Frank Zappa produced a vast amount of recorded material during his career, often pushing both his musicians and the technology of the day to extremes. The task of editing, mixing and archiving these recordings is being undertaken by his son Dweezil, with the help of some cutting-edge computing hardware.
As computers become ever more important in the music recording studio, manufacturers are at last taking this market seriously. AMD, for example, have a sponsorship programme which works with music industry figures including producer Phil Ramone and engineer Elliot Scheiner. This programme is now putting 64-bit dual-processor AMD Opteron machines into studios to see how they perform in a real-world environment. And when Dweezil Zappa was looking for sponsorship to upgrade the family studio — known as the Utility Muffin Research Kitchen — his contact at AMD, Charlie Boswell, turned out to be a life-long Frank Zappa fan, and was only too keen to work out a deal.
Dweezil explains that the studio rebuild had to happen for a number of reasons, including work on the vast archive of his father's recordings. "There are tons of new projects that we're excited about getting involved with. Before, we weren't even able to listen to older recordings; the analogue machines were in disrepair, and we really didn't have the ability to work on any of my dad's music for almost a dozen years. So to put ourselves in a better position for the future, we had to make some serious choices about the technology that would help us do what was necessary. We were interested in doing projects in 5.1, doing restoration, and also having the ability to archive things better."
The studio had accumulated not just an extensive vault of tapes, but a considerable collection of analogue hardware too. "Frank had several machines — I don't know if we have some of the earlier machines he recorded on. We have the Studer 24-track and we have three of the two-track machines. They all have different head stacks, and we even have a five-track head stack that was made by Paul Buff when Frank had a studio in Cucamonga — the Studio Z in the early '60s. We're curious to see if there's a way to get a machine to work with that head stack. It was before multitrack — Paul invented this thing and made it work, but I have never seen it in use. We found it in a box!"
As interesting as the old machines are, Dweezil points out that they aren't always practical. "People say 'I like the sound', but a lot of these people have had no experience working with them. You may or may not know if it's working 100 percent unless you have an expert there. A lot of people these days are refurbishing the machines and putting different head stacks on them to specifically get one kind of sound, and people are going a little crazy. I got much more involved on the computer side of things, because I had to. I was tired of looking over someone's shoulder and saying 'No, no, no! I want the edit to go here,' and 'Do this with this.' That was a big learning curve for someone having zero experience with computers, learning to do everything from the ground up.
"As I work, doing my own engineering and recording, and playing — I'm basically the only guy in the studio — I have to know how to work the stuff, otherwise someone's going to be sitting there babysitting, and being bored out of their mind. I didn't want to be stuck in the situation where if I have a deadline on something, and I need to work at two or three in the morning, I have to have someone in there just to do random things."
Dweezil Zappa's own musical projects have run up against the limitations of technology in the past, and although the learning curve is steep, he's finding that his new DAW setup is enabling him to overcome problems that were insoluble with older equipment. "One project that I've been gearing up to finish is called 'What The Hell Was I Thinking?', a 75-minute continuous piece of music that is guitar, bass and drums. I describe it as an 'audio movie', because moment to moment the musical landscape changes, and it just morphs into different things. I started recording it on analogue tape almost 13 years ago. We were on the bigger reels of tape that could run longer per side, about 16 minutes. At the end, the machine was running a small amount faster; there was tape stretch, so when I tried to do some overdubs, nothing would stay in tune. You don't hear it as the pitch drifting so much, except if you're trying to add something new to it — then it's uncomfortable. What I had to do was transfer everything to a digital format and replay some things.
"The digital format we were using at the time was Frank's original Sony reel-to-reel machines. By the time we were recording on them, they were at least 10 years old, if not older. We had done a passage where I did about 22 tracks of guitars, a ridiculous, overly patriotic section with 'Star-Spangled Banner', 'America The Beautiful' and 'Dixie' all at the same time, overlapping in this really uncomfortable way. It sounded hilarious, but things just started dropping out, and we were hearing some digital distortion. It just disintegrated, imploded — nothing went into record. Somehow, it decided it was never going to play back again!
