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Dweezil Zappa is a guitarist, songwriter, engineer, producer, and the owner of the newly completed Hikari Studios in Los Angeles. Zappa worked with Vintage King to equip the studio with a multichannel ATC speaker array for Dolby Atmos monitoring and a sophisticated routing system for integrating multiple racks of analog gear into a digital workflow.
We recently stopped by Hikari Studios for a photo shoot and Zappa took some time to tell us about growing up steeped in his father’s music, his “ultimate flexibility” approach to building a studio, and the exciting possibilities of Dolby Atmos in music. Step into Zappa’s world with this illuminating interview and gorgeous photos of his new space.
What was your musical upbringing like?
I grew up around live music and watched my dad write music and conduct recording sessions in different studios, including his home studio. I loved watching the creative process in action. It’s fascinating to see the inner instincts of a musician appear while they build something from a hint of an idea into a full-blown magnum opus. Especially my dad—his level of skill and creativity was unmatched.
When I was 10, my dad started building the Utility Muffin Research Kitchen. It was finished when I was 12. I saw firsthand what a difference it made for him to be able to create his music in a custom-built studio. I always knew that one day I would build my own studio from the ground up so that I could use it as my own rock ‘n roll sound laboratory.
How did you get started making records?
My first experience in the studio was unusual, to say the least. I was 12 years old and had only been playing guitar for around 9 months. I had a little band with my school friends and my dad asked if I wanted to record a few songs. I was excited but also terrified. Through a series of fortuitous happenstances, Edward Van Halen ended up getting involved and produced the songs “My Mother Is A Space Cadet” and “Crunchy Water” with Donn Landee. This was way back in 1982, and it was a life-altering experience to have that opportunity. It still feels like a dream after all of these years. It was also one of the first recording projects done in the newly finished UMRK studio.
The next record I made was Havin’ A Bad Day when I was 15. My dad produced that one, also at UMRK. Eventually, I started learning about engineering, and over a period of several years, I started doing all of the production elements on my own. I will always consider myself a student of music and sound. There’s still so much to learn and I finally have a location to put a lifetime’s worth of experience to use.
Speaking of that, tell us about Hikari Studios! What did you design it for and what do you do there?
I started building Hikari Studios nearly six years ago and I’m just beginning to start recording and mixing there now. It’s essentially an analog recording and mixing studio with digital control, but it’s also becoming a fully functional video studio for any kind of music content ranging from concerts to music lessons and educational demonstrations. Right now, the main things I work with are recordings in stereo and Dolby Atmos.
What inspired you to install a Dolby Atmos rig?
When I first heard Dolby Atmos, I immediately knew it would be the ultimate playground for music. The greatest benefit of Atmos is its ability to expand music in ways that create a deeper connection with the listener. The immersive qualities inherently amplify the emotional response for the listener, and I’ve seen firsthand what happens when people hear great examples of Atmos in my studio—goosebumps and tears! I believe Atmos adds value to music and it should ultimately inspire fans to invest in actually purchasing their favorite artists’ music.
How did you approach integrating such a vast collection of analog outboard gear into the computer-based Dolby Atmos workflow?
Normally it’s quite challenging to accommodate analog devices in the world of Atmos, but my studio is built around it. There’s a curated assortment of analog compressors and EQs that can easily be connected to different sources via the Anatal Xbay 512, which is an analog router with digital control. I’m able to create custom mixing and recording templates that are recallable, which is quite helpful when it comes to testing different mix bus configurations. I can easily change the order of equipment or audition different gear in real-time by pressing a button. It makes complex parallel routing and mults easy, as well. Extreme flexibility is the best description of my studio.
Tell me more about the video element of the studio. What capabilities does it have and how do you plan to use it?
Since Covid has shut down touring, for many musicians there’s a need for music content creation options. I decided to add a powerful video component to the studio and found a way to incorporate eight 4k cameras with remote-controlled lighting, including presets for different shots. You can press a button for performance lighting, press another for interview lighting, and so on.
