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 davidfrankmusic.com.
I 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.
I 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!