So Walter, about your studio in Hawaii, Hyperbolic Sound...
"Your house looks very nice!" interrupts Walter Becker, apparently looking at pictures of the author's family and residence on the Web. "But who mows the lawn?"
Eh? "Kasper, our son."
"He doesn't look old enough! There are very strict child labour laws in the UK, aren't there?"
Perhaps Donald Fagen will be more forthcoming. "We're planning to use some new techniques on our summer tour," he asserts.
"Well, the Ktistec machine, for instance."
"A what machine?"
"A Ktistec machine," confirms Becker. "Spelled k-t-i-s-t-e-c."
"A device for changing distances."
Come again? Clearly, the two musicians who make up Steely Dan are doing their best to uphold their reputation for being awkward interviewees. In preparation for this Steely Dan interview, conducted via conference call with Fagen and Becker at their respective homes in New York City and Hawaii, yours truly had noted that all published Steely Dan interviews run along similar lines. Instead of answering questions straight, Becker and Fagen prefer to go off on endless absurd tangents with their trademark sarcastic sense of humour. "Has anyone ever suggested you might be difficult to interview?" asked an exasperated Mojo interviewer in 1995, while in a recent interview feature in the Guardian the writer sighed, "each question is teased and twisted into absurdity."
Things went along comparable lines when SOS spoke to the Dan duo; but while they served up their banquet of the bizarre, Becker and Fagen did occasionally throw your reporter a few tasty bones. To put more flesh on them, additional details were sourced from two engineers who were pivotal to the latest Steely Dan album Everything Must Go: Elliot Scheiner and TJ Doherty. According to the former, the Dan guys have "mellowed" and are now "more easy-going". So would yours truly come out of this Dan interview in one piece? "We've never lost anyone yet," laughs Fagen, not entirely convincingly.
"I can do a pretty nice defibrillation with the Ktistec machine," adds Becker, helpfully...
The Ktistec machine is a recurring theme, and some of the other tangents Fagen and Becker go off on see them seemingly trying to unpromote their new album, or at least the DVD/5.1 version of it. For instance, Becker remarks: "Our interest in surround and high sample rates and DVD technologies and stuff like that represents a solemn prayer for world peace." Fagen explains: "I finally realised what these things are good for: we're going to add helicopter and gunshot sounds to our old tapes and put them in the back speakers. We figure: make war DVDs, not war."
What does emerge from the interviews and the massive amount of press Steely Dan's ninth studio album has received is that Everything Must Go is both as retro and as 21st century as they come. The former is defined by the band's return to live-in-the-studio and analogue recording, the latter by the many formats EMG is released on: vinyl, standard CD, special edition CD/DVD, and DVD-Audio. Despite being a relic from the time of analogue, the Dan fit strikingly well in the digital era. The simple reason is that since they emerged in the early 1970s, Steely Dan have been famous/notorious as visionary/rabid (depending on your point of view) musical perfectionists and sonic pioneers.
Elliot Scheiner has worked with Steely Dan since their fifth album, 1976's The Royal Scam, and is arguably the most highly regarded engineer in the US, with credits ranging from Van Morrison and Toto to Fleetwood Mac and Barbra Streisand. As five-time Grammy winner, and a man renowned for sonic excellence, even Scheiner marvels at the extent to which the Dan duo have an "obsession with sonic detail".
The stories of Fagen and Becker's "obsession" are legion. For instance, when working on their second album, Countdown To Ecstasy (1973), they ran an eight-bar loop of two-inch tape to an idler wheel outside the control room in an attempt to achieve drum machine-like precision in the rhythm section. Steely's web site, www.steelydan.com, proclaims with some pride that because of a faulty tape machine used on the recording of Katy Lied (1975), the band refused to listen to the final album. When working on Gaucho (1980), they pioneered the use of engineer Roger Nichols' freshly developed Wendel sampling drum machine and audio sampler (12.5kHz/12-bit) for drums and percussion. An indication of the amount of overdubbing, splicing, and re-recording that went into their quest for perfection was that Nichols and Scheiner used up 360 rolls of tape recording Gaucho.
For Fagen and Becker only the very best session musicians (meaning, in the '70s, the likes of Jeff Porcaro, David Sanborn, Randy Becker, Larry Carlton and Joe Sample) and engineers (Scheiner, Nichols, Bill Schnee) would do, and even these top guys were pressed hard to perform beyond their best. At every stage the Dan duo were among the first to embrace the latest studio technology, and the musicianship and sonic quality of their albums has always been at the very limit of what is possible.
