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Technological Tribute to Frank Zappa

Exploration By Paul D. Lehrman
Published August 1997

PAUL D LEHRMAN took six players, four samplers and a computer, and created a live‑performance piece based on the music and words of Frank Zappa.

It left the audience delighted — and utterly confused.I've always been intrigued by the idea of live musicians performing with electronics. And I don't mean a singer standing at the front of a stage while a sequencer drones on in the background — I'm talking about people interacting with machines the way human performers usually interact with each other, with all the flexibility, spontaneity, and uncertainty that implies.

I took my first forays into this realm over two decades ago when, as a college student, I composed an 'electric sonata' for electrified bassoon (that is, a bassoon with a pickup on its crook, fed through a fuzz box, a wah‑wah pedal, and a Fender Twin Reverb) and pre‑recorded tape. The tape I created in the college's all‑analogue, all‑discrete electronic music studio. Tape, of course, is a very restrictive medium, in that the only control you have over it is when it starts and when it stops. But working with electronic sounds made it possible to open the audience's ears by 'identity confusion': you could make it very difficult for listeners to tell whether it was the human being or the machine that was making the sounds they were hearing.

With the advent of MIDI and the Mac, all sorts of possibilities opened up, both in terms of the availability of new sound sources, and in the fact that real‑time interaction with a computer sitting in front of you was now possible. In the 1980s I composed a series of solo performance pieces that used a combination of keyboard, breath and percussion controllers, and pitch‑to‑MIDI convertors, in conjunction with computers running sequencing and algorithmic composing programs. The last — and in terms of performance, the simplest — of these was 'I Dig A Pygmy', a tribute to John Lennon on the 10th anniversary of his death, which used nothing but sampled sounds of Lennon and the Beatles, computer‑modified and loaded into a Roland S770 sampler (later a Kurzweil K2000), and then played back 'live' from a keyboard (see Sound On Sound from December 1993 for a full description of this piece). I have performed it a dozen times in the years since I composed it, and it continues to evolve.

An Educational Experience

This year, I had an opportunity to expand the concept of computer‑aided performance from a solo pursuit to a group endeavour. I teach an advanced seminar, 'Computer Applications in Music', in the Sound Recording Technology programme at the University of Massachusetts Lowell, which is open only to seniors who have a year of synthesizer and MIDI programming under their belts. One of the course requirements is that each student do a large project: a MIDI realisation of an orchestral piece, an original composition that mixes tape or hard‑disk audio — or both — with MIDI, a live‑performance piece utilising the computer, or a soundtrack (music and effects) to a movie. This year's projects included an arrangement of the 'Danse Infernal' from Stravinsky's Firebird, the car‑chase scene from The French Connection, and a Tom & Jerry cartoon. At the end of the term, we often play the projects in a public concert, in a 300‑seat lecture hall equipped with a video projector and a good sound system.

The whole piece took about 15 minutes — and the audience went nuts.

Since no student this year had opted to do a live‑performance piece, I decided to create one, and to enlist my students in its execution. In last year's concert I had played the Lennon piece and that had been received very well, so this year I thought I'd do something vaguely similar, based on the work of another one of my musical heroes, someone I knew the students could also relate to: Frank Zappa. So while they spent the term learning about SMPTE placement of sound effects, pitch‑ and time‑shifting algorithms, MIDI automation of DSP, SMDI dumps, and word sync (not to mention dealing with software bugs, hard‑disk crashes, and busy signals on tech support lines), I hatched a plot for a complex, computer‑assisted, high‑energy, visually interesting, audience‑befuddling piece that would pay homage to Zappa, while at the same time providing an opportunity for the students to show off their programming and performing skills. Since I planned to use Zappa's tune 'King Kong' as the take‑off point for the piece, I would call it King Frank.

Input And Output Instruments

All of the students in the Sound Recording Technology programme are well‑trained musicians, and my small group was no exception: Brian Calicchia and Todd Baker are guitarists, Claus Trelby is a keyboard player, and Mike Verette and Luis Silva are drummers. So the first decision to be made was what MIDI controllers to give them, and me. Although I am primarily a keyboard player, I used to play woodwinds, and a couple of years ago I bought, just out of curiosity, a Casio DH100 from the back pages of an American magazine. Although it looks somewhat like a children's toy, it's turned out to be a wonderful tool for generating brass and woodwind parts; I decided to use it. Mike and Luis each got a KAT DK10 drum controller — the school owns one and I lent my own unit to the effort. Claus got to play the keyboard of a Kurzweil K2000, which we own two of. We have but one Casio MIDI guitar, and I gave it to Brian. To Todd I gave the assignment of running the computer, and since he also has some keyboard skills and was particularly interested in learning about new synthesis methods, I gave him our Yamaha VL1.

