Dweezil Zappa on the legacy of father Zappa

By | April 5, 2021

Dweezil Zappa, from the tour Zappa plays Zappa in Stockholm 2006. Photo: @ Björn Olsberg

Studio took the opportunity to meet him when he visited Sweden in 2006 in connection with the tour Zappa plays Zappa.

Imagine having access to recorded material spanning 40 years – an artist’s entire career, from the groundbreaking recordings of the late 60’s to entire tours documented on 24 channels. You have the freedom and the opportunity to choose what you want from the archive for finishing, remixing and re-publishing.

Dweezil, Frank Zappa’s son, finds himself in just that situation. Studio took the opportunity to meet him when the “Zappa plays Zappa” tour passed Stockholm.

Frank Zappa (1940-1993) left a large collection of recorded material in a room called “the Vault”. Dweezil – who, among other things, collaborated with his father as a live and session musician – saw it as his task to explore the archive. It would not turn out to be an easy task. Frank Zappa liked to document his concerts and in the early 80’s got a mobile recording studio to record each channel separately, at each concert. Dweezil begins to measure with his hands to show the size of the basement vault where the tapes are stored. How many tapes or recorded minutes the archive consists of is still not known.

– I do not know how many thousands of tapes there are in there, but it is overwhelming!

Recording format comes and goes
When an archive spans such a long time, you are faced with several different problems. One is that different recording formats have come and gone over the years. The first multi-channel tape recorder Frank Zappa used – built by his then studio technician Paul Buff – had five channels. Then followed 8-, 16- and 24-channel analog tape recorders and later a plethora of digital formats.

The Zappa family’s private studio, Utility Muffin Research Kitchen, therefore houses all possible playback machines to access all material.

An additional problem is that storage media have a limited lifespan. The substance that fixes the magnetic oxide on the tape ages and begins to smudge on the tone head. Both the tape and the machine may deteriorate during each playback.

The question is also which format to choose to transfer the material to. So far, there is no format that can guarantee a longer lifespan, so at the moment Dweezil is transferring the material to the digital domain and storing it on hard drive.

Dweezil likens the work in the Vault to an archaeological excavation. Recently, they found a song that had never appeared on a record release before and that was only performed once, during a concert in 1972. The song was included in 2006 on the album of the same name, “Imaginary diseases”.

– The idea with most of the material that is published is to reproduce it in its original condition as far as possible. It should be heard what era the material comes from, says Dweezil.

An example is the album “QuAUDIOPHILIAc” which was released on DVD audio in 5.1 surround. On the cover of the original tape – recorded in 1970 – was a sketch that showed how the instruments and microphones were placed at the time of recording. All instruments had been recorded simultaneously in one and the same room and by mixing in 5.1 and placing the tracks based on the sketch, it was in principle possible to recreate the instruments’ position in the room.

But the cover does not always provide such detailed information and you can not be sure what you will get when you roll up a tape.

– Frank was known for playing over things. When there was no tape, he simply played over something old, says Dweezil.

Early out with digital technology
The work with the Vault takes place in both the analog and digital domains. Frank Zappa took an early interest in digital recording technology and strived for as pure a signal chain as possible. If he had lived today, he would, according to Dweezil, be an advocate for digital development and the opportunities it brought with it.

At the same time, it is a significant part of the archive that consists of analog recordings and Dweezil says that in these cases he likes to use external analog equipment, including an early prototype of SSL’s famous stereo compressor that has been in the studio since the late 70s.

– An analog chain amplifies the noise, distortion and blur in a good way, Dweezil explains.
Otherwise, the mixing process takes place as far as possible in the digital domain. Dweezil talks warmly about the dsp resources modern computers offer. Nowadays, computers with AMD processors, Steinberg’s Nuendo and a digital mixing desk from the Euphonix System 5 series are the heart of the studio.

Press photo with Dweezil in his AMD-equipped studio from around 2005.

Unique insight into the production
Having access to the multi-channel tapes from these classic recordings opens up a number of fantastic possibilities.

– I look forward to listening to the guitar channels to the song “Watermelon in easter hay” to find out if they were recorded with all the effects or if they were added later, says Dweezil.

It provides an opportunity to learn more about producer Frank Zappa’s way of working. Dweezil is fascinated by, among other things, how the lack of channels made it necessary to make production decisions already during recording:

– Some of the recordings do not need to be done at all when mixing. If you set all the rules the same, it basically sounds like on the record!

In parallel with the Vault, Dweezil is working on assembling a sampling library of Frank Zappa’s large audio bank for the sampling and FM synthesis-based system Synclavier.

– We are reviewing the possibilities of publishing it so that everyone can have access to the library, says Dweezil.

And even if it does not sound as loud as finding hitherto unknown studio recordings, it is still an exciting endeavor. Especially considering that the entire Grammy-winning album “Jazz from hell” from 1986 consists of sounds from Synclaviern. An album that in the US also received a “parental advisory” stamp from RIIA, even though it is completely instrumental.


Dweezil’s best plug tips
Melodyne: In addition to the obvious use – to correct song recordings – Dweezil has discovered that it is an excellent tool to create crazy effects with. But what he appreciates most is the ability to transcribe a monophonic audio file and convert it to midi:

– Frank would have appreciated the opportunity to transcribe melodies so easily – as he often let his musicians double his improvised guitar solo.

Dweezil is a big fan of all Native Instruments plugs. On his latest solo album, for example, he used Guitar Rig to create sound that would otherwise have required several guitar amps to recreate. An acquaintance that also led to ideas outside the studio’s four walls:

– Guitar Rig has even influenced my choice of equipment on the current tour. For example, the technology to split the guitar signal into several different guitar amplifiers and to steplessly let the sound be mixed between them with the help of a volume pedal.

Otherwise, Dweezil mostly sticks to Gibson guitars.


About Dweezil Zappa
Born 1969. Has been a recurring session musician on Frank Zappa’s album since “Them or us” from 1984. Appeared on the soundtrack to the cult film “Spinal Tap” and formed in the early 90’s group Z together with his brother Ahmed. Has also worked in television, including as a host on MTV and as a host for a combined music and cooking program. In 2005, he and Ahmed put together a band of musicians from different eras of Frank Zappa’s career to embark on a world tour with only Frank Zappa compositions on the repertoire, called “Zappa plays Zappa”.

The article was originally published 2007-01-23 and was written by Joachim Ekermann (@joachime)