So what drives Steely Dan in their attention to sonic excellence?
"Either a cab or a hired sedan," replies Donald Fagen.
"Donald and I are great sensualists," agrees Becker. "We love beautiful women, fine wine, suede moccasins. I have a fleece-lined jacked and sometimes I wake up in the middle of the night and put it on just..."
"...we love exotic and rare incense..."
"...beautiful smells...we like..."
"...all our senses constantly stimulated..."
"...good food, delicious... What nationality are you?"
Oh dear. There were a few signs things would turn out like this when two spotty youngsters with a zany sense of humour walked into the famous Brill Building in Manhattan in 1969, trying to sell their songs and get jobs as resident songwriters for a publisher. Fagen (born 1948) and Becker (born 1950) had met in 1967, and started writing songs together based on their mutual liking of jazz and acerbic wit, two things that shaped their aesthetic outlook and set them apart from the hippy generation of the day. Their music and attitude were in many ways ahead of their time and now form the essence of their modernity. Put differently, they were cool then, and are still cool today (just forget about the incense and fleece-lined jacket).
To be able to influence those who came after them, Fagen and Becker first had to influence those around them. A chance meeting with ABC Records producer Gary Katz provided their springboard. Katz hired Fagen and Becker as ABC staff songwriters and the duo moved from NY to LA in 1971, only to find that their songs were unsuitable for ABC's artists. So they set up a band, called it Steely Dan (after a dildo in William Burrough's novel Naked Lunch) and with Katz as producer, recorded Can't Buy A Thrill. Released in 1972, the album was well received and spawned two hit singles, 'Do It Again' and 'Reelin' In The Years'. Countdown To Ecstasy and Pretzel Logic (1974) followed, after which Fagen and Becker stopped touring and dissolved their group. Their plan was to continue as a studio-based duo, hiring top musicians on an ad hoc basis to realise their musical vision. Katy Lied, The Royal Scam, Aja and Gaucho were the commercially and artistically successful results.
Despite their achievements, by the time of Gaucho the Dan duo were at a low ebb, struggling with artistic burn-out, drug problems, and contractual conflicts. Bad luck also seemed to attach itself to them: the first completed track for Gaucho ('The Second Arrangement') was accidentally wiped, Becker's girlfriend overdosed in his New York flat, and he was hit by a taxi a few months later, breaking his leg in several places. Tired, hurt, and disillusioned, Becker and Fagen decided to pack Dan in. While Becker retreated to Hawaii to lick his wounds, Fagen had one more stab at commercial and artistic greatness with his solo album The Nightfly (1982), but soon afterwards he also was forced into a period of introspection, rest and healing. For several years nothing more was heard from either of them.
As Steely Dan's absence from the music business drew on, an aura of mystery began to form around them, and by the mid-1980s they had achieved an almost mythological status. Some folk began to deify them to the degree that they probably thought that a reunion would be nothing short of the Second Coming.
For those folk, Becker's low-key comeback in the mid-1980s as producer of China Crisis and Rickie Lee Jones was probably rather disappointing. Similarly frustrating must have been the news that by the late 1980s Fagen had developed an interest in soul music and had founded the New York Rock & Soul Review, an outfit with which he performed soul classics and the odd Steely Dan song. Much more enticing was the news in the early '90s that he had begun work on his second solo album, which was to become Kamakiriad (1993), and had invited Becker to produce it. Within the same time period Fagen returned the favour by co-producing Becker's first solo disc, 11 Tracks Of Whack (1994). These events considerably shortened the odds on a Steely Dan comeback.
Apparently the Dan fire was relit at a low-key and impromptu joint live performance at the end of 1991, and was further tended by Becker's participation in a tour of the New York Rock & Soul Review. Given Fagen and Becker's declared hatred of touring there was widespread surprise in 1993 when, with their two solo albums about to be released, the duo went on tour with the All New Steely Dan Orchestra, playing many old Dan favourites never before performed live.
"No-one would have predicted that," Becker admits. "We wanted to promote Donald's record, and we'd seen the enthusiasm that was out there for Steely Dan songs. So we put two and two together. Plus our manager convinced us that touring was not going to be the incredible series of screw-ups it had been in the '70s. He was right and out we went."