I wanted to be able to capture the inner workings of the creative process without disturbing the recording sessions. It’s a valuable asset for any artist because we can be recording high-quality cinematic video from unobtrusive vantage points during the earliest stages of songwriting and performance. It’s a fly-on-the-wall mindset, like the recent Beatles documentary, Get Back. I think it’s inspirational to see musicians “in the moment” working out details of new ideas. I plan to collaborate and produce artists at Hikari Studios, so this is a powerful addition to offer as part of the recording process.
What was the studio design and construction process like?
Building a studio isn’t easy. You have to think in terms of future-proofing your environment, especially before you close up the walls. There was a misstep with the first wiring contractor and I had to have all of his work redone, which was no fun, but it caused me to go in a new direction that made the studio even better. I had originally planned to make a rehearsal and recording space for my band since I was touring so much at that time, but Covid changed all of that and I pivoted towards Atmos mixing and recording. I could instantly see the value in recording music with Atmos in mind from the start. Any music can become a movie for your ears in Atmos.
I had to make changes to the studio to accommodate Atmos and all of the B-chain functionality that’s required for monitoring between multiple sources. I have an elaborate BSS system with a massive amount of KVM switching between audio and video monitors. At this point, the studio is well-equipped to handle any type of audio scenario.
What was it like working with Vintage King while building out the studio?
Vintage King has been a great resource in terms of procuring hard-to-find items and helping to fix things that need repairs or maintenance. All of the reps I've worked with were very helpful.
What inspired the studio’s aesthetic design? It’s very striking.
I didn’t want a traditional-looking studio, so I built a retro-futuristic environment that would transport me to a creative mindset every time I walked in. It was also critical for me to have sound treatments that wouldn’t off-gas chemicals for a lifetime. I found a company called Audimute and discovered that they made incredible products that were environmentally friendly, did not off-gas, and were also completely customizable in terms of size, shape, and aesthetics. I worked with Mitch Zlotnick to create the backgammon-themed panels and geometric slices in the ceiling. The acoustic control in both rooms is exactly what I was dreaming of. I’m really happy with the sound and the look.
What drew you to the ATC monitors you're using?
I’ve been in a lot of recording and mastering studios that have them, so that’s where I first got to hear them. They’re very accurate in the midrange and they aren’t over-emphasized in any area. Long durations of listening are easy on my ears. They have great extension even without a subwoofer, but paired with subs, they become a thrill ride. I can really trust what I’m hearing on my ATCs and I love the way they sound.
You’ve got a console-style control surface and racks of analog gear built into your desk. How is it all set up?
It goes back to the idea of ultimate flexibility. I designed the “console” desk to accommodate an assortment of my favorite pieces of gear because I wanted to access some specific EQ, compression, and saturation options from the sweet spot in the listening position. I use Nuendo as my DAW for the most part, but I have recently added a Pro Tools system as well so that I can collaborate with more artists and producers. The control surface I use is a Yamaha Nuage, but the audio passes through any analog gear I choose. There are so many ways to color the sound, and I can create templates for all sorts of hybrid combinations or choose to work completely in the box.
What are some of your favorite pieces of outboard gear?
That’s tough to answer! I’ll go with compressors first. There are certain compression textures that I love for glue and weight. My top ten in my studio at the moment would be the RCA BA-6A, Neve 2254, UTA Unfairchild, Urei 1178, LA-2A, Locomotive 14B, Chandler RS124, PYE 4060s, Magic Death Eye Stereo Mastering Compressor and Retro STA Level. There are so many others that I love as well, like the Kush Audio Tweaker.
For Saturation, I love the Anamod ATS-1, Maor Applebaum’s The Oven, the Thermionic Culture Vulture Super 15 and the Overstayer M-A-S, VCA, and Stereo Field Effect compressor. For EQ, you can’t go wrong with Pultecs, but I also love the EAR 825Q and the Heritage Audio MOTORCITY EQs. I’ve also had the Fearn EQ and Compressors in my studio for a test drive and they were fantastic as well.
How do you feel about plug-ins?
There’s a lot of brilliant work being done by plug-in companies. Beyond Waves, UAD, iZotope, and Plugin Alliance, there are tons of companies doing very specialized work, like Audio Thing. I think vintage gear emulations are great, but I always like to discover tools that go way beyond that into the realms of the unknown. Back in the day, people would try new things to make a sound stand out, like cutting a hole in a speaker to create distortion. It’s fun to find new sounds and odd combinations. I want to explore all of the possibilities to make new sounds that stand out.
