The Gear of Frank Ocean's "Channel Orange"

Photo by Kevork Djansezian / Getty Images

What a trip through time-space it must have been to be Christopher Breaux in 2012. After a few years cutting his teeth as a ghostwriter for the likes of Bieber and Brandy, locking in a record deal with Def Jam, and frequently teaming up with the boisterous rap crew Odd Future, the then-25-year-old R&B polymath known to us as Frank Ocean was riding hot on the heels of a successful self-released mixtape Nostalgia, Ultra that dropped the year prior. Whatever was to follow was sure to be a breakthrough.

Channel Orange was met with widespread critical acclaim when it was released that summer. "I wanted to create worlds that were rosier than mine," he would write in an now-famous open letter published on Tumblr that doubled as a pre-release coming out statement. "I tried to channel overwhelming emotions."

Ten years later, there's no doubt Frank and his team succeeded in spades: as a genre-fluid headphone masterpiece navigating hedonism, hubris, and heartbreak, the album marked the confident arrival of pop music history's newest auteur.

Assisting Frank in the making of the album was longtime collaborator James Ryan Ho, who produces under the alias Malay—the two met in Atlanta while working for the same publisher and reconnected in L.A. shortly after Nostalgia's completion.

After a rapid-fire three months of writing and sequencing, Channel Orange would be tracked in the order the songs appear on the album at a number of studios across Hollywood, most notably EastWest Studios on Sunset Boulevard. The pair would bring on several star contributors, including Pharrell Williams on programming and keyboards, and John Mayer on guitar.

So how did Frank and Malay go about building the textures and treatments behind one of the strongest seminal debut albums of the 2010s? Find all the gear behind Channel Orange below.

"Frank Ocean - "Thinkin Bout You"

Channel Orange Vocals

As Malay laid it out in an interview with Complex, Frank tracked the majority of the vocals alone after finishing writing and before rejoining his collaborator in the studio. "He went in and did the vocals for nine months… intense recording and being a perfectionist."

Most if not all of these takes were recorded with vintage microphones, drifting back and forth between two workhorse condensers—a Neumann U-47 and a Telefunken 251. For the occasional intimate "live" control-room feel, Frank would often defer to a trusty Shure SM-58.

Frank's vocals were then run through a Neve 1073 preamp paired with either a Tubetech CL1B Opto Compressor or a Fairchild 670, delivering a lush, warm tube sound.

Channel Orange Keys

Though a variety of vintage keyboard sounds can be heard on Channel Orange—Rhodes electric pianos, Hammond organs, and arpeggiated synths among them—the majority are actually sourced from in-the-box software synths.

According to a 2019 video interview with Splice, Malay has long sworn by Arturia's V Collection, which he initially turned to due to financial constraints. "Back in 2010, when I started working with Frank, I couldn't afford any keyboards," he explains. "So, most of the stuff on Channel Orange is done with the Arturia stuff."

"A lot of these plugins sound great if you treat them properly and take them out of the box," Malay continued in an earlier forum post, "It also makes me feel better, as I approach the plugins more like a sound module—[it] allows me to think about the most important things which are the parts and the sounds."

"Frank Ocean - "Pyramids"

The nine-minute standout "Pyramids" serves as a showpiece for how Malay breathes new life into layered plug-ins when blended with original analog synths. The synth lead in the first half is courtesy of Spectrasonics Omnisphere, supplemented by an analog bell sound from a Roland Juno-106 and some haunted choir sounds supplied by GForce's MTron Mellotron emulator.

The proggy arpeggiator that kicks in halfway through came from Arturia's CS-80V, a software homage to Yamaha's famous polysynth, while the pad underneath is supplied by an Oberheim OB-8. Topping it all off was some kinetic drum programming courtesy of the Native Instruments Battery drum sampler.

Once the virtual instruments were tracked, those elements were sent out of Malay's Apogee Duet 2 interface and into the Neve 1073 for some added analog sparkle and sheen.

Channel Orange Guitars and Amps

With the exception of John Mayer's solos at the tail end of "Pyramids" and throughout the quiet-storm instrumental interlude "White"—and even a post-verse wah-pedal-fueled take by Andre 3000 on "Pink Matter"—most of the guitars on the album were tracked by Malay himself.

According to forums Malay contributed to on Gearspace shortly after the album's release, his standard guitar backline included a Fender Stratocaster as well as a Gibson Les Paul and ES-335, which were run through either his Fender Princeton or a Vox AC30. Pointed at the amps were a choice of two dynamic microphones—Electro-Voice's broadcast standard RE20, or Beyerdynamic's classic ribbon M160.

Channel Orange Bass

Malay also handled the lion's share of the bass tracks excluding "Sweet Life"—that was performed by veteran session player Charlie Hunter who, as it happens, played on another avant-R&B magnum opus, D'Angelo's Voodoo.

"Frank Ocean - "Pink Matter (ft. Andre 3000)"

"Bass tone begins with the instrument," Malay admits in the same Gearspace forum. "On 'Pink Matter', I used the worst possible bass ever—it's my old Yamaha from high school … I don't know the model (but) I probably paid $100 for it back then." He ended up stringing it with flatwounds to cook up a self-described "trashy, sloppy" sound, and usually ran it direct-in—no amp or mic—through a Trace Elliot GP12 bass head, utilizing its graphic EQ to boost everything below 400 Hz, before eventually running that through an Avalon VT-737sp tube channel strip to sculpt the tone further.

Where amp tone was needed, they ended up miking an Ampeg B-15 to the RE20. For tracks that needed synth bass, Malay relied once again on Arturia—pairing sine tones from the Minimoog V software synth with the Waves Renaissance Bass plug-in, setting the low frequency to the key of the song for enhanced bass.

Channel Orange Strings

A cinematic, large-sounding string section appears sparingly (but effectively) throughout the album—first on the iconic four-note intro of "Thinking Bout You" and more prominently on the wistful organ-led ballad "Bad Religion"—and it turns out it was recorded with an economy of means, as only three string players are credited on the liner notes.

"Frank Ocean - "Bad Religion"

According to a profile in The New York Times Magazine, engineer Jeff Ellis arranged seating for a large ensemble in Studio 1 of EastWest—incidentally, the same room where Frank Sinatra recorded "My Way"—and set up a stereo pair of Coles 4038 ribbon mics to capture the room. From there, they played a game of musical chairs: for each take of "Bad Religion", the players sat in different seats. Once the takes were blended together, the illusion of a classic Hollywood-style orchestra emerged.

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