Todd Yvega (Keyboard article)

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Todd Yvega: Software Surgeon, Sample Trimmer, Smarter Than A Synclavier.
Reprinted from "Zappa!", published in '92 by Keyboard and Guitar Player magazines.

"Just the idea," he begins, "that I could open a phone book 100 years from now, and see a bunch of Yvegas when there never were any before" and he pauses. "I realized I could create a brand new name that no one's ever had." And that's what he did: He made up his own name. That drive to create permeates everything Todd Yvega (formerly Smith) does. "To me it's just boring to do something that somebody else did," he states. "That's what's so tedious about the stuff I normally get hired to do. You know, 'This song was a hit, so we want it to sound just like this.' Why do it again? It's been done!"

The guy has no fixed job description with Frank Zappa, except to "roll out the red carpet so that somebody can just walk without looking at his feet, remove the obstacles before somebody reaches them." However, he handles such specific chores as programming all the synthesizers in the studio, maintaining all of Frank's printed scores and their variations for rental to orchestras, creating and maintaining databases for all of the audio and video archives, remaining fluent with all software, music and non-music, trimming samples, and actually writing software to make Zappa's Synclavier work more efficiently.

Originally hired to edit sounds for the eventual sale of Frank Zappa's library of thousands of samples, Yvega immediately felt himself swamped. "Everything here is like a life task," he says. "My first day, Frank explained what my responsibilities were, and then heaved all these tasks on my back. It scared me to death, and I almost quit. That's why there are so many unfinished things. One of my laments here is that there's so much to do and so little time to do it. Even just cutting up samples, I could spend a year of 12-hour days. Whenever there's a limit, Frank will always overrun it. If we had ten Syncla-gods working here, Frank would find a way there should have been 12."

A NASA brat, born in California, Todd spent his youth travelling to wherever the space program sent his father. He studied guitar, piano and drums but grow up sheltered from pop culture by parents who feared its negative influences on their numerous children. "I didn't even discover the Beatles until 1973 – after they broke up! I originally had an image of Frank being a very bad person – disgusting and filthy and having longhaired hippie freak commie-pinko type of ideas."

Todd spent seven years in college, majoring in electrical engineering, music theory, and composition, favoring experimenters such as Henry Cowell and Harry Partch. But when he heard Conlon Nancarrow's pioneering work with player pianos, he knew he'd found a new hero. "It amazes me that someone invents a player piano in the 1800s," Todd says, "and they just use it to play 'Buffalo Girls Won't You Come Out Tonight.' I don't understand why people don't take advantage of technology to do new things. The average musician today has more computing power than sits on the space shuttle, but will only use it to do simple drum beats ad nauseam. The thing to do with a player piano or a computer is to experiment with things that wouldn't come naturally based on our upbringing. It's built-in mediocrity that it never occurs to most people to want to do something that's not exactly like what they've already heard. Monkey-see, monkey-do. They see a world around them, want to be a part of it, and do exactly what they've seen others do."

Yvega had little interest in computers until he realized how useful they could be in performing the kind of mathematically complex music that he had been composing. "They're very logical, and that sort of thinking appeals to me – it's clean." Abruptly, he switched to computer science and left college only because he acquired sole custody of his infant son.

Already known as a synthesizer whiz, he started calling studios, and soon landed the perfect job, working for Herb Pilhoffer, owner of one of the nation's most advanced Synclavier systems. They were very happy times. "These were the days when everyone wanted things to sound different," Yvega recalls. Pilhoffer ended up sending him to a seminar at New England Digital. Discovering Todd's knowledge of spectral analysis, N.E.D. offered him immediate employment, which he turned down. Nevertheless, the impression he had made kept his name at the top of the list of specialists recommended by N.E.D. when Frank Zappa came looking for help a few years later.

Annoyed with the continuing attention given to Synclavier users in Southern California, Yvega grudgingly decided to join the pack. "The only way to move on was to move out," he explains. "I thought the hard part would be to get a job and the easy part to get a house. I got a job in a jiffy and got an ulcer trying to get a place to live." After working for nearly four years at Craig Huxley's Enterprise Studio, in 1988 Todd went solo, producing Japanese idols and making gobs of money which he poured into his own equipment, his own "Syncla-Debt." Not long thereafter, Gail Zappa called.

"I had been in LA five or six years, and it had just ground me down to where life wasn't fun," Yvega recalls. "Between jobs, I just vegetated and watched TV and felt shitty. I'd completely forgotten how exciting life can be when you have something like this to do. What I noticed about Frank, right off the bat, was here was the type of guy who just couldn't wait to jump out of bed in the morning and go try that nifty idea he had. That enthusiasm rubbed off on me, and I suddenly found myself just full of all this enthusiasm, and I said, 'Oh, I remember this from the good old college days, the Pilhoffer days, before the real world took away my reason for living."'

Yvega is so in demand in Hollywood through his own Acme Music Works that he lives in a state of constant guilt for not attending to Frank's needs 'round the clock. His job in studios seems as amorphous as at Zappa's: "to find solutions on the spot rapidly." Clients have included such pop stars as Cheap Trick, Ozzy Osbourne, and Lionel Richie; such films as Casualties of War, The Stepfather, and Field of Dreams; such television programs as Beverly Hills 90210, Thirty-Something and Knots Landing; and such commercials as American Express, 7-Up, and Volkswagen. To date, Yvega feels his most creative assignment was for Duckman, an upcoming cartoon aimed at adults. On Frank's recommendation, he was given total creative freedom to arrange bits and bites of Frank's music, as well as create his own with a Zappa ring, as background music for the pilot.

