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Touring can make synths crazy! - interview with Tommy Mars – 8th September 2011

Tommy MarsVeteran Frank Zappa keyboard player Tommy Mars talks to Zappa’s Gear about Frank Zappa’s famous E-mu synthesizer and how touring with the Zappa band eventually led to it having a nervous breakdown!

For all you keyboard fans Tommy also talks about the Electrocomp synthesizers, the lost art of tuning multiple oscillators on stage, the custom Hammond organ, the Yamaha CS-80, hi-jinks with a Korg vocoder and more …


ZG:  (Outlining the scope of the Zappa’s Gear book) … and also some of the keyboards and synthesizers that are of particular interest … things like the E-mu

TM:  And certainly the Electrocomp!

ZG:  … and I was just going to say; the Electrocomp.

TM:  Because Frank had never heard of that until my audition.

ZG:  … and then he got three of them for the band.  Almost everyone played an Electrocomp.

TM:  Well not everyone…

ZG:  … certainly you and Peter Wolf had one at one point.

TM:  Right. And other cats you know they used it just orchestrationally, as with Peter too, it wasn’t his main axe he was really a mini-moog player, whereas I was coming from that side of it, the E-mu / Electrocomp kind of side. But Arthur (Barrow) had to use it occasionally, Bob Harris I think had to use it, but he (FZ) didn’t just have the (Electrocomp) 101 of course he used the Synkey and the Polybox as an interface.

ZG:  I saw Arthur’s got a photo of your Electrocomp on his site …

TM:  That’s my Polybox, the Synkey was lost unfortunately but the Polybox remains.

ZG:  What was the Synkey?

TM:  The Synkey, I was the only one that played it in the interface, but the thing is if you ever notice a picture of the band in that period, over my mixer you’ll see a keyboard that I never play, in other words it was used just as the interface as the Polybox, I would play it very infrequently, you could almost count on one hand the times that I actually used the keyboard part of it. However when you’re listening to a stack of the Electrocomp playing sort of a French horn sound, and the Polybox playing chords that followed that by pitch with the same envelope, then you’ll hear a very very high little piccolo sound on the top of the whole stack, that’s the Synkey. That’s basically what its dedicated job was, to play piccolo parts.

And it would play parallel, it was just like a Polybox that had a keyboard, in other words, it was its own little synth but it could also play chords.  The chords that you played weren’t like the Polybox which has a one octave keyboard and you can just voice chords, this actually had numerical buttons, like Minor 2nd, Major 2nd, Minor 3rd, Major 3rd . It went up all twelve tones so you could construct chords, but obviously it was harder to change chords because they were little punch buttons rather than the keys on the Polybox, and of course it was its own synthesizer, it actually was a little monophonic synth.

ZG:  I think the Electrocomp gear is fascinating, because it’s not very well known..

TM:  Well it’s just amazing, when I did my audition and Frank said “You brought some gear with you?” I brought my Rhodes, and I brought my Electrocomp, and my Taurus bass pedals, and he said “what’s this?” and I undid it and I played something,  and of course my signature sound was a French horn kind of brass sound that it did, it was my kind of signature, and his jaw dropped . I don’t think he’d had ever heard a synth kind of do that kind of sound in that kind of expression that it was able to have.

And I said “this E-mu you that you have?”, and he was just like so proud of his E-mu, this is so funny man!),  and the only sound that he had on it , which is the easiest sound in the world to make, was a little pipe organ sound, an eight foot and a four foot,  no envelope,  no nothing,  I said “you mean with all this that’s all you got?”(laughs), and he says “Yeah?” and I said “Well I don’t think you noticed that the Electrocomp is very similar, I could set this sound up exactly for you on the E-mu, and then you’d have five voices, you’d have complete polyphony”. And in those days that was like, you know, going to the emerald city, like follow the yellow brick road!”.  

ZG:  Yeah I know…

TM:  Frank got so excited he says “OK, do that” and he tentatively hired me that day at his house, he said I want you to come back in a week, I’m going to give you this music and I just want you to play it for me and then pretty much, you’d be in the band. So when I came back the second week the cats from E-mu were there, and I showed them what I had done and Frank says “hard wire it”, so they did. So even if you messed with the knobs (except for the tuning, those knobs, they had to be free) but the rest of it, the envelopes, were pre-set; they were tied up in the back.

