It’s no secret that many releases with
“live” or “alive” in their title are nipped and tucked
in postproduction. Vocals get tuned, solos are fixed
or replaced, extra instruments are layered on top
of the original performances, and so on. F.O.H.
[Fantom], the new 2-CD release from guitarist
Dweezil Zappa and his 8-piece Zappa Plays Zappa
ensemble, is not that kind of record. Even if Zappa
had wanted to tidy things up, it would have been nearly impossible given the source material
he chose—2-channel digital recordings
captured over several tours, taken directly
from the F.O.H. (“front of house”) reference
mixes. What you hear is a snapshot
of what happened on stage and what it
sounded like in the house for any given
Zappa Plays Zappa has been touring
since 2006, playing the music of the late
Frank Zappa. To call Frank’s often dense
and polyrhythmic music “challenging”
would be a gross understatement, but
Dweezil—Frank’s son—is dedicated to presenting
the material at the highest standard
possible. He and the ZPZ band excel
not only at nailing the notes but maintaining
the character and feel of Frank’s
original recordings from the mid 1960s
through the late ’70s.
“We’ve done extensive touring, recording
lots of it, and good performances have
been captured,” says Zappa. “I don’t have
time to go to the multi-tracks and mix this
amount of material, so I started investigating
whether any of our front-of-house references
sounded good and balanced enough to
be released. I listened to hundreds of them,
and found the ones that had the most consistency—
the right combination of overall
mix balance, as well as depth and detail in
the performance itself.”
Once Zappa had cherry-picked the performances,
the only sonic changes that
could be made were the more broad strokes
done in the mastering process. But he went
beyond simply balancing frequencies and
correcting quirks. “I wanted to emphasize
the character of the era of each song,” he
says. “The way I did it in mastering was to
use Universal Audio plug-ins to ‘print’ the
mix as if it were going to a certain kind of
tape formulation on a certain tape machine.
I did some research to see what kind of tape Frank actually used during those periods.
If we were doing something from, say,
Fillmore East, I could look into the vaults
and see what kind of tape was used and
on what kind of machine. I tried to match
those kinds of things to give it that extra
little sonic layer of detail. I think it makes
a difference in how it hits you when you
listen to it.”
With all the live ZPZ recordings you had cataloged,
how did you choose the recordings that
ultimately became the F.O.H. record?
I wanted to find the best examples of the
band executing the music with good energy
and a sense of fun, and strong improvisational
ideas in the solo sections. Unusual
guitar sounds were also part of the equation.
They’re always a good bonus.
The Fractal Audio Axe-Fx II system is the
centerpiece of your touring rig. It can create
such a wide array of tones, yet you still use some
Here’s an analogy. If you track a record
on a Neve console, you might want to mix
on an SSL. The crossover points and character
of the EQs are different, and you can
get some different details and textures as
a result. The same is true with the Fractal.
Even though it can produce virtually any
amp sound or effect, it’s sometimes nice
to have slightly different versions of things
so you can have the best variety.
How did you get the “Willie the Pimp” sound?
It’s so weird and throaty—especially when you
get up high on the neck.
There’s a little bit of a fuzz/octave effect
in there. I was using a Boss FZ-2 Hyper
Fuzz, in conjunction with other stuff. You’re
hearing that octave thing on one side, and
a different kind of fuzz—from the Fractal—
on the other side, and they’re blending
What about more conventional blues-rock tones—like on “Son of Mr. Green Genes”?
That’s just the straight-up Fractal. It’s
a patch that we made, which is a Marshall
sound on one side and a Fender on the
other. We slapped it together to have a certain
kind of retro sound—like a cranked-up
amp, but with not too much gain.
Is your walnut SG the main guitar you played
on the F.O.H. recordings?
The majority of the songs feature that
guitar. I also used my ’58 reissue Les Paul
that has pickups and wiring similar to the
Jimmy Page model, and my custom Stratocaster
with the FZ image on the body.
