Christina Aguilera's "Genie in a Bottle" is the most recent product of producer/composer/keyboardist David Frank's magic touch. Cowritten by Frank, Steve Kipner, and Pam Sheyne, the hit has put Frank back in the top ranks of pop producers. His past production successes have been equally impressive: Phil Collins's "Sussudio," Chaka Khan's "I Feel for You," and Steve Winwood's "Higher Love."
Frank's musical triumphs are largely due to his dedication and hard work. He may not share the sound of his Tin Pan Alley and Brill Building forebears, but he certainly shares their work ethic. Frank always makes time to learn his gear and study music composition from top to bottom. He also experiments constantly, pushing whatever system he's using to its fullest potential. "I've always experimented," he says. "I had a Farfisa organ, and I'd try to get electric guitar sounds out of it." Frank has maintained this diligent approach to music- and record-making throughout his 30 years in the business.
A WELL-ROUNDED EDUCATION
"Genie in a Bottle" and the world of teen pinup pop are a far cry from Frank's early musical career. As a young music student at the New England Conservatory, and later at the prestigious Berklee College of Music, he studied classical piano. But it was at Berklee that Frank received his introduction to electronic music. "My teacher," Frank recalls, "brought in [Wendy Carlos's] Switched-On Bach, which is a pretty influential synthesizer record. To this day, I still have thoughts of doing a synthesizer album of classical music, but then I think, 'No, I don't have time for that.'"
After Berklee, Frank played in a variety of Top 40 bands in the Boston area. On one momentous occasion, the bass player in one of his bands brought in an ARP Odyssey, and Frank's career was changed forever. "He put it in front of me and said, 'Here, play this,'" Frank remembers. "I had no idea how to use it. I played some standard like 'Misty' or something, and it sounded horrible. Still, I was hooked, and the next day I bought one. That was my first synthesizer."
LEARNING THE SYNTH ROPES
In 1979, Frank moved to Manhattan with nothing but the keyboards he'd accumulated. His first job was backing Frank Sinatra imitators at weddings with his ARP Odyssey and Fender Rhodes.
Frank keeps his turntable within arm''s reach of his workstation so he can quickly grab samples from vinyl.
Photo: Paul Myers
Frank soon developed an interest in Oberheim synths. As more gigs brought in more money, he expanded his keyboard collection to include an Oberheim X-A, DSX sequencer, and DMX drum machine, which he linked to his very first Minimoog.
"That setup was my 'thing,'" remembers Frank of his rig. "I used a Minimoog for the bass, and with the Oberheim DSX and DMX, I could have two different parts with four voices each. So I started programming with those. The DSX was a lot like a MIDI sequencer, except that there was no Velocity sensitivity and you had to start at the beginning each time you recorded something. When I got my DSX, I decided that I was going to figure out how to do everything that you could possibly do with this drum machine and sequencer. I was determined to use it to do something different from what other people had done. I wasn't just out to have a hit record. It was an intellectual challenge for me, as though I was still in school."
Frank's innovative approach to music-making bore fruit in the synthesizer-fueled '80s, when he hit the big time as one half of the System, a radical new funk band. Their cross-format hit, "Don't Disturb This Groove," vaulted Frank and singer Mic Murphy to the top of the charts in 1987.
Like many great inventions, the System was born of necessity and serendipitous timing. Frank recalls the events that led to his fortuitous pairing with Murphy: "One day I got a call from Lou Bolognese, who owned a 24-track studio in Long Island. He wanted me to do a session as a favor, and he offered me some studio time in return. I thought I'd just do some demos and sample commercials with the time, but Lou said, 'Why don't you do a song? You know, a dance song, a 12-inch. Just get a singer, you can do it!'"
Frank programmed a song in a few weeks, but he still needed a singer. Why not ask the girl upstairs? he thought. "The girl upstairs was Madonna," Frank explains. "This was in 1981, before she had a record deal. We were in a pickup band together, and she was the singer. We rehearsed in the same building, called the Music Building, on 37th Street and 8th Avenue. I was actually paid to write with her. I made $30 for four hours of work," he laughs.
Frank had only the title for the song, "Crimes of Passion." He brought in the future mogul to write some words and a melody. Then fate intervened. "We were all set to do it. But the night before we were going to cut the song, Madonna called me and asked if Steve Bray, her drummer, could be in on the session as coproducer. "I love Steve, but I knew he would want to put guitars on the track. I had visualized it as a synth-only song, which was still a bit of a novelty at that time."
The conflict meant that Madonna was out. "I called up Mic Murphy, a singer I knew," Frank continues. "He wrote a new melody for the song and changed the words to 'In Times of Passion.' We recorded and mixed all of it in one day. He took it to a friend of his, who cut an acetate, a 12-inch, and we got a record deal with Atlantic the next day."
Within a month, the System, as the two had hastily dubbed themselves, had a hit song. Not long after, their label (Atlantic Records' Mirage imprint) wanted another, and gave the duo a budget of $35,000. "We thought that might be the last amount of money we ever got, so we decided to keep most of it for ourselves and make the record as cheaply as possible. We kept $10,000 each, so we could only spend $15,000 on the album. Of course, we were doing it all by ourselves, so we could get away with that amount." One of the best-known songs from those sessions is 1982's "You Are in My System," a song that would become a hit for both the System and, later, singer Robert Palmer. Suddenly, Frank was in demand.
