Megabytes at Barking Pumpkin

By Alan di Perna

Keyboards, Computers & Software, April, 1986

“Hey, what’s a monstro guitar legend like Frank Zappa doing on the cover of a magazine like Keyboards, Computers & Software”?

That’s a fair enough question; but one shudders at the thought of how Mr. Zappa himself might answer the unwitting naif who asked it to his goateed face. Frank’s undeniable brilliance on the electric guitar, you see, is only one small part of his ongoing role (and he’s been at it for two decades now) as rock’s reigning “serious composer/satirist/misanthrope”. And it’s in these capacities that his liberal use of keyboards, computers and software enters the picture. All three items—principally in the form of Zappa’s well-configured Synclavier system—have provided him with the solution to a long-standing dilemma.

Frank Zappa takes high technology seriously. At his private studio, the Synclavier plays a major role in his musical development, as does his attendant recording and on-board equipment. Whether it be specially designed software or state-of-the-art hardware, Zappa definitely puts his very musical touch on everything.

Like all your noted satirists, Frank has never been known for his understanding endurance of human imperfection. But while Swift or Voltaire could flail away at all kinds of human stupidity, corruption and incompetence with just a quill and some parchment, Zappa’s work has always brought him face-to-face with those very characteristics in frightening abundance. Just think how many bungling, flawed humans it takes to make a phonograph record.

A few years back, Zappa solved part of his problem by starting his own label, Barking Pumpkin Records. He also erected the Utility Muffin Research Kitchen, his own super-slick digital home recording studio. But even with these buffers between himself and the world, the orchestral composer still can’t avoid the need for a few musicians—a notoriously undependable branch of humanity—in order to play the stuff. Or at least he did until computer music systems such as the Synclavier came along.

“What I’ve been waiting for ever since I started writing music,” explained Zappa, “was a chance to hear what I wrote played back without mistakes and without a bad attitude. The Synclavier solves the problem for me. Most of the writing I’m doing now is not destined for human hands.”

Frank was introduced to the Synclavier about two years ago. He not only bought the machine, he also hired the man who demonstrated it to him—Steve DeFuria—to come work in the Utility Muffin Research Kitchen. During his stay there, DeFuria cooked up two custom software programs for Zappa. One is called the List Twister. The other is the Swap and Retro Tweezer.

“For compositional permutations, these two pieces of software open up fairly frightening possibilities,” Zappa warns. “The List Twister will let you do hocketing. Hocketing is the musical process where a melody is tossed from one instrument to another. So if you enter a single melody line, the List Twister lets you determine the rate at which it gets tossed. Track One will play two notes, Track Three gets the next three notes of melody, Track Four gets one note and on and on. You just tell the thing how you want to chew it up, put your list in there and bloop, out comes an orchestration.”

Zappa’s impassive interview tone begins to thaw a little as he warms to his subject. “The Swap and Retro Tweezer,” he continues, “will let you take the rhythm of one piece of music and swap it with the pitches of another piece of music. Or if you’re doing serial music, you can play any kind of figure that you want on the keyboard, load in your row on the opposite side of the Swapper and push the button. What comes out is totally serialized tone row music. If you just want to be arbitrary, on the other hand, you can simply say: ‘swap the melody line of “Mary Had A Little Lamb” with the notes of “Louie, Louie.”’ The software will do it.”

Although the best equipment can be an imperative, knowing what to do with it is the difference between the mediocre and the brilliant.

Oddly enough, the first time Zappa used the Synclavier on record, it wasn’t to realize one of his own compositions or even a serialized, hocketed piece of modernism by Anton Webern, Edgard Varèse or any of Zappa’s other early-20th Century compositional heroes. Instead, he unearthed some string trios by a little-known 18th-Century composer named Francesco Zappa, whose name he discovered in the New Grove Dictionary of Music & Musicians. Frank’s assistant, David Ocker, typed the scores into the Synclavier. Frank did the orchestrations. The result is Francesco Zappa: His First Digital Recording in over 200 Years. Initially, Frank tried orchestrating the trios with Synclavier string samples. But the results, he says, were less than thrilling, so he went with the more colorful option of using a variety of stock and custom-programmed Synclavier synthesizer timbres.

