Making the synth solo in Toto's Rosanna: "We decided, let’s use everything in the studio and just go for it"

(Image credit: Getty/Michael Ochs Archives)

SYNTH WEEK 2022: Remember the solo in Rosanna? No. Go give it a listen. It kicks in at 2:51. Meet you back here in a few minutes… Pretty impressive eh? Just what is going on there!?

We caught up with band members David Paich and Steve Porcaro who told us how they wound up creating one of the most iconic synth solos in music history.

Plus our own Jerry Kovarsky tells you how to recreate it live...

The making of the Rosanna synth solo

Steve Porcaro: “Rosanna” was coming together very quickly. I was staying at David’s studio, The Manor, working away on synth stuff, while he’d be down at the studio with the guys.

"At some point he did a solo, and he even experimented with a Hammond thing, and some 'backwards' stuff. I was going ahead with my idea for a real grandiose solo. 

"Meanwhile, while I was working on it, they’d already done the horn arrangement. And the horns had some lines that answered David’s solo. So all of that was there already.

"I remember walking in one day late at night after really thinking about it, and the opening phrase hit me. I wanted to do a Keith Emerson kind of heroic opening line that established 'here I am,' but with the blipped trumpet sound that we copped from Frank Zappa’s Sheik Yerbouti album. That’s where that came from: Tommy Mars with Zappa.

"I loved that type of sound; it became 'our' sound. I had the opening line down, I knew it was strong, and I liked it. The night before they mixed the song, David and I were looking around at his studio, where we had everything set up. And we decided, 'Let’s use everything that’s in here and just go for it.'

"And let me return the favour to David. He says he’s taken credit for a lot of stuff I’ve done; I’ve taken tons of bows for that Rosanna solo, but it’s as much Paich as it is me. 

You have to understand our band: any time we’d play a keyboard part that had anything substantially interesting, they would reach for the faders and immediately pull them down.

"The very next section, the sequence line that falls down, that was a [Roland] MC-4 sequence that we programmed: those were Paich’s notes that he wrote out. And then right away we knew we wanted a Rick Wakeman Catherine of Aragon kind of filter-being-driven-by-the-keyboard on a Minimoog. So that was the next line we put on. And we just went around the room, and put together this solo. This was hours before they were going to start mixing the song.

"By the way, one of the first things I did when I started working on the solo myself, because I wanted all the tracks, I erased his solo because I was anxious to get to work. At least I thought I’d erased the solo.

"We had put all these elements together, and there was one last section missing. And we were stuck - I was drawing a complete blank. All of a sudden I look, and I hadn’t erased David’s solo all the way to the end. I unmuted the tracks, and there was this real cool backwards Hammond thing that he had done. That’s what closes the Rosanna solo!"

David Paich: "Now let me fill in a couple of details for you. Steve gives me credit for the MC-4 part; I did write some notes, but that’s because I had gone over to the MC-4 and said, 'Well, let’s use this. What’s in this now?' And I hit it, and a tumbling array of notes came down.

"I said, 'That’s the kind of thing we want, except they weren’t the right notes.' So Steve looked at me, and looked at the empty, blank music paper, and said, 'Buddy, you better get writing right there.' So those four lines weren’t just haphazard accidents. They were actually orchestrated.

"I’m so glad that he did the solo that he did, and thank God he didn’t erase and used the very end. Which makes it the great outro that it is. A happy accident.

SP: "We bounced it down right then and there, with all my rolling tape slaps, all the shit that LA engineers would normally not let me use. You know, that LA 'We’ll do that in the mix' style of recording in those days. We bounced it down to two tracks and brought it over to Record One where Greg Ladanyi was mixing that tune that day. Brought over the slave and he just had a left and a right for the keyboard solo. He effin’ loved it, and cranked it."

DP: "You have to understand our band: any time we’d play a keyboard part that had anything substantially interesting, they would reach for the faders and immediately pull them down.

"Now, I come to the studio, and I hear he has it cranked in there. We couldn’t believe it. Steve and I are going, 'Well, there’s going to be a band meeting over this one.' But Greg didn’t know that he was supposed to turn that all down to where the band liked. He just cranked it to the top, and that made the whole thing happen. He just mixed it like he heard it. Keith Emerson told me that’s why he liked that song: the solo lifted the whole record."

Playing it live, with Keyboard's Jerry Kovarsky

The opening three bars are easy enough, and one of the most iconic synth lines in popular music. I’ve never heard Toto play the lower staff notes live, however.

The bell figure that starts in bar 4 has been done many different ways, often triggered as an audio sample. As long as you bathe your sound in some deep delays it’s going to work fine.

Both versions simplified the bell part to make it easier to get to the synth horn line that starts in the second half of bar 5. And both players play that line differently than the original recording, using a descending melodic line.

I couldn’t find a live version where any player does the counter melody (bar 8) in the synth horn phrase in bars 7 through 9. I suggest you consider adding it, or letting another member of the band answer your lines. It sounds great!

The chord bends in bars 11 through 13 take a little practice: make sure to release the keys before returning your pitch wheel or joystick to centre, before playing the two-note groups after each bend. You don’t want to hear any slop in there.

Porcaro, Phillinganes, and Paich always play the last phrase as a gliss live. Windmill, anybody?

Want more synthy goodness? Get all our features,  tutorials, tips and more at our Synth Week 2022 hub page.

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