A Mother in the studio

By J.C. Costa

International Musician And Recording World, February 1979

Frank Zappa's prodigious talents as a composer, musician, arranger and satirist often obscure the fact that he's produced all but two of his 23 albums while also finding time to produce Alice Cooper (Pretties For You), Captain Beefheart (Trout Mask Replica) and Grand Funk Railroad (Good Singin' , Good Playin').

By the time the Mothers of Invention, riding the crest of Los Angeles freakdom, were signed to MGM-Verve in November of 1965, Zappa had already acquired considerable experience at his infamous Studio Z in Cucamonga. Asked about his first brush with a "professional" recording studio, his answer is typically caustic and to the point.

"I didn't have any experience as far as being a producer from the real world, I knew that working on the equipment I had in my place in Cucamonga, I could get the job done. I always thought, 'maybe there's a better way. Maybe these guys from the real world – they're all-pro and they know what's happening. They know all about session musicians and all that stuff so maybe we could get a good sound.' I found out that was wrong, totally wrong. The main difference between a regular recording studio and what I had was that some of the things in my studio were better."

Needless to say, most of the conventional engineers of the day were hardly prepared for Zappa and the Mothers' brand of lunacy. Songs like "Brain Police" and their "exploded" instrumentation elicited some characteristic responses.

"There were eyebrows going very far up toward the ceiling in those days. Fortunately, the engineers who worked on Freak Out took the point of view, 'If I'm getting paid to do it and that's what he wants, he can have it. If it weren't for that attitude I would've been in trouble."

Taking over the production duties from Tom Wilson on the Mothers third album, We're Only In It For The Money, Zappa was immediately confronted with several kinds of decisions.

"I had certain theories I wanted to test. If you have a really tiny budget like they give you when you're making your first album, you have to make rapid choices between carrying on your experimentation and just getting your album done within the length of time that the company gives you. I split the difference in a couple of cases and the quality of some of the production might have suffered because I was taking that little extra amount of time to experiment on something else. But nobody cared. Who cared? It was only one of those Mother of Invention records who gave a shit whether something was wrong with it? To most people it was all wrong anyway, so who could tell the difference? But those experiments, they add up over the years."

To add to his problems, Zappa had trouble finding studios with the technical means to capture the universe of sounds swirling around in his head.

"The first two albums were done four track and We're Only' In It For The Money was eight-track and done in a real primitive studio. The first 16-track album was Hot Rats, and it was done on a home-made 16-track at the same studio where we recorded Freak Out, [TTG] (Los Angeles)."

When evaluating a studio, Zappa is usually more concerned about what's going on in the control booth rather than the actual sound of the room.

"I'm in favour of analysing how your room sounds but I don't do that much studio recording per se. Most of the recording I do is live tracks that are overdubbed. You get more balls in the tracks when the basic is being played in front of an audience and you have musicians out there trying to show off. You get good separation during the live recording – which I've managed to do most of the time - then you go to the studio and "tweeze" the shit out of it. Consequently, the sound of the room where they put the instruments is not that important to me most of the time. The things I'm interested in are: How good is the monitor system? How much head room does the board have? How quiet is the board? What kind of outboard gear is available and does the studio charge exorbitant rates for every piece of outboard gear?"

In a general sense, Zappa views the studio as a component part of a greater whole.

"I see the whole studio as a musical instrument, something on the order of a pipe organ. In the way that a pipe organ gives an orchestral effect, it has a lot of tonal colours and a lot of power to it. The person who does the mixing is roughly the equivalent of a conductor in front of a symphony orchestra. The proportioning of the composition as it will be stored for time immemorial will be done at the time of the mix. The actual final shaping of the music takes place when you master it on to a disc."

A characteristic Zappa trademark on virtually all of his recordings is a colossal bass drum/tom sound, usually the dominating presence on the mix.

