channel ORANGE, the debut album of Frank Ocean, was released 10 years ago today! The album was met with instant critical acclaim upon release and is regarded by many critics as one of the greatest albums from the 2010s. It has had a lasting effect on modern hip-hop, R&B and pop music, with artists such as SZA, BROCKHAMPTON, Joji and Khalid taking clear inspiration from channel ORANGE.
Unless you were a fan of his nostalgia, ULTRA mixtape, Frank Ocean seemed to be catapulted to fame out of nowhere. In this article, I’ll dive a little bit into the genesis and creation of channel ORANGE, as well as it’s producers, Malay Ho, Om’Mas Keith and Shea Taylor. I’ll also look at the synth sounds in channel ORANGE‘s more synth-heavy tracks, and as always, the recreated presets for the Arturia V Collection are available for free download at end of the article.
Crafting channel Orange
Frank Ocean started his career as a songwriter for other artists, which he did under the name Lonny Breaux. He wrote songs for John Legends (Quickly), Brandy (1st & Love), Justin Bieber (Bigger), The Internet (SHE DGAF) and Beyoncé (I Miss You).
Not content with working behind the scenes as a songwriter, Frank joined Odd Future in 2009 where he struck up a friendship with Tyler, the Creator, appearing on She from Tyler’s debut album Goblin in 2011. The same year, Frank self-released his mixtape Nostalgia, ULTRA for free online. It’s likely through Nostalgia, ULTRA that Beyoncé discovered Frank while listening to music with Jay-Z one morning:
“I noticed his tone, his arrangements, and his storytelling. I immediately reached out to him – literally the next morning. I asked him to fly to New York and work on my record”.
The track Frank worked on, I Miss You was co-written with Shea Taylor, who had formerly worked on Love on Top with Beyoncé, and Frank would later enlist to work on Thinkin Bout You and Pilot Jones for channel ORANGE.
Frank also worked on Watch the Throne, the collaborative album by Kanye West and Jay-Z, appearing on the tracks No Church in the Wild and Made in America. Thinkin Bout You leaked on the internet only a month after the release of Watch the Throne and started to generate hype for Frank’s debut album.
channel ORANGE started to take shape when Frank started writing with James Ryan Ho, better known as Malay, who Frank had worked with on the writing and production of John Legend’s album Evolver in 2008.
Frank and Malay started the majority of the material for channel ORANGE in February 2011, around the release of Nostalgia ULTRA. Super Rich Kids and Pyramids were among the first songs they wrote for the album. Malay would typically write at a keyboard or guitar while “Ocean would type on his laptop, humming melodies and trying out combinations”. They got inspiration by playing Akira Kurosawa movies such as Seven Samurai and Ran on silent in the background.
“So that’s when we kind of just started hanging out and writing. No purpose. Just both of us agreeing to “Hey, we’re both kind of on the same page creatively. Let’s just kind of fuck around.” And then he put out Nostalgia probably within a month of us starting working and within probably two to three months—not like every single day, but just real loosely—we pretty much wrote the whole record. We had the basis of what became Channel Orange.” – Malay
Frank had a clear vision for channel ORANGE, and set about coming up with the track-list before recording the songs so that he could record the album in order; he then stuck to that track-list. Malay said “he recorded them in order of how they are on the record and then when we got back together once the vocals were completed. On the production end we did the same thing.” and Frank said “Even though they were all sketches, there was so much comfort, because I heard in my head how it was going to sound. Now all I’ve got to do is finish it.”
Om’Mas Keith is a big contributor to the recording of channel ORANGE; he is credited with co-production on ten of the album’s songs, as well as additional vocals and keyboards. He also was a co-producer on Watch the Throne, where he worked on the Frank-featuring No Church in the Wild. On working on channel Orange, Keith says:
“I just credit Frank with being an extreme visionary, even in how he put the process together. It’s a blueprint that people are going to try to follow. But if you don’t have a vision, you can’t follow it, because you won’t get anywhere.” – Om’Mas Keith
Lost was the fourth single released from channel Orange, and was produced by Malay. The song combines pop hooks with old-school Motown vibes, plus dialogue samples from Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.
The beat for Lost was originally written by Malay and Micah Otano as Daylight, but wasn’t released. Malay later gave Frank Ocean the beat, who wrote Lost over it. The main differences between the beats are the key, Lost has been pitch-shifted up a tone from C minor to D minor, and the distorted guitar track from the Daylight beat has been removed.
