Quadraphonic Over-Nite Sensation & Apostrophe ('): An Inquiry & Exploration

By the Duke of Prunes
Edited for HTML by Bossk (R)

It's weird that the quad releases of Over-Nite Sensation and Apostrophe (') have not been thoroughly analyzed before now. We leap all over the alternate mix of "The Idiot Bastard Son" on Mothermania; the missing guitar lines on the CD remix of "We Are Not Alone" (Man from Utopia); and, for God's sake, the alternative segues on the vinyl release of Guitar - why not quad?

At the Zappa Patio, one informant has said that

Listening to Apostrophe (') in quadraphonic and listening to the quadraphonic album in stereo were two unique opportunities to hear how differently, and successfully, the multitrack masters could be combined to create striking combinations of highly effective music. For consumers, at the time (and still to this day in many ways), the three listening "options" from these two vinyl versions of Apostrophe (') was the closest thing to sitting hands-on at the UMRK mixing console with the Apostrophe (') multitracks available.

On the other hand, another writes:

The quality of tape used in the Q8s [quadraphonic 8-track tapes] was inferior and prone to static noise. The actual separation is terrible, as well. They sound as if the stereo image is simply reversed in the rear channels and front and back images received slightly different filtering. This is the same technique used to make stereo images from old mono recordings. The resulting "quad image" actually sounds more like bad mono. It was obviously NOT mixed from multi-channel masters by Frank.

Faced with opposing viewpoints, it's natural to ask - is the quad mix any good?

The mystery surrounding the 1995 CD release of Apostrophe (') makes this question even more pressing. Last year, as I just started to peel the quadraphonic onion, I pointed out that the quad mix of "Don't Eat the Yellow Snow" has an extra instrumental bar between "Dreamed I was an Eskimo" and "Frozen wind began to blow" (as compared to the vinyl release, replicated on the Au20 CD and the "1998 CD"). The 1995 CD has this same bar. David Goodwin has hypothesized that the 1995 CD is actually a stereo mixdown of the quad mix. Is this true?

Questions like these launch great quests. So does insane completism. I believe this article to be the very first in-depth exploration of the quad Over-Nite Sensation and Apostrophe ('). My aim is to answer these two simple questions:

  1. What are the substantive musical differences, if any, between the quad release and the stereo release(s) of the albums? (Subquestion: is the 1995 CD a stereo mixdown of the quad release?)
  2. How did Zappa use quad on these albums, and what impact does it have on the listening experience? (Subquestion: are these "true" quad mixes?)

To summarize for those that don't want to read any further, the answers are:

  1. None. (Probably.) 
  2. Sparingly to subtle effect, except in a few obvious places. (Definitely.)

She Said Her Stereo Was Four-Way

shoe boxThe key reason we don't know more about Zappa's quad albums is they were designed for a system that died over twenty years ago. From what I've been able to gather, quad died because

  • The industry couldn't settle on a standard;
  • Setting it up right was a pain in the ass for the consumer;
  • The sonic benefit was marginal.

A brief lesson: the two main quadraphonic formats (although there were others) were SQ and CD-4. SQ used standard records with some witchy "matrixed" information hidden in the grooves. An SQ receiver could decode the matrix and output something close to (but not quite) four unique channels of music. It could also perform the same trick on standard stereo records, with interesting effects.

On the other hand, CD-4 records had special, deep grooves with high-frequency carrier signal etched into the sides. Playback of CD-4 records required a demodulator that would turn the high-frequency information into two musical channels that were truly discrete from the stereo channels. (Playing these records without the demodulator was apparently good for wigging out your dog.) You also needed a particular stylus (the "nude Shibata") was shaped to read the deep grooves ... and a protractor to align the stylus, or you couldn't pick up the carrier signal ... (makes you happy CDs came along, eh?)

So one was stuck with "sort-of" quad that was easy to set up, or good quad that was impossible to, and record companies releasing records in competing incompatible formats. And thus the music industry managed to kill quad before the '80s really got underway.

