Steely Dan – Katy Lied – Our Four Plus Shootout Winner from 2010

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A distinguished member of the Better Records Rock and Pop Hall of Fame.

This White Hot Stamper side one is an ABSOLUTE KNOCKOUT. Even our usual top grade of A Triple Plus was not enough to tell the story, so we awarded this side one the rare Four Plus (A++++) grade. The sound is HUGE — big, bold, dynamic, and lively. The clarity and transparency exceeded all our expectations; we felt as if we were hearing every last Steely Dan-sweated detail. The overall sound is natural, relaxed, and musical. The highs are as sweet as they come (which is not as sweet as they should have been, more about that later) and the bottom end has the weight and punch this music needs to rock.

(Although rocking is not quite what Steely Dan are up to here. Cameron Crowe calls it “…absolutely impeccable swing-pop”, a four word description that gets to the heart of the music far better than any combination of words containing the word “rock”. )

One quality this copy had that no other copy in our shootout managed to convey: on Chain Lightning the voices stretch from wall to wall and fill out the space between the speakers like we have never heard before! Wow. On this copy that song is a Demo Disc Quality Thrill like you will not believe.

A Tough Nut? You Better Believe It

This is one of the TOUGHEST NUTS TO CRACK in the entire Steely Dan catalog, if not THE toughest. We manage to do this album about once a year; it takes us at least that long to find a dozen or so clean, decent-sounding original copies. Most copies are beat and most copies don’t sound good anyway.

It’s easy to blame DBX for the bad sound of so many copies, but this is a cop-out. Most of the bad sound comes from ABC’s bad pressings. This music can sound awfully good; more than enough proof can be provided by simply playing this amazing side two.

Side Two

This side two earned an A++ gradfe. It was one of the few copies we played with real extension on the top end, a serious shortcoming on practically every copy we auditioned. The music on this side comes ALIVE like nobody’s business.

You will have no trouble hearing why we fell in love with this copy. The sound is so RICH and FULL. This is, more than anything else, what Katy Lied really gets right. The pianos and congas and toms have tremendous weight and body, along with plenty of rhythmic energy to drive the music. Everything is working so well you may find yourself singing along with abandon to classics like Everyone’s Gone to the Movies and Chain Lightning. We did.

Michael McDonald is a wonderful accompanist. His soaring harmonies on this album are breathtaking, even more so here than on Aja.

Of special note is Phil Woods’ sax solo on Doctor Wu. On most copies it is too thin, with not enough body, too much bite and sourness or hardness, but here it is smooth and natural — easy on the ears you might say.

The DBX Debacle

And now…. a warning. The top end of this recording is a bit problematic, meaning that even our best copies will never be as sweet and silky up there as we’d like. Pay special attention to the ride cymbal in the right channel during the fade out of Black Friday. That rock hard “banging on a garbage can” sound is no doubt the result of the defective DBX encoding system that almost caused Becker and Fagen to scrap the whole project. According to their web site, they never did listen to the final playback of the album.

For Those Of You Playing Along At Home…

We really went overboard with the track by track commentary for this one. We want you to be able to compare in detail what we are saying to what you are hearing at home, using whatever copy you own.

If you end up with one of our Hot Stampers, listen carefully for the effects we describe in the Track Commentary. 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.

Condition Alert

No copy in our shootout played better than Mint Minus to Mint Minus Minus. There are some quiet passages on this album that reveal what ABC vinyl was like back in the day.

The MoFi and Japanese Pressings

The MoFi is a complete disaster, one of the Top Ten Worst Half-Speeds of All Time.

As for the Japanese pressings, the one we used to like the best was the 2000 Yen reissue, not the 1500 Yen original. It’s thin and compressed but not awful like the MoFi and certainly not the murky muckfest that most ABC pressings are. Let’s sum it up this way: With the Japanese pressing you could do a lot worse. With the MoFi you couldn’t do any worse.

TRACK LISTING

Side One

Black Friday Track Commentary

Arguably the most musically aggressive track on the album, “Black Friday” is without question the most sonically aggressive and 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.

In that respect it’s very similiar to Royal Scam. Kid Charlemagne is no walk in the park. We noted:

This song will always be a little bright and upper midrangy. That’s the way it’s mixed. It will never sound as good as the songs that follow on side one. It will sound really irritating, hard and aggressive on the average domestic pressing.
Bad Sneakers

This is my favorite track on the whole album. I love this song! On the best copies, the sound is very punchy, but the most important qualities I listen for are richness and sweetness, especially on the backing vocals. Michael McDonald, et al should sound like they were recorded with ribbon mics and an Ampex 300 Tube tape recorder, like the one Contemporary Records used. The vocals are that good!

Another quality the chorus should have is clarity. By that I mean there should be separation between each of the vocalists that make up the group. When this record is mastered from sub-generation tapes (or sub sub-generation tapes, which is more often the case) the voices take on a smeary quality and there is a noticable increase in the harmonic distortion.

