Matt Forger Speaks
Matt Forger has been working with Michael Jackson since the Thriller days. When you think of excellence, pioneering, hard work and innovation, Matt Forger is never far. Forger and Jackson teamed up on various projects such as Thriller, the Victory Tour, Captain Eo, and all Michael Jackson’s projects up to Thriller the 25th Anniversary Edition. In our exclusive interview, Matt Forger talks about the creation of Thriller, working with Michael Jackson… and more…
MJ data bank: How and when did you meet Michael Jackson ? What was the first Michael Jackson related project you worked on ?
Matt Forger: I met Michael when the recording of the Thriller album began. I had been working with Quincy Jones, Bruce Swedien and Rod Temperton on a few album projects and his was the next project on Quincy’s schedule.
MJ data bank: Can you tell us more about the technical aspect of the Thriller sessions: what was the equipment used by Bruce Swedien and the team? We heard there were some 16-track machines plugged to each other to get even more tracks available?
Matt Forger: The THRILLER project was typical of the day in that it was recorded on 24 track analog tape. That may have been the only thing ordinary about it.
I worked with Bruce to develop a system using many (up to 12) 24 track 2″ analog tapes to provide the number of tracks required in creating the vision of Michael and Quincy. There were two 24 track machines in the control room and the tapes were ‘multiplexed’ in a fashion that allowed many tracks to be recorded while monitoring the elements already on tape. The system worked by recording the rhythm section of a song on a master 24 track Master tape and generating work tapes that would contain cue mixes and with many empty tracks allowing ample tracks for the layering of sounds.
MJ data bank: Bruce Swedien used the Acusonic Recording Process. He also used a Harrison recording console. This kind of equipment eventually became studio recording references. Can you tell us more about that ?
Matt Forger: Bruce’s Acusonic Recording Process is as much about his philosophy of sound, as it was technology. As he explains it, he has always believed in maintaining the integrity of the stereo image of the sound source from the initial recording through the final mix. This is why the many tapes and number of tracks became an integral part of the Thriller production. The Harrison console that was used at Westlake Studios was typical of the mixing boards of the era. It was however modified by the technical staff of the studio to provide the superior sonic character that has become the benchmark of modern album production. Bruce has always favored a certain type of sonic signature and it was the studios desire to ensure that he had the best quality of equipment to do the job.
MJ data bank: Thriller in the making: you witnessed how the album was created, and the songs selected: in your opinion, what kind of material could have make it on the album? What was the global approach of Quincy, Bruce and Michael that finally had them selecting some songs instead of other ones?
Matt Forger: The song selection was an evolution. It began with Quincy and Rod Temperton reviewing countless tapes and submissions. Quincy would go through a process called ‘Polaroids’ where he would ‘snapshot’ the best songs to get a feel for the key, tempo, how Michael’s voice would react to the song, that type of thing. Then, we would come back work on the best and as the character of the album was being built, additional songs were considered and added. Quincy was looking to cover many sides of Michael’s talent and wanted to make sure that his versatility was displayed. The one thing that was of highest importance was the strength of the songs. Only the best made it on the album. After all, the entire process of recording an album is dependent on the strength of the material. If you don’t have the best songs, you don’t have the foundation to build great production on. We all were very aware of that.
MJ data bank: First final Master Recording: Quincy Jones said it was « awful ». What is your comment on that first version that remains unreleased?
Matt Forger: It was the fact that the potential of the project was not fully realized. We all knew the songs were great. But the pressure of the deadline and the time crunch to finish put tremendous stress on the process. When you are fatigued by the long hours of work you may not be 100% on top of your game, and that’s what was what was needed. So we took a break on the weekend came in fresh on Monday and finished mixing the album.
MJ data bank: How would you describe the sound of Thriller?
Matt Forger: The sound of the THRILLER album is one of layered richness, texture and depth. It has clarity and presence, and is filled with warmth and emotion.
MJ data bank: How is it working with Michael Jackson, as compared to other artists? What are his guidelines, how does the chemistry works when he wants something and work with you in the studio ?
Matt Forger: Working with Michael is always a pleasure and a challenge. He is a perfectionist and demands the best. But you would expect nothing less from him. His standard of professionalism has always been of the highest level. Michael always searches for the newest most exciting sounds and qualities in recording, and yet always has patience and understands the time consuming process of exploring developing new sounds. I have had the opportunity to work with Michael in a variety of situations and have worked hard to find or develop new technologies to address the creative ideas he wishes to pursue. The rule of the studio has always been to make the technology follow the creative direction of the music. After having so much experience working with him, it becomes second nature to intuitively go where the music leads, or follow Michael’s ideas to where the music takes him.
