Frank Zappa's EMU

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Frank Zappa's EMU

Post by sduck » Thu Aug 08, 2019 11:14 pm

While I've known about the EMU system that Frank Zappa had, I've never seen any good pictures of it. This one isn't much better, but it's at least fairly clear - from the new box set of Zappa In New York.

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Post by Graham Hinton » Fri Aug 09, 2019 1:03 pm

Do you realise that Zappa was very disappointed with this system after all the hype? He dumped it and bought a Synclavier instead. So it seems strange putting this on a pedestal when he never liked it or used it for his music.

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Post by Parnelli » Fri Aug 09, 2019 1:19 pm

I was privileged to see Frank in a concert at Cols. OH at Vet's Memorial in 82 or so.

We walked in a little early and there was hardly anyone there, so I sat right in front of the sound board. The stage was set up like a pyramid with a percussionist at the top who was the busiest guy I ever saw at a concert, he made the show for me! He'd pick up 4 sticks and play a xylophone run, throw them into the air, grab a mallet and smash a gong or a drum, etc. he was a riot!

The sound was perfect, though I was surprised to see only a couple relatively small speaker mains at either side of the stage. Frank more talked his way through the songs, but all and all it was one of the musically and technically best concerts I have ever seen. :hail:

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Post by 01235813 » Fri Aug 09, 2019 3:42 pm

Graham Hinton wrote:Do you realise that Zappa was very disappointed with this system after all the hype? He dumped it and bought a Synclavier instead. So it seems strange putting this on a pedestal when he never liked it or used it for his music.
I knew he made extensive use of the Synclavier. The fact that he had a huge EMU custom made is nevertheless quite interesting. There were even several unmarked, custom modules in it. I hadn't heard anything about him being disappointed with it.

The website I linked to is actually about a book dedicated to Zappa's gear. The EMU didn't make it into said book, thus the author made a supplemental part dedicated to the EMU on the website. Quite the opposite of a pedestal. I hadn't heard anything about him being disappointed with it but I guess that could be a reason it wasn't really portrayed within the book.

An interesting piece of synth history.

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Post by Graham Hinton » Fri Aug 09, 2019 5:35 pm

01235813 wrote:I knew he made extensive use of the Synclavier. The fact that he had a huge EMU custom made is nevertheless quite interesting.
He could afford to try it and write it off as a bad experience. It didn't work out and became a white mastodon.
I hadn't heard anything about him being disappointed with it.
He made derogatory remarks in interviews at the time. In Synapse 3/1 he mentions not being able to find anybody who could play it (consider who he knew then) and having to put it in storage. After he got the Synclavier he was more scathing, as only he could be.

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Post by JohnLRice » Fri Aug 09, 2019 8:15 pm

Graham Hinton wrote:
I hadn't heard anything about him being disappointed with it.
He made derogatory remarks in interviews at the time. In Synapse 3/1 he mentions not being able to find anybody who could play it (consider who he knew then) and having to put it in storage. After he got the Synclavier he was more scathing, as only he could be.
I think this is a good example of the fact that regardless of how brilliant and accomplished someone might be at a particular thing, there will be things they totally don't "get", even in closely related fields.

If you look at what is said about Zappa, see wiki quote below, at first it seems almost shocking that he himself couldn't figure out and make good use of a *"fairly basic modular synthesizer", although I would probably give Frank the benefit of the doubt and assume that at the time he encountered the Emu he was just too busy composing, recording, and touring to take the time to make use of it?