Before I go into the sounds of Lost, here’s my full remake, using no samples from the original song:
The main instrumental hook in Lost is a playful, bouncy lead sound that likely came from Malay’s Moog Voyager. The patch features a high resonance filter to create a honky, mid-range focused sound, as well as noise to add a little dirt and tempo-synced delay to add some rhythmic bounce.
The patch can be recreated in Arturia Mini V; start with a single sawtooth oscillator with the pitch range set to 4’. Set the filter cutoff to 284Hz (with keyboard tracking on) and set resonance to 4. Next, add a small amount of brassiness by raising the amount of contour knob to 10% and setting attack to 40ms, decay to 108ms and sustain level to halfway. Add some noise in the mixer section by setting the volume to 3 and flicking the noise switch to select the darker pink noise instead of white noise.
The delay on the lead sound is a tempo-synced stereo effect with a dotted 1/4 note delay time in the left channel and a 1/2 (2 beats) delay time in the right channel. I used Mini V’s onboard delay for this, with Time Left set to Tempo 2.0, Time Right set to Tempo 1.5, dry/wet set to 16% and feedback to 0.25.
- Lost Lead Dry 00:00
- Lost Lead Wet 00:00
A melancholy string melody is introduced in the Lost chorus, and these are classic Mellotron strings. This vintage proto-sampler is a favourite of Malays and was also used for the main sample in the intro of Pyramids as well as in Nikes, from Blonde. As mentioned in a Gearspace forum discussion, he was using the GForce MTron Pro plugin for the recording of channel ORANGE, so that’s likely what was used on Lost.
Most Mellotron plugins have the same core samples taken from the original Mellotron tape banks, so I’ve used Arturia Mellotron V for my Lost remake, as it’s part of the Arturia V Collection that I’m already using. In Mellotron V I used a custom preset using the Mk2 3Violins sample bank with the flutter and tape saturation controls raised about 1/3 of the way and some EQ to boost the high frequencies and match the tone on Lost.
- Lost Mellotron 00:00
There are two transition licks that play at the end of the verse phrases to lead into the chorus. The first part is a descending arpeggio played on a Wurlitzer electric piano, which I recreated using Arturia Wurli V’s Midrange preset.
The second part is a rapid up-and-down arpeggio played on a filter triangle wave synth patch. To my ears, it also sounds like this part may have been reversed, a technique that Malay also used on the drums in Pyramids. I recreated the patch using Arturia OB-Xa V. In the OB-Xa synths, a triangle wave oscillator is selected by deactivating both the sawtooth and square wave selector buttons. I then dialled in a slow attack time of 240ms to recreate the soft attack/possibly reversed sound.
- Lost Wurlitzer 00:00
- Lost Arp 00:00
- Layered Up 00:00
There’s a classic Motown/soul sound playing through Lost, which is chord stabs on beat 2. This is a layered sound, with guitar stabs panned hard left, and organ stabs panned hard right. For the organ patch, I used the Arturia B3 V preset Powerful Chorus with the rotary speaker speed set to fast.
The organ stabs are panned to the right while similar guitar stabs are panned to the left. The guitar sound in my remake is clean with plate reverb from Soundtoys LittlePlate and tremolo from Ableton Live’s Auto Pan device. The two panned layers create a nice stereo effect, which is a useful tool when creating your own arrangements.
- Organ Stabs 00:00
- Guitar Stabs 00:00
- Layered Stab 00:00
- Full Section 00:00
Finally, there’s a gliding monosynth that plays in the third verse at 2:14 which also like came from Malay’s Moog Voyager. The standout elements of this sound are the pulse-width which modulates slightly as the note is held down and the portamento glide which makes the pitch jump smoothly up and down.
I recreated the patch in Arturia Mini V using a pulse wave oscillator with the filter set to 990 Hz. The oscillator pulse width is modulated by the filter envelope, which is done by setting VCF ENV as modulation source in the Advanced modulation panel and VCO1 PWM as the destination.
Portamento glide is activated with the Glide switch at the bottom left, and setting the glide time on the left of the panel to 3.6 gives the same portamento timing as heard in Lost.
- Lost Bridge Glide 00:00
Thinkin Bout You
Thinkin Bout You was the lead single from channel ORANGE, and was released a few months before the album. The song places Frank Ocean’s heartbroken, ballad-like lyrics over a smooth, futuristic R&B production from New York-based producer Shea Taylor.
