Top Artists – Steely Dan & Donald Fagen Solos

Steely Dan’s Pretzelly Logic – Holy Shit! This Is a GREAT LP!

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“I Took Tom’s Advice and Played It Real Loud.”

One of our newest Hot Stamper converts, John R., a customer only since February, has already managed to acquire about a dozen of our best Hot Stamper LPs to the tune of many thousands of dollars. As we like to say, the best copies may not be cheap, but here at Better Records you most certainly get what you pay for. Just ask John. If I read him right what he got for his 650 clams was something that exceeded any expectation he might have had for it. Like we say ourselves sometimes: Who knew? How would anyone know this album could so this good? The average copy barely hints at the sound the engineers recorded.

Anyway, that’s our story. Now here’s John’s.

Tom,

This is the best sounding LP I have ever heard including all the ones I have bought from you or ever heard in my life at a show etc. Holy Shit! This is a GREAT LP – sound and music. I must confess, I never heard this LP before – even once. I did recognize the lead song though having heard it on the radio several times. MY GOD! I listened to it twice over both sides. This is fantastic. The music slayed me.

I took Tom’s advice and played it real loud. Once I turned it up hard – well it got even better and better and better. Wow! You can’t have this one back. Every single song on both sides is a winner. I especially got a kick out of the last song on side one – which is an old fashioned instrumental that got me jumping all over the place.

Todd – one of the great things about doing business with you guys is that you know and love your music. This means I get good advice and direction about what LPs are great music and about the performers. This means I can get great stuff that not only I know I love but stuff I don’t know yet that I will love. Wow – there just is no way to be able to buy that. No way at all. Thanks so very much. Please tell Tom that I am really happy with this LP. Katy Lied now has to be on my short list to get soon.

I think I jumped on another good one tonight. I also am not familiar with this LP or this group Return to Forever. But the description had me salivating to listen to it.

Regards,
John

John,

Thanks so much for your enthusiastic letter. We were pretty crazy about that copy of Pretzel Logic (and the music of course) ourselves, as you can see from our commentary below.

We love turning people on to the records we’ve known and loved for years. Countdown to Ecstasy was the first Steely Dan album I ever bought, thought it was pretty good at first, not much more than that really, but I kept playing it and playing it and it wasn’t long before it became one of my favorite albums and Steely Dan one of my favorite bands. I had a Top Five back then and if I remember correctly it was Steely Dan, Roxy Music, Supertramp, Ambrosia and 10cc. (Yes, no Beatles, hadn’t come back around to them yet, I needed the MoFi Beatles Box and what I thought was its superior sound in order to fall in love with their music all over again. Little did I know…)

Then Pretzel Logic was released. I was living in San Diego at the time and I used to go into my local Tower Records across from the Sports Arena as often as I could, just to see what might have come out that week. There they were; they had boxes full of them, laid out on the floor in front of the cash registers. I grabbed a copy, sped home and threw it on the turntable, where as you can imagine it proceeded to blow my mind, as Katy Lied and The Royal Scam and Aja would when they came out each of the following years.

Records Like These

And it’s records like these that make us want to improve our stereo systems. I used to play the song Pretzel Logic to demo my system, but I can assure you that there is no way in the world I was reproducing the information on that record even a tenth as well I can now. 

This is precisely what is supposed to drive this hobby — the plain and simple desire to get the music you love to sound better than it used to so that you can enjoy it more. If you’re an audiophile then by definition you love good sound. Pretzel Logic is a very well recorded album and it can have WONDERFUL sound. Finding a copy of the album that was mastered and pressed properly is not easy. Learning how to really get the LP clean and putting together the kind of stereo that can play such a complicated recording right are also quite hard. All three things combined require the expenditure of tens of thousands of dollars of money and the investment of many thousands of hours of time if the result is to be truly satisfying. Our track commentary for the song has more along the same lines:

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, What We Listen For: Life-Size Images and Living Presence, 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!)

Shortcuts One and Two

We have been known to remark that there are no shortcuts in audio. You have to put in years, even decades, of often tedious work to get your stereo and room to reproduce music properly. But this is one very obvious shortcut in audio, and another sort-of shortcut, that will allow you to get much better sound than you could on your own without putting in the huge amounts of time that would normally be required.

The first one is a Hot Stamper pressing. We’ve already found the record of your dreams for you. This saves you an awful lot of time — time we think you’ll agree is better spent listening to records rather than digging through dusty record bins in dingy record stores trying to find them.

The other is record cleaning. After years of experimentation we’ve got the science of record cleaning down to a T. It’s partly why our records sound so good; they’ve been cleaned right. We have everything you need — machines, fluids, etc. Alll you have to do is come up with the money to buy the stuff and the discipline to use it.