The moral of the story kids (no matter how old you are :hihi: ) just because something doesn't click with you doesn't mean there is anything "wrong" with you, either find and invest your time in what does make sense to you OR just pursue what ever makes you happy, even if you never become the greatest at it or even particularly skilled. Life is short, "Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead!" :sb: :goo: :party:

From https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Frank_Zappa
Frank Zappa was an American multi-instrumentalist musician, composer, and bandleader. His work is characterized by nonconformity, free-form improvisation, sound experiments, musical virtuosity, and satire of American culture. In a career spanning more than 30 years, Zappa composed rock, pop, jazz, jazz fusion, orchestral and musique concrète works, and produced almost all of the 60-plus albums that he released with his band the Mothers of Invention and as a solo artist. Zappa also directed feature-length films and music videos, and designed album covers. He is considered one of the most innovative and stylistically diverse rock musicians of his era.
*Edit Note: when I said it was a "fairly basic modular synthesizer" I was just looking at the picture in the original post. Just now I looked at the links 01235813 posted and since it was a much larger combined system than I had originally assumed, I'd revise what I said and say that while it might seem to me to be relatively straight forward by today's standards and by my perspective/experience, it was indeed a very large modular system by mid/late 1970's standards and had cutting if not bleeding edge technologies. Even these days not many people take the time to set up 6 voice poly modular patch! 8-)
Last edited by JohnLRice on Sat Aug 10, 2019 12:26 am, edited 1 time in total.

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Post by sduck » Fri Aug 09, 2019 9:21 pm

Graham Hinton wrote:
01235813 wrote:I knew he made extensive use of the Synclavier. The fact that he had a huge EMU custom made is nevertheless quite interesting.
He could afford to try it and write it off as a bad experience. It didn't work out and became a white mastodon.
While there are pictures of both Eddie Jobson and Ruth Underwood playing it in the same booklet I got that picture from, it was obviously underutilized in real life, especially considering the expense. My belief from the actual concert photos (and performances I was at) of the time is that it was largely on stage for show - or it may be set up for one patch or sound effect, and only used once. There is a minimoog set up in front of it in one picture, and a 2600 in another, both instruments that actually got some use. This was all in 1975-77 or so - Zappa and his various musicians were experimenting with how to work this new technology into the act, as were just about every other hip musician at the time. Starting in 78 they went to Oberheim poly keyboards, which were roadworthy and much more flexible musically.
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Post by MindMachine » Fri Aug 09, 2019 11:13 pm

Graham Hinton wrote:Do you realise that Zappa was very disappointed with this system after all the hype? He dumped it and bought a Synclavier instead. So it seems strange putting this on a pedestal when he never liked it or used it for his music.
Yeah and he hated the EML's, the Moogs and all of the rest. That's why he had some hardwired for specific sounds or wired into Hammond organs for special percussive sounds.

Go be cranky on your own time. You are more divisive than contributive in a lot of these threads (no matter your stature). History is more than your lopsided view.

:guinness:


edit - you know he also had synthesists and keyboardists that actually made this shit work.

double edit - another Emu modular deal here:

viewtopic.php?t=220501
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Post by thetwlo » Sat Aug 10, 2019 1:55 am

JohnLRice wrote:
Graham Hinton wrote:
I hadn't heard anything about him being disappointed with it.
He made derogatory remarks in interviews at the time. In Synapse 3/1 he mentions not being able to find anybody who could play it (consider who he knew then) and having to put it in storage. After he got the Synclavier he was more scathing, as only he could be.
I think this is a good example of the fact that regardless of how brilliant and accomplished someone might be at a particular thing, there will be things they totally don't "get", even in closely related fields.

If you look at what is said about Zappa, see wiki quote below, at first it seems almost shocking that he himself couldn't figure out and make good use of a *"fairly basic modular synthesizer", although I would probably give Frank the benefit of the doubt and assume that at the time he encountered the Emu he was just too busy composing, recording, and touring to take the time to make use of it?

The moral of the story kids (no matter how old you are :hihi: ) just because something doesn't click with you doesn't mean there is anything "wrong" with you, either find and invest your time in what does make sense to you OR just pursue what ever makes you happy, even if you never become the greatest at it or even particularly skilled. Life is short, "Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead!" :sb: :goo: :party:

