Chris Michie – “Frank Zappa: You Call That Music?” (2003)

March 23, 2009 at 2:29 pm (Frank Zappa, Music, Reviews & Articles)

Part 2 of this long, extremely fascinating article on Zappa’s recording and mixing techniques, comes from the Feb. 1, 2003 issue of Mix magazine. Zappa was a pioneer in the recording field and this article gives great insight into that fact…


The story so far:


By the end of the 1970s, Frank Zappa had released 28 original albums (including seven two-LP releases), either by the Mothers of Invention or under his own name. Deeply distrustful of large record companies, Zappa had set up his own independent record label and, frustrated by the cost and logistical difficulties of scheduling lockouts in commercial studios, had constructed a state-of-the-art personal studio, the Utility Muffin Research Kitchen (UMRK). And to ensure the highest-quality live recordings, Zappa purchased the Beach Boys’ remote truck.

The refurbished truck, dubbed the UMRK Mobile, became an integral part of the touring organization and was used to record every show, as well as premix various instruments for the FOH and monitor engineers. “I might have 22 channels on the drums,” says Mark Pinske, then working as Zappa’s recording engineer in the truck and at UMRK. “I would take the combination of all of it and send, for instance, tom toms left and right back out to the house. We might take nine different stereo keyboards, and I would mix them all down to a stereo keyboard mix that could go back to the monitors onstage and back to the house mix. We found that we had a lot more control over the feedback and a lot fewer problems with the recordings, because we had the same sonic tone and the same path pretty much going to each of the locations. I had 85 noise gates in the truck, and we could pretty much control everything. I could hear problems — little buzzes or hums — and we could isolate the problems, and then I could treat them with some of the best outboard gear you could get and send it back to these guys, and it would be all spiced up. And, of course, you’re not going to get the kind of equalization that you have in a Neve console out of a little portable Midas board.”

With two Ampex MM1200s running at 30 ips, the operation soon required bulk shipments of tape to various points on the tour. “On the first three-month tour, we had 946 master tapes, if I remember correctly,” says Pinske. “A huge amount of master reels of tape. Normally, it would take about eight reels a show, overlapping them. A lot of times, we did these small theaters in America, so we would do double shows, and Frank had a habit of not repeating any of the songs from show to show. So we’d have pretty much different tunes through both shows.”




Having played about 825 concerts in the preceding 10 years, Zappa retired from touring in July 1982 and devoted his energies to new studio recordings and mixing the now-enormous backlog of live tapes. Bob Stone, formerly chief engineer at Larrabee, where he had mixed many of Casablanca’s disco hits, including Donna Summer’s “Last Dance,” joined the UMRK staff in 1980, and he and Pinske wound up tag-teaming on Zappa’s various remix projects. “Frank liked to work around the clock,” recalls Stone, “so we’d take shifts. I’d leave a setup for mixing on the console and leave any notes that needed to be done.” In fact, the surprise hit “Valley Girl” (from the 1982 Ship Arriving Too Late to Save a Drowning Witch album) was mixed while Zappa was asleep. “When he got up the next morning to check out what happened the night before,” Stone says, “he thought maybe one of the vocal raps might have been a little different, from a different track earlier in the tape. But I’d already tried that and knew it wouldn’t work. I demonstrated that to him, so we went back to what I had and moved on. That was about all the attention we gave it.”

“Valley Girl” became Zappa’s highest-charting single and, along with an out-of-court settlement with Warner Bros., provided funding for Zappa’s next recording adventure. In January 1983, Zappa and Pinske traveled to London to record the London Symphony Orchestra performing various “classical” pieces that Zappa had composed since 1968. Unable to secure a good concert hall for the recording date, Zappa wound up recording the 105-piece orchestra on a soundstage at Twickenham Film Studios, using about 40 prototype Crown PZM microphones (supplied by Ken Wahrenbrock) in unusual close-miking configurations. Another technical innovation was the use of Sony’s new PCM-3324 digital recorder, but neither the wide dynamic range of the digital medium nor the separation achieved through close miking could entirely save the performances. “I think we had about 1,000 edits,” Pinske recalls of the remix sessions. “We were counting them at one point — we got up to like 900 — and we decided that counting them was ridiculous. But [Zappa] could edit like nobody could. When I first started with him, I was afraid to pick up a razor blade. Now, I could put a breath into a vocal or take a breath out. I was just privileged to be able to have learned from somebody like that.”

