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Donald Fagen

Recording Morph The Cat
Published August 2006
By Paul Tingen

Morph The Cat, Donald Fagen's third solo album in 24 years, sees Fagen and engineer Elliott Scheiner continue their quest for the best possible sound quality — which, it seems, comes only from analogue recording.

Having wowed the music world during the 1970s with seven studio albums full of their signature hyper-intelligent mixture of rock, soul, jazz, R&B, blues and whatever else took their fancy, Steely Dan went AWOL for more than a decade in 1980. Their silence was only punctuated by Donald Fagen's best-selling 1982 album The Nightfly, his rather less successful Kamakiriad (1993), and Walter Becker's 11 Tracks Of Whack (1994). However, the Dan duo returned to the live stage in 1993, and eventually recorded the Grammy-winning Two Against Nature (2000), their first studio album in two decades, followed by a second, Everything Must Go — the recording of which was the subject of an SOS article in May 2003.

Donald Fagen

And now Fagen is back on the solo path again with a new album, Morph The Cat. When queried about the reason for releasing a solo album at a time when Steely Dan are still standing, Fagen simply offers that he's not as good at taking holidays as Becker is. Given that Fagen lives in New York City and Becker on Kauai, Hawaii, this is, perhaps, not surprising. Fagen has also gone on record stating that his three solo albums form a trilogy, with The Nightfly charting the outlook of a young man, Kamakiriad a portrait of the artist as a middle-aged man, and Morph The Cat an expression of a man in the last stage of his life. (Fagen is only 58, but describes the album as an attempt to "forestall whatever there is to forestall".)

Imaginary Friends

Walter Becker was not in any way involved in the making of Morph The Cat, making this Fagen's first-ever DIY production, and allowing him to follow his own instincts. "I did miss Walter at times," comments Fagen, "but when I had a question I just imagined that he was there, and that worked pretty well." He was, however, aided by the familiar presence of Elliott Scheiner, a five-time Grammy-winning living legend of the American recording industry, who has worked with virtually everybody, and with Fagen since Steely Dan's fifth album, The Royal Scam (1976).

Donald Fagen

"Elliott is usually there for the beginning and the end," says Fagen. "He recorded the basic tracks and I used other engineers for overdubbing — which is the part of the recording that takes the longest — and he later comes in to mix the album. Elliott doesn't like to do overdubbing, because he's too impatient. He prefers to do the easy stuff! But he did a great job recording all the instruments as full as possible, which is strictly due to his expertise. I'll come into the control room during tracking and will give some comments, like 'It sounds good,' or 'The snare could be better,' or 'Perhaps the bass needs a dB extra at 250Hz or something.' But basically Elliott knows what I like, and we have very similar taste."

Although Steely Dan wore their love of studio technology on their sleeves, it seems that this was driven more by Walter Becker and engineer Roger Nichols than by Fagen. "Roger and Walter were always more interested in technology and in what the latest thing was," explains Fagen. "Walter's father was a hi-fi nut in the late '50s and '60s, and Walter is a science prodigy who went to Stuyvesant High School in New York, a specialist school for kids who are really good at science. I also got into high fidelity and I like good sounds, but I was never as much into the technical side of things."

Elliott Scheiner, who also worked on The Nightfly but not on Kamakiriad, agrees, but finds that things have changed. "Donald has become much more savvy as far as what takes place in the studio is concerned," he says. "He now knows what the technical issues are and what can and can't be done, whereas a dozen years ago Donald didn't know or didn't care, he just wanted to get things done. For this new album it was a great process to be working just with him, and he definitely made a lot of comments, but he is not specific about certain things. As far as EQ is concerned, he'll say 'I want a bit more top end there, or low end on the voice,' general comments like that."

The Decline Of Keyboards

Donald Fagen's interest in the ins and outs of recording technology might have grown in recent years, but when it comes to the tools of his trade — keyboards — the opposite is true. "From an instrument point of view, I find that the technical developments in keyboards since the '70s are not worth talking about. I experimented with all sorts of synthesizers at the time. I recall that my first synthesizer was an ARP Odyssey, which I used on the early Steely Dan records. Somebody gave me a Synergy and that had some interesting sounds that I used on The Nightfly.

