Top Engineers – Elliot Scheiner

Donald Fagen / The Nightfly – MoFi Reviewed

More of the Music of Steely Dan

Reviews and Commentaries for the Music of Steely Dan

Sonic Grade: F

More MoFi phony EQ on the top right around 10k and sloppy bass.

You should be able to do a whole lot better and you sure won’t have to try very hard to do it.

Robert Ludwig is the man who knows how to cut this album, not Stan Ricker.

The properly pressed, properly cleaned Robert Ludwig-mastered copies are right in a way that the typical Half-Speed Mastered or Heavy Vinyl pressing rarely is. The more critically one listens, the more obvious this distinction becomes.

The real thing just can’t be beat, and you can be pretty sure that the real thing is an old record.

If you are buying these audiophile pressings, take the advice of some of our customers and stop throwing your money away on Heavy Vinyl and Half-Speed Mastered LPs.

At the very least let us send you a Hot Stamper pressing — of any album you choose — that can show you what is wrong with your remastered LP.

And if for some reason you disagree with us that our record sounds better than yours, we will happily give you all your money back and wish you the best.


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Improving Your Critical Listening Skills

Important Lessons We Learned from Record Experiments

Listening In Depth to Gaucho, The Dan’s Last Good Album

More of the Music of Steely Dan

Reviews and Commentaries for Gaucho

Presenting another entry in our extensive Listening in Depth series with advice on what to listen for as you critically evaluate your copy of Gaucho.

Here are some albums currently on our site with similar Track by Track breakdowns.

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 contemplate 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 seriously good sounding record indeed. (more…)

Donald Fagen / Morph The Cat – Mastered by the Cats from DCC

More of the Music of Steely Dan

Reviews and Commentaries for the Music of Steely Dan

Yet another Disastrous Heavy Vinyl release with godawful sound, and in this case, equally godawful music, a fitting entry for our Hall of Shame.

Sonic Grade: F

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.

Is this music for robots? That would explain a lot. Audiophile robots, perhaps?

Why do audiophiles waste their money on crap like this?

And Kamikiriad from 1993 was musically every bit as bad.

The last good record Donald Fagen was involved with was The NIghtfly.

After that, there is no reason to buy anything he recorded, whether as a solo artist or as part of the reformed Steely Dan.

And there would never be a good reason to buy a record that sounds as bad as this one on vinyl.

The CD has to be better.

Billy Joel / Songs in the Attic

More of the Music of Billy Joel

  • Incredible Demo Disc live rock concert sound with both sides earning Shootout Winning Triple Plus (A+++) grades or very close to it
  • This one has it ALL — the sound has so many wonderful ANALOG qualities when you get a good copy — the hardness of the typical pressing just disappears, leaving surprisingly transparent and sweet sound on virtually every track
  • The WHOMP FACTOR here is off the scale. There are few studio recordings that have these kinds of dynamics. We forget how compressed most of them are. It takes a record like this to show you how much LIFE there is in LIVE MUSIC
  • “Songs in the Attic is an excellent album, ranking among his very best work… even if Joel wasn’t a celebrity in the early ’70s, his best songs of the era rivaled his biggest hits.” – 4 Stars

(more…)

Listening in Depth to Aja (Includes Free Cisco Debunking Tool)

More of the Music of Steely Dan

Reviews and Commentaries for Aja

Another in our series of Home Audio Exercises with specific advice on What to Listen For (WTLF) as you critically evaluate your copy of Aja.

Our track commentary for the song Home at Last makes it easy to spot an obvious problem with Cisco’s remastered Aja: This is the toughest song to get right on side two.

Nine out of ten copies have grainy, irritating vocals; the deep bass is often missing too. Home at Last can sometimes be just plain unpleasant, which is why it’s such a great test track.

Get this one right and it’s pretty much smooth sailing from there on out.

If you own the Cisco pressing, focus on Victor Feldman’s piano at the beginning of the song. It lacks body, weight and ambience on the new pressing, but any of our better Hot Stamper copies will show you a piano with those qualities in spades on every track. It’s some of my favorite work by the Steely Dan vibesman.

The thin piano on the Cisco release must be recognized for what it is: a major error on the part of the mastering engineers.

(more…)

Rickie Lee Jones – Pirates

More Rickie Lee Jones

  • STUNNING sound on both sides of this original Warner Bros. white label pressing of Jones’ sophomore release with a Shootout Winning Triple Plus (A+++) side two mated with an outstanding Double Plus (A++) side one
  • Forget whatever dead-as-a-doornail Heavy Vinyl record they’re making these days – if you want to hear the Tubey Magic, size and energy of this wonderful album, a vintage pressing like this one is the only way to go
  • Lee Herschberg recorded Rickie’s debut as well as this follow-up, and both can sound shockingly good
  • 4 stars: “The musical and lyrical variety on the album is best represented in the album’s centerpiece, ‘Pirates (So Long Lonely Avenue),’ where she moves through mood and tempo changes with ease. Although the songs may not immediately grab the listener, the lyrical and musical complexities ultimately make this album more rewarding with every listen.”