The return of quad had almost nothing to do with the music, but everything to do with film. The advent of the DVD followed a period in which the sound quality of theatrical movies had improved dramatically and coincided with a need by the consumer electronics industry to find the next big consumer gizmo. Home theater was the answer, with true multichannel sound (DTS or Dolby AC-3), just like in the movie theatres, and the DVD was the killer app.

Ironically, the music industry has trailed behind - and instead of just releasing multichannel albums on DVD, they're launching their own, only semi-compatible, format: DVD-Audio. Bald-Headed John's doing his best to kill quad again ...

The Quadraphonic Underground

The quad Zappa albums were released in CD-4. The good news: they're true "discrete quad" (and on DiscReet Records, which is probably no coincidence). [1.5] The bad news: getting the hardware together to play CD-4 right is a pain in the ass.

The good news: there's a thriving quad underground out there. Some of the more useful quad resources I've found on the web are Tab Patterson's page, Obopp's page, and the deja.com Quadraphonics forum [1]. As far as I can tell, there is almost zero crossover between the Zappa underground and the quad underground - there appears to be no discussion or awareness of Zappa's quad output, while Harry Nilsson's name comes up with some frequency.

The quad underground sweeps used quad records off of eBay. It collects musty CD-4 demodulators and SQ receivers. It ferrets out styli that work with quad, even if not rated as such. And, it has been quietly transferring quadraphonic albums to CD. An SQ album burned onto CD-R will retain the information that an SQ receiver decodes into multiple channels. Transferring a CD-4 album to CD-R is more complicated. You can encode the album in the multichannel DTS format and play it back on a conventional CD player through a DTS-compatible receiver. If you do this - true multichannel sound. (If the receiver doesn't do DTS, all the CD will play is white noise. Interesting, but somewhat less engaging.)

My descent into the quad underground started with the purchase of the quad Over-Nite Sensation and Apostrophe (') on eBay for stupid amounts of money (which were, however, no more than I paid for my battered copy of Jeff Simmons's Lucille Has Messed My Mind Up). After I scooped up a Panasonic SE-405 CD-4 demodulator, I discovered just how much more hardware I would need to get my vinyl to sing in four-way. There had to be a better way.

When I discovered that Tab Patterson, for a nominal fee, would burn me a DTS CD-R of the albums, and that I could play these back through my DTS-compatible receiver, it was the obvious choice. I mailed the albums to Texas and a couple of weeks later, I had the quad CD in my eager little hands. [2]

The Inquiry: Versions vs Versions

The inquiry was whether there are any musical differences between the quad and standard releases of the two albums. Since there are well-known variances between the various Apostrophe (') CD releases, track lengths could be a first indication of which version, if any, the quad is derived from.

I compared my CD-R of the quad albums with the 1995 release of Over-Nite Sensation, the 1995 Apostrophe ('), and the Au20 Apostrophe ('). The track lengths below were calculated by Winamp [sound-player software]; differences of two seconds or more between releases are bold-faced and colour-coded.

Track Quad CD-R 1995 CD Au20/1998 CD
Camarillo Brillo 4:00 3:59  
I'm the Slime 3:34 3:34  
Dirty Love 2:58 2:58  
50/50 6:09 6:09  
Zomby Woof 5:10 5:10  
Dinah-Moe Humm 6:03 6:01  
Montana 6:35 6:34  
Track Quad CD-R 1995 CD Au20/1998 CD
Don't Eat the Yellow Snow 2:08 2:07 2:05
Nanook Rubs It 4:38 4:37 4:37
St. Alphonzo's Pancake Breakfast 1:51 1:50 1:50
Father O'Blivion 2:18 2:18 2:17
Cosmik Debris 4:17 4:14 4:18
Excentrifugal Forz 1:32 1:33 1:33
Apostrophe (') 5:53 5:50 5:50
Uncle Remus 2:45 2:44 2:49
Stink-Foot 6:39 6:32 6:37

The mastering of the quad CD looks pretty accurate, since the majority of the tracks approximate the length of the Ryko CD tracks. On Over-Nite Sensation, only "Dinah-Moe Humm" has a significant timing variance. Upon closer listening, there appear to be no musical or edit differences between the quad Over-Nite Sensation and the 1995 Ryko CD.

