Album Interview - Jazz From Hell

By Tony Bacon (?)

Making Music, January 1987

Frank Zappa
Jazz From Hell


Seems like Frank Zappa'salways been a workaholic. Back in the days of analogue, he'd rack up hours of tape, only a fraction of which would ever see release. And now, with his new-found love of the digital Synclavier music production system, he already estimates to have 10 albums' worth of material whizzing around on computer disc.

Frank was even busy working when we rang him at 4am (Los Angeles time) to find out about his new "Jazz From Hell" LP. Seven of its eight tracks are entirely Synclavier based. He told us he originally bought a $30,000 basic system, but was unhappy at its merely mono sampling capacity. So when the stereo option came along, he invested a whole lot more, and now estimates to have about $365,000 worth of Synclavier equipment. He must be convinced.

"Yeah, I am convinced," Zappa drawled at the end of the phone, with what passes for enthusiasm in Los Angeles. "I happen to like the machine an awful lot. The only problem is that I still don't have a full bore machine – you could spend twice what I have, maybe three times that much, to get every piece of equipment that the company offers to go on the machine. The only person that I know who's got the full house is Michael Jackson."

No wonder, at those prices. Poor old Frank moans most of the cost of memory. "Synclavier's prices are very steep for the RAM, which is the memory that actually executes the samples – they're charging approximately $4000 per megabyte of RAM. Unbelievable. So I've got a 24 megabyte system. The megabyte figure is the capacity of sampling – the amount of RAM storage determines how ornate your orchestrations can be, how many different types of sound you can have co-board the machine at one time. So with that amount of RAM, I could have a few sets of fairly complicated sounds going: a grand piano, say, with notes of long duration, a drum set, and a whole bunch of other sounds, with less complicated things you could have more sounds co-board."

"Jazz From Hell" is the third Synclavier-based album Zappa's released, the others being the rockish "Mothers Of Prevention", and the classical "Francesco Zappa (1763-1788)". He's "looking into the possibility" of using a combination of Synclavier and live musicians, but will continue Synclavier-only projects as well. "Most of the things I'm working on right now with the Synclavier are like contemporary chamber music," explains Frank, "they're not necessarily rhythmic pieces, or pieces that would fit in with rock'n'roll." Some of those 'classical' pieces may come out on Angel Records ( a subsidiary of EMI) if negotiations currently underway reach fruition.

Frank doesn't consider the Synclavier as a piece of equipment that will oust all his other hardware. "Even though its co-board sequencing is powerful, you eventually transfer to tape because, although it is theoretically possible to use the Synclavier as your multitrack, what you miss is the use of all the outboard gear, the effects and delays and staff. I suppose if you wanted a specific echo sound you could sample it with that echo on, but obviously that would limit the possibilities." And limiting possibilities has never seemed Zappa's style.