Apart from its intrinsic pleasantness and historical curiosity value (Frank Zappa does a Walter/Wendy Carlos number on a possible ancestor), the Francesco Zappa project helped Frank prove an important economic point: computer systems such as the Synclavier can make it cost-effective to put limited-appeal music like old Francesco’s before the public.

But beyond this, Zappa speculates that instruments like the Synclavier could ultimately rescue serious contemporary music from its present minimalist cul-de-sac. “One of the reasons why you have a world full of ugly modern music with tiny little compositions,” he says, “is because that’s what has been dictated by economics. There may be people out there writing orchestral music of larger variety; but it never gets played, because nobody can afford to rehearse it. Most of the new compositions, which are funded by grants, are minimalist not just from stylistic choices but from economic choice. Because a minimalist piece requires less rehearsal time and is generally easier for musicians to play. Now though, we have computers that will allow you to play things that you couldn’t afford to rehearse. I think that opens up the door to more rhythmic exploration.

With his latest album, Frank Zappa Meets The Mothers of Prevention, we get ample opportunity to hear how Mr. Z applies the Synclavier to his own music. In many cases, the computer becomes an extension of time-honored Zappa musical strategies. On the one hand you have “Porn Wars,” the album’s topical “hit,” wherein Zappa adds sample trimming and editing to his familiar tape-based techniques for manipulating “found,” spoken-word material. Quoting out of context takes on a new meaning as Zappa digitally mutates the voices of PMRC instigator Tipper Gore and various august members of the Senate Committee that heard Zappa’s testimony against rock censorship late last year in Washington.

The album also serves up three all-Synclavier instrumentals: “Aerobics In Bondage,” “Little Beige Sambo” and “What’s New In Baltimore.” The musical motifs are—again— typically Zappa, and the timbres are often expansions on the kind of acoustic instrument sounds Frank has always favored—such as tuned mallet percussion and reed instruments.

“My main goal for building up my sample library is to have as much of a variety of realistic sounds of orchestral instruments as I can get,” he explains. “Because the space noises and all that weird stuff seems to be very easy to do. And the music that I like to write was originally intended for real instruments. I do like the way that they sound. Only I don’t enjoy hearing them played with the wrong rhythm or out of tune. That’s why I’ve concentrated on real instrument samples.”

Along with its newly-acquired polyphonic sampling capabilities, Zappa’s 56-voice Synclavier system is presently configured with 20 megabytes of internal RAM, two 80-megabyte Winchester hard disc drives and a 20- megabyte Winchester drive. Thanks to all this memory, he explains, samples are taken in stereo at the Utility Muffin Research Kitchen. Zappa likes to make his samples very ambient, capturing the full ring-off time of percussion and other instruments.

“The thing I hate about samples is when you economize and cut or ramp the ring-off on everything, to the point where it sounds like the whole track is gated. The tracks I do generally don’t have that quality, especially now that I’ve got the extra RAM. Unfortunately, I didn’t have the extra RAM for the Mothers of Prevention album. So it has the usual gated sounds. But the latest stuff I’m doing is very full.”

With a little help from his computer assistant, Bob Rice, Zappa is also building up a library of re-synthesized sounds. Here his approach is often less naturalistic. Take his handling of voice re-synthesis, for example.

“Human speech has pitch components to it, and when you’re dividing things into frames when you’re doing re-synthesis, there are some interesting ways in which you can use those pitches. I came up with the idea that, if you pitch the frame exactly to the notes on the keyboard, you could have a fast little melody happen every time you hit a key, and you could still be able to know what the voice was saying or singing. There was one sound where we started with a sample of Johnny ‘Guitar’ Watson yelling ‘yeah.’ That was re-synthesized straight. And then, by modifying the pitch of the frames, I built that into a little melisma—a little twirl of notes. If you take a combination of these predetermined twirls and load a different one on each partial, what you get every time you press a key down is a four part choir singing this little four part lick. We call those things resolvers. We have a lot of different resolvers.”

