Top Engineers – Roger Nichols

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

More of the Music of Steely Dan

Reviews and Commentaries for Aja

Sonic Grade: F

We recently amended this listing. Scroll down to see in what we have to say about it in 2023.

More MoFi bashing, but boy does this MoFi deserve it. In our estimation, it is tied with the Cisco 180g pressing (2007) for The Worst Version Ever.

I remember back in the ’70s when the album came out. I was a big Steely Dan fan by then, having been turned on to their albums with Countdown to Ecstasy. With each new Dan record I became more impressed with their music, from Pretzel Logic to Katy Lied to Royal Scam and finally on to this, their commercial breakthrough, Aja.

At the time I thought the 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. Wow! Listen to all that bass!

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 must be (I’m guessing) on the master tape. The song Home At Last has at least an extra three or four DBs added around 50 cycles. It’s ridiculous.

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

Side one has its top end boosted beyond all understanding. The snare drum that opens the song Black Cow sounds like a hi-hat, all top and no body, and the hi-hat sounds so bright you can barely even tell it’s a hi-hat.

Of course the vocals sharing the midrange are all ridiculously thinned out and compressed to death. Fagen’s voice sounds tonally unlike his voice on any other Steely Dan record. That should tell you something.

Fagen’s Evin Twin

Mobile Fidelity was not revealing or discovering the true nature of Donald Fagen’s voice. They were creating an entirely new version of it, one with no relation to the living Donald Fagen, the perfect example of an approach we call My-Fi, not Hi-Fi, as if the world needed such a thing.

Mobile Fidelity took this fairly artificial recording and made it even more artificial sounding than it already was.

We don’t like it when a mastering engineer creates a new sound for a well-known recording, a sound that nobody involved with the original production could have wanted, since no other version of the album ever sounded like this one.

An Amendment to the Above Remarks

From the view of 2023, I think it would be worthwhile to distinguish between creating an entirely new sound with simply boosting the hell out of a sound that was already somewhat boosted and phony to start with. It’s hard to draw that line, of course, and this is an Aja with a sound that, unquestionably, never existed before.

But since so many audiophile records, produced by so many different audiophile labels, have boosted bass or boosted highs, or both, you could make the argument that so many of them have a “new sound” that it’s not really a new sound, it’s just the sound audiophile pressings tend to have.

Back to Our Commentary

The MoFi Aja is a giant black mark against Mobile Fidelity and half-speed mastering in general. I’m astonished that anybody who calls himself an audiophile in this day and age would not be able to recognize how laughably wrong it is, but I am sure plenty of people still play the record and like it.

An audiophile record reviewer of dubious expertise was still defending one of the most ridiculously wrong Mobile Fidelity records ever made even as late as 2010, decades after he should have learned recognize the faults of this badly-mastered LP. Is he any more mistaken than the folks that collect this label’s awful records to this very day? Let’s be honest, some people never get the hang of this audio thing, and if you are a collector of this company’s records, you are almost certainly a member of that group. Consider the possibility that you are not yet where you need to be. [1]

The Boost You Need

If you have small speakers, or screens with no subs, it might actually give you some of the bass and highs your speakers have trouble reproducing. This is not a good way to pursue audio of course. We are of the opposite persuasion and have been since 1975 or thereabouts.

This is exactly what is going on with the Speakers Corner Mercury reissue series from about twenty years ago as well. They are finding a Mercury “sound” that no one ever found before. More to the point, they are finding a sound that no one with two working ears would even want.

How Can We Help?

If you can’t tell what’s wrong with the MoFi Aja –and I’m guessing that’s a sizeable contingent of self-described audiophiles — then it’s hard to know how to help you.

Like our friend with the MoFi Aqualung, we would not know where to start. Something ain’t workin’ right — room, stereo, who knows what it might be?

In order to build a record collection of high quality pressings, the first thing you need to do is get good sound.

It is the sine qua non of record collecting. Without it you are almost guaranteed to fail. Until you’ve achieved good sound, you most likely will be wasting money on one bad sounding audiophile record after another, and that would really be a shame.


