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Craig Parker Adams: Mixing Frank Zappa

Archive Record Keeper By Tony Bacon
Published August 2020

Craig Parker Adams at his studio, which is based around a Pro Tools setup and incorporates some choice outboard, including a Manley limiter, Shadow Hills summing mixer and compressor, Avalon and BAE EQs, and a pair of Universal Audio LA-610 channel strips.Craig Parker Adams at his studio, which is based around a Pro Tools setup and incorporates some choice outboard, including a Manley limiter, Shadow Hills summing mixer and compressor, Avalon and BAE EQs, and a pair of Universal Audio LA-610 channel strips.Photo: Craig Parker Adams

Frank Zappa was as fastidious about cataloguing his recordings as he was about making them. The task of mixing this enormous archive falls to one man...

In 1989, Craig Parker Adams was working at a music store in Hollywood when, by chance, he met Dweezil Zappa. This would change his life. These days, Craig is the leading engineer for the Zappa Family Trust, which controls the regular releases of Frank Zappa material drawn from the vast, meticulous archive that Frank left behind when he died in 1993.

The latest set, The Mothers 1970, released in June 2020, is a look back at a classic line-up of Frank and his Mothers Of Invention, including George Duke and Ian Underwood (keys), Aynsley Dunbar (drums), and Flo & Eddie (aka Howard Kaylan and Mark Volman of the Turtles; vocals). Among the archive-sourced offerings are a dozen tracks cut at Trident in London with an engineer by the name of Roy Thomas Baker, unknown at the time but who would of course go on to fame with Queen, Alice Cooper and more.

"I still carry the same stunned grin as when this project was first mentioned, and it just won't go away," Craig says. "The first thing that danced blissfully across my mind about Roy was Benjamin Orr and the first two Cars records." The session tapes gave some insight into Roy's methods. "From the Trident masters, the first thing I noticed was the pace of the session. I know from my own work recording bands that the flow of the session is an absolute art form, and that it's most effectively done when the artist, the players, have no clue how it's happening, other than everything is simply moving smoothly."

Craig traced what he calls a subtle briskness in Roy's work. "He was playing chess with everybody, in the sense that he was responding so quickly to direct that flow. In my various experiences with Frank's studio session recordings, I can tell the engineers were reacting to Frank's direction. For Roy's recordings, I sensed that he was acutely sensing Frank's wants, and then on his own he would intuitively make moves that were correct and were simpatico to what Frank wanted. Roy's recordings here were just drenched with that thing that I call British precision."

Let's cut back to that Hollywood music store in 1989. Dweezil's minder came over to store assistant Craig, said he was going to lunch and, in the meantime, would Craig look after his client? Oh, and did Craig know who Dweezil Zappa was? "Oh yeah, I know who he is," Craig replied, with admirable understatement.

Craig's brother had been a big fan of Dweezil's dad, Frank Zappa, and as the two kids grew up back in their rural hometown in Minnesota, Craig heard a great deal of Frank's music with and without the Mothers Of Invention. One day, Craig the budding 13-year-old guitarist was practising his Van Halen licks when his brother burst in and shoved a newspaper cutting under his nose — a picture of 12-year-old Dweezil Zappa with a guitar given to him by Eddie Van Halen, no less. Craig's brother laughed and said: "There's your competition!"

Dweezil Zappa (left) and Craig Parker Adams at the Utility Muffin Research Kitchen in 1989.Dweezil Zappa (left) and Craig Parker Adams at the Utility Muffin Research Kitchen in 1989.Photo: Moon Zappa

Who was this Dweezil Zappa? Craig knew all about Frank, whose heavy-duty music spoke to him. And he was impressed by the almost scientific approach Zappa expressed in interviews. Craig saw Frank live for the first time in 1984 and, more familiar with big-production concerts, was intrigued by this remarkable guitarist and his band of elite musicians who simply stood there and played. And played. But he had no idea about Dweezil.

And now, years later at that Hollywood store, here was Dweezil, in Craig's charge for an hour. "We hit it off," he recalls. "He was so nice to me, and he goes, 'Man, you know a lot about me and my music and my dad!' And then I said 'Hey, I just moved to town, don't have a lot of friends here, and I'd really like to be your friend.' And he says, 'Sure, I'll be your friend.' A week later, I'm standing in their kitchen with Frank and Dweezil. And that was 30 years ago."