Despite his dissatisfaction with the LSO’s performances, Zappa was extremely impressed by the apparently noiseless digital recording medium and wound up leasing and eventually owning two Sony PCM-3324s, as well as a Sony PCM1610 for 2-track mixdowns. From 1984 on, all of his new recordings, both in the studio and live, were in the digital medium.




Back at UMRK, Zappa, Pinske and Stone busied themselves with an array of recording and remix projects. With various lawsuits finally settled, Zappa had regained the masters for all of his LPs on the Warners-distributed Bizarre and DiscReet labels, along with the MGM/Verve master tapes of the early M.O.I. albums. Most of these records had long been out-of-print, and, as it turned out, several of the master tapes were unplayable and required considerable restoration work before the LPs could be reissued.

Fortunately, a Studer 2-inch 24-track had been included in the purchase of the Beach Boys’ truck. “That was a lot better 24-track, sonically, than the Ampex MM1200s,” says Pinske. “We made homemade guides so I could take the 12-track 1-inch tapes and play them on the bottom 12 tracks of the 24-track 2-inch head. It was a real meticulous thing: You couldn’t rewind them fast, because the tape would creep up and wouldn’t pack right. And, you could really only pass them through one time, because the guide system wasn’t all that great.” Over a three-month period, Pinske managed to transfer all of the various M.O.I. masters to digital and also created digital-clone safety copies.

The first Old Masters box set of M.O.I. LP reissues came out on Zappa’s Barking Pumpkin record label in April 1985; the seven vinyl discs included a Mystery Disc of outtakes and archival oddities. Two more nine-LP volumes were released in 1986 and 1987, the first of these also including a second Mystery Disc. Some of the albums were more or less unchanged transfers of the original album masters, but several had been completely remixed and, in some cases, had new bass and drum tracks added.




As Zappa wrote in his autobiography, “What qualified as an ‘acceptable drum sound’ on a 1950s recording seems laughable today,” and as technology advanced, he expended considerable time and energy on getting better-than-acceptable drum sounds, both live and in the studio. One of the benefits of owning the UMRK Mobile was that all road tapes were made on the same equipment and tape format, factors that allowed Zappa considerable latitude in editing among different shows. In order to ensure even more consistency, Pinske and drum tech John Goode developed a system to permanently mount microphones in Chad Wackerman’s drum kit. “We would try all kinds of different drum heads and all kinds of different microphones to get the absolute best drum sound we could get,” recalls Pinske. “So when we were done, we would have a really elaborate, great-sounding drum set. I think the ultimate drum sound that we ever had was on the Man from Utopia album [1983]. And Frank started really liking this really good drum sound and kind of wanted to start hearing it on just about everything. I was kind of upset about the fact that he wanted to replace the drums [on the older albums], because I had already gotten a pretty good drum sound out of even the mono recordings that were on the original tapes.”

In some cases, reassembling the original album proved impossible. “I always liked the Fillmore East – June 1971 album, because I laughed at that album a lot,” says Pinske. “But Frank couldn’t even remember where he got all of the edits from to put that together; he had edited that thing, silly. So when we tried to reconstruct that album, it was damn near impossible, because he couldn’t even remember where he got what cut from. So, we’d have to hunt around and say, ‘Jesus, where’s this next section?’ And sometimes, we just didn’t find them.”

Another problem with archival tapes was due to the different aging characteristics of the two tape stocks used for live recordings. “We cut a deal with Ampex to drop hundreds of rolls of tapes at different cities, like Chicago, New York, wherever,” says Pinske. “Well, Agfa started bidding for the business, and we started using Agfa 468. We switched in the middle of the tour, and when we got off of the tour, we started razor-blade editing a lot of the songs together from different shows, and you couldn’t even tell the difference in the cymbals across the edits. That’s what Frank liked about the consistency we did in the recording. Well, some of the tapes that we meant to mix for an album we didn’t get to mix, because we edited way more songs than we were able to have time to mix, so we put them in the tape vault. When we pulled them out a year later, the edits didn’t work. The cymbals would drop as much as 3 or 4 dB at the high frequencies when they went to the Ampex 456, and then when we went back to the Agfa tape, it would get bright again. This was very frustrating from an engineering standpoint. When I remixed the whole Baby Snakes movie [1983], we would have tapes that maybe the first 20 seconds would sound right, and then all of a sudden, it would get dull and everything would change. We’d have to strike the board and reset everything just to make the edit work. And you might strike the board maybe eight, 10, 12 times through one song, just to try to make the sonics match on edits that originally ran across like butter.”