So two shortcuts out of three, not bad when you stop to think about it. On that note we will close for the day. Thanks to Robert for his letter and all of you out there for taking the time to read this far.
Best,
TP

AMG  Review

Instead of relying on easy hooks, Walter Becker and Donald Fagen assembled their most complex and cynical set of songs to date. Dense with harmonics, countermelodies, and bop phrasing, Pretzel Logic is vibrant with unpredictable musical juxtapositions and snide, but very funny, wordplay. Listen to how the album’s hit single, “Rikki Don’t Lose That Number,” opens with a syncopated piano line that evolves into a graceful pop melody, or how the title track winds from a blues to a jazzy chorus — Becker and Fagen’s craft has become seamless while remaining idiosyncratic and thrillingly accessible… Steely Dan made more accomplished albums than Pretzel Logic, but they never made a better one.

Steely Dan Testimonial – … The best sounding rock album I’ve ever heard …

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This week’s entry is from our good friend Phil, who put a fresh twist on Pretzel Logic with his letter below, which includes the line:

“An extraordinary melange of glorious guiltars, voices, drums.” Yeah baby!

“It was like a magic carpet ride into a dark cave filled with jewel boxes of brilliant stones. Bejewelled sound. An extraordinary melange of glorious guiltars, voices, drums. The expanding contours of the music filled my room. The best sounding rock album I’ve ever heard.”

Phil, whatever you’re smokin’, give me a hit and I’ll join you in that “dark cave filled with jewel boxes of brilliant stones”! Reminds me a lot of my listening room, except for the part about the stones. (more…)

Letter of the Week – Real Aja Vs. Cisco Aja

Aja

One of our good customers had this to say about some Hot Stampers he purchased recently:

Hey Tom,   

It’s amusing that even Golden Ears who have the attention of large readerships can miss and misunderstand so much. You don’t have to understand the technical why of the variability of LPs to appreciate just how profound the audible differences can be from stamper to stamper. Even in acknowledging that differences are present, they do not seem to appreciate the extreme degree of the variation in sound among LPs from different stampers.

As so many of us have learned from you, a “hot stamper” LP is simply in a whole different league in sound quality. A good sound system is necessary to realize just how big that difference is and the more optimized that system is the better.

Beyond the audible reality and the technical issues, it is the subject of value that is not understood or appreciated. The ability to simply find a nice playable copy of a vintage LP is a major task. So many LPs have suffered the gouging of what must have been a rusty nail used as a stylus as well as all the other sins that can be wreaked on the plastic disc. Then the incredible task of assembling enough different copies to be able to do the “shoot-out” would seem impossible.

I have, as many now may have tried, done a simple “shoot-out” of a few copies of a favorite LP. Among those I have always found the “better” of the bunch. Now and then and just by luck (since the statistics of not having enough samples was not working in my favor) I have found what must indeed be a “hot stamper). And WOW …..what a difference!

The number of times this has occurred fits on less than one hand yet when you hear an LP that has been mixed and mastered really well and then “transferred” with care and quality via an excellent stamper, there is an epiphany. Suddenly you hear what you often refer to as “master tape” sound. As I have said before, this is really a sad statement about the quality and consistency of record production throughout its history.

The “Audiophile” Half-Speed thing only piles it on top of this with the way mastering at half speed seems to extract the dynamic life and frequency response from an album in contrast to a standard copy. The logical intention that mastering at half speed would allow the cutting lathe tool to have “more time” to lay down more of the music signal just never really worked. You would think the “Golden Ears” that developed this idea would have compared the result with real-time cutting speed (not brain surgery). I never wanted all this to be the way it is and didn’t even know it until I stumbled upon Better Records one day. But it is the way it is!

There seems to be a focus on the “wear” of the stamper as the primary cause of differences in the quality of the vinyl LP. My sense is that there is much variation over time in the production of stampers regarding the audio mastering and transfer in tonal balance and especially in the degree of compression used for a specific stamper that can destroy the “life and transparency” of the sound. This has nothing to do with stamper wear or physical variation but can vary from stamper to stamper over the duration of being in print and production and in some cases, never get transferred correctly.

I purchased the new Cisco Steely Dan “Aja” album hoping it would deliver perhaps even greater sound than the original and the hype regarding the remix quality, heavy virgin vinyl, etc, etc. certainly suggested that. After playing a few very smooth and quiet bands I put on my excellent vintage copy of Aja that proceeded to destroy the Cisco. The life, dynamics and transparency were in a totally different and superb league above. I very carefully returned my now even more precious copy to its sleeve. A few dealers that sell reissues like Aja will sometimes admit this but they certainly don’t want the world to know it. (more…)

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. (more…)

Steely Dan – Countdown to Ecstasy – Our Shootout Winner from 2009

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

It’s time for our annual Countdown to Ecstasy — whatever that is — and for 2009 this copy took TOP HONORS with superb sound on both sides! We just finished doing a huge shootout for this album with well over a dozen copies, winnowed down from close to twenty at the start, and the winner and new champion is this very copy — on the yellow label no less!

We had done shootouts in the past in which all the best copies of this album were on the black label, but this time around the yellow labels came out victorious.

As the record grader on this one, I had no idea what copy on what label was playing. I just heard what I heard, and what I heard on this copy was some of the BEST SOUND EVER for Countdown.

This album shares top honors with Katy Lied as the toughest Steely Dan album to get to sound right. 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. (more…)

Letter of the Week – Countdown to Ecstasy, Katy Lied and John Barleycorn

One of our good customers had this to say about some Hot Stampers he purchased recently:

Hey Tom, 

Guys, seriously, all three copies, completely out of control !! Unbelievable difference in sound, outstanding!!!!

