Top Artists – Steely Dan & Donald Fagen Solos

The Trick with Katy Lied Is…

Dear Reader,

We have just recently moved our record business to our new Shopify store. None of the links to the old site will work anymore. We apologize for the inconvenience and hope to be able to rectify the situation soon. For now please check out Better Records, Mach II, home of the ultimate vinyl pressing, the White Hot Stamper.

Tom Port – Better Records

katy lied

The Trick with Katy Lied Is to find the right balance between richness, sweetness and clarity.

Take three or four Katy Lied pressings, clean them up and play just one or two of the tracks we discuss below. You won’t find any two copies that get those tracks to sound the same. We do our shootouts with up to a dozen copies at a time and no two sound the same to us.

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This is a very tough record to reproduce — everything has to be working at its best to even begin to get this complex music to sound the way it should. But if you’ve done your homework and your system is really cooking, you are in for the time of your Steely Dan life.

In-Depth Track Commentary

Side One

Black Friday

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Letter of the Week – “Dropping you a line to tell you that these two Hot Stampers have four of the greatest sounding sides of music I have experienced.”

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

Hey Tom,   

Dropping you a line to tell you that these two Hot Stampers have four of the greatest sounding sides of music I have experienced. The new HS Aja and Fragile blew me away. I often start a listening session with the good intention of documenting the experience for you. I quickly blow that idea off and just start falling into the music. It would take thousands of words to explain the total experience. These two records have a presence and soundstage that put me in the studio (again, like your Sgt. Peppers) or feet from the stage.

In your description of Aja, you commented on Becker’s guitar floating on a bed of cool studio air front and center on “I got the news.” I became more interested and awed at the controlled pressure he was using on the strings with his left hand. The “harmonic” sounds of the notes were completely narcotic. With Fragile, the translucent layering of instruments and their note decay, danced across the room like sparks, making my head swim. At times the soundstage of Fragile extended well over my head. (more…)

Steely Dan – Listening in Depth to Pretzel Logic

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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

Side One

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!

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Steely Dan / Katy Lied on Japanese Vinyl – If You Are Serious About Audio, You Cop to Your Mistakes

And to think I used to swear by this pressing — specifically the 2000 Yen reissue, not the 1500 Yen original — another example of just how Wrong one can be.

We happily admit to our mistakes because we know that all this audio stuff and especially the search for Hot Stampers is a matter of trial and error. We do the trials; that’s how we avoid the kinds of errors most audiophiles and audiophile record dealers make when it comes to finding the best sounding records. Of course, being human we can’t help but make our share of mistakes. The difference is that we learn from them. We report the facts to the best of our ability every time out. 

Every record gets a chance to show us what it’s made of, regardless of where it was made, who made it or why they made it. (Like anybody cares.)

If we used to like it and now we don’t, that’s what you will read in our commentary. Our obligation is to only one person: you, the listener. (Even better: you, the customer. Buy something already!) (more…)

Dave Grusin – Discovered Again!

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  • This Sheffield Direct to Disc pressing boasts superb nearly Triple Plus (A++ to A+++) sound from first note to last – just shy of our Shootout Winner
  • After critically listening to this record good and loud, I have to award the album The Greatest Direct to Disc Recording of All Time
  • The songs, the players, the arrangements, the sound – this is a record that will reward hundreds of plays for decades to come
  • “Everything about this project is just right from the gentle contemporary feel of the music to the superb sound of the [album] itself.”

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Steely Dan – Gaucho – Our Shootout Winner from 2010

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A distinguished member of our Better Records Hall of Fame. 

Your Steely Dan Hot Stamper Collection is far from complete without a killer copy of Gaucho, and I don’t think you’re going to be able to find a much better copy than this one no matter what you do! Both sides are wonderful, with side two boasting BIG, BOLD A+++ MASTER TAPE SOUND that’s sure to blow the minds of all you Steely Dan maniacs. From top to bottom I don’t think you could cut or press this album any better.

What do these high grades give you for this album? Mindblowing, DEMO QUALITY, Steely Dan Magic, baby! Tons of ambience, amazing richness, ‘you are there’ immediacy, note-like bass, clear guitar transients, silky highs, and truckloads of analog magic. The overall sound is airy, open, spacious, and lively. The bottom end is punchy and meaty, and even on this, their most famously laid-back album, with bass and energy like this it means these songs really ROCK!

Clarity

Every instrument taking part in this complex, richly imagined sonic tapestry sits perfectly in its own place, and, more importantly for us audiophiles, its own SPACE.

The average pressing we auditioned was opaque and compressed, throwing a veil over the vocals. Not this knock-out: the transparency and dynamics are in a league of their own, highlighting Donald Fagen’s moody, emotive singing while his ensemble of Hand-Picked Studio Cats wails away behind him with abandon (but not too much abandon; can’t lose our Steely Dan cool don’t you know). Add a handful of Oh-So-Sultry Female Vocalists to sex it up and you have one trancendent musical experience.

