Samplin' Fool

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Musik & Sound Output, March 1987

Samplin' Fool
by Jeff Spurrier
Music & Sound Output, March 1987

In the safety of his own home, Frank Zappa concocts Jazz From Hell on the Synclavier.

Frank Zappa is a busy, busy man. With a new record out on his own Barking Pumpkin Records label, a 10-record boxed set of live performances due this spring, interviews with journalists about his views on the PMRC music-censorship controversy, an autobiography deal just signed with Simon and Schuster, a radio special for the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art, composing, editing and mixing work on new music, and a crew of employees to oversee (including a computer assistant, studio engineer and instrument specialists), it's surprising he has any time at all.

"Today I got up at six a.m. and I came down and looked at the news for a minute and I ate a bowl of cereal and then I went in there and started typing," says Zappa, lighting a cigarette and settling back into the couch in the television room next to the studio. "At 10 I did my first interview and then I did some more typing. Then I did a second interview at 11 and I typed some more. Then Bob Rice [the computer assistant] got here and we got set up to start mixing in there and then you came. And when you're done I'll take the pictures for this interview and then at 5:30 I've got the lady from the L.A. Museum coming over. Then at 7:30 I'm going down to do a test of these VHS bumpups that I have to do for some video editing. Then at 8:30 I'll come back to the house. I'll probably look at the news again and figure out if I want to do digital editing or work on the Synclavier."

Ah yes – the Synclavier. Of all of his daily duties, work on the Synclavier gives Zappa the most pleasure. This miraculous melding of computers, sampled sound and digital recording has changed his life enormously. Tucked away in a corner of the extensive state-of-the-art studio located on the first floor of his L.A. home, the Synclavier is Zappa's pride and joy. Over 80 percent of the music on his most recent release, Jazz From Hell, was performed on it.

"I've been in the record business since 1962, which is when I first bought a recording studio," says Zappa. "And if I had had a Synclavier then, I doubt if I ever would have gone on the road. In fact I doubt if I ever would have left the house. Right now I hardly ever leave the house."

The house that Zappa built is secluded on a quiet residential street at the top of Laurel Canyon. Anonymous from the outside and protected from prying eyes by a metal gate and closed-circuit television cameras, the house contains one of the most elaborate home studios found in L.A. In addition to the main recording room (with hardwood floors and a two-story-high ceiling), there is a drum room, an isolation room, two jampacked vaults (full of masters, demo tapes and video tapes), two Sony PCM 1324s, a PCM 1610, a PCM 1630, four BVUs for digital audio 3/4-inch video and masses of outboard gear. And of course there's also the Synclavier system: S265,000 worth of equipment built around 24 megabytes of memory. His electrical bills average around 52,000 a month.

Zappa calls his setup a cottage industry, but it's obviously much more than that. Thanks to the Synclavier, Zappa has entered the future world of binary composing, opening up his musical vistas to views most musicians barely dream of. "In the past, one of the considerations that every composer had to have in the back of his mind was who's going to play it, how good are they," he says. "You can write whatever you want, but you're going to take your chances to get a human being to do it. Now that concern is gone. You don't have to even care anymore. You just write whatever your imagination is and if you want to hear 15 in the space of 27/64th notes – which is what I typed in this morning – you'll get it. It's like taking a big weight off your shoulders.

"If you write for acoustic instruments, no matter how great your composition is, the quality of the piece when it's heard is going to be determined by the acoustics of the room, the mood and the skill of the players, the accuracy of the conductor and the budget for the rehearsal time. And basically all that is going against you – to say nothing of the possibility of copying errors when the score gets turned into parts. It's a pretty shoddy hit-and-miss-type situation. I write stuff that is rhythmically complex and has difficult intervals. If you had to physically play it on a real-life instrument, you would have a hard time reaching the intervals. So the machine just does it."

Of course, it's not that simple. While the Synclavier makes Zappa's composition process easier, there's a vast amount of basic sampling, trimming of samples, patch building and primary editing that has to be done before the music comes out of the speakers. And although he is working on the leading edge of computerized composing, Zappa says he still relies on basic skills he learned nearly 25 years ago when he took over a small recording studio in Cucamonga, California.

"That experience gave me all the basic experimentation time I needed to develop the techniques I still use today," he says. "Making multi-layer overdub recordings is a tricky business. There are a lot of things you can do which will sound ugly. There's only one way to learn it, and that's to get in and do it. There are no competent textbooks on anything like that. It's not easy figuring out how you get that sound: the sound that's in your head. You look at a roomful of equipment and you have to know what to plug in to make a sound."

