Counting Down to Ecstasy and Singing Along with My Old School

steelcount400Another in our series of Home Audio Exercises with specific advice on What to Listen For (WTLF) as you critically evaluate your copy of Countdown to Ecstasy, Steely Dan‘s wonderful second album.

We’ve found that two songs are especially helpful in this regard: Razor Boy on side one, and My Old School on side two.

This album shares top honors with Katy Lied as the toughest Steely Dan album to get to sound right. It’s a positive shame that so many copies are such sonic let-downs: congested, bass-shy, veiled, compressed and grainy. There’s a good reason we don’t do this album but once a year, and it’s not because of a lack of demand. It’s because so many copies sound so bad.

What to Listen For, Side One: Piano and Vibes

On Razor Boy listen especially to how clear and solid the piano and vibes are underneath the vocals. On the best copies their contributions are easy to follow and really provide support in the lower registers for the vocals above them. If your copy they’re a murky mess don’t be surprised; that’s pretty much the way they sound on most copies. (They’re a good test for the quality of your reproduction from the mid-bass up through the lower midrange.)

What to Listen For, Side Two: the Chorus

The female background singers who make up the chorus on My Old School sound different on every copy you play. When they sound right you’ll know it immediately. The copies with clarity and energy always seem to also have a wonderful “sing along” quality that lets the music really come to life. We didn’t hear it happen too often but when it does it’s a THRILL, one you can buy.

The Typical Pressing: Congested and Bass Shy

One of the biggest problems with the average copy of this album is congestion. On King Of The World, for example, many copies never quite open up at the chorus. On our Hot Stamper copies, the sound is more spacious, allowing all the voices and instruments room to breathe. The soundfield needs to be BIG and WIDE for this album to work, and on the best copies we played the sound is HUGE.

Another big problem with the typical copy is a glaring lack of bass. This is Steely Dan, man: last I heard they had a pretty good bass player by the name of Walter Becker. (On later albums he plays guitar, but with Denny Dias and Jeff Skunk Baxter still in the band at this point the guitar duties were already in the hands of the truly gifted.) We have to imagine that the band wanted you to hear bass — and plenty of it. Any copy of this album that doesn’t have lots of deep, punchy, well-defined bass just isn’t gonna cut it.

Three Demo Discs

Of all the great albums Steely Dan made, and that means their seven original albums and nothing that came after, there are only three in our opinion that actually support their reputation as studio wizards and recording geniuses. Chronologically they are Pretzel Logic, Aja, and Gaucho. Every sound captured on these albums is so carefully crafted and considered that it practically brings one to tears to comtemplate what the defective DBX noise reduction system did to the work of genius that is Katy Lied, their best album and the worst sounding. (Those cymbal crashes can really mess with your mind if you let them. To get a better picture of the DBX sound just bang two trash can lids together as close to your head as possible.)

The first two albums can sound very good, as can Royal Scam, but none of those can compete with The Big Three mentioned above for sonics. A Hot Stamper copy of any of them would be a serious DEMO DISC on anyone’s full range system.

THE Steely Dan Rock Album

There’s so much we could say about this album, but we probably couldn’t say it better than the especially insightful Rolling Stone review which follows the AMG review reproduced herein. AMG of course goes nuts over the album, awarding it their top rating of Five Stars.

This is the only Steely Dan album recorded with a working live band. One of the most important qualities we look for in a Hot Stamper copy is the ability to convey the fun and energy of these seriously hard-rockin’ sessions.

See all pressings of Countdown to Ecstasy in stock

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