ZG: Were the guys from E-mu the head guys, Dave Rossum and Scott Wedge? (E-mu marketing manager Marco Alpert later told me that it was himself, Rossum and Wedge at that meeting.)

TM:  You know it’s been so long I don’t remember their names, but I just remember there were three guys there from E-mu the next time I came to Frank’s house, and they took care of it you know, and when we got to the first rehearsal it was set up exactly the way I wanted it, the VCA and the VCF were tied parallel like the Electrocomp was, and I tweaked it a little bit, and um. It didn’t have one feature that, I don’t know if this is getting too detailed for you?

ZG:  No, no!

TM:  The only difference with the E-mu and the Electrocomp was, on the Electrocomp there is a filter setting, it’s a pitch following filter that fattens the sound up, and the E-mu did not have that capability. In other words if you played like two notes together it would give you a kind of a little bit of  a warm distortion, and then it would go away,  it’s a particular colour, like a embouchure on a brass instrument. So the E-mu was a little bit cleaner sounding, and a little lacking in personality than the Electrocomp, however the marriage was just so beautiful with the both of them, and the evidence of that is when you hear a lot of the stuff on ‘Sheik Yerbouti’ which I was playing tons of parts in parallel with them.

ZG:  What would be a stand out example track – 'Yo Mama'?

TM:  That is the standout track for me. It doesn’t get better than that, he (FZ) just let me have full rein there, “Go do your deal Tommy!” But you know is ‘Fine Girl’ on 'Sheik Yerbouti'? ('Tinsel Town Rebellion' in fact)  That “pah pah parump”, and also the tons of brass stuff on ‘Bobby Brown’, anything like that is me playing the E-mu.  But Frank (because it was easier and more efficient), would let me play the tracks simultaneously on the Electrocomp and the E-mu, so it would be parallel. Rather than doing one E-mu part and one Electrocomp part I would do two parts in one take.

ZG:  Right.

TM:  Of course they were still multi-tracked but instead of just using one hand to do it I would use both hands to get both parts, or actually six or seven parts.

ZG:  Did you ever record anything just with the Electrocomp, as a solo instrument?

TM:  Well, if you watch Baby Snakes there’s parts in the movie where Frank is conducting sound effects…  I don’t know, he’s used those little library titbits all over the repertoire, and whenever you hear them, it’s usually the Electrocomp doing that, not so much the E-mu. But one thing that was so great about the E-mu was the sequencer. It only had, I forget how many note memory…

ZG:  Around 200 I believe…

TM:  I think it was between 200 and 300 that rings a bell to me. So I could set up really interesting vamps on it, and I can remember jamming on the chord changes to Purple Lagoon occasionally with Frank. And it was so great because you couldn’t do that, no instrument could really do what that did in 1977, even though it was only five voice and it ran out after a couple of hundred notes, which isn’t much when you’re trying to construct a sequence of some value. I used to be able to trigger the sequencer on a pulse width wave, in other words it wouldn’t be a regular sequence it would come in and out whenever the part of the wave was being sampled.

And I used to do it during the show and it was just, it sounded very like avant-garde, it still had the same basic pulse, but it wouldn’t be there all the time, it wasn’t omnipresent, so it was kind of eclectic and exciting, it was almost like the E-mu would lead the jam, like you don’t really know when it’s going to come in but you better be ready for it!

ZG:  That reminds me of the story you told about when it started playing by itself one morning?

TM:  Oh that’s when I had it at my house. Yeah, it wouldn’t stop playing, even when I turned it off, so I had to unplug it and finally, before Rod Sterling came into the picture, it finally turned off!

ZG:  But of course that was an analogue sequencer, it was all done with voltages…

TM:  Absolutely! It was crazy!

ZG:  Right.

TM: But I’ll tell you some of the high points in my time with Frank were playing that E-mu with the sequencer, jamming with it, because it was something you dreamed about being able to do but you could never really do it in real time, no instrument had that kind of real estate you could sink your teeth into with a sequence.

And I can remember doing certain vamps for Frank, he’d say ‘Let’s put this one’, say for instance you just need to have a particular set of chords, just robotically being played, but kind of artistic, you know, to give you some inspiration and we’d set it up, and it would be very effective in rehearsals. Sometimes even when he would audition people I’d set up a sequence, you know, some odd meters sort of stuff. It was just so great; you could play some chords and some inter melodies that it would be an effective part of the band.

But the problem was that the E-mu was not - I don’t know how far you want to go with this in your interview?