In 1994 Fagen and Becker went out again, this time with The Citizen Steely Dan Orchestra, and in 1995 some of the best performances from these tours were documented on Alive In America, which was released under the Steely Dan moniker. Another tour followed in 1996, and during much of 1997-1999 Fagen and Becker went back to their perfectionist ways with elaborate work on what was to become Steely Dan's first studio album in 20 years, Two Against Nature (2000). The comeback was complete, and the album's four Grammys (including Album of the Year) put paid to any credibility problems and nagging doubts that this was just an exercise in nostalgia. Clearly, these middle-aged guys were still up to it.
Indeed, on the CD liner notes of Alive In America, Steely Dan claimed that their prime motivation for rekindling Steely Dan and touring was to "forestall middle-aged decrepitude". When asked whether this has proved an effective strategy they laugh, and Fagen comments "It didn't work, but we'll try again this year with a new tour." Even so, Fagen and Becker appear to be riding a new wave of creative energy, having written a new set of songs so soon after Two Against Nature, and having recorded their new album Everything Must Go in a little over a year. Perhaps they finally grew tired of endlessly mulling over every single detail: the new album saw a different and much quicker approach to creation than Two Against Nature. The latter was recorded over several years, on digital, and entirely through overdubs, starting with drums and bass and then moving upwards to the chord and melody instruments. With Fagen and Becker's penchant for perfectionism given endless scope for tinkering by turn-of-the-century digital technology, the results, both sonically and in terms of playing, were slightly on the stilted and sterile side.
By contrast, the analogue recording and live-in-the-studio playing at the heart of Everything Must Go has resulted in a much more vibrant and alive feel to the playing, while the sonic quality is lush, sumptuous, and spacious, without ever being smooth or glossy. It makes EMG one of the best-sounding albums that has ever seen the light of day. The often very bluesy songs are of respectable quality too, despite the fact that knock-out melodic hooks are far and few between. Overall, the second album of Steely Dan's comeback sees them greatly reinvigorated.
According to Scheiner, the first seeds were sown in a recording session in early 2001, aimed at fairly quickly recording a Joni Mitchell song for a Joni Mitchell tribute album. Becker and Fagen had by now assembled the core of musicians that would also appear on EMG, and wanted to see what would happen if they cut the track live in the studio. They hadn't reckoned with Scheiner's next suggestion.
"When we got to the studio," Scheiner remembers, "I said to them 'Look, this is not for your record, let's do it on analogue. Let me give you a taste of that again.' They said, 'fine', not expecting much. But when they heard the first playback, they went wild. They had completely forgotten how good analogue sounded. The whole Joni Mitchell track was recorded and mixed [though it was never released], and they were so impressed by the sound. It did sound amazing. When they realised that it was great to work with live playing and analogue again they decided to record the whole of Everything Must Go this way."
Eyeball To Eyeball
Given that Fagen and Becker live in New York and Hawaii respectively, one might expect them to have taken advantage of digital and Web-based technologies in their songwriting collaboration. Have they? If so, they don't seem keen to talk about it...
"We don't usually write music over the phone, like sending files and stuff," says Becker. "When we work over the phone we do it to write lyrics, and that works very well. Writing on the phone is a little like being in analysis, because you're not reacting to the facial expressions of the other person."
"But we can surmount that with the Ktistec machine," insists Fagen.
"We choose not to use the Ktistec machine sometimes. Having a great piece of technology doesn't necessarily mean you use it all the time. Some things are better done..."
So how, then, do Steely Dan write music?
Fagen: "Most of the stuff was written in the room I'm in now in Manhattan, where I have an upright piano and an old Mac with a very old version of Vision software."
"We're still using the computers we bought after the 1993 tour," adds Becker. "The computer is AD820."
"Actually, a Quadra with the last version of the Vision program that came out. But it's pretty burned up now. It won't actually boot up anymore. It died when we were writing the last track for the album."
"Sometimes we have a second guitarist or keyboardist in the room, but most of the time it's just Donald at the piano and I'm at the computer. We use the computer as a sketchpad and a sequencer. I can easily alter things in Vision or edit them or establish new key relationships, arrange stuff, test out a melody or invent a melody on a keyboard, whatever."
"When I play piano, Walter makes comments. And then we get something that sounds like a song. Walter programs it into the Vision program, just so that we can see what it sounds like, and arrange it."
