Christina Aguilera's debut single was a worldwide smash hit last year, thanks in no small measure to the distinctive work of producer and co‑writer David Frank. Mike Senior finds out how he did it.
If you were listening to music radio last year you cannot fail to have heard Christina Aguilera's 'Genie In A Bottle' — and heard it often. It was a mainstay of most playlists for many months and has topped charts all over the world, spending a staggering five weeks at number one in the US charts and a respectable two weeks at the top spot here in the UK. The single's three million sales have not only shot Christina to worldwide fame, but have also helped to draw increased attention to those behind the record's unique and unconventional sound, a devastatingly commercial blend of pop, hip-hop and electronica. And this sound owes much to the performance, recording and production skills of David Frank.
Though initially known as one half of '80s synth experimentalists The System, whose 'Don't Disturb This Groove' climbed to number three in the US in 1987, David has since forged a varied production career, with credits including Dionne Farris's Wild Seed — Wild Flower and Omar's This Is Not A Love Song. Clearly this is a man whose musical abilities are not resticted to the confines of any single style, and so it's not altogether surprising to find that he was also classically trained as a pianist from an early age — an impromptu rendition of a spiky Shostakovich prelude on his newly acquired concert grand leaves me in no doubt as to his command of the keyboard!
Apart from David's unusual blend of influences, there are other important factors which affected the birth of this unusual track, not least of which is the somewhat reversed order in which the various elements of the record were assembled. For example, most of the work was done on 'Genie' before David was even properly acquainted with the eventual singer: "The song was actually written before I really knew Christina Aguilera properly. All I'd heard from her was a tape I got through RCA's A&R man Ron Fair, who I've worked with many times in the past and whose judgement I really trust. She was singing a Disney song called 'Reflections' [from the soundtrack for the film Mulan] and although she had a good voice, I didn't know if she could sing in a more hip-hop oriented style too. The tape sounded a bit too much like you'd expect a song from a Disney film to sound! Anyway, I didn't really think much more about it — I just put it away and pretty much forgot about it until 'Genie' was otherwise complete."
Even more unusually, it appears that the instrumental backing for 'Genie In A Bottle' was almost complete before the song itself had even been written. David recalls how this came about: "I got a call from an English songwriter called Pam Sheyne who said she'd really like to write with me. She'd been recommended by a couple of other people and so I decided to give it a try. I then phoned Steve Kipner, another great songwriter who I've done a lot of work with and who's a good friend of mine, and he said he'd like to do it as well, so we made it a three-way collaboration.
"Once this was arranged, I worked up a few ideas to make sure that I had prepared a lot of possibilities for backing tracks for when they came. However, even though I had a number of ideas ready for the session, I still woke up in the middle of the night thinking 'I really don't have anything that great for this yet. I really have to find something better.' So I got up at 2 o'clock in the morning and worked all night in my studio.
"When you're really tired, you don't tend to be as careful about how you put things together, so things just come out and it's freer. I think most people will identify with this. You're not in a normal state of mind at all, it's all just imaginary: you're just imagining a little sonic environment and putting yourself in it. That's what I did then and, within five or six hours, I had come up with pretty much the whole instrumental track for what was to become 'Genie In A Bottle'.
"The whole song is really just an eight-bar looped sequence containing a number of different parts. Obviously there's an intro and a couple of little stops, but the only other way we introduced variation in the backing was by switching parts on and off throughout the song."
One of the most immediately conspicuous elements of the arrangement is the rapid bass drum pattern which continues throughout most of the song. While many European listeners may be familiar with this type of sound from some '90s dance music, David actually drew his inspiration for this from his own experiences in the '80s: "When I was in The System we did an album called Sweat. At the time no-one had ever featured a 32nd-note bass drum pattern. It had not really been conceived of yet, although there was one song that had done it with a hi-hat, by a band called The Time. We did it on the Sweat album, in the song of the same name.
"I decided that I'd try something along those lines again, because it never really caught on — you know, it's not a melody or a lyric, it's a production idea. So, in many ways, that pattern which I ended up using for 'Genie In A Bottle' relates back to things that I did in 1982!"
Using this initial idea, David started by programming the various drum parts. "There are no loops in 'Genie In A Bottle': I programmed it all myself. I ran most of the drums from the MPC60, without any filtering or processing at all. I still love the MPC's sound for drums, because it's only 12-bit — I'm not using the MPC3000 — and there's something about that which makes the sounds a little tougher. However, I don't use its internal sequencer, because I prefer to trigger its sounds from Logic instead. It is true that the MPC is a little bit more locked when you run it from its internal sequencer, but Logic is pretty much the tightest feel after that. I've compared Logic to the MPC many times and often I haven't even been able to tell the difference. And the big advantage of running the drums from Logic is that I can use the Matrix editor to adjust the exact timing of my drum patterns — I could play with the timing of the 32nd notes on 'Genie In A Bottle', for example, until I was absolutely satisfied that I had a killer groove.