ZG:  All the way, go!

TM: Treat it with a grain of salt, in respect to the E-mu people.  The E-mu after a couple of years on the road started getting ‘un-roadable’, it would start spitting out this digital diarrhoea man, you wouldn’t even know when it would happen, and all of a sudden it would go (imitates broken synth) “brr, kaarava brr brr mmu mm” , it would just have its own personality. When Arthur joined the band, our first European tour, when Ike Willis, Arthur, Denny Walley, and I forget who else, was it Warren? (Cuccurullo), we were going to Europe and I told Frank before the carny got shipped that “Man, I don’t think the E-mu’s going to make Europe, man, especially with the voltage changes, and you hear how it’s been acting up” . He said “Yeah, I know Mars”, and it was with the snake (connecting keyboard to synth, you know it was very sensitive.

It wasn’t like the Electrocomp; the E-mu was really meant to be a studio instrument, especially the module that Frank had; I don’t think it was ever meant to be on the road. And this thing had already done yeoman’s work for a year and a half on the road, you know, three different tours the E-mu was on. And now we were going to Europe with it, and it was in the winter, and so he said “Alright Mars, you know, we’re going to have to get something else” and I had heard about the (Yamaha) CS-80, which had just come out, and I said “Let me give it a try. The CS-80, you know what I mean, it’s not going to be the E-mu”, and it wasn’t, it absolutely wasn’t. But what it was, was something tremendous, it brought me to a new level of expression; it didn’t have the finesse for me, but having that marriage of digital and analogue, there were certain things you could never even hope to do with the E-mu, and more than anything it was reliable. In other words it wouldn’t be going crazy, you know, having a nervous breakdown on stage.

Frank was really upset that we couldn’t take the E-mu but I said “Man, it’s a liability Frank, it could just fuck up and then we don’t have any, you know, backup”. So that’s actually why the CS-80 came into the picture.

ZG:  The E-mu, you know it’s in a museum in Paris.

TM:  Yes, Arthur told me, the Musee de la Musique.

ZG:  Absolutely, it’s in the same gallery as some of Edgar Varese’s sirens and percussion instruments, Frank would be so pleased.

TM:  Well it should be, of course he’s pleased, he’s just smiling his ass off, looking down at us!

But I heard, Arthur told me, that the keyboard of it is lost! And that to me is more criminal than anything. Because that’s where the art came from, not just the module but the actual keyboard. It was such a distinctive actual keyboard, it was a very interesting looking thing, and it’s really sad that that’s not in the exhibit with the module.

ZG:  I’ve actually found the guy who’s got them, he’s got two keyboards, the mono one and the poly one.

TM:  He has the polyphonic E-mu keyboard?

ZG:  Yeah.

TM:  One of them was monophonic which we never used, but the polyphonic, he has that one? That had the sequencer.

ZG:  He bought it in the Zappa family ‘Joe's Garage' sale  (March 1999).

TM:  Before he (FZ) died? Right

ZG:  Frank donated the E-Mu in June of that year (1993), and that’s when it got shipped over there, and they couldn’t find the keyboards in the studio.

TM:  Oh my God!

ZG:  So later they found them and phoned up the museum, and this is unforgiveable, the curator said we’ve already put the exhibit together, we haven’t got room, and we don’t want them!

TM:  Oh my God!

ZG:  I found the guy, I’m going to try and get some pictures out of him (Many thanks to Ivan Schwartz who did indeed send me the photo’s as promised - see the E-mu pictures page on this site.)

TM:  Oh Lord that is a crime, that is a real tragedy

ZG:  But the E-mu is there anyway stuck on the wall …

TM:  Right, at least it is there, you’re right, that’s respect, that is total respect

ZG:  The description says that it was later used for a guitar synth; I’m not sure about that…

TM:  Never was! Absolutely never was.

ZG:  It’s obviously been carefully designed, it’s not like Frank said 'give me three of every module you’ve got…'

TM:  Oh no…

ZG:  So one cabinet was a monophonic general-purpose synth, and one was designed for polyphony with the twelve small oscillators etc.

TM:  That’s the one that went on the road.

ZG:  So you only took the polyphonic cabinet?

TM:  We took the polyphonic cabinet with the sequencer, yes.

ZG:  And the other one with all that stuff…

TM: … like the ring modulator and the noise generator? That wasn’t used.

ZG:  OK, that makes more sense. So do you know who designed that, was that Frank’s idea or did the E-mu people suggest it?

