford, using a minimum amount of outboard processing, and recorded to six channels of Pro Tools via the AES/EBU outputs of the Oxford, which fed the Digidesign 888 | 24 Pro Tools interface.
Guzauski also transferred the original version of Thriller onto the same Pro Tools session that contained the multichannel information. This allowed him to refer quickly to the 2-track master as a template for how to do the surround mix. “I really wanted to respect what Michael did,” he says. In addition, the stereo version gave Guzauski a roadmap for the edits that were done on the original master so that he could duplicate them in the Pro Tools domain.
With a dedicated surround mix matrix and panning joysticks, the Oxford is made to order for multichannel mixing, according to Guzauski. “It’s set up pretty much so that you can go into the multichannel mix mode, in which case every channel feeds the multitrack buses, and you can pan to 5.1 or 7.1 channels,” he explains. “Panning is easy. There’s a divergence control and a sublevel control on every channel. The console is made for 5.1, so you don’t have to resort to a makeshift method. You can concentrate on the mix rather than, ‘How do I bus this to make it do this?’”
Rather than start with a stereo mix and then pan elements to the rear channels, Guzauski tried to conceive of his Thriller mix as a multichannel experience from the ground up. “I thought to myself, ‘Now that I have the space to put things in, where do I put them?’” he recalls. “I didn’t do any live panning or movement right away, but I basically tried to set up a nice sound field, starting with the center and building out.” The center channel in Guzauski’s Thriller mixes consists of kick drum, snare, bass and lead vocal, with different degrees of divergence into the front side speakers for each of those elements. “In the case of music with a lot of punch, like Thriller, it’s nice to have three [front] speakers to do that with,” he says.
The subwoofer channel predominantly contains kick and bass, sometimes with a small amount of added subharmonic synthesis from a dbx 120X Subharmonic Synthesizer, according to Guzauski. Among the outboard effects he used for the mixes are two Sony 777 sampling reverbs, an Eventide SP2016, a TC Electronic 3000S effects processor, a Sony V-77 and an EMT 140 plate. He also used Distressor dynamics processors and Drawmer analog gates on some signals.
Ironically, Guzauski had not done much multichannel mixing when he got the call to do Thriller. His surround experience was limited to a couple of quad albums in the late ’70s and a few experimental 5.1 mixes in his studio. Undeterred by his lack of experience and not intimidated by the prospect of working with Jackson (after all, Guzauski has worked with virtually every pop star other than Jackson), the award-winning engineer took on the project with the same level of gusto he applies to all his endeavors. “I just thought it would be fun,” he says. “I was planning to get into doing 5.1 mixes, so I had collected three pairs of Tannoy SRM-10Bs, which I love. I hadn’t set them up yet when I got the call to do Thriller, so we set them up and listened. [Sony Music Studios VP of engineering] David Smith came down with a real-time analyzer and the room measured very well, so we kept it that way.”
Asked if his quad experience was relevant to Thriller, Guzauski says, “Not at all. The quad mixes I did [for jazz artist Chuck Mangione] were designed to try to create a natural front-to-rear ambience of an orchestra in a room, rather than using it for effects. On the other hand, Thriller lends itself to being creative. There’s a lot of movement in the music. You can really choreograph the sound.”
Although Thriller was not recorded with surround mixing in mind, the disposition of the original multitracks worked well in a circular medium, Guzauski says. “All the elements are there to spread out,” he says, adding that producer Quincy Jones and engineer Bruce Swedien “did a great job recording [the album]. The parts that work well in the rear aren’t married to the elements that are in the front. It’s not so much that each sound has multichannel ambience on it, because it doesn’t. It’s more about movement and choreography than a live performance in the hall.”
As he proceeds with the surround mixes for Thriller, Guzauski has a few other 5.1 channel projects to add to his schedule: the Eric Clapton/B.B. King album Riding With the King and Clapton’s latest solo project, Reptile, both of which Guzauski mixed in stereo. Now that he has enough perspective on surround mixing to compare it to stereo, Guzauski offers the following comparison between the two arts: “I find 5.1 easier. You don’t have as much competition for available space. If you’re doing a stereo mix and it’s complex, you have to carve around stuff frequency-wise, reverb-wise and level-wise. In 5.1, you have that much more space for placement. You can move stuff out of the way for something else.”
If anyone should know about frequencies, levels, reverbs and placement, it’s Guzauski. He’s got the hits to prove it.