Thank you.

Alonso,

It was our pleasure! Now you know what Hot Stampers are all about — the sound you can’t find any other way.

Best, TP


Countdown to Ecstasy


Katy Lied


John Barleycorn Must Die

Steely Dan – The Royal Scam – Our $600 Shootout Winner from 2009

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Steely Dan fans, brace yourselves! This White Hot Stamper copy of The Royal Scam ROCKS HARDER than you’d ever imagine! We play dozens and dozens of these each year, and it’s a shame more of them don’t sound like this. All the elements necessary to really bring this music to life are here: tight, punchy bass; knockout energy; big time presence; shocking clarity and so forth. Everyone gets all hot and bothered about Aja (and with good reason) but there’s no denying how POWERFUL this material is after you’ve heard these songs sound like this.

It’s great to hear these guys really rockin’ out on these heavier songs, and here’s the copy that communicates that nearly perfectly.

We listened to dozens of copies of Royal Scam for this shootout and kept finding the same problems — shrill highs, grainy vocals, and general lifelessness. A copy like this one really shows you how well-recorded this album actually was.

Doin’ It All!

Man oh man, this copy just plain kicks butt from start to finish. Side one earned top honors at A+++. Drop the needle on Caves Of Altiira and listen to how amazing the brass sounds. On most copies it tends to be lean, pinched, or smeary, but on this bad boy it is full-bodied and breathy with the right amount of bite. Don’t Take Me Alive comes up next and will knock your socks off with amazing presence and energy like you wouldn’t believe. The top end is silky sweet, there’s loads of ambience, and the group vocals during the chorus sound PHENOMENAL.

Side two keeps up the fun with an A++ – A+++ grade. The whomp factor is positively OFF THE CHARTS! The sound is strong from top to bottom — open and transparent, big and wide, and incredibly life-like. If you like records that deliver the power of loud music, this one (played at loud levels) will do the trick! (more…)

Steely Dan – Aja – Our Shootout Winner from 2007

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

And now the moment you’ve all been waiting for — AJA HOT STAMPERS! Believe me, they don’t get hotter than these. From the first note of Black Cow, you get presence like you’ve never heard — the sound positively JUMPS out at you! This is the most spacious, transparent, DYNAMIC copy of Aja we’ve EVER heard — a DEMO DISC in the truest sense of the word. 

We had the chance to go back and do a final round shootout for all the best copies, and this one was BY FAR the most DYNAMIC and PRESENT of them all. Bernie turned off ALL the compression for this bad boy. The ENERGY of the ensemble playing here was simply in a league of its own.

But I’ll tell you this flat out right now: if I could have any Aja, this would be the one for me. This one gets the MUSIC right. That energy is on the tape, and that’s the kind of energy I want to hear on a copy I would keep for myself. (Unfortunately there are way too many customers and not nearly enough records to satisfy them, so my collection has been raided for all the best pressings I used to hold onto. It’s really not a problem; if I want to hear Aja we have about another forty copies laying around. They don’t sound like this one, but some of them sound darn good, good enough to enjoy the hell out of.)

It’s SHOCKING how good this record can sound when you get a good copy. We played more than twenty of these for the shootout, most of which had already been designated as sounding good. (The bad ones — which means most of them — we just toss out as they come in.)

There ended up being about a dozen pretty hot copies in contention for Top Honors in this shootout. The Hot Stamper copies listed here are the survivors of that final elimination round.

I could literally spend hours describing what sets the best copies apart from the very good ones, but we’ve already gone overboard enough with our track commentary, so we will try to keep some of this brief. Although our enthusiasm for this album is out of control, we will try to keep a lid on it as best we can. (more…)

Donald Fagen – Morph The Cat – A Heavy Vinyl Disaster

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Sonic Grade: F

Hall of Shame Pressing and another Heavy Vinyl LP debunked.

Hopelessly murky, muddy, opaque, ambience-free sound, and so artificial I honestly cannot make any sense of it. Pure sludge.

This is someone’s idea of analog? It sure ain’t mine.

Music for robots?  And Kamikiriad from 1993 was musically every bit as bad.

Why waste vinyl on crap like this?

Steely Dan / Aja – One of the Great Audio Disasters, Courtesy of Mobile Fidelity

 

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mofipresslit

 

Steely Dan – Aja

Sonic Grade: F
 
More Mofi Bashing, But Boy Does The MOFI Deserve It.

I remember back in the ’70s when I thought this album sounded pretty good on my plain old ABC original. Then I got a copy of the Mobile Fidelity pressing and I thought it sounded even better. Side two of the MoFi had bass that was only hinted at on my domestic copy.

Sometime in the ’80s I realized that the MoFi was hideously phony sounding, and that all the bass on side two was boosted far out of proportion to what was on the master tape. The song Home At Last must have at least an extra five DBs added at 40 cycles. It’s ridiculous.

And that’s just the bottom end; the highs are every bit as wrong. (more…)