"I don't use many synthesizers any more. Basically I'm too impatient to be using computers and synthesizers, and end up with something that's not as good as what live players do. I find that the sounds you get out of most synthesizers are basically degraded. Especially if you're playing a full-sized keyboard, there are a lot of tuning problems, with wrong harmonics that annoy me. They're also not stretch-tuned properly so that the upper notes are a little flat and the lower notes are a little sharp, so for the most part I play only tuneable instruments, like acoustic piano, Fender Rhodes, Wurlitzer and so on. I do have a Triton and a Kurzweil K2500, and use them for special effects and when I can get away with only using part of the keyboard, like if I want to mimic a flute or a mallet instrument or an organ. Organs aren't tuneable, and are flat, weird-sounding anyway."

On both Fagen's first two solo albums, The Nightfly and Kamakiriad, mention is made of the use of sampling technology, while Morph The Cat has none of it. What has changed? "We started using sequencing and stuff on [Steely Dan's] Gaucho," replies Fagen, "out of desperation really. We were having trouble laying down 'Hey Nineteen'. We tried it with two different bands and it still didn't work, so one of us said something like 'It's too bad that we can't get a machine to play the beat we want, with full-frequency drum sounds, and to be able to move the snare drum and kick drum around independently.' Roger [Nichols] replied 'I can do that.' This was back in 1978 or something, so we said 'You can do that???' To which he said 'Yes, all I need is $150,000.' So we gave him the money out of our recording budget, and six weeks later he came in with this machine and that is how it all started."

The pioneering machine was the now-legendary Wendel, reportedly based on a CompuPro S100 computer with an CPM/86 operating system. It was capable of replacing already recorded sounds and moving them around, rather than constructing a drum track from scratch. "This was in the days when digital was still very primitive," recalls Fagen. "Roger's machine did not even have any switches, it only had a regular computer keyboard and he had to type all these bytes out, huge lists of numbers, which took him 20 minutes, and at the end he would hit Return, and we heard this one snare a beat. It took so long. It got a little better during The Nightfly, but it was so horrible, I have tried to figure out how to get out of sampling ever since."

Roger Nichols has continued to develop his drum replacement technology, which he has now made available as a plug-in called Wendeliser (see www.rndigital.com).

Clinton Administration

The memories of engineer and artist occasionally diverge in the telling of the story of the recording Morph The Cat, but they agree on the basic facts. Tracking began in August 2004, at Clinton Recording Studios in New York. Fagen, second keyboard player Ted Baker, guitarists Wayne Krantz and John Herrington, Freddie Washington, drummer Keith Carlock, and Scheiner gathered there for two weeks to lay down all the backing tracks. The only difference from the Everything Must Go tracking line-up was that Krantz had replaced Hugh McCracken.

Fagen (right) with Elliott Scheiner, who engineered Morph The Cat as well as previous Fagen and Steely Dan projects.Fagen (right) with Elliott Scheiner, who engineered Morph The Cat as well as previous Fagen and Steely Dan projects."I'm too lazy to look for other guys," comments Fagen. "These guys are really good anyway, and it's nice to have a band that you can communicate with. Walter and I took a long time to find this band, and I really enjoy playing with them. I'd done demos for some older songs on a computer that died [a Mac Quadra running Opcode's Vision software], and I had a hell of a time getting the information off a disk and into Logic. I also arranged some new songs on an Apple computer, using the Garage Band program, and I played these demos for the musicians. I always write on the piano, but I like to create this little mock-up in the computer.

"I'll quickly put down a bass part in Garage Band using a keyboard, then a fake guitar using a keyboard, and the simplest basic drum beat, and it gives the musicians an idea of how the song goes. I usually also write out the keyboard part, and sometimes the bass part, though the guitar parts are worked out by the guitarists, and I'll modify what they're playing. We go back and forth until it sounds good. All kids know how to use the Garage Band program, and it's good to write like that, because all you need is a tiny keyboard that you plug into your computer. Keyboard magazines hate me when I say things like this, because I'm a threat to their existence. Basically I'm saying 'You don't need any of that fancy stuff.'"

"I think Donald sent CDs of the demos to the guys," elaborates Scheiner, from his studio in Connecticut, "and before we started each song he'd play the demo for the band, to refresh their memories and talk about it. The demos were just a sketchpad — I'm pretty sure there weren't any vocals on them, just a keyboard playing the melody part. He'd done a couple of rehearsals with the band before coming into the studio, but I don't think that every song was rehearsed; there were at least three or four songs that I'm pretty sure the band first heard when they came into the studio. Then, while recording them in the studio, it's a work in progress. During tracking Donald would always play with the band, calling out certain changes."

