Audeze talks to musician, composer and engineer Dweezil Zappa

March 17, 2023

Dweezil Zappa is a Guitarist, Composer, Mix engineer, and Atmos enthusiast. 

Dweezil Zappa in the studio with his Audeze LCD-MX4 headphones

"My Audeze headphones have a natural depth of field and localize sound sources with precision. The center is well defined and the low frequencies are reproduced better than anything else I've heard."  - Dweezil Zappa
Here's our chat with Dweezil:
Can you pick out any highlights from your work that you're particularly proud of?

On a musical level I would say that building the necessary skill set to perform my father’s most challenging music and leading a band through all of the twists and turns has been the most rewarding thing I’ve accomplished to date. There’s a lot of technical skill required to play the music but there’s also a ton of musical and sound design knowledge required to make it sound authentic. Then there’s the mental fortitude needed to withstand playing his music commensurate with his level of skill and attention to detail at 60-100 shows a year worldwide for 15 years straight. A close second was the opportunity to write a few pieces of music for a 100 piece orchestra in Holland. That was a great experience. Covid completely changed my career course back in 2020 and I'm now focused on studio work and content creation.

How would you define your main role on most of the projects you work on these days?

Production, mixing and educational content for guitar and recording. In my new rock and roll laboratory called Hikari Studios I am specializing in Atmos mixing as well Atmos integration in new recordings from the ground up. There's a video and live stream concert element that I will be implementing as well. I’m also continuing to do my own music. I have a record called “What The Hell Was I Thinking?” that I began recording over 25 years ago. I haven’t had a chance to finish it yet. It’s a continuous piece of instrumental music that morphs and segues from style to style and the sonic landscapes morph as well. It’s almost like the experience of tuning in radio stations on a vintage radio. It has a lot of guest guitarists as well. Now that my studio is set up for Atmos I can really bring this project to life. It will become a priority over the next year. Besides that I am further developing the web platform I created with a partner called Reward Music. It’s the ultimate business solution for artists and content creators. Essentially it's every service a content creator would ever need to get their content in front of their audience without the need for other middle-man services. It's built for content creators to earn 100% of their sales revenue and even earn advertising revenue if they choose to allow advertisements to run with their content.

How did you get started in music? What kind of music did you listen to while growing up and how has that progressed?

I only heard my dad’s music or the music he listened to on the living room stereo until I was around 12. So I heard a very eclectic assortment of music from modern composers like Stravinsky and Varese to rhythm and blues like Johnny Guitar Watson and Balkan and Middle Eastern folk music. The music on the radio seemed so simple in many ways compared to what I was used to hearing.

Can you name any factors that influenced the course of your musical life? Heroes, role models, moments, interactions, etc?

I’ve been fortunate when it comes to role models. My dad was my first inspiration as a musician. I knew early on that his level of skill would take a lifetime to understand. I could see in the back of my mind that one day I would learn to play the things he composed that always fascinated me. That thought process still remains and applies to all kinds of music. I feel like I will always be a perpetual student of music. To me that means every aspect of music, even the instrumentation and production elements.

Over the years I’ve had the chance to meet and work with many other musical heroes and it has definitely been the foundation of my musical perspective. My very first studio recording session was produced by Edward Van Halen and engineered by Donn Landee when I was 12. I had only been playing guitar for around 9 months. I have a long list of heroes and surprisingly I’ve had a chance to work with or play live on stage with a lot of them. A short list, my dad, Edward Van Halen, Geroge Duke, Vinnie Colaiuta, Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea, Brian May, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Steve Morse, Eric Johnson, Terry Bozzio, Angus and Malcolm Young and many more. Some of them even played on “What The Hell Was I Thinking?” It’s kind of crazy really.

Can you briefly describe a moment of frustration from your past work, and what you may have done to overcome the obstacles? Would you approach it differently now?

I would say that developing a clear understanding of your contribution to life on this planet is the biggest challenge. I have always thought that it was best to try things that are of interest and see what can be learned from that process. I have done a lot of different things in my career but it took a long time to develop my own musical style. Some people are fortunate to have formed that style right out of the gate. I would say that an artist like Derek Trucks fits that description. He has always had his sound from day one and his style continues to evolve but it’s built on the initial foundation.

My development has gone through many cycles. The biggest challenge has been to learn the technical skills that have always been exciting to me but use them in a way that is musical and also personal to me. I think that having a wide array of life experiences is what informs that process and at the end of the day I have found myself being most inspired by the art of delivering an emotional connection to a listener. That is very different from my early days of learning to be technically proficient. So to really answer your question, I have not been able to do what I really want with music yet because my understanding of what I really want to do has only recently come into total focus. I am in the process of creating the infrastructure that will allow me to explore all of the possibilities I can imagine. My studio is a huge part of that. I think Atmos will be a huge part of that as well.

Is there any gear you find yourself turning to most when working on a project? What are some of your favorite tools/instruments recently?

I am a fan of analog compression and saturation. My studio is filled with tools that can shape ideas at birth. In other words, I favor the idea that the sound you record is the finished sound from the start. I have never been able to work that way before because I didn’t have my own space and could not afford to rent major studios just to experiment. I was fortunate in that I did watch my dad work in that fashion at his studio. He came from the classic era of recording when you made decisions early in the recording process and committed the sound to tape. It was both the character of the sound and the foundation of the record at the same time. It made the mixing process much easier because the sounds were designed to work well from the ground up and the sonic explorations were baked in. Reverbs, delays and other ambient details were part of the recording right from the start as well. My studio has many of the most coveted compressors, eqs and microphones. I am very excited to start the next phase of my musical journey.

Do you have any words of wisdom for people who might aspire toward a similar path for their own careers?

I think it’s important to see something working in your mind’s eye. Even Nikola Tesla spoke about that. He built his inventions in his mind and saw them working before they physically existed in the world. Having a clear understanding of what you want to do and how to do it makes it much more possible to achieve your goals.

How long have you been working with headphones, and how do you typically use them in your workflow?

Headphones are vitally important for mixing these days primarily because of the demand for immersive content. Immersive formats like Atmos are creating breakthroughs in the way music fans can connect with music. With exceptional headphones, music becomes even more powerful and connects even deeper with the listener. I like to think of music as an audio movie format and I feel like I can focus even deeper on the special textures and tonal character of all of the sounds when I close my eyes and just listen. My friend Brian Lucey brought over his Audeze headphones and I immediately connected with them. They have become my touchstone for all immersive mixes.

Do you have any additional comments or stories you want to share?

I am very interested in the creation of sounds. They are like mysteries that must be solved or recipes that must be reverse engineered. I like to do experiments with mics and gear to recreate classic sounds as close as possible just so that I can learn what the main components of the sounds are. I am building a library of that information. It’s like a cookbook for sound.

How have your Audeze headphones affected your work?

They've increased my confidence that my ATMOS mixes will translate correctly. Hearing the music and feeling it in the room is what makes Atmos so special but trying to reproduce that impact and spectral balance in headphones is a very tall order. My Audeze headphones have a natural depth of field and localize sound sources with precision. The center is well defined and the low frequencies are reproduced better than anything else I've heard.

Can you tell us what you've been working on with them recently?

I'm working on a lot of different projects of my own right now. Some live concert mixes in ATMOS and a few well known artists' catalog songs. It's a bit too soon to mention any names!

 Dweezil Zappa's Audeze LCD-MX4 headphones