For output devices, I used the school's Kurzweil K2000s (each with 16Mb of memory), and my own (with 32Mb). We also have several Digidesign SampleCell cards, so we loaded one of them with 16Mb of RAM and put it into the computer that Todd was working with. Our MIDI interface was a Mark Of The Unicorn MIDI Time Piece, which allows cable routing both into the computer and separately from it (see the 'Routing Around' box). Sequencing and overall control was handled by Opcode's Vision, version 3.0.1 (see Figure 5, on page 159). The computer at the centre of it all was a Macintosh Quadra 650, with 24Mb of RAM, running System 7.5.

The sequencer, among other tasks, handled the rhythm section, playing through four MIDI channels on one of the K2000s. Another channel in the same K2000 held individual samples that were triggered at intervals throughout the piece, and a sixth channel was for my MIDI saxophone sound — a Tenor Sax multisample, very much modified and made Zappa‑esque (see the 'Designing The Sounds' box). The second K2000 was shared by Claus, who played it in local mode using the Dual Elec Piano ROM program, and Brian's guitar, for which he chose, not surprisingly, the Helter Skelter Guitar ROM patch; the third was shared by the two percussionists. Todd played the VL1 in local mode using the SteamLead factory patch, turning the volume down when he accessed the SampleCell sounds.

Luis and Mike designed drum maps for themselves around the DK10's built‑in General MIDI key maps. Since the basic drum tracks were to be played by the sequencer, they could set themselves up with more exotic sounds both from the K2000's ROM and from other sources — congas, timbales, cowbells, shakers, tambourines, giant snares and kicks, and human grunts and sighs, which were samples of their own voices.

The Piece

'King Kong' is a fast, modal 3/4 jazz tune which Zappa first recorded in 1968 on the album Uncle Meat. A major portion of King Frank was to be straight blowing over 'King Kong', with each of us getting a solo, and the two drummers soloing together. At the beginning and end of the piece, however, and in between each solo, the sequencer would spit out a sample from a Zappa album, more or less relevant to the instrument that was about to solo: for example, before Brian's hot guitar solo we heard Zappa's pitch‑shifted voice saying "Golly, do I have an awful lot of soul", from We're Only In It For The Money, and before the drums we heard an unidentified woman saying, "I only dreamt I lived in a drum... ever since it got dark", from Lumpy Gravy.

The variety of point sources added nicely to the audience's befuddlement.

The sequencer played during almost all of the piece. It handled the melody at the beginning and end of the piece (which Brian, Claus, and I also played), and provided a rhythm track under the solos. This consisted of three 16‑bar sequences — a beginning, a middle, and a tag — containing kick, snare, and ride‑cymbal patterns, plus bass, which was simply two tonic notes an octave apart on a Clavinet patch, along with various harmonic accents. For example, the beginning of the first sequence started with a brass fall‑off, the middle contained one of Zappa's riffs using a sax section patch, and the tag contained a rising chromatic progression, which made it easy for the ensemble to hear when the sequence was about to end.

The sequences were set up in order by Todd using the Macintosh keyboard and Vision's Queue function. The middle section was repeatable, and Todd could determine how long each solo was going to be while it played: if he cued up the tag sequence, it would go to the tag and end, but if he didn't, the middle sequence would loop. The soloists and Todd used eye contact to agree when a solo should end. The tag sequence ended abruptly, punctuated by a sample, which itself was triggered by a single‑note sequence. Todd would then cue the sequence for the next solo manually, using a nod of his head to indicate the downbeat and pressing the appropriate key on the Mac keyboard to start the next sequence.

After the head and the four solos, there was a drum solo, in which the computer played a different sequence consisting only of kick and hi‑hat, which looped indefinitely. On a cue from the drummers (who worked out a very tight solo together), Todd would cut off the sequence, and start the next one.

Musique ConcrÈTe

This next section was totally free‑form. There were no 'instrument' sounds — instead, each player played nothing but samples, either one‑shots or loops, created from phrases in Zappa's recorded repertoire. The sequence had no notes in it: it contained patch changes, to call up custom patches in the K2000s, and a volume command to turn on SampleCell. I gave the group a visual cue so that everyone started playing at once.