From https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Frank_Zappa
Frank Zappa was an American multi-instrumentalist musician, composer, and bandleader. His work is characterized by nonconformity, free-form improvisation, sound experiments, musical virtuosity, and satire of American culture. In a career spanning more than 30 years, Zappa composed rock, pop, jazz, jazz fusion, orchestral and musique concrète works, and produced almost all of the 60-plus albums that he released with his band the Mothers of Invention and as a solo artist. Zappa also directed feature-length films and music videos, and designed album covers. He is considered one of the most innovative and stylistically diverse rock musicians of his era.
*Edit Note: when I said it was a "fairly basic modular synthesizer" I was just looking at the picture in the original post. Just now I looked at the links 01235813 posted and since it was a much larger combined system than I had originally assumed, I'd revise what I said and say that while it might seem to me to be relatively straight forward by today's standards and by my perspective/experience, it was indeed a very large modular system by mid/late 1970's standards and had cutting if not bleeding edge technologies. Even these days not many people take the time to set up 6 voice poly modular patch! 8-)

yes, that is weird, no recordings, but he could play a bicycle.?? i guess he was older.

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Post by notmiserlouagain » Sat Aug 10, 2019 5:21 am

MindMachine wrote: You are more divisive than contributive in a lot of these threads (no matter your stature). History is more than your lopsided view.
Disagree. He provided an interesting fact. He popped a filter bubble.
Why not?

Zappa´s music (the part I know) is a lot about instrumental virtuosity/total control and showoff too. So it makes sense to me, not to use a modular,
which is more about losing control... :deadbanana:
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Post by Graham Hinton » Sat Aug 10, 2019 7:58 am

MindMachine wrote:Go be cranky on your own time. You are more divisive than contributive in a lot of these threads (no matter your stature). History is more than your lopsided view.
So history doesn't fit your rose tinted view and you go straight into ad hominem mode. Who's being cranky?
you know he also had synthesists and keyboardists that actually made this shit work.
My point, which is really Zappa's point, is that he couldn't find any. Read the interview I referenced: Synapse_Vol_3_No_1 page 31. If Don Preston or George Duke had walked into a room with a massive modular and were told they were going on tour with it their first thought would be about screwing up in front of a large audience and looking a pratt and then how to get off the tour.

If whoever sold him that system knew anything about Zappa or his music they should have been careful promising what it could achieve instead of just seeing $$$. Zappa always knew what he wanted and anything less wasn't good enough.

When he got the Synclavier he was able to do things he had only dreamed of. One of those things was playing 57 notes in the time of 56 and he had been frustrated trying to get real musicians to play that from sheet music. I've heard the results and they are "meh", but he got it out of his system (in both senses). Would you want to be the hired synthesist on that E-mu system if that was the first thing he asked you to do after you had told him it could make any sound?

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Post by Pelsea » Sun Aug 11, 2019 1:59 pm

As great a fan of Emu as I am, I have to agree with GH and Mr. Zappa. Even though the Emu modular was probably the best available at the time, it was not ready for prime time. Remember, synthesis was a major paradigm shift for music, and few traditionally trained musicians in the 70s had the faintest clue what to do with one. They had something that looked like a keyboard, but did not behave like one-- otherwise it was just knobs and buttons, nothing you could get good at by practicing scales 4 hours a day.

The main thing missing was a way to play expressively. The Mini and imitators filled that need, but also established a rather limited definition of synthesis. A few years later the push for polyphony led to an even more limited definition of digital synthesis. We are only just beginning to emerge from those primitive days.

It's not too surprising really-- no instrument in the history of music has been accepted overnight.The Saxophone was invented in the 1840s, but only became common (outside of military bands) in the 1920s. Even the electric guitar required a couple of decades to gain its current ubiquity.

Neither of those instruments changed much to become acceptable, instead, music changed to take advantage of them. The saxophone blossomed with jazz, and rock could not have happened without amplified guitar & bass. Modular synthesizers were not capable of playing the music of Zappa's time, and the perfect music for synthesizers hasn't been invented yet. It's coming though.
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Post by zengomi » Sun Aug 11, 2019 3:04 pm

Pelsea wrote:the perfect music for synthesizers hasn't been invented yet. It's coming though.
As I read through this thread, I had similar thoughts.

It's not the instrument. It's the mind wielding it.

