At Home In His Kitchen

By Jeff Burger

Sound Engineer and Producer, April 1987

Frank Zappa needs no introduction as a musician and composer, and of the 50 plus albums to his credit, all but the first two have been self-produced.

His home studio UMRK (Ultimate Muffin Research Kitchen), equipped with a Harrison 4832 desk and two 24-track digital machines, is his base of operations. While the multi-tracks have never been called upon for a 48-track mix, they come in handy for editing and transfers.

Zappa also finds two machines useful for relocating an individual track in time (such as bass) while preserving quality in the digital domain. "You do a digital dupe of all 24 tracks from one machine to another using SMPTE, except that you don't transfer the bass track," he explains.

"Then you get a SMPTE offset number that moves the bass forward in time and a second pass, D-to-D, where the bass is relocated earlier than in the original mix.

"You can also do a D-to-D transfer and move the rear wall of a building closer to the stage to give you a tighter sound by relocatng an audience track."

Zappa has tailored his equipment to deal with every conceivable aspect of live recording. In 1982 he added a 27-foot live remote truck to the entourage with 100 inputs, two 24-track analog machines and a third 24-track as a back-up. "You can't always have the best possible results when you're recordng under commando conditions, but the trade off is that human beings are relatively inconsistent and unpredictable.

"I have found through the years that bands I took on tour did their most spectacular work in places that nobody has ever heard of, for concerts that nobody saw. Most people record at Madison Square Garden or some big major city venue, and the group doesn't always do the best it can because there's a certain amount of nervousness."

At UMRK, mastering is performed using Sony PCM 1630 and PCM 1610 digital encoders with a Sony three-quarter inch video machine for storage. A quad compressor from an SSL board has been extracted and built into a separate box which Zappa uses for buss compression, often processing the entire mix with it. Because Zappa's music is now released on his own Barking Pumpkin label (distributed by Capitol), the audio is scrutinised all the way to vinyl and CD.

Constant adjustments take place. "A mixed song, cut number two, may sound good alone but may sound awkward between cut number one and cut number three. In order to carry the momentum of the side along, you may want to change the equalisation or even the level of the whole mix in order to make it fit in with what's on either side of it.

"I try to keep the sides to 18 minutes because that's the way you get your best print level on the vinyl. The longer the side, the lower the cutting level and the more vinyl noise. So if you're dealing with material with a lot of transient information, wide phase swings or a lot of heavy bass, it creates grooves in the vinyl which are wide and deep.

"Once you start turning your overall disk level down, all the manufacturing idiosyncrasies of vinyl start showing up and it gets in the way of the music. With orchestral music you can have a 27-minute side.

"Another problem is inner-groove distortion. The inside of the record turns at a slower speed than the outside, which means that your top end suffers. And if you have a lot of high energy, top-end information on the last song on the side, your big song is going to sound like shit. You're usually better off to put quieter, less dynamic things on the inside of the record. You don't have that problem in CD, but you've got to think about those things if you're going to come out first in black vinyl.

"One other thing to consider is the phase relationship between the things in the mix. It's not as critical in the upper frequencies. A certain amount of out-of-phase information is what gives you the stereo sensation. It's the mechanical problem of cutting low frequency out of phase.

"When a cutting lathe sees out of phase information it just doesn't want to know. That creates grooves which get real fat, then they get real skinny and disappear. That makes the needles squirt out of the groove and look for another place to land.

"In order to get that great sound on a record, there are some compromises involved. One of them is to use a low-frequency crossover. During disk cutting it takes all the bass information below a certain frequency and dumps it back into the centre in order to help the cutting stylus to create a better groove. But the great bass sound is now mono. Other parts of your mix will suffer, too. They'll be more into the centre. You won't be able to get the sound you like from the tape on to the the disk unless there are other compromises.

"For example, they can spread the grooves out more to compensate for that out of phase-ness, but you just ate up a huge amount of disk space. It means that you may have to reduce the entire level of one side of your album to accommodate the song with the out of phase bass.

