Ed Mann

By Rick Mattingly

Modern Drummer, January 1990

It's intermission at a 1988 Frank Zappa concert. It's a rather long intermission, too, because Zappa has tables set up in the lobby where people can register to vote, so I take advantage of the time to go backstage and visit Ed Mann. Things are rather hectic in the band's dressing room, where a 60 Minutes film crew is gathering footage of the band members and assorted wives and girlfriends, all of whom are doing their best to perform for the cameras in a fashion suitable to fulfill most people's ideas of how a touring rock 'n' roll band acts on the road. Ed and I retire to the hallway outside, where we engage in some very non-rock 'n' roll conversation about the rewards and responsibilities of parenthood. Suddenly, Ed looks at his watch and excuses himself. "I have to change disks before the next half," he explains, heading for the stage.

Change disks? Mann certainly didn't have to do anything like that the first time I saw him live with Zappa in '81. And yet, at the time, his percussion setup was very state-of-the-art by virtue of the fact that his mallet-keyboard instruments were fitted with pickups and he had a couple of Syndrums. Now, however, with the advent of MIDI, the setup has changed significantly to include a KAT, two Simmons Silicon Mallets, a sampler, and various other devices designed to give him access to the widest possible variety of sounds within the smallest amount of space. Not that the setup is any smaller, though, or that it doesn't include any acoustic instruments. Although the electronics have replaced instruments such as chimes and timpani, there is still an acoustic vibraphone, a rack of gongs, and a table full of shakers, ratchets, tambourines, duck calls – you name it.

And during the show, Ed is running around within his setup just as much as he ever did, but he's playing even more than he used to. He doesn't have to drop his mallets to grab a rawhide hammer when he wants to play chimes now; he plays them from the Silicon Mallet. But while he's doing that with one hand, he plays vibe chords with the other, or shakes a tambourine, or smacks a suspended crash cymbal. I don't know if Zappa is the kind of guy who pays extra for "doubling," but with Ed Mann, he's getting about three players' worth of percussion in one person.

"Technology has changed everything," Mann admits. "Look at timpani, for example. I had two acoustic timpani on the first Zappa tour I did in 1977, but I could only use them to play isolated parts of two or three notes, or to roll on the final holding chord of a tune. Plus, they took up a lot of room, and we could never get them miked properly. But now, with sampling, I can have timpani sounds spread out over a mallet keyboard, which means I never have to worry about tuning, and I can play fast, scalular runs that you could never do on a regular set of timpani. Plus, there are no miking problems. Everything just comes directly out of the speakers. To be able to use timpani this way is amazing.

"It's the same with chimes," Ed continues. "We carried chimes on every tour, but the pickups never really worked very well, and with microphones you don't get the real body of the sound. You get the attack, but then it dies away and gets lost in everything else that's happening on the stage. I sampled the chimes and all the other percussion instruments myself in a nice-sounding room using a Beyer M88 microphone into a Sony F-1 digital encoder. So now, whenever you hear the chimes, you hear the recording of them in that room, into the M88, etc. It makes for a very controlled sound."

When using sampled sounds over a large range, it is often necessary to make multiple samples of the original instrument; otherwise, notes that are a lot lower than the original note can sound overly stretched out, and notes that are higher can start sounding like "chipmunk" music. But Mann found that he could go pretty far with a single chime note. "I stretched one chime sample over a major tenth," he explains. "It sounded completely natural. I sampled the D above middle C, so it went down a whole step and up a major ninth. I originally sampled all of the notes on the instrument; I chose the D because it had the best attack, and it seemed to resonate the best in that room and with that mic'. It was simply the best overall sample, and it worked fine for the program where I needed a tenth. I did make an extended program that was three octaves, and for that I used two chime samples: the lowest note on the instrument and the highest.

"With some instruments you can only use one or two samples and it sounds fine,"' Ed says. "But with others you can't. With marimba, it starts to sound Squirrelly within about a fifth or sixth, so you have to resample. Drums often need multiple samples, too. But you never really know until you do it and listen back to hear the final result. Your ear will tell you if it needs to be multi-sampled or if one is enough.