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Post by JohnLRice » Sun Aug 11, 2019 7:04 pm

While I agree with most of what you said, I'll disagree with following:
Pelsea wrote: and the perfect music for synthesizers hasn't been invented yet. It's coming though.
There is no "perfect music" for any instrument since it's a subjective assessment.

And the following statement is flat out false and laughable! :eek: :despair: :roll: :lol:
Pelsea wrote:Modular synthesizers were not capable of playing the music of Zappa's time

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Post by Blairio » Sun Aug 11, 2019 8:11 pm

JohnLRice wrote:While I agree with most of what you said, I'll disagree with following:
Pelsea wrote: and the perfect music for synthesizers hasn't been invented yet. It's coming though.
There is no "perfect music" for any instrument since it's a subjective assessment.
At the end of the day a synthesiser is a tool . If you don't get on with a particular hammer or spade, you don't agonise over your deficiencies in getting the best out of that hammer or spade. You just go out and find another that suits you and the task at hand better..

Surely an instrument is just the delivery mechanism for an artist's vision. It is not an end in itself. So I find the idea of a particular instrument that does not yet have music created that is worthy of it, a wee bit like the tail that wagged the dog.

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Post by zengomi » Sun Aug 11, 2019 8:22 pm

Modular synthesis enables and invites the creation of radically non-traditional music. Some are inclined to embrace that possibility; others are not.

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Post by commodorejohn » Sun Aug 11, 2019 10:26 pm

Pelsea wrote:Remember, synthesis was a major paradigm shift for music, and few traditionally trained musicians in the 70s had the faintest clue what to do with one.
That's utter nonsense; there were piles of keyboardists who'd cut their teeth on the organ and piano who embraced the synthesizer in the '70s.
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Post by Blairio » Mon Aug 12, 2019 1:03 am

zengomi wrote:Modular synthesis enables and invites the creation of radically non-traditional music. Some are inclined to embrace that possibility; others are not.
Which camp do you fall into?

I don't think there has been anything radically different from 'traditional' music since since music concrete. Its not the technologies that count. Its the ideas. and beware, there are modular music tropes, just like there are tropes for all the other kinds of music.

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Post by Graham Hinton » Mon Aug 12, 2019 7:00 am

commodorejohn wrote: That's utter nonsense; there were piles of keyboardists who'd cut their teeth on the organ and piano who embraced the synthesizer in the '70s.
But they didn't use modulars on stage. When they did appear on stage they were mainly used as a visual prop (ELP, Roger Powell, even T.Dream), the sound was made by keyboard synthesizers and conventional keyboards. Both Weather Report and Steve Hillage had done an album with TONTO, and Stevie Wonder several, but they didn't dare try to take it on stage--they knew how difficult it was in the studio.

The idea of building a polyphonic modular without auto-tuning and using it live was always going to be a non-starter. Accusing experienced musicians of not understanding modulars is a bit lame, it was modular manufacturers that didn't understand what musicians really needed. So they end up in museums being described as something they never were. If Zappa could see this one he would cite it as conclusive proof of his theory about hydrogen.

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Post by gryfon1 » Mon Aug 12, 2019 10:34 am

Graham Hinton wrote:
commodorejohn wrote: That's utter nonsense; there were piles of keyboardists who'd cut their teeth on the organ and piano who embraced the synthesizer in the '70s.
But they didn't use modulars on stage. ...
Non sequitur. Why accept the assumption that live performance is more important than the music?
What’s wrong with treating modular as studio instruments, particularly given their advent post-recording studio technology?
Given the history of the development of electronic music, I would think the perverse use is for live performance. No one expects musique concrete to be performed live on stage. No one liked works for live performer plus tape; I would argue that’s a sign of the transition off the stage and into the studio, as one example.

