Modern Music Is a Sick Puppy

A Conversation with Frank Zappa
by Steve Birchall
from Digital Audio, October/November 1984

Sitting in his digital recording studio, Frank Zappa talks about how a creative personality approaches the studio. Along the way, he reveals how he makes use of his digital equipment -- his extended musical instruments.

"A mixing console is just like a musical instrument," he declares. "And all these other things sitting on the wall here are tools that you use to make musical sounds."

Recently, Zappa's Barking Pumpkin Records became one of the first studios to acquire the Sony 32-track digital recorder. After working with it, what does Zappa think about digital recording? "The sound is clear, and the dynamic range is ridiculous," he said. "Little things like that make all the difference."

Zappa stopped touring two years ago, and turned his attention toward establishing himself in the world of contemporary music as a the serious composer he is, and always has been. His fans are aware of his expertise in writing music for orchestra and chamber groups; now they'll have a chance to hear some of Zappa's more serious output.

But, like all serious composers who have gone before him, he has suffered contempt, lack of performances, bad performances, and lack of recognition. As a result, Zappa has returned to rock 'n' roll.

In this conversation with Digital Audio's Steve Birchall, Zappa talks about his work in both contemporary and rock music, as well as his production and engineering experiences. And he also provides his insight on the present state of American life and culture.

Steve Birchall: Why did you convert your studio to a digital facility? What creative possibilities did digital recording offer that analog technology couldn't give you?

Frank Zappa: It's made a big difference in terms of what we can get on tape and how fast. You can do sounds on digital that you can't on analog. The sound is clear, and the dynamic range is ridiculous. Little things like that make all the difference in the world.

Steve Birchall: Do you like the expanded dynamic range? Have you found ways to make use of it creatively?

Frank Zappa: We don't compress the material; we leave the dynamic range wide open and usually worry about it when we put it on disc. If you compress everything just because you're putting it on vinyl, then you eventually wind up cheating the audience who buy it on CD.

We're looking forward to doing a CD release. So far we haven't. Eventually we'll put out something on CD and you'll really be able to appreciate the difference between your "ordinary digital product" and your Barking Pumpkin digital product.

Steve Birchall: Why haven't you put out anything on CD?

Frank Zappa: Because originally when we tried to do it, we were told that first, the artist has to pay them (the developers of the CD) a royalty to press it on CD. I said forget it. They've since discontinued that policy. But still, the problem is that a lot of people would like to do CDs, but the manufacturing capacity of the plants isn't large enough to accommodate every artist who would like to do a CD. They can't manufacture enough.

Right now the pressing capacity is still small, and they usually want to press CDs only for artists who sell 30 million copies. I'm not one of those kind of guys, so it'll be a long time before you hear one of my things on CD.

Steve Birchall: I hope that changes. I was looking forward to hearing the Orchestral Works on CD, but I guess I'll have to wait.

Frank Zappa: It's going to be a while. That may change, actually. I just did an album (with Pierre Boulez) that Angel/EMI is releasing. They've been talking about doing it on CD. It'll be out in a couple of months. Boulez conducted three of my pieces. The rest of the album is electronic music I did with the Synclavier here at the studio.

Steve Birchall: How did Boulez respond to your music?

Frank Zappa: Well, I guess he liked it -- he conducted it. I don't suppose he has to conduct anything he doesn't like.

Steve Birchall: You often incorporate a lot of things from the avant-garde -- particularly from that period in the '50s when Boulez and Stockhausen were prominent.

Frank Zappa: I'm still quite fond of Boulez's music, but not so much so of Stockhausen's stuff. I like other things in contemporary music, too, particularly Takemitsu. He's one of my favorites.

But if you want to be honest about it, modern music is a sick puppy. I think the situation is so drastic that we ought to just let nature take its course.

Steve Birchall: Yes, I certainly agree with you. I'm a composer, and I long ago stopped writing orchestral music. There was just no possibility of a performance.

Frank Zappa: Yup. Me too.

Steve Birchall: But now you are writing again.

Frank Zappa: No, no I'm not. The pieces that were performed (with Boulez) were all written some time ago. I haven't written anything for large orchestra since the pieces I recorded with the London Symphony, and I don't expect to do it ever again.

Steve Birchall: How long ago did you write those pieces?

Frank Zappa: Late '70s, early '80s.

Steve Birchall: Listening to the Orchestral Works album, I really was astonished at the imaginative sounds that were coming out of the orchestra.

Frank Zappa: Yeah, well, I can write good music. The only problem is that I can't get people to play it. The LSO album is not what I would call the world's most accurate reading. And it cost a fortune to do it. There's no way I can ever make back what it cost me to produce that recording.

What it has brought me are offers to perform from guys like Jack Elliott and his "New American Orchestra." He called the office the other day, requesting 15 minutes of my easiest pieces to conduct at one of their concerts. He offered me one hour of rehearsal time.

Steve Birchall: But that's not adequate. It won't work -- not for new music in manuscript.

Frank Zappa: That's right. I said no, forget it.

