DIGITAL AUDIO - Modern Music Is a
Rozmowa z Zappa prowadzona przez Steve'a Birchall'a
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
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."
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
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
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'
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.
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?
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
Birchall: Do you like the expanded dynamic range? Have you
found ways to make use of it creatively?
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.
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.
Birchall: Why haven't you put out anything on CD?
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.
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.
Birchall: I hope that changes. I was looking forward to
hearing the Orchestral Works on CD, but I guess I'll have to
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.
Birchall: How did Boulez respond to your music?
Zappa: Well, I guess he liked it -- he conducted it. I don't
suppose he has to conduct anything he doesn't like.
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.
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
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.
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.
Zappa: Yup. Me too.
Birchall: But now you are writing again.
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.
Birchall: How long ago did you write those pieces?
Zappa: Late '70s, early '80s.
Birchall: Listening to the Orchestral Works album, I really
was astonished at the imaginative sounds that were coming out of
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.
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
Birchall: But that's not adequate. It won't work -- not for
new music in manuscript.
Zappa: That's right. I said no, forget it.
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
Birchall: That was really generous of them.
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.
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."
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.
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.'"
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....
Birchall: Not even through all that hiss and distortion?
They probably thought it was just another bad sound reinforcement
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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."
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...
Music and Technical Techniques
Birchall: Would you say the most experimental music has been
in pop music, with all the stuff that's been going on in the
Zappa: No, I wouldn't say it's experimental. Timbrally,
maybe it's experimental.
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?
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.
Birchall: But you've stepped outside the boundaries more
than most -- had have been fairly successful at it.
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.
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
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.
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
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.
Birchall: Did you multi-mike it?
Zappa: It was a multi-track recording using about 60 inputs.
Of course, about 20 were for the drum set alone.
Birchall: Did you put them on the floor, or overhead?
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.
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.
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.
Birchall: That's a real, practical problem that nobody has
given much attention to.
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.
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
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.
Birchall: That's what stops progress.
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.
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.
Zappa: That's right. Just like the movie business.
Birchall: Young artists don't have a chance.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Birchall: You've done a lot of razor blade editing on
digital tapes -- two thousand splices on one hour of tape.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Birchall: This is what they say is so great about electronic
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.
Birchall: What type of material are you working on?
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.
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.
Birchall: What is his music like?
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.
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.
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.
Zappa: Well, it's hard for me to take all that crap
Birchall: You're a keen observer. You find those things and
you point them out.
Zappa: But nobody wants to look at it when you point it out.
Birchall: What about "Valley Girl"?
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.
Birchall: "Sheik Yerbouti" was another one. You
took the disco stuff and poked fun at it.
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.
Birchall: It's a continuous blur -- you can't tell when one
song ends and the next one starts.
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.
Birchall: How do you approach a mixdown, once you've laid
down all your tracks?
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.
Birchall: So you've really conceived the mix before you
start to lay down tracks?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Birchall: That kind of flexibility is wonderful because
inventing your own kind of acoustic space is a lot of fun.
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.
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
Birchall: It becomes part of the creative process as well.
It's part of the composition.
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.
Birchall: Absolutely. But often, people want to argue
strenuously against the use of technology in a composition.
Zappa: Well, they're ignorant -- totally ignorant.
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.
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.
Birchall: Do you make much use of the small rooms?
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.
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.
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.
Birchall: Why do you do that? Wouldn't more variety be more
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.
Birchall: Yes, that's pointless. You could do it for a
reason, but generally it's pointless.
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.
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.
on a Demonstration
Birchall: Let's hope they use the right tape this time! Do
you also use the Fairlight?
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.
Birchall: It seems to be. It sure fooled me for a while.
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.
Birchall: Synthesized from scratch -- I completely
misunderstood what I was hearing.
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.
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.
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
Birchall: What kinds of signal processing did you use to
reconstitute the old Verve tapes you're about to reissue as a
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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...
Birchall: I heard an amazing demonstration yesterday
Zappa: Oh, you mean the Caruso tapes? Well that's a real
complicated deal. It's quite a trick removing an orchestra from a
Birchall: One thing I wanted to ask you: Whatever happened
to Art Tripp? Do you remember him?
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.
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.
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
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.
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
Birchall: How did it go over? Did people like it?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Birchall: Speaking of videos, what do you think about the
possibility of distributing digital music on the cable TV
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.
Birchall: But if you can put it onto a VCR, why can't you
put it through a cable channel?
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?
Birchall: Why not?
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.
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.
Birchall: It gets to be a matter of scheduling, but it's a
way of distributing music and charging people.
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.
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.
Birchall: True, but you have to give it a shot anyway.
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
Birchall: You're not getting what you paid for unless you
turn it up.
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
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
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.
Birchall: Well, this was free. Just a little piece of dirt
in the switch was all it took.
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.
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
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
Birchall: Is it variable?
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.
Birchall: But that guitar solo I heard on the tape you just
played -- what unbelievable sounds.
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
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
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.
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
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.
Birchall: How do you like the music printing capability of
the Synclavier? I see some nice-looking printouts lying around
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.
Birchall: I did too.
Zappa: I stopped carrying it around.
Birchall: I got sick of it. I wanted to have friends.
Zappa: The time and work of doing that just aren't worth it.
Why bother? It's stupid.
Birchall: The whole concept became stupid, particularly
since no one wanted to play the music after I finished writing it
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.
Birchall: Charles Ives decided that long ago.
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.
Birchall: Yes. In those days, you could still get it
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
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.
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.
Birchall: There isn't.
Zappa: Everybody has to find out for themselves and I'm glad
I found out before it was too late.
Birchall: Have you made videos?
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.