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The Revolution’s Matt ‘Dr.’ Fink deconstructs Prince’s pioneering use of synthesizers

Matt "Dr." Fink performing at First Avenue with the Revolution in 2016 (Photo by Nate Ryan/MPR)

The story of Prince on keyboards is also the story of how technology routed his music — and all pop music — in the ’80s. Manning a bank of synths in his trademark surgical scrubs, “Dr.” Matt Fink wasn’t Prince’s longest-running keyboardist (Morris Hayes played with the NPG for 20 years), but Fink’s dozen years, from 1978 to 1990, were Prince’s most successful and pivotal. Fink also consulted closely with Prince on updating his gear. Alongside Lisa Coleman, Fink was — and is — key to the sound of the Revolution in its synth-heavy, any-style-goes prime.

Fink grew up in St. Louis Park alongside the Rivkin brothers, Bobby (later drummer Bobby Z) and David (later engineer David Z), both close associates with Prince from the late seventies. When Fink first heard Prince’s demo tape, the young Northsider’s keyboard playing particularly impressed him. “I thought it was highly proficient,” Fink says. “Whatever he did on it was really good — really good. Especially the solo on the song ‘Soft and Wet’ — pretty impressive for a kid that age, improvising a solo like that on the synthesizer. You just didn’t hear a lot of that.” Still, the young bandleader wasn’t about to give up his secrets. “He just went about his business and didn’t discuss who his influences were at all,” says Fink.

Fink joined Prince’s band at a fortuitous time. “It was becoming more common for keyboardists to have at least one synthesizer in their arsenal,” he says — and Fink himself owned a Minimoog, a monophonic synthesizer, meaning it could only play one note at a time. But that was about to change. “Polyphonic synthesizers — those had just started happening,” says Fink. “They had the Polymoog, but it had only been out a year, two years tops. They were pricy, and they didn’t do a lot yet. The Oberheim four- or eight-voice SEM — they were called the SEM Module versions, basically equivalent of a Minimoog, which you could only play one note at a time on.”

According to the website Vintage Synth Explorer, “The SEM was for all purposes, an accessory. But Oberheim jumped into the synth market by coupling SEMs with a keyboard and an analog sequencer into a compact, white, little performance synth. That led to the Two VoiceFour Voice, and Eight Voice models. And from there, came the rest of Oberheim’s history of instruments.” Prince and his band were on the ground floor of the synth revolution that would sweep through pop through the early to mid ’80s.

Flush with big money from his major-label deal, Prince had stocked up on instruments. He had a pair of Oberheim Four Voice models as well as a Polymoog when Fink first jammed with him: “He had all this state-of-the-art gear when I went into that audition,” says Fink, who added his own Minimoog to the initial arsenal. Additionally, Prince had “a real Clavinet” (see the main riff of Stevie Wonder’s “Superstition”) and a Fender Rhodes piano (prominent in the soft, glowing sound of Roberta Flack’s early work), as well as an ARP Pro Soloist, with which he’d taken the solo of “Soft and Wet.” Later, when Fink took a wowing and zapping solo on Dirty Mind’s “Head,” he’d play the ARP Omni 2.

Fink joined soon after Prince had hired Gayle Chapman to play piano. “She also was a guitar player — she could play rhythm guitar pretty well,” Fink recalls. “He didn’t utilize her for that — he only utilized her for keyboard work at that time, and vocals.” When Chapman left in 1980, Prince told her of her replacement: “She’s amazing, she can play her ass off, but she can’t sing like you.”

That replacement was the classically trained Lisa Coleman, daughter of Gary L. Coleman, a top L.A. session musician percussionist. Her audition for Prince lasted some three hours — she’d opened with some Mozart. They were instantly simpatico. “There was something about Lisa’s sound as a keyboard player, particularly on acoustic piano, that Prince was very fond of and found hard to duplicate himself,” tour manager and Paisley Park Records president Alan Leeds says in Alex Hahn’s Possessed.