The other thing that really soured me on the serious music world was a concert I did a few years back with a 40-piece chamber orchestra in Royce Hall (at UCLA). After the concert I was approached by the Los Angeles Philharmonic. They said if you'll buy us two concert grand pianos and give them to us as a gift, we'll commission you to write a double piano concerto for the Philharmonic.

Steve Birchall: That was really generous of them.

Frank Zappa: Yeah, really sweet. The sickest thing that has happened recently -- what really showed me what bad shape modern music is in -- was an incident with a group call the Ear Unit. It's two percussion, two keyboards, flute, clarinet, and cello. They commissioned a piece to be performed at the Monday Evening Concerts at the County Museum. They specifically requested an arrangement of one of the tunes on the guitar album -- a piece called "While You Were Out." So I did it. And I did it here on the computer.

When it came time for them to pick up their parts, I played them the electronic realization on the Synclavier so they could have an idea of how it should sound. They said, "We can't play this. We don't have enough time to rehearse it, because we're playing Elliott Carter and that's hard, and we're playing this other thing, and that's hard, and we really don't have time to do this." So I said, " Well, you're either going to play it right or you're not going to play it at all."

They already had announced they were going to play it. The thing was already on the program, so the problem was solved in this manner: I said, "Here's what we'll do -- I'll have the computer simulate the sound of all the instruments in your group, and I'll make a digital recording of this piece (the only time a composer ever got a perfect performance of a brand new piece at it premiere). I had the computer print out the parts for each musician. Then I made an analog cassette for each musician of what his part was supposed to sound like. That frees the performer to do what he really wants to do, which is look good on stage. He doesn't have to worry about a single note, because the machine takes care of that.

Since there were to have been some other pieces with amplification at the concert, I said, "OK, great, you're already going to have wires coming out of your instruments, so just go out there, push the button on the Sony PCM-F1 cassette, and out comes a perfect performance of the piece. You guys work on your choreography, and bingo, we have the missing link between electronic music and 'performance art.'"

So they did it. But they didn't know the difference between VHS and Beta., so when it came time to play the cassette, they couldn't use it. So what did they do? They used one of the analog practice cassettes, which put a wall of hiss out into the audience. I didn't go to the concert, but a friend of mine did. He said you could hardly make out the music; it was a wall of hiss. Nobody knew that they didn't play a note. Not the man who runs the Monday Evening Concerts, not Morton Subotnick, not either of the reviewers for the Los Angeles Times or the Herald Examiner....

Steve Birchall: Not even through all that hiss and distortion? They probably thought it was just another bad sound reinforcement system....

Frank Zappa: Eventually, a guy from the LA Times editorial department called me up (after the reviewer had said how this group "played modern music with such vibrance"). He had heard from one of the members of the group what had actually happened, so he was a little embarrassed, and he's probably going to do another article about it. I said, "Do me a favor. Before you write it, come over to my studio and let me play you a recording of the piece the way it was supposed to sound, so you know what you're talking about." So far he hasn't been over. To me that's indicative of the type of attention, the type of stuff that goes on in the modern music world.

The other thing that I found disappointing happened about a month ago. I was the keynote speaker at the American Society of University Composers (ASUC) in Columbus, OH. I went there and did the speech. For three nights they had concerts of new music and they had one of my pieces in the program each night. The first night they played "Naval Aviation and Art," which is a piece about 2 1/2 minutes long. It was OK. It's really not a very hard piece -- passable performance on that.

The next afternoon, they had a chamber group that made an attempt to play "The Black Page Number Two." Murdered it. Couldn't get anywhere near what the thing was supposed to sound like. The third night, the Columbus Symphony was supposed to play the U.S. premiere of "The Perfect Stranger," which was one of the pieces Boulez conducted, along with a bunch of brand new pieces by other composers who were at the convention.

I went to several of the rehearsals and noticed there was a problem with their harpist. In my piece there is a situation where the harp has to play a fairly difficult melody with the oboe. She couldn't do it, so I just told the conductor to leave her out.

Then I noticed there was a composer named Nancy Chance who had written a piece that had massive harp parts in it. The harpist couldn't play those parts at all, and the harp is the predominant thing in her piece, so I talked with the conductor, and the situation was explained to me this way: This woman has lifetime tenure in the orchestra. You can't even pay her to stay home. The union in Columbus threatens to shut everybody down if you mess with their harp player. There are other competent harpists in town, but the union refuses to let the orchestra hire anybody other than this woman.

So who's the loser? The composer loses big. The audience loses, because they don't get to hear what the piece is really about. The attitude in the performance community there is "our hands are tied. It's a union rule."

It's baloney -- but that's what happens for real in the classical music world. For these reasons, I have said, "OK, that's it. I've been doing this seriously for two years now. I stopped touring two years ago and spent the last two years in Modern Music Land -- and I'm leaving." I'm going back on the road. Rehearsals started May 21. That's it...

Pop Music and Technical Techniques

Steve Birchall: Would you say the most experimental music has been in pop music, with all the stuff that's been going on in the studio?

Frank Zappa: No, I wouldn't say it's experimental. Timbrally, maybe it's experimental.

Steve Birchall: What about the development of the multi-track studio in the '60s and all the new recording techniques that came out of that world?