"We like to write music in the same room. It's hard enough to get anything done when you're eyeball to eyeball, let alone when you're at a distance. But that may change now that we have the Ktistec machine. Make sure you get the spelling correctly."
Donald Fagen's explanation for Steely Dan's return to analogue recording was, typically, more surreal: "Digital sound loosens the fillings in your teeth. I had a lot of work done on my teeth since I started working with digital."
As a result digital sound can, apparently, indirectly lead to mercury poisoning. It's an option which, says Becker, was "considered by us 20 years ago, but dismissed". After some further prompting, he produces a more to-the-point response: "We were working in a studio other than our usual studio [Fagen's now defunct River Sound]. It was a small place called Sear Sound in New York, which we discovered had once been the Hit Factory, where Donald and I had worked on some album tracks in 1969 or 1970. It's an old-style studio with small control room and lots of vintage microphones and equipment. We loved the way it sounded."
Yet Becker is at pains to point out that the medium alone can't deliver great sound. "It was not necessarily a question of how good analogue sounded. It's a question of how good analogue sounds if you happen to have Elliot Scheiner and a great bunch of musicians in the room. Analogue has all sorts of problems associated with it, along with the potential to sound very good. And not only is Elliot a real pro in dealing with these problems, he also gets the most out of the creative possibilities that analogue offers. Just walking into a studio with analogue tape machines isn't going to buy you anything."
Still, given the recent improvements in digital sound, and the scores of people claiming that digital has finally come of age with high sampling rates and 24-bit resolution, it's surprising the hear the praises of analogue sung like this. In Scheiner's judgement even vastly improved digital is still no match for analogue, which, notes Fagen, has itself been improved. "Elliot told me that there had been a lot of improvement in analogue tape since the digital age began. He was right."
"The quality of analogue tape has become better, but I don't think it makes that much of a difference," the engineer retorts. "We had quality tape back then as well. In the early days I used Scotch 3M 250, switched to 3M 26 at some point, and on the last record we used BASF 900. I grew up and learned analogue and I'm an analogue geek. It's not that I'm kicking digital, but analogue has a much better sound. When you are able to A/B analogue and digital, which we could do in this case, there's simply no comparison. The top end is so sweet and beautiful. I've never heard anyone say about digital, even at 24-bit/96kHz or 192kHz: 'Isn't the top end as sweet and beautiful as you've ever heard?' You don't because digital just doesn't sound that way."
Scheiner stresses that he isn't claiming that analogue gives a more truthful representation of reality. "Analogue changes something in the sound," he elaborates, "but I think it does something good. By contrast, digital is pristine and sterile. On the other hand, it has great things about it. There's nothing better than be able to fly stuff around or tune it in a digital workstation. That's really outstanding. And I don't think every project should be recorded on analogue. You have to look at it on a case-by-case basis. When you consider that the majority of today's music is rather lo-fi, then it's really not that important what you record it on. But there are some projects that command that importance."
Surround Sound: Exploitation Or Art?
The DVD-A version of Everything Must Go contains a plethora of data formats: 'advanced resolution' multi-channel surround sound (96kHz/24-bit), advanced resolution stereo (192kHz/24-bit), Dolby Digital 5.1 and DTS 5.1 surround sound, and Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo. There is also a 13-minute short movie called Steely Dan Confessions, plus song lyrics, a photo gallery, song credits and production credits. Some of this stuff plays back on DVD-A players, some only on DVD-V players. It appears that 21st century music consumers will need a doctorate's degree in electronics to be able to work out what they can play back on what. They are also going to need very deep pockets.
"We're aware of two kinds of technical innovations," says Walter Becker. "Category number one are things that help us do something sonically or musically that we couldn't do before, but probably already wanted to do for 20 years. Category number two are things that can increase our income. So every time somebody comes up with a new format in which our material can be repackaged, we put aside whatever forebodings we may have about the durability or advisability of the new format. Instead we throw our weight 110 percent behind it to get the product our there on the shelves and see if anyone will buy it.
"People are now downloading music for free from the Internet, so what this is about is creating a new set of technologies that the record companies are better able to defend from public dissemination and duplication via the Internet. And they're going to sweep up all these new bucks and get people in Third World countries to go out and buy DVD players and discs with 5.1 and God knows what other formats, and then the Americans won't have to send in their armies. You see?"