MJ data bank: Do you remember any tough moment during the Thriller sessions: any song that was exceptionnaly difficult or anything else?
Matt Forger: Yes, Beat It was particularly tricky. It was a song that constantly challenged the entire team. Michael wanted a punchy sound to match the emotion of the track, so everyone was constantly being pushed to the limit. The studio equipment seemed to sense the struggle and fought back in its own way. At one time during a playback of the song the monitor speakers actually caught on fire and smoke came pouring out of the wall. It’s as if the studio was fighting back, but we prevailed and beat the song into form and the result speaks for itself.
MJ data bank: The E.T. Storybook : I consider this is one of the most fascinating recordings ever made by Michael Jackson: how hard was it to adapt the film and turn it to a 30 minutes plus LP?
Matt Forger: The effort both creatively and technically was an enormous undertaking that no one fully realized at the onset. The idea seemed simple, but the execution required developing new approaches to the studio process in order to accommodate the creative forces at work. To have Quincy, Steven Speilberg and Michael all working on the telling of the story in the most effective way meant we had to be able to change direction at a moment’s notice. Extensive preproduction was in place when we started the studio recording of the album and I was trying new techniques to make the job of the producers as easy as possible.That was like trying to walk a bull through a china shop. not because of the personalities involved, everyone was absolutely in sync on the work, but the challenge of making the story the star of the record.
MJ data bank: Do you think getting involved in the storybook got the team less focused on Thriller?
Matt Forger: In a way yes, it took a lot of time from the work on Thriller, but it also made us realize that we were involved with history in a big way, we didn’t realize it but it was a glimpse of what was to come.
MJ data bank: I think E.T has this visual approach that the song Thriller also has. You happen to be the person who worked on many soundtracks used by Michael Jackson during his tours, performances or films (Kreeton Overture on Victory Tour, Captain Eo, special montages and concepts for performances like Superbowl 93): how is it to work with that visual approach? What elements do you bring to get that visual approach into the music?
Matt Forger: When you are working on a song that has such a strong visual component it amplifies the story telling aspect of a piece of music. It has to make sense from several perspectives, so you consider it from more than one angle. How is the story being told visually and how is the story being told from the song or lyric aspect. Working with Spielberg was an insight into the story telling aspect of things from several angles. The story, told by the narration, the music from the point of the score, the nature of the visual as a reflection of the film and the emotional thrill ride of the combined elements. You really feel the excitement of the story.
MJ data bank: What is the difference between working on a studio project and a live or staged one?
Matt Forger: When you are on a stage performing live nothing can be too big. The dynamics are huge, sound, lighting, props, and special effects all contribute to the experience. While in the studio, you are working with just the music and lyrics but trying to achieve the same results. Everything must fit into a smaller package, so the challenge is greater and the manipulation is a lot more delicate in the studio. You have to carefully control the emotional flow of energy.
MJ data bank: What do you think makes Thriller the album it is today?
Matt Forger: Simple, great songs, great performances, great production.
MJ data bank: You worked on the Thriller 2001 Special Edition set. Some original bonus tracks were taken off the final track listing and replaced with interviews. Do you now why?
Matt Forger: Actually no, while they are interesting to hear and offer insight to the process, they don’t stand up to repeated listening like a good song does.
MJ data bank: What was your input in these 2001 SE sets and the Ultimate Collection released in 2004?
Matt Forger: I worked researching the songs that the producers felt would best reflect the nature of each project. In each case there was a different goal. In the Special Edition sets we looked for songs that filled in the process of what was going on behind the scenes for a particular album. A little insight of how an album comes together. In the Ultimate Collection there was a desire to show the evolution of the career and how the songs changed with the times and Michael grew as an artist and as a songwriter.
MJ data bank: Your final thoughts on Thriller…
Matt Forger: Thriller was released at a time when the music industry was in a slump, not unlike the times we’re in now. The quality of the album inspired many people, in the music industry and individuals as well. The energy and emotion of Michael’s performances were astounding. People were revitalized in believing that music could achieve great results. This was proven by the projects that followed, « We Are The World » as an example. There was a note of optimism in the world and people felt good about themselves and the world around them. It was the music that accomplished this. What a powerful medium it is. If only now we could find the same energy, the same emotion, the same desire to make the world a better place. As Michael asks in « Man In The Mirror », you have to look at changing yourself, if you want to see a change in the world. How true!
A very special Thank You to Mr. Matt Forger for his time and dedication.
(C) 2007, 2008 Richard Lecocq / MJ data bank.
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