Geoff At The Foley Studio

Craig and Dweezil remained friends, exchanging notes as guitarists do, and in 1997 Craig became a studio owner, with a space at first simply intended to be somewhere to record and play around with his own music. The studio was located on Santa Monica Boulevard in Hollywood, not far from the Paramount movie lot, in a very old building that once housed a Foley studio, the type used to record sound effects for films.

"I'm a self-taught engineer," Craig says. "It all started with a cassette deck, and then a four-track recorder, when I was a kid. I moved to California with my four-track, and then I got an eight-track reel-to-reel, and that progressed to a two-inch 16-track, a 3M M56, when I got the studio. The engineer Rich Ayres was a mentor to me, he'd tell me how to do this and do that, and then when I got the studio, I wanted to see what I could do on my own, with guidance from friends. And that turned into a business." He adds with a smile: "I had to learn how to do things because I started getting clients."

Craig estimates he helped to make hundreds of records at the old Foley building — renamed Winslow Ct Studio — including albums for Dave and Phil Alvin of the Blasters, Nellie McKay, Mick Rossi and Slaughter & the Dogs, Jack Tempchin, Gaby Moreno and Van Dyke Parks, and many more.

When Craig worked with Nellie McKay, he found himself in some interesting company. Nellie called Craig around 2007 and said she wanted her friend Geoff Emerick to come and look at the studio. "I didn't even know who he was," Craig says. Really? "No, I had no idea. I was not paying attention to the engineers of the world. Now, of course I do — but at the time I did not. Anyway, I looked him up online before he came over, and I was like, 'Are you kidding me?' I was scared. He came to the studio, stepped through the door, and he felt what those old engineers did from a hundred years ago. He knew it. He said this place is brilliant! I didn't have much gear — I said 'I'm sorry, I don't have the gear that I'm sure you're used to working with.' And he was like no, I love that you have this simple setup."

Craig learned a lot from the association. He'd invite Geoff to sessions as a fly on the wall, he'd get valuable advice on how to mic French horns and the like, and he co-produced some sessions with Geoff. The pair also recorded all the orchestration together for Dweezil's 2015 album Via Zammata'. Geoff produced the string sessions, making sure the orchestration was captured correctly.

Legendary engineer Geoff Emerick (left) and Craig Parker Adams on the roof of Capitol Records.Legendary engineer Geoff Emerick (left) and Craig Parker Adams on the roof of Capitol Records.On one memorable occasion, Geoff took Craig to the famous Capitol Records studio building in Los Angeles. "He found out I'd never been in there. So over we went, and they basically halted the facility — because Geoff Emerick's in the building. He had like four Diamond awards in the lobby or something. And he took me around every studio, even to the parking lot where they have those massive pits for the reverb tanks."

Geoff died in 2018, and Craig still misses him. "I remember sitting there working with my friend, and I'd have to remind myself to listen carefully to what he's saying — you're dealing with somebody here who really knows."

Come Summer 2019, and Craig was turfed out of the old Foley studio, which had been earmarked for demolition to make way for condos. It was an entirely disheartening affair. At the time of writing, the development had been blocked by a local historical society, and Craig is now in new premises a little further south in Mid City.

City Of Tiny Lites

Let's jump to 2010, when Dweezil was running his Zappa Plays Zappa project, channelling his dad's music for live performances with his own band, including the occasional former Mothers musician or two. Dweezil made concert recordings available online, but his regular engineer who did that work became unavailable. Old friend (and now more studio-savvy) Craig offered to help.

Craig found himself up at the Utility Muffin Research Kitchen, or UMRK, the studio at the Zappa house in the Hollywood hills. "I'd go up there after I'd been at my studio all day with Pro Tools on a Mac, and now here I am on Nuendo on a PC and a Rupert," he recalls, referring to the resident Neve 5088 board. "At first I was like, 'I don't know how to use these.' So I had to learn. I'd worked consoles before — but Nuendo on a PC, that's a whole 'nother language. So I just said to Dweezil: 'No problem, I will show up every night here, and I will help you get this done.'"