Scheiner's Mic Choices

According to Elliott Scheiner, the following mics were used on the Morph The Cat recording sessions.

  • Kick drum: AKG D112.
  • Snare: SM57 (only on top).
  • Hi-hat: Neumann KM81 or 84.
  • Toms: Audio-Technica ATM25.
  • Overheads: Neumann U67.
  • Room mics: Electrovoice RE20.
  • Electric guitar: Shure SM57 right on speaker cone.
  • Piano: 2x AKG C12 mics, about 12 inches from the strings.
  • Trumpet and trombone: Coles ribbon.
  • Tenor sax: Neumann U67.
  • Baritone sax: Neumann FET47.

The Sound Of The Room

The backing tracks for Morph The Cat were recorded during a two-week period at Clinton Studio A, which has a live room that's large enough to hold 85 players, with wooden floor and wooden wall-panelling ('one of the last big rooms on the East Coast' claims their web site). In this case it held six. "Everybody was set up in the same room, except for the acoustic piano," explains Scheiner. "Sometimes Donald played the piano, sometimes Ted. We built little enclosures around the guitar amps, the bass was DI'ed, as were the electronic keyboards in the room, and the drums had some low baffles with fibreglass tops and a canopy over them. We had no problems with leakage whatsoever."

According to Scheiner, he didn't do anything deliberate to achieve the more hard-hitting sound of the album. "I think a lot of the sound of the album is the room that we recorded in. I didn't set out to do anything different. I simply did what I always do, which is to capture what the musicians are playing. I seldom try to make things sound different from what is played in the recording room. I go for the assumption that the guitar player gets the sound out of his amplifier that he wants. So I go out into the studio and listen to the sounds the guys get, whether guitars or drums, and just try to get that sound. With bass it's a different story, because 50 percent or more of the time you record the bass direct. The same with electric keyboards."

Scheiner adds that he 'seldom' uses EQ during the mix, and that Morph The Cat was recorded via Clinton's Neve 8078 directly to analogue 24-track. Straightforward recording to analogue without much processing is now Fagen's favoured approach, says he. "It's the sound I like. It's not necessary to have the latest equipment. Today I think that I could use any studio, and any equipment, and all I need is good players and it will sound good. I like the sound of jazz records recorded in the late 1950s. I love the sound of Rudy van Gelder's records for Prestige. I can't imagine anything sounding better. Van Gelder's jazz recordings definitely influenced the Steely Dan recording and mixing style."

Three years ago Scheiner, and to a lesser degree Becker, went into fairly great detail about the analogue versus digital debate, while Fagen only let slip that he felt that "digital sound loosens the fillings in your teeth". So three years on, with the dramatically fast developments in digital technology, has anything changed for Scheiner, and how are Fagen's teeth? Did they survive his work on The Nightfly, which was one of the first best-selling albums recorded to digital, and for years a popular demonstration record in hi-fi stores across the globe? Surely it didn't sound that bad? And what does he make of digital today?

"I haven't listened to The Nightfly since I made it," replied Fagen, "but the people in these hi-fi stores must have liked something about it. I think most of the way a record sounds is independent of whether it was recorded digital or analogue. So much has to do with the miking, the material, the studios, and the engineer. Having said that, I do think that digital has improved a lot over the years. It doesn't have that weird scratchy high end any more, and the bass sounds a little better too. But frankly I don't hear that much of a difference between the two media. As long as bass and drums are recorded to analogue you're OK. So we recorded the basic tracks to analogue, and for convenience's sake we loaded them into Pro Tools for overdubbing. To use analogue for overdubbing is just too much of a pain in the ass."

Many would agree with Fagen on these points, but strikingly, Scheiner's attitude appears to have hardened in the last three years. "I don't think digital will ever catch up with analogue," he says uncompromisingly. "Digital is convenient and it is good for doing trench work, but as far as sound is concerned, it's definitely analogue. I recorded the basic tracks to Quantegy GP9 tape, 15ips, +3dB operating level, Dolby SR. All edits on the backing tracks were done in analogue, and we then digitised everything, transferring stuff to Pro Tools HD at 24/96."

