March 1, 2004

Making Baby Snakes in 5.1

“My father wasn’t into dramatic, rock-style production,” says Dweezil Zappa about his multi-talented father. “He was more interested in giving listeners a life-like sense of each instrument in its environment, as well as other depth and perspective clues. And he was clearly working on these things in advance of other people.”

The desire for hyper-realistic audio drove Frank to experiment with quadraphonic sound in the ’70s, and to create a quasi-surround mix for his 1979 film, Baby Snakes. Recently released on DVD [Eagle Rock Entertainment], Frank’s original “triangle mix” (stereo front/mono rear) was translated into a 5.1 soundtrack by Dweezil.

“I always want to preserve what Frank did, because he had a clear vision, and he always executed it at the highest level, given the available technology,” says Dweezil, who recently accepted the Pioneer honor on his father’s behalf at the annual Surround Music Awards in Los Angeles. “Of course, it’s like an archeological dig to go back to the source material for his stuff, but we found a Baby Snakes movie mix in the vault. Unfortunately, certain parts of the tape didn’t survive storage, so we had to carefully insert material from alternate mixes and safety copies to create a seamless soundtrack.”

Dweezil enjoys surround mixing partly because the multiple speakers allow more dynamic interest (“All the instruments aren’t competing for that ‘in your face’ experience”), as well as almost surgical placement of elements within the sonic spectrum. As a result, he was able to do things like animate a scene where Frank points to different players to signal their accents. The new mix has these sounds emanating from each player’s onscreen location.

“I also put a lot of Frank’s guitar in the center channel,” he says, “because you almost feel as if you’re the mic on the speaker. Some people think the clarity is too startling, but I like it. There’s no other instrument in the center speaker at those times. All you’re hearing is the guitar, and it’s loud and it’s good!

—Jimmy Leslie

Studio Strategies

Album The Mindbending Sounds of the Chesterfield Kings [Sundazed]
Band The Chesterfield Kings
Song “Somewhere Nowhere”
Style Groovy ’60s Brit pop
Guitarists Andy Babiuk (who also wrote Beatles Gear) and Paul Morabito

How They Did It “We used a ’65 Rickenbacker 360-12 through a Vox AC30 to get that chiming tone for the main rhythm,” details Babiuk. “The amp was miked about a foot out, using an AKG D-19 through a tube preamp direct to ADAT. We overdubbed a ’64 Epiphone Texan for a thick acoustic sound, and added a Gibson B-45 12-string acoustic in Nashville tuning for extra sparkle. Both acoustics were recorded with a Neumann U87.

“The song was still missing something, however. We’ve always loved the heavy reverbed-out lead Jimmy Page did on Donovan’s ‘Hurdy Gurdy Man,’ and we thought that soft/hard contrast would also work on our song. So we plugged a Les Paul into a ’60s Maestro Fuzz-Tone and a Vox AC30—this time miked with a Neumann U87 about six feet back.

“Paul did a great job playing a melodic, yet savage lead, and the tone was wild. The Maestro produces almost no sustain, so the end of every note had that ‘dead battery’ sound. Then we ran the solo through an EMT plate reverb, and turned up the effect at the tail end of each phrase for sustain and trippiness.”

—Michael Molenda

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