Frank Zappa: But that's not a musical technique; that's a technical technique. The most reactionary music on this planet is popular music. Its restrictions are even more rigorous than in classical music. In order for it to be popular music, it must be this, this, and this. Those rhythms. These chord changes. This type of melody. This type of lyrics. You have no choice, and if you don't do it, you can't survive.

Steve Birchall: But you've stepped outside the boundaries more than most -- had have been fairly successful at it.

Frank Zappa: Yeah, I've been outside the boundaries. But you don't sell 30 million albums that way. If you're willing to take the risk, you can do it. The fact of the matter is that a person who works in the pop music field understands what can be done in a recording studio and has access to musical tools and facilities that have the possibility to make a totally astonishing kind of music. You can make impossible things happen on tape. That's what I like to do.

The problem arises only when you have to deal with musicians, because a lot of the things that I'm interested in hearing are very difficult for human beings to play. That's why I'm happy that the Synclavier came along, because it's brightened my life considerably.

The sequencer in this thing is powerful. The software lets you do and hear things that are -- ridiculous. I can't really play the piano, but I load stuff in through the keyboard and I'm totally satisfied with the results. The only drawbacks are certain limitations in the music printing and the fact that it's difficult to interface with other machines.

Steve Birchall: During the recent AES Conference in Anaheim, I hear a lot of talk about your Orchestral Works album. Your name came up quite a number of times in the various sessions. Your use of Pressure Zone Mikes was one of the topics; why did you choose PZMs? What advantages do they have over conventional types of mikes?

Frank Zappa: I got a type of isolation, plus a feeling of "airiness" that I couldn't get with any other mikes. We tried to get a good concert hall in England, but they were all booked up, so we wound up recording the entire LSO album at Twickenham Studios -- in a totally dead movie soundstage. That's one of the worst kinds of environments to put an orchestra into, because the sound just dies, and the musicians can't really hear each other, so they can't get the right balance.

Steve Birchall: Did you multi-mike it?

Frank Zappa: It was a multi-track recording using about 60 inputs. Of course, about 20 were for the drum set alone.

Steve Birchall: Did you put them on the floor, or overhead?

Frank Zappa: Every way you can imagine. We had little scoop plastic dish things that went over pairs of violin stands. We had little wedges that sat on the floor in front of the celli and basses. We had big 4 by 4 plexiglass sheets hung on the wall behind the percussion. We experimented around.

We tried normal mikes that people use for orchestral instruments. The leakage and the loss of control that we had was a big problem. In recording an orchestra, you know it's going to be an ambient recording anyway, but you'd at least like the instrument you're featuring on that mike to be predominant on that track.

We liked it with the PZMs. They have a couple of problems, but I don't know whether they've solved them yet. The PZMs have a sound all their own -- some people like it and some people don't. The other problem is that the wires coming out of them are small. People have a tendency to step on them and kick them. Then, during the middle of your recording, you say, "What is that crackle?" Then you've got to go out there and find which of the 30 or 40 microphones had its wire disturbed.

Steve Birchall: That's a real, practical problem that nobody has given much attention to.

Frank Zappa: We discussed all this with Ken Wahrenbrock [an authority on PZMs], and gave him a full report on all the things we encountered that were negative when we did the recording over there. I hope that some of the ideas get incorporated. He's a real nice man -- he's been over here a number of times, and he's worked with us trying to help us get the right stuff to do there recordings. I used a couple of PZMs on the Boulez recording, in the ambient position.

Steve Birchall: It really requires learning a whole new technique of working with microphones. It takes quite a lot of time to understand what the results of various placements will be on the recording.

Frank Zappa: Usually everybody is concerned with the budget. It's not that I'm not concerned with the budget, but some people are concerned to the exclusion of any type of experimentation. They won't even take a minute to try something, because they just want to do it the old way, even if it's wrong.

Steve Birchall: That's what stops progress.

Frank Zappa: No. What stops progress in the U.S. is that there are too many lawyers and too many accountants. Aesthetic decisions in music and the other arts have all been placed into the hands of there people, so we're now at the mercy of their taste.

Steve Birchall: It's true in classical music, in pop music -- no matter where you look. It's done a lot of damage to the record industry, because all they want now is monster hits.

Frank Zappa: That's right. Just like the movie business.

Steve Birchall: Young artists don't have a chance.

Frank Zappa: Well, no, record companies will take a chance on a young artist. As a matter of fact, the business works like this now: They'll sign lots of young artists -- for peanuts -- and they get one chance. One chance only.

If you make a mistake, you're dead; if you make a monster hit, you stay. It's as simple as that. And the budgets they give these new artists are inadequate for making a good record.

Steve Birchall: I was talking with someone at Hitsville, and they have a plan for allowing new artists to experiment -- for free -- in the basement studios with older equipment. They let them find out how to approach the studio with older equipment. They let them find out how to approach the studio, how to plan before a session, and how to use it most effectively, before they go into the expensive studios upstairs.

Frank Zappa: Ah, that sounds interesting. You could get quite a tax write-off. That's the only reason it would happen. Do you think they'll take anybody with a new idea and let them go in there to work on it? I doubt that. I think they're going to take only those who have "love songs" to sing.

