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November 27, 2014

Human Nature - Michael Jackson

In the early 80s, after the release of Thriller, Michael Jackson become king of the music world. The reason for it is that after making a magical album with Off The Wall, he managed to make a perfect album with Thriller. (The Jackson 5 legacy helped too).

The reasons for Thriller's success are many but the exceptional quality of the writing and production team is the main one in my opinion. Quincy Jones and Bruce Swedien created a sound that has endured through the years.

Human Nature was the last song added to Thriller. It was written by Steve Porcaro (Yes, of Toto fame) and John Bettis. Porcaro also played synths while his brother Jeff played drums and the rest of the Thriller main crew (Steve Luthaker, David Paich, Michael Boddicker, Paulinho Da Costa) took care of the rest.

Now go listen to the song and remember these were the days before DAWs and pervasive midi or sophisticated automation. The demo that won the writing team getting their song on Thriller was handed to Quincy Jones on a cassette. At the time it was extremely difficult to produce a song that sound like this and that team was made of the few people that could.

Structure wise, Human Nature is very simple:

  • a short intro
  • two verses in a row
  • 1st chorus
  • straight back into a single verse
  • 2nd chorus
  • then a little post chorus tag with a lovely synth line.
  • a replay of the intro (Call it a bridge if you'd like, where the intro is the same as the bridge, classic Quincy Jones)
  • 4th verse! no less (remember the 1st verse was a double)
  • 3rd chorus and chorus adlibs.
  • Finishing the song with intro/bridge thing with a nice modulation on the synth pattern.

You always know what's coming next, no surprises except for the little synth interlude.

The thing that is extremely interesting in the shape of the song is that there is no real attempt to 'lift' the chorus. If this were produced today, something enormous would come in at every chorus to force the listener to pay attention. In this case sections flow into each other smoothly and keep an even feel throughout. Every section is so well crafted that it stands on its own and relates to the others without any extra sauce of strong harming needed.

Also of interest is the quasi classical use of vocal counterpoint on the choruses. That answering line (That vocal thing for which we can't quite understand the lyric) is first introduced on an emulator on the first chorus and then sung by Michael as background vocal on the other choruses (Go check it out, it's rad). Combined with the cool modulated stereo delay on the word 'why' (Hear how the repeats are actually pretty out of tune) makes for a very special vibe of the chorus.

Other cool arranging tidbits are that the main synth arpeggio line, the intro/bridge/outro one, the that has made people recognise that song for 30+ years is not used in the chorus at all. It is used as a mascot intro, as a way to relaunch verse 4 and to wrap the song up. It probably stood in the way of the cool vocal interplay of the chorus and was not kept there. Wonderful show of restraint. The lovely modulation of the line at the end is pretty awesome too. Great musicians at work there.

On the 2nd verse, notice the held note that just comes in grows slowly, the fake french horns counterpoint and all the detail that lead up to the chorus which shines not by having more instruments but less. Those detail synth come back half way through the 3rd verse but play a different line.

Drums wise, the groove is also interesting with its mix of half and double time. The song clocks at 94bpm, so the drums are playing half time with the hat playing 16th, and the phased shakers playing a mix of quarter and 8th notes. It makes for a nice forward motion. It almost never changes throughout the song. The toms punctuate every bar in cooperation with the reverbered clave.

Of course the main attraction besides the intro synth line is that signature picked guitar line that has been imitated thousands of times since then. It carries the whole song and provides support for the melody on the first two notes and then counterpoint after that. It's particularly useful on the chorus with the upbeat answer to the word 'why'. Remember there was no editing at the time. They played that stuff that way, Wonderful isn't it?

And then Michael sings so well.

Sound wise it is very interesting to compare the sound of such a classic track to the sound of modern recordings. Make sure you listen to the 'Thriller' version because the 'This is It' remaster was tampered with and does not sound quite the same. Bass was added and things don't settle the same. Actually you should go compare the two versions now (At the same level por favor)

So, on the original master, you'll notice that it's not that fat in a modern sense. the bass drum is quite pointy, the thickest thing is the synth bass. That's what provides the anchoring, the kick sits above it. Modern track would probably have inverted that tendency. The reason may be that this started as a song that drums was added to, whereas modern songs tend to start with drums and a song is added to them.

Compare the snare to the clave or to the guitar riff on the verses. Wild isn't it? The shakers have some sort of modulation on them, the bass has reverb, the guitars are under water, all keyboard have delays and reverbs, but the snare drum is super dry. Interesting choice considering how every else swims in various reverbs. No?

The vocal reverb is very interesting. It has a very long pre-delay on it so after the initial transients have passed and excited the reverb the vocal feels almost dry. Listen to the whole song and check out how the lead vocal sits just right on top of everything and manages to be both wet and dry at the same time. Notice how some some of the chorus' vocal delays are kept on the 3rd verse.

While you're listening to Michael sing, it's interesting to pay attention what was acceptable at the time as far as tuning goes. (No Autotune available). On the first verse for example, check out 'sweet sedUUUUUUUcing sights'. Is it a little flat? Yup. Did that ever bother you before? Nope. Think about that next time you nuke your lead vocal track with Melodyne or Autotune. If it's good enough for Michael...

The keyboard sounds on the whole track beside the main line, while discrete deserve close attention. There is the synth bass throughout. That is played throughout, you can tell from the incessant little variations. There is the bell like rhodes on the left that doubles the vocal on the verses. The various pads that augment and prep the arrival of the chorus. There is that amazing Emulator line on the first chorus (Never to be heard again). There is the lead line after chorus 2. The keyboard provide the back wall of the mix. the sauce if you will. They stay put but make the song feel full and deep. This is a great combo of arrangement and mixing vision.

This song has been sampled hundreds of times, we have heard it a million times in various forms and it's become part of the collective consciousness. That makes it easy to glaze over the details that made it what it is. There is more to be discovered which each pass of listening. The first thing to do is to learn the opening synth line on your instrument. It makes for a great first date trick and it'll help you some in the magic of the track.

Here is Michael performing Human Nature, live.

In the unlikely case you just landed on planet Earth and you don't know or own Thriller, you can fix this mistake - even online - via iTunes Store or on Spotify


Fab Dupont.


Pianist and Resident Engineer of Fuseroom Recording Studio in Berlin, Hollywood's Musicians Institute Scholarship winner and Outstanding Student Award 2005, ee's worked in productions for Italian pop stars like Anna Oxa, Marco Masini and RAF, Stefano 'Cocco' Cantini and Riccardo Galardini, side by side with world-class musicians and mentors like Roger Burn and since 2013 is part of the team at pureMix.net. Alberto has worked with David White, Niels Kurvin, Jenny Wu, Apple and Apple Music, Microsoft, Etihad Airways, Qatar Airways, Virgin Airlines, Cane, Morgan Heritage, Riot Games, Dangerous Music, Focal, Universal Audio and more.