We are the Mothers...and This Is What We Sound Like!
By Chris Michie
Frank Zappa has been justly celebrated as a composer, guitarist, bandleader, social and political commentator, scourge of the religious right and free-speech activist. Less commonly noted is that Zappa was an early adopter of almost every significant new recording technology since the dawn of multitrack, and often used those technologies and devices in entirely original ways. The Zappa catalog, which now numbers in excess of 70 releases, contains countless examples of innovative uses of technology and many outrageously original solutions to musical and technical problems.
Although it is not strictly necessary to know how Zappa created his art in order to appreciate it, Mix readers are more likely than most to appreciate the originality of Zappa's many recording experiments and admire his logical approach to problem solving. This article, based in part on interviews with several of his recording engineers, will describe Zappa's recording methods during the '60s, '70s and '80s, and trace how they evolved to take advantage of technological advances in recording and stagecraft.
When the Mothers of Invention first came to public attention with the 1966 release of Freak Out!, the group's apparent leader was, at 25, already an industry veteran. A self-taught musician who had been composing orchestral scores since his teens, Zappa had engineered and produced records since the early 1960s, chiefly at Paul Buff's Pal Recording Studio in Cucamonga, Calif. In 1962, temporarily solvent thanks to a partial payment for one of his early film scores, Zappa took over Pal, renamed it Studio Z and entered the world of business as a studio owner. "Meanwhile, my marriage fell apart," Zappa wrote in his autobiography, The Real Frank Zappa Book (co-authored with Peter Occhiogrosso, Poseidon Press, New York, 1989). "I filed for divorce, moved out of the house on G Street and into Studio Z, beginning a life of excessive overdubbage - nonstop, 12 hours a day." This aberrant device-centric behavior, a theme that recurs frequently in Zappa's lyrics, was made possible in part by the fact that Pal contained the world's only staggered head, 5-track, half-inch tape recorder, constructed by Buff at a time when mono was the industry standard.
Zappa's productions at Pal were not excessively complex - mainly jazz, surf, doo-wop and novelty numbers - and activities at Studio Z came to an end soon after Zappa was busted for "conspiracy to commit pornography" and briefly jailed. (Zappa had been set up by an undercover cop who commissioned a suggestive tape for a stag party, and then arrested Zappa for producing it.) Nevertheless, when the Mothers of Invention (M.O.I.) entered T.T.G.'s Sunset Highland Studios in L.A. to record their debut album, Zappa probably knew more about recording than most West Coast rock musicians. Zappa certainly impressed MGM/Verve producer Tom Wilson, who hired him as arranger for several non-Mothers sessions. And, though Wilson was the producer for the two-LP Freak Out! and its successor, Absolutely Free, Zappa produced all subsequent M.O.I. albums.
Having recorded the first two M.O.I. albums in L.A. on 4-track equipment, Zappa moved to New York's Mayfair and Apostolic 8-track studios for most of We're Only In It For the Money, an LP best known for its cover parodying The Beatles' Sgt. Pepper's. Recorded in late 1967 and released March 1968, WOIIFTM features snippets of orchestral music that Zappa wrote and conducted during sessions for Capitol producer Nick Venet almost a year earlier. Originally intended for release in August 1967, the orchestral album was delayed due to a dispute between Capitol and MGM, which claimed that Zappa was under exclusive contract, foreshadowing Zappa's many legal troubles. By the time Lumpy Gravy was eventually released, Zappa had transformed the all-instrumental project into a bewildering collage of music, conspiratorial dialog recorded under the grand piano at Apostolic, Motorhead Sherwood riffing on cars, cartoonish sound effects and "snorks." As Zappa himself recalled, he had spent nine months editing the 2-track master.
This wholesale revision of a completed work became a common theme in Zappa's work. As he explained toRolling Stone interviewer Jerry Hopkins in early 1968, "It's all one album. All the material on the albums is organically related, and if I had all the master tapes and I could take a razor blade and cut them apart and put it together again in a different order, it would still make one piece of music you can listen to. Then, I could take that razor blade and cut it apart and reassemble it a different way and it would still make sense. I could do this 20 ways. The material is definitely related."