To get the "particular sound" he's looking for now, Zappa, engineer Bob Stone, and Bob Rice spend hours recording samples of real instruments in the studio. These samples are then trimmed and stored in the Synclavier's memory, "like little specimens, a little pin stuck through each and placed in a jar." The samples are then linked together to build patches, lists of samples which "live" under selected notes on the Synclavier keyboard.

The work may he tedious, but the process is not as cut-and-dried as it sounds. "You have to make little editorial decisions when you make a sample," explains Zappa. "You have to decide is it going to be dry or ambient, do you want to have a long, deluxe sample or something more compact? Is it going to be looped? Some samples will stretch for octaves and others won't stretch but a couple of notes. Some things start to sound fake even stretching a minor third. Pianos don't stretch well. Harps stretch nicely. A harp note at C3 will stretch all the way to C7. Classical guitar stretches well also but fuzztone guitar doesn't stretch worth a shit.

"It has to do with the complexity and characteristics of the sound. Your ear doesn't want to believe that a single oboe note in the middle register is going to stretch more than a half or a whole step. Consequently certain instruments require more memory in RAM to live in there because there are more samples involved. Our stereo grand piano uses up 20 megabytes of RAM because the patch samples every other note in stereo. But it sounds like the real deal."

The real deal is important to Zappa. He says he doesn't use the Synclavier "as a cake decorator" but rather as an integral tool in composition. "Once the samples are captured and trimmed and I can hear what it is, then I can start hearing uses for it," he says. "I can see a composition build up just around a group of samples. The basic things we use all the time live on one of the Winchesters [disk drives]. Classical guitar, three or four different types of drum sets, different percussion patches, clarinets, bassoons – things that are used frequently are stock. Then all the specialty stuff we pull off the floppies."

It may not sound much like normal music-making to the average musician, and indeed Zappa's love affair with the Synclavier has produced some unusual results. Jazz From Hell doesn't appear to even exist in the same universe as earlier Zappa classics such as Cruising With Ruben & The Jets, 200 Motels or his joke songs "Valley Girl" and "Dancin' Fool." But for Zappa the Synclavier pieces are not songs.

"I don't think of these things I'm doing on the Synclavier as songs," he clarifies. "I think of them as items. They're not necessarily in song form. They're little compositions. The longest one I've done is 22 minutes, but most of them are in the five-to-seven-minute range – a little long for a song and a little short for a symphony. And I approach them in an entirely different way than if I were writing a rock & roll song. Usually [a rock & roll song] starts off with a joke someone in the band has said or something you saw on television. You get some words and then you set them to music. Rock & roll is usually a lyric-generated medium."

The Zappa approach to his Synclavier "items" is as freeform as the system allows. There is no set pattern to the selection of samples, no chronological order to the birth of a song (Jazz From Hell took about eight months to make, but some of the bits and pieces began more than six years ago). And when it comes time to lay down tracks, the music goes where Zappa's whim takes him.

"It just depends on the kind of piece we're working on," he explains. "You can start from the end, start from the middle, start from the beginning, start from the edge. You can enter an idea. It may be the first thing you put in, but its location in the piece can be adjusted to any place in time. For example, you could start off with a little five-note figure, play it on the keyboard, and say, 'Okay, I designate you to be the hook.' But that doesn't mean when you push the button that's the first thing you hear, because you can turn a knob and locate those five notes a minute and 10 seconds into the piece. You can just dial it on down. You can also play in five notes and copy them as many times as you want and have those five notes played by all different instruments and make that figure appear any place you want.

"And then you play it literally however you want. If it's guitar then you play it on the guitar, literally. You choose the classical guitar patch, bring it to the keyboard, start playing it and you think like a guitar player. We've got a nice patch of mandolin tremolos. It's pressure-sensitive so we've got dynamics. We call it up and get in there and become an Italian for a minute."

With all these machines around, it's natural to wonder if Frank Zappa, a musician famous for his live shows, misses the sensuality of touring with a live band. "Sensuality?" he responds incredulously. "Please. I don't miss sweat, I don't miss stink, and I don't miss dressing-room food. I don't miss spending the entire day in airports. I don't miss any of that." He'd much rather spend his entire day in front of the little green screen, watching notes dance across in front of him. Or more precisely, that's how he'd prefer to spend his nights – his preferred time of work.

