Remixing The Classic Michael Jackson Track Thriller: Martin Nessi And The Thrill of Reverb

Martin Nessi Console 2.JPG

Ask a room full of producers or engineers which artist they might resurrect from beyond the grave to work on a track, and Michael Jackson’s name might well come up... For 8 time Grammy and Latin Grammy nominated producer, mixer and engineer Martin Nessi, rhetorical resurrection almost became reality when he was tasked to be part of the team mixing and engineering the King of Pop’s iconic classic, “Thriller” for the Thriller 3D Experience this year. A huge responsibility, but not one to daunt the prodigiously talented Nessi, who has shot within the space of eight years to the highest echelons of the music industry, mixing and engineering for some of the world’s most iconic vocalists – Celine Dion, Andrea Bocelli, Ariana Grande, Kelly Clarkson, Josh Groban and Ricky Martin, to name but a few. Passionate about the power of vocals, Nessi regards their production and engineering as a true art: “It’s the vocals that sell a record”, he believes - and more often than not, it’s reverb that perfects them. We caught up with him recently to talk all things reverb, and hear the pivotal part Exponential’s reverbs played in the Thriller 3D Experience.

Messing with something sacred?

Re-working the mix on one of the most popular tracks of the twentieth century sounds a bit like being given a brush and asked to touch up the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. But the pragmatic Nessi describes it as “an incredible honor”, shrugging off the fear that his re-crafting could be messing with something almost sacred.  “The person it was stranger for was Humberto Gatica, the legendary producer and engineer who also worked on the project, because he was called to oversee all the music re-mixing - and he had worked on the original Thriller. So he was opening the multi-track and seeing what he had pre-mixed 33 years ago. This was very special, working beside a person who had worked on the original project and knew the content inside out.”

“There was a huge weight of expectation, Nessi admits: “The responsibility of being trusted with delivering the music for such a big project, such a special event, was massive: not only being trusted because of what it means, but being trusted technically.”

The technical intricacies were manifold: “The video of Thriller is fourteen minutes long, and back in the day they did it by editing the TV mixes and the instrumentals; there was no actual multitrack of the video. But we needed to mix properly to the screen, so I had to actually create a video multi-track out of the song’s multi track – turning the five-minute song into a fourteen-minute song. On top of that the song had been sped up in mastering, so I had to create the multi-track and then speed it up so that it synced to video, beat by beat, and make sure that it was musically correct. I had to map out the whole video in Pro Tools - tempo mapping the whole song - then start putting the pieces in, stretching and shrinking audio, to create the whole multi-track of what we were hearing on the video so that we could mix to the image. That felt like a big responsibility. I knew technically how to do it, but I wasn’t sure what the result would be at the end, because we were stretching, shrinking, etc, trying to make everything fit to picture.”

Martin with mixing legend Bruce Swedien

Martin with mixing legend Bruce Swedien

A real labor of love

There were certainly no quick fixes in this project: “It was mixed first in stereo by Humberto Gatica and me on an analog console using a combination of analog gear and plugins, most of them analog gear emulations”, explains Nessi. “We wanted the sonic to be as close as possible to the original video. Then I printed stereo stems of every element independently, took them to Dennis Sands’ studio and we did the Atmos mix there. I printed 7.1 stems plus stereo stems of the objects; then I took that session with all the prints and Atmos automation of the objects to the stage at Universal to Jon Taylor (who did the mixing for the whole movie).”

“The confirmation that we’d done it successfully was when the people at the stage heard it and were really happy. At that point it felt real special.”

But the labor of love didn’t end there: “When you get to the stage you have to start expanding stuff even more because the stage is bigger than the studio. You start expanding stuff, and you’re starting to add all the other elements: the sound effects, the dialogue, the noises, other stuff that was in the video - when you start putting stuff on top, all of a sudden the stuff you mixed doesn’t sound the same, so you have to start bringing some stuff up, bringing some stuff down. And that’s how we got to the final thing.”

And Nessi’s secret weapon during this process? “Exponential reverbs”, he exclaims “- there is no other reverb!” He had previously discovered PhoenixVerb on one of his searches for the “next cool plug-in” (“I’m a freak about finding the latest thing – I think when you have access to the best tools you can find solutions for any situation.”). But he hadn’t dug down into the new tool until the Thriller project, when he discovered the full impact of what it could do. “We used Exponential Audio reverbs throughout - on the Atmos mix. The only one that wasn’t Exponential was the vocal reverb we used on Michael for the stereo mix - that was a combination of things, including an emulation of one of the reverbs they used at the time, for authenticity’s sake. But apart from that - on Dennis Sands’ recommendation – it was all Exponential. While mixing in Atmos we also put a touch of PhoenixVerb Surround on Michael’s vocal.”