I first discovered this sound when listening to a Hot Stamper copy of Countdown To Ecstasy while doing a shootout with a Japanese pressing, which until that time I thought was the better sounding version. On the chorus of one of the tracks the domestic copy was clear, clean and undistorted. The Japanese pressing had noticable harmonic distortion, which I’m inferring came from their use of a sub-generation tape. In every other way the Japanese pressing sounded fine. When the mix got complicated, the flaws showed up. So when Bad Sneakers gets loud and complex, the shortcomings of some pressings will become obvious. This is what shootouts are all about. Everything is relative. It oftentimes takes a better record to show you what’s wrong with the record you’re playing.
Check out the electric sitar at the opening. If it sounds thin and brittle, run for cover! If you can hear the texture and musicality of the instrument, you’re off to a good start.

Some other key things to pay attention to: Jeff Porcaro’s rimshots in the verses should really knock. (We love this guy!)

Also, Fagen’s vocals are present and transparent on the better copies; they come across veiled and compressed on the standard issue. You can really hear this effect clearly when his doubled vocal comes in on the line “Honey, when they gonna send me home?” It should really jump.

Rose Darling Track Commentary

On this one, if the piano don’t sound right, ya got nothin’. It’s big and bold in the mix and should really sound solid. Thin or washed out and you are in trouble.

Daddy Don’t Live in That New York City No More
Doctor Wu

Doctor Wu is actually the most difficult track to get right. Phil Wood’s saxophone can sound hard on some copies, especially if they have any brightness or harshness. The vocals however tend to be on the smooth side. The trick is getting the vocals and the saxophone to both sound properly balanced relative to each other. Neither should be advantaged during mastering at the expense of the other, but that’s precisely what happens to most pressings.

It presents a fairly tough test for even the best copies. The compression inherent in the sound of most LPs can make the vocals overly smooth and just plain lifeless. It doesn’t have to be this way!

The killer copies afforded us an insight into the sax solo for this song that made the listening panel really sit up and take notice. Phil Woods’ solo most of the time sounds like exactly what it is: an overdub laid onto a finished song. It usually sounds (and feels) disconnected from the band playing behind it.

While doing this shootout, the super hot side ones made us forget he was playing his bit after the fact. It suddenly started to sound like a real live band rockin’ together. The effect was uncanny. Phil was in the room with these guys, even though we knew he couldn’t have been!

Proof positive that when it all comes together in the mastering, the sound isn’t the only thing that gets better — the music does too. Non-audiophiles have no experience of this phenomenon, but anybody lucky enough to own a Hot Copy of Katy Lied knows what I’m talking about. Oh yeah.

One last note: listen to how tasty Porcaro’s fills are in the fade. Yummy. Of any musician to ever play on any Steely Dan album, Porcaro on Katy Lied is The Man. Play the whole album through a few times listening to nothing but the drumming and see if you don’t agree. (Hal Blaine plays on the track Any World… so ignore that one.)

Side Two

Everyone’s Gone to the Movies
Your Gold Teeth II
Chain Lightning

The thing to listen for here is the huge amount of ambience — the distance the echo goes back behind the speakers must be 20 or 30 feet on a good system. Maximum echo equals maximum resolution in the midrange. (Resolution is not the be-all and end-all of good mastering, but it helps.)

Some of the biggest sound on the record! That huge snare drum is an immediate sign of things to come. We found that poorer pressings made this snare sound like it was coated in digital reverb, which hadn’t even been invented yet! The good copies revealed that it was instead meaty-thick and powerful, surrounded by room ambience – the way it was intended to sound.

The group vocals were also ruined on the baddies. They became smeary and muddled. The hot copies allowed the background singers to separate themselves, giving the impression that Fagen is being backed by real singers and not an indeterminate processed mass.

Any World (That I’m Welcome To)
Dynamics, Dynamics, DYNAMICS! (See how I did that?)

Let’s play a game. Where does the dynamic contrast of this track really kick in, making it about 1-2 db louder? (That’s a significant change by the way.) Well, if you find it, you’ll be floored to hear that our hot copies made this dynamic kick up even more — maybe even as much as 4 db. Wow! What an impact it has this music!

Also, listen for the delicate acoustic guitar in the left channel. The overly compressed versions practically makes it disappear. It’s clearly part of the mix on any good LP. Just for fun see how clear it is on your copy.

Let’s face it: This is the toughest track to get to sound good on side two. The chorus can be a little strained toward the end of this song. I think there’s a certain amount of upper midrangy-ness in the mix that no amount of TLC in the mastering can really get out.

But the best copies make you forget such minor shortcomings; the bad copies throw them in your face like a bucket of cold water.

Throw Back the Little Ones

AMG 5 Star Rave Review

Building from the jazz fusion foundation of Pretzel Logic, Steely Dan created an alluringly sophisticated album of jazzy pop with Katy Lied. With this record, Walter Becker and Donald Fagen began relying solely on studio musicians, which is evident from the immaculate sound of the album.