"The thing that's great about working at night, especially around here, is that the phone rings too much during the day time," he says. "I'd just as soon sleep through that shit and work when nobody's bothering me. Basically it's a fairly unglamorous thing to do: sit in front of that terminal and type and type and type. You don't need an audience for that, somebody keeping you company and holding your hand. It's just something that's got to be done. Same with the digital editing. It's not a spectator sport. It's like assembly-line work. Comfortable assembly-line work. It's either very cut and dried, because you're assembling stuff that's fairly obvious, or it's very subjective, because you have to make an editorial decision about where the guitar solo gets boring, how you get in and out of it.

"Last week I was getting up late. One night I got up at 10 at night and went to bed the next day at two in the afternoon and I felt terrific. And then suddenly one day I had this meeting at seven in the evening and it made me get up early and it screwed up my entire schedule. I'd be on nights right now if it hadn't been for that meeting. My body gets used to doing that. I'm totally happy to never see the sunshine."

Zappa is also totally happy to avoid breaks from his work. He says the closest he gets to a vacation is watching CNN; his current outside musical experience is limited to the advertising jingles he hears during the news.

Amidst all the activity, one question remains: will Zappa ever feel the urge to cast off his frenetic schedule and move at a more leisurely pace? He estimates that about 50 percent of his work has yet to be put on vinyl. What will happen to the vaults full of material, the studio, the "cottage industry" he's built up in his cozy home?

"You mean when I don't want to work anymore?" he snorts. "Get a yacht like Simon Le Bon? We'll worry about that when I get to it. My biggest problem is I can't imagine doing anything else. I'm not interested in sports or any other form of recreation."

Bob Rice's Synclavier Secrets
Bob Rice's credit as computer assistant on Jazz From Hell neatly summarizes his duties as Zappa's main Synclavier technician. A guitar player who claims to have been a Zappa fan since the age of six (a taste handed down from his older brothers), Rice, now 24, studied electronic music at CAL State at Long Beach.

Rice's introduction to Zappa was the result of a fortuitous meeting in 1983 with one of the musician's roadies while the two were on line to get their passports. The roadie didn't realize that he had to pay for his passport on the spot, and Rice wound up loaning him $30. Not only did Rice get his money back at a Zappa rehearsal the following night, but a conversation with the man himself landed Rice a month's trial period working the Synclavier in UMRK Studio. He has been working steadily for Zappa since January 1984.

How does one compose on the Synclavier?
You can do things by real time, which is essentially just keying in a musical composition. There's also a language they have called Script, which enables you to type in music by pitches and rhythms and then do further work by adding velocity and timbre information. It works basically like a screen editor or word processor, allowing you to write music as if it were text. I believe that was primarily the way the Francesco Zappa album was done.

That was also what really attracted me to the machine to begin with. I guess it's the same reason why Frank loves it. There's this amazing feeling that you can type in stuff nobody would even think of playing, and let the machine figure out all the mathematics and rhythms that could probably only be figured out with a slide ruler.

What are some of the other capabilities of the Synclavier that you like best?
At this point, it will do engraving-quality music printing – what looks like a typeset manuscript will come right out of the machine In fact, a lot of music publishing firms are buying Synclaviers solely for that option. You can play a performance in, it will transcribe it, and you can edit the piece on a computer terminal with a moving cursor. I believe they'll eventually have a mouse to go along with it, so somebody like Frank, who can compose things in his head and know what they'll sound like, can set up a bunch of blank staves on the screen and just write. That's a pretty nice feature.

What do you think the inspiration was behind the Synclavier work on Jazz From Hell?
Frank writes more music than anyone I've ever known. He writes on the average of 20 to 30 minutes of completely orchestrated and edited music per night. That may be highballing it a bit, but there are some days when I'll take off at seven or eight at night and come back at 10 in the morning and there will be three or four new pieces sitting on a floppy disk – I mean completely new pieces of music I never heard before I have to log all this stuff and keep a library of his material, so I know what's new and what's been revised. And I can tell you that cleaning up after Frank is a phenomenal task considering the amount of work he puts out.

So the inspiration to make Jazz From Hell was primarily to organize the best parts of all the work he's done in the past year – although "Damp Ankles," as far as I know, has been around for about two years or so. I would guess that he has about 500 – 600 floppy disks that contain four compositions each and a bank of 64 chambers, so the amount of material we're talking about here is just enormous. And he's constantly revising old material he started long ago.

I think a lot of the accomplishment of this record is that Frank was able to sonically realize stuff that's been in his imagination for years. And finally here's a machine that can do that – and do it with flawless rhythmic accuracy.