"Now, with my new setup I'm actually going to be able to compile the whole project. This requires a lot of editing, so now what I'm hoping to do is to put it together in sequence, as opposed to making stereo mixes and editing them together. I want to put the whole project together in multitrack form so it can be mixed in surround sound, and what's on tape will be all in real time. That's going to be the main challenge, and then I'll have a really good idea about what's really going to stay in the project. There are probably about 35 guest guitar players on it, everybody from Brian May to Edward van Halen, Eric Johnson, Angus and Malcolm Young — it's quite a crazy project. I'm still waiting and hoping to record Jeff Beck and Jimmy Page as some of my final guests on there."
Running more tracks than most people would dare to, Dweezil could be accused of pushing the technology until it breaks, whether analogue or digital. Perhaps this attitude is what makes the studio a very useful test bed for AMD, together with the Utility Muffin Research Kitchen's reputation for technical advances. "I've had unfortunate experiences — you think 'this should be pretty simple' but then it doesn't end up working the way you planned. I've had that same experience with the computers as well. I don't feel as if I'm the kind of person who wants to use extreme amounts of processing to alter a sound — I pretty much try to get the sound the way I want it on tape to begin with, and I don't go crazy with processing."
While there have been several 64-bit hardware platforms available for many years —such as the DEC Alpha and the Intel Itanium — the fact that you couldn't run a normal version of Windows on them made these systems largely irrelevant for the PC-based studio. The 'AMD64' architecture retains compatibility with 32-bit software by extending the established x86 instruction set, unlike the Alpha and Itanium processors which have their own, incompatible instructions. The AMD64 CPUs are branded as the Athlon 64 for the home user market, the 'prosumer' Athlon 64 FX and the 'enterprise' Opteron. There is also a Mobile Athlon 64 designed for laptops.
The Opteron 200 series and above are the only chips intended for multiple-processor systems, with the 800 series (in theory) supporting up to eight CPUs in one machine. Apart from backwards compatibility with 32-bit software, the pricing of these chips makes them a realistic proposition for the studio market, with complete machines selling in the UK for under £1000.
"We met with Charlie Boswell, and AMD provided us with the opportunity to try some of their equipment. We have never had a specific alliance with any company, and Frank's music has always been misunderstood by so many people. Larger companies have never had any interest in helping in any way. So to have Charlie and AMD be interested in not only seeing what we could do with their technology, but continually supporting us, was a great advantage. The first workstation that I got was back in 2002, with 32-bit Athlon processors. I thought 'I'll never run out of processing power!', and then as I got better at what I was doing, things started to slow down, and I was having problems when I couldn't even get it to finish a certain mix because I had tried all of these processing plug-ins and virtual instruments. I didn't really know the inner workings of the computer and how bogged down it could get. Having not had the experience of many other users, I quickly found that if you have bunch of things all turned on at once, it won't work very well!
"AMD said 'We have this other system that we'd like you to try,' and they delivered the 64-bit machine at the end of 2003. The problems that I was having with this one song in particular went away instantly — it was amazing to see the changes. It improved the sound of the song, which already (to me) sounded really good. There were effects that I had forgotten about because I wasn't hearing them as crisply as when I first put them on. They all came back, and you could hear the panning better because it wasn't being bogged down."
Even if a 64-bit machine is running legacy 32-bit software, such as Dweezil's setup of Steinberg Nuendo on Windows XP, the newer architecture can still offer performance benefits. In particular, the Opteron has a DDR controller integrated with the CPU, which reduces the bottleneck to system RAM. Dweezil uses an RME audio card in his Verari dual-Opteron workstation, which is connected to a Euphonix System 5 console. "I think the equipment that I have the ability to use now gives me so many options. I'm much more excited about being in the studio because I really only play guitar well, but with all these virtual instruments you can sit there and tweak, for hours, to do whatever you want. Not that I'm going to become some master programmer, but I can definitely start using other instruments that I can't physically play well. If I have the idea, I can incorporate it, which makes it much more interesting and challenging in the studio — but not challenging to the point where you can't do anything.
"The real balance has to be struck between having the creative idea — knowing what you hear in your head — and finding the tools to make it sound like what you hear, or better. What's always amazing to me is that there's such a low noise floor that you can compress the hell out of something if you want, add all this gain and other effects, and you don't end up with hiss, or the maniacal, horrible sound that you would get if you were patching 10 devices together. Now, I will plug in 12 or 13 different things all in line just to see what it will do. I've been experimenting with multiple compressors on certain tracks just for fun; to triple and quadruple-compress something to see what kind of sounds it would make, but also to see how quiet it can remain.