Digital Editing

Steve Birchall: You've done a lot of razor blade editing on digital tapes -- two thousand splices on one hour of tape.

Frank Zappa: Yes, probably more. I've probably done more of them than anybody else using digital. This also includes the pieces which didn't go into the LSO album, because we still have some pieces awaiting release. But in putting that album together, I used four rolls of splicing tape -- one inch per splice. That two thousand splices per roll. I wont' say they all worked. You definitely have to learn how to do it, or it can be one of the most unpleasant experiences on the planet.

If you're doing only assembly edits (putting a series of songs together for an album), usually you don't have a problem. You know where the splice will be when you're hooking one song to another. But the minute you change your mind and break that splice and try to reassemble it, the risk of getting a snap or a dropout goes up immensely. The worst thing you can do is to unmake a splice and put it back together in the middle of a song.

In other words, you are reassembling the Control Track (which contains information on the recorder needs for decoding the digital data). Whenever you disrupt that data stream, you cause a lot of problems, and the machine puts out snaps and pops. You get to be extremely careful -- and you can't take as many chances as you would in analog editing.

Have you ever tried to edit orchestral music [with a razor blade]? It's really hard. If you're editing rock 'n' roll you listen to where the kick drum is, or where the cymbal is, and there's you edit point. It's an easy to cut to find. But if you're cutting into the middle of a clarinet note or a string wash, it's very difficult to rock the tape and find where the starting point of that sound is. It's very tedious.

Steve Birchall: This is what they say is so great about electronic editing.

Frank Zappa: I haven't used it yet but I couldn't imagine it being as easy to use as doing it the old way by just turning a knob. Maybe I have a treat coming. It's also another $50,000 dollars.

"New Stuff"

Steve Birchall: What type of material are you working on?

Frank Zappa: The new stuff that's coming out now includes a new rock 'n' roll album. We also have the first boxed set of the digital refurbishment of the old masters. All the original Verve albums from Freak Out to Reuben and the Jets have been digitally re-spiffed and remixed. The box set includes a mystery disc with unreleased material and historic material of that period.

I also have an album of the music of Francesco Zappa. He was a composer who flourished between 1766 and 1788. Nobody knows when he was born or when he died. He was a cello player from Milan and wrote mostly string trios. I found out about his music and located a bunch of it in the Berkeley Library and the Library of Congress. My assistant loaded it into the Synclavier and now we have a whole album of synthesized performances.

Steve Birchall: What is his music like?

Frank Zappa: He was a contemporary of Mozart. It's kind of happy, Italian-sounding music. It's nice, and real melodic. It's interesting, too; he does a few strange things harmonically that seem to be slightly ahead of his time -- a few little weird things. Basically, it's typical of music of that period, except it doesn't sound typical when it comes out of the Synclavier.

The other album that's ready for release is the new rock 'n' roll album called Them or Us. And the three-record set is the complete soundtrack to Thing-Fish, the Broadway show I wrote. It hasn't been produced and probably never will be, because it's just a little bit on the weird side for people who invest in Broadway.

Steve Birchall: One of the things that's so wonderful about your music is that you always pop the bubble of popular lifestyles in a satirical way.

Frank Zappa: Well, it's hard for me to take all that crap seriously.

Steve Birchall: You're a keen observer. You find those things and you point them out.

Frank Zappa: But nobody wants to look at it when you point it out.

Steve Birchall: What about "Valley Girl"?

Frank Zappa: "Valley Girl" was a success not because people liked what the song said, but because they liked the dialect in the monologue and wanted to talk just like that.

Steve Birchall: "Sheik Yerbouti" was another one. You took the disco stuff and poked fun at it.

Frank Zappa: Disco won't die. Economics won't let it die. The economics of playing a recording a place with alcohol rather than hiring a band necessitates that disco lives.

Steve Birchall: It's a continuous blur -- you can't tell when one song ends and the next one starts.

Frank Zappa: There's a good reason for that. Accountants like it that way, so it usually gets made that way. That's what accountants dance to. If they dance at all, they dance to that kind of music, so they support it. They're solidly behind it. And it's very bottom-line-oriented music.

Zappa Mixing Techniques

Steve Birchall: How do you approach a mixdown, once you've laid down all your tracks?

Frank Zappa: I like a certain style of mix. Whenever I imagine an instrument as part of a mix, I have an ideal mental picture of what it is supposed to sound like for its function in the mix. I have in my mind an ideal kick drum sound, an ideal snare drum sound, a lot of different types of ideal guitar sounds, ideal vibe and bells, and so on. Then I take the raw material and try to equalize it and blend it to make it into what that ideal sound quality is, because that's what I want to say musically.

Steve Birchall: So you've really conceived the mix before you start to lay down tracks?

Frank Zappa: I conceive the mix before I write the music, because the mix is part of the composition. And that's one of the advantages for a composer who knows how to work in a studio. You know what you can do in terms of balancing things. You can spit in the face of the laws of acoustics by pushing a couple of faders up and down. You can make one flute in the low octave sound louder than an entire orchestra if you want.

Steve Birchall: In your electronic pieces you've also done the same thing by conceiving the mix as part of the composition. Electronic music gets really dangerous because you have so many sounds that you can make. But I like the way you've restricted the range to a collection of sounds that are all related.