"So what happens to side two? If side two is cut at any level lighter than the side that was cut soft, it sounds weird when you flip the album over. So you have to reduce the level of the other side to match, so the whole album has got one level."

Despite these problems, Zappa tries to record as many tracks as possible in stereo pairs including stereo kick drum. "You can have one mic close to the beater to give you the tack sound of a kick and another could be slightly outside the head to give you the boom.

"The basic rule is that no single miking technique is best for every situation. A lot of times we'll take instruments direct and then run them back into amps in the room or a Leslie in the iso booth. A bass guitar we take DI on to the tape. Or we'll take different types of instruments and use different echo procedures.

"We have three live chambers plus two Lexicons, so we can build any kind of space. A lot of those decisions are made at the time of the mixing rather than at the time of laying down the instrument. We try to get the most trouble-free recording and leave ourselves enough latitude so that we can mix it in whatever style we want to once it's on tape."

Zappa recently co-produced son Dweezil's debut LP with engineer Bob Stone. The team went after a straight rock-going-on-metal sound: "The way I see it, his record needed to sound as much like that style of music as possible. It's a very basic album. He was out to get a good guitar sound, a good rhythm section sound, good vocal sound.

"There are no synthesiser overdubs, he just wanted to have something that he could go out and play with two other guys."

Stone says: "There was no direct intent to take it in a particular direction away from Frank's sound. The recording set up was neutral enough. He was left with a lot of options in terms of ambience, space and EQ parameters.

"We recorded the drums sitting in the middle of a room, which is a medium area, it's not as live as the drum booth. In the drum booth we tend to get a real fast return, especially on overhead mics ... and if you mic too close, you can't get an overall spectrum."

In all, 21 channels were used just for drums – one inside each drum, stereo snare, stereo kick, five individual cymbals and a pair behind and above the drummer. Stone typically uses 452s for the toms, 414s for cymbals and KM84s for snare: K88s, 414s and C-24s were used for vocals.

The monster drum sound doesn't thrill Zappa. "I've had all kinds of monster drum concepts in my time. I've got some tapes of my attempt to build a mega tom-tom sound, for which I used those EMT limiters which happen to have a 100 cycle boost built into them. So you squash the tom, use the 60 cycle boost in the EMT and then gate it so you don't wind up with all the residual noise. When the guy hits the drum it goes boom.

When mixing, Zappa tends to visualise everything on the black screen that spans the room above the console. "I look up there and that's a whole universe. Once music starts coming out of it, I see a picture of what it is. I see the apparent size of the different instruments, and it's easy for me to visualise music coming out of there. When you're doing a stereo mix, you're building a landscape.

Several techniques are used in realising what Zappa calls a 'back-to-front' mix. "The lead always gets the dry. The way a microphone functions, it's not only listening to air molecules moving and the musical data, but it's also telling you how close it is to the object.

"You don't really want to have the lead vocalist swimming in a bunch of echo, because he's going to have trouble struggling his way out of the mix. If you're doing harmony background vocals, it helps them to take their realistic position in the mix.

"If an instrument is playing the melody and there's a solo, you reduce the amount of ambience, and that tends to move the instrument toward the front of the screen. Another thing that makes instruments move toward the front is the top-end component of the sound.

"Say you have five or six horns that are playing together, you're going to sometimes experience problems if you're miking each one individually and expect to rebalance, the parts in the mix. It doesn't sound as good as stereo miking the result of the air molecules in the room responding to an ensemble playing a harmony."

Reverb from a live chamber is often used, despite today's advancing digital reverb technology. "If you have real transient percussion sounds like out of the Synclavier and you run them through the digital reverbs – especially some of the long room settings – they don't sound right.

"A lot of times I'll run them through a live chamber and if it isn't deep enough, you may want to delay the return or send to the chamber to make the space sound farther back. We mix and match all the time. I first got digital reverb when I was doing the London Symphony album.