What are the sampling capabilities of this system?
We have a 50 kHz sampling rate – 16-bit samples at 50 kHz sampling – which provides a fidelity and dynamic range beyond the capabilities of a CD. A point I'd like to make here is that everybody else who was using this machine was doing mono sampling. Most of the stuff out there – like the Mirage or any of those other baby samplers – is all mono samples, and generally that's all that's necessary, for a lot of things. But the idea of having a stereo sample available also lets you take advantage of the room ambiance and the natural phase of a stereo recording.

Frank asked me a long time ago how we could do stereo sampling. And I developed a technique whereby we record all the samples to the Sony 1610 in stereo, and then I take a sample of the left side and then one of the right side and then phase-align the attack transients.

How many of the sounds on the album were sampled and how many were synthesized on the Synclavier?
Everything you're hearing is pretty much sampling that's resynthesized and generated by the Synclavier, except for one or two straight recordings on "Damp Ankles." The opening of "Damp Ankles" has a stereo recording of Dweezil washing his car. Those kinds of noises were all edited by Frank and then just laid on to two tracks of the machine. But everything else was from the Synclavier.

What about the voices on "Massaggio Galore"?
Those were samples of Frank's son Ahmet, who's very talented in the vocal domain.

So you 're saying that most of the instrument sounds are actually samples that are rebuilt in the Synclavier?
Yes. On "Massaggio Galore," for instance, those are trumpets or trombones that have been resynthesized, and there are massive percussion samples thoughout the album as well. I also want to point out that all the samples I've done since I've been working with Frank are in stereo. It takes a lot of memory on the hard disk, but it's really worth it when you listen to it. For example, the piano on the first cut, "Night School," is Frank's Bösendorfer that was sampled in stereo. That's the most deluxe patch we have. It takes up 15 megabytes of RAM and there are 13 samples in stereo, which makes it 26 samples long and they're all 10 to 13 seconds in duration. So it takes up an enormous amount of memory to play that piano.

We also use another approach in taking sounds other than instruments, such as industrial noises – which happen to be some of my favorite samples – and restructuring them to sound like instruments. My friend has a woodshop and I made these samples of compressed air canisters, which is really noise in its most extravagant format. Now, I have these panpipe samples that were provided by New England Digital. It's a beautiful, flute-type sound; it's also very static in that it doesn't change very much. So I constructed a filter based on the overtone content of a panpipe, which has the fundamental of A in the third octave of the keyboard, and filtered the compressed air through that. And what you get is an industrial noise that has the frequency characteristics of a panpipe.

Now, if you just take that particular technique and use your imagination, you can create an amazing array of different sounds. They're like instruments that nobody's ever heard, but, at the same time, they also play some tricks on the consciousness. Is that a compressed air canister or a panpipe, or a combination of both?

I think that's a more creative way to use the machine I'm constructing compositions of sonic quality, rather than musical pieces. That's my job; I compose sounds. And then Frank figures a way to organize it and manipulate it to make it work for whatever the purpose is that he's trying to get across in his music. – Steven Schwartz

Engineering Jazz From Hell With Bob Stone

Recording engineer Bob Stone. 43, has been working steadily with Frank Zappa for the past five years. Prior to joining the crew at Zappa's UMRK (Utility Muffin Research Kitchen) Studio, Stone was chief of maintenance at L.A.'s Larrabee Sound, where he also engineered a number of disco remixes, including "Flashdance." In 1980 a mastering engineer with whom Stone regularly worked recommended him to Zappa, who was looking for someone to fill in for his vacationing engineer. His first assignment at UMRK involved doing some rough mixes for Zappa. "Things pretty much continued from there," he notes. "I was working seven days a week for quite a few months there."

Although he's free to work with other artists, Stone maintains that keeping up with the prolific Zappa family is a full-time occupation. In addition to Jazz From Hell he recently worked on Dweezil Zappa's debut LP, Havin' a Bad Day.

The album notes that all of the compositions, with the exception of "St. Etienne," were executed on the Synclavier DMS. Yet the band seems to receive full credit. Does this mean that their parts were sampled on the Synclavier?
The musicians who are credited are basically the ones playing on "St. Etienne," which was a live track from Frank's 1982 European tour. As for the rest of the album – maybe some of Chad [Wackerman]'s drums or Ed [Mann]'s percussion sounds were sampled, but not necessarily from that piece (i.e., "St. Etienne"). I think the credits are just honoring the musicians on that particular performance, as opposed to them being sampled or contributing to the material from the Synclavier.

