Top Engineers – Roger Nichols

Steely Dan – Aja

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Reviews and Commentaries for Aja

  • With two outstanding Double Plus (A++) or BETTER sides, this copy of Steely Dan’s magnificent Jazzy Pop breakthrough album will be very hard to beat
  • 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 a pressing that sounds as good as this one does
  • If I were to make a list of my Favorite Rock and Pop Albums from 1977, this album would definitely be right at the top
  • Considering how dismal the releases by Cisco Music and Mobile Fidelity turned out to be, it seems that no one outside of Bernie Grundman back in 1977 managed to get Aja sounding right on vinyl. Will his upcoming UHQR be any good? We might just have to buy one and find out.

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…)

Listening in Depth to Aja

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Reviews and Commentaries for Aja

More Albums with Key Tracks for Critical Listening

Generally, what you try to get on side one is a copy with ambience, because most copies are flat, lifeless and dry as a bone.

You 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.

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.

Side One

Black Cow

Fagen’s voice on the first line will always sound grainy – it’s that way on the CD and every LP I have ever played, which means it’s on the tape that way. It will quickly pass, and the rest of the vocals will sound amazing if you have a Hot Stamper Copy.

This song is as BIG and BOLD sounding as any pop song I know. This is Demo Disc material if you have the system to do it justice.

And don’t you just love the way it starts on the upbeat? Now that’s the way to kick off an album!

Aja

Got a big speaker? Lots of power? You will need both to play this song right. Note how the percussion comes through the dense mix, without being abrasive in any way. That’s a sure sign that you have a copy with the transparency and resolution you need to bring out the track’s best qualities. The mix needs that percussion; it’s there for a reason. You, dear audiophile, need an LP that lets that percussion be heard. Many are called; few are chosen.

Deacon Blues

It’s the rare copy that gets the top end for the first two tracks right and still has enough presence and top end for this song, which will tend to sound dull even if the first two tracks don’t. The truly killer pressings get all three tracks to sound amazing, no mean feat.

Side Two

Hey, Watch Your Levels

For some mysterious reason, side two is almost always cut at a lower level than side one. Pump up the volume a db or two in order to get the full Aja effect for the songs on this side.

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Rickie Lee Jones on Rhino – Not Our Idea of Good Sound, and We Hope Not Yours

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Reviews and Commentaries for Rickie Lee Jones’ First Album

Sonic Grade: D

We were fairly unimpressed with the Rickie Lee Jones on Warners that came out a few years back [2008, time flies!].

It has that same phony Modern Mastering sound we find so unappealing on the Heavy Vinyl reissue of Blue. (We seem to be pretty much alone in not liking that one, and we’re proud to say we still don’t like it. We encourage you to play The Blue Game and maybe you’ll see why we feel the way we do.)

We liked the new Sweet Baby James Hoffman and Gray cut. We note in our review that

Hoffman and Gray can take pride in this Sweet Baby James. It’s some of the best work I’ve heard from them to date. If more DCC and Heavy Vinyl reissues sounded like this, we wouldn’t be so critical of them. Unfortunately they don’t, and there are scores of pages of commentary on the site to back up that statement for those of you interested in the subject.

We went on to say

The amazing transparency and dynamic energy of the best originals will probably never be equaled by an audiophile pressing like this. (It hasn’t happened yet and we remain skeptical of the possibility.) Considering that this pressing is sure to beat most reissues, imports and other such like, we have no problem heartily recommending it to our customers, especially at the price.

So, What’s Wrong With Rickie Lee?

Simple. They took a somewhat artificial, hi-fi-ish, close-miked, heavy-on-the-reverb recording and made it sound even more artificial, phony and hi-fi-ish (but less-heavy-on-the-reverb; there is always a noticeable loss of resolution in these modern mastering jobs).

What were they thinking?

The best copies have warmth, richness and sweetness to balance out the more unnatural elements in the recording. Copies with these qualities are not that common, but we’ve run across plenty of them in our shootouts and proudly offered them for sale, where of course they sold quickly for lots of money. Major league audiophile appeal, this one. In its day it was heavily demo’ed in every stereo store in town, and for good reason — the sound positively jumps out of the speakers.

It’s a Trap

The average copy of this album is a sonic disaster, akin to the average copy of Famous Blue Raincoat or — gulp, even worse — Graceland. If you’re a detail freak, this Rhino pressing may be just what you are looking for. It’s got detail all right.