Frank Ocean originally wrote Thinkin Bout You for pop and R&B artist Bridget Kelly; however, he leaked the demo version on his tumblr page before deciding to include it on channel ORANGE, ostensibly as the song was personal to him. Kelly later released her version of the song under the title Thinking About Forever.
Before I go into the sounds and production, here’s my full remake of Thinkin Bout You, using a mix of Air Xpand!2 and Arturia Prophet V:
Thinkin Bout You Synth
Thinkin Bout You has straightforward instrumentation with a smooth synth pad that plays the chords throughout the song, which comes from the Scanner Pad preset from Xpand!2 by AIR Music Technology. Here’s what it sounds like straight from the plugin:
- Organ 1 // Organ 2 00:00
Xpand!2 is a ROMpler that plays sounds from pre-recorded samples, which unfortunately means you can’t tweak the sounds. As a sound design nerd, I wanted to recreate the Scanner Pad sound, so I built two Arturia Prophet V patches that work as separate layers. The first layer is a long swelling pad, and this is the main sound. You can create the distinctive swelling effect in Arturia Prophet V by setting the envelope amount to 38 with envelope times of 1.1s attack and 3.1s decay.
- Pad Sound 00:00
The second layer in the Thinkin’ Bout You pad is a tremolo organ that sits underneath the pad. Both patches play the same chords, but this organ patch helps fill out the low end while the pad has more high-end.
The organ sound is thin and only uses Oscillator A. This gives a single sawtooth sound instead of detuned sawtooth waves. There’s also no envelope amount in the filter section, so the patch is more static sounding. Lastly, set Prophet V’s onboard chorus to 50% dry/wet.
- Organ Synth 00:00
Finally, both synth patches have an auto-pan / stereo tremolo effect that quickly pans the sound between speakers. In the original Scanner Pad patch, this effect is part of the Xpand!2 sample and can’t be adjusted. For the remake patches, I used Ableton’s auto-pan effect with a rate of 7 Hz. I used two instances, one on each layer, and set the auto-pan amount to 40% for the pad and 74% for the organ.
- Layered Synths 00:00
- Tremolo Effect 00:00
Thinkin Bout Music Theory
Alongside the cool synth patch, the chords played add a mysterious feel to the song. The chords are seventh chords, which are like regular 3-note triad chords with an added 7th interval. Seventh chords have a jazzier, more sophisticated sound than triads, and Frank Ocean uses them a lot in his writing.
Thinkin Bout You is in the key of C major and the second-to-last chord in the progression, Ebmaj7, is borrowed from out-of-key. The switch from the chord before it, Em7 is a great trick to add mystery to a chord change. It sounds smooth because two notes remain the same (D and G) while the other two shift down a semitone (E to Eb and B to Bb). Try this chord change on your keyboard, and you’ll want to throw it in every song.
It’s also effective because the second half of the verse has chromatic movement in the bass, descending every semitone from F down to D. Frank Ocean loves playing with borrowed chords and chromatic motion when songwriting; you can also hear a similar sequence in Skyline To, covered in my Frank Ocean Synth Sounds, Part Two article.
Finally, I can’t do a channel ORANGE remake without mentioning Pyramids, the almost-10-minute long, synth-laden, soul R&B epic featuring an uncredited extended outro guitar solo by John Mayer. The Pyramids beat was created using a mixture of hardware and software synthesizers, such as a Roland Juno-106 and an Oberheim OB-8 alongside GForce MTron Pro, Arturia CS-80 V and Spectrasonics Omnisphere.
I wrote a separate article dedicated to Pyramids, which you can read here, and below you can check out my full Pyramids remake, which features guitars graciously provided by Seán Murray.
Below is a complete list of all the articles and interviews I referenced when researching this article, as well as some great musician/producer resources for fans of Frank Ocean.
- Complex Interview: Frank Ocean’s Co-Writer And Producer Malay Talks…
- Reverb.com Interview: Frank Ocean Producer Malay on Making Albums in a Singles Era
- Splice: How Frank Ocean producer Malay creates lo-fi textures
- Output: In The Studio with Om’Mas Keith
- New York Times: Frank Ocean Can Fly
- Malay’s Reddit AMA from 2016
- Malay talking about channel ORANGE on Gearspace
- Mix With the Masters: “It’s You” by Zayn | Inside the Track #20
- Mix With the Masters: “Them” by Iris | Producing a Track #2