TM:  Well I was led to believe that the E-mu people gave Frank certain options, and he just chose them, but oddly enough, if it was designed any other way, where the one cabinet had certain stuff that the other one didn’t, and vice versa, then it wouldn’t have worked to my advantage. Because when I came there, the way it was set up was perfectly correlated to the Electrocomp. It was like when opportunity meets talent, it worked out perfectly, and, as I told you before, I couldn’t believe how horrible the polyphony of a pipe organ was, and how laughable it was; that’s all Frank had on it when I got there.

ZG:  Right.

TM: Of course, it was such a boon when I was gotten into the band, and Frank said ‘we’ve got to have more Electrocomps’, and I said “you will have them post haste”, and I called, Electronic Music Laboratories in Connecticut where I came from, and where I bought my first Electrocomp. For them  to have the account, they were so proud of that, and it was such a boon because, you know, it wasn’t a very well-known synthesizer.

ZG:  Just the educational market originally …

TM:  That’s what it started as, a Title 5 grant I believe in Connecticut for education. And they had a small business of professionals that would use it, but it was mostly for education.  And that’s how Arthur found out about it, and it was so funny when Arthur got in the band and he found out that I played the Electrocomp, he was so elated because he actually had one! And I couldn’t believe that he actually had one.

ZG:  I didn’t know that.

TM:  Oh yeah, that was a big bond for us when he got hired.

ZG:  It was a little like the ARP 2600, a normalised modular synth that you could patch.

TM:  Right, well it was a lot different but it was that modular kind of feel to it, and you know a lot of times, I would tell Midget (Midget Sloatman, FZ’s long-time electronics technician) to do certain things on the E-mu, like put switches on it, for instance instead of patching the sequencer in with chords I would say ‘make a switch’, and then he would put the same switch in my Electrocomp so I didn’t have to put a patch cord in to connect it, certain little feeds, there are certain kind of custom little switches, and that’s the work of Midget for my considerations.

ZG:  (after explaining about the various custom modules - see the E-mu modules page on this site)

I’m looking at, on the monophonic box, what looks like a mixing panel with some black knobs; they don’t look like E-mu knobs on it, which was down the bottom in the middle.

TM:  This was on the monophonic?

ZG:  Yes.

TM:  Boy that rings a bell but it’s so soft a ring I can’t pick it up, I can remember those knobs, the monophonic was so rarely used I can’t vouch for that,  I don’t know. Hey did you notice if the monophonic keyboard had a portamento?

ZG:  I’m waiting for the pictures so I don’t know which model it was (it was a Model 4000 keyboard and it did have portamento controls).

TM: That was kind of a strange thing with the Polyphonic E-mu portamento, how it would logically go from one note to another. That’s another great thing about the CS-80, how it approached the Portamento, that’s quite a sophisticated process, you know. Portamento when you’re dealing with polyphony; it’s weird enough anyway when it’s just a monophonic axe but with polyphony, as a player you have to adjust to the time involved with it.

The E-mu cats saw how I set up the Electrocomp using one complete envelope, in other words I didn’t use a VCA in sonic territory, I was using it as a control device, to control pitch and when they saw how I was using that, using two oscillators having one glide down to a note say, and the other one maintain stationary, they said ‘oh my god we never thought of that’. I had never thought of it, it was an accident for me to discover the use in terms of an LFO kind of a concept, because you can’t hear it, it’s being used as a control, and the attack would raise the pitch, the decay would decline the pitch, and the sustain would be where the pitch ended up. They never thought that it could be used as a control rather than a sound, so the E-mu was really set up in a new, in a brand new way that it never had been before.

And of course, that’s the reason why the monophonic wasn’t used that much because it only had a limited amount of control availability.

ZG:  Anyway, you mentioned Midget. Looking at one of the custom modules, I know this wasn’t an E-mu one because the jack sockets and switches are not lined up, it looks handmade.  It’s a little box with four jack sockets and five switches, and another one with jack sockets and XLR outputs, on the monophonic box on the bottom right hand side.

TM:  A lot of that is for recording directly.

ZG:  OK that figures, some sort of output.

TM:  Although if I remember correctly all I had from mine whenever we played live were the regular outputs.  I mean the studio was different, when we recorded Sheik Yerbouti  I don’t know how many outputs Frank was taking from the synth,  and then again  Frank’s studio was being built then, so there was a lot of variables going on when that was being recorded. So those outputs are probably, there’s a lot of probably custom kind of output action going on there. And I know a few of those switches have to do with the sequencer.