"I'm always careful to listen at a very low volume, so that I can be absolutely sure that the material's good. When I listen to things really loud I find I'm just impressed by the volume of it, so I usually try to listen to things softly, and sometimes just in mono for a while, just to ensure that I'm really doing something impressive and not just fooling myself. I remember being particularly careful to listen quietly — literally almost no volume — on the night I did 'Genie', because I knew I really wanted a great groove.
"A groove is a very delicate thing, and when you've got one that really works, it almost doesn't matter what volume the different components are — if you change the overall volume of any one component the whole thing still sounds good. And that's how it was with 'Genie'. Get the right groove with the right sounds and the drums will mix themselves.
"The basic kick and snare are from the MPC. The faster kick-pattern, which is actually a slightly different kick sound filling in 32nds around a fairly simple main beat, is from the Korg TR-Rack. The clap sound is also out of there. Instead of a shaker there's a reverse hi-hat which I often use, and I used the Yamaha EX5 for most of the other little rhythmic elements — for example, the dull scrubbing sound which is mixed subtly in with the loop."
With the programmed drum pattern in place, David then began to flesh out the arrangement. However, he worked on these other parts in an entirely different manner. "In contrast to the way I do the drums, I don't just sit down and program synth lines, spending ages moving little notes around. Sometimes I'll change one if it makes the line better, but I'm primarily a performer and so I just enjoy playing the keyboards — I want to do things which inspire me, especially when I'm sitting there in the middle of the night! The bottom line is that if anything on the record sounds like it's a real performance then it probably is."
David's ability to design his own synthetic sounds is undisputed, given that he has had more than 20 years' experience with technological music-making, yet his attitude to selecting sounds is characteristically pragmatic. "Since about a year and a half ago, I've stopped restraining myself from buying new keyboards when they come out — it's great to be able to use the sounds that come in them to their best advantage. I don't feel I have anything to prove as a sound designer — it's not like I don't understand synthesis from the ground up. As far as I'm concerned, the people who design these sounds are like the guys who designed great pianos in the 17th century: the point is just to play them, not to feel that you have to redesign them! I don't feel there's anything wrong with that, because there's still so much creativity that has to happen after you've decided on your sounds.
"However, having said that, I still do design a lot of sounds, which is why the Nord Rack and Access Virus are a couple of my favourite instruments — they're so playable and musical! For example, I created all the synth sounds in the introduction myself using the Nord Rack. The brassy sound that you first hear just after the drums have started, which sounds like it's going through a wah-wah pedal, was where I was just playing with the knobs on the Nord Rack with one hand while I played the part with the other. The other sort of pizzicato sound which you can hear in the introduction is also the Nord, but with me playing around with the pitch-bend control. One of the things I love about the Nord and the Virus is that you can layer control data over a line you've played, and I often find myself doing this to make it more expressive. However, for most of the lines on 'Genie' I just moved the knobs while I was playing the keyboard with the other hand. The very high-frequency fizzing sound, which is one of the more unusual elements of 'Genie In A Bottle', is another Nord sound I designed myself."
"The bass sound comes straight from the TR-Rack: it's patch D005 'Mr. Impact'. It's a very versatile sound and I like it because it's faster than is common at the moment. It's been cool for the last few years to use long sustained lines and sine-wave bass, serving mostly a supportive role. But in the '80s fast bass was much more the norm and I've never forgotten about that.
"There are a couple of pads in the song. They're both from the Yamaha EX5, The warmer one is, unsurprisingly, a patch called 'Warmer Pad' and there's also a single-note string line using another patch called 'Orion'. The string sound isn't actually very pleasant, and the first time I ever used it was when I was with the British producer Andrew Frampton. I thought it sounded pretty bad, but he showed me how it could be useful up high: there's all this aliasing you get which really helps it cut through a mix. I also used the Yamaha to play the guitar power-chord sample which you can hear at the beginning of the chorus — using the ribbon controller, I pitch-bent it differently every time it happened.
"The brass stabs in the chorus were a Roland JP8000 patch which I programmed myself, though the sound is not that different from any other brass patch. Steve Kipner added some Syndrum-like sounds near the end; we used a Minimoog which gave them a certain fatness that most synths can't really match. A final unusual thing about this track is the piano part: It's so simple, but it took me quite a long time to arrive at it. I tried a bunch of other more complicated things with much more impressive voicings, but then I stepped back and said to myself 'Wait a second! If I put something almost stupid over the top of this it's going to seem much more intelligent than any of these.' So I just kept most of the part up in a high register, almost like a kind of '50s-style ostinato."
