The Complete Mark Pinski Interview - Day One

Jan 1, 2003 12:00 PM, Chris Michie


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The Complete Mark Pinske Interview
by Chris Michie

Pinske: Where I'm from originally? Where I was born? I was born in Arlington, Minnesota.

Mix: Are the Pinskes a family from there?
Pinske: It's a German name. I was born and raised in Minnesota, basically. Moved to Florida to go to college. And from Florida went out to California, which is where I started the trek on everything, there.

Mix: How did you get into audio? Were you doing audio in college?
Pinske: Actually, yeah. I kind of did it on the side as I was in college. I actually played in some groups, some music bands, and started doing sound and live sound. I kind of got to be the guy in Gainesville, Florida. When I got there, I kind of got to be the guy that made the demo tapes for people. I started getting interested in it, and I had a little 2-channel Revox recorder, and mics and stuff. I made lots of demos for little bands around town, plus went out and did sound. Kind of took it on as a hobby at that point, while I was in college.

Mix: What were you doing in college?
Pinske: I started studying for architectural acoustics, and then I went into electrical engineering. I got a degree in electrical engineering. A BSEE degree. I came out of college, took one of the first jobs I could, designing power lines and stuff. Went out on the road with some of the P.A. companies, Clair Brothers and Showco. I worked for Maryland Sound. Did a lot of touring.

Mix: What year is this?
Pinske: That would have been '76, around 1974-76.

Mix: So this is a time when those companies you just named were pretty established. The whole touring industry was-
Pinske: Oh yeah. I did a lot of different things. I did B.B. King, I did sound for Weather Report. I did some of the Broadway show plays that would come through. I did some of those-"Jesus Christ, Superstar" for a short spell.

Mix: Mixing front of house?
Pinske: This is all front of house. Just front-of-house mixing.

Mix: Not many people had monitor mixers then.
Pinske: I did Melissa Manchester. Had a lot of live experience. I decided that there was not a lot of credits there, and if I wanted to get a little bit better known, I needed to do recording. I went out to Los Angeles. I actually took a job for a manufacturer out there, just to get me out there, which was Quad Eight Electronics, and I was working there as an engineer. Designing film consoles. That's when I managed to get an audition set up to audition for Frank Zappa.

Mix: I know quite a bit about the musician's auditions, because there's a bunch of stuff on the Internet about interviews with them, but I never heard that he also auditioned engineers.
Pinske: Absolutely. It was a little tough, because originally, he'd just built the studio.

Mix: And this was a high-end home studio?
Pinske: It was a $3.5 million studio he built at his house up on Woodrow Wilson Drive, up in the Hollywood Hills. Very elaborate studio. It was designed by Rudy Brewer, originally. It had a huge 48-track setup of a Harrison console. And when I auditioned, he was just finishing up the studio. A guy named David Gray, who works with Dolby now, was there, pretty much putting in some of these elaborate systems. I remember when I did the audition, what he did was he auditioned each engineer for about one day in the studio, and then you'd go down to a sound stage, and he would see how you would do live, and had you put some stuff on tape. So one of the first things that happened to me with Frank-it was a similar thing. I got there, he asked me to put his guitar through a whole bunch of stuff. There was a new console without patchbay that wasn't even labeled, and I was patching around, and he said something to me like-this is one of the things I'll never forget-he said, "I'm not a robot, you know. I can only stay interested in these things for mere moments." And I was just taking a little tone generator and patch it around to see what would light up. Later on, it was kind of interesting. I thought, "Oh, man. I'll never get this job. This guy's too quick." So I did some stuff for him, mixed it on tape.

The next day, went down to a sound stage where he had everything set up. He was getting ready to do a tour. They had all brand-new Midas consoles, the kind with--the brand-new line of Midas that was out there. He had a guy kind of mess them all up. Said, "OK, make it sound good." And he walked around with his wireless guitar. Then he had me put the stuff on a cassette, while we were doing it. And he said he was going to take that tape and the tape in the studio and he'd get back to me in about two weeks. Well, two weeks went by, and I didn't hear anything, so I figured, oh well, I didn't get that gig. And all of a sudden I'm in my office at Quad 8 and the phone. Honest to God truth, this is so funny. The phone rings and he says, "You ready to go?" He didn't say who he was, he just said, "Are you ready to go?" And I just said, for lack of thinking what else to say, I just said, "Well, the car's running." "The motor's running." I said something like that. And I had been at this place for almost three years. Actually, it was a little over three years I was there. So I just pretty much accepted the gig. I cut a deal with him that I would fly with the band. Because I told him I had done too much road traveling, and I really didn't want to be on the bus smelling dirty socks again. And I really wanted to concentrate on doing a better job, and he said, "OK," so we went along with that setup.

