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It’s positively criminal the way this amazingly well-recorded music sounds on the typical LP. And how can you possibly be expected to appreciate the music when it sounds like that?
The reason we audiophiles go through the trouble of owning and tweaking our temperamental equipment is we know how hard it is to appreciate good music which sounds bad. Bad sound is a barrier to understanding and enjoyment, to us audiophiles anyway.
In-Depth Track Commentary
Rikki Don’t Lose That Number
By far the biggest hit on this album and one of the biggest for the band, it’s also one of the clearest indicators of Hot Stamper Sound. The Horace Silver inspired intro is at its best when you can easily hear the acoustic guitar in the left channel doubling the piano. On most copies it’s blurry and dull, which causes it to get lost in the mix. Transparent copies pull it out in the open where it belongs.
That’s the first test, but the real test for this track is how well the (surprisingly) DYNAMIC chorus is handled. On a properly mastered and pressed copy, Fagen’s singing in the chorus is powerful and very present. He is RIGHT THERE, full of energy and drive, challenging the rest of the band to keep up with him. And they do! The best copies demonstrate what a lively group of musicians he has backing him on this track. (If you know anything about Steely Dan’s recordings, you know the guys in these sessions are the best of the best.)
Check out the big floor tom that gets smacked right before the first chorus. On the best copies the whomp factor is off the scale.
Shocking as it may seem, most copies of this album are DOA on this track. They’re severely compressed — they never come to life, they never get LOUD. The result? Fagen and the band sound bored. And that feeling is contagious.
Of course most audiophiles have no idea how dynamic this recording is because they’ve never heard a good pressing. Only a handful of the copies we played had truly powerful dynamics. These are Pretzel Logics with far more life than I ever dreamed possible. Hey, who knew?
(As an aside, back in 1976 I had my fifty favorite albums professionally cleaned on a KMAL record cleaning machine at the stereo store I worked at. They would give you a custom record sleeve along with the cleaning, and sure enough I found my original Pretzel Logic with its KMAL sleeve. My copy was pretty good but no Hot Stamper.)
So, yes, it really did take us thirty years to find the best copy!
Night By Night
A real rocker. When you have a smooth, tonally balanced copy with plenty of punchy bass this track just cries out to be turned all the way up and then some. The guitars are very lively here, peeling off the kind of major chords that you don’t often hear on a Steely Dan album. If you’re lucky enough to have a copy with real dynamics, during the guitar solo you’ll really feel the power.After this album Becker and Fagen stopped writing songs like this one, concentrating on the jazzier side of their music with the follow-up album. (Which is, in my opinion, their masterpiece: Katy Lied.)
Any Major Dude Will Tell You
The acoustic guitars on the best copies are amazingly sweet and delicate at the beginning of this track, with all their lovely harmonics subtly resolved. The ambience from each channel is clearly audible in the middle of the soundfield.Similar to “Rikki…”, Fagen’s multi-tracked vocals in the chorus should ideally stay sweet yet powerful. Lesser copies become distorted in the choruses, resulting in harsh and unpleasant sound just when the music is trying to get going.
The acrobatic bass line is a great test for proper low end. You should be able to follow every note. On the best copies you will notice that the keyboards are punchy and dynamic; they want to jump out of the mix, pounding out the kind of rich solid chords that do so much to propel the song. More than anything else, having real weight in the lower mids and bottom, where the bass and keyboards are, makes the song come to life. Any leanness or thinness wreaks havoc with this track.
With its piano based arrangement, this track is a kind of throwback to the first album. It really comes to life on the best pressings, and makes the case for how much better recorded Pretzel Logic is compared to Can’t Buy a Thril. No track on their first album sounds like this! It’s as big and bold as anything the boys ever did. Musically it may be a bit straightforward, especially in relation to what is to come, but sonically it’s everything you want in a big production pop recording. Demonstration Quality all the way.
East St. Louis Toodle-Oo
This energetic tribute to Charlie Parker will immediately tip you off as to whether or not your side two experience will be an enjoyable one. (If you end up with a Hot Stamper copy from us we absolutely guarantee it will be!)The first thing you should notice is how BIG and WIDE the sound is, as well as how full-bodied.
Next check out the energy of the band. This is the most uptempo track on the entire album and the best copies have LIFE and ENERGY to spare. The boys in the band are up for it; they’re channeling Charlie Parker and doing their best to bring his music back to life.