David Frank with Christina Aguilera. Frank tracked and mixed Aguilera''s hit “Genie in a Bottle” at his Topanga Canyon home studio.
LIFE IN THE CANYON
Fast-forward to 1992, when Frank moved from New York to the very different world of Los Angeles. He found a house in Topanga Canyon and converted the garage into a project studio, adding a separate entrance and doubling the walls to soundproof it. He spent a considerable amount of time learning to use Digidesign's Pro Tools and Emagic's Logic Audio. Thus Frank's home studio, Canyon Reverb, was born.
Frank actively sought out cowriters who could get him a better shot at radio airplay. He met writer Steve Kipner through their mutual publisher, EMI Music Publishing, and began writing with him. Kipner already had a great track record, with hits such as Olivia Newton-John's "Let's Get Physical" and Chicago's "Hard Habit to Break." It helped that Frank and Kipner were neighbors. Their first attempt didn't become a hit, but they were confident that they were on the right track. "Then one morning," Frank recalls, "I had an idea for a song, and I called Steve and asked him to come over. We wrote 'The Hardest Thing,' which has become 98 Degrees' biggest hit. That was satisfying because I got to use some of my piano ideas. 'The Hardest Thing' is a piano-based song, more so than 'Genie.'"
A WISH COME TRUE
Aguilera's "Genie in a Bottle" is arguably the most successful project studio recording ever made. Frank recollects the song's creation: "I knew Christina's A&R person, Ron Fair," says Frank. "He had called me a couple of times about Christina. As an instrumentalist first and foremost, I want to work with great singers. Luckily, Christina is a really, really great singer."
Frank is justifiably proud of Aguilera's self-titled record, which he coproduced with Kipner. "I'm most proud of the way every little sound can be heard absolutely clearly, down to the last detail. That has a lot to do with being patient and spending a lot of time listening to a track. And you have to be true to your instincts. Sometimes when you're working on a drum track, you think, 'No one really wants to listen to this skittering kick drum. All people want to hear is the kick and snare going boom thwack boom boom thwack!' But you can get more creative than that with the keyboards and drum programming, and people will appreciate it."
David Frank tracks typically are born first thing in the morning or very late at night, when, Frank says, his mind is clearer and more receptive to ideas. "Those are the times when I start programming. With 'Genie,' I had an idea on tape that I really liked, but that needed one other part. Steve, Pam, and I were going to finish the song together, but the night before we were to meet, I woke up thinking, 'My god, the track isn't anywhere near ready!' So at two o'clock in the morning, I went into my studio and began working.
Frank won a gold record for producing Chaka Khan''s 1984 smash single, “I Feel for You.”
Photo: Paul Myers
"I had an idea for a chordal pattern, so I used the Nord Rack. I arrived at a kind of wah-wah sound, basically by twirling the knob controls and recording the results straight into the sequencer. I also found the high-frequency, cymbal-type sound using the Nord. I got it by turning up the FM knob until the two oscillators were interacting. The zap sound with a little rumble underneath it came from a Yamaha EX5. You'll also hear a very high-frequency sound going over the whole thing. I don't go in thinking about the frequencies; I just listen to them as the track is being built."
Frank used the matrix editor within Logic Audio to create the song's signature 32nd-note kick drum, a beat similar to one Frank used on the first System album. His E-mu Planet Phatt synth module's reverse hi-hat also contributed to the song's intriguing rhythm pattern. "That sounded good," remembers Frank, "but it was late on the beat, so I advanced the track to make it fit.
"We ended up mixing everything on an SSL 9000 at Pacifique Studios [in North Hollywood, California]," reveals Frank. "At the time we tracked everything, I was still using an analog Soundcraft Spirit board. We put everything to analog tape and did a mix. But after a week or so we weren't really happy with the mix. We had gotten really used to hearing the vocals coming directly out of Pro Tools. There's a certain edge that you get with digital that you don't with analog. We couldn't get the snare and kick sounds we wanted with the analog tape; analog warmed it up too much. So we just mixed directly from Pro Tools. I brought my whole Pro Tools rig and all my gear to Pacifique.
"For now," Frank says, "I'll go to other studios to mix. People who run really great mix studios usually have collected gear for many years, so it's to our advantage to go to them."
Frank doesn't try to guess where technology will lead home recordists. Nor does he feel that gear is the secret to a hit recording. "There will always be a lot of insomniac musicians waking up in the middle of the night with an idea that they need to get out. If you have a limited amount of gear, don't worry about it. Even if you have the worst instrument, if you know its ins and outs, you can still make fantastic music. 'Genie in a Bottle' was the biggest record in the world, and yet the whole thing was recorded in my home studio using an old Soundcraft Spirit board that was made nine years ago," says Frank. "The music comes from inside you."
Paul Myers is a Toronto-born guitarist, singer/songwriter, producer, and freelance journalist. He frequently gets behind the word processor to ramble on about music and related topics.