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Frank Ocean In The Studio
Almost half a million album sales in the US and a Grammy for Best Urban Contemporary album make Frank Ocean one of the biggest names in urban music at the moment. No fly-by-night, talent show chancer either, Frank had to hold down 11 jobs (including Subway, he makes a mean sandwich) in support of his music making craft. Furthermore 'Channel Orange' is a critical success too, as loved by the Guardian as it is by Spin Magazine. We decided to put together a Frank Ocean gear guide, so you can capture that 'Channel Orange' sound too.
Writing Channel Orange
There's some classic synth, drum machine and guitar tones on 'Channel Orange' but it is mixed very contemporaneously with a full, lush and quite dry sound. Frank worked with producer Malay who describes them working as equal partners, rather than putting his own imprint on it.
Frank Ocean's Microphone
It's not a big surprise to find a Neumann U47 and Telefunken 251 being used, unfortunately, they're out of production and these vintage mics command a hefty price on the second-hand market (when they turn up!). Malay does also say that an M149 was used, one of Neumanns flagship microphones, a real work of art and perfect gear for capturing a talent like Frank. Apparently, an SM58 was used too, best known as the world's favourite live vocal mic the 58 turns up in the studio more than you might think.
Bono is known for recording using a handheld 58, singing in front of the studio monitors rather than on headphones. Quite possibly the 58 was used at the same time as one of the tube condensers to give a little grit and mid-range punch in the mix. The trick is to get the capsules of the SM58 and the other mic lined up perfectly to avoid any phase issues.
Our guess for where the SM58 was used would be Forrest Gump, with a layered quality to the vocal and mid range bump it may well be blended in there.
For the rest of the vocal chain there's a few more classic pieces of gear that have been used on pop records for decades, the Neve 1073 Microphone Preamp, Fairchild 670 and Studer tape machine help give weight and warmth to Frank's vocal. The original hardware units can be hard to find but Waves have distilled all that analogue voodoo into spot-on digital recreations in the V-Series. Universal Audio have their own stunning Neve recreations in the Neve Pak, they also have Fairchild and Studer hardware emulations that run on their UAD Accelerator packages.
The bass setup was also pretty consistent over the course of creating the album. When using the DI it was a Trace Elliot run through an Avalon 737 for mild EQ and compressing it with a Universal Audio 1176 compressor. When recording the amp itself an Ampeg BA115 was used in combination with an RE-20 microphone. All absolute classic bass tracking gear with rounded Ampeg tones, full range microphone and a nice fast 1176 compressor. The cherry on top is everyone's favourite Fender Precision Bass, the bass heard on more great records than any other (probably).
However it's not all glitzy high end in the Frank Ocean bass sound, on 'Pink Matter' Malay used his old Yamaha bass that he bought when he was in high school for around $100! That might well make it one of Yamaha's early BB300 basses, now discontinued but the RBX170 is made in a very similar style and will no doubt fill in nicely for your smash RnB/Hip Hop album.
Here's Pink Matter, featuring the guest vocals of the one and only André 3000.
The main electrics used were apparently Strats, Les Pauls and Gibson 335 hollow bodies run through either a Fender Princeton (try the affordable tube delight of a Pro Junior) or Vox AC-30. All great gear that you would be hard pushed to get a bad sound from, particularly when you have John Mayer laying down a solo - as he does on 'Pyramid'. Certainly sounds like John's favoured Strat to us (he likes Martin when it comes to his acoustic songs). In the recording chain a Beyerdynamic M160 was used. Here's John Mayer playing with Frank on Saturday Night Live, playing synth pads on his guitar (presumably using a textural synth pedal) as well as letting rip with his Strat on a crunchy amp. We can spy an Orange amp in there and his tone certainly has that gritty chime, John often uses a nice, simple Ibanez overdrive too.
Synths And Studio Tech
Mayan is unequivocal in his love of Arturia, so many of the great synth tones and drum machines you hear all over Channel Orange doubtless come from their great collection of software and hardware. He also likes using a software Mellotron and Native Instruments Battery. It can be good to get those sounds 'out the box' and run your plugins through some analogue hardware, so Mayan will often run out of his Apogee Duet and into some quality solid-state outboard gear. This just can take the digital edge off your sounds and helps glue the mix together.