It felt like somebody was hugging me

He recalls the moment he fell in love with the Exponential reverb sound: “I remember the feeling, sitting in Dennis’ studio: we put PhoenixVerb on the mix and it felt like somebody was hugging me! It didn’t feel like there was a space between the reverb and my skin; I don’t know how to explain it, it’s kind of weird. Sometimes with reverb you get an ambience, but you don’t feel like it’s touching you, there’s no connection. Whereas with Phoenix it feels so natural. I don’t see the plug in, I don’t see the numbers. Whenever you put it on something it brings you into the music; it makes you feel like you want to be part of that space, of that reality, specially when you’re working in surround. Which is the reason why when I got home from the studio that night I went straight to the Exponential Audio website to see what else they had!”

Everything just fell into place…

To have reached the point where you are called on to re-work a Michael Jackson classic, you must have a pretty impressive resume, and Nessi’s certainly fits the brief. Celine Dion, Kelly Clarkson, Andrea Bocelli – his credits read like a who’s who of iconic vocalists. Modestly, the vocal maestro reflects: “It was a big blessing to get the chance to work with all of those people; I knew I wanted to work with some of them when I was finishing school, but I never thought I would. I didn’t have a plan to do it, everything just fell into place…”

Nessi began getting serious about music aged 14, and at 17 took up recording, with a two-channel sound interface and Cool Edit Pro (now Adobe Audition).  After a stint at business school to satisfy his father, a 22-year-old Nessi then got himself a scholarship to Berklee College of Music in Boston, dual-majoring in Music production and Engineering and Contemporary Writing and Production. “I was in the studio all the time”, he recalls. “I spent as much time as I could there, every day if possible, going the extra mile. Then when I finished in May 2010 my vocal production teacher got a call from an engineer in Miami asking for an intern to work with Desmond Child on a Ricky Martin album. They put me forward on condition that I finish school, which I ignored for that summer! I went and worked with them as an intern, coffee, errands, etc, then all of a sudden I started getting the chance to do some drum editing, bass editing, bass recording, session prep, etc… and by the end of the project the production manager said we’re going to give you an engineering credit! That’s how I got my first artist credit – my big break. Then I went back to school for another semester to finish my degree.”

His next break came three years later when a friend asked him to step in as engineer for Humberto Gatica, a huge figure in making Latin music mainstream, and a personal hero of Nessi’s. “So I met Humberto and worked with him for a couple of weeks ‘til his long-time engineer came back. I didn’t hear from him for a while but then he called me one day and said ‘Hey I have this project, you want to work on it?’ Then that turned into project after project ‘til we were working on like four things at the same time – Josh Grogan, Gloria Trevi, Andrea Bocelli and Celine Dion…! All these doors started opening – I was very blessed.”

It's the vocal that sells the record

Once the doors started opening it didn’t take Nessi long to realize that vocals were where his heart lay. He is passionate about the importance of skilled, nuanced vocal production and engineering: “I think it’s an art. I don’t think a lot of people realize how much value it adds to a song or the production of a song. Nowadays, with the advancement of technology and people trying to make records fast, they forget that it’s the vocal that sells the record and they spend very little time capturing the best vocal performance, let alone engineering it. If you don’t maximize the emotional impact of the story with a great vocal performance, you are missing out on impacting the listener. I have made it a path for myself trying to work on vocal production--on everything that has to do with vocals.”

“Producers and engineers send me the vocals to tune and edit them, as they like what I add from a technical perspective. But I don’t think it is just technical, I think it’s very artistic. With the right tools you can add so much to a performance by delaying a word, anticipating a syllable, or something - or vice versa, you can ruin it!”

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A spider’s web and sonic hook

And talking of ‘the right tools’, it’s reverb, Nessi says, which is truly crucial in perfecting a vocal. “Reverb does a lot of things”, he muses, “but the first thing it gives is an ambience. It can put you in a specific place that enhances the feeling you are trying to convey with a song or a performance. The second thing it can do is depth - giving the perception that a vocal has something in its frequency or spectrum that it doesn’t really have. Lastly, I see reverb as kind of like a spiderweb that is attaching the vocal to the music. And if you don’t have the right reverb you can really screw it up. Because you start smearing everything else, and instead of actually connecting the vocal to the music, you’re putting a cover on the rest of the music. On the other hand, if you don’t have enough reverb, you won’t have any connection at all between the music and the vocal; it can sound completely disconnected. Reverb does so many things, and if you get the right one it makes a big difference, but one which you don’t even realize until you change the reverb to another preset or another plugin! It makes the song better and the vocal better. It can pull the listener into the perfect space that the song and the story needs for the performance to hit you emotionally”.

“I look at everything in music as an opportunity to grab the listener – not only the musical hooks, like a melody, but I think that the sonic is also a hook, when you have something that sounds cool, that sounds different or engages the listener because it has something they haven’t heard before, then that’s a hook because it’s grabbing the listener and bringing them into the music and making sure they’re paying attention. And I think reverb has the potential to do that. Because you can listen to a record and think ‘Wow, what is that reverb?! The vocal is insane!’ - and it’s not just the vocal performance that’s insane, but the ambience around the vocal is enhancing the performance and feeling, so the reverb in itself became a hook.”

Nessi himself has certainly proved that he can hook a listener with his mastery of reverb and sorcery with vocals. The emotional impact of his tracks sees them continue to climb the charts and earn prestigious nominations… Who knows which artist he might resurrect next?