Frank Zappa: Most electronic music people use space-type sounds and stick them all together. My interest in electronic instruments is to get accurate performances of pitches, rhythms, and harmony -- which are what I think music ought to be made out of. I like noise, too, as color. But as a way of life it's not exactly my idea of a good time.

Since my compositions are made out of pitches, melody, and harmony, I choose familiar sounds that are easy to identify with from the real world. That way, you can concentrate on what the music is about, rather than on the science fiction nature of the machine.

Steve Birchall: I see you have a Lexicon digital reverb unit up there. I think artificial room acoustics may become one of the biggest areas of interest in pop music. With digital recording, you really have to work on creating the kind of acoustical environment you want the music to be in.

Frank Zappa: Well, in this studio, we have three live reverb chambers -- good ones too. I have one little one right underneath the control room. I have a medium-sized one out there -- a long narrow one along the rear wall. That white room back there is another acoustic chamber. It's very live. We have two Lexicon 224Xs and two of the older Lexicons in the truck. We have an Ursa Major Space Station, three Eventide Harmonizers, and AMS, and two Prime Times. So we do quite a bit of ambience simulation here and have a lot of different aromas to choose from.

Steve Birchall: That kind of flexibility is wonderful because inventing your own kind of acoustic space is a lot of fun.

Frank Zappa: That's one of the most interesting aspects of the London Symphony Orchestra album. Using a bunch of home-made room programs on the 224X, I changed the size and shape of the imaginary rooms, according to the mood of each portion of the piece. Later, I edited the tapes so you go smoothly from one acoustic space to another -- from a big room, to a vast space, and back. It changes the way you hear the music.

If a composer has access to all the tools of production all the way down the line, he can optimize the sound for that particular piece. He can make it sound exactly the way he thinks it ought to sound. No longer is the composer stuck with one performance in one room.

Steve Birchall: It becomes part of the creative process as well. It's part of the composition.

Frank Zappa: A mixing console is just like a musical instrument. And all these other things that are sitting on the wall here are tools that you use to make musical sounds.

Steve Birchall: Absolutely. But often, people want to argue strenuously against the use of technology in a composition.

Frank Zappa: Well, they're ignorant -- totally ignorant.

Steve Birchall: Mixing consoles are creative tools, as much as guitars and pianos. Tom Holman (in his talk on film audio production at the the AES conference) mentioned that the newer Lexicons have programs to simulate much smaller rooms -- like telephone booths in outer space. Everybody has been focusing on big-sounding rooms -- large concert halls and cathedrals. But small rooms have applications too, especially in films.

Frank Zappa: Well, this one has dialog rooms programmed into it. They're especially useful when you're "looping" dialog onto a film's audio tracks. The Lexicon can make your loop match the ambience of the room you see on screen, or of the room where other dialog already has been recorded. It has programs that simulate small rooms, like a living room, or a garage, and all those different kinds of places.

Steve Birchall: Do you make much use of the small rooms?

Frank Zappa: Not as small rooms, because I don't do a lot of that kind of work. I've cross-bred some of the programs. We took the numerical parameters of the large concert hall program and inserted them into one of the living room programs and got a strange kind of room out of it. Lexicon has a plate program called "cathedral," which has some very strange characteristics and we crossed that with the small concert hall program. It's neat to mess around with -- I really love that device. It's one of my favorite tools to make sounds with because you can do so much.

For the rock 'n' roll stuff, we've been using split plate a lot. That program simulates the old EMT steel plate reverb chambers, and seems to give much better stereo definition. When you add echo to a mix, it makes the thing sound more expansive, but in a way it narrows your stereo width. Things tend to bunch up, but with the split place, they don't. Things retain their position in the mix a little bit better.

Certain other things we do as just a matter of course -- standard operating procedure here. The snare always goes into a 949 on a certain setting that we use. The kick and the toms are always gated and EQed a certain way. The drum set layout in terms of its position in the mix is always the same, consistent from tape to tape. High hat is always mid-right, kick is always center, snare is always split, the castanets and the rototoms are always hard left and right.

Steve Birchall: Why do you do that? Wouldn't more variety be more interesting?

Frank Zappa: I like the idea of making my tapes, no matter what they are, so they're intercuttable with one another. It's less distracting to the listener. He can follow an album's conceptual continuity better if he doesn't get that drastic shock when the tone of things changes. The shock should be the idea of one type of music juxtaposed on another type of music, not the fact that the high hat suddenly jumps to the left.

Steve Birchall: Yes, that's pointless. You could do it for a reason, but generally it's pointless.

Frank Zappa: It's better if you can keep your foot tapping, no matter how weird the music is. If you can follow it all the way through, the song is more fun to listen to.

The Kronos Quartest asked me to write a bunch of music for them. I've done it on the Synclavier, so I've actually been able to listen to the stuff played as string quartest, before they ever played it. In fact, I may even suggest they do the same thing as the Ear Unit. Don't bother to learn it, just turn the machine and sit there and pretend to play it.

Comments on a Demonstration

Steve Birchall: Let's hope they use the right tape this time! Do you also use the Fairlight?