ZG:  OK I’ve got one last mystery module for you, this one might ring a bell and this one’s on the polyphonic box, it’s in the top right corner.

TM:  In what corner?

ZG:  Top right, it’s got no name on it, but it’s got a knob that’s labelled chorus and normal, and another one called master filter, looks like an E-mu make, maybe it was a prototype, right in the top right corner.

TM:  That’s right, there was a some feature on the E-mu, if I remember correctly, and it has been a long time, that chorus is just a master de-tune, once it’s all tuned up then you can make one bank of oscillators detune, and it was on the upper right corner?

ZG:  Yeah.

TM:  Yeah I can remember adjusting up there, that’s what it is, it’s like a master de-tune, it’s like a chorus.

ZG:  So it would de-tune one bank of oscillators?

TM:  Exactly.  And you know what, that brings back memories because that was very very crucial. Understand that the E-mu sound had a pitch change that  would start a major second above a note, go  “Ba-yown, ba-yown, ba-yown, ba-yown , baa -own, baa-own”, that’s actually the note it’s starting from, but it’s gone “bra-own, bra-own” , so you’re hearing that pitch change against “dung, dung, dung”, so you’re getting a warm kind of embouchure kind of sound, when you have the note that they end on, it’s a little bit detuned. That chorus knob way up there, would, when the chord finally landed , pitch-wise, would be how much beating would be going on in the chord. So that required a lot of attention to how detuned do you want this chord, owing to the fact that it’s already had a pitch change as the note was initiated. You get what I’m talking about?

ZG:  I do, yeah.

TM: … a lot of pitch change going on, so when the note comes to the end, the pitch change, how much beating is going to be there, so it’s a ‘season to taste’ kind of thing, that I can remember  slaving over in terms of the pitch, let alone when the thing would go out of tune, that would be almost a master tuner for me.

ZG: Ok, Right.

TM: You know what I mean, because it wasn’t like the Electrocomp, the emu went out of tune a lot, I had to tune that thing probably every forty five minutes.

ZG:  Really, because they always claimed that they were the most stable oscillators in the world.

TM: Well, in those days, that was stable! When you’ve got so many variables, especially on stage with the heat of those lights, and it was always on the second row, it was closer to the lights than the first level of the stage. So there would be a lot of variables there, you know. Maybe I would get by tuning it twice a night, but sometimes I can remember having to touch up three times a night.

ZG:  OK.

TM:  I was just telling Arthur (Barrow) the other day, cats today; they don’t even know about tuning a synthesizer, let alone tuning the twelve oscillators of that particular synthesizer, and all my other synths. With my headphones on I could tune my whole setup, which in total was about 15 to 20 oscillators; I would have it all done in about one minute. And the little Synkey, that little piccolo sound, was the hardest to tune because it was the most exposed, if that’s out of tune then it sounds horrible, so sometimes before shows, if you listen to show tapes you’ll hear me tuning that little one, actually live, I mean not even with the headphones, just tweaking it a little bit. You know that sound I’m talking about right?

ZG:  Sure… anyone who’s got a digital synth, or even a software emulator, they’ve got no idea you had to do that.

TM:  Absolutely not. And that it would go out of tune by what makes other things go out of tune; temperature, humidity.  Of course the Electrocomp was better than some because it had a heating unit that sort of kept it at a kind of a constant temperature, but not really, you know. It did the best it possibly could. Because Mini-Moogs would go out of tune, they were notorious.

ZG:  Sure.

TM:  And you were mentioning about the (Hammond) organ?

ZG: That’s another one of the keyboards that is unique from what I understand…

TM:  Oh! Unbelievably unique! The thing is, is that when I joined the band we had a standard B-3 and then Frank started getting into the SynDrums, and they had a module for the SynDrums that they had for keyboards and I said “Frank, wouldn’t it be great if we could…” He had already cut-down the B3, and also had it voltage controlled, and the problem, unfortunately, with the cutting down and the voltage control process was I had to lose the 1 foot drawbar. You know, if you’re an organist, that drawbar, it puts the icing on the cake, you need that, the other ones are great but that one foot is the highest drawbar, and it’s the most sensitive.  But that’s the drawbar they needed to make it voltage controlled, for some reason they had to use that high root drawbar, the one foot, so I never had that and it was sort of a thorn in my side, being an organist, but – to have the SynDrums on the organ was incredible, and a lot of times people didn’t know that I was making that sound, they would think it would be the SynDrums, but it was actually coming from the organ. Having tuned SynDrums that were an ensemble, you know what I mean, a drummer would have at the most maybe six or eight SynDrums, but this is having 61 SynDrums, right  (laughs).