A Special Feeling

No other copy gave us the feeling we got from this LP — that ethereal illusion of being in the room while the band is playing. This is what we refer to as Master Tape Sound. Once you’ve experienced it you’re never the same. Read some of our testimonials. People really go crazy over this kind of sound. Records like this are few and far between, but when you find one, the effect it can have on you may make you go a little overboard too.

You might even feel the need to write us a letter. It’s the kind of experience that compels you to find some way to share it with the world. The problem there is that those reading your letter don’t have a copy with the kind of sound you have, and they therefore can’t experience the music the way you can. If they haven’t heard it for themselves, it’s all just talk, the kind of crap you can read on any internet forum about any piece-of-junk record ever made.

That’s why we love to hear from people who’ve actually played the very same record we did. We know why they’ve flipped out. We flipped out too!

When you drop the needle on a record this good, you feel like you just threaded up the master tape and hit play. You quickly become so totally IMMERSED in the musical experience that you soon forget you’re listening to a record. You’re hearing the music exactly the way the musicians intended it to sound. You can’t ask for more than that. Records like that get the Triple Plus.

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 system full range system.

More Evidence of Ron McMaster’s Flat Out Incompetence

More Gaucho

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Sonic Grade: D

Check out our Heavy Vinyl Scorecard to read all about the latest winners and losers. When such records are clearly inferior to their mass-produced counterparts (Heavy Vinyl pressings are mass-produced too by the way), we put them in our Hall of Shame.

Reasonably good bass, we’ll give it that, but no top end and no Tubey Magic. More of Ron McMaster’s handiwork and the result is a record that simply has no reason to exist. The AVERAGE original pressing sitting in your local record store bin right now for probably all of five bucks will MURDER this piece of crap. 

As we noted for Ron’s remastered Band album, “When you see that little RM in the dead wax of one of these new Heavy Vinyl reissues you know you’ve just flushed your money down the toilet. There should be a warning label on the jacket: Mastered by Ron McMaster. It’s only a warning to those of us familiar with his work of course; the general public, and that includes the general audiophile public, probably won’t have much of a problem with the sound of this record or anything else he does. He still has the job, doesn’t he? What does that tell you?”

Steely Dan ‎/ Gold on MCA Audiophile Vinyl – Sounds Like a Good CD to Me

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Clean and clear and tonally correct like a good CD should sound. If this is what you are after, why not just buy the CD? It’s a lot cheaper.

Some songs sound better than others, can’t remember which ones. I auditioned copies of this record more than twenty years ago. Once I got rid of them I never bought another. What would be the point?

No doubt there are still audiophiles extolling the virtues of this record in various threads. One thing you can be sure of: these are people who are not very serious about audio.

Some of the pressings these people like can be found in our Stone Age Audio Record section.

If you have top quality, highly-tweaked modern equipment, a good room, and the myriad other things that make exceptionally good vinyl playback possible these days in a way that was not possible even ten or fifteen years ago, you would have no reason to keep a record of such mediocrity in your collection.

Or say anything nice about it on a site ostensibly devoted to audiophile vinyl.

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Steely Dan – Can’t Buy A Thrill – Our Shootout Winner from 2010

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

ONE OF THE HOTTEST COPIES OF CAN’T BUY A THRILL TO EVER HIT THE SITE! If you’re ready to hear what a superb pressing of this great album can do, I suggest you jump on this one quickly. This one’s got all the qualities we look for in a great Steely Dan album — punchy lows, extended highs, tons of energy and real immediacy.

We have no less than three dozen copies of this album on our shelves right now and have played even more than that over the last few years. Most of them we’d be embarrassed to sell. We drop the needle on a copy briefly and the faults reveal themselves quickly. If we don’t hear that “Better Record” sound, we toss that copy and move on to another. The difference between a Hot Stamper and an average copy is so huge, that we don’t need to waste much time on the also-rans.

Side one is very strong, earning an A++ grade. It’s got a wonderfully punchy bottom end, with the kind of WHOMP that brings this music to life! The soundfield is BIG, WIDE, and OPEN, with a three-dimensional quality that we just don’t hear on too many copies. Listen to how breathy and textured the vocals are throughout. The top end is silky sweet — just listen to the cymbals on Do It Again.

Imagine our delight when we discovered that side two is EVEN BETTER! From the moment the needle hit the grooves, we were treated to some of the best electric guitar sound we’ve ever heard for this album; the meaty texture and uncanny presence take a song like Reeling In The Years to an entirely new level! On the average pressing Fagen is singing, on this one he’s really beltin’ it out!

Fire In The Hole is exceptionally dynamic with real weight to the piano, and Turn That Heartbeat Over Again sounds just right. (more…)

Steely Dan ‎/ Gaucho – MCA Masterphile

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A pale shadow of the real MASTERDISK pressings. We’ve played at least a hundred of them, and I would be surprised if every one of them did not sound better than this compressed and desiccated audiophile piece of trash.

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