"I'm also fascinated with how people are making stuff sound so much louder. I hate it when it sounds distorted, but I am interested in when something actually sounds good, but extremely loud. There are certain people that have been able to achieve this — Dr. Dre records seem to be at least 40 or 50 percent louder in perceived volume than any other record and they don't sound distorted. It probably has to do with the fact that there are no rock guitars on those records; mid-range instruments take up so much space. I do hate the fact that people have taken it to the level where it's loud, but it's also distorted — and it actually hurts your ears. That I don't enjoy at all, because digital distortion is not pleasing."
With a massive amount of material in the Zappa family vaults — more than resides in those of many record labels — it must be difficult to know where to start the process of archiving and remastering for new formats. "People have no idea — it's mind-boggling. There's a film that's going to be coming out; it's a documentary about Frank as a composer, but it really gets into what his process of working was. When you see it, you realise how much he accomplished in 30 years — first of all, to make nearly 80 albums in that time, and have the potential for probably another 40 out of the vault. These are not like four-chord songs, this is serious music. He trained bands to play things that are incredibly complex and difficult, but it stands the test of time. It's music that will be listened to, and should be listened to, for millennia. There's some incredible instrumental music, but he had a lot of great social commentary — I think he was widely misunderstood.
"We have the oppportunity to listen to music from the very beginning — his first recordings in the early '60s — up until the digital recordings, and the things he was doing with the Synclavier. Because 5.1 is such a great way to listen to music — to actually get back into listening, as opposed to just watching it — I think many classic records are going to make a big difference to people in surround sound. Frank's music translates so well because there are so many intricate instrumental moments, and the textures in the recordings are so ahead of their time.
"The challenge for us is to recreate and remix some of his most popular records in surround sound. I say 'recreate', because our biggest challenge is duplicating his working process. He would take things from alternate takes or live performances, and he would intercut them with what he was working on in a current session. He would edit them together and mix them down to two-track, and then create more edits. As the whole record was put together, there would be multiple edits from different takes. So to mix in surround, we would have to find the source of all those alternate edits — from there, make those multitrack edits, put the master together and then remix the whole thing in surround. It's like an archaeological dig!
"We have a guy named Joe Travers, who we call the Vaultmeister — it's his job to go through these thousands of tapes, and listen. He's familiar enough with each record, because he's crazy, to start putting the pieces together. We're just now being able to find those pieces, because we weren't able to listen to stuff — plus, the labelling of the tapes is inconsistent at best. We found a lot of things that were quite interesting — there's a box that has a drawing on the back of it, and it's from 1970. There's a drawing of the room, and where the instruments are placed, and it's written on the box that it's a surround sound recording. So in 1970 Frank was thinking about surround sound, and he drew the picture so he could recreate the imaging later on.
"It's fascinating that the recording sounds as good as it does, but also that he was thinking in those terms. I know there are people today who think they are so ahead of their time because they only write their music in 5.1. I think it's ridiculous if you're telling me that this music is only being heard correctly if you hear the guitar from behind you! And to the left! I've heard people talk like that, and it makes no sense to me."
Charlie Boswell is not only the point of contact for AMD's sponsored artists, but also travels around the world evangelising Opteron technology. "We have not only a 64-bit processor, but an integrated memory controller which provides low-latency access, as well as Hypertransport [the intra-processor infrastructure]." Since programs like Nuendo and Cubase are multi-threaded, they should benefit from multiple processors, so the ability of the architecture to scale up is a critical factor. AMD has also talked about multi-core CPUs, which will effectively squeeze two or more chips into one package, adding further processing power to the host, and therefore diminishing the need for dedicated DSP cards.
As general-purpose CPUs get ever more powerful, is a move away from custom DSPs an inevitable trend? Naturally, Charlie thinks so. "When your modem used to sit externally to your PC, that was a 150-dollar piece of hardware. That was one of the first things to become the victim of host-based processing. With software like Native Instruments, Propellerhead Reason, Ableton Live — all these programs replace traditional outboard gear using host-based processing. You need the processing power to keep this 'live' without intermediate rendering. There is a cost advantage; one would once have had special, boutique hardware that's expensive not only to purchase, but more expensive to maintain. You have fixed-point DSP hardware, and the audio application requires double-precision floating-point arithmetic, with full dynamic range. People are beginning to hear the difference between a front-end DSP that does some voodoo on the arithmetic to try to emulate floating-point, versus a normal PC architecture that actually supports double-precision floating point. When you have lots of effects and virtual instruments, each one of those has to have full dynamic range; otherwise sonic integrity suffers."