ZG:  Right!

TM:  And pitch-wise it could run a large gamut. So I had the SynDrums connected to the bottom keyboard, and the minimoog connected to the top keyboard, which was you know OK but you couldn’t do any expressive stuff, you couldn’t add vibrato obviously, there was no touch sensitivity in those days, or polyphonic after-touch, or anything.

So, I, the thing I loved about it though was Frank did buy another (set of Taurus bass pedals), I came to the table with my set of Taurus bass pedals which I keep under the piano, but I said “Hey can we put the Taurus bass pedals under the organ, and then have the last octave of the organ also have the bass pedals on the manual. They hooked it up that way so I had the bass pedals under the organ, and it also would be the last octave of the upper manual.

ZG:  Wow! So what was that used on?

TM:  It was used on everything, you hear the Taurus bass pedals a lot, and sometimes I used to play them both together, the whole house would really rock when you play a low C down there with both of those Taurus bass pedals under the organ and the piano. Course it use to almost give me a hernia, from the angle you have to play it at, but no, anytime you hear the SynDrums, it’s hard to know if it’s me or Terry (Bozzio).

ZG:  He had about four on his kit.

TM:  Terry had four, yeah.

ZG:  and what module did you use then?

TM:  Oh my God, the module I used was a custom module from SynDrum.

ZG:  OK.

TM:  They just constructed one, they said when Frank got the SynDrums for Terry, they said we also have this other one that can be used sort of as a studio thing, that can be hooked up to a keyboard, so he said “wow fantastic”, but you know, we didn’t just have a custom keyboard, I made the suggestion let’s put it on the B3, if you’re cutting it down anyway,  the voltage control those keyboards so we can use it there, so that’s how it was used, but I guess it was meant to be a module for any keyboard player just to access with a voltage control keyboard. Similar probably to what the Polybox was, sort of a pitch follower.

ZG:  So who actually did the work, who customised the organ?

TM:  I don’t ever even remember the name SynDrum on it; it was just a light green box with knobs on it. And it had maybe, I don’t know, maybe four different kinds of sounds, something like that. And of course you could get the relative pitch; if you didn’t want it to go into the beating area, or too high up, you could adjust the general range of it. I don’t know if they ever marketed that unit for other things

ZG:  I’ve never heard of anything like that.

TM:  I think Frank was one of the only people that had that custom module, I say custom module that might have been the prototype for all I know. But you never saw it, it was under the organ, it’s like so many people, there were such illusions in Frank’s show, “Where are the sounds really coming from?”  You know what I mean, kind of a deceiving thing.

ZG:  In your set-up on the Baby Snakes DVD most of the other stuff looks fairly standard kit, like the Rhodes and so on, is there anything else of interest?

TM:  Did I use the Vocoder on ‘Baby Snakes’?

ZG:  I don’t know…

TM:  It would be to the left side of the Electrocomp or the Mini. Then again in Baby Snakes Peter (Wolf) is playing the E-mu too, that always uh…, but then again you know Frank had to split the instruments up  to a certain degree so, you know what I mean it just… Peter was a mini player, he wasn’t like an Electrocomp kind of cat, and his finesse with the E-mu was… I was so glad the next tour that I was playing the E-mu.

ZG:   FZ complained in an interview about his E-mu player using his Mini-moog for solos.

TM:  That’s Peter, I could have told you, that’s Peter!

ZG:  … and then said that he was so disheartened that he put the $50,000 E-mu in storage.

TM:  But that’s not the reason though, he gave it to me the next tour, and I would sort of use it chordally soloing, but it wasn’t really a solo instrument, it never was set up like that. And the thing is, what it was used for was perfectly legitimate orchestrationally for what he needed, the reason the E-mu got retired is because it had a nervous breakdown, the thing was not roadable believe me, it was frightening, from out of nowhere it would spit out this digital kind of craziness; you know actually it wasn’t digital it was analogue craziness! But it was the snake, I still think Midget would agree with me that it was the snake involving the sequencer; some strange activity involving the sequencer within the snake triggered the thing to start playing itself. And I mean that could kill a show, you know what I mean, and it did! There was a couple of times when I had to jump off my seat really fast and turn it off, you know, turn the volume down to nothing because it had started going. And Frank, you know, I would do it before Frank really noticed, he probably thought I was noodling around for a second, but that’s the reason the E-mu got retired, it never was meant to be really a road instrument the way we were on the road.*

ME: No.