So I started off with him. We went out, got ready for that tour. We did live tours. This would be-that was the fall of '79, so 1980 and the beginning of '81, we did some live tours before we built the recording truck. So I did all front of house then. Then we did a couple of remotes as we were on tour.

Mix: Were you recording to 4-track or something, while you were doing front of house?
Pinske: We did some recording to 8-track. We rented a recording truck a couple of nights. We kept an 8-track and a 4-track, and we had a little Soundcraft 1-inch 8-track that we were running some tapes. But we didn't tape all the time. We just taped some shows. I mainly did house mix, and then when we got back in the studio, after the tour, we started working on studio albums, and then putting together tapes from some live tapes that he had previous to before when I was there. When Kerry McNab, Joe Chicarelli, Davey Moire, some of the guys that were there just before me. They had a collection of all kinds of tapes.

And Frank pretty much wanted to spend all his time, and now that he had his own studio, he pretty much wanted to work around the clock. That's when we got the idea that when we were going to go out on the '81 tours-we'd just finished up-we'd put together "Tinsel Town Rebellion" album. That's the first full live collaboration I did with him. You'll see a lot of engineers credited on there. My name's the first name, and then there's a bunch of other ones of people who did a lot of the tapes-the collections of tapes-and it was a double album. And then we did the studio album, "You Are What You Is," which is pretty much an all-in-the-studio album. Which is pretty much all my baby. I even did some vocals on that one. That was pretty funny.

But when we finished that up, we started moving into, "well, what can we do to have a better situation live?" That's when I decided that we could build a recording truck. And that's where the Utility Muffin Research Kitchen recording truck was pretty much born. I bought-the shell of the truck I bought from the Beach Boys. They had this sitting up in the backyard of their house. They hadn't been using it so much. So I took the shell of the truck-it was a 27-foot trailer. We pretty much had to redo everything in it. Added a new hydraulic airbag, shocks, and all that kind of stuff. It was a little bit beaten up. But the inside of it was still pretty good shape. We took a Neve-had a Neve 8108 on the front of it. We wired it up for an elaborate amount of inputs, because I didn't want to have to be somewhat in a tour, have some bad channels, and stop and do repairs, and stuff like that. So we kind of did an overkill on all that.

Mix: You wired it up for extra channels?
Pinske: Right. I had 142-channel ins. Three 24-track machines, and four videos.

Mix: Video recorders?
Pinske: Right. And we had a Neve 8108 across the front. Then we had a custom made Midas made for us by Midas, that went down along the wall, which is pretty much normal the first hundred channels. Now we also did an endorsement with Carvin, which adds a couple extra boards, but normally we would use like 96 channels live. We would put everything on its own channel. All the channels that were over the 96 that we used were pretty much all spare channels. So we did a little endorsement, we took a little picture of the truck and put a couple little Carvin boards up on the wall for anything that was over Channel 100. And Frank stood there and took a little picture and they recycled that thing, and we were able to get some free equipment out of it and all that kind of stuff.

Mix: It doesn't sound as though you used it as primary mixers.
Pinske: No, no. They were just there for-what happened was, we took that picture, and we got extra keyboards and amplifiers. The keyboard players on stage would use some of the Carvin mixers for their keyboard rigs on stage left and stage right. We had Tommy Mars at that time.

Mix: Peter Wolf?
Pinske: This was just after Peter Wolf. I came in right at the end of Peter Wolf. Before we did the recording-truck stuff, it was all Tommy Mars and Bobby Martin. Bob Harris. Ed Mann came back around.

Mix: For that "Tinsel Town Rebellion," Steve Vai was the guitar player, right?
Pinske: Steve didn't really come in 'til a little later.