But all that phony detail obscures what is wrong with the sound. Overly detailed sound is a trap.

Plenty of recordings designed to appeal to audiophiles strike us as being phony in this way. Stan Ricker cut a lot of overly-detailed records for Mobile Fidelity in the ’70s and ’80s, records that may have sounded fine on the lo-rez stereos of that era (like the one I owned), but are positively painful to play on the top quality equipment that is available (but rare) today. [1]

I would hope that the audiophile community would have developed their listening skills to a level sufficient to recognize what this pressing doesn’t have — warmth, richness and sweetness — but I get the feeling I will be proved wrong yet again in that regard.

High Performance?

Rhino Records has really made a mockery of the analog medium. Rhino bills their releases as pressed on “180 gram High Performance Vinyl”. However, if they are using performance to refer to sound quality, we have found the performance of their vinyl to be quite low, lower than the average copy one might stumble upon in the used record bins.

The CD versions of most of the LP titles they released early on are far better sounding than the lifeless, flat, pinched, so-called audiophile pressings they released starting around 2000. The mastering engineer for this garbage actually has the nerve to feature his name in the ads for the records. He should be run out of town, not promoted as a keeper of the faith and defender of the virtues of “vinyl”. If this is what vinyl sounds like I’d switch to CD myself.

And the amazing thing is, as bad as these records are, there are people who like them. I’ve read postings on the internet from people who say the sound on these records is just fine.

Their Grateful Dead titles sound worse than the cheapest Super Saver reissue copies I have ever heard.

The Yes Album sounds like a cassette, a mere ghost of the real thing.


[1] This is what the Revolutionary Changes in Audio link is all about. If you haven’t taken advantage of the many new technologies that make LP playback dramatically better than it was even five or ten years ago, Rickie Lee Jones’ first album won’t do what it’s supposed to do.

Trust me, there’s a world of sound lurking in the grooves of the best copies that simply cannot be revealed without Walker cleaning fluids, the Talisman, Aurios, Hallographs, top quality front ends, big speakers and all the rest.

Our playback system is designed to play records like RLJ with all the size, weight and power of the real thing.

An accurate playback system will reveal that this pressing is nothing but a fraud.

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Steely Dan – Can’t Buy A Thrill

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Reviews and Commentaries for Can’t Buy a Thrill

  • Big, bold, rich, Tubey Magical sound for this Steely Dan classic, with two outstanding Double Plus (A++) sides
  • After doing so many shootouts over the years, and hearing the guitars and vocals jumping out of our speakers right into our listening room, we now find the recording a lot more to our liking than we used to
  • A surprisingly difficult record to find these days with good sound and audiophile quality playing surfaces
  • If you made the mistake of buying the Speaker Corner reissue from 2000, this is your chance to hear the record with all the energy that this band put into their debut, the energy and presence the remastering engineers took out!
  • The new UHQR has some of the thrills of the good originals, at least on side one, and for any record produced by Analogue Productions, that is some high praise indeed
  • Two of the key instruments we test for with on album are the piano and the snare, and we break it all down for you here
  • 4 1/2 stars: “Walter Becker and Donald Fagen were remarkable craftsmen from the start, as Steely Dan’s debut illustrates. Each song is tightly constructed, with interlocking chords and gracefully interwoven melodies, buoyed by clever, cryptic lyrics.”

“Dirty Work” sounds great here — rich and sweet mids, breathy brass, and lots of texture to the vocals. This track often sounds dull and dubby, but it’s actually just a case of the mix being smoother than most of the other songs on the album. If this track sounds smooth, and the other songs sound right, the tonality is correct for the whole side because that’s what the better copies sound like.

Flip the record over and the good times begin all over again. Elliot Randall’s guitar on “Reeling In The Years” has the meaty texture and uncanny presence to take the song to an entirely new level.

“Fire In The Hole” is dynamic with real weight to the piano, and the double-tracked vocals on “Turn That Heartbeat Over Again” sound rich and poppy the way they should.

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Listening in Depth to The Royal Scam

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Reviews and Commentaries for The Royal Scam

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.

Side One

Kid Charlemagne

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.

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 hi-hat is front and center in the mix of this song, and when that hi-hat sounds grainy or aggressive, it’s positively unlistenable. That hi-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.