I also love it when companies create a real persona with their products. The best example I can think of at the moment is Freakshow Industries. Their website is hilarious and it makes people want to buy their insane devices. I hear so many possibilities within the mangled madness they’ve created, especially when it comes to applications in sound design and Atmos. I’m also very inspired by Michael Brauer’s mixing methods and have been studying his signal flow for both analog and ITB.
Which microphones do you find yourself using most often?
I am fortunate to have some great mics to choose from. The real workhorse lately is the Mojave MA-37—it works on anything and always sounds rich and smooth. I especially love how it rejects cymbals and hones in on the meat of the drums. I do love my AEA R-88 and R-44s as well. Of course, you can’t go wrong with some Telefunken U47s and U48s, or an ELA M 251. For cool unexpected sounds, the Scope Labs Periscope is killer and the Electro-Voice 642 Cardiline shotgun mic is really cool as well.
What’s your philosophy on recording in the studio?
I prefer the old-school approach of shaping the sound during the recording process and getting it as close to the final mix as possible as it is being recorded. When you do it that way, it answers so many questions about the music, the arrangement, the mix, and the overall character of the record. It might take a bit more setup time to experiment with different sounds, but the foundation will be much stronger.
In contrast to that, I think it’s important to be able to move as quickly as you can so that the creativity can keep flowing. Spontaneity is super important, and the best results come from swift use of all of your knowledge. It’s most exciting to capture a take when the musicians know the song just well enough to get through it for the first time. That’s my favorite time to record. It’s always far better than a take that has been well-rehearsed. It stays raw and essential.
Do you have any go-to signal chains for recording or do you like to switch it up and experiment?
It tends to change a lot as I discover new sounds in my studio. I have the ability to leave three drum kits mic’d up for experimentation and discovery, and lately I’ve been selecting the Chandler REDD 47s, API Channel strips and UTA mic pres the most. I use AEA mic pres for all the ribbon mics, but I plan to do some experiments with the Retro mic pres I have as well.
I often record drums onto their own tracks without any processing, because I’m really happy with the way the drums interact with the different room environments here. I used to ask engineers how they got particular sounds and always felt cheated when they answered, “I just put up a mic.” Now I completely understand!
I really like minimal mic setups, and there are several locations where I can get really focused sounds out of a single mic. Plus, I have a Drumbrella that can really alter the sound of the drums in the room, as well as some nice custom baffles that I designed with reflective and absorptive sides. There’s also an Atmos mic placement template on the ceiling, so there are endless sound possibilities still to be discovered.
I love to try more complex things, too. I’ll record mults of different mics with processing as well as the full kit summed by a Chandler 16-track mini mixer. For drum processing, I use various compressors and EQs as well as the Anamod tape simulator.
What's a typical day in the studio like for you?
For the past few years, it’s been a series of experiments: testing gear, reading manuals, watching tutorials, plugging things in, and moving things around. More recently, I’ve started having friends over to play and just make stuff up on the spot. Krist Novoselic popped in recently and we turned up some amps and got into some cool things. He’s quite good at starting motion and contour, and the notes evolve with the contours.
I also have a lot of boring stuff to do, like cleaning up and organizing. Through experience I’ve come to learn that gear won’t get used if it takes too long to set it up, so I need to spend the time to go through everything and make it easily available. I’ve had an intern this summer, so that has expedited the process of audio testing. There’s also a studio “bible” that has been evolving over time because It’s important to get the workflows documented. I need to know how to use every single thing in the studio myself before I can rely on anyone else.
I’m also moving towards the beginning phase of some major Atmos mix projects, and later in the year I’ll also be recording and producing a few bands. I will have full-time help with that.
Are you working on any exciting projects right now that you're able to talk about?
I’m going to do Atmos mixes for the “Hot Rats Live” tour, and I’d also like to do Atmos mixes for the orchestral concerts I did with the NNO. I do have some major artists I’m working with to make their catalogs immersive but I’m not able to discuss that yet.
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