Video: The Synth Sounds of Parliament-Funkadelic's Bernie Worrell

Bernie Worrel (2013). Photo by: Matthew Eisman / Stringer, Getty Images.

Bernie Worrell is best known as the man behind some of the funkiest keyboard lines ever recorded while keyboardist for Parliament-Funkadelic. But his long and incredibly productive career included solo records and work with other musical luminaries, such as Talking Heads, Fred Schneider (of the B-52s), Fela Kuti, and Bill Laswell.

Worrell was a musical prodigy from an early age. He was born with perfect pitch and was a quick study of classical music, even composing and performing a concerto by age eight. He continued on to Juilliard and then to the New England Conservatory of Music before meeting George Clinton. After joining The Parliaments, as they were then known, he'd forever change the future of funk as a player, composer, and sonic voyager.

Here, we look at some of his famous keyboard and synth sounds and how he put them together. Worrell played vintage Moog MiniMoogs, a Hohner D6 Clavinet, an ARP Solina string synth, and a Sequential Circuits Prophet-5, among other instruments. In our video above, we're using a Moog Model D Reissue, a Nord Piano 3's Hohner D6 Clavinet patch, the Arturia V Collection's Solina V soft-synth, and a Prophet-6.

Parliament: "Flash Light"

Moog Model D Reissue

We start with possibly one of the funkiest Moog basslines ever recorded—and by one of the funkiest players of all time—on Parliament’s "Flash Light." Bernie Worrell’s playing technique takes full advantage of the performance aspects of the Moog synthesizer and is a big part of the overall sound of the patch.

[We've included the "Flash Light" bassline in a separate video on classic MiniMoog songs. Check out the others here.]

To make this patch:

  • Set Osc. 1 to 32’ and a sawtooth waveform. Set Osc. 2 to 16’ and a sawtooth wave.
  • Move the pitch of Osc. 2 up slightly to thicken up the sound a little. (You can also set Osc. 1 to pulse for a different harmonic character.)
  • Set Osc. 3 to Lo and choose the triangle waveform, with pitch at about +5. In the Controllers section, choose Osc. 3 and LFO, and make sure the Oscillator Modulation switch is on.
  • Set the filter's Cutoff Frequency to +2. Place the Emphasis knob at just below 2 and Contour to 0. Keep the filter envelope's Attack and Decay times quick and the Sustain Level high.
  • Set the Loudness Contour to immediate attack times and very quick decay.
  • The Glide function is set to On, with a setting at around 3.
  • Play around and season to taste.
Parliament: "Dr. Funkenstein"

Moog Model D Reissue

Worrell’s spacey zap bubble sound heard soloing across "Dr. Funkenstein" was done on his MiniMoog—with the resonance cranked up and a quick filter envelope, along with a pulse wave and some modulation wiggle.

To recreate this patch:

  • Set Osc. 1 to 4’ and select the narrowest pulse waveform. Osc. 2 is not used in this patch.
  • Set Osc. 3 to Lo, with the pitch set to about +5 and triangle waveform. This will be used as an LFO, like above.
  • Set the filter Cutoff Frequency to -2, Emphasis to 5, and Amount of Contour to between a little less than 5, with the first Keyboard Control switch on.
  • Set filter envelope attack to ~100ms, decay to ~450ms, and sustain to 6.
  • Set the Loudness Contour attack to 10 ms, decay to 5ms, and sustain to 6.
  • In the Controllers section, choose Osc. 3 and LFO, and make sure the Oscillator Modulation switch is on.
  • Set Glide to about 3. While playing, use the Pitch and Mod wheels liberally.
Funkadelic: "Red Hot Momma"

Hohner D6 Clavinet. Photo by SD Vintage.

Worrells funky Hohner D6 Clavinet stabs help propel the driving rhythm of "Red Hot Momma" from 1974’s Standing on the Verge of Getting It On. Credited on the record as "Spaced Viking; Keyboards & Vocals," Worrell and his playing lock in seamlessly with Jimmy Calhoun’s bass, vamping along under the guitar solo as it finishes out the song.

Worrell was known to play his Clavinet through a wah pedal, which we've also done in our video above, sending the Nord's signal through a gold Dunlop Cry Baby.

Parliament: "Chocolate City"

ARP Solina. Photo by Switched On Music Electronics.