The Apostrophe (') situation is much more complicated - the timing variances are widespread, even between the two Ryko CDs. Comparing the well-documented sonic "fingerprints" of the Ryko releases with the quad CD yields interesting results:

 Track Quad CD 1995 CD Au20/1998 CD
Don't Eat the Yellow Snow extra instrumental bar between "Eskimo" and "Frozen" extra instrumental bar between "Eskimo" and "Frozen" no extra bar
St. Alphonzo's Pancake Breakfast prominent electric piano at beginning prominent electric piano at beginning piano less prominent
Excentrifugal Forz violin mixed high under initial vamp; warbly guitar mixed high on opening line violin mixed high under initial vamp; warbly guitar mixed high on opening line violin mixed low under initial vamp but more prominent than guitar on opening line
Uncle Remus 2 bars of outro solo edited out 2 bars of outro solo edited out unedited outro solo

By the preponderance of evidence, we conclude that the 1995 Apostrophe (') is a variant of the quad edit. [3] Upon closer listening, there is one odd difference between the quad and the 1995 CD: the 1995 CD has a slight echo on many of Zappa's vocals (such as "Nanook Rubs It") that are dead in the quad release. Evidence of some additional tampering prior to the CD release?

If the 1995 CD is simply a stereo master of the quad edit, it may explain (for instance) the thickness of the 1995 release of "Uncle Remus" versus the Au20/vinyl release - if it was originally mixed for quad, details such as the backing vocalists could be more prominent without crowding the mix. But there remain questions that will probably never be answered:

  • Why did Zappa go to the trouble of creating a quadraphonic edit of the album that differed from the stereo edit by only 3 bars of music?
  • Why did Zappa choose to use this edit for the original CD release? Did he merely pull the wrong tape?

The Exploration: A Vigorous Circular Motion

The exploration was undertaken to catalog how Zappa made use of quadraphonic sound in the quad releases. A close read of their reports reveals that neither of the previous quadraphonic informants had a real familiarity with the quad releases. One described the quad Apostrophe (') as a matrixed SQ recording, when it is in fact true CD-4. Another claimed that the quad isn't a true Zappa remix, but the differences in the edit prove that Zappa had some hand in the release.

The home theatre system I did my listening on was jury-rigged out of my main stereo speakers (front) and two speakers which I temporarily borrowed from another room in the house (rear). One of these back speakers was partially blown [!], so my results are not perfect. Furthermore, the following are very subjective observations that could depend very much on the sound balance and some of which on the mental state of the listener. I make no representation that they are comprehensive.

With these caveats, I bring you now a special presentation to show what can happen when you listen to Over-Nite Sensation and Apostrophe (') in quad.

Over-Nite Sensation Apostrophe (')

1. Camarillo Brillo:

  • Solo guitar lines in first verse staged toward rear.
  • Horns in second verse staged toward rear.

2. I'm the Slime: 

  • Zappa's voice seems to emerge separately from all four speakers, surrounding you
  • Keyboard staged toward rear.

3. Dirty Love: Violin staged toward rear.

4. 50/50: 

  • Echo on Lancelotti's vocal sweeps around all four speakers in - you guessed it - a vigorous circular motion! Very cool.
  • Organ solo staged toward rear.
  • Violin solo staged towards front.
  • Guitar solo staged sort of in middle.
  • The differential staging of the three solos makes for very exciting listening.

5. Zomby Woof:

  • Trumpet tends to be staged towards rear.
  • Piano staged toward rear during guitar solo.