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If You Can’t Make a Good Record, Why Make Any Record At All?

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Reviews and Commentaries for Can’t Buy A Thrill

This has to be one of the worst sounding versions ever pressed.

You think the average ABC or MCA pressing is opaque, flat and lifeless, not to mention compromised at both ends of the frequency spectrum?

You ain’t heard nothin’ yet!

As bad as the typical copy of this album is, the Speakers Corner Heavy Vinyl is even worse, with not a single redeeming quality to its credit.

If this is what passes for an Audiophile Record these days, and it is, it’s just one more nail in the coffin for Heavy Vinyl.

But that’s not the half of it.

Go to Acoustic Sounds’ website and read all the positive customer reviews — they love it! Is there any heavy vinyl pressing on the planet that a sizable contingent of audiophiles won’t say something nice about, no matter how bad it sounds? I can’t think of one.

To sum up, this record is nothing less than an affront to analog itself. I guarantee you the CD is better, if you get a good one. I own four or five and the best of them has far more musical energy than this thick, dull, opaque and boring piece of audiophile analog trash.

It was probably made from a digital copy of the master, or more likely a digital copy of an analog dub of the master — three generations, that’s sure what it sounds like — but that’s no excuse.

If you can’t make a good record, don’t make any record at all. Shelve the project. The audiophile vinyl world is drowning in bad sounding pressings; we don’t need any more, thank you very much.

Steely Dan / Katy Lied – Our Favorite Dan Album of Them All

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Reviews and Commentaries for Katy Lied

  • An outstanding early ABC pressing with Double Plus (A++) sound from start to finish
  • Our pick for the best Dan album of them all, a Masterpiece of Jazzy Swing Pop that is sure to reward hundreds of plays in the decades to come
  • Take it from The Dan: “The sound created by musicians and singers is reproduced as faithfully as possible, and special care is taken to preserve the band-width and transient response of each performance.”
  • Problems in the vinyl are sometimes the nature of the beast with these early pressings – there simply is no way around them if the superior sound of vintage analog is important to you, especially for this title, which is almost never quiet
  • 5 stars: “Each song is given a glossy sheen, one that accentuates not only the stronger pop hooks, but also the precise technical skill of the professional musicians drafted to play the solos.”
  • This is a Must Own Title from 1975, which turned out to be a great year for Rock and Pop music

The covers for these original Katy Lied pressings on ABC always have at least some edge, seam or ringwear. We will of course do our best to find you a cover with the fewest problems, but none of them will be perfect, or even all that close to it. It is by far the hardest Steely Dan album to find good covers for.

This copy has the all-important rock energy we look for, 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 adjectives and nouns containing the word “rock.” (more…)

Steely Dan / The Royal Scam

  • A Royal Scam like you’ve never heard, with seriously good grades from first note to last
  • This pressing of The Dan’s hard-rockin’ classic from 1976 has the right sound for this music – rich and meaty, with powerful rhythmic energy
  • 5 stars: “Drummer Bernard ‘Pretty’ Purdie lashes out the rolling grooves on most of the nine tracks, establishing the album’s anxious feel, and Larry Carlton’s jaw-dropping guitar work provides a running commentary to Fagen’s strangulated vocals… These are not the sort of Steely Dan songs favored by smooth-jazz stations.”
  • Steely Dan’s fifth release is a Must Own Album from 1976, Every one of the first 6 albums belong in any audiophile quality Rock and Pop music collection worthy of the name.

The best copies of Steely Dan’s brilliant effort from 1976 — so different from the album before, Katy Lied, as well as the album to follow, Aja — manage to combine richness and smoothness with transparency and clarity, a tough combination to find on The Royal Scam. (more…)

Steely Dan – This Is Where It All Started

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Reviews and Commentaries for the Music of Steely Dan

Countdown to Ecstasy was the first Steely Dan album I ever bought. The Rolling Stone raved about it in a review — this would have been sometime in 1973 — so I figured I had better find out what they were on about and pick up a copy. (Two years later, Rolling Stone would later rave about a new release from a band I had literally never heard of, Roxy Music. I went right down and picked up a copy of the album, Siren, and that record turned out to be a life-changing experience as well.)

I 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.