Mix: I don't know my history as well as I should.
Pinske: That was mainly a collection of a lot of live stuff. Steve came in a little later. Steve was a whole interesting story all of his own, to tell you the truth. We auditioned him. He was a kid that was going to Berkeley that charted out some of the music for Frank. And he had a number of different people all over the country that he would take our cassettes and send them to, and they would chart out the sheets and send us back to them. And Steve was one of those kids that did an immaculate job on charting out the sheets. And one day Frank said, "I'm flying him out here." And I'm thinking, "What the heck's he flying out another guitar player for?" So that's how Steve's audition happened. He was like 19, 18 years old then. Just turning 19. That whole band, when we got Chad Wackerman, after Vinnie Colaiuta had left, we auditioned like, gee whiz, I think it was somewhere like about 31 drummers or something. A huge amount of drummers. We had trouble trying to replace Vinnie, because Vinnie was really good. We ended up with Chad Wackerman, who was 21 years old. Then we had Steve Vai, who came in at 20. And we had Scott Thunes on bass who was 21 years old. They were all young guys that had come in, that had pretty much won the auditions. So that's when we had the younger set coming in.

Mix: Between Vinnie and Chad, there's a drummer called David Logeman.
Pinske: David Logeman played on the "You Are What You Is" album. He was pretty much a studio drummer, but we did do a live tour. We did a short American tour that David Logeman was on as well. He wasn't with us overseas, I don't think. Maybe he was, for one of our short overseas stints. But David Logeman was with us for a pretty good while in between there, too.

Mix: You were talking about getting the truck together and going-you actually had three 24-track recorders running simultaneously?
Pinske: We overlapped the tapes. Originally we started off analog 2-inch tape, at 30 ips. We ran two Ampex MM1200s. And I had a 3M M79 machine in the back. The one in the back was primarily a spare. So what we did is, we took the 24 buses that we ran, and we overlapped the tapes by about a minute or two minutes, so that we could always edit them all together later. I tried to make as many big reels as I could, 14-inch reels. Normally, we just took out of the box, reels, ran them, started this next machine one minute before the other one would run out, and we just kept altering the machines as the night went on. And that way everything got caught on tape.

Mix: So 30 ips?
Pinske: 30 ips, yep.

Mix: Non-Dolby?
Pinske: Non-Dolby.

Mix: How many reels would you go through? How long were the shows, at this point? Did he play with an opening act?
Pinske: On the first three-months tour, we had 946 master tapes, if I remember correctly. I can almost remember the number. A huge amount of master reels of tape. Matter of fact, we did use Dolby on some channels, but most of the time we didn't use Dolby. He hated Dolby on the cymbals and stuff. I'm trying to remember how many reels we had on an average-normally it would take about eight reels a show, overlapping them. Somewhere along that, depending how long the set was. A lot of times we did these small theaters in America. We did like the Fox theaters, the Palladiums, those kind of places, so we would do double shows. And that way we would record two whole shows, and Frank had a habit of not repeating any of the songs from the second show to the first show, so we'd have pretty much different tunes through both shows.

Mix: What date are we at, with the beginning of the truck, when you got it from the Beach Boys?
Pinske: I built the truck in the spring of 1981. That's when the very first tour it went on, I guess would be in-- the first tour we did in 1981, and then we recorded-it pretty much went on every tour after that. We took it overseas. We put it on the Queen Mary, and we shipped it across to-we rehearsed originally over in Denmark, or Amsterdam. We took it all around Europe. We recorded all of Europe on the truck as well.

Mix: Presumably there was a driver. If you're traveling with the band, and also presumably at some point you stopped doing front of house and you started working the truck.

Pinske: Yeah. At that point, in 1981, is when we went through about two or three different house mixers. Bob Stone came on board a little later. He did some house mixes. We had a couple of guys-one guy, Chris that was with us for a while. Mike Abbott. We called him Rat Man. We had a variety of different house mixers. We had Marque Coy doing the monitors. It was a real elaborate set up. What we did was, I used to do some of the submixing from the truck. We had that, like I said, 142-channel snake, but 30 of them were like direct lines. So I could take an individual input, for instance, on all the drums. I could have 22 channels on the drums. We'd have Syndrums or Simmons drums, or a combination of a whole set. We'd have a lot of individual direct mics inside. I would take the combination of all of it, and send, for instance, tom-toms left and right back out to the house. The house would have it's own kick, it's own snare, it's left and right toms, left and right overhead cymbals and the separate hi-hat, whatever. And I would take things like that on the keyboards, as well. We might take nine different stereo keyboards, and I would mix them all down to a stereo keyboard mix. And the stereo keyboard mix could go back to the monitors onstage, and back to the house mix. What we found by doing that is we had a lot more control over the feedback, and we had a lot less problems with the recordings because we had the same sonic tone, and the same path pretty much going to each of the locations.

