No matter how far apart from each other the songs belonging to different genres may be, the audio production process brings even the songs that have little to no features in common together.
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Despite the fact that the song Thriller by Michael Jackson and The great gig in the sky by Pink Floyd have seemingly very little in common, they share quite a few similarities in terms of their production techniques, particularly, the effects that were used in the production process in order to make their sound more distinct and unique.
Form and Arrangement Elements
When it comes to identifying the instrumental elements that make Thriller unique as not only as one of the pop songs of the 80s, but also pop songs in general, the variety of the instruments incorporated is the first thing that comes to one’s mind. Indeed, for a popular song, the array of instruments used, including different types of percussions, was more than impressive.
The instrumentation of The great gig in the sky, in its turn, includes a very unusual element, which is Clare Torry’s voice. In fact, The great gig in the sky’ instrumentation is unique in that it, in fact, includes only two basic instruments, i.e., the organ and the voice of Torry.
In the famous Loudness War that erupted in the 80s, the Thriller clearly wins as the song that has a very distinct dynamics as opposed to the vapid abuse of loud sound (Farish 2014). The song is often credited as “very dynamic” due to the active use of synthesizer and percussions; the intensity of the sound is obviously preferred to its loudness.
The same, in fact, can be said about The great gig in the sky – the song can be listened to on a fairly low sound volume, as well as with the volume turned high. Though the instruments used in each case are very different, both songs have the same effect on the listener in terms of the dynamics-over-volume issue. It should be noted, though, that, while in Thriller, the loudness of every instrument is seemingly similar, in Pink Floyd’s song, the loudness of the voice is much lower than that one of the piano.
As far as the texture of Thriller is concerned, most critics define it as rather thick due to the use of various harmonization tools. Indeed, the texture of the song supports the latter with its thickness and adds to the overall impression of the song as an intense and packed with energy. Homophonic and at the same time original, it creates the feeling of suspense, therefore, setting the atmosphere, in which the lyrics will become even more meaningful and at the same time cryptic.
The texture of The great gig in the sky can be defined as biphonic, since, as it has been stressed above, two key instruments are used in the song. As a result, the texture is not as rich as the one that can be heard in Jackson’s Thriller. It can be argued that the effect of intensity, which is achieved by putting a stronger emphasis on the harmonization of the homogenous sound of the Thriller is inferior to the daring experiment with a biphonic sound that The great gig in the sky represents (Lambert 1998).
The timbre in The great gig in the sky, in its turn, is much easier to distinguish, as only two major instruments, and very different ones at that, are used in the song. The distinction between the voice and the piano, however, is not as obvious as it is in the case of Thriller.
It should be noted, though, that, while in Thriller, the voice of the singer stands out from the rest of the instruments sounding in the song, the percussions, the synthesizer and the bassline flow in a single sound, which makes it rather hard to distinguish between the two. Therefore, despite the fact that one of the key elements in both songs is used in different ways and with a different timbre, it is clear that both The great gig in the sky and the thriller know how to level the timbre of the instruments, thus, creating an absolutely unique and mesmerizing atmosphere. Though the effects, which the two approaches have on the audience, are quite different, one creating the environment for calm meditation and the other one creating the setting for a mock horror story, the two songs obviously share the idea of using timbre as a tool for setting an atmosphere.
Because of the necessity to introduce several instruments into the song, Thriller has several layers in it. There are several percussion layers, the one with the synthesizer, and the vocal layer. The bass layer along with the strings one is also in the song.
As far as The great gig in the sky is concerned, the layering techniques concerned the use of the keyboard for the most part. Unanimously considered brilliant, the layering technique presupposed that the different keyboard layers should be combined in a single music entity.
Though the approaches towards layering seem quite different, the effect that they have on both songs seem to be quite similar. Layering adds richness to the sound of the song, therefore, making it more powerful and, thus, all the more impressive. With the help of layering, the composers created two inimitable worlds, each offering the audience a fascinating journey.
Tempo is, perhaps, one of the few aspects that sets the two songs apart. In contrast to The great gig in the sky, which is slow and magnificent, approaches the standard 120 beats per minute (the tempo of the song is, in fact, 127 bpm). The tempo of Thriller, in its turn, is considerably lower, being only 117 beats per minute.
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On the one hand, the specified characteristics of the songs seem not quite probable, as The great gig in the sky seems to follow a much slower pace than Thriller. However, when it comes to defining what makes the audience perceive Thriller as a song with a faster tempo, the difference in the genres and the use of instruments should be born in mind.
Thriller is set in the C♯ Modern Dorian (Temperton 1984), whereas the key of The great gig in the sky is traditionally identified a G Minor (Wright & Torry 1973). Another feature that can be viewed as a major distinction between the two songs, it, in fact, displays the difference between the two genres (disco and rock) as well. Much like the tempo, the key allows for creating a specific atmosphere for the song, therefore, shaping the audience’s perception of it. As a result, the choices made in the course of a production process for a popular song and the one that belongs to the genre of a rock ballad are strikingly different.
Industry Production Techniques Applied
I terms of the studio production techniques, both songs were obviously a breakthrough. Jackson’s use of a synthesizer and percussions was obviously a challenge to the principles that were acceptable in the pop music industry at the time. The great gig, in its turn, also made quite a big impression with its striking minimalism. It would be wrong to claim that these songs were ahead of their time, though; both obviously were the product of their time, featuring the possibilities of technology and making a powerful statement in the realm of music industry.
Panning, Effects Used, Relative Volume of Elements
In The great gig in the sky, Richard Wright perfected the concept of panning by matching the external joystick panpots to the appropriate tracks (Parsons 1975). Thriller, on the other hand, featured the motorized panning joysticks. This does beg the question whether panning should be performed manually or with the help of an appropriate technology; while the latter appears to be more precise, it also deprives the song of the original aesthetics, therefore, making it less appealing. As it has been stressed above, the loudness of elements in each song is different, which allows for putting a stronger emphasis on a specific aspect of the former. The relative volume of the elements in Thriller, therefore, can be interpreted as moderate.
Even though the two songs in question differ in genre, they still share a range of similarities as far as their audio production techniques are concerned. While each song has unique characteristics and requires different methods for stressing these characteristics properly, both Thriller and The great gig in the sky were edited in accordance with similar principles, which make them somewhat similar in terms of their effects and quality. The processing of the sound allowed putting a stronger emphasis on the assets of each song, therefore, making both hits more powerful, more memorable and all the more famous.
Farish, I. 2014, ‘Song structure,’ The Canadian Music Educator vol. 51, no. 3, pp. 53–55.
Lambert, M. 1998, Classical sessions: interview with Alan Parsons. Web.
Parsons, A. 1975, Four sides of the moon. Web.
Temperton, R. 1984, Thriller, song, Epic, New York, NY.
Wright, R. & Torry, C. 1973, The great gig in the sky, song, World Copyrights, Ltd, Washington, DC.