One suspects that there's more than a hint of irony in these statements, and it seems that Becker and Fagen do have a more positive motivation to be at the forefront: "On a more serious note, the actual appeal when we listen to surround sound is that it has a tremendous potential as a hi-fi medium in terms of separation and clarity and so on. It's great for people who want to hear into tracks and hear all the individual elements stand out more clearly."
Everything Must Go was, naturally, a project of such importance, and Becker enthuses about how having "a great bunch of musicians in a room" supports analogue recording and their decision to play live. "One of the things that people discovered is that when you're mixing, you're not necessarily trying to make things distinct, you're trying to blend them together. With digital recording this can be difficult. But analogue, because it changes the sound a little bit more than digital does, tends to blend and process things so that it sounds more coherent and unified. You want to make the guys in the band sound like they're playing together.
"It's actually always been our first plan on any project to get a live band together. It's true that we've often worked with various sorts of track manipulations, but always as a last resort."
"Most of the time we've used technology at the tracking stage because we were unable to the track with a live band," adds Fagen. "It was a desperation tool."
"This time we had better luck," Becker continues, "because of the musicians that we found in the last two years, particularly drummer Keith Carlock. He also played on one track on Two Against Nature and is able to play in any number of styles and still remain himself. He's a great groove drummer and a good jazz drummer as well. So he has the technique and the happening backbeat. He just nailed every song that we gave to him and by the end of the day, or sooner, we'd have a track down on tape. We had a six-guy band with two guitar players [Jon Herington and Hugh McCracken], two keyboard players [Fagen and Ted Baker], and bass and drums. Everybody felt the same way and was able to get on the same wavelength and really define the rhythm and come up with cool parts."
Photo: Mr. Bonzai
A lot of the feel for Everything Must Go comes from the seamless interplay between Becker on bass and Carlock on drums, surely the reason why Becker preferred to play bass and not guitar in the six-piece. According to Scheiner, Fagen and Becker's working method was to rehearse one or two tracks in a rehearsal studio, record these tracks live with the band in Sear Sound Studio A, and overdub and mix soon after, mostly in Skyline Studios (NYC) and Presence Studios (Connecticut) respectively. A few weeks later the process would be repeated for the next batch of songs.
The first recordings and overdubs took place in August 2001, with 'Things I Miss The Most' and 'Lunch With Gina', and the final mix for the album was completed in November 2002. Elliot Scheiner explains some of the technical details of the tracking sessions at Sear. "The desk was an old 36-input Neve 8036, and we used Studer A827 24-tracks with Dolby SR. We used two, so I could do edits, for instance replacing a bad chorus with a better chorus from somewhere else. Any fixes that needed to be made were done right there on analogue. To have six musicians play live in one room at the same time is amazing today. We were able to put all of them in the small room at Sear, and keep the leakage situation fairly contained. The smallness of the room actually added a nice liveness to the drums. You won't believe this, but I used [Electrovoice] RE20s as room mics, and I put them in the surround speakers in the 5.1 mix.
"One of the great advantages of Sear Sound is that they have one of the most unbelievable microphone collections, with lots of vintage mics. On acoustic piano I'd use a [AKG] C12A, which was amazing-sounding and made a huge difference. On electric guitar cabinets I used nothing special, Shure SM56s, but run via Universal mic pres, while a Neumann U47 was great-sounding on acoustic guitar. For drums Neumann U67 microphones were great for overheads, there was a [AKG] D112 on the kick drum, Audio-Technica ATM25 on toms, and SM57 on snare. Oh, and Walter's bass went via an Avalon DI box straight into the desk. I always record as much as possible without effects. The only effects I used were Fairchilds for Walter's bass and the electric guitars. There were no other effects printed on tape."
Mixing Everything Must Go In 5.1
Elliot Scheiner is one of the world's most prominent proponents of surround sound, and has set benchmark standards for 5.1 with his surround mixes of the Eagles, Queen, Van Morrison, REM, Allman Brothers, Derek & The Dominos, and many others, including, of course, Steely Dan. He mixed Two Against Nature in 5.1, and his 1997, 16-bit 5.1 DTS mix of Gaucho became a classic in the field. For this reason some were surprised when he recently did it again in 24-bit/96kHz. Scheiner thought the Gaucho remix was entirely justified, because "the difference between the original and new surround mix was absolutely staggering. I'd transferred the analogue tapes to Steinberg's Nuendo and mixed from that. It was like a veil had lifted off the original mix."