"Another interesting thing about the chimes," Mann adds, "is that the samples I used were not made by using a regular rawhide chime mallet, but with a piece of wood. For some reason, by the time the sound came out of the sampler and was reproduced the way we reproduced it, that sounded more natural than the samples we made with the real chime mallet. The one with the rawhide mallet was too harsh; I think it was too much for the microphone or the room. It just didn't sound the same when it came back out of the sampler as it did to my ear when I hit it in the room. When I struck it with a piece of wood, you could hear a lot more of the fundamental, and it sounded more like a real chime. I've used that sample a lot with Frank and on other recording projects, and people always marvel at that sound. It was just a fluke. When you're making samples, occasionally you get those great ones, and sometimes you get one that just doesn't come out as well as you thought it would. There are so many factors involved that it's hard to know why that happens."

Besides the advantages of using samples for instruments such as chimes and timpani, technology also allowed Mann to have sounds that were previously unavailable or impractical. "Before," Ed says, "I could never have used something like Tibetan prayer bowls and gotten them to project over an ensemble. But with sampling, all of a sudden they're like big, loud bells. And one sound was a bunch of garbage cans. There was no way we could have had a rack full of garbage cans on stage. We didn't have room, and miking would have been a big problem. Or tabla – there was no way I could have thrown the mallets down, run over, picked up the tabla for a quick lick, thrown them down, and run back to play something else. But I was able to do all of these things from one pair of mallets. I had programs where a small portion of the keyboard was allotted to tabla, another part was chimes, another part was woodblocks and batterie-type percussion, not lose your point of view. Know the reason you play percussion to begin with, and what you can bring to that group of sounds from your experience. It's not just the sounds of percussion, it's also knowing how those sounds fit orchestrationally. Ultimately, you come up with something different than the average keyboard player would, the same way that a keyboard player would come up with better keyboard parts, because he's trained to think a certain way. So it's good to take advantage of the technology, but it's important not to lose yourself behind sounds that have become popular. If percussionists lost their identities trying to emulate another instrumental group, that would be an unfortunate side effect of the economic factors that affect musicians.

"I almost got caught up in that myself at one point," Ed admits. "There was a period of time where I only wanted to play electronics. But I reached a period of saturation with it, and now one of my favorite things to do is play acoustic marimba. After working with electronics a lot, you learn the freedom they give you, but you also learn the limitations they have. They don't have the same dynamic range, they don't have the same timbral qualities, and they are not nearly as expressive. You might be able to boost the overall volume of an electronic mallet instrument to the point where it's louder than an acoustic marimba, but relatively speaking, the acoustic instrument hasawider dynamic range. I don't think you could ever graph it out and say, 'Well, here it is. These are the limits.' Within the realm of MIDI instruments, there are generally 128 programmable steps that can be assigned to a given parameter such as velocity response. While that might sound like a lot, it's really not when compared to the dynamic range of most acoustic instruments – especially percussion instruments."

That's one of the reasons that a lot of percussionists refuse to get involved with electronic technology at all. And yet, considering all of the people who have tried to find practical ways to attach pickups to vibes and marimbas over the years so that they could participate in contemporary rock and jazz settings, it is surprising that instruments such as the KAT mallet controller and the Simmons Silicon Mallet have only enjoyed modest sales thus far. "Don't ask me why," Ed says, shaking his head. "I'm baffled by it. You would think that players would be eager to be able to address all the new sounds that are at their fingertips – or mallet-tips, rather. Of course, when these instruments were first introduced, they and I could just stand there and get to all of it. Normally, it would have taken a couple of people to do that much.

"The bottom line of all this technology," Ed concludes, "is that my role as a percussionist changed. Before, I only had four melodic timbres: vibes, marimba, xylophone, and orchestra bells. Now, I have all kinds of samples of my own, plus I was MIDIed into Frank's Synclavier, and he has a whole world of samples. So my role changed in terms of orchestration. I wasn't just doing things that a traditional percussionist did; all of a sudden it was the percussionist's job to play a harp lick. And then there were these vocal samples – anything from [guitarist/vocalist] Ike Willis screaming like Sam Kinison to the Wicked Witch saying '...and your little dog, too.' These sounds would just come out of nowhere during the show. As the percussionist, I wound up triggering all these things, even though a lot of people on stage had MIDI. The keyboard players could have triggered the vocal samples; in fact, at one point I tried to get them to do it because I was running out of memory on my sampler.

But they looked at me like I was crazy. 'We can't do that. We're keyboard players. You're the percussionist. You do it.'