In the Tour Blog section of your web site, you
talk about having to change your technique for
songs from the Freak Out and We’re Only in It for
the Money era—the late ’60s. How do you practice
It really comes down to an imprint of
the phrasing, and Frank’s phrasing is really
hard to capture. What ultimately gets you
in the ballpark is trying to capture the sound
that allows you to play that way. One of
the sounds that helped with that was one
I got while we were working on the Freak
Out version of “Trouble Every Day.” That
record is from 1966, before amplifiers were
designed to heavily distort. The way that
you would get distortion back then was to
overload the input to the mixing console
or tape machine itself, which gives you
this sort of square-wave distortion that’s
not very comfortable to play on. Yes, it’s
distorted, but it doesn’t have the reactive
kind of sound that would give you feedback.
It’s like playing on a very crisp, clean
sound that has this ratty distortion on it.
That makes things imprecise, because it’s
the nature of the sound. To recreate that
overloaded sound in the Fractal, I took a
direct sound—like a direct-box sound—
then added too much gain to the channel.
I added a little reverb to it, and it ended up
really sounding like the record.
While ZPZ plays music from different periods
of Frank’s career, there seems to be a slight
emphasis on the music he wrote and recorded
between 1974 and ’79. Why is that?
Because those were the years when I
began to notice what my dad was doing.
I was born in 1969, so the music that he
was making between ’74 and ’79 was really
the fabric of my life. It remains the period that I relate to the most—especially regarding
the guitar playing and in the sounds that
he had from that period.
When people who are new to Frank’s
music ask me where they should start in listening
to it, I usually tell them to start in that
area, with stuff like Apostrophe (’) and Overnight
Sensation, then go back to the beginning, with Freak Out and Absolutely Free. In that tenyear
period from ’66 to ’76, so many things
changed within Frank’s music. Yet, you can
tell that all of the elements were there from
the beginning. As he got players who were
more capable of playing some of his more
intricate music, you started to hear more and
more of that, but he had been writing that stuff since his early teens.
Did you get to see your father rehearse with
his bands much?
Yes, and I was always trying to learn from
what was going on.
Do you run your rehearsals similarly with your
I do, as best as I can, though I have to be
a little more lenient because we don’t have
as many hours to rehearse. He’d rehearse
a band for three months, even for a threeweek
tour. We typically have five to ten days
of rehearsal before a tour, and we’ll learn 14
or 15 songs. Prior to getting into rehearsal,
everybody’s doing their homework.
Did charts already exist, or did you have to
make your own?
We had to create charts for virtually everything—
by listening to the records and mapping
things out for the instrumentation in our
band. If we couldn’t get certain things that
way, we’d pull out the master tapes, listen
to individual tracks, and transcribe exactly
what’s on there. We did that for “Big Swifty,”
which has these thick, dense harmonies. It
was really interesting to find out what was
on the individual tracks, because sometimes
you’re hearing these crunchy textures—multiple
notes that are a half-step apart, in different
ranges. Every note is not necessarily
mixed super loud. We’d pull stuff apart and
find a chord that literally had every note in it.
And then you have to find a way to orchestrate
that for ZPZ.
The ultimate work that goes in is to recreate
the era. We try to use the same timbre
of instrumentation—not only to give it the
flavor and aroma of the era, but also to make
sure the overall mix of the thing can come
together. Stuff sounds the way it does because
it’s taking up a certain frequency range. If
you were to mess with that and change the
timbre of instrumentation, it’s not going to
sound the way it’s supposed to.
So you’re not looking to reinvent the wheel.
I’m trying to give people a sense of what
this music is to begin with. If I’m going to
use this opportunity to expose people to
Frank’s music, I don’t want them to hear
something that sounds so different from
what they would hear if they were inspired
to pick up the original recordings. People
always tell me, “You should do your own
thing with it.” I disagree. I’m not trying to
improve the music. I don’t feel that anybody
can improve on the music.