Given that he's one of the world's prime experts, it's interesting to find out more about how exactly Scheiner approaches a surround mix, and how he mixed Everything Must Go. "I try hard to not come in with preconceived notions of how I'm going to approach a surround mix, but inevitably I almost always have the bass and drums in the front stage. I've only strayed from this once, when I mixed Van Morrison's Moondance, which I had recorded and originally mixed in stereo. On one song, 'Crazy Love', I put the drums in the rear speakers, because when I listened to the multitrack it conjured up a memory of me standing in the recording area talking with Van, while the band were still rehearsing around us. I wanted to convey this memory in the mix, with the drums behind me, bass left, centre and right, vibes on one front side, Van's guitar on the other front side, the girl singers in the rear, and Van's voice everywhere. It was an eight-track tape with six tracks of material. With eight tracks you can come up with interesting stuff, but I think doing four tracks in surround would be very difficult.
"When I mix in 5.1 I always like to have mono information. I like to have each instrument and effect coming from one spot, and I like to place the instruments around me. As I said, generally I put the bass and drums up front, and I'll have certain elements of the drums, for instance the overheads, splashing from the rear. If there have been reverbs used on the drums I'll put them in the rear as well. Guitars and keyboards and percussion are mono, and the reverb returns go to the same spot. If a conga comes from the right rear, the conga reverb will most likely also come from there. But if the vocal is a featured instrument, I tend to put it pretty much everywhere, though not as much in the surround speakers as the front.
"I can't imagine having lots of effects on everything in 5.1. For me that would make everything ill-defined. Part of the greatness of 5.1 is all these little things coming from different places. They are what test your ear. I call them 'air candy'. That's what makes 5.1 for me, many details coming from different but well-defined spots. Many people prefer to put the instruments in the front and have reverbs splashing from the back. I won't do that, I find it boring. I want to be treated to something different. I want a new experience. I think when we're creating a new listening arena and a new format, if we want people to accept it, we have to make things a lot more interesting for them than just giving them stereo with rear reverb. Anybody I've played surround music for has been completely knocked out by hearing things coming from around them. That's probably the most important element, to create a fantasy situation, to really put the listener in the centre of the band."
Asked whether he thinks 5.1 is a new artistic medium, Scheiner replies "Oh, absolutely. No question. It requires a whole new way of thinking." He agreed that the introduction of such a new medium raised issues of artistic responsibility and integrity. "You have to stay faithful to the original material. You can't just stick a delay on a guitar and pan that over to the other side. That changes the music. You have to match what was on the record and what the original mix was about. You can't add effects that weren't on the original tape. I think the original artist would say no to that. And all the surround mixes I've done have been approved by the artist. The older acts I've worked with specifically asked me to do the surround mix or were involved. When I surround mixed Queen's A Night At The Opera both Brian May and Roy Thomas Baker were heavily involved."
So what about Everything Must Go? "It was fairly conservative, I guess," reckons Scheiner. "Once again, the drums were basically up front, while I fed the toms and kick also to the sub, and I had the room mics and a little bit of the overheads in the rear. On some occasions I put the two guitars in front left and front right, and the two keyboards in rear left and rear right, and sometimes I reversed this and put the keyboards in the front and the guitars in the back. Horns are for 90 percent of the time coming from the rear, while the backing singers are 50 percent coming from the rear, and 50 percent from the front, depending on whether the parts they sing are integral to the lead vocal or not. I use the centre front speaker for focus. If I need a little accent on the lead vocal or snare or bass, that's what I use that speaker for. Percussion will usually come from the rear. I had four 140 plate reverbs from the Yamaha SREV1 in the mix, one for each of the corner channels, and nothing for the centre speaker or the sub."
Once Scheiner had recorded the band at Sear, the project continued with overdub recording, which was, perhaps surprisingly, done on digital multitrack. "One of the problems with analogue tape," explains Becker, "is that as you continue to work on a piece of tape the sound deteriorates. So after recording the basic tracks on analogue we transferred them to a 16-bit Sony 3348, used this for overdubs, and when it was time to mix we used the original analogue 24-track and locked it up with the overdubs on 3348. While we did overdubs we also did some editing on computer. There are a few manipulations that are much easier to do on a workstation."
"Walter and Donald had some trying experiences in the 1970s with analogue," Scheiner points out. "One of the most annoying things was the shedding of tape. After a while you found most of the oxide lying in front of the headstack. Nobody wanted to deal with that, so once we finished with analogue we put the analogue tapes away until the mix. For me the sound of the basic tracks after they had been dumped into digital was no comparison to how they had sounded in analogue. But overdubbing is a lot easier in digital."