Mix: Then the truck was an integral part of the whole P.A. setup.
Pinske: Absolutely. That's one of the reasons we used it all the time. Because I had 85 noise gates in the truck, and we could pretty much really, really control everything. And I could solo stuff up up there. It was really brilliant because we could solo stuff up and I could hear problems, like little buzzes or hums or something like that. We could isolate the problems, and I could treat them with some of the best outboard gear you could get, and send it back to these guys and it would be all spiced up. And of course, you're not going to get the kind of equalization that you have in a Neve console out of a little portable Midas board.

Mix: So you were contracting with different P.A. companies in America and Europe.
Pinske: With me personally, or with the Zappa tour?

Mix: With Zappa.
Pinske: With Zappa we owned our own P.A. We bought the John Meyer system.

Mix: Which one? A JM-3 system, or an earlier . . .
Pinske: Yeah. We had the very first M-3 system that he made.

Mix: The MSL-3s?
Pinske: Yeah. We took it all over the whole-we bought that system from John. In fact, that was the first one he made, and I even helped John out with a couple of problems. He had a couple of microprocessor problems in the first ML-3. The microprocessors had a little bit of a problem, and we ended up having a little problem more on a couple of the horn things. But after that-that was just a PC board problem. Once that got fixed, we never had any problems with the stuff. It was fabulous. We had A and B amplifiers, a full spread of his stuff. Took it all around the world.

Mix: At this point, you would have been just stacking at the side of the stage, rather than flying it?
Pinske: We flew it. We flew it as much as possible. But in America, most of the time, as you know, there may have been only room to fly a center cluster or something. And some of these small theaters, we'd stack it, right. We had to stack it on the side of the stage. But when we went over to Europe, it was all bigger places. And when we'd play something like Madison Square Garden, for instance, in New York, then we would hire Audio Analysts to come in as a back up system. And we would tie in with them. We'd do our time alignment, and use them for support, so that we could carry those huge, huge venues.

Mix: It sounds to me as though, by the time you joined the Zappa organization, pretty much all the equipment was owned or bought for the tour.

Pinske: Oh yeah. That's the way he did things. We owned all the sound and all the stage. What we would do with the lights, though, we would buy a system from LSD Lighting, we would use it for three months and then sell it back to them. And he would hire three guys on the crew for the lights. He did that instead of renting the lights. And he had a-Frank was a pretty smart businessman. By the time we would finish a tour, we would actually save a lot of money by buying the system and just paying for the crew to run it, than we did-especially on lights, because light rentals were so expensive. So he would do things like that all the time.

Mix: And obviously you owned the recording truck. Did you buy buses as well? I'm just curious about the evolution of the touring business, as he did it.
Pinske: As far as the methods he used?
Mix: . . . Never mind. . . . The first thing you did was mixes for "Tinsel Town Rebellion." And then a studio album, "You Are What You Is." And then you were out on tour for the rest of '81 with this new truck.

Pinske: No, we didn't go on tour the rest of '81. We did recording in the studio in between, as well. Every time we came back-like we did an American tour for three months, then we went in the studio, then we went in Europe. Then we came back and went in the studio. Every time we were off the road, we were back in the studio. So we were putting together a whole bunch of different albums. We did the "Ship Arriving Too Late to Save the Drowning Witch," which was the whole "Valley Girl" thing. We did the "Them or Us" album. We did "Man From Utopia." We just kept putting albums together, one right after the other. A whole slew of them. Then we did a bunch of guitar albums, based off the live stuff that we found. "Shut Up 'n Play Your Guitar" instrumental stuff. We just kept, all the time, trying to get as much product as we possibly could. The cool thing about doing the truck was, we came back and we had all these tapes that we could listen to, and then we could sort out good performances live, and edit together sections of a song. That's when we started putting together the Mammy Nun escapade, which was a six-sided-was originally going to be a six-sided album Broadway-play-type thing.