All this, mind you, is done on a stock Synclavier system running standard software. “All you have to do is be twisted enough to figure it out,” Frank adds.
Zappa also makes extensive use of the Synclavier’s music printing option when he’s composing and preparing scores for performance. Most recently he has used it to write a string piece for the [Kronos] Quartet and a woodwind quintet, called Times Beach, for the Aspen Wind Quintet. But there’s one Synclavier feature that Zappa does not use, surprisingly enough, and that’s the guitar option. He says he’s tried several incarnations of the company’s guitar controller but finds that “it just doesn’t track—at least not for the way I play. Some people get around them. I can’t. So I never bought it.”

“As an alternative to using the guitar ... Zappa will either type the notes into the music printing option or simply use the music keyboard.”

As an alternative to using a guitar to enter music into the system, Zappa will either type the notes into the music printing option or simply use the music keyboard. “But the disadvantage of the music printing option is that you can’t type in velocity,” he notes. “So sometimes it’s better to just play a random series of velocity attacks on the keyboard, store them in the memory recorder, go to the G page of the program and adjust the start time. You wind up with a textured performance that way. The other way to do it, is to type into the music printing in the normal way and then, using global command, develop a dynamic row—say 12 different dynamic level numbers. And you just do a global change on your whole note list. It introduces random volume changes into the piece, so it doesn’t sound so blat, blat, blat…”

In another approach to developing dynamics, Zappa has also been using a Roland Octapad MIDI drum trigger. “Chad [Wackerman], our drummer, brought one over the other day and I plugged it into the Synclavier. I started out as a drummer, so I can fluke around on it—do little flams and stuff like that. With it, you can enter types of rhythms that are impossible to do on the keyboard.”

Although Zappa has only been using the Synclavier for about two years now, he’s no stranger to either computers or synthesizer equipment. He’s got IBM PCs strategically positioned all around his home and office. (His 11-year-old son, Ahmet, favors the one next to the kitchen.) And since 1974, Frank has been honing his video editing chops on various CMX computerized editing systems. (For the latest developments on this front, check out Zappa’s new full-length concert video, Does Humor Belong In Music?)

If you think the Synclavier is Zappa’s only keyboard instrument, you’re barking up the wrong pumpkin. There’s no shortage of keyboard/synthesizer goodies down at the Utility Muffin Research Kitchen. This includes the usual vintage Minimoogs, an old ARP 2600, Korg vocoder and a number of EML devices such as the Poly-Box and Syn-Key. On a more massive scale, there’s Frank’s $50,000 E-mu modular system that dates from the mid-Seventies. He uses it in conjunction with two Yamaha CS-80 synthesizers, which have been modified with log-to-linear converters, enabling the pressure-sensitive CS-80 keyboard to drive the E-mu. The system, Zappa explains, has typically been dedicated to creating larger-than-life brass and string timbres, such as the brass sounds heard on the track “Yo Mama” on the Sheik Yerbouti album. As for the new equipment, Frank has his eye on Axxess Unlimited’s Mapper MIDI software and a Fairlight CMI Series III. “Now that the Synclavier has MIDI, he notes, you can have it drive the Fairlight. You can breed ‘em.”

Over the years Zappa’s collection of keyboard instruments has been fingered by a parade of legendary and near-legendary players—people like George Duke and Don Preston. Frank’s current keyboard men, Tommy Mars and Bobby Martin, have quite a tradition to live up to. In working with his keyboard players to program sounds and choose the best instrument for a given passage, Zappa says he plays “the same kind of role that any orchestrator would in choosing colors and composition. I know basically what kind of noises each of the machines can make, and we go from there.”

Which brings us to one important final point. While Frank Zappa the Misanthrope Perfectionist is obviously seduced by the gleaming mechanical flawlessness of his Synclavier—and will no doubt be using it quite a bit in the future—he is still a long way from giving up entirely on human musicians.

“Believe me,” he says reassuringly, “if I ever wanted to play ‘Louie, Louie,’ I don’t think I’d waste the time to enter it into the Synclavier.”

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