TM:  Is that how much Frank said he spent on the E-mu, fifty grand? I never knew it was that much, I thought it was more towards thirty, like twenty-five, thirty, I never knew it was fifty.

ZG:  That’s what he said.

TM:  It could have been…

ZG:  Yeah – if he bought all the memory, you had to pay hundreds of dollars for every 16k of memory.

TM:  Yeah, you remember those days, of having to save everything on a cassette tape?

ZG:  Of course.

TM:  (Laughs) I’ll never forget I lost this tape, left it in a hotel room once, I had to go, it was just by the nick of time I got back to the airport in time to get the plane, I left one little bag in my hotel room, I forgot, you know that it was there, and it was a backup tape and I had lost the other one so I had to have it.

ZG:  What about the Yamaha CS-80?

TM:  The CS-80 with that polyphonic after touch was probably one of the most dream come true instruments I had ever played, and strictly because of the polyphonic after touch.  I can remember coming up with like a string quartet sound, and it used to just melt Frank, the sensitivity of each finger being able to have a different level of vibrato, and volume. The ring modulation on that was incredible, I used to do so much with the portamento with the ring modulation, and it would happen so fast, I mean you would have to have three or four different instruments before, to do the same things you were doing in one second with the CS80. Yes it wasn’t the brass sound that I had had before with the E-mu, and it never could be because it wasn’t designed like that, there was not enough independence with each of the voices. And it was a real bitch to master tune, it was a very difficult and deceiving instrument to tune up, but, it didn’t go out of tune regularly. It was digital, so it had the digital part of it controlling the pitch, a lot better than any analogue instrument before, but when you had to do a master tune, like every two months or so, Klaus Wiedermann,  Frank’s  main tech,  he was the one that figured out how to tune it so he would always say “oh no, we have to tune it again?”  I don’t know if you were familiar with that axe, but it was really hard, it was like a floating eighth voice in it that you had to find.

ZG:  Right.

TM:  But if I had to not use the E-mu, that was the proper instrument at the right time, then again I only had like three weeks to learn it, it had to go on the ship to go to Europe, so I only took three weeks to get close with it and then we were on tour, so it was tough, because he (FZ) said “I want this thing to sound as close to the E-mu as possible”.  I said this would probably be the only instrument that’s available right now, the Prophet  really wasn’t happening at that point, it still wasn’t really reliable, and we had a prototype version that they were building for me and I was asking for  certain things that they weren’t able to provide, and it kept overheating. Finally Frank got frustrated and says “Nah, we’re not going to go for this” so it went to Joe Zawinul, and he was able to use it happily. But right after that we went right for the CS80 because although the Prophet was closer to the E-mu in the way it sounded, the CS80 could do so many other things that the Prophet and the E-mu just couldn’t ever. It was so organic, especially with that zip strip too, it was great to be able to use pitch control with just a piece of wire.


TM:  I was very happy with that instrument, but you know there were only four different available sounds that you could make yourself. Other than that you would be able to sculpt the sounds that they already had in there a teeny little bit live. I mean, it was still a great advancement, nothing was set in stone or perfect but it was certainly just what I needed at that moment. I would have wanted more programmable sounds but that was all that was available, just four.

Each one of them has to use only one sound; I had to have only one for wind. We needed certain cues in the show, so I had to waste one of them totally on white noise unfortunately, which seemed like a huge waste, to only have white noise on a programmable sound, but that’s the way it had to be used.

ZG:  Did you ever play Frank’s ARP 2600?

TM: Right, by the time I got into the band in ‘77 it was pretty much out of the door, you know what I mean , the E-mu was the king of the road at that time, but I played it a couple of times. It was an interesting instrument, it wasn’t one that I was real close to, but it was a great axe. I played it a couple of times, but of course it never went on the road with us, and by that time the E-mu was in.

ZG:  OK.