How about the heavy duty delay on Fagen’s voice. When have you ever heard him sound like that? (They use it again on the last track.) The standard overly-compressed, grainy, dull version of this record causes his processed vocals to sound artificial and distorted, whereas they sound just right and sit perfectly in the mix on the good copies. (No doubt his vocals sounded great when they were mixing the album, but not many record lovers ever got to hear them that way. ABC’s quality control department made sure of that.)
But there’s more: twin drummers! On the best copies it’s OBVIOUS there is a drummer wailing away in each channel. Until I had played one of the better copies I never even noticed it. (Of course, once you’ve heard it, it’s easy to hear both drummers on any copy.) But they really strut their stuff and drum up a storm on the best pressings.
But by far the TOUGHEST test on side one is the saxophone battle at the end of the song. If you’ve got a badly mastered or pressed copy it is sure to be an unmitigated sonic disaster: aggressive, hard, shrill, sour, irritating; pick whatever adjective makes you wince, because wincing is exactly what you will find yourself doing with the typical ABC or MCA LP on your table.
You need a copy with an extended top end to allow the harmonics of the saxes to be reproduced correctly. This is the only way they will sound balanced. Otherwise you will be left with a honky upper midrange aggressiveness that will no doubt be doing its level best to tear your head off. If the pressing in question has any added grit or grain, and they almost all do, you are in for even more trouble. Only the sweetest, most tonally correct, grain-free, full-bandwidth copies will let you dig those battling bopish saxes.
Ah, and it’s so good when they do.
Through With Buzz
This quirky tune is a great test for transparency. Thick and opaque copies just make this song sound dumb. A big problem is the strings. On even the best copies they lack texture and bite. After playing Eleanor Rigby during an earlier shootout on the same day as this album, the strings here were a big disappointment. On good copies they are passable. On bad copies they are smeared, shrill and aggressive.
The title track here is one of my all time favorites. I’ve often used it in the past to demonstrate my system. The sound is wall to wall and big as life on the best copies. I’m a big speaker guy and this song is custom made to show what a powerful full range big speaker system can do. (Keep in mind that the individual drivers must be large as well, 12″ and up, to allow the voices to sound like they are full-size human beings, not shrunken toy people. I positively hate that sound. See the listing on the left, Speakers that Don’t Move Air and Shrunken Images, for more on that subject.)The multi-tracked vocals in the choruses present one of the biggest challenges for any copy of the LP. The choruses need to get very loud, as loud as anything on the side, with plenty of presence, yet not go over the edge into aggressiveness or harshness the way they do on so many copies. If the midrange is smooth and full-bodied, and the top end is extended and sweet, it makes all the difference; the sound will tend to be balanced and free from hi-fi-ishness.
Any grit or grain will show itself here, big time, especially if you like to play this album as loud as I do, which is LOUD. The power of all those voices singing at the top of their lungs should give you chills.
At moderate levels chills are hard to come by. Most audiophiles play their music much too quietly. Sometimes this is due to obvious system limitations, but often it seems to be merely a preference.
I want to have a powerful emotional experience when playing an album like this. I want to be THRILLED. That just isn’t possible at the kind of comfortable listening levels most audiophiles prefer. This music heard live would be very loud, because rock concerts are very loud. Why wouldn’t we want to reproduce the sound of the live event? (Within reason of course. One must make adjustments for the size of one’s listening room. But you get the point. Turn it up man!)
With a Gun
Another track that confirms this album’s status as the Steely Dan Acoustic Guitar Album par excellence. Pure Tubey Magic from start to finish.
Love the sound of that bell tree, beautifully recorded. Another good test for high frequency extension. (Of course, by this track you should have no doubt about the highs on your pressing. Dullness caused by bad mastering or pressing problems hurts practically every track on this side, and for that matter the other side too.)
Monkey in Your Soul
We have a large number of entries in our new Listening in Depth series.
We have a section for Audio Advice of all kinds.
You can find your very own Hot Stamper pressings by using the techniques we lay out in Hot Stamper Shootouts — The Four Pillars of Success.
And finally we’ll throw in this old warhorse discussing How to Become an Expert Listener, subtitled Hard Work and Challenges Can Really Pay Off.
Because in audio, much like the rest of life, hard work and challenges really do pay off.