Absolutely Frank

By Joe Spiegel

EQ, March 1994

    Over the course of his 52 years on Earth, Frank Zappa was often accused by his detractors and admirers alike to be not of this planet. After all, how many mere earthlings could conquer the world of avant garde, classical, and pop music as a singer, producer, composer, conductor, record mogul, actor, and movie producer? And Zappa did it so with a wry sense of humor, and accented all of his endeavors with a healthy flavoring of contempt for the norm.

    As an integral member of the '60s ensemble Mothers of Invention, as well as during his solo work over the last three decades, Frank Zappa scoured the landscape of many fronts, including musical and political, selecting areas of focus and then fearlessly exploiting uncharted territories. While national headlines told us of his bouts with Tipper Gore and the PMRC in fighting music censorship, and of his entrepreneurial activities with Czech president Vaclav Havel, they said nothing on the frontiers of recording and sound.

    From the one-of-a-kind 5-track tape recorder used in Studio Z in the late '60s, to the 6-channel concert sound system devised for The Yellow Shark concerts in Frankfurt two years ago, Zappa loved to tweak existing technology to yield new strains with unknown, different – and often interesting – results. In the early '80s, he put down his revered Gibson SG and discovered a brand-new audio tool – The New England Digital Synclavier.

    To someone who always strived to render his musical ideas with precision, the Synclavier opened up a whole new world of possibilities for handling the frequently highly complex arrangements that often defied human fingers. A few months before his death, Zappa substantially upgraded his Synclavier 9600, making it the world's largest integrated composition, sampling, and production system for digital recording. With the addition of six 64 MB MegaRAM sample memory cards and a custom expansion chassis for 32 additional voices (both from The Synclavier Company), Zappa's über-Synclavier boasted 128 voices and 384 MB of sampling RAM.

    Zappa not only used the Synclavier as another instrument, he took advantage of it's vast digital sampling and recording capabilities. In fact, his 1988 album, Jazz From Hell, which was composed on the Synclavier, won Zappa his only Grammy for best rock instrumental performance.

    In this unpublished interview conducted at the Utility Muffin Research Kitchen, Zappa's L.A. project studio, he candidly discussed the old and the new, from recording early Mothers of Invention albums to juggling samples on the Synclavier.

Q. When you were working on the remastering of unreleased live material for the You Can't Do That On Stage Anymore series CDs, what sorts of problems did you have with the early analog masters in making them compatible with digital?
A. That stuff came from all different kinds of audio sources, starting with 7 1/2 ips stereo – on one of the discs there's even a cut that's mono. You have to match level, you have to match EQ, and you have to control peaks on some of it. It's the same thing you would do if you were putting together any other kind of anthology, except you're dealing with live tape.

Q. I recall reading that in the digital process you're much more aware of miking problems. You also mentioned that noise is much more of a problem with digital.
A. Well, since the digital has no noise of its own, any noise that's there is either coming from the mic, from the board, or from a bad amplifier on an instrument.

Q. Just to turn back the clock a bit, can you discuss the recording of some of the early Mothers of Invention albums in the late '60s? I heard it was quite primitive. What sort of setup did you have at the time?
A. We had eight microphones and an 8-track Shure mixer that was stuffed into a briefcase – and also a portable Uher recorder. A guy named Dick Kunc used to sit by the side of the stage with earphones on and try to get a balance while we were playing. On "Weasels Ripped My Flesh," for example, there are several cuts that were done using that equipment. I'd say that was fairly primitive.

Q. Back when you bought Pal Recording in Cucamonga, CA, from Paul Buff and turned it into Studio Z, Buff (who invented the Kepex noise gate) was experimenting with some fairly innovative audio equipment. What's the story behind the 5-track recorder that he made?
A. He took a Presto deck and made his own head stack. I don't even remember what kind they were, but he bought a bunch of heads and machined this stack that was about six inches across. And the heads weren't stacked on top of each other, they were staggered, because at the time there was no material that could give you enough insulation between the heads if you stacked them one on top of another. So he has five heads in a row that were erase heads, and then five more in a row that were record and playback, so it wasn't like three distinct groups of heads – it was two distinct groups. Because of this unique arrangement with the heads stacked in a diagonal way, those 5-track masters can't be played on any head other than the original, and it's all worn now.