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Post by Pelsea » Mon Aug 12, 2019 11:41 am

gryfon1 wrote:
Graham Hinton wrote:
commodorejohn wrote: That's utter nonsense; there were piles of keyboardists who'd cut their teeth on the organ and piano who embraced the synthesizer in the '70s.
But they didn't use modulars on stage. ...
Non sequitur. Why accept the assumption that live performance is more important than the music?
What’s wrong with treating modular as studio instruments, particularly given their advent post-recording studio technology?
Given the history of the development of electronic music, I would think the perverse use is for live performance. No one expects musique concrete to be performed live on stage. No one liked works for live performer plus tape; I would argue that’s a sign of the transition off the stage and into the studio, as one example.
At $0.00074 per stream? You can't make a living as a musician unless you get out and play in front of people. You can put on a dandy performance with modern equipment-- thousands of members of this list will testify to that. I'm not even dissing the live capabilities of the Emu-- I've put on dozens of shows with one. I just wouldn't want to drag it out to 200 motels or play a backing track for "Capitan America".
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Post by gryfon1 » Mon Aug 12, 2019 12:05 pm

Pelsea wrote:
gryfon1 wrote:
Graham Hinton wrote:
commodorejohn wrote: That's utter nonsense; there were piles of keyboardists who'd cut their teeth on the organ and piano who embraced the synthesizer in the '70s.
But they didn't use modulars on stage. ...
Non sequitur. Why accept the assumption that live performance is more important than the music?
What’s wrong with treating modular as studio instruments, particularly given their advent post-recording studio technology?
Given the history of the development of electronic music, I would think the perverse use is for live performance. No one expects musique concrete to be performed live on stage. No one liked works for live performer plus tape; I would argue that’s a sign of the transition off the stage and into the studio, as one example.
At $0.00074 per stream? You can't make a living as a musician unless you get out and play in front of people. You can put on a dandy performance with modern equipment-- thousands of members of this list will testify to that. I'm not even dissing the live capabilities of the Emu-- I've put on dozens of shows with one. I just wouldn't want to drag it out to 200 motels or play a backing track for "Capitan America".
There wasn’t any streaming in the 70s.
Bands then made money off albums, not live gigs. That’s still true outside the (broadly taken) world of ‘popular music.’
So I’ll stand by my claim of non sequitur given the context.

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Post by Dr. Sketch-n-Etch » Mon Aug 12, 2019 12:57 pm

If you want to see Frank Zappa's EMU system up close and personal, I believe it is on permanent display at the music museum at Cite de la Musique in Paris. If you are ever in Paris and have a few hours to kill, there is probably no better music museum in the world. My 5 hours there felt like 5 minutes.
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Post by Pelsea » Mon Aug 12, 2019 3:41 pm

gryfon1 wrote: There wasn’t any streaming in the 70s.
Bands then made money off albums, not live gigs. That’s still true outside the (broadly taken) world of ‘popular music.’
So I’ll stand by my claim of non sequitur given the context.
OK, $0.025 a track then. That's for the songwriter, an equal amount went to the record company. (Of course that's after all production expenses were met according to the record company's accounting department. It usually took a lawsuit to see the books.) Sidemen get zilch from sales, just union scale for the recording sessions. A band organized as an LLP may share record income, but a band leader/producer like Zappa paid mostly work for hire. In all cases, touring is necessary to drive album sales and pay rent.

Musicians in the EU get a slightly better deal-- the only royalties I ever get are from the occasional European broadcast of a John Cage premier I played on.

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Anyway, I've gotten off the track-- we're talking about Frank Zappa's Emu modular and why he didn't like it. It boils down to he couldn't hire anyone who could play the music he was writing, on tour.

I contend few traditional musicians understood modulars, and many were not interested for various reasons:
* Lack of access (I'm talking modulars, not Minimoogs and imitators.) Most were locked away in university studios.
* Lack of training. I was lucky enough to have a teacher who understood the synthesizer as an instrument (with no technical understanding at all.), but there were not many such. Most instructors took a boring tech approach.
* Association with those wild eyed creatures in the basement who like to set fire to pianos.
* Perceived difficulty. Sure, everyone loved SOB, but everybody also knew the hassles Wendy went through to make that happen.
* Lack of perceived job market.

Luckily for all of us, the situation has changed.
Last edited by Pelsea on Mon Aug 12, 2019 5:32 pm, edited 1 time in total.
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