"And actually they were right," Ed concedes. "Even though MIDI is available to everybody, it's right for the percussionist to play the tabla part because he knows how it should go. And it's also right for the percussionist to trigger the weird sound effects. When Wagner needed someone to hit an anvil, he didn't give it to the clarinet player; the percussionist did it. So triggering vocal samples kind of fell in line with the ever-expanding role that percussionists are here to fill."

Discussing the percussionist's role can be a sensitive subject – especially among percussionists themselves. Many musicians see percussionists as "auxiliary" players who, at best, add a little color, and at worst, make everything sound like Spike Jones. As a result, many percussionists become overly defensive about their function. And in this age of MIDI, it has led some mallet players to completely abandon traditional percussive timbres and focus on synthesizer sounds that make their mallet instruments sound like keyboards.

Ed is well aware of this problem. "At times," he says, "I've felt that perception in other people's minds. It's a misperception, but if that's all they think a percussionist is there to do, then they don't bother to include you in their music because they think, 'Well, that's cute, but I don't need it.' We saw it happen in the late '70s and early '80s, when money was tight and bands were being trimmed down. The first guy to go was the percussionist, because that was always the thing people thought they could get along without.

"If playing percussion is what you depend on for your livelihood, you start to get nervous about it," Ed says. "So when something like MIDI comes along and you have the opportunity to address the same sounds as the guys who are working a lot – the keyboard players – then it's natural to want to be included in that group. 'See, I can make those sounds, too.' But if you go into it head over heels and take that on as your new identity, you leave everything behind that is special about being a percussionist. You end up becoming part of a generic group of musicians who all use the same sounds, and there's nothing very special about that.

"So it's important to have some perspective on where you're coming from, and even though you're using this new technology, were prohibitive financially. Since then they have come down in price, so now it's probably easier for people to afford. But I have talked with people who are very reluctant to get involved with it. I guess the only thing you can say is that they are purists who are not willing to dilute the art form in any way. And that's their right. There certainly is nothing that is going to replace the acoustic vibraphone. Nothing is going to replace a marimba. And there's nothing that's going to replace a sampler. They are just different instruments. One doesn't X-out the other. They both should work together, and that's how you achieve the most dramatic range of sound available. It's just part of the total picture.

"Some people may be intimidated by the technological aspect of it," Ed considers. "They might be afraid that they will have to spend most of their time twisting knobs and crunching numbers, and not actually playing the instrument. That can be true. I've gone through periods where I've added up my time at the end of the week, and 80% of it was programming and only 20% was playing. As a result, my playing would take a temporary nosedive –  or at least I didn't move ahead. And that's not good; if you're a player you don't want to sacrifice that and become dependent on sequencers and that kind of thing. But I haven't found it to be a permanent limitation because ultimately it opens my ears to new things. By being able to address different timbres I wind up playing differently, and I see that as part of the growth cycle.

"But that's just me," Ed says. "Other people may feel differently about it, and they have every right to do what they want. I would hope that enough players latch on so that the manufacturers are motivated to keep making these instruments, because if sales aren't good enough, then they won't. Many of the major electronics manufacturers are having a hard time these days. So we can be thankful for guys like Bill Katoski, who has this small, family-run business making KATs, and he's completely dedicated to the art of percussion controllers. Without guys like that, we'd really be in the dark. Hopefully this thing will eventually catch on, and someday you'll be able to go out and buy a mallet controller as easily as you can buy a keyboard instrument.

"You know," Ed muses, "a lot of percussionists are probably shocked that technology ever arrived at their door. I mean, look at the vibraphone. Why doesn't anyone make a vibe that goes below F? If they would at least go down one note to E then you could play with guitarists and have that note in common. But they only make vibes that go from F to F because that was the original design and it will never change. So ten years ago, when keyboard players were suddenly getting all of these new sounds, percussionists probably thought, 'We'll never have all of this electronic stuff because manufacturers have never paid any attention to us anyway, so we'll concentrate on all of the acoustic instruments.' Now, when a couple of manufacturers do apply the technology to percussion, it takes a couple of years for people to get turned around and start thinking, 'Oh, the stuff is here for us. We can use it."'