A few days into the project, Gail Zappa walked into the UMRK control room. She was Frank's widow and the keeper of the flame. "She goes, 'Craig, what are you doing here?' I said 'Oh, I'm helping Dweezil do this project.' She had no idea I had my studio and all that. Then a week or two later, she comes back in and says, 'How would you feel about mixing something of Frank's?' It was like all the air went out of the room. I had never ever considered such a thing, never."

Yes, Craig said once he'd composed himself, he would love to mix something of Frank's. Shortly afterwards, a digital file was delivered to Craig of the multitrack for a piece called 'City Of Tiny Lites', recorded live in London in 1978, complete with a duelling-guitars feature for Frank and Adrian Belew.

"There was some slight damage on the recording, actually on Frank's vocal, and I had to do some very mild restoration work," Craig says. "They didn't give me any direction other than here, mix this. Wide open. I remember I did it in 13 hours. Then Gail calls me, and she says, 'Craig, this sounds fucking great!' I cannot tell you how elated I was. Later, I figured that was that — I carried on working on Dweezil's stuff at UMRK, and I carried on making records at my studio. They put out the Hammersmith Odeon album and used the track I did to promote it. So I thought wow, that's a feather in my cap. Amazing, but obviously a one-off..."

It wasn't. The phone rang again a few years later, and Craig says that starting in 2014 the Zappa floodgates had opened for him. "It's been non-stop for me ever since," he says with a smile. He's mixed a host of reissues, expanded releases, newly discovered items, and box sets of live shows including Chicago '78 (two CDs), Halloween '77 (158 tracks on a USB drive), The Roxy Performances (seven CDs), Zappa In New York 40th Anniversary (five CDs), Orchestral Favorites 40th Anniversary (three CDs), and Halloween '73 (four CDs), plus the aforementioned Mothers 1970 (four CDs) and the six-CD Hot Rats Sessions that documents the 1969 studio album.

Archive Transfers

For each new project, Craig will get a call from the Zappa Family Trust checking his availability. "They'll let me know what they have coming up for me, and the conversations get tighter and tighter the closer we get to what the job is." He then receives the raw material as 24-bit/96kHz WAV files, transferred and collated from the original masters by Joe Travers, who's known in the Zappa camp as the Vaultmeister. Frank's archive, aka The Vault, is legendary, and the extent of the collection is due in part to Frank's rare status as an artist who owned his own recordings.

Frank Zappa's archive, affectionately known as The Vault, houses all of the Zappa Family Trust's tapes in a temperature-controlled environment. Meticulous notes accompany the recordings.Frank Zappa's archive, affectionately known as The Vault, houses all of the Zappa Family Trust's tapes in a temperature-controlled environment. Meticulous notes accompany the recordings.Photo: Zappa Family TrustUntil the Zappa Hollywood Hills homestead was sold in 2016 (to Lady Gaga) following Gail's death the previous year, the archive was housed there, and it's now in a new location. "I walked through his vaults when they had the house, and it was like a Library of Congress kind of deal," Craig says. "Racks from the ground to above your head, just racks and racks and racks of tape reels, films, archives upon archives. And they weren't just put in any old room, they were in temperature-controlled rooms — so there was an intent for future use, for sure." Frank's knowledge of his own worth and his independence as an artist make him an important role model for any musician or producer or composer today. "And also, even beyond that," Craig adds, "I think of him as a model for running an operation. If you want to know how to operate your brand or your business, well, there's nobody better to look at, in my view, than Frank."

Craig began using Pro Tools back in 2002. "My main recording used to all be done on my 3M M56 16-track, but I sold that gem around 2007. I have a bunch of outboard preamps, compressors, things of that nature. I have a custom Manley stereo variable-mu limiter — a prototype, not a production model. I use a Shadow Hills Equinox summing mixer, and a Shadow Hills Mastering Compressor, and I use a thing called an Overstayer MAS 8101 harmonics processor, kind of like a tape saturator, and also I use an Avalon AD2055 mastering EQ. That's the flow — it's in the box other than that. Then I use some BAE 1073 EQs and the compressor side of some Universal Audio LA-610s."