Scheiner took no part in the overdubbing stage. Instead engineer Roger Nichols, who has been involved with Steely Dan as an engineer right from their first album in 1972, engineered the overdubs for the first couple of tracks that were recorded, 'Things I Miss The Most' and 'Lunch With Gina'. These were done at Skyline Studios, where a young engineer called TJ Doherty assisted Nichols. Fagen and Becker liked Doherty so much that they hired him as main overdub engineer for the remainder of the tracks. (He must have made a seriously good impression, because in November 2002 Walter Sear hired him as engineer at Sear Sound.)
Becker and Fagen were in Hawaii in January and February of 2002, having a holiday and overdubbing guitar and keyboard at Hyperbolic Sound to the songs 'Green Book' and 'The Last Mall', aided by Hyperbolic engineer Dave Russell. They continued work in New York in March. "I have a Soundtracs IL48 desk, two Sony 3324 digital machines and a Pro Tools rig for the occasional edit at Hyperbolic," Becker divulges after repeated invitations to talk a bit about his studio. "Is that enough for you to know?"
Fagen is marginally more forthcoming about the tools of his trade. "During tracking I usually played acoustic piano or electric piano," he explains. "I don't use synthesizers very much, and if I do it's only during the overdubbing stage. For one thing they're so out of tune that you have to adjust them carefully. I find that it's a problem with all synthesizers. They have very unnatural harmonics and they're not stretch-tuned properly and so the upper notes are a little flat and the lower notes a little sharp. The only ones I own and used are a Korg Triton and Kurzweil K2500, and occasionally I rented some stuff in like a vintage keyboard machine." Some of the vintage keyboards Fagen used are mentioned on the liner notes to Everything Must Go, and include Fender Rhodes, Wurlitzer and Clavinet. According to Doherty, Fagen also played a Hammond B3 organ during final overdubs at Sear Sound.
Doherty's first job as main engineer on Everything Must Go was recording vocals with Fagen, which took place in Bearsville Studios in New York. After a few days in Bearsville the company relocated again to Skyline, where Fagen overdubbed more of his vocals and keyboards, Becker his guitar solos, and horns and backing vocals were also added. The last few songs were recorded and overdubbed at Sear Sound.
"We'd usually start with a keyboard or vocal overdub," explains Doherty," and then there would be a guitar solo overdub, and finally the horns and backing vocals. I recorded Donald's voice with a Sony C800 with an LA2A or 1176 compressor at Skyline, and with an M49 microphone at Sear. On Walter's guitar cabinets I used an SM57, because I know what that mic does. I'll always spend time in the recording area listening to where things sound best, and then place the mic there and angle it slightly, and so on. Walter also had a really nice Groove Tubes mic, I forget which one, and liked to use the Avalon 737 compressor. I used the Groove Tubes for his cabinets a few times and also on the trombones. I used a 67 and a 47 on the B3. All overdubs were pretty close-miked. I only put up room mics when recording the horns.
"Overdubbing was really easy, because the musicians were so damn good. For me this was the biggest thing about this album, the amazing playing by the musicians. They would come in and usually nail everything on the first or second take. We would do a few takes, and then we'd comp the best bits. It was a very straightforward procedure. Still, the 3348 came in very handy. I don't know why anyone would do overdubs on a machine other than the 3348. It's such an easy machine to work with because it has this rehearse function for punching in and comping. I've also used the Studer digital multitrack and Pro Tools, but the 3348 is really easy. It also has pretty good converters."
Nevertheless, Doherty did occasionally hire in some help in his work with the 3348. "Larry Alexander came in to move some stuff about in Pro Tools," explained Doherty. "It can be a pain in the ass to shift things around in the 3348, and with Pro Tools you have one look and you know exactly where it belongs. When I worked with Roger Nichols, he had a Pro Tools system with him, as well as a 24-bit ADAT Bridge rig, which has UFC. That enabled him to go back and forth between Pro Tools and the 3348 really easily. A company called the Toy Specialists came in purely because of my paranoia about losing material. A few years ago when working on a digital Studer I had a track that went dead in one spot, I think because the tape got worn. Now whenever the interpolate/hold/mute lights start to come up on the 3348 I get a little nervous. So I had the Toy Specialists make backups for me to another 3348, just in case."
The Future Of Surround Sound
Elliot Scheiner's enthusiasm for surround sound is infectious, and even got this skeptical writer curious. But still, isn't 5.1 destined to go the same way as the ill-fated quadraphonic sound, and aren't all these new formats way too confusing for the average consumer, and what about 6.1 and 7.1 formats, and won't surround contribute to killing off new music, because record companies will focus on reselling their back catalogue instead of developing new artists? Scheiner does his best to address this avalanche of questions.
"Quadraphonic sound came too soon. The car dictated eight-track and compact cassette and CD, and I believe that cars will also drive surround. The first 5.1 system in an automobile will be installed this fall, made by Panasonic for a Honda Accura. Most people spend a lot of time in their cars, and it's a great environment for surround sound. With regards to different formats, I think there's more future in DVD-A than SACD, because you can put a DVD-A in your DVD video player. It's backwards compatible, and millions of people already have DVD players, whereas with SACD you need to buy new hardware.
"Six point one and 7.1 are not going to happen. When you have more than three front speakers everything gets just too close together and there's enormous phase shift. You can't determine or pinpoint where the information is coming from. Moreover, we've been making 5.1 records, and we can't ask the consumer to go out and change their amplifier and buy new speakers again. There's the argument between film people and music mixers, where the film people have the speakers to the side, and we mix with speakers behind us. The reasoning is that many people won't have space for speakers behind them. If true, with 5.1 people can simply put the rear speakers to the side. But they physically won't be able to accommodate a sixth or seventh surround speaker. It's doesn't make sense. Will people accept the new format, or feel they've been resold the same thing again? I think the key is that when people buy surround, they are buying something completely new. A piece of music that they may have been familiar with for 30 years, all of a sudden they'll be hearing it differently, and hopefully they'll be enjoying it even more."
And so, as Fagen and Becker put it in 'The Last Mall', "Roll your cart back up the aisle..."
With backups stored elsewhere, Doherty was happy to hand Scheiner the multitrack tape for the mix with only the final, comped parts on it. Scheiner mixed everything in Presence Studios on a Neve VR60, plus the original 24-track analogue and 48-track digital tapes. "I did all the stereo mixes first," states Scheiner. "Until the stereo mixes are finished, I only focus on stereo, also during recording. I simply don't think of 5.1 and don't record things with 5.1 in the back of my mind. The stereo mix was fairly straightforward, mostly a matter of EQ'ing and balancing. Walter and Donald would let me work for six to eight hours on a track, and then they'd come in and we'd finish it off together."
It was entirely in keeping with the spirit of Everything Must Go that the main effect Scheiner used during mixing was once again a combination of retro and 21st-century technology. "Walter [Becker] brought a couple of Roland delay boxes," recalled Scheiner, "and I may have used the odd compressor. But the only reverb used on the entire record was the 140 EMT plate sample from the Yamaha SREV1. It sounds exactly like the real thing. I've always felt that part of the charm of old records is that you could hear the reverbs return to the same place as the instrument. Like if I have an electric guitar on the left, the reverb returns to the left as well, so all the sound comes from one place. When I mixed records in the '70s, mostly at A&R Studios in NY and the Village Recorder in LA, I would use three 140 plates: one I'd dedicate to the left, one to the right, and one to the centre. That's pretty much what was in those mixes, apart from the occasional tape slap. We decided to go for a 140 plate sound on Everything Must Go, and I did pretty much the same thing."
Horn overdubs to 'Things I Miss The Most' were added towards the end of the project, prompting Scheiner to remix the track. In fact, he says, he "ended up recalling and remixing all tracks, except for maybe one song. Basically the mixes had been done, but we just wanted to make a couple of changes." After completing the stereo mixes Scheiner went on to mix all tracks in 5.1, details of which can be found in the surround sound box.
The story of Everything Must Go leaves us with one loose end: the Ktistec machine. Is it retro or the future? Not surprisingly, a bit of both. It turns out to come from a book by American science fiction writer RA Lafferty (1914-2002), where it is featured as the world's first transcendental (and pipe-smoking) computer, which can change the past retrospectively ’Äî and guess what: one of its characteristics is a dislike of answering questions straight. Sounds familiar. But what Kasper wants to know is this: does the Ktistec machine also mow the lawn? A straight answer please...
Audio files to accompany the article.
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