"Most people don't like to hear as much drums in the mix as I do. If I have a characteristic bass drum sound it's simple because I turn it up louder in the mix. I also like tom-toms. One of the things I usually do with the drums left/drums right track – You know how that stuff is normally set up on a 24-track. You have your kick track, your snare track and then drums left/drums right which contains the overhead for your ride cymbals and maybe the close-up mike on the high hat and individual mikes on the tom-toms. At the time of mix you take that pair of tracks, put it through a P.D.M. and bring it up on another pair of faders. Then you combine that with the uncompressed drums left/drums right track so you get all of your snap, attack and transients from the plain tracks – you jack the top end up on them – and you boost the tracks being put through the P.D.M. around 200 to 400 to make the tom-toms sound really ponderous. You get the proportions right between those four faders and presto chango – you have that mongoloid tom-tom sound everyone adores."

Zappa is also known for his fluid and dynamic lead guitar work. Over the years, he's developed some fairly concrete theories about how an electric guitar should be recorded.

"There are a couple of things to remember about recording a guitar. If you're just looking for notes, then a Pignose will do. But if you're looking for some sort of audio sensation the best way to do it is with a larger room and some air to move around. The thing that's impressive about a rock 'n' roll guitar sound is how the pressure of it hits you. A microphone doesn't just determine the wiggles that tell you what the pitch is. It also determines the sound pressure level. What you get from turning your amp up really loud in a large room is all that superlowend thrust that you obviously don't get from a Pignose. If you want to sound like you're really kicking somebody's ass, you gotta actually turn it up loud and have the microphone experiencing a loud sound. The best way to get that room-end rumble with all of the "frazz" and top-end squeak sound is to record the guitar in an empty theatre."

Although many mistakenly suppose that Zappa is a cerebral modern composer who only writes complicated, asymmetrical melodies in odd time signatures, it should be pointed out that basic rock 'n' roll has always been the spiritual locus of his music. Because of this, he has little trouble in defining a musical form that has often eluded the critics.

"The thing that sets rock 'n' roll apart from other music – it's not the repetition, it's not the lyrics and it's not the chords – is the timbre. That's the key. You can take the same three chords from any popular rock 'n' roll song of the grossest variety, you can take "Louie Louie" and write it out for an accordion, an oboe and a harp and it's not rock & roll anymore. Even if you transcribe it note for note. On the other hand, you can take any kind of a song from another field of music and orchestrate it for a couple of fuzz tone guitars, a loud bass and a drum set with tom-tom fills and by God, it's rock 'n' roll. That timbre makes the event. Also the attack and the attitude with which the instruments are played. If you were a legit guy and you were forced to write rock 'n' roll on paper with all of the traditional terminology that they normally apply, your marking would be 'molto deliberato.' "

Invariably, Zappa has been plagued with the problem of grandiose conceptual ideas without the proper funds to implement them. His dense, intricately constructed recordings give the impression that he spends exorbitant amounts of money in the studio. He quickly refutes any such notion.

"I'll give you some examples. Freak Out cost $20,000 – which was preposterous in that day and age. People were shocked. The average rock 'n' roll album then cost $8,000, mainly because it was a collection of all your hit singles with a couple of Chuck Berry tunes thrown in on the side. When Freak Out was released it didn't sell. The first year it didn't do shit, so the company was very upset and when it came time to do the second album they spent a grand total of $11,000. We had one day with 15 minutes per song to do the vocals.

"When we made our first deal with Warner Bros. to distribute Bizarre, the budget they gave me for albums was $22,500 up to $27,500, and that increase was based on union costs going up. Imagine doing some of those albums for that amount of money. Try Hot Rats for $22,500 today, would ya? No way, buddy. When we made the second deal with Warner Bros. they, in their infinite wisdom, allowed us a budget of $60,000 per album. And this was a time when your average 'big time' group was spending a quarter of a million per album."

With his prolific output of albums and films, it's remarkable that Zappa has found the time to produce other acts. For one who has such a well-defined musical persona, he is surprisingly "laissez-faire" in the studio.