What strikes him every time he first presses Play on a new project is how well Frank's music was recorded. "All his engineers were on the money. The stuff comes and it sounds good — even when there's technical issues, it still sounds as good as it could for the time. So I'm not trying to alter anything, unless there's been damage. I don't add anything other than the basic EQ, compression, and limiting. I'm not doing any modulating effects, I'm not decorating anything. I don't do anything like that, and that's not what they're asking me to do. These are historic timestamp-style recordings and the plan is to keep them as bare and as authentic as possible. My job is to make them sound as sweet as they can."

Hot Rats Sessions

As Craig listened deeply to the source recordings from 1969 that he used on the mighty Hot Rats Sessions set, he noted how well Frank handled his musicians. "The way he worked with them to achieve what he was trying to get done was phenomenal. Frank would suggest something, and maybe the musician responded in a way of somebody who doesn't want to do something, or who can't see the possibility of why he's asking them to do it. He'd say 'Look, you're talented, and I have you here for a reason, so trust me, trust me.' And they did. He challenged people left and right. But they'd try it anyways, because they're professionals, and they're being paid and they respect their employer. And then when they tried it, it would often produce the magic."

Frank Zappa's musical direction in the studio can be heard throughout his archive. The drum intro to 'Peaches En Regalia' is a notable example.Frank Zappa's musical direction in the studio can be heard throughout his archive. The drum intro to 'Peaches En Regalia' is a notable example.Photo: Michael MeskerA perfect example is the creation of the drum entrance to 'Peaches En Regalia' on Hot Rats, heard in the 10-minute-plus piece on Sessions that captures the making of the track's opening section. Frank encourages ex-James Brown drummer Ron Selico to elaborate on the basic first takes, alongside Shuggie Otis on bass and Ian Underwood on piano. "Why don't you fill like crazy," Frank says after an early breakdown, and then adds more detail: "Instead of those rolls, Ron, do a pass on the last two beats of the bar," he says, and after a few more takes: "Much better. More fills, get loose!" Ten takes in or so, Frank suggests doing a fancier start, and Ron soon nails it. "Marvellous!" the boss exclaims.

"He was fearless," Craig says. "These recordings... There's the notes, there's the music, there's the technicality of how this stuff needs to be mixed, but with Hot Rats what I sense beyond that is the essence of the music. It seems to me a very emotional project — there's a lightness to all of it, there's a happiness I'm picking up. It was a month away from Dweezil being born, and Frank's daughter Moon's just a little over a year old. You can hear the way he is in the sessions, happy and peaceful. But it all mattered to him. That's why he didn't joke. Obviously humour does belong in music," Craig adds with a smile, "but he didn't joke around with the level of excellence. That was a pinnacle that was always strived for and everyone needed to hit. Everybody on the team was top-notch, and he didn't go for anything less than that. Let's have some fun — but you've at least got to be great, and you've got to deliver."

Craig Parker Adams: "I think of him as a model for running an operation. If you want to know how to operate your brand or your business, well, there's nobody better to look at, in my view, than Frank.

Those Hot Rats recordings demonstrated the quality of Frank's work in 1969, Craig reports. He says it was enjoyable to be able to simply run the old analogue recordings from the archive, put everything at unity, and all of a sudden — well, it was right there. In cases like that, he tried to keep out of the way and lightly enhance the experience for the listener. It was more about getting lost into the feel of the music to dictate the direction of the mix, because there were virtually no technical issues to deal with on these high-quality cuts.

"We did get rid of all the later overdubs — and one obvious way to do that is by listening for the bleed," he says. "So, you hear the piano playing, and you can hear the drums in the background. Well, now we have this other piano, and there's no bleed, so that's an overdub. Or here's violin, say, and no bleed. If there's bleed, we know it's original. With Hot Rats Sessions, we really wanted the listener to feel they were a part of those original sessions from the ground up. 'You're there, right at the birth of it all. And I just let the music lead my mix.'"

Jam Out The Kicks

Some projects do need work beyond the essential requirement of a good, sympathetic mix, and the Halloween 77 set presented a sizeable problem. The original live tapes of the shows at the Palladium in New York City were recorded by Frank's mobile with Kerry McNabb as the lead engineer, running two multitracks — the A machine and the B machine — so that one could be started before the other's reel ran out, overlapping to provide between about 10 to 12 minutes per reel. Craig was provided with digital copies of the original reels covering the six shows recorded over four days in October '77.