These problems did not, of course, affect digital recordings. By 1984, Zappa not only had an all-digital setup at UMRK, but he had also started working on the Synclavier DMS, an all-digital sampling computer that allowed him to compose and reproduce music that would stump even the most capable human musician. Zappa’s first project with the device was an all-Synclavier rendition of chamber music by the obscure 18th-century Italian cellist — and possible ancestor — Francesco Zappa. More sophisticated Synclavier tracks showed up on The Perfect Stranger – Boulez Conducts Zappa, a 1984 recording by the Ensemble InterContemporain, and Synclavier tracks and samples also began to appear in Zappa’s band-based recordings.

At this point, Zappa’s recording universe was complete: He owned a state-of-the-art digital recording facility and the ultimate sampling synthesizer, both maintained by a skilled technical staff available around the clock; he had regained control of his back catalog; and also had access to a cadre of superb musicians who could play pretty much anything he put in front of them. Distribution of Zappa’s records continued to be problematic, but having paid all of the recording costs up front, he was in a position to demand exceptionally profitable royalty rates. “He would give the record company 15 percent,” recalls Pinske. “So Frank ended up making, in those days, like $2.25 off each record sold. And that was unheard of compared to somebody like Dylan, who would make 18 cents a copy. By having that kind of control, he was able to take more money in and not have to have all Platinum albums. Because he knew his music was off-the-wall enough and wouldn’t be played on the radio — that he couldn’t get that kind of volume — he set up his business accordingly. The bulk of his money still came from live performances — he got paid well for performing — and also, he sold a heck of a lot of memorabilia, whatever you could put in the mail: T-shirts, you name it.”




One segment of Zappa’s business, however, remained stubbornly unprofitable. Despite the apparent success of his “classical” outings — The Perfect Stranger had reached Number 7 on the Billboard Classical chart and also garnered a Grammy nomination — the costs associated with orchestral performances proved prohibitive. Exasperated by the world of “serious music,” Zappa returned to the road in July of 1984. Again, most of the 130 or so shows on the six-month 20th-Anniversary World Tour were recorded, this time in the 24-track digital format. At the end of the tour, Zappa again announced his retirement from the road, though he kept several bandmembers busy overdubbing on various current and archival projects and recording sample libraries for the Synclavier.

For the next three years, Zappa hunkered down at UMRK. Only one new band-based album appeared during this period — the 1985 Frank Zappa Meets the Mother of Prevention — and it seems likely that Zappa spent much of his time working with the Synclavier. In 1986, he released Jazz From Hell, which, apart from a live guitar solo from the 1982 tour, was entirely created on the Synclavier; the record was nominated for two 1987 Grammys, winning one for Best Rock Instrumental Performance.

Zappa was always interested in achieving the best quality possible on vinyl; for better fidelity, most of his LPs clocked in at less than 20 minutes per side, and his past experiences with inferior pressings, unauthorized MGM compilations and bootlegs made him extremely wary of sending out master tapes. Eventually, he went so far as to prepare metal parts for foreign pressings and would typically cut multiple lacquers for each release.

“I still have a collection of studio lacquers, because Frank had me pretty much do all of the mastering runs,” says Pinske. “We started doing a lot of mastering over at Capitol, and eventually, we ended up with a guy named John Matousek over at Hitsville, Motown. I would run down at two or three o’clock in the morning, we’d run off a lacquer, I’d bring it back up to the studio, and Frank and I would listen to it. Frank would say, ‘Okay, go down and have them take off one-half of a dB at 800 Hz.’ And I’d go down there, and most of the guys would laugh. One-half dB? Some of them didn’t even have one-half-dB increments. But we would do it. And Frank could hear the difference. I would even put the wrong one on, just to see whether or not he would hear the difference, and he would hear it right away.”




By the mid-’80s, it was clear that the CD format would soon overtake LPs and cassettes. But Zappa, whose distribution arrangements seemed to be in a constant state of flux, had only two CDs on the market: The Perfect Stranger on the Angel label and a live album from the 1984 tour, Does Humor Belong in Music?, released by EMI in Europe only. After making a deal with Rykodisc to reissue 24 albums on CD over a three-year period, Zappa again went back to the master tapes. According to Stone, “Frank’s concept was, if there’s a new gadget that might improve the sound or make a technical difference, he’d say, ‘Well, let’s try it. We’ll just remix it or remaster it with the new goody.’”