A few years later, the bulk of my listening would be made up of music by Steely Dan, Roxy Music, Supertramp, Bowie, Ambrosia and 10cc. (Yes, no Beatles yet, I hadn’t come back around to them by then. I had to wait for the MoFi Beatles Box from 1982 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. As you might imagine, it proceeded to blow my mind, as would happen with Katy Lied and The Royal Scam and Aja when they came out in each of the following years. [1]

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 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 the hard part.

Learning how to really get the LP clean and putting together the kind of stereo that can play such a complex recording are also difficult.

All three things combined require the expenditure of tens of thousands of dollars and the investment of many thousands of hours of time if the result is to be completely satisfying. Very few audiophiles will ever get there, but some will. We did, and you can too. Just follow our approach and your success is almost guaranteed.

Countdown to Ecstasy checks off a few key boxes for us:

Countdown to Ecstasy is the very definition of the kind of Big Production Rock I have been listening to since I first fell in love with it back in the Seventies. That was about fifty years ago and I still play the album regularly for enjoyment. I have never tired of the music in all that time and I doubt I ever will.

I’m sure you have plenty of records you feel the same way about in your collection. This is one of mine.

Big Rock Records with Big Rock Sound

It is the very definition of a Big Speaker album. The better pressings have the kind of ENERGY in their grooves that are sure to have most audiophile systems begging for mercy.

This is The Audio Challenge that awaits you. If you don’t have a system designed to play records with this kind of SONIC POWER, don’t expect to hear them the way the band and those involved in the production wanted you to.

This album wants to rock your world, and that’s exactly what our Hot Stamper pressings are especially good at doing.

Steely Dan is one of the most influential and important artists/bands in my growth as a music lover and audiophile, joining the ranks of Roxy Music, 10cc, Ambrosia, Yes, Bowie, Supertramp, Eno, Talking Heads, Jethro Tull, Elton John, The Beatles, Crosby, Stills and Nash, The Cars, Led Zeppelin, Cat Stevens and countless others, musicians and bands who were clearly dedicated to making higher quality recordings, the kinds of recordings that could only truly come alive in the homes of those with the most advanced audio equipment.

My system was forced to evolve in order to reproduce the scores of challenging recordings issued by these groups in the ’70s.

It’s clear that these albums informed not only my taste in music, but the actual stereo I play that music on. It’s what Progress in Audio is all about. I created the system I have in order to play demanding recordings such as these, the music I fell in love with all those years ago.

[1] We are in the process of compiling a Must Own Rock, Pop, Etc. list for every year, and you can be sure that whichever Steely Dan album came out from 1973 to 1977 will be on it. No serious audiophile quality Rock and Pop collection should be without all of them. (Can’t Buy a Thrill and Gaucho are very good albums, but I would not exactly want to call them Must Owns except for fans.)

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

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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.

Side One

Babylon Sisters

The tom intro is a great test for transparency. On most copies those opening drums are flat and lackluster. When it’s done right, you can hear the room around the drums, and that’s a mighty fine sounding room!

Also, pay attention to the bell in the left channel at the beginning of the song – if it’s sharp and doesn’t really sustain, you’re probably dealing with the typical extension-challenged copy. If it’s shimmery with a natural sounding decay you may very well be in store for some great sound.

On most copies the saxophone that intermittently pokes its head out will get smoothed over, losing its bite and getting lost in the mix. Much the same can be said for the background singers — they can easily sound veiled and get lost in the mix.

From the time they start singing “Babylon sisters” until they reach the final “shake it!”, there should be a growing crescendo of volume and intensity.

Hey Nineteen

Probably the most memorable track on the album, and consistently the best sound as well. This track is a great test for low end and bass definition. The average copy is usually punchy but more often than not lacks any real weight.

Somewhat better copies may have a full low end but fall short in terms of definition on the bass guitar.

The best copies have it all going on: a meaty bottom with all the intricacies of Walter Becker’s bassline clearly audible.

Glamour Profession

Side Two

Gaucho

Another classic Fagen/Becker track with a powerful sax intro. Not unlike the aforementioned sax in “Babylon Sisters,” the standard copy fails to convey the horn’s texture and dynamic subtleties. If such is the case, it will come back to haunt you by the time the vocals come in, as they are often compressed and spitty.

Please note the piano right before the first verse starts. Our best copies allow it to be both delicate and full-bodied, as opposed to the usual honky tonk clanker some pressings present you with.

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