Mix: Oh, the "Thing-Fish?"
Pinske: The "Thing-Fish," right. "Thing-Fish" was the actual title of it. It was a six-sided album. That was basically done off of all live recordings I had made in the truck. But then we overdubbed some different lyrics and different vocals and stuff in the studio. So that was kind of interesting, because we had enough isolation. As a matter of fact, the whole thing starts out, the whole "Thing-Fish" album starts out with the song "The Mammy Nuns," and it's a guitar that Frank had during a soundcheck in the Sportehalle in Vienna. Which is this huge place that if you drop a chair, it would last for eight seconds. He did a little guitar segment during rehearsal. And Frank used to love the sound of the room when it was empty, when there were no people in it. And I had PCM microphones up on the stage, facing out toward where the audience would be, so you would hear the whole room. And he started a little guitar thing and put it in a loop, and set it down, and it was just looping. The whole start of that album is basically that live track of him just playing it during the sound check, which is how the album started out. We started doing things like that. We started recording things during sound checks just for the, "OK, let's put this down on tape and then later on maybe we'll use it on something." That got to be a lot of fun, because that's when we started experimenting with taking live stuff, segueing it into whatever we did in the studio, spicing stuff in the studio, and back and forth. And doing edits and cuts to other live shows.

Mix: I'm not sure where I read it, but I think one interview I read, I guess with a musician, said that some of the basic tracks which appear on the album as maybe four songs in a row where they segue, or they seem like they're hard edits, in fact they were recorded as tracks the way you hear them.
Pinske: As a matter of fact, he segued almost everything live. He would always segue the songs, and he would give it a little-you know how Frank directed on stage. He had these little signs that he would do. He would pull his hair and they would go into a reggae temp, or hit his forehead and they'd go into a New Wave or a punk tempo. And he would always direct a downbeat on the end of a song which would go right into the next song. So a lot of those segues were actually just the way they were performed. A lot of times we would use those segues as a place to edit. We would come from the Hammersmith Odeon in London to maybe Frankfort, and come back to the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium. And the same song might travel through a number of different shows. Which was unbelievable, because that meant that the tempos had to be right, everybody had to be in tune. He was really hard on everybody when it came to that. The musicians were nothing but top notch when it came to that stuff.

Mix: This must have taken a lot of work every day, in terms of sound check and setup. Was there a schedule, or did it depend on the traveling?
Pinske: Every day, I had a guy, Tom Ehle, who works with Dolby now also, who aligned all the machines in the truck for me. I would come in with the band, we would do a sound check. Sometimes we would lay some stuff down on tape. Normally do a sound check to make sure the house and the monitoring system and everything was all in sync. A lot of times the recording truck wasn't too far off, because the Neve and everything had pretty much detented settings. Because we had the same microphone built inside the drums. We worked with John Goode, who is the vice president of DW Drums, him and I developed a system with Randy May, May Systems now is a pretty well-known drum-type mic setup. We developed a system. John and I worked with Chad Wackerman, and also with Sugarfoot, with the "Thriller" tour, developing this thing. We used mics that were built inside the drums. We tuned the drums exactly the same every day. John would put new heads on, between the soundcheck and the show. We used little Teflon nuts that would not slip, to make sure that everything stayed in tune as well as possible. We did an elaborate setup with the drums, but normally the mics and the direct pickups and everything on the stage were identical. So we didn't have to change a whole lot in the truck, because the Neve had detented settings. So everything was repeatable. It really didn't change too much from day to day as far as what we had. It was a matter of fine-tuning it, and bringing the room into control. We might voice the room a little bit differently because of the acoustics of it, or the size of it. We'd make sure that the monitors were not conflicting with what was going on with the truck.

The stereo side mixes for Frank-he would have sidefills as well as his footfills. And the sidefills-I did a mix from the truck that went to his sidefills. So he could hear the whole band a little bit coming through the sidefills, which were some more Meyer MSL-3s. There was two of them on each side on stands, facing him in the middle, and I would do a little stereo mix that went to him there. And then Marque Coy, who was the monitor mixer, would have the overall volume control over it. That way he could get kind of an idea of what the whole band was sounding like in a little bit more of a high-fidelity situation than what was going on in the truck. It just gave him a better feel.