Not all of the new goodies proved useful. “Somebody once showed up with a box that was supposed to do something wonderful,” recalls Stone. “I’m not sure I can even remember, or should remember, who it was, but it had a bypass position, which was supposed to be direct. So I set up to A/B from our source and pointed out to him, ‘How come it sounds different in the bypass position?’ They couldn’t quite explain that one to me, so they went away.”

There were some hiccups in the CD-reissue program: Rykodisc inadvertently pressed from a wrong or truncated master tape and several excellent-sounding European CDs were replaced with obviously inferior versions. (The two most egregious examples, Tinsel Town Rebellion and You Are What You Is, have since been remastered by UMRK engineer Spencer Chrislu.)

By 1988, Zappa was itching to perform again and put together an 11-piece band for a projected six-month tour, Broadway the Hard Way. The tour unexpectedly ground to a halt due to personnel differences, but Zappa was able to salvage three live albums — two of them two-CD sets — from the 48-track digital tapes. And, as the tour got under way, he introduced his biggest project to date: the career-spanning You Can’t Do That on Stage Anymore series.

Though superficially straightforward, being nothing more or less than a record of Zappa’s various groups in performance captured over a 20-year period, the You Can’t Do That on Stage Anymore series incorporates a slew of mind-boggling edits and demonstrates a total mastery of sequencing — no trivial accomplishment in the context of 12 concert-length CDs. And, for the first few YCDTOSA volumes, matching ambiences from one track to the next required considerable skill. “Frank loved to edit things himself, like the multitracks,” says Stone, who is credited with engineering supervision for the entire YCDTOSA Series. “So he’d take the road tape 24-track and do brute-force edits from one show to another. Now, you can imagine the acoustic and sonic differences from a small club to an open field, not to mention the difference in performances. His idea of editing was to edit for musical accuracy. So it was my job at that point to transform those edits into something that sounded like a natural EQ change. We had some programmable equalizers that I could preprogram for different EQs, and sometimes I’d make the EQ changes on-the-fly as the thing was going. Some of it was done in the mix; some of it was done in the mastering. I ultimately got him away from editing the multitrack and developed a system where I could mix and match to an EQ or a venue.”

By the time Zappa and Stone worked their way through to YCDTOSA Volumes 5 and 6 (released in 1992), they were able to use Sonic Solutions, which allowed for more or less seamless edits between performances recorded as long as 17 years apart. Zappa also made extensive use of Sonic Solutions’ ambience-matching capabilities in his final Synclavier masterwork, Civilization Phaze III, which blended under-the-piano dialogs from the original Lumpy Gravy sessions with new characters and conversations recorded two decades later.




Zappa had been experiencing health problems for some time when, in late 1989, he discovered that he had advanced prostate cancer. Despite the rigors of chemotherapy and his steadily declining condition, Zappa continued to update and tweeze his catalog and, in addition to the YCDTOSA set, managed to prepare for release of at least another nine CD collections, including five two-CD sets. One of these projects resulted from a collaboration with the Ensemble Modern, an 18-piece cooperative of highly skilled classical musicians who sought Zappa out and demonstrated their commitment to perfecting a complete program of new and rearranged Zappa compositions. After extensive and grueling rehearsals, the finished 90-minute program was presented — through an innovative 6-channel surround P.A. — at the 1992 Frankfurt Festival and at other concert venues in Germany and Austria. A concert recording named The Yellow Shark was released only weeks before Zappa’s death in December 1993 and reached as high as Number 2 on Billboard’s Classical charts.

Zappa’s entire catalog (70 CD releases and counting) is available from Rykodisc and Zappa’s Barking Pumpkin label. Further, the Zappa Family Trust has recently established the Vaulternative label as a conduit for further releases from the massive archives. Of course, the sheer volume of Zappa’s output makes it difficult for all but the most determined (or obsessive) listeners to digest and appreciate his wide-ranging oeuvre. But, as implied at the beginning of this article, even those Mix readers who are indifferent to Zappa’s music cannot fail to be impressed by his technical expertise and dogged pursuit of sonic excellence. Even hardcore Zappa fans would admit that not every release is essential, but, as with any serious artist, unfinished sketches and imperfect realizations often illuminate the main body of work. Anyone with an interest in the recent tumultuous history of recording technology, a curious mind, tolerant housemates and enough time to spare should attempt to climb this Mount Everest of the critical-listening landscape.