Frank Zappa: No. I tried it and I didn't enjoy it very much because I didn't think it sounded good. The bandwidth of the sampler is too low (8 kHz or something like that), and everything sounded fake coming out. I very seldom use sampling (recording a live sound digitally and plugging it into the keyboard) on the Synclavier, but it's much more realistic than on the Fairlight.

Steve Birchall: It seems to be. It sure fooled me for a while.

Frank Zappa: You haven't heard any sampling out of it yet. All that you've heard so far has been synthesized. Those are all digitally synthesized sounds.

Steve Birchall: Synthesized from scratch -- I completely misunderstood what I was hearing.

Frank Zappa: Nothing from the real world was ever entered into the Synclavier -- no live instruments except where I said the drums are live. In order of appearance, you heard one section of Lumpy Gravy, followed by the first movement of Mo and Herb's Vacation, which was played by the London Symphony Orchestra. Then the next piece, that short little piece called Love Story, was completely synthesized. After that was Naval Aviation and Art, played by the Ensemble Intercontemporain with Boulez conducting. Then you heard The Girl in the Magnesium Dress, which uses a synthesized Fender Rhodes and vibes. Jonestown with the "chorus" and "strings," was all synthesized. It's Jonestown because you can here him kicking the Kool Aid can -- it's pretty grim.

Steve Birchall: As soon as you said the name of the piece, it all came together instantly. === "Modern Music Is a Sick Puppy" (Part 2) === Gone are the days of The Mothers of Invention, handwritten music manuscripts, and Frank Zappa's hopes of sustaining a career as a serious composer. Today, time and digital technology have rearranged the music -- but Zappa is still plugged in.

In this, the second installment of an exclusive Digital Audio interview, Zappa tells Technical Editor Steve Birchall how, with the help of his wide variety of signal processors, he refurbished old "Mothers" recordings for latter-day release. He also shares his views on kids an music videos, the disposable state of the arts, and the shrinking world of the composer in modern American society.

Steve Birchall: What kinds of signal processing did you use to reconstitute the old Verve tapes you're about to reissue as a boxed set?

Frank Zappa: In the case of the first four albums, the condition of the analog tapes was so dreadful you couldn't believe it. On the 2-track original mixes, the oxide had fallen off the tape and you could see through it. It was stored badly; the stuff was rancid. In some instances we had to go back to the original 8-track masters or 4-track masters or whatever we could find. Some of them weren't available.

One of the 8-track masters (for a song called "Stuff Up the Cracks") from the Reuben and the Jets album is gone and no one knows where it is. All we could do was to re-equalize the 2-track mix for that song.

Freak Out is re-EQed from the 2-track mix, as is Absolutely Free. But We're Only in It for the Money is remixed from the original masters with brand new digitally recorded drums and digitally recorded bass added. We took off the original mono drum set and put on classy drums and all that. We did the same thing on Reuben and the Jets. On Lumpy Gravy, we used a combination of the original 2-track masters plus newly overdubbed material.

We have masses of EQ and Burwen-type devices. We have a thing called a Dynafex, and we use these 360 EQs along with those graphic equalizers down there.

Steve Birchall: Do you know about the new digital signal processors? Roger Lagadec at Studer has developed a very interesting one, and Tom Stockham at Soundstream had a program for upgrading old 78s to modern standards.

Frank Zappa: I didn't know about them at the time -- and they aren't really out on the market anyway. Also, I have a problem with the market for those tapes. I can only spend so much time and money to clean them up. Even so, I've spent quite a lot of studio hours putting together that album (the boxed set of Verve reissues). I probably have a month to six weeks of studio time in that first box. But if that machine could take the noise out of those Verve tapes...

Steve Birchall: I heard an amazing demonstration yesterday afternoon.

Frank Zappa: Oh, you mean the Caruso tapes? Well that's a real complicated deal. It's quite a trick removing an orchestra from a Caruso master.

Tripping on Art

Steve Birchall: One thing I wanted to ask you: Whatever happened to Art Tripp? Do you remember him?

Frank Zappa: The last time I heard, he was living in Pittsburgh. He came to one of our concerts in Pittsburgh, and he was an insurance salesman. Then he decided to play again, and he moved to California. I haven't seen him in years, but the last time I talked with him he was on his way to try out for a road band gig as a drummer for Donna Summers.

Steve Birchall: I know him when we were both in graduate school at the University of Cincinnati, and he ran off to play with your group. He played some of my pieces, and those were among the best performances of my music anyone has given me.

Frank Zappa: He's a great musician, no doubt about it. He was a little bit out of place in our band because he was so skilled. There were very few really skilled musicians in that group of early Mothers. Most of them were just rock 'n' roll guys and Art pretty much outclassed them. He definitely knew about things in the musical world that Jimmy Carl Black and Roy Estrada had never considered before.

That was one of the charms of that old group. . .there was such a contrast in the personalities. Put a gut like Tripp up against a guy like Jimmy Carl Black, both playing drums at the same time, and you're talking about the war of the worlds.

