Grammy-winning music producer Frank Filipetti is the first engineer to be invited to work on The Zappa Family Trust’s current and future releases.
April 2006, the Euphonix website mentioned:
"Currently, he's working on a re-release of Paul Simon's Graceland in 5.1 surround sound as well as a 1974 Frank Zappa live concert project."
Friday, November 5, 2010, Frank Filipetti took part in a Q&A session at the "Frank Zappa At The Roundhouse" celebration of Frank Zappa’s music in London, UK..
The picture on the right is taken from the Euphonix website / article.
|frank zappa: buffalo (80)
(2007, 2cd, usa, vaulternative records)
(2009, 2cd, usa, vaulternative records) - mixing and mastering
(2010, 3cd, usa, vaulternative records 20101)
Cookin’ in the Filipetti Kitchen
Those are some hot tracks
and yes, they’re fresh from the oven!
Frank Filipetti talks to Roger
With a wealth of musical accomplishments to his credit—including albums for artists James Taylor, Korn, and Rod Stewart, among others—independent producer/engineer Frank Filipetti is unique in his ability to mix just about any kind of musical style for an equally varied array of uses, including albums, Broadway shows, film, DVDs, and televised projects. Over the course of the past year, Filipetti has worked on Monty Python’s Spamalot, a Broadway show, Elton John’s The Red Piano, the artist’s ongoing production at Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas, albums for Linda Eder, Ray Charles, Gladys Knight, and the new album from metal rockers Korn, slated for release in early December.
New York’s famed Right Track Recording serves as Filipetti’s home base, where the facility’s Studio B has housed his music production activities for the past twelve years. Central to Filipetti’s studio is a Euphonix System 5 console with a 48-fader control surface and support for 166 channels—with an I/O configuration that includes 96 channels over MADI, 48 channels via AES/EBU, and another 48 analog channels. Recording facilities revolve around a Euphonix R-1 digital multitrack, Steinberg’s Nuendo, plus a 96-track ProTools HD system.
Recently, I had the opportunity to speak with Frank about his projects,
his gear, and how he views his responsibilities to the music he produces. What
ensued was a fascinating conversation that touched upon a number of issues that
many studio engineers—professional and aspiring alike—struggle with.
Revisiting the Classics
Filipetti is well known for his ability to take classic recordings and remix them for compilation / boxed set release. Over the years, he’s done compilation projects for a number of artists, including Foreigner, Carly Simon, Billy Joel, Meatloaf, Elton John, Korn, and James Taylor. Currently, he’s working on a re-release of Paul Simon’s Graceland in 5.1 surround sound as well as a 1974 Frank Zappa live concert project.
One of the biggest challenges with projects of this nature starts before the
first song has even been brought up on the console. It begins with the condition
of the original analog tapes. Filipetti reports that most of the tapes recorded
from roughly 1973 through the mid 80s were done with Ampex low noise, high
output formulations. With a considerable number of these tapes, a common problem
involves the chemical that bonds the tape backing to the magnetic material.
After sitting on a shelf for 20 – 30 years, this chemical frequently ends up
oozing onto the recorder/reproducer’s heads the moment playback
begins—gumming up the transport in the process and bringing the entire project
to a grinding halt before a single song has been transferred to a newer medium.
“You start playing the tape,” says Filipetti, “and this sticky bonding material starts collecting on the analog machine’s heads and mechanical parts. And it collects very quickly—sometimes in just a few seconds of playback. The tape plays slower and slower until the machine just stops. The tape transport path gets so gummed up that the capstan can’t pull the tape through.”
Rectifying this problem sounds more reminiscent of a Julia Child cooking class than it does anything studio related. When asked how he addresses this challenge, Filipetti described a process of baking the tapes for roughly eight hours in a convection oven. “You take the entire reel out of the box, place it in a convection oven—not a microwave and not a standard oven—and bake it at 120 degrees for a good seven or eight hours.
At that point, you pull the baked tape out of the oven, let it cool down briefly (it’s not that terribly hot to begin with), and then play it while simultaneously transferring to hard disk.” The tapes will usually play successfully for at least one or two plays before the formulation starts to, once again, break down. It’s important to note this problem occurs not just with the big, unwieldy 2-inch tapes, but can just as easily manifest itself with quarter- and half-inch tapes from the same period.
Filipetti claims to have encountered this situation numerous times over the past ten years. Apparently, the problem stems primarily from the low noise, high output Ampex tapes that were so popular at the time. Filipetti has observed that Scotch, BASF, and Agfa brands generally don’t exhibit anywhere near as many problems, nor do tapes that were manufactured in the 60s. And in case you’re wondering what oven is best for this purpose, Filipetti recommends the Farberware convection oven. “These are the best ovens for the job,” he reports, “and many studios have them specifically to deal with this issue.”
Travers, Frank Zappa’s vaultmeister, has been meticulously transferring many
of Frank’s analog tapes to Nuendo format, with each multitrack tape equaling
one session. Joe uses a system whereby each session is the equivalent to a
particular tape in the vault—with labels, time code, and track numbers
corresponding perfectly to the originals. The tapes from this 1974 concert were
originally recorded on 2-inch, 16-track at 30 ips.
about all that noise?