Ed Mann has certainly been one to use it, to the point of finding ways to adapt equipment to his needs in ways the manufacturers never thought of. For example, while preparing for the Zappa tour, he came across a device called The Mapper, made by Axxess Unlimited and marketed by Intelligent Music. Originally, the device was intended to do the kind of thing described above: allow Ed to divide his mallet keyboard into different areas, and have different types of instruments grouped on one keyboard. "The Mapper can do a lot of different things," Ed says. "In fact, I've heard it referred to as a Swiss army knife for MIDI. Besides dividing the keyboard into different sections, another way I used it was to build up chord voicings on individual notes. That way, I could be playing a slow vibraphone melody with one hand, and with the other hand I could play complex chords on the Silicon Mallet by just hitting one note. And the chords could be made up of synthesizer sounds combined with a single chime note from the sampler.

"But what is really novel is the switching system I worked out. After I had all of the MIDI program information organized, I still had to come up with a way to get from one group of sounds to another, or into the Synclavier, without having to drop the mallets and press a program number. So, using The Mapper, we came up with a system whereby I could step on a foot-pedal, and that would cutoff all sound and put the keyboard into switch mode. Middle C became the number 10, D became 20, and so on. As soon as I hit one of those, it changed again so that C became 1, D became 2, etc. What that meant was that if I wanted to go to, say, program 35,

I would step on the foot-pedal, hit E and then G, and the sounds would change from chimes, timpani, and woodblock, to strings, vocal samples, and tabla, or whatever. And it happened fast; I could hit the two notes almost as close together as you would play a flam, and it would change instantaneously.

"The guys at Intelligent Music were pretty amazed by that. They helped us – myself and the technicians, Bob Rice and Chuck Becker – work out the system when I told them what we wanted to do one night at a rehearsal. They didn't have to burn any new chips or anything; they just had to type some numbers into the program. You can write hexadecimal code into The Mapper, which allows for this kind of unorthodox programming."

Hearing Mann discuss electronics at this level, one might assume that he has some type of engineering background, or at least that he spent a lot of time learning about electronics in college. Not so. During his years as a student at CalArts, Ed spent major portions of his time studying the mridangam – the principal hand drum of South Indian classical (Karnatic) music. That's about as far from electronics as one can get.

"I really should get back into that," Ed laughs. "And I'm not sorry that I spent all of that time playing mridangam. It was time well spent. For a real all-around percussionist, it takes years to develop proficiency on all of the instruments. Electronics is just one aspect of it. Hand drums are another aspect, and they are really important, as are each of the aspects of percussion. To me they are all part of the same thing."

But for students entering college, certain decisions have to be made. Should they view college as a place to prepare for the real world? If so, then perhaps they should be taking courses in electronics and in how to record a jingle. Or should college be a place where you can forget about the real world for a few years and concentrate on the art? As we enter the '90s, would Mann encourage someone who wanted to pursue a course in hand drumming for four years, or would he encourage a more "modern" course of study?

"I don't know," he says, after a long pause. "The more years I spend teaching at CalArts and hanging around the college environment, the more I am completely confused by it. I don't know what the real purpose of college is. I suppose it depends on the individual. For me, the best part of going to college was being exposed to things I had never seen or heard before, and to be able to experiment in a safe – non-professional – environment. Also, it was necessary for me in terms of the fact that I didn't own a marimba or timpani or any of those instruments. So I needed to be in a place that gave me access to all of that stuff.

"On the other hand, plenty of people become accomplished players without going to college, so college is just one way of doing it. These days, it might be financially prohibitive; do you want to spend $50,000 for four years in a theoretical environment? Maybe not. Maybe you should just go out and start getting professional experience as soon as possible. But then again, maybe you are the type of person who needs three or four years of concentrated study before you can be ready to be professional. That varies from individual to individual.

"One thing I've noticed is that the nature of the percussion students I've seen is changing. Less and less are coming in as all-around, general players who are interested in getting into the whole thing. More and more are coming in as specialists. It's not just with music; in general, people seem to be deciding what specific career they want to pursue before they even enter college. It's an '80s thing.

"I don't know how accurate my perception of this is," Ed says. "I only see one very small group of students who come to one very esoteric arts school, and I'm only involved with the school peripherally. John Bergamo could probably provide more information about this. From what I've seen, he does his best to free the students of any preconceived ideas they may have about percussion playing and music in general, and eventually get them into musical situations they probably never dreamed of. That's pretty valuable if you can afford to do it – take some chances and delve into some new areas to help you decide what you like and what you don't like."