True to this philosophy, Zappa continually returned to his original material, re-editing and resequencing albums several times before they were released or, in several cases, shelved. He also remixed almost the entire catalog for both vinyl and CD re-releases, often deleting, augmenting, re-editing or replacing performances that he considered less than ideal.
THE '60s - UNDERGROUND FREAK-OUT MUSIC
Though sophisticated and innovative in terms of content and presentation, the first three M.O.I. albums are somewhat dated in terms of their "sound," a shortcoming that Zappa later addressed by overdubbing new bass and drum parts on the We're Only In It For the Money tapes in the mid-'80s. However, along with Lumpy Gravy, the first three albums (now available in a threefer package from Rykodisc) introduced several production techniques - and musical and lyrical themes - that would feature prominently in later releases. Both Absolutely Free and We're Only In It For the Money featured non-stop, segued album sides arranged as suites of songs, interspersed with field recordings of bandmembers' dialog and sections of musique concrete ("natural" sounds modified by tape manipulation). These audio jump cuts and sudden changes in ambience were also reflected in the music, as doo-wop, pop songs, political commentary, fuzz guitar rock and cocktail jazz all piled up on each other. As the years went by, Zappa's edits became smoother, to the point of undetectability, but he consistently used editing as a compositional tool and created many coherent (if idiosyncratic) compositions from apparently random audio scraps.
Though Zappa's "teenage" songs were deliberately simplistic, he increasingly augmented the M.O.I.'s guitar band instrumentation with keyboards, brass, woodwinds and orchestral percussion (timpani, marimba, vibes, etc.). As his arrangements became more demanding, Zappa began expanding the band, and by late 1966, the original M.O.I. was joined by two experienced jazzers (woodwind player Bunk Gardner and pianist Don Preston) and a second drummer. A year later, the band also included two conservatory-trained "classical" musicians (multi-instrumentalist Ian Underwood and percussionist Arthur Dyer Tripp III), and Zappa was fronting a group in which several players could both sight read his increasingly complex compositions and improvise with confidence.
The next two M.O.I. albums - Cruising With Ruben & The Jets and Uncle Meat - took full advantage of both the M.O.I.'s increasing musical competence and access to a new set of recording tools. By late 1967, Apostolic Studios had installed a prototype Scully 12-track recorder, and the overdubbing opportunities it afforded, together with a variable-speed oscillator used to modify the machine's 30 ips tape speed, allowed for the creation of a completely new sound palette. As Zappa pointed out in Uncle Meat's unusually informative sleeve notes, the new technology allowed engineer Dick Kunc to assemble one composition with 40 overdubbed tracks built into it, an extraordinary accomplishment in the days before noise reduction.
Uncle Meat remained unreleased for over a year after the original sessions, giving Zappa plenty of time to edit in some examples of the 1968 10-piece M.O.I. in concert, creating a set of recordings that mixed live and studio tracks without any attempt to disguise the fact. On one track, "King Kong," Zappa edited straight from a studio performance into a section recorded live at the Miami Pop Festival, a highly unusual edit in any musical idiom. As a double album of mainly instrumental music, Uncle Meat had a limited market, but it was extremely influential among musicians and remains a fan favorite.
16-TRACK - THE MASSIVE IMPROVE'LENCE
In mid-1969, Zappa disbanded the original M.O.I. and began the 16-track sessions for what would become Hot Rats. As before, Zappa made extensive use of overdubbing and varispeed effects to create dense and unusual keyboard and woodwind arrangements; otherwise, the record was relatively straightforward - no segues and no jump-cuts. As 16-track became the new recording standard for rock and "progressive" music, Zappa's production innovations became less remarkable. Nevertheless, Hot Rats remains a fascinating example of what could be achieved in the new format.