TM:  You know don’t forget about the vocoder too! It was so funny how it happened because we had gotten to New York, and I had a background in like, being a choirmaster and an organist in churches before I got to Frank so I liked that choral kind of effect anyway, you know what I mean, that’s part of my DNA is to have a choral kind of sound. I was sick, and I couldn’t go to Manny’s (Manny’s music store in New York).

Frank and a couple of the other cats went to Manny’s and he was buying some stuff, and he says “Mars, I’ve got the greatest instrument for you; you are absolutely going to have a heart attack”. I says “What’s up?” He says “I’ve bought you a choir!” (laughs). He says it’s an instrument called a vocoder, and I’d heard the name but I’d never actually seen one before, and sure enough, they had it all set up for me at sound check. And I mean I didn’t even know how to work it or learn how to use it so that it didn’t feedback with ambient sound, it had its own incredibly sophisticated properties, but he actually said “You’re going to use it tonight aren’t you?” I said “Frank what are you talking about? I’ve just got it!” He said “I want you to use it tonight”, so we actually used it, I think the gig was up at Stony Brook (State University of New York, Stony Brook - 15th October 1978), that’s the first time I ever used it.

But that instrument was so expressive, it had the women’s choir kind of sound that you hear on a lot of recordings with Frank, it’s unmistakeable. And of course, depending on how much simulator you have you can hear what you are actually singing, but a lot of times you can’t hear the words that I’m singing, it’s actually not very understandable. The other sound it had we called it the ‘Ant sound’, it had no vibrato, it sounded very robotic, and it sounded like Alien kind of voices, and Frank actually loved that. Midget devised a switch on it so Frank’s mike would trigger it, and I actually had the switch on the Vocoder, so I could switch Frank’s voice on any time I ever wanted. There were certain parts of the show where it was necessary, and sometimes he’d just give me a look like “I want my voice on the vocoder” and I would know that, but then sometimes I would trigger it, even if he didn’t even ask for it (laughs), which used to freak him out, he didn’t know where it was coming from, you now he didn’t put it together, he had more things on his mind. And if you notice I always had two microphones as well, one to trigger the vocoder and one for my normal vocal mic

ZG:  OK.

TM:   But the Vocoder, that was used a lot, especially in that period of you know sheik Yerbouti, Joes garage, all over the place even ah, what album is ‘The Blue Light’ from? Is it ‘Tinsel Town’?

ZG:  Yes.

TM:  ‘The Blue Light, there’s some vocoder stuff on that man, and I always liked the Korg vocoder versus any other one, there was something real sensitive about it. Actually Korg throughout the years have done pretty darn good products.

ZG:  (Waffles on about my experiences with EMS vocoders and noisy synths...).

TM:  I get it, and let alone any sound that came in would trigger it, so you really had to focus your mouth on that microphone, that’s what I meant about ambient feedback. It was a very tricky instrument to play live with other sounds, but I developed the science of how to position the microphone and what not. Frank loved that instrument; it really beefed up, you know, it gave it a real symphonic, especially with the brass and the chorus in fact it was very operatic some times.

ZG:  Sure.

TM:  Things like ‘Yellow Snow’ or ‘Strictly Genteel’, the big ones of Franks, you know what I mean, or even ‘Sofa’, something that was like an anthem kind of thing, or even ‘Punky’s Whips’, sounds like that, his ‘faux classical’ sound.

ZG:  I’m going to have a good old listen to them…

TM:  Oh yeah, I still miss him every day, there’s something about Frank that just won’t let go

ZG:  We need people like him around now really…

TM:  You bet! Well, it was great speaking with you and send me a copy of the book when you get it done.

ZG:  I certainly will, it’s been an absolute pleasure, thanks ever so much Tommy.

TM:  It’s my pleasure and thank you for thinking of me.  Well you take care of yourself and uh peace!

ZG:  Yeah peace to you as well Tommy, all the best.

TM:  All the best, bye bye.


*Footnote - According to Marco Alpert from E-mu, it wasn't so much the travelling that proved too much for the synth, but the partying:

'The story has it that at some point, the entire system found its way into the line of fire of a glitter cannon, resulting in many small bits of metallic glitter finding their way into the guts of the system, after which, despite meticulous attempts to find and extricate them all, it was never quite right again.'


The above is an edited transcript of a telephone interview with Mr. Thomas Mariana (aka Tommy Mars) conducted by Mick Ekers (Zappa's Gear) on September 8th 2011. Subsequent comments and additions are in italics. Reproduced with the kind permission of Tommy Mars. Copyright © Mick Ekers