[1] Pass/ Fail is now Pass/Not-Yet

Some records are so wrong, or are so lacking in qualities that are crucial to hi-fidelity sound — qualities typically found in abundance on the right vintage pressings — that the advocates for these records are failing fundamentally to correctly judge their sound.

We used to call these records Pass-Fail.

As of 2023, we prefer the term “pass/not-yet,” implying that they are not where they need to be in audio yet, but that there is still hope, and if they keep at it, they can get there they same way we did.

Tea for the Tillerman on the new 45 RPM pressing may be unacceptable in many ways, but it is not a complete failure. 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. They most likely have a system that is heavily colored and not very revealing, but it is a system that is not hopeless.

A system that can play the Mobile Fidelity pressing of Aja from 1980 without revealing how wrong it is is on another level of bad entirely, and that is what would qualify as a system that is ”not yet” where it needs to be.

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.

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Listening in Depth to Katy Lied

More of the Music of Steely Dan

Reviews and Commentaries for 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. On a highly resolving system, you shouldn’t be able to 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.

This is a very tough record to reproduce — everything has to be working at its best 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

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 similar 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 noticeable 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 noticeable 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. The three most important words in the English language when it comes to evaluating records are “compared to what?

More often than not it takes a better record to show you what’s wrong with the record you’re playing.

And Turning Up Your Volume is key to testing a song like Bad Sneakers. The louder the problem, the harder it is to ignore.

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Steely Dan – Gaucho

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Reviews and Commentaries for Gaucho

  • This copy is guaranteed to handily beat any pressing of Gaucho you have ever played, especially the awful Ron McMaster Heavy Vinyl LP
  • This superb pressing has three-dimensional ambience, tubey richness, you-are-there immediacy, tight bass, clear guitar transients, silky highs, and truckloads of analog magic on every track
  • 4 stars in the AMG, 4 1/2 in Rolling Stone, and one of this exceptionally well recorded band’s Three Best Sounding Albums – a true Must Own
  • “Despite its coolness, the music is quite beautiful. With its crystalline keyboard textures and diaphanous group vocals, ”Gaucho” contains the sweetest music Steely Dan has ever made.” New York Times
  • If you’re a Steely Dan fan, and what audiophile wouldn’t be?, this title from 1980 is surely a Must Own
  • The complete list of titles from 1980 that we’ve reviewed to date can be found here.

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More Evidence of Ron McMaster’s Flat Out Incompetence

More of the Music of Steely Dan

Reviews and Commentaries for Gaucho

Sonic Grade: D

Reasonably good bass, we’ll give it that, but no top end and no Tubey Magic.

More of Ron McMaster’s handiwork. 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 ten 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?

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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.”

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 – A Killer Can’t Buy a Thrill (and Some Lessons We Learned)

More of the Music of Steely Dan

Reviews and Commentaries for the Music of Steely Dan

During our shootouts, when we drop the needle on a copy and don’t hear that “Hot Stamper” sound, we toss that one and move on to the next. The difference between a truly Hot Stamper and most copies is so obvious that we rarely waste time on the pressings that clearly don’t have any real magic in their grooves.

Like we’ve said after some of our other Steely Dan Hot Stamper shootouts, you would never imagine how good this album can sound after playing the average copy, which is grainy, compressed and dead as the proverbial doornail. It’s positively criminal the way this well-recorded music sounds on the typical LP.

And how can you possibly be expected to appreciate the music when you can’t hear it right? 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 through bad sound. Bad sound is a barrier to understanding and enjoyment, to us audiophiles anyway.

We Was Wrong About the Sound

Years ago – starting with our first shootout in 2007 for the album as a matter of fact – we had put this warning in our listings:

One thing to note: this isn’t Aja, Pretzel Logic or Gaucho (their three best sounding recordings). We doubt you’ll be using a copy of Can’t Buy A Thrill to demo your stereo.

We happily admit now that we got Can’t Buy a Thrill wrong. It’s actually a very good sounding record – rich, smooth, natural, with an especially unprocessed quality.

In that sense it is superior to most of their catalog; better than Countdown to Ecstasy, Katy Lied, Royal Scam and maybe even Gaucho. You could easily use the album to demo your stereo. (more…)

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…)

Listening 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.

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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.

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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)

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