Trading and sharing
FZ unofficial recordings

Trading in the digital era

After the advent of the internet and the availability of broadband at affordable prices, the music trading scene, including the FZ trading scene, has radically changed.
More people have become aware of the existence and availability of unofficial live recordings; peer-to-peer systems have allowed even newbies to step in and build great collection in a short while.
So the main question of the past - "how can I get a trade if I have nothing to offer back" - is really no longer a problem: you can freely join a tracker, learn how it works and its rules in a few hours, and start to download the show of your choice.
The FZ on-line trading community found its home at zappateers.com (that now hosts FZShows v. 7.1) and offers an alternative way to trade for people who don't have a decent internet connection: you just need a computer with a DVD burner and you can freely join a Zappa vine.

The fact to eventually have a common home and discussion board has also allowed the FZ trading community to improve the standards on trading unofficial FZ recordings: how to transfer tapes to digital, how to label them, how to store and trade them in physical form.
As a potential or effective trader you just have to know that mp3 files or mp3 sourced audio CDRs are not allowed as trading format and you have to become familiar with FLAC (Free Audio Lossless Compression): an audio file format that doesn't lose any of the original audio source and save some space when storing data (Flac data DVDs are nowadays preferred to audio CDRs even for traditional mail trading).
But the first rule you must learn and never forget is:
don't ever ask or pay any money for an unofficial Zappa recording.

Other than preserving, indexing and freely distributing the known unofficial Zappa recordings, the other main task of the FZ trading community is to uncover previously unknown recordings and to obtain correct digital transfers of the old tapes.
A correct digital transfer of a tape implies various specifications, like the use of adequate equipment and the preservation of the original sound avoiding noise reduction or equalization. You can get more specific info on these issues in the technical sections below and in the audio glossary at Zappateers.
Finally the Masters Team at Zappateers offers help in case you have some undercirculated Frank Zappa (or FZ related) recording and you don't have the equipment or the skills to do a digital transfer (or if you simply need some advice). Don't be shy, as nothing makes the FZ trading community happier than a previously unknown recording.

Old-fashioned trade style

Today, if you don't have a broadband internet connection, the more practical way to trade FZ unofficial recordings is to join a vine. You'll have to follow some rules, but in the end the only thing you'll really have to worry about is to make a copy of the DVDs you'll get and send them to the next participant as soon as possible.
In case you are involved in a more traditional mail trade, you need to know a few things that could be considered general practice among traders.
When you trade with a person for the first time, always make sure that you're on equal terms. When trading tapes, the standard "rules" are chrome tapes, no high-speed dubbing, no noise reduction, and no auto reverse. The biggest difference between traders is the what-to-send issue. Some people prefer to send just the tapes, some want to include the j-cards, while some prefer to include the cases too. When trading CDRs and DVDs you'll probably have to agree with your fellow trader about the disc's brand, including or not cases, and how to label them. Make an agreement with every new trader you encounter.

Trade ratio

Most trades are simply 1-for-1, but differences may occur when trading audio for video, tape for CDR, or trading for blanks. The general rule should be "neither trader makes a profit".

Audio for video: the most common practice is two 90-minute tapes for one 120-minute video.

Tape for CDR: no real standard practice here, but I advocate 1-for-1. There's no reason why a CDR should be considered worth more than a tape.

Trading for blanks: an option here is that the number of blanks should equal the number of recorded tapes, plus a number which corresponds to the shipping costs for the person who records the tapes.

Trading for money: don't.

Mislabeled recordings

One of the main goals with the FZShows document has been to eradicate the countless mislabeled or spurious recording that circulate, a problem that was really relevant in the past and, even if the situation is getting better, has still some issues today.
We have put a lot of effort into making the information in FZShows as correct as possible, and feel confident in saying that you should always trust this document rather than someone's tape list. And whenever you receive a FZ recording that doesn't match an entry in FZShows, try to find an explanation, and don't hesitate to email me and ask. We know most of the incorrectly labeled recordings around.

Handling tapes

Magnetic tape is no more the most common medium among Zappa traders but obviously it is the real and original source of any unofficial Zappa recording.

In spite of its obvious drawbacks compared to digital media, tape dubbing, if done right, is still a very good method of copying music. Most of the advice below is obviously valuable when you are going to transfer a tape to digital.

General recommendation: every once in a while, compare what you have just recorded with the original tape. If the sound is noticeably different, something is wrong, and you should check out your set-up to see where the problem is. I have heard tapes of 6th generation which sound near perfect, but on the other hand, I've heard 2nd generation tapes which sound far worse than the master.

Generation

What the generation of a tape means is rather obvious: the master tape has generation 0, a copy of a master is first generation, etc. The only problem with the definition occurs when dealing with tapes of radio or TV broadcasts. Since the master tape is the one that's being played at the radio/TV station, a dub off the air should logically be called first generation. However, the standard practice among traders is to label the dub of the air as master.

People's main beef with cassettes is the generation loss. There are several flaws that may arise for each generation that's added to a recording:

PROBLEM POSSIBLE CAUSE
loss of frequencies tape type, head azimuth, dirty/magnetized head, noise reduction
noise, hiss tape type, recording levels low, dirty head
distortion tape type, recording levels high
speed/pitch difference different speed on decks

Although it's practically impossible to avoid all these problems, there are many ways of keeping the flaws to a minimum. The most important factors involved are:

The tape

The most important issue with the choice of tape is the position. Never use "normal" tapes (position I), as they will unavoidably lead to loss of high and low end and noticeable levels of hiss, and distort at relatively low levels. Chrome dioxide (CrO2/position II/high) tapes are by far the most commonly used, and give great results for most recordings. In the case of really good recordings with large frequency spectra, you might want to consider metal tapes (position IV).
Note that most brands have their "low-budget" chrome tapes (for example TDK CD-ing, Maxell UL), which should be avoided. TDK SA/SA-X and Maxell XLII/XLII-S have become more or less standard practice, and if you want to use any other brand, you should check if it's OK with the recipient of the tapes first.