Was the Synclavier used to enhance the live track?
No. All of that is strictly live, just as it was – no overdubs, no anything.

How were the Synclavier tracks recorded?
They were transferred from the Synclavier to the Sony 3324 digital recorder. Generally, we can output four stereo pairs of material at one time from the Synclavier. In some cases, these outputs are treated a little bit with EQ, reverb or other effects and passed on to the 3324. At the same time, everything is synched to SMPTE.

Did you do much overdubbing?
Well, we had 24 tracks to use. Sometimes the sounds are so complex that we can only run one or two pairs of outputs, so it requires a number of passes to transfer the information from the Synclavier to the digital machine. From there, they get mixed down to the two-track digital.

Is there an actual performance involved when you 're recording from the Synclavier?
The performance, if there is one, takes place in the generation of the material going into the Synclavier in the beginning stages. That can be either dynamics played in on the keyboard or the drum pads. It's basically the controlling of the inputs in that manner and then looking at the overall relationship in the composition. Frank would probably explain this in other terms, but the possibilities of the dynamics, rhythm placement and what-not are optional at that point.

Was the mixing done on the Synclavier as well?
No. The Synclavier, even at this stage of its development, has no capability of doing all the refinements we put on – even after the tracks were recorded into the Synclavier.

What kind of console was used to mix the album?
We have a considerably modified Harrison 4832 – 48 in, 32 buss. There's also an extensive amount of outboard equipment. There's a lot of Kepex and Aphex gear, a Scamp rack, a conventional set of UREI 1176 limiters and two Lexicon 224XLs. We also have some neat little 360 Systems model 2800 programmable equalizers, which are four-band parametric with memory storage for saving any particular settings that you may like. Those were designed by Bob Easton and are no longer available, but we have a few of them.

How has the console been modified?
There's a lot I don't know about, not having done the modifications and or having been there at the time. But I do know that all the VCAs were replaced with Allison EG-101s and there are some fairly extensive patching facilities.

Is this album the first you've done with Frank that features the Synclavier so prominently?
Francesco Zappa was an example of the early synthesis output. That was all done on the Synclavier as well. Actually, it was even more pure in form; most of that was done as a two-track output going directly to two-track digital. There were two tunes on there that were done multitrack because of their complexity and the sounds Frank wanted, but for the most part that album was all direct.

What challenges did you encounter that you don't normally have when you're recording a group of musicians?
The overall complexity, of course, is the main challenge. There's a tremendous amount of intricacy in all the rhythmic and dynamic things that are going on, as well as considerations for placing them within a format that will be acceptable to a vinyl record, CD or cassette because each one treats the resultant mix a little bit differently.

Does it require any changes in your behind-the-console technique?
It's very similar to any other type of synthesizer work where you're dealing with a machine playing into another machine and going through whatever processing you want to employ. But again, there are many, many choices and decisions you can make at that point which will improve the resultant product when you actually go to mix the 24 or 48 tracks down to the final mix. A lot of people tend to record things very straight and basic without doing anything to alter the recorded sound, but a lot of times we'll be doing just the opposite – employing ambiance and other effects that will be part of the layering when we're done.

How long did you work on Jazz From Hell?
The actual transferring and mixing took about a month. But that was interspersed with many other projects at the same time, so you really can't say that it was started or finished on any particular day.

Any estimate of how many different sounds were used on this album?
No idea. We just got the new software for the Synclavier, which allows up to 200 tracks of recording within the machine. It assigns them each to each set of composite sounds, and we generally deal in composite sounds on a given track. So even the 16 tracks it had in the prior software were all composite sounds. Many times we would have three, four or five different distinct instrumental effects going to one pair of tracks. So, by the time you get to 12 pairs of that, you can see there are a lot of things going on.

You 've mentioned the Sony digital recorder and some of the outboard gear. Did you use any other recorders as well?
There's another 3324. We also have a Studer A-80, which is used primarily for playback. We've basically banished most of the analog machines to another room and they sit there until we need them. If we're doing anything that's analog, it's first transferred to digital and then processed in that manner – not necessarily by digital processing, but if it needs further analog treatment it will still be done digital-to-digital through the analog system.

What about two-track machines?
We have a Studer and a couple of ATRs, but again, those are used just for transferring to a Sony PCM-1630 in the BVU format. – Steven Schwartz

See Also

Zappa On Jazz From Hell