Presenting another entry in our extensive Listening in Depth series.
We really went overboard with the track commentary for this one. This should make it easy for you to compare what we say about the sound of these songs with what they sound like to you on your system, using the copy you own or, better yet, one of our Hot Stampers.
If you end up with one of our Hot Stampers, listen carefully for the effects we describe below. This is a very tough record to reproduce — everything has to be working in tip-top form to even begin to get this complicated music sounding the way it should — but if you’ve done your homework and gotten your system really cooking, you are in for the time of your Steely Dan life.
By far the most sonically aggressive track on this album, Kid Charlemagne is a quick indicator of what you can expect from the rest of the side. The typical copy is an overly-compressed sonic assault on the ears. The glaring upper midrange and tizzy grit that passes for highs will have you jumping out of your easy chair to turn down the volume. Even my younger employees who grew up playing in loud punk rock bands were cringing at the sound.
However, the good copies take this aggressive energy and turn it into pure excitement. The boys are ready to rock, and they’ve got the pulsing bass, hammering drums, and screaming guitars to do it.
Without the grit and tizz and radio EQ, which could have been added during mastering or caused by the sound of some bad ABC vinyl, who can say which, the sound is actually quite good on the best of the best copies. It’s one of the toughest tests for side one. Sad to say, most copies earn a failing grade right out of the gate on this album.
The Caves of Altamira
This is the best test for side one. There are sweet cymbals at the beginning, and Fagen’s double tracked voice should be silky and smooth, but on the really hot copies it’s also big and alive. When I was first doing these shootouts, I noted that the high hat is front and center in the mix of this song, and when that high hat sounds grainy or aggressive it’s positively unlistenable. That high hat needs to sound silky and sweet or this song is going to give you a headache, at least at the volume I play it at: GOOD and LOUD.
Don’t Take Me Alive
The vocal chorus on this track can be irritating on the typical copy. ABC pressed out millions of these, and when they did a bad job, or used grainy vinyl, the result is edgy and unpleasant. This is probably why I and many others liked the Japanese version. They used good vinyl, not the grainy garbage ABC did, so even their sub-generation copy tape ended up making a more listenable LP.
But when you hear the real thing, pressed right, from a better tape.. man, it’s awesome!
Sign in Stranger
Love the piano work on this track. Another one of my favorite Steely Dan songs of all time.
The first two tracks on this side tell you everything you need to know about the sound. Most copies are going to be aggressive. There’s an edge to Fagen’s vocals. It’ll become especially apparent when the backing vocals come in on the line, “The rings of rare design”. If it sounds midrangy and edgy, you do not have a good copy. You will probably not find the experience particularly enjoyable. Rather than finding yourself lost in the music, you may find yourself wondering what the fuss was all about when this album came out.
On a musical note, it’s songs like this one and the two that follow that make me realize how ENERGETIC an album this is. It’s actually the last high energy Steely Dan album, second only in that respect to Countdown To Ecstasy.
Lovely, delicate cymbals open this song, with deep, funky bass coming in right after them. (Some copies have hollow sounding bass on this track, and many copies are light in the bass here as well, which just kills the magic.)
But the key to this track is the voice box guitar. On the typically aggressive copy, that sound is irritating as hell. On the good ones, that guitar sounds JUST RIGHT. You know it when you hear it. It ain’t rocket science. There’s nothing fancy about good sound. It’s just CORRECT.
Like I say, that grainy ABC vinyl wreaks havoc with the amount of high frequency information on this recording. Without a good pressing, there’s just too much of that edgy, dry, grainy quality added to the (admittedly) processed vocals and upfront percussion. (The high hat is actually mixed louder than the vocals half the time!)
Everything You Did
Another All Time Top Steely Dan song, which continues the energy of this side.
The Royal Scam
…along these lines can be found below.
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.
Ad 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.