Grammy-winning engineer Mick Guzauski in his Barking Doctor studio.
We all know cover-ups are occurring everyday, with the CIA, the FBI, the military and…Michael Jackson? You better believe it. With the 25th anniversary of Thriller past, it may seem surprising that no 5.1 surround version of one of the greatest albums of all time has ever been released — especially because the 6-channel mix for much of the album has been in existence since 2001.
The intrigue began seven years ago, when mixer Mick Guzauski (www.jdmanagement.com) got a call from Tommy Mottola and Al Smith at Sony Records: Would he be interested in doing a surround mix of the Quincy Jones-produced Thriller — the album that has sold an estimated 100 million copies and won seven Grammys? “I said, ‘Yeah!’” Guzuaski recalls. “Thriller has great production, great music, great parts. I thought something like that could really work in 5.1.”
Early on, however, Guzauski got the feeling that things might not move smoothly for Thriller. “There were arguments going on within Sony,” he says. “Some people thought strongly that it should be left as is and not mixed in surround, and some thought that it should. While that was going on, there were all the well-publicized problems between Michael and Tommy, and Michael and the law.”
Nonetheless, later in the year, Guzauski’s Lawrence Swist-designed Barking Doctor Recording studio (Mount Kisco, N.Y.) received a prized shipment in the form of the raw Thriller sessions, transferred from 30 ips analog to Sony 3348 48k/24-bit digital tape.
Working with his longtime assistant Tom Bender (Thriller engineer/stereo mixer Bruce Swedien was invited but was unavailable), Guzauski hunkered down behind his Sony Oxford console and got to work on converting Thriller from stereo to multichannel.
“The approach wasn’t to change anything,” he explains. “Bruce did an incredible job recording that album. Naturally, [my approach] is going to be a little different — different studio and different mixer — but I wanted to give the album a little more space to live in while staying true to the original mixes.”
Mixing down to six tracks in Pro Tools, Guzauski began to sink his teeth into the hits that make up Thriller, giving the surround treatment to “Billie Jean,” “Thriller,” “The Girl Is Mine,” “Baby Be Mine,” “Wanna Be Startin’ Something” and “Beat It.”
“The appeal of surround is there’s so much more space to place stuff in,” says Guzauski. “Where Thriller benefited most from this was mainly in the vocal arrangements. There are so many cool things in the background that didn’t draw your attention in the stereo mix, but really helped in 5.1.
“The song ‘Thriller’ gave us the most opportunity to be expressive with the surround soundfield: the door slamming, the guy walking around — all the effects there were fabulous.”
Listening on five Tannoy SRM 10B monitors and a JBL subwoofer, Guzauski reached mostly for outboard gear such as his EMT 140 plate, Sony DRE777 and Eventide SP2016 reverbs. “There actually weren’t a lot of reverbs and delays on that record,” he observes. “Michael’s vocals were very well-recorded, so there wasn’t any dynamics correction needed. It was just finding the balance and positioning, and getting it to fit in the mix.”
Into 2002 and in the middle of mixing “Beat It,” Guzauski got another call from Sony. “They put a hold on it,” he reports, “and said, ‘We don’t know if we’re going to finish it.’ They said they’d restart it several times, but the last time was in 2004, when I got a call saying, ‘We want to finish Thriller. What would it cost?’ Two hours later, it came on the news that Michael’s Neverland ranch had been raided for a second time. That’s the last I heard about it.”
In the wake of label infighting, legal wrangling and Jackson’s personal problems, the only place in the world to hear true 5.1 surround mixes of Thriller is sitting next to Guzauski at Barking Doctor. “It’s one of the most classic records ever made,” he says, “and it works great in 5.1. I just know a lot of people would love to hear it like that.”
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