6. Dinah-Moe Humm: No particularly interesting effects, but added ambience.

7. Montana: 

  • Trombone vamp staged towards rear.
  • Ikettes' "movin' to Montana" vocals staged towards rear.
  • Piano staged toward rear during guitar solo.
  • Outro vocals staged all over the place.


1. Don't Eat the Yellow Snow:

  • Opening wind sound effects swoosh all over the soundstage.
  • Higher-register vocals staged towards rear.

2. Nanook Rubs It:

  • Trombone staged towards rear.
  • Unforgivable missed opportunity: NO quad effects applied to the "vigorous circular motion" guitar at 01:50!
  • Echoey section starting at 03:05 very cool - vocals all over the soundstage.

3. St. Alphonzo's Pancake Breakfast: Horns appear to be staged towards rear.

4. Father O'Blivion:

  • Keyboards staged towards rear.
  • Rising vocals at 00:38 staged towards rear.

5. Cosmik Debris:

  • Ikette backing vocals staged towards rear.
  • Many of the "sound effects" staged towards rear.

6. Excentrifugal Forz

  • Synth sounds sweep around in a vigorous circular motion.
  • Echoes bounce all over the soundstage.

7. Apostrophe (') - special case: I didn't expect the quad to make much difference here, given the relatively poor sound of the original recording. However, the ambience really spreads out the instruments and brings out more of the instrumental interplay. It's hard to describe, but very effective.

8. Uncle Remus: Ikette backing vocals staged towards rear.

9. Stink-Foot:

  • Echoes on initial Zappa vocals bounce all over the soundstage.
  • Sound effect right before "Sick!" at 02:12 bounces all over the soundstage.
  • Guitar solo staged towards rear.

Overall, Zappa's quad mixes are not particularly imaginative. The most prominent quad effects - the echoes and sound effects that ping-pong around the speakers - are cheap shots. That said, he does a nice job in certain pieces - notably "Fifty-Fifty" and "Apostrophe (')" - of using the additional ambience to draw out complicated instrumental interplay.

This should lay to rest once and for all the question of whether these albums are "true quad" - they are - and whether they belong on the Completist's List - they do (although they can remain on the Insane-Completists-Who-Have-Home-Theatre-Systems List).


[1] These links may or may not work when you read this - Ed. 

[1.5] From Patrick Neve:

Hey, the Duke was right in saying that the quad process and the name of the record label being "Discreet" was no coincidence. Too bad the format died, or every album would have been quad! Excerpt from 'Rap with the Zap' Soundblast, August 1973, pp. 18-19, transcribed by Bil Hansen:

JOHN ROBINSON [TECHNICAL EDITOR]: You have a new label ...

ZAPPA: It's called Discreet. It's all quad. That's the name of the process as well. The new LP is quad. So will every album from now on. Like for instance, instead of milking your drum set for a two channel spread we have four overheads and the placement of the bass drum comes up in quad centre, so that when you hear them all it sounds like you're in the drummers seat and it's happening all around you.

[2] I've saved my email correspondence with Tab, which has moments of charm:

I have finished recording them and cleaning the files. Over-Nite Sensation sounds much better than Apostrophe (') because the latter has a lot of crackles ... but still sounds OK. I'll set the machine to encode them overnight. "Camarillo Brillo", "Zircon-encrusted tweezers" ... what does it all mean? Weird dude!

Do you remember your first encounter with Conceptual Continuity?

[3] The "Cosmik Debris" and "Stink-Foot" timing differences do not reflect different edits, but rather that each track is at the end of an album side and different choices were made on how much silence to include. The quad "Apostrophe (')" timing difference may be due to a different index point decision - note that the quad "Excentrifugal Forz" is a second shorter. It also does not reflect a different edit.

home - vinyl vs CDs - weirdo discography - bootlegs - misc - hot lynx - e-mail us at zappa dot patio at gmail dot com 2006-04-22 20:02

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