And perhaps that's the connection between mridangam and electronics. When Ed first came to CalArts, he was taught to be open to new possibilities, whatever they may be. "I had no idea what a mridangam was," he says, "or gamelan, or any of that stuff. It all kind of hit me right in the face. So yeah, that could be true. My mind was opened up to exploring all the possibilities. Compared to mridangam, electronics weren't all that mysterious. There were a lot of other people involved in it that you could talk to about it, and all of the instruments came with manuals."

Another mind-opening experience for Ed was his involvement in the CalArts percussion ensemble, which evolved into the Repercussion Unit – a group that has continued to this day. They released a critically-acclaimed album on CMP records in 1988, titled In Need Again, and have recently been in the studio preparing their next release. "We went to Germany in May and did four days of tracking," Ed explains. "Whereas In Need Again was made up of actual composed pieces, this one will consist of a different kind of material that we've been developing ever since we first played together. It's completely improvisational – not rehearsed, not arranged. Basically, everyone in the group decides what group of instruments he wants to play, and then we just play. And because we’ve done it so much, a lot of the stuff sounds really coherent, as though there is some kind of arrangement. We decided to do an album like this because we always wind up improvising together at rehearsals and taping it. Then, when we listen back, we always wish that it had been taped on a DAT or something, because it sounds like a composed piece.

"More and more, the members of the group are specializing in specific instruments that are distinctly different. Lucky Mosko is playing more and more piano. John Bergamo is playing more hand drums. Gregg Johnson is getting into singing and rapping as an extension of his use of junk and car springs and industrial by-products. I’m getting more into electronics and mallets. Larry Stein is sort of the Hal Blaine of the group; he plays a lot of rock ’n’ roll drumset and has been delving into guitar. Jim Hildebrandt likes to focus on steel drums. Combining six distinct individuals like this is much more interesting than having a bunch of guys all kind of doing the same thing."

In addition to the album, video projects are also in the works. "Video artist Toby Keeler and his assistant, Mark Mueller, went to Germany with us," Ed says, "and he taped everything from the setting up of instruments in the studio to the band delivering a stirring rendition of ’Stand By Your Man.’ Then we did a two-week concert tour and they taped that, too – the performances as well as the backstage antics. We ended up with about 40 hours of footage. Toby is going to edit it down into various formats: a four-minute video for VH-1 type stations, ten-minute mini-documentaries, and an hour-long documentary. It will probably take a year to complete the whole thing, but it should be an interesting project.

"At least we were able to document the band," Ed adds. "It's such a weird band that it would be a shame if it never got documented. I don't know of any other band doing the kind of stuff we do, or who have the kind of diversity that we have. For example, Lucky Mosko spends most of his time conducting ballet and opera in San Francisco and at the Aspen Music Festival, and he teaches composition part-time at Yale. And he's a member of the Repercussion Unit. He has an extensive awareness of contemporary music and compositional technique, and it comes into play. He'll come into rehearsal and start talking about some method that Stockhausen used to put together his compositions, and the next thing you know, we're doing the same thing. It's like going to school. Bergamo will come in with some hand drum that we didn't even know existed, and we'll start doing something around that. Or I'll come in with some new electronic gizmo, and that will set us off in a different direction. So it's a constantly evolving ball of wax that doesn't have any artistic limitations. Anything goes. For us, it's therapy as much as anything else. Also, because we've been doing this for so long, it's gotten to be kind of like an Elks Club, complete with a secret Lodge and all kinds of strange, ritualistic behavior."

Being that the Repercussion Unit is made up of such a unique group of individuals, and that much of their music is improvised, just how do they fit into the overall picture of percussion groups? Do they have any relevance to the typical college percussion ensemble? "Well," Ed answers, "there is a lot of music that John has written that we've played and that is published. And anyone who knows the Repercussion Unit knows that stuff. I have heard other percussion ensembles play it, and it's interesting because it never sounds anything like a Repercussion Unit performance. The order of pitches is about the same, but the phrasing and overall performance is nowhere near it. Not that it should be.

"The feedback we get is that when people hear us, they are not so much inspired to play the exact same music we play, but to experiment with different compositional forms and cross-pollinations of musical styles. They're inspired to take more chances and to get as much as possible out of percussion instruments, which is a huge amount. So in that sense, we do have an effect on other ensembles, just in the fact that we might inspire them to do something they've never thought of before.