The tape deck

I'm no good at different brands of decks, and I'm sure your local dealer will give you better suggestions that I can. Go for the deck with the best playback quality rather than the one with the most features. There are however two features that are more or less crucial: adjustable recording levels and adjustable tape head azimuth (see more on these below).
Regarding the condition of the deck, there are two things that you should look after: the head (see below) and the playback speed. As long as your decks play equally fast, there's no problem, but as soon as one plays faster than the other, the speed and pitch will be different on the copy than on the original. This is easily detected if one of your decks stops noticeably before the other.

The tape head

The condition of the playback head is one of the deciding factors whether you can make a good copy or digital transfer of a tape. There are three things that should be done:

Adjusting the head azimuth:

This is the least-known factor, and probably the biggest reason for generation loss. The azimuth between the tape head and the tape varies between most decks, and if a tape is played with the head in a different azimuth than it was recorded with, the sound will be flawed, most noticeably the high end. If the difference is big (which is not unusual), the sound may become messed up really badly, and I've heard countless examples of recordings that were ruined by this.
How to adjust the azimuth: At the bottom of the head there are two screws, one on each side. One of these, usually the left one and usually marked with red color, can be adjusted with a small screwdriver. Do this while playing the tape, and find the position where you get the most high end response. Do this with every tape you copy! I also recommend you to have one playback deck and one recording deck, on which you never adjust the head.

Cleaning the head:

This should be done at a regular basis. A dirty head will lead to loss of frequencies and hiss. Equipment can be found at most retailers.

Demagnetizing the head:

Should also be done regularly. The tape head gets a little magnetized every time it comes in contact with metal (tape, for example), which affects its ability to pick up high frequencies. Equipment can be found at most retailers.

Recording settings

There are many ways of screwing up a recording with the little knobs and buttons on the tape deck. These are the things that should be considered:

Tape selector: most decks sense automatically what type of tape (normal/chrome/metal) you're using, but on some older decks this must be selected manually.

Noise reduction: never ever use this when trading!

Recording speed: never ever use high-speed dubbing when trading!

Auto reverse: never ever use this when trading!

Recording levels: the biggest reason for hiss is too low level settings. Every tape type has its recommended level, and the tape should not be recorded any lower than this. For good quality chrome tapes this level is between 0 and +3 dB, and before you start recording, make sure that the peaks are in this interval. At lower levels, hiss will be added, and at +5 - +8 dB, the sound will distort.

Handling CDRs

Digital media, especially CDR, has become more and more common in the Zappa trading circles, and for the most part, this revolution is a positive one. As long as the data is copied directly from one CDR to another, there is virtually no generation loss whatsoever, which is great of course. There are however some risks, when the soundcard is involved, or if the sound files are somehow tampered with. There are also risks of loss of data when extracting audio from a CDR and this is the reason while nowadays Flac data DVDs are preferred to audio CDRs for trading.

Generation

The definition of generation is more difficult with CDRs than in the case of tapes. Since this is a rather new "problem", there's not really a general practice yet. Some people list the entire history of the recording (for example "analog->3rd gen->DAT->CDR"), while some simply don't add a generation number when the CDR is cloned.

Sampling a recording with your soundcard

Many people transfer their tapes to CDR these days, which is a good thing, as long as it's done in a good way. The biggest risk here is the soundcard itself, which must be of good quality. The most common soundcards are of the Soundblaster family, which are designed to give a powerful sound to your computer games, rather than sampling music. My experience of sampling concert tapes with a Soundblaster-type card is not too good. The highest and lowest frequencies disappear, which in the case of most recordings equals a decrease in sound quality, more than the normal generation loss of a cassette dub.

So before you start transferring your tapes to CDR: compare the sound on the disc with the original tape really closely. If you discover any loss of sound data, I suggest you wait with transferring your tapes until you get a better soundcard. For good cards, try products from Card D, Event products, Digidesign and Korg.

Like with tape dubbing, the recording level is important when sampling a recording to your computer. Programs like Sound Forge will show you a very exact level meter. Make sure that the levels are as high as possible without the peaks getting clipped.

Digitally "remastering" a recording

Sound Forge, Cool Edit and similar programs have many features for altering the sound. There are good possibilities for increasing the quality, but also many risks. Noise reduction, compression and re-EQing can be great for removing unwanted sounds and bringing out details, but can also render a recording unlistenable if not done with care.

If, for your personal use, you want to try to improve the sound of a recording using this kind of softwares, I suggest that you do much experimenting with these features, comparing the end result closely with the original sound file. Noise reduction, for example, should be applied differently on different parts of the recording, depending on the sound levels.

Keep in mind that nowadays most Zappa traders feel only acceptable raw transfers without any equalization or noise reduction applied, while speed correction and level adjusting are mostly accepted. Also a reasonable song indexing is appreciated. Check also this partial audio glossary at Zappateers.

The (old) Frank Zappa Traders' Network



♦ Back to Introduction and other services

FZShows index


FZShows was created by Jon Naurin and maintained between 2008 and 2014 by Oscar Bianco. It's currently taken care of by horst Boelema.