"I was putting different echo programs on different parts of the orchestra and even changing the overall program from section to section in the music in order to give different moods to the different parts of the orchestra. That's fairly heretical from a normal classical and engineering standpoint, but then so is 24 track digital recording."

Zappa's latest release, Jazz From Hell, is appropriately named and, with the exception of one cut, was realised entirely on the New England Digital Synclavier. Zappa's version sports 56 voices, 24 meg of RAM, two 80-meg Winchesters and a 20-meg Winchester. The system allows him to interactively compose and orchestrate while working with notation right on the screen largely making hand-written charts a thing of the past.

Zappa is not comfortable with the way that guitar synthesisers force guitarists to change their playing style. Not being a keyboard player, Zappa often uses the Synclavier G Page to type music into the system, however Roland Octapads are often used to input rythmic passages.

"My first instrument was drums, so I can enter stuff on these pads like a buzz roll. Ever try to do a buzz roll on a keyboard? The funny thing is, when you're playing those pads with a drumstick, you can use it for things that are not drumlike in nature. We have some short clarinet samples in the machine, so if you're playing buzz rolls on the pads, you're getting triple and quadruple tonguing on a clarinet."

Sampling plays an important role in Jazz From Hell, especially in the percussion department. Nail guns, vacuum tank releases, real drum sounds and wine glasses are just some of the unconventional sounds which were recorded to digital two-track before being transferred into the Synclavier where they are edited and catalogued.

"In some instances it went to the multitrack. Like with the sax samples that we took, we set up four mics – two in the white room out in the back, which is very ambient, and a stereo pair in the drier part of the studio. So there's the saxophone exact and close on the microphone, plus there's this roomy, lonely sax sample. It saves time."

One of Zappa's ongoing projects is his Old Masters series, which involves repackaging his early albums into five boxed sets, thus re-releasing his entire catalogue.

Modern technology was used wherever possible to refurbish the original tracks while being digitally re-mastered with the PCM gear. "I took the two-track masters, recued them and ran them through the Barcus-Berry 802 to time-align the high frequencies. This changes the phase relationship between the high frequency component and the fundamentals. It especially improves the sound of old recordings, because it's not like adding top end EQ to it. Suddenly, the image gets better, the apparent top is there, and it sounds cleaner."

Several older albums required even more extensive digital doctoring. "The original masters had been stored in such a way that they were unusable. The oxide had actually flaked off the back you could see through the tape! I thought, let's see what happens if we put brand new, digitally recorded bass and drums on digital transient information with all of the rest of the original parts. I actually prefer them to the originals."

Being the artist, producer and record company has its advantages as well as drawbacks. "You have to think different ways to do different jobs. I would hate to have to think like a business man while I'm operating the Synclavier, and I would hate to have to think like a composer when I'm out doing business. You learn to make the distinction.

"It is possible to think about production when you're writing a piece, because if you know where the album is going to be executed, if you know what you have to work and what your audio possibilities are, you can have all of that in the back of your mind while you're composing.

Ever prolific, there never seems to be enough time and money for Zappa to release all of his compositions. "I have completed, mixed and edited albums that I have to figure out how and when to release. Being a cottage industry and self-financed, I can only, from the production end, manufacture a certain amount of objects per year.

"There may be a lot of stuff waiting to come out, but you can only spend the money to cover and press a certain amount – maybe 50 per cent, being generous.

"I have an audience for what I do and I service that audience. If that tends to be at odds with the person that buys a Billy Idol record – good! I'm not in that market place. There's no reason for me to conform to anybody's pre-conceived notion of normal marketing.

"I have a licence to do whatever I want, and I have paid for that with two decades of bullshit that I've had to put up with and survive. That survival is to the benefit of the people who consume what I do.

"I've managed to stay in business and make a profit doing what a lot of people regard as ugly or literally impossible to sell. That is an attitude based in ignorance, rather than fact. Most of the people who are not fond of what I do would be horrified to find out how many people actually do love it. When I'm working I don't think here's a good one for the market. I think, this will surprise them."