"It's different. If I'm producing my own stuff there may be a discrepancy between what I'm used to spending and what they can afford to spend, so you have to work accordingly. My function when producing somebody else is more in the technical vein. I'm there to help them get their musical ideas across - to mix them and sort them out to their specifications. I might think they're making some mistakes but it's not my job to say that. Unless somebody specifically requests that I take their musical style and 'tweeze' it to my specifications, I stay out of it. It's their music, I just get it onto a disc the best way I can."

The one occasion where Zappa ventured out of the control room to sit in with one of the bands he was producing, Grand Funk Railroad, is something he still regrets to this day.

"They'd asked me to play on the album (Good Singin' Good Playin') but I refused. Finally, I had to because we'd had to add a Craig Frost tune, an instrumental ("Out To Get You"), at the last minute. I really shouldn't have done it, because when the album got reviewed – just to show you what assholes the people that write about these things are – the only thing they wrote about was that song because I'd played on it. They said I played well on it. I don't think I played well on it at all. It doesn't sound that good, it's just a stupid guitar solo. And they wrote that was the only thing on the album and reviled everything else. I think they were full of shit. The band was having troubles anyway – they broke up during the vocal overdubs and I was having to hustle to keep them together. When the reviews came out they broke up for good, didn't tour or promote the album, so the record went onto the junkpile of rock and roll history. Which is a shame."

Zappa is known for his rigid disciplinary approach to keeping a band in line and efficient. Those who harbour the notion that Zappa is incoherent or drugged-out because of his music and public demeanor are in for a rude awakening when confronted with the man himself. His work ethic also extends to recording and studio procedure. He brooks no hanger-outers or wasting time.

"What usually happens is: Once you go in there, you don't come out until it's done. They bring in the food to ya' and ya' just keep doin' it. Our normal schedule is five days a week, 12 or 14 hours a day for about three months. That's what it takes to do it if you want to get it right.

"But if you're working with something outside the usual form, it's difficult to inflict a groove on the musicians unless you have a certain amount of equal comprehension among all the members of the group. That's one of the things that's held me back for years. To get each guy who's playing his part to understand enough of what the final thing is supposed to sound like so they can do it right. Usually, I record something and it's not really right but once they hear it done they go, 'Oh, that's the way it's supposed to be.' Then they play it on stage and it's better. I wind up releasing something that's tantamount to a demo of the album. That's why I've done a lot of live recordings, so I can recapture some of that material."

In effect Zappa has recorded a substantial number of live albums – six at last count, and many of his studio lp's are interspersed with live tracks. It stands to reason that he would have some expertise when it comes to this often tricky area.

"You'd be surprised how much separation you can get in live recording if you just mike it right and use a little tasteful baffling to keep things out of the monitor system.

"The biggest problem in live recording is your ground loops. Buzzes and frazz you gotta track down before you record. But if you have a good crew they'll clean it up. Another problem with live recordings is the musicians, under normal battle conditions when they're out there being stars and stuff, they have a tendency to forget the levels set during the soundcheck. And then, in the middle of a song, wheeoo and the poor engineer is sitting in the truck with frizzled hair, his eyes pressed back in a face contorted like one of those early rocket sled pictures."

Although an "unofficial" album, Studio Tan, has just been released on Warner Bros., Zappa has switched to Phonogram in the US (for distribution) and is currently mixing his next album, Martian Love Secrets, in New York. He is also mired in a welter of litigation with his former label and desperately trying to raise a half a million to get his new film project (either "Martian Love Secrets" or "Baby Snakes GasMask") off the ground. And even though national radio airplay in America continues to elude him, Zappa retains his gritty, sardonic point of view about it all.

"Well," he said, a faint sneer crossing his lips "there's more important groups to get on the radio. Groups that are relevant to your lifestyle. Things that reinforce your ideas of self-worth and propulsion towards the future."

Read by OCR software. If you spot errors, let me know afka (at) afka.net