Live recordings present a particular challenge, since many of them were recorded across alternating pairs of tape recorders to prevent gaps when one reel ran out. Shown here is Adams' Pro Tools project for Zappa In New York 40th Anniversary.Live recordings present a particular challenge, since many of them were recorded across alternating pairs of tape recorders to prevent gaps when one reel ran out. Shown here is Adams' Pro Tools project for Zappa In New York 40th Anniversary.Photo: Picture Craig Parker Adams

"There was a lot of cable damage, line damage, a lot of static and things of that nature that had to be removed. In fact it turned into the single biggest restoration gig I've done for the Zappa Trust. So, I had my digital 96/24 masters of reel 1, reel 2, reel 3, and so on, which I then had to put together and sync to have everything flow properly. But for whatever reason, Terry Bozzio's kick drum was not working on the B machine. I would have a reel running for about 12 minutes, and then all of a sudden the kick stops for the next 12 minutes. There's no kick drum on that reel!" Pause for Craig to scream at the memory. "This was Terry playing the hardest shit you've ever heard, all the double kicks and so on. And half of it's not there."

You could use something like Avid's SoundReplacer, right? "Well, yes, that's what I did," Craig replies, "but it's not a simple, direct replacement. You don't just zap it — no pun intended — and then all of a sudden, magically, everything's there. Oh no. I had to do it beat by beat, kick by kick. Really! One at a time, for 25 reels or whatever it was, 10 to 12 minutes per reel depending on where the edits were made. SoundReplacer could get me in the vicinity, but then you have to get off that and look at the particular beat, make sure that it's the dynamic you want, that it's placed properly, all of that. It's not like a hip-hop track or something. This kick was changing drastically from one hit to the next."

The missing kick drums had a transient in the vicinity of where the kick was, and Craig could use that as a guide, but as he says, it wasn't a direct replacement. "Every time there would be a kick drum hit, there would be a snapping sound. It had to do with one of the components in this particular tape machine — it wasn't a digital snap, and I could see on the waveform that there was an indentation. So I knew that's where the kick was going to go, and I'd zero in. It was a matter of listening and feeling to replace it properly."

Craig's trusty assistant Nicole Lexi Davis helped Craig meet the deadline, despite this lengthy and unexpected task. "We were working around the clock. Nicole would go in early, do the notes, then I'd come in and continue on, and vice versa — that's how we tag-teamed on Hollywood 77. It was something I learned from Frank's methods. He'd sleep all day, and have engineers in the studio working on his notes all day. Then he'd wake up and take over where they left off, work all night, and then leave the next set of notes for them. He'd bed down and they'd pick back up. Another example of the way he ran his business."

Back To Bar 20

The three-CD set of Orchestral Favorites, an expanded version of a pair of 1975 LA concerts, was another demanding job, mostly down to the fact that, as the title implies, it featured a Zappa band bolstered by the 37-piece Abnuceals Emuukha Electric Symphony Orchestra. It was recorded to 24-track two-inch tape, and bleed was the major culprit. "With all those clusters of musicians on just a few mics," Craig recalls, "there was a lot of ambience from neighbouring nearby instruments. Trying to get individual performances to shine becomes more difficult. Also, there was a lot of talking. The musicians would talk amongst themselves, asking about upcoming parts and so on. There was a lot of banter." During the performance? "Yes, because they wouldn't necessarily feel they're being heard. So there was a good deal of that to remove, and it made getting an overall balance a bit harder."

The tapes provided a further opportunity to observe Frank's relatively unorthodox working methods. "He handled his concerts like sessions," Craig reports. "He stops performances! He's not worried about entertaining the audience — at Royce Hall in Los Angeles, in the case of Orchestral Favorites — because he knows they're being entertained. He's worrying about getting the notes right, because he's making a record out of this."

About a third of the way into the lengthy 'Adventures Of Greggery Peccary', for instance, Frank stops the performance, has a think, and announces: "Go back to bar 20." Craig is full of admiration. "He wouldn't let fear stop him. Again, it was always a matter of 'Let's see what we can do.' I love that! Frank would challenge these people. And those moments create the gems. I've been listening to Frank for 40 years, and I kinda knew the guy. I feel like I've heard it, I get it, I've seen it. Well... no. I just keep thinking he's better and better than I ever imagined. And it keeps going like that."