Each of us had our own sample set, stored in custom patches in the K2000s or SampleCell. My set, for example, included "Cream Cheese!" and "It can't happen here" from Freak Out and "Oh, my hair's getting good in the back" from Only Money (see Figure 6, below); Brian's sample set consisted mainly of guitar loops from the Guitar CD, along with the title riff from 'My Guitar Wants To Kill Your Mama' from Weasels Ripped My Flesh; Todd's included such gems as "Why does it hurt when I pee?" from Joe's Garage. Each of us got a palette of about two dozen samples, spread out over several octaves.

I hatched a plot for a complex, computer‑assisted, high‑energy, visually interesting piece.

After starting the section together, we let it evolve organically — some performers would lie back for a few seconds, and then add something in response to what someone else did. In rehearsing the piece, this was by far the hardest part — not only did everyone have to learn what notes corresponded to what samples in their own sets, but they had to learn not to get so enthusiastic about their sounds that they ended up stepping all over everybody else. We probably had enough samples for this section to go on for half an hour or more, but in the interest of not totally alienating the listeners, we limited it to about two minutes. This meant, unfortunately, that no one got to play everything in their set. Nevertheless, it was a splendid chaotic mess, straddling the line between glorious anarchy and totally indistinguishable noise.

Our cue to end the free‑form section was when Mike started pounding out "I can't stand it!" from Live At The Fillmore East, faster and faster, which would dissolve into a hideous laugh from Only Money in Luis' set, and segue into "This must be the end of the world" from Lumpy Gravy in Claus' set.

More Confusion

Todd started the sequencer again, picking up the beat, but this time with drums only. This was a 'trading eights' section, a common technique in jazz, in which each player plays an eight‑bar solo over the beat, and it goes around the room, round‑robin style. In this case, however, so as to further bewilder the audience, the instrument sounds that each of us played in this section had nothing to do with the physical instrument we were playing.

The first solo was Mike's: his drum pad triggered a set of dive‑bombing guitar samples from a Steve Stevens CD. Then Luis' drum pad played 'Pop Goes The Weasel' with a trumpet patch, Claus' keyboard played a Jethro Tull‑style flute, Todd's keyboard played an elephant‑calling French horn, my toy sax played a sitar, and Brian's guitar triggered a General MIDI drum kit!

After we'd gone around that way twice, another sample interrupted us, and we played from the top again, finally ending with a sample from 'Do You Like My New Car?' on Live At The Fillmore East: "You guys are so professional!" The whole piece took about 15 minutes — and the audience went nuts.

Do It Again, Do It Again!?

The students have all graduated by now and gone off to various internships and jobs all over the country, and so it's doubtful we will ever have another chance to perform King Frank. But it was a wonderful one‑off experience, and taught both them and me a lot about the possibilities, and the limits, of live performance with computers. And we certainly excited and confused the audience. A friend who was there that night, an experienced, well‑respected electronic musician in his own right, after hearing the piece, paid me what was possibly the highest compliment I could want. He asked me, "How did you do that?"

Designing The Sounds

The Casio DH100 is a curious beast. Like the Mattel Power Glove, which had a very short commercial lifespan but is now in great demand by experimenters as a real‑time virtual reality controller, the DH100 never really caught on, and Casio dumped it. A small company in Wisconsin, however, picked up Casio's inventory and still sells the unit at a bargain‑basement price. It looks pretty silly, and is built rather flimsily, but, once you get to know it, can be a genuinely useful MIDI controller.

It generates only three types of commands: notes, aftertouch, and portamento. The note numbers are determined by how you place your fingers on the keys, and there are two fingering schemes available: one that closely resembles a normal saxophone, and gives you a two‑and‑a‑half‑octave range, and a weird 'binary' sort of fingering that, if it were at all playable, which it isn't, would yield a four‑octave range.

You blow into a mouthpiece, behind which is a breath sensor. When the pressure on the breath sensor passes approximately the half‑maximum point, a note‑on is generated, immediately followed by aftertouch, which then follows changes in your breath pressure. Therefore, you must be blowing to play a note (the breath sensor can be defeated, but that negates the whole value of the thing, doesn't it?), and the initial value of the aftertouch under a note will always be at least 64. The note continues, and aftertouch continues to be generated, until you stop blowing completely — if you pass below the half‑point threshold, you still get sound. So, while it's not terribly easy to sneak in a note quietly, it is easy to do a long fade on one. Portamento is turned on with a switch by the left index finger.

I created a patch on the K2000 that used the Tenor Sax patch in ROM as a take‑off point, assigning aftertouch to the patch's volume, as well as to a filter that provided a little mid‑range boost as I blew harder. I also assigned foot controller (MIDI controller number 4) as a second source for the same filter, configuring it to provide a lot more boost, and also to alter the filter's resonant frequency — thus achieving that horrid Ian Underwood late‑'60s electric‑sax‑with‑wah‑wah sound that Zappa was so fond of. I put the patch into Mono mode, and gave it a portamento range of 70 keys per second, so that I could do little slides or huge swoops, toggling them with the horn's portamento switch.

In addition I used two footswitches to control the pitch, one of which raised it by an octave (1200 cents), and one of which lowered it by an octave. This gave my MIDI horn a range of over four octaves. Interestingly enough, I found that lowering the Tenor Sax ROM samples resulted in a very convincing baritone sax — gutsier and sloppier than using a real baritone sax sample.

Creating the various Zappa‑sample patches was a process that began with my going through some of my rather vast collection of Zappa CDs on Rykodisc and Zappa's own Barking Pumpkin label, in my home studio. I had hoped to use the the internal CD‑ROM drive on my Macintosh clone to gather the samples, using the 'digital audio extraction' feature built into QuickTime, which allows you to import recordings from an audio CD directly onto your hard disk, with your choice of sample rates, word lengths, and number of channels. I quickly found, however, that this was very cumbersome. The extraction process provides no easy way to audibly cue the CDs — you have to set up the in and out points by specifying timing numbers. If you want to hear the CD, you have to use CD Remote or another software controller, and most of them are clumsy and inaccurate, provide no high‑speed cueing, and often have the annoying habit of jumping to the beginning of a track when you're trying to cue backwards.

Fortunately, I have a JVC CD audio player that happens to be one of the few consumer players ever produced with an S/PDIF output. I connected that to the digital input on my Digidesign Pro Tools Audio Interface, and launched Sound Designer II. I put the software in Monitor mode to listen to the CDs, and when I encountered a sample I liked, I simply backed up the CD the requisite number of seconds (using a wireless remote, so I didn't even have to sit up) and put the software into Record. Sound Designer has the advantage over some audio recording programs that, when you record a signal in mono, it combines the two channels, rather than just leaving one out — since there was no particular reason to record the samples in stereo, I used this feature for all the samples.

One feature that Sound Designer no longer has, however, is a way to send files to an external sampler, and so after I'd collected about 150 samples, I broke them up into sets corresponding to the five players who would be using them, and brought them into BIAS' Peak. There I did some quick trimming and normalising of the files (things that Peak is much faster at than Sound Designer, due to its working with both RAM and disk files, as opposed to the older program's reliance on disk operations), and sent them over SMDI — the SCSI‑based file exchange program used by most sampler manufacturers — to my K2000, through the fairly complex SCSI chain in my studio. The latest version of Peak (1.5) allows batch normalising, which saved a lot of time, and, even better, it allows SMDI transfers to be batched, which meant that I could set up the operation, and walk away for 20 minutes, and when I came back all the samples were nicely lined up inside the K2000.

I then created keyboard maps for each player in the K2000 to hold the appropriate samples, and created patches from the keymaps. For the two drummers, I set up the keymaps to match the General MIDI note map built into the DK10s, and also specified what would be ignored — the whole sample would play whenever they hit a pad, regardless of its length. For the others I arranged the samples so that each one covered a range of two or three half‑steps; they could then be played several times and each time sound slightly different, since they would be pitched differently. I saved the finished patches, with the samples, to the internal drive on my K2000, and backed it up to a Zip cartridge, formatted for the K2000.

Todd was planning on creating his own patch for SampleCell, so I left the other samples in Sound Designer format, and copied them to another Zip cartridge, formatted for the Mac.

I brought my Zip drive and cartridges up to school, and transferred the sample and programme files to the hard disks in the MIDI studio, one of which is used for Sound Designer and Pro Tools files; the other is dedicated to the Kurzweil K2000, although they are all on the same SCSI chain. Normally there is only one K2000 in the studio; the other one lives in our 24‑track room, but I stole it for this project. After loading one K2000 with samples, the SCSI connector had to be switched by hand to the other K2000, so that its samples could be loaded. We had to do this each time we rehearsed, and before the performance. You can be sure that after we got everything set up for the performance, we guarded the main power switch for the room closely!

Frankly Sampling

In addition to the ones mentioned in the main story and the key‑mapping illustration, here are some of the other samples we used in King Frank, and their sources. All CDs are on the Rykodisc label.

Absolutely Free
'Uncle Bernie's Farm': "There's a bomb to blow your daddy up."
'Brown Shoes Don't Make It': "Be a joik and go to woik."

'Don't Eat The Yellow Snow': "Don't you go where the huskies go."

Chunga's Revenge
'Would You Go All The Way?': "Lift up your dress."

Freak Out
'It Can't Happen Here': "AC/DC" (looped).
'Help I'm A Rock': "America's wonderful/wonderful" (looped); "It's a drag being a cop."
'Wowie Zowie': "I don't even care if you shave your legs."

Meets The Mothers Of Prevention
'Porn Wars': "It's outrageous filth."
Overnite Sensation
'Montana': "A pair of heavy‑duty zircon‑encrusted tweezers"; "Yippie‑i‑o‑tie‑yay."

We're Only In It for The Money
'Who Needs The Peace Corps': "Phony hippies"; "Flower power sucks/sucks" (looped, of course).
'Nasal Retentive Calliope Music': "A little nostalgia for the old folks."

You Can't Do That On Stage Anymore, Volume 1
'The Groupie Routine': "With a bullet"; "That's me."

Routing Around

All of the instruments needed to be controlled both from the sequencer (mostly patch changes, and in the case of one K2000, the rhythm track) and from a live sound source. With the exception of Todd's VL1 keyboard, which he used to trigger sounds in a SampleCell card during the musique concrète section, the output of the input controllers did not need to be fed into the computer.

Rather than use MIDI mergers and splitters, I opted to use the built‑in routing features of Mark Of The Unicorn's MIDI Time Piece. I've used the MTP (through three incarnations) for several years, but never had a chance to use this feature. I'm happy to say that it worked flawlessly.

The unit we had available was an original MIDI Time Piece — the more recent devices we have at college were still in use by students finishing their term projects — but it had all the capabilities we needed. My Casio MIDI horn was routed directly to the K2000 I was using, with a channel filter put on the input to make sure that nothing leaked out to any of the other channels. The K2000 responds to non‑keyboard (that is, pedal and slider) input even when local control is turned off, so I could plug my three pedals right into the instrument.

Brian's MIDI guitar was routed to the K2000 he was sharing with Claus, also with a channel filter on it. Luis' and Mike's KAT drum pads were routed to their K2000, each on its own channel, and each with a filter. Todd's VL1 was routed into the computer, and he needed to make sure that SampleCell was chosen as the active instrument in Vision, and that Keyboard Thru was turned on.

The sequencer's MIDI output was routed to all of the K2000s. To save on MIDI cables, the K2000 that was handling my sax and the rhythm tracks was daisy‑chained to the K2000 that Mike and Luis were playing. This meant we couldn't use any of the same MIDI channels on the two synths, and that all of the channels being used on one machine had to be turned off on the other. Since my machine was using a total of six channels and the other one only two, this was not a problem.

K2000s have two sets of stereo outputs, and only one goes through the internal effects chip. To keep the audio paths as distinct as possible — so as to make the life of the department's technical director, Bill Carman, who was mixing the concert, easier — we broke up the outputs of the synths by MIDI channels so that each player had his own stereo feed appear at the console. My sax, for example, showed up at two channels, routed through my K2000's onboard effects chip, which was set to a chorusing delay. The other half of the instrument (the one playing the rhythm tracks) was dry, so we hooked up a Lexicon LXP1 to the board, and sweetened the rhythm tracks with a little medium‑room reverb. We could then use the same reverb for the other instruments that came out of the dry sides of their respective K2000s: Claus' electric piano and Luis' drums.

We brought an extra pair of speakers into the lecture hall — the existing system (whose speakers hang from the ceiling) had been fine for playing film tracks and for a single sampler the previous year, but since we were going to mix five instruments simultaneously, I wanted something beefier. We brought in two Bryston power amps, one for the installed pair and one for our new pair on the floor. The mixing console was a Mackie CR1604 we borrowed from a local dealer. We took advantage of the Mackie's pseudo‑4‑channel output, and routed the Alt outputs (3 and 4) to the ceiling speakers, and the Main outputs (1 and 2) to the floor speakers. On the board, we assigned the rhythm tracks, the piano, and Luis' drums (all the tracks that were going through the reverb) to the main outputs, and everybody else to the ceiling. The coverage was excellent, and the variety of point sources added nicely to the audience's befuddlement.


Rykodisc have been re‑releasing the whole of Frank Zappa's back catalogue, with improvements to both the recordings and the artwork all approved by the man himself before his death in 1993. "We've made every effort to do right by him," they say. Ask them to send you their Zappalogue, which gives detailed info on every album and even has an index of tracks.

Rykodisc sell by mail order, and for £5 a year (£7.50 outside the UK) you can also join Earful, their mail order club, which gives you a 15% discount on prices plus information on new releases and special offers in the quarterly newsletter.

You'll find a number of pages dedicated to Zappa on their web site too.

Single CDs £12.49 including VAT and p&p; doubles £18.99.