Freak out in Surround

The 5.1 format seems an ideal showcase for Frank Zappa’s music. A composer and musician with an output so prodigious that new albums are still being released nine years after his untimely death, Zappa frequently employed large ensembles playing music of a textural complexity that could benefit
greatly from the extended dynamic range and additional speaker channels of the format.

zappaBut the way in which Zappa created many of his studio albums makes for a daunting task when it comes to re-creating them for the release format, according to his son Dweezil, himself a musician of considerable repute. “People may not be familiar with how complicated that whole process is. It’s difficult to put together some of Frank’s projects because they were all heavily edited, in many case from different performances.”

He elaborates: “There are tracks on certain records where the beginning is played in the ’60s, the middle is in the ’70s, and the end is in the ’80s. It’s bizarre, because it’s culled from different bands in different decades, yet it all works in one context. He would have all these build reels, and to re-create that is going to be problematic. You’d have to find all the original takes.”

When DTS approached the family about releasing a DVD-A from Frank Zappa’s catalog, he says, a plan soon fell into place. “It was already something that we wanted to do, so we decided to use the opportunity to deal with their expertise in the field and do a joint project.” The first release on the Zappas’ new Vaulternative record label in conjunction with DTS Entertainment will be a 1978 Halloween concert recorded at the New York Palladium.

And who better to mix the project than Joe Chiccarelli? An engineer and producer whose resume includes work with U2, Elton John, Tori Amos, Beck, and the Kronos Quartet, Chiccarelli began his career with Frank Zappa in 1978. “That was my first year as a full-fledged engineer,” he recollects. “I was 22 or so. He was a mentor to me, and gave me a break — it was my education.”

The Palladium, he says, “was my first live recording gig. We rehearsed maybe one afternoon and played three nights.

“The stuff was all on 24-track analog, a mix of Ampex and BASF tape,” reports Chiccarelli. “It was cut on an Ampex 1200 machine. We ended up playing it back on a Studer A800. It was all Dolby A.” Not unusual for a 24-year-old project, the tapes required baking. “The first reel that we put up played for 30 seconds then died, because there was so much gunk on the heads. We thought we might not have an album. But luckily I’d picked out the worst reel.”

zappa2At Capitol Records’ studios in Hollywood, where the tapes were also baked, he continues, “We transferred into Nuendo via Pro Tools HD at 24/96. We played it back from Nuendo via Apogee DA16 converters, which really made a difference. There was tone and bottom end and warmth, and it was almost like analog. That’s what the rough mixes sounded like in 1978.”

Chiccarelli met with Dweezil Zappa and Rory Kaplan, executive producer/ artist relations at DTS, to discuss the project’s direction. “I wanted to take a you-are-there approach and make it sound fun, live, and as if you are in the middle of the audience,” says Chiccarelli. “We kept true to that, although there are moments in the show where we made use of the rear speakers by putting effects or individual instruments for a given moment.”

Working with Capitol engineer Steve Genewick, he says, “We did stereo mixes first, then tore it all down and started from scratch with the 5.1 mixes. We edited it like an hour-long piece of music and I mixed it as an hour-long piece. I got my sounds up for the first cut and from there it was just working balances.” Monitoring throughout, he notes, was via Tannoy 10-inch Mastering Lab SGM-10’s and Tannoy 800A’s.

But as the mixes developed, Chiccarelli says, he began to change his mind about the approach. “I spent I don’t know how many years with Frank, and I know he wouldn’t have taken this ‘photographic’ approach, but would have loved to play with the technology. So we picked our moments.”

Dweezil Zappa explains one such moment: “There’s some silliness with the drum solo. I wanted to have a little fun with it. Beyond dropping in the middle of [Vinnie Colaiuta’s] drum kit, it spins you around. The beginning is normal, then it becomes a little more tweezed as it goes on. It definitely breaks out into psycho-panning mode. I wanted to go little crazy with the panning just so people at home can test out their system and see if it’s working.”

“It’s definitely a novelty,” Chiccarelli agrees, “but I know Frank, and he would have whacked this thing out even more. But good taste is really the judge. There is a point where it sounds like you’re calling attention to the technology. I just like to complement it, rather than call your attention to it.”

He continues, “It was definitely a trick making something intended for stereo 20 years ago sound like it was intended for surround sound now. You run into monitor bleed and audience applause bleeding into the vocal microphones. The interesting dilemma is, how do you justify applause coming from the center channel through the vocal mic?”

An additional problem was the creation of a 5.1 audience image. “The tricky thing with 5.1 is filling up that mid-side position,” he says. “I did a lot of weird phase things and was able to put some information there, like audience clapping, using out-of-phase reverbs and an SRS Labs box, a stereo widener.” Overall, he says, “We used the TC 6000 and the [Eventide] Orville, one of the few 5.1 digital effects boxes.”

Once completed, he continues, Dweezil came by for a final listen. The fact that the entire show was up on the console, including effects, and was automated in an hour-and-10-minute print, made last-minute changes simple, he says. “We could listen to it as a show and say, ‘It falls short here, we need a little more excitement there, this song needs to come up versus the other.’

“Then we printed to 2-inch 8-track on the Studer 827 — BASF tape, non-Dolby, 30 ips. The 2-track mixes were printed to half-inch analog. We did do a little bit of stereo bus compression, using the new TC 3-band stereo compressor with a crossover.”

Having outgrown his own project studio, and to prepare for future 5.1 releases from Frank Zappa’s archive, Dweezil Zappa reveals that the control room at the Utility Muffin Research Kitchen is undergoing an extensive rebuild. It will be a huge transformation of the studio, which has been out of service for the past eight-and-a-half years. “Now that we’ve built a machine room, we’re going to get the machines refurbished and be able to really start attacking some of the material, archive it properly, and put it on new formats. Some of the stuff we haven’t been able to listen to because we didn’t have a place to even operate some of the machines.”

With the studio revamped for 5.1 use, the plan with the Vaulternative label is to release at least one DVD-A project a year, culled from full-length concerts or material from rare and unusually small or large band line-ups, he reports. “I would also like to do some of my favorite records of Frank’s. In fact, there are a few that he already did quad mixes for, like Overnite Sensation and Apostrophe. We may listen to those, see if there needs to be any tweaking and maybe put out the quad mixes.”

With such an enormous body of his father’s work in the archives, he observes, “I’ll be doing this for another 35 years. Frank, in under 30 years, made over 70 albums, and had stuff left over for another 30 [since passing away]. And it’s widely varied — it’s not like he’s re-recording or rewriting the same four-chord progression. When you think of other bands that have had a consistent career, like the Rolling Stones, for example, they’ve been together for more than 30 years, but they don’t have 70 albums.”
The new release format may also be the perfect vehicle for his own project. “It’s called What the Hell Was I Thinking? and it’s a 75-minute continuous piece of music. The best way to describe it is as an audio movie. I plan on having really drastic soundscape environmental changes, and a better way to accomplish that is in 5.1.”

An “encyclopedia of guitar,” the track features over 30 famous players, including Eddie Van Halen, Angus and Malcolm Young, Brian Setzer, and Joe Walsh, “doing things that are unexpected,” he reveals. “Eventually that will come out in all its 5.1 splendor.”

Surround Professional Magazine