By the end of the 1960s, Zappa had released seven albums of original material, two of them double-LP sets, and had enough in the can for a projected 12-album set to be called The History & Collected Improvisations of the Mothers of Invention. (This much discussed and frequently revised collection was never released, and Zappa soon plundered the material to produce two M.O.I. retrospectives, Burnt Weeny Sandwich and Weasels Ripped My Flesh, both superbly edited collages of live and studio material.) By the end of the 1970s, there were another 18 releases in the catalog, including five live (or mainly live) albums, a two-LP film soundtrack, a triple-LP concept album, a collection of orchestral compositions and two largely instrumental works that further explored the jazz-rock tendencies suggested by Hot Rats. This prodigious output is even more remarkable when one considers that Zappa toured consistently throughout the decade, spending up to 10 months of the year on the road; one gig list shows an average of over 80 shows a year and a peak of 130 in 1974. As well as rehearsing and recording his frequently changing road bands, Zappa also produced other acts, including Grand Funk Railroad (Good Singin', Good Playin'), sued two record companies and his manager for "aromatic accounting practices" and, at the end of the decade, built his own studio.
THE '70s - TIME IS MONEY
During the early 1970s, Zappa worked mainly in 16- or 24-track studios in Los Angeles, including Paramount, Bolic Sound, Whitney and Record Plant, with a few sessions at Caribou in Colorado, New York's Electric Lady and London's Trident. Kerry McNabb succeeded Dick Kunc as Zappa's primary studio engineer and should receive at least partial credit for the superb sound of such popular albums as Over-Nite Sensation (1973) and the 1974Apostrophe ('), which crept into the Top 10 and was Zappa's first Gold record. ("Don't Eat the Yellow Snow" even cracked the Top 100.) Also produced during this period was One Size Fits All in 1975, which features an audacious, if barely detectable, edit in the lead-off track, "Inca Roads" - Zappa cut direct from the original tracks, recorded on an L.A. soundstage for a TV special, to the guitar solo section from a live performance recorded in Helsinki, Finland. This technique of lifting a solo from a live performance is one that Zappa would make frequent use of, reflecting both his growing skill as an improviser and dissatisfaction with studio-recorded guitar solos.
Zappa had been taping the M.O.I.'s live performances since their first gigs in 1966, and Dick Kunc made many excellent recordings on a portable setup that included an 8-channel mixer and a 2-track Uher. With Kunc gone, responsibility for making "road tapes" was delegated to various members of the road crew, including Davey Moire and George Douglas. Moire, who met Zappa during the live recordings that went into Bongo Fury (1975), joined the organization when Zappa asked him to mix FOH for the Royce Hall (UCLA) concerts, which resulted in theOrchestral Favorites album (recorded in 1975, but not released until 1979).
Though road tapes were typically recorded on a Scully 4-track at 30 ips with Telefunken C-40 noise reduction, Zappa also arranged for his guitar solos to be recorded wild onto a stereo Nagra, a technique that provided him with a ready library of solos more or less dissociated from their original accompaniment. "Frank was notorious for pulling solos off of songs that had been done years earlier," recalls Moire. "He'd pull a guitar solo off this song and put it on that song - sometimes totally different songs."
Zappa dubbed the technique "xenochrony," from the Greek words xeno (strange or alien) and chrono (time). As he explained, "In this technique, various tracks from unrelated sources are randomly synchronized with each other to make a final composition with rhythmic relationships unachievable by other means." For example, in the case of the Zoot Allures track "Friendly Little Finger," the solo guitar and bass were recorded in a dressing room on a 2-track Nagra and then later combined with an unrelated drum track for a piece called "The Ocean Is the Ultimate Solution," with additional instrumentation scored to complement the newly produced time signatures. Xenochrony proved to be a powerful new compositional tool for Zappa, and he returned to it many times over later albums.
Not surprisingly, Zappa's tape archives were extensive, if not particularly well cataloged. "But he was uncanny," says Moire. "He knew every note of every recording he ever made. He knew exactly what was on every single tape he ever made. And it was all in his head. If he wanted to work on something, by God, he'd tell you right where to go to get it. He's one of the most amazing guys I've ever met, and he had a mind like a steel trap. Never forgot anything."