Though Frank Zappa’s personal studio, Utility Muffin Research Kitchen, was a state-of-the-art facility throughout the 1980s, it was more or less mothballed after Zappa’s death. However, in 2002, the Zappa Family Trust decided to finance a complete refurbishment, including architectural changes.

“For the last eight years, nothing has been done in that room,” explains Dweezil Zappa, himself an accomplished musician. “The last major change to the studio was to accommodate the change of console from the Harrison to a Neve VR 62; that was in about 1990.” In fact, Dweezil tried using the studio during the 1990s but, unhappy with the sound of the control room, instead built a project studio in the vocal booth. “I had done some projects with that Neve, and there were always some things that seemed questionable,” recalls Dweezil. “I have some old Neve modules — 1073s and 1272s — and I like the old stuff. But for some reason, anything I did with that console and in the old room didn’t work out, so I didn’t feel confident with it. The monitoring were these giant JBL speakers, and I thought the room sounded a bit strange.”

The impetus to update the control room came from the Zappa family’s decision to continue releasing archival material on the recently formed Vaulternative label. (The first release, a two-CD volume that documents a 1976 live show in Sydney, Australia, became available in summer 2002.) “Our hands have been tied while the studio has been nonoperational,” explains Dweezil. “It’s only now that we’re going to be able to pick up the pace and deliver things that people have been asking for and also discover things we didn’t know existed.” One much-anticipated release will likely be a selection of live recordings by the so-called Petit Wazoo band, a 10-piece M.O.I. that played a score of dates in late 1972.

The acoustic redesign of the UMRK control room, a collaborative effort between Dweezil and Zappa’s wife Gail and Art Kelm, features a full 5.1 monitoring setup. Though only a couple of Frank Zappa’s mid-’70s records were mixed in the quadraphonic format, the composer specified a six-point surround P.A. system for the 1991 Yellow Shark concerts and would undoubtedly have remixed much of his catalog for surround had he lived. “We recently did a 5.1 project with one of the concerts from 1978 in New York at the Palladium,” notes Dweezil. “It was originally recorded by Joe Chicarelli, and we got in touch with him to do the 5.1 mix on it: We thought it would be fun for him to revisit the material all these years later. So that release effectively recreates the concert and adds so much depth to the music. 5.1 is a different format that works really well, I think, for Frank’s music, because there are so many textures involved and they’re constantly changing. It’s not necessarily the best format for all types of pop music, but it works for people whose music stands the test of repeat listening.” The 5.1 Palladium remixes in DTS are scheduled for a January 2003 release on Vaulternative.

To properly accommodate a 5.1 surround-monitoring system, the control room was expanded in the rear and a new machine room was added to house two digital Sony 3324s and various analog tape machines. “The ceiling is now much higher, and it’s a more open-sounding room,” notes Dweezil.

Another major change is that the analog Neve VR 60 has been replaced with a digital Sony DMX-R100. “I had been working with the Sony and found it to be a much better tool for me,” says Dweezil. New or remixed recordings will be stored in either a Euphonix R1 hard disk recorder or workstation-based Steinberg Nuendo. “The Synclavier we’re keeping because there are probably over 2,000 compositions in it in various stages of completion,” adds Dweezil. “Even though it’s an archaic setup, there’s nothing else we can use to get those things out. Ultimately, over time, we’re planning on making a sound effects library out of the samples that Frank made and trimmed himself.”

Though some of the original studio equipment has gone missing — Dweezil especially regrets losing track of the Pultec equalizers — the vintage mic collection is still choice. “There’s a nice collection of Neumanns: some M49s, some M50s, some U47s. I believe there’s one Telefunken U47,” notes Dweezil.

Staffing the newly revived facility will likely be on an as-needed basis. “I’m going to be the main engineer on my projects, and if there are other things that we decide to bring in, we will hire some other people we enjoy working with,” says Dweezil. “Vaultmeister” Joe Travers, whose full-time job is to identify the many hundreds of tapes in the vault, will no doubt be involved in some of the archiving. “As it relates to projects of Frank’s, it’ll most likely be the two of us,” says Dweezil. “I’ve also talked to other engineers, like Bob Clearmountain, and I’d like to get some other engineers’ takes on Frank’s music. I hope to do some high-end 5.1 or detailed audiophile special projects that involve great mixers. We’re also working on putting together some DVDs and finishing the Roxy and Elsewhere movie that Frank started to make. There’s all kinds of stuff in the vaults that Frank did on 2-track or in apartments. There’s easily another 30 years of releases — it’s that crazy.”


Chris Michie


Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: