Top Producers – Gary Katz

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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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 – 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 – 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…)

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…)

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

 

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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…)

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

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From the moment the needle hit the groove on side one, we were treated to some of the best sound we’ve ever heard for this album.

Both sides have an incredibly tight and punchy bottom end, with the kind of energy and WHOMP that brings this music to life! The soundfield is BIG, WIDE, and OPEN, with a three-dimensional quality that we didn’t hear on other copies. The top end is silky sweet — just listen to the cymbals on Do It Again.

Dirty Work sounds superb here — rich and sweet mids, breathy brass, and lots of texture to the vocals. Often this track 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 best 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 exceptionally 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.

Combine two sides this good and press them on fairly quiet vinyl and you have yourself an LP that’s practically a FLUKE. (more…)