(more…)

Steely Dan – Testing for Energy with Green Earrings

More of the Music of Steely Dan

Reviews and Commentaries for The Royal Scam

The first two tracks on side two 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 the sound is too midrangy and edgy, you simply 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.

(more…)

Steely Dan / Aja – Guess Which Pressing This Guy Likes the Best

 


Go ahead, take a guess.

If you guessed the Cisco LP from 2007, one of the worst sounding versions of the album ever pressed, you win a prize!

Occasionally, when I go searching the web to find out something about a record, I find something I had no idea even existed. Look what I found today: a survey of various pressings of Aja, an album I think I know pretty well. I’ve been playing it since the day it came out in 1977.

Are you learning anything useful from the guy in this video? Does he seem to understand much about the sound of the pressings he is reviewing?

I didn’t think so either. If you know much about records you should be appalled at the nonsensical opinions coming out of this guy’s mouth. This video will of course garner many ten of thousands of hits, but that is to be expected. Phony record gurus like this guy —  as opposed to authentic record gurus like us — have found a home in every corner of the web, full of bad advice for those foolish enough to take it.

We Can Help

Would you like some helpful advice, some “actionable intelligence” vis-a-vis Aja?

Good. You’ve come to the right place. This blog is overflowing with information you can use to do your own shootouts, for Aja as well as any other record you have a good supply of.

When you are done you can make your own video if you like.

And if you follow our methods, your video, unlike this video, would actually be of value to audiophiles trying to find a better sounding pressing of Aja. It sure ain’t the Cisco. If that pressing doesn’t come in last place in the shootout, you need to try harder. You’re not doing it right. (The Japanese pressing you see pictured should do poorly also.)

If this guy had better playback equipment and had developed some basic critical listening skills, he would not be recommending the Cisco pressing. He would be telling you how awful it is just the way we did back in 2007 when it came out.

The Cisco pressing, so beloved by the gentleman above, also happens to be a good example of a Pass/Fail record.  We describe Pass/Fail records this way:

Some records are so wrong, or so lacking in qualities that are crucial to the sound — qualities typically found in abundance on the right vintage pressings — that the advocates for these records, reviewers and audiophiles alike, have clearly failed to judge them accurately.

Tea for the Tillerman on the new 45 may be substandard in almost every way, but it is not a Pass/Fail pressing. It lacks one thing above all others, Tubey Magic, so if your system has an abundance of that quality, the way many vintage tube systems do, the new pressing may be quite listenable and enjoyable. Those whose systems can play the record and not notice this important shortcoming are not exactly failing. Audiophiles of this persuasion most likely have a system that is heavily colored and not very revealing, but it is not a system that is hopeless.

A system that can play the MoFi of Aja without revealing to the listener how risibly wrong it is is clearly on another level of bad entirely, and that we would characterize as a failing system. My system in the ’80s played the MoFi just fine. Looking back on it now, I realize my system was doing more wrong than right. Over the next forty years I worked hard to make it right. It is at the heart of everything we do here at Better Records. Without it there could be no Hot Stampers.

The value of identifying such records is simply this: if you know anyone, or come across anyone, that has anything nice to say about records that are as awful as the ones on this list, you should know that such a person cannot tell a good record from a bad one, and therefore nothing they say about anything on the subject of either audio or records will be of any real value to you if you care about good sound.

Our video maker above fits neatly into this category. Why is he talking about better and worse versions of Aja when he clearly cannot tell the good ones from the bad ones? Why indeed.

Helpful Tips from Real Record Experts (Us)

In our Hot Stamper Aja listings you can find the following advice. It can help you find your own killer pressings of Aja, or it may be used to evaluate the copy we send you as you compare it to whatever pressings you may already have.

Our track commentary for the song Home at Last makes it easy to spot an obvious problem with Cisco’s remastered Aja: This is the toughest song to get right on side two.

Nine out of ten copies have grainy, irritating vocals; the deep bass is often missing too. Home at Last is just plain unpleasant as a rule, which is why it’s such a great test track.

Get this one right and it’s pretty much smooth sailing from there on out.

If you own the Cisco pressing, focus on Victor Feldman’s piano at the beginning of the song. It lacks body, weight and ambience on the new pressing, but any of our better Hot Stamper copies will show you a piano with those qualities in spades all the way through. It’s some of my favorite work by the Steely Dan vibesman.