Following the night's feverish activity David was in the unusual position of being able to present the other two collaborators with a backing track which was all but completed. "Steve Kipner and Pam Sheyne came over the following day to write the song and we had a fantastic time — they're brilliant songwriters. We weren't yet specifically writing for Christina, but we had agreed to write for a female vocalist, because we knew Pam could sing the demo."
And of course, the vocalist who would end up singing the completed song was Christina Aguilera. Remembering the tape of her singing which he had received from Ron Fair, he invited Christina over to try it out. David recalls how she immediately won them over: "What a voice! When Christina came over and sang the song for us we were completely blown away. She got the song no problem! I don't mean to be over-dramatic, but we need people like Christina in the world to show young artists that they really do have to be good at singing first of all. All the image stuff is only secondary in the end — Christina's been practising singing her whole life, in her bathroom or wherever! She's worked hard at it in her own time and it sounds like it. There it is — that's what it takes to achieve real greatness.
"When it came to recording her performance for real, we tried to choose which of her ad libs we used, so that it didn't sound too bluesy. There have been other productions with her where they use a lot of blues riffs — in fact, the new single 'What A Girl Wants' is a good example of that — but we intentionally said that we really didn't want to use that. We wanted to try to find the unusual lines which show the way in which she thinks about what she's going to sing. She doesn't just toss off riffs, she really considers what she sings — you could really tell that when she sang live at the American Music Awards, for example. Every time she did a take we'd be sitting there stunned. She pushed the track and yet made it feel solid as a rock. She had some fantastic ideas for the vocal lines as well — the first riff of the song, for example — so much so that we felt that it was only right to credit her for this on the record sleeve.
"We usually try a few different vocal mics; in this case we tried a Neumann U67, M149, and TLM103 as well as a mic that Bob Clearmountain, who's a friend of Steve's, recommended to us. Bob got it from some genius guy who lives in a cabin up in the Mohave desert and who makes these speciality one-off mics. I think someone is now looking at manufacturing them, but apparently Bob had to go up there and go duck-hunting with the guy in order to get hold of that one! He very graciously lent us this mic and it ended up being the one we used, because it was just perfect for capturing the 'edge' in her voice.
"We went through one of my two Avalon VT737SP valve channels — pretty much everything I record goes through those. She's very dynamic in her performance, but she has good mic technique so we only ever need to compress her voice a little bit. It's not hard to record her and that's good, because the performance is always so strong that it's often hard to pay attention to the recording process itself! The thin-sounding vocals were processed additionally in the computer using a little Drawmer plug-in which effectively just band-pass filtered the signal.
"The vocal recording was done in the vocal booth here at Canyon Reverb. It's nice in that room, because there's a great view out of the window over the Santa Monica mountains — we're not in the thick of LA here at all! It's so inspiring to be working in a beautiful place and I really appreciate it, because I used to be in a loft in New York, right accross from the port authority bus terminal on 37th Street, where the diesel exhaust would be coming right in through the window because we didn't have air conditioning!
"Steve and I did the backing vocals a first time, with about four tracks of each part, but they didn't seem quite right. Because Christina delivers a really committed performance every time she opens her mouth, we'd tried to get her to sing a little more subdued — and that was the problem. So we recorded them all again — it didn't take long because she's very consistent — and we just let her do them naturally. Immediately they had a lot more life and intensity to them, so we kept those."
David and Steve's work didn't finish with the last vocal take, however. They were both keen to oversee the final stages of the project in order to retain the spirit of the song they had created with Pam. "We mixed 'Genie In A Bottle' with a really great engineer named Dave Way. We actually mixed it twice, but we weren't satisfied with it the first time, so we tried it again and that time it came out great. We went on to finish the project at Oasis Mastering with Eddie Schreyer. He's was also fantastic — he was able to add more bass than we'd ever thought it could tolerate. I was saying 'Surely there's too much bass in this', but I took it home and played it to a bunch of people who all said it was just right. And yet there's a remarkable clarity to it as well: everything has its place."
And it seems as though things are also falling into place rather nicely for David Frank himself, as more artists and record companies realise the value of the powerful blend of production skills and musical intuition which he and Steve Kipner offer — Westlife's new album, for example, has already benefited from their skills. However, while no-one can guess, given Frank's multi-faceted musical career, what direction each of these projects might take, one thing looks fairly certain: he's going to have trouble finding the time to enjoy that new piano...