"And that's the whole reason we started doing it anyway," Mann adds. "We wanted to carve out some new turf. So in that sense,

I think we are relevant. There are other ensembles that do things their own way. Nexus is a drastically different group than we are, but experimenting and exploring is a big part of what they do. Whenever I see Nexus play I'm inspired to hit on some new area that they've embodied in their performance.

"That’s the thing: Each musician or group is going to approach something in a unique way. You can often learn a lot just by watching how other people do things. Developing in your own way what you learn from others will ultimately result in something that is still unique to you."

Besides the new Repercussion Unit album, Ed has another current project that he is excited about: his first album as a leader, titled Get Up, also being released on CMP. It’s something that he’s thought about for a long time, but that he didn't want to do until he was sure of his own direction. "Since about the beginning of the ’80s," he says, "I've gone through a lot of trial and error basically finding out what I want my own music to be. What I've found is that I'm more concerned with content and continuity, rather than with music that is just a framework for a lot of solos.

"So during that period of time I would get people together and play, and I was experimenting a lot with writing. I also became aware of African pop music, particularly Nigerian stuff. The music seemed to be very connected, and I liked the way the parts interacted rhythmically. It reminded me a lot of the experiences I'd had with Steve Reich's music and that type of thing. But it also had this real groove sensibility to it, and that's always been important to me. I grew up listening to Motown and Hendrix, and I still really like that music. It's real emotional stuff. So in my own music I like to combine some of that overall feeling with the interlocking rhythmic patterns and simple melodies that often form the basis of my tunes, rather than just feature a lot of chopsy playing. That's one reason why the solos on this record are minimal, and often from other members of the band rather than myself. To write all of the music and be the guy who always solos would have been musically unbalanced for this particular project.

"Another thing I wanted to do was have a band sound," Ed says. "I wanted to use the same guys on all of the tunes and record everything in the same place so that it would have an identifiable sound. Something special happens when you stick with the same guys and develop things together, as opposed to having different people on every tune, where you are constantly mixing and matching various personalities. There can be a place for that, but I was interested in developing something with this particular group of players. I used guys that I've played with a lot in other situations. Chad Wackerman played drums, and we've probably played thousands of hours together in Frank's band, as well as having played together on the side. I had Walt Fowler on trumpet and flugelhorn, and Bruce Fowler on trombone, and again, we've played a lot together with Frank. And I worked with the guitarist, Mike Hoffman, and the bass player, Doug Lunn, in a band I had from '84 to '86 called Left, Right, Left. That's one place that I had the chance to do a lot of experimenting and develop my ideas. So by having this particular cast of characters and taking time to develop the material, I think we arrived at a real identifiable sound. I wanted music that is interesting to listen to, as opposed to music that is just impressive. And so far the feedback is that people enjoy listening to it."

Considering Mann's expertise with electronics and his knowledge of a variety of instruments, he could easily have made a true "solo" album and played – or programmed, as the case may be – all of the parts himself. But that was never a consideration. "Sure, I could have done that," he admits, "but I wanted the music to have an edge to it that you only get from having a band playing together. Plus, I can't play trombone. And even though I can play drums, I'm not going to play them the same way Chad Wackerman plays them. By having a band, you get a certain amount of interplay that happens because each person plays a little bit differently. In order to make all the pieces of the musical puzzle fit, the musicians have to find a way to work together, and you get a certain kind of tension and release. It's a special type of thing, and it's something that I definitely wouldn't have had if I had played all of the parts myself, from only my point of view.

"I really have to emphasize that it's one thing to have compositional ideas and kind of provide the direction, but the real reason that it winds up sounding the way it does is because of the players involved. They really bring it to life. You never realize it more until you compare a sequenced demo of a tune to the real thing. The only comparison is that the order of pitches and general rhythms are about the same. What really makes it a piece of listenable music is what the players put into it."