The Coleman-Fink tandem would work out their own parts, helped along by tapes of songs with the keyboard parts mixed up. “We would sit down and divvy things up,” says Fink. “We’d come to him if there was a bit of a issue with anything — ‘Hey, can you show us the part?’ ” When the Revolution was arranging “I Would Die 4 U,” Fink decided to use his Memorymoog to sequence (automatically trigger) a synth-bass part that Prince had played manually. “Our tech guy said, ‘Let’s modify this old Linndrum machine and hook up a MIDI cable to your sequencer, and your sequencer can drive the drum machine.’ That’s how we made it work. Bobby had a trigger button to start the whole shebang.” The setup freed Fink to help thicken Coleman’s chords on the song.

About that cable: Introduced in late 1982 and short for Musical Instrumental Digital Interface, MIDI allowed electronic musicians to sync up multiple instruments of multiple makes — an unprecedented number of competing manufacturers had agreed to develop and share the technology together. This was key to the flourishing of electronic sounds in pop. Prior to that, getting a drum machine to line up precisely with a preset keyboard riff was an oft-dicey proposition.

As the Revolution grew in popularity, Prince could afford top-of-the-line gear. In many cases, synth manufacturers would send fresh gear for him to try. “We’d just get stuff, try everything that was going on, and then make decisions from there to what we’d want to keep or not for studio or live use,” Fink says. They’d also make requests: “There were Moog and Yamaha and Korg reps here [in Minneapolis],” says Fink. “I got to know them personally, and then they would assist in procuring what we need and giving us artist rates on those to purchase that kind of stuff.”

Besides “Soft and Wet,” Fink is particularly fond of Prince’s keyboard work on “Lady Cab Driver,” from 1999 — in particular, the purring synth solo near the end, with its almost woodwind-like flourishes. (It’s one of those moments you can hear his adoration of Joni Mitchell’s tonal coloration.) And he expresses a similar admiration for another synth-as-other-instrument coda, the pseudo-strings on “When Doves Cry.” “He took an Oberheim and slowed the two-inch 24-track tape down and played it slow-speed, then he wrote the part and played it, and put the tape back up to regular speed so it has that fast staccato-ey classical feel to it.”

When Prince disbanded the Revolution in 1986, Fink was the one member he kept on. On 1987’s Sign o’ the Times, Prince would showcase the Revolution in full flight one last time, on “It’s Gonna Be a Beautiful Night,” recorded live in Paris with the full band plus the horns and percussion (by Sheila E., who also rapped) that would be the staple of his next band. “We were at a soundcheck over in Europe somewhere on tour, and the groove to that came out from the piano,” says Fink, who earns a co-writing credit with Prince and saxophonist Eric Leeds. Fink also takes a piano solo on the outro, its New Orleans roll almost a hat-tip to another rock and roll Doctor, Dr. John.

Prince was even bit by the sampling bug in the late nineties (cf. “Batdance”). “Prince got into the Fairlight, which was a synthesizer and a sampler all in one,” says Fink. “It was basically a dedicated computer with big nine-inch floppy drives that you could load up your sounds. It was a great studio tool, but on the road they were very clunky and took forever to load.” They were also not road-ready. Then came the E-mu Emax, a far more portable keyboard and sampler. “I went to Prince and said, ‘Hey, let’s get some of these,’” says Fink. “I had all the Fairlight library transferred onto way smaller floppy discs, and then put them on hard drives inside those Emax rack models. That’s how we got away from bringing those Fairlights out on the road.” Traversing rock’s roots and pop’s future — another show with Prince.

Already published:

BrownMark explains how he and Prince reinvented bass in the ’80s, in an interview with the Current’s Jay Gabler.

Talking Prince and drums with the NPG’s Michael Bland.

Roger Linn, inventor of the LM-1 drum machine, talks Prince and “When Doves Cry” with writer Cecilia Johnson.

Theft of the Dial: The Revolution. Join Wendy Melvoin, Lisa Coleman, Bobby Z., BrownMark, and Dr. Fink for an hour of curated Prince tunes and an interview with host Andrea Swensson.

Theft of the Dial: Donna Grantis. Prince’s 3RDEYEGIRL guitarist Donna Grantis hand-picks some of Prince’s best guitar jams and chats with program director Jim McGuinn.

Susannah Melvoin on the hidden tenderness of Prince and the story behind “Starfish and Coffee.”

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