PEDAL-DEPRESSED PANCHROMATIC RESONANCE AND OTHER HIGHLY AMBIENT DOMAINS
Starting in 1975, Moire worked on several albums with Zappa in Studio B at The Record Plant. "It had this lovely API console with the API 550A EQ modules, and that beautifully warm API input stage," Moire recalls. "A lovely desk and 3M tape machines. We did a lot of really cool stuff. Frank once had me cut a piece of foam out and mount a Pignose amp on the harp of a Bosendorfer grand piano, pointing down to the soundboard in the piano. Then he went out and put a sandbag on the sustain pedal, determined what he was going to play, and then, with those little rubber mutes that piano tuners use, he muted out the detrimental harmonics, knowing what he was going to play, knowing which strings were going to resonate."
It was during this period that Zappa fired his manager, Herb Cohen, and became embroiled in various lawsuits against Cohen and Warner Bros. One result was that the Zoot Allures final master had to be cut from Zappa's own 15 ips safety copy, as legal complications made it impossible to recover the 30 ips master. Another consequence was that the live double-LP Zappa In New York (1978) remained unreleased for over a year, and Zappa was effectively barred from recording in L.A. studios or even gaining access to his now massive tape archives. Summarizing the experience some years later, Zappa noted, "The only way you can fight a record company is to be able to afford the legal battle that they'll whip on you. A company as big as Warner Bros. has lawyers from here to Pacoima. And all they do is smother you in paperwork, and then you have to wait five years before you go to court."
In 1979, four Zappa albums were released, but two (Sleep Dirt and Orchestral Favorites) were of older material that he'd previously submitted to Warners in an attempt to end his contract. The two newer works - the two-LPSheik Yerbouti and the two-volume, three-disc Joe's Garage - form an interesting contrast in recording methods. Apart from a couple of live tracks recorded on the Scully 4-track and the xenochronous bass and drums duet "Rubber Shirt," all of Sheik Yerbouti's tracks were built up by overdubbing over live recordings. Joe's Garage, on the other hand, is an all-studio album (recorded at the Village Recorder and Kendun Recorders by Joe Chiccarelli), but every guitar solo except one is xenochronous, having been extracted from a live performance and "flown in" to the studio multitrack. This unusual process was also used in reverse: Zappa would pick out a solo, specify a meter and have drummer Vinnie Coliauta play along, inventing polyrhythmic interplay as he went. (For more details on the Sheik Yerbouti and Joe's Garage sessions, see Blair Jackson's "Classic Tracks" article in Mix, September 1998.)
THE '80s - THE UTILITY MUFFIN RESEARCH KITCHEN
Joe's Garage was the last album that Zappa made at a commercial studio. According to David Gray, who was part of the road crew since early 1976, "Frank was talking about [his own studio] ever since I first joined, but it got extremely serious in '78. A lot of the reasoning behind it was logistical. This way, he could work when he wanted to work and it didn't require him to block-book anything so that he could come in when he wanted to. And Frank clearly liked to work at night. And I think he felt he could try a lot of stuff, in essence at no cost penalty, when he owned it himself."
Designed by Rudy Brewer, with considerable input from Zappa and his technical staff, the studio was a no-expense-spared professional setup - estimates of its cost range from $1.5 to $3.5 million. Essentially built as an addition to the Zappa home in the Hollywood Hills, itself in an almost constant state of modification, the studio required substantial foundation work, which was somewhat complicated by the fact that bedrock was further down than had been anticipated. Nevertheless, the Utility Muffin Research Kitchen (UMRK) was more or less complete by late 1979; the first sessions produced the single "I Don't Wanna Get Drafted," which had been started at Ocean Way with Allen Sides engineering.
Gray recalls that UMRK included a large recording room that was "a little bit larger than the classic studio. We sort of had a live-end/dead-end kind of thing going on. And there was a huge, glassed-in echo chamber. And a fairly large drum booth, a very good-sized vocal booth and then a fairly large, open live-end/dead-end area with high ceilings. Compared to what was out there, like The Village, this room was quite large. It was as good as any commercial studio."