I even used to play drums in that band. I have some tapes of a couple of concerts at the Fillmore East where Art and I play drum duets. I would play on Jimmy Carl Black's set, and sometimes I would play on Art's set. Jimmy Carl Black would just keep time and I would rumble around.

Steve Birchall: How did it go over? Did people like it?

Frank Zappa: Well, did people like any of the stuff that band played during those days? Some of them did, some of them didn't. They all scratched their heads over it and wondered why it was happening on stage, and why we weren't telling them to get high while we played swirling psychedelic whirlpools of minor chords for people to go to sleep to in a purple haze.

But there's really no percentage in doing that kind of a show anymore. You can't do it because there just aren't people who will listen. I notice how my kids listen to records, and they don't listen to the music. I mean, they hear it and then if they've seen the video, they already know what the thing's supposed to sound like. They make a snap decision about whether or not they like it, and the amount of involvement with the music as a composition is very small.

It's like they're saying, "OK, I've consumed it. Quick -- where's the next thing?" It's all over, it's gone. I remember the records I used to listen to when I was in school. I played them till you could see through them. And I loved it just because it was music; I didn't care.

But I don't see the same type of consumer patterns today. The material the kids are listening to is disposable. It has no content, and it really doesn't mean anything. So probably it's not worthwhile for them to sit and gyrate over it anyway.

If they ever come in contact with any music that does have some depth, or something above and beyond the back beat on the Simmons snare and the hand claps and all that other cliched-to-death stuff, they won't know how to deal with it. It'll be dealt with the same as the disposable material.

And adding to the misery of the whole thing is the idea of video music as the approved modern way to consume music. It's not even music anymore -- you don't hear it, you see it. You can stand to look at it six times maybe before you've seen every cliche on the screen, and then it's useless.

The Screen Scene

Steve Birchall: Speaking of videos, what do you think about the possibility of distributing digital music on the cable TV systems?

Frank Zappa: Well, actually, I made a proposal and tried to raise some money to do that exact thing -- with a couple of extra wrinkles. I almost managed to do it, but the problem we came up against is the bit stream rate on the cable. It's too slow.

Steve Birchall: But if you can put it onto a VCR, why can't you put it through a cable channel?

Frank Zappa: It's a matter of quantity -- how much time. What are you going to do, just send it down the pike in real time?

Steve Birchall: Why not?

Frank Zappa: What I had proposed was a computerized data bank system. You could dial up a number to order a digital album, pay with your credit care, and you'd have it. Just plunk it onto your Sony PCM-F1 or whatever.

The system would have to operate faster than real time, otherwise you just couldn't distribute enough music. But the facilities to do that don't exist. To send an album down a wire in real time is possible, but that means everybody has to listen to the same thing at the same time, so it's just like radio.

Steve Birchall: It gets to be a matter of scheduling, but it's a way of distributing music and charging people.

Frank Zappa: So you send something down the line digitally, and it gets played back on little tiny speakers in a little tiny room where they can't turn it up enough to have it do anything with the volume, and then what have you got? You just reduce the hiss for everyone. You still have to squash the bandwidth to get it through all of that stuff, so it's really kind of preposterous.

See, if everybody in the country had a chance to listen to music on the monitor system we have in this studio, and could hear what things really are supposed to sound like, it would be a different story. But people get accustomed to what they hear it on -- and what they hear it on has been EQed to their taste. They turn the bass up, then turn the treble up, and it totally deforms anything that was originally on the record anyway.

Steve Birchall: True, but you have to give it a shot anyway.

Frank Zappa: Why? Teenagers have the answer: Everything goes all the way to the right -- all knobs -- all the way to the right. Otherwise they figure they're not getting quite enough mileage out of their system. I mean, you can't just leave those knobs alone.

Steve Birchall: You're not getting what you paid for unless you turn it up.

Frank Zappa: Right. You want to use as much electricity as you can. I like it when they put the loudness control on to boost the bass, then turn the bass up, and then turn the treble up. Oh boy! And then there are the people who will do that in conjunction with a dbx Disco Boom Box. I've actually used it on records. If you can control it, it's OK. Some people use them in concert on the bass.

Functional Disrepair

Steve Birchall: I had a malfunctioning dbx, a 122 noise reduction unit, and the effect I got out of it sounded so nice that I couldn't return it for repair until I finished the piece. I was just praying it wouldn't blow up before I finished. There's a short that develops between the compression and the expansion sides when a piece of dirt gets stuck in the switch. You get these enormous breathing and pumping effects with lots of hiss and sizzle.

Frank Zappa: You can do the same thing with a PDM, except it costs $7000. It's a gray box about this wide and about that high, made by Telefunken or EMT. They used to use them in disc cutting rooms. The compression, limiting, and expansion are all usable at the same time. And it's reall bulbous. It's a stereo device, so it sets the overall stereo level and it just stays there, compensating for level from side to side.

Steve Birchall: Well, this was free. Just a little piece of dirt in the switch was all it took.

Frank Zappa: I like compressor when you can use them for effect and make them breathe, except for the hiss that comes up afterwards. It's one of the things I always liked about the PDM: You can make things sound really bulbous. We have those little antique compressors down there; ever seen those before? Those gray things on the bottom are EMT compressors. They're like mono versions of a PDM with the same bulbous characteristics, including a bass boost.