Now let's talk about Yvega's brain. These are not test results. We're merely quoting colleagues. Frank Zappa says, "You've never seen anybody more bookwormish, ectomorphic, or ivory-towered than Todd. He's a computer whiz with a brain as big as a house – a truly mysterious character." Dave Dondorf, Zappa's chief technician, jokes that the great nuclear theoretician of our time, Stephen Hawking "learned everything he knows from Todd."

All this chaps Todd's hide. "People say I'm really smart. No, I'm not," he insists. "All I did was read the manual. That's something that somehow has escaped everyone else. in fact, it's because I'm not smart that I have to do it that way. I see people do all these things that make it difficult. My brain is so limited that I can't let it get complicated. I need it to be clear and organized; otherwise I lose it. So to me, they must be smart if they can handle that haphazard spaghetti code they're running."

Existing software, for which he is responsible, is large but "less than a hundred" packages. "There's no best or worst," he points out. "Everything's like shovels and rakes. If you want to rake leaves, then a rake is the best tool; if you want to dig a hole, the shovel is what you grab. I typically use several pieces of software for one project."

Rewriting software is a different challenge. Yvega creates utilities in XPL (the Synclavier language similar to Pascal) on his expanding menu dubbed "N.E.D. Buster Power Tools." His creations overcome shortcomings in the system software to date, his tally nears 100, and he writes if more time is wasted by his not writing. "There are a lot of tricks to doing a large amount of work in conveyor-belt fashion," he adds, "so I write software that makes it possible to provide the computer with a whole catalog of stuff to do, and it turns the crank while you go get a sandwich."

When it's time to print out music, one Yvega program removes the "ring over" of any given pitch, which might confuse the software into creating superfluous ties if it were to read the notes as carrying beyond their intended cutoff points. "Frank used to spend hours doing things like this," Todd says, "so I write programs so he doesn't waste his time."

Yvega has also created audio and video databases broken down sometimes inch by inch by location, date, version, instrument, person, and any identifiable image that might prove relevant.

His initial job responsibility, trimming samples, is not an activity that necessarily comes naturally. "People seem to pick the wrong starting points," he explains. "There's a tendency to cut in too close to the beginning and miss air' – the beginning transient right before the beginning of a sound, that's subtle but critical If it isn't there, it doesn't sound natural."

In organizing samples from a given instrument, it's also important to make sure that the amplitudes of each pitch are balanced, so Yvega writes programs to scale all pitches to the "ideal" amplitude. "It's stupid for people to have to do things like that," he insists. "People should think. Tedious work should be for computers, because they don't mind, and that's what they do without error. People aren't good at doing tedious work because they make mistakes when they have to do repetitive, algorithmic things."

"When I started working here, "Yvega continues, "I thought, 'All right! It's Pilhoffer all over again – very intellectually stimulating.' Because the pace was so slow in Minneapolis compared to Los Angeles that we could afford to spend entire days just exploring experimental, Brainiac kinds of things. Whereas in Los Angeles, they'd kick you out the second you attempted it. The clock is always ticking. 'Make it sound just like that record. Gotta make hits!' So arriving at Frank's was a wonderful return to the laboratory, to my happy days of being in college when my whole outlook on everything was from a scholastic point of view, because I thought you did something because it was intellectually stimulating. I wasn't in the world of 'pay the rent' yet.

"Another reason why I love working here is that it isn't like so many of the other things I do, like work on TV shows that are seen next Sunday night, will never be seen again, and will end up in a vault somewhere and be eventually disposed of. This is the one thing I do that I actually feel will mean something in the long run. I definitely think Frank has etched a permanent position as a major composer. He will take several pieces he's been developing over the years and merge them together like a sculptor with a shelf with an arm up here and a head over here. It's amazing how proficient he is, considering that he isn't an avid reader. But he watches somebody do something, and he remembers it. He knows more about the music printing software than anybody I've ever met.

"Frank has a way of exceeding limits that nobody else even approaches. A typical sequence working in the music industry may be around 32 tracks and a few hundred sectors. Here, there can easily be 50 tracks for drums alone and thousands of sectors, mind-boggling complexity. So I find ways to use available memory more efficiently. I write programs to remove redundancy. This sort of thing is a problem only here. There are lots of users of Synclavier in video post-production, but that's like using a battleship to cross a river--they're barely using the machine.

"As an employer, Frank is wonderful. He actually listens to his employees' recommendations, and the bottom line is that he likes people to think. If you take the initiative and do something he usually appreciates it, even if it wasn't what he had in mind. The unspoken role is, 'If somebody's not in the room, just do it.' He has a reputation of being a taskmaster, and after being away for a while I come in here with my tail between my legs, feeling like I should crawl and beg forgiveness, but he's amazingly understanding and tolerant. He's the best boss I ever had."

From: Boil That ( Subject: Re: Who wrote the theme for "Duckman"? Dweezil did the voice of "Ajax," but wasn't involved in the music. The music was by Todd Yvega and his partner (whose name I've forgotten, sorry), using occasional snippets of Frank Zappa music.