As one might expect, Mann plays a variety of percussion instruments on the album, and he incorporates a healthy share of electronic technology. And yet, his identity as a percussionist is always evident. Even with the synthesized sounds, there is always something unmistakably percussive about them. "That's why I do my own programming," Ed says. "I'm using the same synthesizers and samplers that everybody else in the world is using right now, so it's all in the programming. Again, it's important not to lose the identity of the person who's doing it. So being a percussionist, the things I come up with on these electronic gizmos should be as unique as the sounds I get on straight acoustic percussion. There should be something about the sound that says, 'That's a percussion patch. A percussionist came up with that from a percussionist's point of view.' A keyboard player probably would not come up with that, because he would be thinking a different way. It may be the same MIDI equipment, but it's the programming and designing of the sounds that make for the difference.

"I recently did a session for Mark Isham that illustrates this point perfectly. He wanted me to come in and play some simple ostinatos on the Silicon Mallet. I was originally curious as to why he had called me, because he is very involved in MIDI and electronics, and the parts were very simple, so I figured that he could easily have played it from his keyboard or computer. But he wanted both the sounds and the phrasing from a percussionist's point of view. That's what made it special, and I was happy that he called me to do it."

A good example of Ed's approach to creating sounds appears on his album on a cut titled "Shattered Illusion." One of the dominant sounds on that tune resembles a vibraphone, but there's more to it than that. "That sound on the front part of the tune was made by mixing a regular vibe sound with a sample of my son Alexander's little toy bells – those metal tubes that are in a pentatonic scale – that was combined with a sample of an air tube that I was swinging around in a circle. When I put them together, I got the attack of the bell and the breathiness of the air tube, which gave the vibes a different quality. Keyboard players are pretty intrigued when they hear this stuff, because they generally don't have samples of toy bells and swinging air tubes to work from. That is definitely a percussionist's domain. The electronics come in because normally you couldn't play chords and scales on an air tube, but with a sampler you can.

"That was a case where the sound inspired the tune," Ed comments. "That happens frequently. I'll put samples together and invent these sounds just for the sake of inventing them, or to go after something that I hear in my mind's ear. Then I'll look for the right music to play with that sound. It's an interesting way to compose, as opposed to coming up with the music and then trying to find the sounds that fit."

Electronics plays another role in Ed's composing, in that he takes advantage of his Macintosh computer. "It's simply a very esoteric notepad," he laughs. "I used to play ideas on marimba with a cassette recorder running. But then I had to transcribe it. Now, I play the Silicon Mallet, which is MIDIed into the Macintosh, and everything is recorded into the computer through an Opcode sequencing program. At any point I can hit Replay and hear one bar, two bars, the last bar, the whole thing backwards.... It's a fast, efficient way to review what you've done. In fact, a few years ago I thought I had writer's block, but it was just frustration from not being able to work with the material efficiently. As soon as I started working with the computer, I had access to the material so quickly that I could work without getting bogged down. I didn't get tired; in fact, it was exhilarating to be able to take what I wanted and get rid of what I didn't want without having to dig through piles of paper.

"So to me it's been a real positive thing. But I want to keep it in its place. I used it to write my book, The Essential Mallet Player, and I use it to print out parts. But once I've used it to compose, construct, and notate, that's it. I don't want to use it for performance. I'd rather give the basic parts to real players and have them bring their own interpretations to it. Why should I sit there and program every drum fill when I can give it to a guy like Chad, who's going to bring his own spirit to the part? There's more life in it that way, and I think it's more interesting for the listener."

Now that the album is finished, is the group that appears on it going to stay together and be a real band? "Absolutely," Ed says. "In fact, we've already done a couple of gigs just to keep the momentum going. We'll start playing gigs in Southern California when the album comes out, and we're in the initial stages of putting together a tour of Europe in the spring of 1990.

"I really want this to be a performing unit," Ed stresses. "That's important to me because it keeps the music alive and also kindles new ideas. Functioning in a band draws things out of you that don't happen when you're practicing by yourself. When you get a bunch of people together, things start percolating. And again, the reason the album sounds the way it does is because we recorded it as a band, with very little overdubbing. When we play live, it sounds just like the record. There isn't anything we can't reproduce. So I want to stay with that band ethic." And what about Zappa? Ed Mann actually holds the record for longevity with that band, and appears on more albums than any other Zappa sideman. But what are the chances of future work with Zappa, considering that Zappa has recently declared that he will never tour again, and that he might even quit music altogether? "The only thing you can be sure of with Frank," Ed answers, "is that you can never predict what he's going to do. A few years ago he said that he never wanted to tour again, but then late in '87 he suddenly called and said he was going on the road. So even though there are no tours or live performances scheduled at the moment, I suppose things could change at any time."

