First Impressions

By Joe Chiccarelli

EQ, March 1994

Joe Chiccarelli, Zappa’s early engineer, reflects on recording some of the legend's biggest albums.

I heard Frank and appreciated what he had done on Apostrophe (I974), but I wasn't a die-hard fan when I was asked to take over the recording and mixing duties on Sheik Yerbouti in '77. I quickly realized, however, that I was working with a true innovator, an individual whose basic philosophy was to never resort to clichés or proven methods. Frank's whole approach was to push the envelope, and I can remember him always saying to me, "Make things sound stupid." He thought that when things sounded too Hi-Fi, they were unoriginal. He tried to make songs sound quirky or kitschy, so they would stand out from other records.

In addition to Sheik Yerbouti, I engineered for Frank during Joe's Garage ['78) and Shut Up And Play Yer Guitar ('81). Actually, Frank knew enough about technology for him to have engineered himself if he wanted to, but he let everybody in the studio do their own thing. He was always very vocal about what he wanted, though. Frank was a conceptualist, if you will.

The thing I remember most about those days was doing a lot of 2-inch tape editing. We would cut tapes together from various live performances to create different musical inventions. Frank would tell me to cut on the weird beats – spots that you would not make edits on – and in all cases, they worked. We came up with some really brilliant things that were man-made and would never have happened if the musicians were told to play them.

A lot of tape editing was done for Shut Up And Play... because Frank was uptight about his guitar solo performances. He never thought he did his best takes in the studio; he felt that when he was live, in front at an audience, he did his best work. So I suggested that he tape his solos live on the road, and when we got into the studio we could edit them in.

He used to have a huge set-up on stage – four Marshall bottoms – that was actually much louder than the live band. In order to isolate and record his solos during live gigs, all we had to do was stick a couple of Electra-Voice RE-20's up against the speakers and record them using a 2-track Nagra recorder.

When we got into the studio, we would create [am sessions that didn't happen in real lite. There were many occasions in the studio when Frank would tell (drummer) Vinnie Colaiuta to play in a certain time signature, and Frank would manually start the tape of his solo. Some real magic was created through this technique because the drummer didn't know what was going to happen next and things would come about just by accident.

Mixed Nuts

Mixing for that whole Sheik Yerbouti album was pretty nuts. We were using a 24-track machine (back then, we worked on either an API or Trident console), but 18 out of the 24 tracks had two or three different instruments on them. Sometimes, there may have been as many as 40 tracks on a song. It was a crazy time, but not as crazy as the time Stevie Nicks visited the studio and her four dogs broke loose and began trampling over equipment.

Frank should be remembered as somebody who really followed what he heard in his head and did it his way. He wasn't about to go with the system in any way, shape, or form – his integrity was what was important to him. He took things so tar that the majors didn't even want to deal with him and he had to start his own label. Unfortunately, Frank Zappa may be remembered by most as an outsider, but in the end, he'll also be recognized as one of the most influential musicians of this century.

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