Q. Where is the 5-track now?
A. I don't know. I lost track of the deck, but the head stack itself is probably in a box of garbage someplace down in the vault.

Q. What other things did Buff pioneer?
A. Well, he had the first fuzztone I ever saw. He had taken the preamp from a phonograph and he was running a Sears-Roebuck bass through it. And it was a great fuzz bass. That was the first time I ever saw anybody do a direct fuzz on a recording.

Q. On We're Only in It for the Money, the Sgt. Pepper's parody released in 1967, there're some creepy whispered lines which say, "Frank Zappa, there he is in the control room. And I sincerely don't care..." What was that all about?
A. That's Gary Kellgren, who was actually the engineer on We're Only in It for the Money. And he was a funny guy – a suffering individual during those days, because he had a studio (Mayfair) that had the only 8-track in New York City at that time. It was kind of a homemade rig, and he was recording 18 hours a day, and he had no private life, no social life. He was just run down. We had to get our album done and we were forced to work with a guy where I knew that just by our going and doing our session we were making his life more miserable by the minute. He would do, maybe, three or four bands per day, and it was just grinding him down.

He was living on leapers and beer, and so I decided one day to just let him blow off a little steam: I put him out in the studio – I became the engineer and let him talk into the microphone. That's where all the creepy whispering comes from.

Q. What's all that backwards stuff on the end of that album? Why is it there?
A. It was in the original. Well, some of it was put in because we were forced to. One of the lines was, "Shut your fuckin' mouth about the length of my hair" (from the song "Mother People"), which MGM made us turn around. Other things were just done for audio effect.

Q. What was it like recording side 4 of the first Mothers' album Freak Out, the cut "Son of Monster Magnet," with all manner of freaks scurrying about the recording studio?
A. What was it like? It was kind of interesting. [slightly sardonic chuckle]... I wouldn't say it was a landmark of my career. That was certainly one of the things that the engineer at that studio will always remember, that's for sure. And Tom Wilson, who was the producer on that session, admitted to me several years later that he has taken acid that night, so he was in there in the control room turning the knobs on acid. And I didn't even know. So he must have had some kind of weird experience.

Q. Why have you found the Synclavier to be the best way for you to have maximum control over your music?
A. Simply because of what it allows you to do. You have control over the pitches, duration, amplitude, speed, octave, and phrasing. It allows you to be a composer and a conductor at the same time, as well as a performer, so that's about as flexible as you can get.

Q. How much has your Synclavier setup changed since you worked on your 1988 Grammy-winning, Jazz From Hell?
A. It's completely different. [N.E.D.] has not only had major software updates, but major hardware updates in the system, as well, and we've pretty much kept up with it. For example, when Jazz From Hell was made, the system I had did not have velocity. In other words, all the notes of all the parts of the tunes were at 100-percent volume. The only way you could get any dynamics was by moving the fader during the mix. And now we have velocity capability, giving you individual volume control over every note. What you can do with the machine now is a lot more realistic and expressive.

Q. One last question, Frank. You're working on a project with N.E.D. entitled Samples From Hell. What's that all about?
A. Converting my sample library into an optical disc package that will be available to Synclavier owners. It's a very time-consuming process. Before it goes onto the optical disc, each of the samples has to be cataloged and captioned. So when you push the button on the screen to call up a sample, it tells you exactly what it is. Each sample is categorized into different catalogs. For example, all the percussion samples of a certain type go in one catalog, the wind and guitar samples in another, and so on. It's a big project. You're constructing a really specialized database, so that when a person buys the optical disc, he's really getting a complete library. [Although Samples from Hell was never released, it may still come to fruition with The Synclavier Company.]

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