Nuendo And The Rest

Donald Fagen Given Scheiner's view that "digital will never catch up with analogue", it's a little surprising to see his studio in Connecticut filled to the brim with digital equipment, including a Yamaha DM2000 desk and MSP1 monitors, Alesis HD24, and Steinberg's Nuendo DAW. The producer/engineer states that he went for digital equipment because of economical reasons, but given his preferences the recent acquisition of a Studer A827 24-track was pretty much inevitable. He does, however, wax lyrical about one piece of digital equipment.

"I very much enjoy working on Nuendo. It's probably the best digital workstation available. It is the closest to analogue of any digital equipment I've heard. Nuendo sounds much better than Pro Tools, for instance. The two aren't even on the same page. I don't know why it is, I am just trusting my ears. A friend of mine, Frank Filipetti, did a comparison test between Euphonix, Pro Tools and Nuendo. It was all digital, there was no analogue-to-digital conversion, and Pro Tools did not even compare to the other two.

"I work on Pro Tools in commercial recording studios, but that's because I don't have a choice. I owned a Pro Tools system when it first came out and found the company impossible to deal with. They never returned any phone calls, if you had a problem there was no help. I spent more time rebooting the system than anything else. This is not necessarily Digidesign's fault, it was probably a Mac problem, but as a result I stopped using digital for a few years, until I got into the Nuendo system in 1998 or 99. I don't know whether it is Steinberg, or the combination of Nuendo and the PC I run it on, but so far it has never crashed."

The Finishing Touches

The overdub sessions for Morph The Cat were done by TJ Doherty (who also worked on Everything Must Go) and Brian Montgomery, at Avatar Studios and Sear Sounds in NYC, and Sugar Sound in Kauai, Hawaii, when Fagen visited Becker. Instruments overdubbed included guitar solos, vibes/marimba, harmonica, Fagen's lead vocals, backing vocals, and percussion. At Avatar Scheiner then overdubbed the horns in June and November of 2005, just before mixing, also at Avatar.

"Donald had done his other overdubs there," comments the engineer, "and was comfortable there. They have a Neve VR and all the analogue equipment that we needed, so it made sense to mix there. The mixes went from Pro Tools through the Neve VR and then to two-track half-inch analogue. Since I hardly use EQ during mixing, any EQ that I do will be applied during the mix. So I did some EQ-ing, and added some reverb, using the EMT 140 plates at Avatar, and also a Lexicon 480 and a TC3000. I only used room mics on the drums. I also used a Fairchild 670 on the bass and kick drum. There was no compression during recording."

It appears that mixing is a plug-in-free zone for Scheiner. "Most plug-ins are a joke," he says. "I don't think there's a reverb plug-in that comes close to an EMT 140. A plug-in that claims to make your SM57 sound like a C12 is a load of shit. It just doesn't. The only plug-ins that I use are the Universal Audio emulations of the 1176 and LA2As. And the Nuendo EQ is incredible, I love it."

"The mix was pretty much straight ahead," continues Fagen. "There are a few effects, but overall a little bit of reverb is basically it. When we are mixing, I will go out of the room, and Elliott will set up a basic track mix. I will then come in and do some serious alterations. I usually listen to the mix very carefully. I'll start with the bass and drums. My work is mainly to do with level adjustment, like the balance between kick drum and snare drum. The thing that I'm good at is the balance of instruments, so I will do a lot of that and also adjust vocals EQs, things like that."

Scheiner's version of events complements Fagen's, but there are some differences, suggesting that the engineer should, perhaps, watch his back. "I will normally come in during the morning," says Scheiner, "and get the mix to the point to where I like it. Donald then comes in and he will want to listen to the drums and then the bass and the relationship between them. Maybe the snare needs to be a bit fatter or louder, whatever. We go through this procedure and get a mix going. Donald is pretty focused when we mix, but he never touches the faders. Number one, I won't let him touch the faders, and number two, he knows that he may be deleting information, so he won't want to touch them. If he was actually sitting at the console, and wanted some low end taken off, I don't think he'd know what to reach for."

Is it possible that Fagen sneaks into the control room while Scheiner takes breaks? Whatever way they worked, the end result, Morph The Cat, kicks up a storm. So with Fagen in such barnstorming form these days, also have embarked on his first-ever solo tour, will the wait until his next solo album be relatively brief, or will the gap be as long as that between his previous solo efforts, fast-forwarding us to 2019 or thereabouts? "Probably," laughs the New Yorker, "but whenever it will be, it will be something completely new and it won't be part of this trilogy." 

Published August 2006