"Basically the way I now work, unless I'm on a production job, is to wake up every morning with an idea and run into the studio and get it down on tape or into the sequencer as quickly as I can. Often I just quickly record myself at the piano or on the Wurlitzer — I have so many ideas on this little Wurlitzer, though half the time you can't hear what any of the chords are, because it's kind of muffled! I just try to free my mind and come up with more ideas, and I just build a track by myself — I sometimes work better by myself when I'm working on backing tracks and beats.
"I sling lots of these little ideas onto tapes, which I label to relate them to the project I'm working on or to a style, and it means that I always have a collection of ideas available that I can dip into at any time. The backing track for 'Genie In A Bottle' was pretty much just another of these ideas, which happened to turn out great so we developed the song around it. You could say that it was just lucky — and it was — but good luck is pretty rare in music without a lot of hard work."
"A couple of years ago I decided to get a lot more into doing pop music. I'd been pretty discouraged when the Omar album, which I was totally satisfied with artistically, found it difficult to gain acceptance here in the US, so I decided that I was really going to set my sights on the Top 40. I made up my mind that I would now try to create music which would not only be artistically satisfying to me, but would also draw people to the record stores. I made a conscious decision to do that and with that in mind I started my writing relationship with Steve Kipner.
"It didn't take us too long to achieve some success writing together, Steve and I, particularly with 'The Hardest Thing', a song of ours on the 98 Degrees album which was a huge hit in the States. I got myself a computer editing system and a lot of gear which would facilitate making these types of hit records and I started to just work my way into that world."
David's Canyon Reverb home studio is filled with a personal selection of music technology, without which 'Genie In A Bottle' might have turned out very differently. At the centre of this setup is his choice of MIDI + Audio sequencer, Emagic's Logic Audio Platinum running on an Apple Macintosh 9600 with Digidesign 24-bit audio interface hardware and two Emagic Unitor 8 MIDI interfaces.
David: "Logic Audio is totally my friend. I just have so much fun with it! It's certainly complicated — much more so than the MPC60 — but it's a great instrument. I've found that it really helps me to be more creative. The studio here revolves around the sequencer: the mixing board is off to one side because it's not my main tool, although it's set up so that an engineer can sit in the middle and he'll have speakers in the right places. I use Logic Audio with Pro Tools 24-bit hardware.
"I do have a 24-track analogue machine, and I tend to use that to some extent on most of the projects. For example, on 'Genie' about 50 percent of the final mix was done from tape and the rest was done from the computer, the MPC and the synths running from the sequencer. We had everything on tape, but we brought all the gear in as well, so that we could pick and choose for each sound whether it was better coming off tape. I still do prefer the way some stuff comes off tape."
Other equipment in use at David's Canyon Reverb studio includes:
- Mackie 1604 analogue mixer.
- Panasonic SV3800 DAT recorder."I just use this as a line mixer."
- Sony CDP315 CD player.
- Sony MCI24 24-track 2-inch analogue multitrack.
- Soundcraft Spirit 328 digital mixers (x2).
- Tannoy System 1200 monitors. "These are linked and are my main mixers."
- Tascam 122 MkIII cassette deck.
- Yamaha MSP5 active monitors.
- Yamaha NS10M nearfield monitors: "I have the MSP5s over by the keyboards and they can be really useful some of the time. But if I really want to be sure that I have something really good, I'll make myself use only the NS10s, because they're ruthless in telling me whether I'm just hyping myself or not. Thank God for NS10s!"
- Aphex 107 valve mic preamp.
- Avalon VT737SP valve mic channels (x2).
- Dbx 160x compressor/limiter.
- Drawmer DS201 and LX20 expanders.
- Ensonic DP4 multi-effects.
- Korg DRV3000 digital reverb.
- TC Electronic Finalizer.
- TC Electronic Fireworx.
- Yamaha SPX90 and SPX900 multi-effects.
- Akai MPC60 sampling drum machine.
- Akai S3000XL sampler.
- Roland S760 sampler.
KEYBOARDS & SOUND MODULES
- Access Virus sound module.
- Emu Planet Phat sound module.
- Emu Proteus 2000 sound module.
- Hammond XB2 sound module.
- Hohner D6 Clavinet.
- Korg Triton workstations (x2): "I use one of these as my main controller keyboard."
- Korg TR-Rack sound module.
- Moog Minimoog monophonic synthesizer.
- Nord Rack sound module.
- Rhodes 73 stage piano.
- Roland JP8000 synthesizer.
- Roland JV2080 sound module.
- Waldorf Q synthesizer: "It's not as easy to use as the Nord or the Virus, but it's nevertheless a very intriguing keyboard."
- Wurlitzer electric piano.
- Yamaha EX5 workstation.
- Yamaha S80 workstation.
- Yamaha VL7 synthesizer.