With the music safely archived in a random access format, Filipetti is now able to work in the digital domain. While his Euphonix R-1 continues to serve him well as a dedicated hardware multitrack, he has been making a gradual transition to DAW recording so as to take advantage of plug-ins, and for this, his tool of choice is Steinberg’s Nuendo.
“I’ve been working with Nuendo because I prefer its sonic quality over
ProTools,” said Filipetti. “Nuendo also has several features I can’t get
with ProTools—chief among these being the ability to easily open and work with
multiple sessions simultaneously. The Zappa concert took place over two nights
and totaled 16 Nuendo sessions (tape reels). By being able to open multiple
sessions, I could work with each night’s material in the same session,
determine which performances I wanted to use, and then compile a master without
having to import tracks from each individual session as I would with
Digital recordings are, by nature, far quieter than analog recordings, and people have become accustomed to this characteristic. While one may be inclined to eliminate all the noise associated with analog, Filipetti suggests a far more cautionary approach.
“I’d rather hear a little noise than risk losing harmonics,” says Filipetti. “I find it distressing that some engineers get so preoccupied with eliminating noise that they end up losing the ‘air’ at the top end. While there are tools to remove hum and other extraneous noises, you need to be careful. With Frank’s recordings, I’m trying to bring the listener into Frank’s world, and that approach demands an allegiance to fidelity first, noise second. I tend not to concern myself with noise problems unless they intrude on the vibe.”
“ You don’t get something for nothing,” says Filipetti, “and everything you do affects something else. In trying to eliminate noise, you’re invariably going to eliminate some of the good stuff as well, like low level harmonic content, ambience tails, etc., which I prefer to keep. If a little bit of noise seeps through, so be it. For the noise that just has to go, I’ve had great success with a number of Waves plug-ins—among them X-Click, X-Crackle, and X-Hum.”
art of mixing
Like his approach to addressing noise issues, Filipetti considers it extremely important to be sensitive to the original recording and consider the expectations of the target listener when mixing. “With a classic album like Graceland,” says Filipetti, “where there’s already a ‘mindset’ of what people expect to hear, I tend to be very cognizant of that. When I’m dealing with someone else’s work, I feel a certain obligation to try and not stray too far from the fidelity and the ambience of the original. On the other hand, if I’m mixing a project I was originally involved in, then I feel I can be a bit more creative.”
continued, “Often, I’ll attempt to contact the original producer or artist
for input. On Graceland, for example, which Phil Ramone and I have been doing
together, we managed to get Paul Simon involved. I had been a bit more
adventurous with the mix to start with, but Paul felt there was a little too
much information in the surrounds and that certain elements should remain
blended together as they were in the original mix.”
“On some albums, such as Billy Joel’s The Stranger, or James Taylor’s Hourglass, where I either had an active role in the original recording, or (in Billy Joel’s case) got to work with the original producer (Phil Ramone), I feel it’s OK to push the boundaries a little more,” said Filipetti. “You don’t want to completely alter someone’s perspective of the original stereo mix, but you also don’t want to ignore the added palette the 5.1 format allows. It’s always preferable to have the original artist, producer, or mix engineer accessible to discuss things with—to make sure that if you’re doing something a bit more adventurous, it isn’t something that’s going to alienate those closest to the project.”
for digital mixing, Filipetti is enamored with his System 5’s assignable
center section that enables him to gain immediate access to those mix elements
most critical at any point in time. “It’s such a mood buster to have to go
to the far end of a console to access the faders you need when you’re mixing
in a surround environment,” notes Filipetti. “If you leave the sweet spot,
it’s far more difficult to execute surround pans or check on delicate balances
among instruments. In this regard, the System 5 spoils you.”
Having made the transition to digital mixers in 1995, Filipetti is one of the true pioneers of this equipment. “Digital consoles completely changed my entire approach to mixing,” notes Filipetti. “In the old (analog) days, you’d do a rough mix, and get a great vibe on it because you were ‘in the moment.’ Then two months later when it came time to do the final mixdown, you’d sit there, tweak this, that, and everything else, and get this great sounding mix, but when you listened to it against that rough mix, the vibe just wasn’t there.”
“With digital mixing,” continued Filipetti, “I can create a rough mix when the moment’s right, then come back to it a few days later when my ears are fresh, and continue to tweak and fine-tune it because the ‘recall’ is immediate and dead-on accurate. I no longer need—nor want—to sit there for 7 or 8 hours, listening to the same song over and over, and get so deep into insignificant elements that I loose perspective of the whole. With traditional mixing, I have a tendency to get really focused on one specific thing or another, only to lose sight of the big picture. However, with digital mixing, I’m always focused on the overall vibe of the mix, and once I find myself getting too picky, I can hit a button and almost instantly move to mixing another song. Mixing on the System 5 is the most transparent, musical, and non-computer oriented mixing I’ve ever done. On an automated analog console, I always have to keep track of where I am in the analog world versus the digital world, which by its very nature, takes me out of the mix. On the System 5, the only thing I ever have to keep track of is the music, and in the end, that’s what really matters.”