In addition to the recording rooms, the facility included a couple of acoustic echo chambers, one of them set up for eight sends and eight returns, along with a shop area and a tape-storage vault. The console, a Harrison 4832, fed two 24-track Ampex MM1200s and a 16-track 3M M79, plus 2-track and 4-track Ampex ATR-102s with interchangeable 1/4-inch and 1/2-inch head stacks. Noise reduction was Dolby A-type, with four M16 racks for the multitracks and 361 modules for the 2- and 4-track recorders. Zappa already owned a selection of outboard equipment, and he steadily added to his collection of vintage processing gear and classic mics. "M50s, U87s, U67s, all the older ones," recalls Gray. "He definitely really liked the sound of the vintage microphones. We either built or repaired the power supplies for them and re-tubed them. And by the time we were done, he had an excellent complement of vintage Neumanns and Telefunkens."
The original monitoring included a soffited LCR array of three-way Westlake-style JBL monitors with two additional rear speakers - Zappa anticipated mixing film soundtracks, and quad was not yet officially dead. Near-field monitors included JBL 4311s and Auratones. Often frustrated by commercial studios' foldback systems, Zappa requested a sophisticated headphone monitoring system. "We had a whole little thing called a "self-mix matrix," recalls Gray. "Basically, you could send any channel to this routing matrix and each individual out in the room could get four channels that they could mix themselves in headphones. I think we had eight or maybe 10 positions."
Of the console, Gray says, "I think at the time, the Harrison was an excellent choice. It was a reasonably priced console, as consoles went, and was extremely flexible. [It was] infinitely repairable, quite modifiable and it sounded pretty damn good. I think, perhaps, if SSL had been a little further down the line at that point, we might have gone that way. They were shipping this little 2-channel strip around town. It had in-channel compression and some other things that were not only desirable but sounded really good. But delivery was an issue, and they were kind of new and unproven."
With his own facility up and running, Zappa now needed an engineer and, after putting him through an audition both in the studio and at a rehearsal space with his live band, hired Mark Pinske. An experienced touring sound engineer who'd worked for Clair Brothers, Showco and Maryland Sound, and had toured with Weather Report and Melissa Manchester, Pinske had been working at Quad Eight Electronics designing film consoles.
Starting in 1980, Pinske mixed FOH on the road and, between tours, began mixing live tapes at UMRK; Tinsel Town Rebellion, a two-LP set released in 1981, was his first completed project. By this point, Zappa had a considerable backlog of 24-track remote recordings, plus an ever-expanding archive of road tapes recorded on 4-track and 1-inch 8-track. "Some of them turned out fairly decent," says Pinske. "A number of engineers had left behind some really brilliant recordings. When you pulled some of them out, you just wondered how some of these got so good."
George Douglas, who joined the organization in 1980, remembers making road tapes from a position just behind the stage with two Yamaha PM1000 consoles and a Tascam 8-track. "It was obviously less than ideal, as far as monitoring went," he notes. "After the European tour, I asked for and got a Midas 32-channel 8x8 and set up a Dolby rig and two 3M M79 24-tracks."
The next technology upgrade came when Douglas and Pinske convinced Zappa to purchase the Beach Boys' recording truck. Both the truck and its Neve console required considerable refurbishment - stored for years at Beach Boy Mike Love's seaside estate in Santa Barbara, Calif., the truck was badly rusted - and Douglas also built a 150-channel snake/splitter system, with 102 channels available in the truck. "We told Frank we had only 90 channels, which was just as well, as his first mic input list was for 99 channels," recalls Douglas. A Midas console was installed at right angles to the Neve, and two additional Carvin boards, the fruits of an endorsement deal, were mounted on the truck's side walls. Another endorsement deal with AKG provided the 1981 tour with a full complement of AKG dynamic and condenser mics.
Next month - Part 2, in which Frank Zappa pioneers digital multitrack recording and meets the Digital Gratification Consort.
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