In future, the much larger directly addressable memory of 64-bit systems may become important in the studio. "On a 32-bit system you have a wall at 4GB RAM, and when you hit that wall you begin to swap to disk — that means real-time operations suffer. Virtual instrument developers have many ways in which they would like to innovate, but on 32-bit systems they are constrained by the architecture."
The Zappa family have now been able to complete projects based on Frank's material, both released and unreleased, using the 64-bit hardware. "We have several new releases coming out, including Apostrophe and Over-nite Sensation. Now that Joe Travers is up and running on his Nuendo system, he's archiving away and listening to all these things that absolutely no-one else gets to hear; that is, until we decide to release it. We could put out a series — put together by Joe — whenever we want, and still do everything else we've promised to do and need to do. In addition to all of that, this is our first totally in-house project, with the exception of mastering, done by Stephen Marcussen. We managed to do everything from start to finish within six weeks.
"We have a lot of challenges ahead of us for the studio, to get ourselves to where we're comfortable. With things moving so fast, we're running into problems of archiving, and everything that you can imagine that applies to a huge recording company applies to us because we have so many tapes. We have to bake the tapes, and make the transfer — but the question is, what is the new format for it to live on? Is it going to be on digital and analogue as well? Our situation is that we don't have enough room to duplicate everything in analogue again — we would have a building twice the size. So you need to be able to have a stable digital environment, but no-one has come to the forefront with anything that anyone's confident will last more than five or seven years without problems. If you don't start up a hard drive for a while, you have the potential of not retrieving that information, even though you made a clean transfer at the time. You're constantly in fear of losing information.
"If an analogue tape has one play left in it, how are we going to have the music around for the future? We have thousands of examples of that — some tapes don't have the oxidisation problem, and then others clearly do. You can go through the vault, and see the history of tape. There's two or three kinds that stand the test of time, and others that when you open the box, it's dust, literally falling off the plastic."
There's also the question of which digital release format best does justice to the material in sonic terms. "Virtually no-one gets to hear what it sounds like in the studio when you're just hearing the purest version of what was recorded. In the best possible reproduction of it, you're hoping that it's going to be as pristine as possible, obviously, and I think DVD-A and SACD certainly give you a much better representation of what the actual master sounds like. When things get reproduced, sometimes they may not be using the best equipment to reproduce your stuff that gets out there — you may have some batches of CDs that don't sound as good as others. That was certainly the case with vinyl records; if they de-horned the master, you would lose the high end.
"We're probably going to release a few records on SACD, and I've listened to a few different records that have come out in that format. Certainly when you hear a stereo version SACD and a regular CD there's a remarkable difference — but you're going to need the right player. Even though it may say Super Audio CD, there may still be a PCM translation problem on the low-end players. Is the average person going to notice the difference? They probably wouldn't unless they did the same comparison that you'd do in the studio.
"I did some pretty extensive tests with some transfers recently, between Nuendo, the Euphonix R1 recorder, and the Sonoma SACD workstation. The machines themselves have their own playback characteristics, so we made sure that we weren't hearing one come back louder than another — because louder always sounds better. The one that came out sounding the best was the Sonoma, but it wasn't by that much. In the studio the R1 and my Nuendo workstation sound pretty close, but by the time it gets put on a CD, it's not necessarily going to sound exactly that way.
"The Sonoma transfer is not going to change, so you're going to able to recreate that studio experience in your home. It's all good — especially when we start getting into the multi-channel stuff. That's when you're going to hear the biggest shift in quality, because there's less compression and there's more room for individual instruments to find their way into speakers.
"I'm just excited to be in a position with the studio to work on not only my own music, but things that I've always wanted to do with my dad's music — to expose his music to a newer generation. There's never been a better time to show the difference between my dad's music and the musicians that played with him, versus what people think are the best musicians now. They should watch the Baby Snakes DVD and see the level that people were playing at 25 years ago."
The official web site for all things Zappa can be found at www.zappa.com.