On the title track of the 1975 album Chocolate City—a tribute of sorts to Washington, D.C and Parliament’s success there—you can hear Bernie Worrell laying down some analog string pads.

In the '70s the two big ARP stringers were the Solina and the Omni which saw two versions. The Solina was in fact produced by Eminent and rebadged by ARP as the String Ensemble and remains one of the most iconic string synths of all time.

Worrell's melodic lines, pad tones, and stabs translate well with the Solina's distinctive tones on this recording. Settings-wise the sound can be reproduced with a Solina or Arturia’s Solina V, with the Violin voice engaged and the Ensemble on. Set the sustain length as low as you can, so that quick lines won't get in the way of one another.

Talking Heads: "Burning Down The House" (Stop Making Sense Live)

Sequential Circuits Prophet-5. Photo by Synth City/Rock N Roll Vintage.

While Bernie didn’t play the synthesizer parts on Talking Heads' studio album, his performance on the Sequential Circuits Prophet-5 for the Stop Making Sense concert film is nothing short of iconic. The sound itself is an oscillator sync mono lead that cuts through the mix in a striking way when compared to the album version.

The Boss TW-1 T Wah was reportedly used on both the studio recording and with Bernie’s live rig for the almost rubber-band-sounding filter sweeps on the Prophet-5's synced oscillators. But you can recreate this patch without the pedal.

Note: The following patch for the Prophet-5 does not translate exactly to the Prophet-6, which we use in the video. That said, you can use it as a starting point and tweak from there. In our video, we're also using the Cry Baby Wah instead of the T Wah.

If you're using a Prophet-5 or a software emulation of the Prophet-5, follow this patch:

  • Set the synth to Unison mode.
  • Set Osc. A to ramp and turn sync on. Set the frequency to +6.
  • Set Osc. B frequency to -12 and either select the ramp wave or none. Turn KBD tracking on.
  • Set the Glide to about the 12 o' clock position and turn the mix for both oscillators up all the way.
  • Set filter cutoff to just past 12 o' clock and the resonance to 11 o' clock. Set the envelope to 12 o' clock and turn key tracking up slightly.
  • To mimic the T Wah filter effect you want a quick filter envelope with a slightly delayed attack.
  • Try with an attack at 11 o' clock, decay at 1 o' clock, sustain at 9 o' clock, and release at 1 o' clock. This will give you a bit of a thwack sound to the filter attack.
  • For the amplifier envelope set the attack at 0, decay at 1 o' clock, sustain at around 12 o' clock, and release at 11 o' clock.
  • Play with various LFO speeds in performance and have the LFO affect the frequency of both oscillators as well as the filter.
  • You can also set the Poly Mod section to modulate Freq A with the Osc. B control for different sync effects.
George Clinton: "Atomic Dog"

Sequential Circuits Prophet-5. Photo by Synth City/Rock N Roll Vintage.

"Atomic Dog" was a huge hit for George Clinton and continued its iconic status in later years by being sampled by many artists, most notably Snoop Dogg in "Who Am I? (What’s My Name)." While the basslines on "Atomic Dog" are played by Clinton’s fellow songwriter David Spradley, Bernie’s signature Prophet-5 pads and sync sounds are throughout the song, particularly on the intro. The high pulse-width modulation video game sound toward the last third of the song was also likely done with the Prophet-5.

As above, if you're using a Prophet-6, these patch instructions will not translate exactly. To recreate this sound on a hardware Prophet-5 or a software emulation:

  • Set the LFO to triangle and have it modulate the filter as well as the frequencies of both oscillators, with the rate around 2 to 3 o' clock. Enable PWA and PWB modulation.
  • Set both oscillators' pitches to 0 and both to the pulse wave.
  • Set Osc. A's PW to between 9 and 10 o' clock and Osc. B's PW to 12 o' clock.
  • Turn the volume of both oscillators up all the way and set the filter to have a snappy envelope with a bit of release.
  • Set the attack to 8 o' clock, decay to 3 o' clock, sustain to 9 o' clock, and release to 1 o' clock.
  • Set the cutoff to 1 o'clock, resonance at 11 o' clock, and envelope amount to 1 o' clock.
  • Set the amp envelope to have an attack of 0, decay at 1 o' clock, sustain at 12 o' clock, and release at 1 o' clock.
  • Work the modulation control.
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