Mix: He had a quite elaborate guitar-I know it was at least stereo. Did he have more than two cabinets?
Pinske: Absolutely. We tracked five channels of guitar on every show. He had a rack, a double rack, which he called "the blue box for bimbos," which is pretty well known over the years. It had everything from the cheap Electro-Harmonix Big Muff on up into it. Almost any kind of guitar gimmick you could ever imagine. He had what was called a "dirty" setup and "clean" setup. And both the dirty and the cleans were in stereo. So if he hit on a switch and went to his Marshalls, or in this case with the Carvin versions of the Marshalls, that drove his Marshall cabinets, he'd play his powerful distorted setup. Do whatever effects he'd have on in the rack. And then there was another switch that hit him through a clean setup, which went through Crown DC300 power amps, into a real clean, elaborate speaker system. It even had an 18-inch speaker. It was just real powerful and real clean sounding. So what I did, was I would stereo mic both sets, the clean amplifier in stereo, the dirty amplifier in stereo, and they would take up four tracks on the multitrack. The fifth track was used for a direct out. He had a wireless coming from his guitar, and we went through a Vega wireless system, and I took the wireless direct and went right directly onto tape. This way, if the amplifiers screwed up during the show, we could take the direct channel, put it through amplifiers in the studio, which we did a lot anyway. We would take the direct signal, put it through amps in the studio, and maybe mess with it while we were mixing. Because he usually didn't like playing again in the studio. We would take a live solo, and then we might enhance the recording with putting a couple Marshalls in the reverb chamber or something like that, miking them up. And we could use that direct signal to just kind of recreate what we did on the live stage.

Mix: But presumably on the live albums, including all the guitar albums, the guitar tone you hear is what he was getting on stage at the time.
Pinske: Absolutely. With a few exceptions. Like when we did "Coneheads," for instance. The "Saturday Night Live" thing. I got him to do a real elaborate solo on that thing in the studio, which was just an all-studio solo overdub. But most of the time Frank used to like to use the live-whatever live show he felt was the best solo.

Mix: I've read quite a lot about it, but actually this is one of the few albums I don't yet have. Apparently all the guitar solos on "Joe's Garage" were actually live solos flown in over tracks.
Pinske: Absolutely. They were live solos. A lot of them were flown in over tracks. Some of them were taken from different shows.

Mix: But that was the album that came out before you started working with Frank.
Pinske: The end of "Joe's Garage," I was actually still working on. But Joe Chicarelli was the engineer. In fact, Joe Chicarelli had quit at that point, or gotten fired or something. So I kind of had to finish that up. That album wasn't really one of my albums. I'm not credited on it, but I did some work on the end of it. That was kind of my apprenticeship, so to speak. The real first album I did was the "Tinsel Town Rebellion" album, as far as having credits on it and doing all the work myself. That's where we started on it. We've continued to do those same tactics. For instance, we would do something like "What's New in Baltimore" from Hamburg, and then we would cut away to the 2-inch tape from the Hammersmith Odeon because Frank loved the way the guitar sounded in that theater. And then we would edit that solo in, and then come back after the solo and go to some other city. Maybe to Baltimore, or the Tower Theater in Philadelphia, or something like that. We would edit around all the time between live things. We would listen to solos, probably until we were totally sick of it. There's not many master tapes.

Mix: I was going to say, you presumably logged the tapes during each show, but did you make comments? Did Frank keep a log of what were good shows? Or did he just keep it all in his head, or did you listen to it all back again later?
Pinske: We both had our ideas which shows were the best. When we came back off the road, we did all kinds of exercises. Because Frank would sometimes get mad at the band when they'd make mistakes. So he'd come back and he'd write a little list and say, "Gee, I can't wait to listen to this show or that show." So we might listen to Paris, or we might listen to his favorite show. He would say, "What shows do you think were good?" We'd listen to some of my shows, the ones I had good recording nights on. And then we'd try to evaluate the performance of the bands. But Frank was always one of these kind of guys that would always try something-if something wasn't working, he'd say, "Well, let's try something stupid." He said, "What were the worst nights we co

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