The Opening of Michael Jackson’s “Beat It” is an Exact Replay of a Synth Demo Record
The ominous gongs at the opening of Michael Jackson’s “Beat It” are some of the most memorable notes every played at the beginning of a song. Dark and foreboding, they set the perfect tone for Jackson’s emphatic anti-gang violence take on rock and roll. While the start of the song is no doubt the stuff of legends, according to Michael Boddicker, a famous film composer and session musician who played synth on “Pretty Young Thing” and “Thriller”, the gongs are a replay of a stock demo track that came with the synth featured in “Beat It”.
“Tom Bähler played a demo sound that came with his Synclavier — literally a factory patch, right out of the box,” Boddicker told Keyboard magazine in 2009. “He had the good taste to discover and apply it in exactly the right place at the right time in musical history…Tom is a brilliant songwriter.”
The exact sequence, note for note, comes from The Incredible Sounds of Synclavier II, an album released a year before Thriller that came with the Synclavier II synthesizer. Composed and programmed by synth innovator and sound designer Denny Jaeger, the album showcased different synth sequences someone could play with the very expensive and sought after instrument.
“Whilst there’s a theoretical possibility of it being a direct sample, we can say with all but complete certainty that it’s not — it was replayed.”- Chris Read
According to Bruce Swedien, an audio engineer who played a key role in the making of Thriller, the team behind the album was hesitant to use such an obvious interpolation. “We liked it but we wanted everything to be unrecognizable, unique, so we didn’t want to use that sound,” he told the website MusicRadar in 2009. “But Michael loved it and made us keep it.”
It’s unclear how Jaeger felt about the use of his composition at first, but according to Steve Knopper’s book MJ: The Genius of Michael Jackson, he reached out Jackson and ended up getting an album credit on Thriller. After this initial contact Jackson decided to hire Jaeger for future songs like “Dirty Diana” and “Smooth Criminal”, where his synth work is featured prominently.
“We wanted everything to be unrecognizable, unique, so we didn’t want to use that sound, but Michael loved it and made us keep it.”- Bruce Swedian
Since Jaeger’s composition from The Incredible Sounds of Synclavier II is almost identical to the final product heard on Thriller, a lively debate over whether the opening of “Beat It” is sampled or replayed ensued on WhoSampled. It seems from all the available information, including the earlier comments from Michael Boddicker about Tom Bähler playing the opening, that the gong sounds were replayed and not directly sampled from the vinyl album.
WhoSampled founder Chris Read summarized the argument nicely with the following quote: “What we know for a fact is it’s a perfect pitch match to the record but not an unamended recording…They had the actual keyboard and someone who could play it, so whilst there’s a theoretical possibility of it being a direct sample, we can say with all but complete certainty that it’s not — it was replayed.”