Whatever happens – or doesn't happen –  with Zappa in the future, Ed is grateful for the opportunities that Zappa has given him. "It really struck me during that last tour," Ed recalls. "We were right in the middle of The Illinois Enema Bandit,' which is this real down-home blues number, and I'm standing there playing and thinking, 'Where else could I play marimba on a blues tune like this with screaming guitar? This is ridiculous, but it's great!' Before I went with Frank, I never played blues marimba or rock-style marimba, but since having done it with his band, I actually do quite a bit of it now. It's become part of my musical vocabulary – part of who I am as a musician."

Zappa has always had prominent percussion in his music. Did he ever discuss any of his philosophies about percussion with Mann? "Not specifically," Ed says, "But Ruth Underwood [Zappa percussionist prior to Mann] once told me something that I thought was pretty enlightening. In her opinion, Frank's personality and way of thinking can be summed up by a fast single stroke roll on the marimba. 'Brrrrrrrrrrrrrrr.' That's why he liked marimba so much, because it personified him. It's constant hard attacks, and there's nothing indistinct about a marimba sound: It's right there. And Frank is like that. I know that doesn't exactly answer the question, but that always stuck in my mind.

"I think he just likes the sounds. Fie talks about how he was influenced early on by Edgar Varése, and percussion was certainly a big part of Varése's music. Also, Frank's first instrument was drums. Even though he never went on to become a drummer, he obviously has a real love for it, and I think it has benefitted his music. Orchestra bells or xylophone can really make a melody stick out; a gong can make low things go lower; a triangle can make high things go higher; a cymbal crash can make loud things louder. Percussion also gives Frank's music an orchestral quality that it wouldn't have from just guitars and keyboards. So I'm sure that's why he has always written it in.

"I'm personally very glad that he thinks that way," Ed says. "Not only has it been a tremendous opportunity for me personally, but I think it's contributed significantly to the evolution of percussion. It's gotten a lot of people to listen to it and has brought an awareness of those instruments to people's ears."

But while Mann is proud to have been associated with Zappa's music, he feels it's time to establish his own identity. "A lot of people know that I've played with Frank all those years," he explains, "so they assume that when I write my own music, it will incorporate a lot of the same elements – the polymeters and all that. But I don't include that kind of thing in my own music, just because it's not what I'm inclined to do.

"You can't get too imbedded in anybody else's style," Ed continues. "At some point you have to find out what it is that you do, and then make your own contribution. That's why I'm interested in working on my own projects right now. Most of the recordings I've done have been with Zappa bands, and so the playing is within the context of Frank's view as a composer. On my own album I use a lot of things that don't come into play as part of a Zappa performance. "Doing my own music is something I've been thinking about for a long time. I've written music since I was a teenager. But it's taken me until now to get the concept strong enough that I feel good about it, and to where I know that it's going to develop and grow, rather than just being one album. I had to wait until the time was really" right, though. There's no way to force that kind of thing. If you do it before you're really ready, then you're doing yourself a disservice and it's not going to be successful.

"I was actually going to record the album in 1987, and then Frank suddenly decided to go out on the road. So I decided to put it off for a year, even though I felt that I was ready to do it then. But the album ended up being better for having waited a year, just because my concept changed in that time. So it's important to be patient. I guess that's a fringe benefit of age."

Indeed, Ed has taken his time to get a concept worked out, but he refuses to put extra pressure on himself by creating an arbitrary timetable for his career. "In this business," he explains, "we often see people who have tremendous success at an early age. It's easy to start thinking that it all has to happen soon, and that the clock is ticking, and that, 'Oh Cod, I'm going to be 30 soon and I've missed my time.' If your brain is influenced that way, it's strictly self-induced. It doesn't have to be reality; you create your own reality. The fact is, there are a lot of years left in your life, and it doesn't have to all happen in a short period. The idea is to build towards something so that when you're 50 years old, you will still be coming on to new things and having new experiences. You have to look at it as a continual growth cycle, rather than feeling that everything after your mid-30's is downhill.

"It's always a kick when you do something for the first time: first gig, first time on the road, first time with a major band. Hopefully, you can continue to have first experiences at age 50, 60, 70. So for me, having my first solo album is that kind of experience, and it makes me feel younger. It's important to feel young, no matter what age you are."