The thin piano on the Cisco release must be recognized for what it is: a major error on the part of the mastering engineers.

Bonus Listening Test for Side Two

The truly amazing side twos — and they are pretty darn rare — have an extended top end and breathy vocals on the first track, Peg, a track that is dull on nine out of ten copies. (The ridiculously bright MoFi actually kind of works on Peg because of the fact that the mix is somewhat lacking in top end. This is faint praise though: MoFi managed to fix that problem and ruin practically everything else on the album.)

If you play Peg against the tracks that follow it on side two most of the time the highs come back. On the best of the best the highs are there all the way through.

Listening Tests for Side One

Generally what you try to get on side one is a copy with ambience. Most copies are flat, lifeless and dry as a bone. You also want a copy with good punchy bass — many are lean, and the first two tracks simply don’t work at all without good bass. And then you want a copy that has a natural top end, where the cymbals ring sweetly and Wayne Shorter’s saxophone isn’t hard or honky or dull, which it often is on the bad domestic copies.

Also listen for GRAIN and HONK in the vocals on Black Cow. The better your copy is the less grainy and honky the vocals will be.

Shockingly Good Sound

It’s SHOCKING how good this record can sound when you get a good copy. We played more than a dozen of these for the big shootout we conducted many years ago, most of which had already been designated as sounding good. (Almost as many were noisy or bad sounding. Those we just toss or trade back in to local stores.)

I could literally spend hours describing what sets the best copies apart from the very good ones, having critically listened to well over a hundred copies of the album at this point.

And I did! For those of you who would like to join me in taking a deeper dive into all seven tracks on Aja, click here.

We Now Return to The Revolution, Which Is Already in Progress

This music belongs in any serious audiophile record collection worthy of the name. As audiophiles we all know that when an album sounds this good, it makes you appreciate the music even more. I never cared all that much for Aja until a few years ago when I discovered just how amazing the most amazing copies could sound.

That’s what the Revolutionary Changes in Audio link is all about. If you haven’t taken advantage of the new technologies that make LP playback dramatically better than it was five or ten years years ago, Aja won’t do what it’s supposed to do. Trust me, there’s a world of sound lurking in the grooves of the best Aja’s that simply cannot be revealed without Walker cleaning fluids, the Talisman, Aurios, Seismic Sinks, Hallographs, top quality front ends, big speakers and all the rest.

Our playback system is designed to play records like Aja with all the size, weight and power of the real thing. We live for this kind of Big Rock sound here at Better Records. We’re prepared to do whatever it takes to play records like this with Maximum Fidelity, secure in the knowledge that a system that can play Aja right can play pretty much anything right.

More Reviews and Commentaries for Aja

Steely Dan – Aja

More Steely Dan

Reviews and Commentaries for Aja

  • Presenting a STUNNING copy of Steely Dan’s magnificent Jazzy Pop breakthrough album
  • Punchy, full and smooth, with the kind of rhythmic energy that brings out the jazzy funk in the music
  • A Better Records Rock and Pop Top 100 album and a true Demo Disc on an exceptional pressing like this
  • 4 1/2 stars: “With Aja, Walter Becker and Donald Fagen’s obsession with sonic detail and fascination with composition reached new heights. A coolly textured and immaculately produced collection of sophisticated jazz-rock, Aja has none of the overt cynicism or self-consciously challenging music that distinguished previous Steely Dan records … a shining example of jazz-rock at its finest. “

Folks, there’s not much I can tell you about this copy of Aja that’s going to make you want this record, other than to say this: If you’re in the market for a superb pressing of what’s gotta be the most beloved Steely Dan record they made, look no further. It’s right here. (more…)

Donald Fagen – Revisiting the Analog Vs. Digital Debate

More of the Music of Steely Dan

Reviews and Commentaries for the Music of Steely Dan

Do All the Pressings Have to Sound Like CDs?

The average copy of this digitally recorded, mixed and mastered LP sounds just the way you would expect it to: like a CD. It’s anemic, two-dimensional, opaque, thin, bright, harsh, with little extreme top and the kind of bass that’s all “note” with no real weight, solidity or harmonic structure. Sounds like a CD, right? (That’s the way most of my CDs sound, which is why I no longer listen to them except in the car)

But what if I told you that the best copies of The Nightfly can actually sound like a real honest-to-goodness ANALOG recording, with practically none of the nasty shortcomings listed above? You may not believe it, but it’s true.

I heard it myself. I heard a copy sound so natural and correct that I would never have guessed it was digital. On my honor, that’s the truth. The best copies of The Nightfly can actually be shockingly ANALOG sounding.

Allow us to make the case for The Nightfly. (more…)