We have some Scamp high range filters, low range filters, and de-essers. We also use Aphex compressors (they have a good expansions sound quality too). You learn to recognize what all the different flavors are, and eventually figure out the best place to apply them.

There's a device that's been around since the Ice Age. I've always hated it, but now I've learned to like it. It's a very standard compressor, made by UREI: the 1176. I've always hated it, because I couldn't hear it. Because of the feed-through on those things, apparently they're faster than anything else that I have in the studio.

Steve Birchall: Is it variable?

Frank Zappa: No, and the compression ratio starts at 4-to-1. We use them instead of de-essers on some things that are a real problem because they'll can an "s" and do a good job on it without changing the tone quality. It's been a big help. On the Thing-Fish album, we did a lot of the dialogue, and that's always a problem.

Steve Birchall: But that guitar solo I heard on the tape you just played -- what unbelievable sounds.

Frank Zappa: That was from the new rock 'n' roll album Them or Us. I used two different solos from live concerts. One was from a concert in Stuttgart and the other was from a concert at the Ritz recorded two years later. The rest of the sounds were added in the studio.

It's hard for me to play a solo in the studio, because there's nothing to inspire you. "While You Were Out," though, was done in the studio. It was just me and another guy sitting there playing against a drum track that was already recorded from another song. It can happen, but we rarely improvise in the studio. That's not one of my top priorities -- to sit around playing guitar into a tape recorder? Why? Who's going to listen to it?

Tools for Tunesmithing

The tone quality you heard on the guitar solos comes from the Dynaflanger. We had two different guitars with two different special EQ setups built into them. The first solo is on the Stratocaster that I normally use. It has an extremely high output that will cremate just about any amplifier. And it has two bands of parametric EQ that will increase the clipping and sustain to ridiculous levels. You can tune it to exactly the right feedback frequency on a run, so you can hold a note an it'll just lay there for a week.

The second solo, that one that was a little bit cleaner, was done on the Hendrix Strat before I had a problem with a loose circuit in it, so it's not so fuzzy. Both of those solos were processed through the Dynaflanger on a setting that examines the high-frequency decay and then triggers the effect from that. It makes that huffy, cheap kind of chewing gum sound. And the same effect was added to the bogus cello in the electronic version of "While You Were Out." I usually take those things out of the studio and put them in my guitar rack when I go on the road.

One thing that I have yet to do with it: I want to try to hook up the guitar and Dynaflanger with a pedal so I can control the output with my foot. Previously I've just been letting the thing either follow the envelope or run off the internal oscillator. I think you could get a "wa-wa" sound out of it that could be very interesting. You could take a pair of them and hook them up to a pedal so they both could be swept the same way.

Musical Notes

Steve Birchall: How do you like the music printing capability of the Synclavier? I see some nice-looking printouts lying around here.

Frank Zappa: What that thing can do is amazing. I used to love to write music with paper and pencil. I used to carry manuscript paper in my briefcase and I'd write on airplanes; I'd write in airports; I'd write in motels when I was on the road; I'd just write music all the time.

Steve Birchall: I did too.

Frank Zappa: I stopped carrying it around.

Steve Birchall: I got sick of it. I wanted to have friends.

Frank Zappa: The time and work of doing that just aren't worth it. Why bother? It's stupid.

Steve Birchall: The whole concept became stupid, particularly since no one wanted to play the music after I finished writing it anyway.

Frank Zappa: Yes -- and if they did play it, nobody would want to listen to it. And if they did by chance listen to it, they wouldn't hear it. You're talking about the single most useless thing an American can do: Write music. Unless you're writing a song to be a hit record or writing a jingle for a product, there's no reason for anybody in America to write music. It's useless. It's literally without function in this society. People should just stop doing it -- and stop teaching it.

Steve Birchall: Charles Ives decided that long ago.

Frank Zappa: I know Varese stopped for about 25 years, but toward the end of his life he wrote again. But he was on the last fringes of when it was possible, maybe useful, to write music for the American public.

Steve Birchall: Yes. In those days, you could still get it performed.

Frank Zappa: Not accurately. You can't get an accurate performance out of an American orchestra. I don't think anybody in America has heard an accurate performance of anything except dead people's music in the last 50 years -- because there's no money for rehearsal.

Touring and Television

Steve Birchall: I was thinking as I was driving over here: I've heard your group in more places than anybody else I can think of. Maybe it's because I've made it a point to go hear you.

Frank Zappa: Probably, but a lot of other groups have toured more than us. I stopped for two years, but I got fed up with the world of serious music. I mean, I was stupid. I actually thought something was going on.

Steve Birchall: There isn't.

Frank Zappa: Everybody has to find out for themselves and I'm glad I found out before it was too late.

Steve Birchall: Have you made videos?

Frank Zappa: I made one. Just to show you how far we've come, rock 'n' roll on television used to be when Don Kirshner's cameraman would take a picture of the lights. Remember that? You get the shot of the lights, and the camera pulls back to show the group. We've come so far since that time that it's unbelievable. Science is wonderful the way it's made life so perfect. And that's where you should end the interview.