Archive for April, 2013

Synth Secrets of Chaka Khan’s “I Feel For You”
By David Frank
Wed,  3 Apr 2013
Editor’s note: In honor of the incredible singer and force of nature Chaka Khan turning 60 years young this past week, we asked David Frank, who played keyboards on her smash hit “I Feel For You,” for anecdotes about the synths and sounds behind that singular keyboard-powered, Prince-authored anthem. Here’s the story of its signature sounds, as recalled by Mr. Frank. Keep up with David’s current projects, including a new album by his band The System, at
imgI came to play keyboards on “I Feel For You” because Mic Murphy (my partner in the band The System) and I had written a song for Chaka Khan called ‘This Is My Night,” and her producer Arif Mardin wanted to do it on her new album. We were thrilled, of course! Arif had contacted me earlier to work on Scritti Pollitti’s project before that, as I remember. I was never happier as he was my idol as a producer.  In the process of being at Atlantic Studios to record our song Arif asked me to play on the production of “I Feel For You.” Reggie Griffin and Arif were the arrangers.
I remember the first thing that Arif asked me to do was to play the bass line–that very busy, funky bass you hear on the recording. He gave me a written-out chart of the exact notes. I had moved to New York City a few years before and had practiced and practiced my sight reading in order to be able to be a successful studio musician when I moved to the city, but very few people had ever handed me a chart that written out, so I was excited to give him what he wanted. I played the bass line into an Oberheim DSX sequencer which was hooked up to my Minimoog via CV and gate: pre-MIDI!  You had to play it correctly all the way through….well at least all the way through each section.  I chained the sections together in “Song Mode” on the DSX and we recorded it on 24-track tape using a sync tone on the tape. As I remember, it had to stay in sync from beginning to end: There was no punching in.
After we finished the bass line ( many of the parts were already on tape) we did the synth chords, which doubled a chord sound that was already there in the verses. I had just gotten a Yamaha DX1 [their flagship FM synth at the time] imported from Japan and everyone was excited to hear it recorded. It turned out to be not too much more than two DX7s in one box with a weighted keyboard–though that was rare at that time. That’s what we did the chordal decaying pad sounds on throughout the song. They had elements of DX7-style piano and string/vocal pad elements. I also did  the fast, single-note, clarinet-ish synth part under Melle Mel’s rap in the middle of the song, and the bells on the breakdown, but I can’t recall what synth we used. Arif asked me to do something crazy in that section so I used the DX1 in programming edit mode and moved the various FM modulating sine waves around. Frequency Modulation synthesis on the Yamaha DX instruments worked via a fundamental tone (sine wave) modulated by other sine waves, so I tweaked the modulating waves while playing some notes on the keyboard. Those are the sound effects you hear, and it was all recorded live to tape.
imgI was in the studio another day and watched Arif editing half-inch tape and flying in the “tape scratching” sound effects you can hear on the breakdown. He worked on perfecting that for many hours. Arif Mardin was a brilliant musician and producer. He and Reggie Griffin made a huge forever hit out of a good basic song. Arif was able to get the best out of all of us as he was just plain old charming and relaxed. The overall sound environment that the production lived in was totally unique at the time, and still is at least to my ears. Arif immortalized us all. He was the man!

THE SYSTEM: ‘System Overload’ (Science Lab Records)

CD_SO_Cover1400Back in 1982, singer/guitarist Mic Murphy (a former member of the late-’70s Big Apple band, Sass) and session keyboardist David Frank joined forces to become The System, a duo that pioneered the use of electronic gadgetry in post-disco dance music. Recording for the Atlantic-distributed Mirage label, they scored a Top 10 US R&B smash with ‘You Are In My System’ in ’83, which was lifted from their influential debut album, ‘Sweat.’ The duo’s distinctive sound – mixing R&B with new wave, electro and nascent hip-hop – broke new ground and led the way for synth-led soul and funk in the ’80s. Their biggest record was ’87′s bedroom slow jam, ‘Don’t Disturb This Groove,’ which was a US R&B chart topper but by the end of 1989, Murphy and Frank had gone their separate ways. The pair, whose music had accrued a cult following since their cessation, reconvened in 2000 for the album, ‘ESP,’ but their reunion proved short-lived and Frank went back to session work while Murphy eventually released a solo single, ‘Electro Soul Satisfaction,’ in 2009. Following on from the download-only ‘Unreleased Unleashed’ collection of archival rarities in 2009, Frank and Murphy have collaborated again to produce the first proper new System album in twelve years.

‘System Overload’ doesn’t disappoint and is well worth the long wait. Though its musical DNA is deeply rooted in ’80s techno-funk the album isn’t a museum relic thanks to the fact that Frank and Murphy’s sensibilities aren’t trapped in a time warp. They’ve managed to make their music appear contemporary but without sacrificing any of the key elements of the classic System sound. The opening title track with its fat, raspy, analogue synth patches and stuttering sequenced bass line could have been an outtake from one of the duo’s early Mirage albums. It’s a great cut – edgy, pulsating and featuring a superb vocal from the criminally-underrated Murphy. The mid-tempo ‘Diabolical Love’ is a dark ballad about the insanity of a destructive desire, while the more soulful ‘No Fear Of Flying’ has echoes of the great R&B slow jams that The System were renowned for in the ’80s.

‘Tug O War’ is a catchy slice of edgy, pop-tinged, R&B while the more reflective ‘My Prayer (Temple Of Soul)’ boasts a big anthemic chorus. The duo head straight to the dance floor with the pumping ‘The Toast (To The Good Life)’ and ‘Your Love Is Motha’ is a tightly-sequenced street groove that despite its eyebrow-raising title is a deeply-felt declaration of love. The duo also reboot their biggest hit, the magnificent ‘Don’t Disturb This Groove’ with a new arrangement – there are those, no doubt, who would perceive it as a pointless exercise, but while it doesn’t eclipse the original the new version certainly provides an interesting fresh spin on a vintage classic.

Overall, then, this is a remarkable return from the pathfinding New York cyber-soul duo – let’s hope, then, that they don’t let another decade pass before their next album.

(CW) 4/5