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Page 2: Classic Tracks: Steely Dan 'Aja'

Producer: Gary Katz • Studio: Producers' Workshop By Dave Lockwood
Published October 2020

Tight Sound

The tracking room at Producers' Workshop wasn't big. "You would probably call it a small to medium-sized studio" says Bill, "but it was still my favourite studio, sonically. We didn't actually have a lot of bleed. The only real bleed we had would have been into the acoustic piano — around that time Producers' Workshop built a box around the piano to minimise bleed, but I don't specifically remember if it was done by then. So, the piano was miked, in stereo — I can usually remember how many mics I used on things and where they were. Just don't ask me to remember what they all were. It's too long ago! The Rhodes [electric piano] was taken with direct boxes in stereo. There was one mic on Carlton's amp [a Fender 5C3 wide-panel 'Tweed' Deluxe], which was baffled off from the drums, and the bass was just DI'd, with no amp used.

The tracking room at Producers' Workshop. "You would probably call it a small to medium-sized studio," says Bill, "but it was still my favourite studio, sonically."The tracking room at Producers' Workshop. "You would probably call it a small to medium-sized studio," says Bill, "but it was still my favourite studio, sonically."

"On the drums I used kick, snare, hi-hat, overheads and one mic on every tom. No room mics, obviously, with everyone else playing in the room at the same time. Room mics would have just been 'leakage' and I was going for a very tight sound. My track allocation for a kit at that time was usually kick, snare and hi-hat on their own, and everything else submixed down to a stereo pair, so overheads and toms together. I stayed with that for years when other people were using more tracks."

From the perspective of a lot of today's studio practice, that's proper old-school, 'commit it to tape' engineering for you: in many a modern Pro Tools session with everything kept separate 'just in case', you'd see double that number of tracks used, and double again if you wanted top and bottom of the snare, in and out of the kick drum, plus stereo room mics, oh, and a 'crush' mic, of course. And then there's top and bottom of the toms...

With baffling for separation in the studio and the bass solely DI'd, of course, everyone had to wear headphones for tracking. It may come as a surprise to anyone involved in studio tracking in the modern era that there was only one headphone mix for the whole band. Bill says he always took a great deal of care over the headphone balance: "I started as a musician and in the studio I hated headphones — that's a real adjustment for musicians — so I was always manic about making sure that the players had a great headphone mix. And that included going out into the room and listening, because it doesn't sound the same in the control room as it does in the studio where there are instruments playing. The headphone mix was incredibly important because those musicians are playing with and off each other all the time."

A single headphone mix for everyone in the room was not at all uncommon in studios at this time, and as the cream of 'first call' session guys at the time, I guess these players would have simply been used to it. Even so, respect!

DIY Desk

Bill describes the console at Producers' Workshop as "home made", and it was actually not at all unusual at this time for studios to build their own consoles. "That console really started my love affair for 'less is more' in analogue electronics," says Bill, "and when I built my own studio [Schnee Studio] in 1980, we built our own console there, too, because I knew we could build something better-sounding than anything you could buy, just by virtue of its simplicity.

The gear may have changed, but the control room is still very recognisable from its Producers' Workshop days.The gear may have changed, but the control room is still very recognisable from its Producers' Workshop days.Photo: Hannes Bieger

"The amps in the Producers' Workshop console were Langevin AM16 — a very good-sounding, discrete transistor preamplifier — and it had Langevin EQ251 equaliser modules. These are great-sounding, passive, two-band, peaking-filter EQs: a little panel-mount unit with two sliders, and the kind of peaking where the Q starts out very broad and gets peakier the more you add of it. By the time you are at +8dB it gets peaky as heck. Being passive, it'll sound as good as the recovery amp that makes up the gain.

"I generally used very little EQ or filtering to tape. Being the age I am, the first studio I worked in had no EQ, so I learned to just use mics and miking. I did, however, use just a little EQ on Steve Gadd's kit for these sessions, but no dynamics processing on the kit for sure — I never compressed drums back then. I definitely had an LA2 on Chuck Rainey's bass DI (Fender Precision, with flatwounds) and another on Larry Carlton's amp, but nothing on the piano. I've never compressed a piano unless it was for an effect."

The Stephens Electronics multitrack recorder, which Bill still rates as "the best-sounding multitrack ever made".The Stephens Electronics multitrack recorder, which Bill still rates as "the best-sounding multitrack ever made".Monitoring at Producers Workshop was done using Altec 604s: a 15-inch cone unit with a horn-loaded, coaxial high-frequency driver that was practically 'industry standard' in LA at the time. The two-inch 24-track multitrack tape recorder came from nearby Burbank-based Stephens Electronics, and Bill still rates it as "the best-sounding multitrack ever made", for two reasons: "It was the simplest, by far, electronically, and it was the first capstan-less machine. Tape can sound great, but one of the many limitations we had to deal with back then was the abuse that the tape took from having a pinch roller constantly smashing it into a capstan. John Stephens built the first capstan-less machine, before Ampex went on to build the ATR102 and ultimately the 124 design, which worked flawlessly. John's did not work quite so flawlessly, and would have breakdowns way too often. That was my one hesitation about using Producers' Workshop for the Steely Dan sessions. It would have been a real drag, but fortunately we had no breakdowns at all. For Aja we were recording at 30ips, non-Dolby, and I'm not 100-percent sure, but I think I was still using Scotch for tape in those days."

The 'Monitor Mix' Tapes

It is always fascinating to listen to old multitracks and hear familiar recordings broken down into their component parts. Indeed, Becker and Fagen have done their own share of deconstruction of the Aja album for a 'Classic Albums' TV documentary, but inevitably absent from their discussions was any really in-depth analysis of the title track, with 'Aja' itself being one of the now missing multitracks. All is not entirely lost, however, for there are some 'monitor mix' copies from the tracking days still in existence. The exact provenance of these is not certain — it was common enough for engineers to run off a cassette tape of their day's work to listen to in the car on the way home from the studio, and indeed Bill remembers doing just that throughout the Aja sessions. But these recordings are too good to have originated as cassette copies. They are clean and noise-free, and run at almost exactly the correct speed. Anyone who has them probably shouldn't, but if there is anyone who is entitled to, it's original tracking engineer Bill Schnee, and he was willing to share them with me for the benefit of this article. These could have been working copies for Becker and Fagen to help finalise lyrics or melodies not yet written, or they could be illicit personal copies taken by a second engineer left alone in the studio to clean up and shut down, running off a quick personal copy using the monitor mix left on the desk at the end of the day.

The six of these recordings in existence make it possible to hear the original 'backing track' performances, without any overdubs, for 'Josie' and 'I Got The News', as well as four tracks from the two Steve Gadd days: 'Aja', 'Peg', 'Third World Man' and a track that was never finished entitled 'Stand By The Seawall'. Major 'Dan' fans will be well aware that 'Third World Man' isn't on the Aja album at all, but was later 'recycled' with an entirely new lyric to help finish off the somewhat troubled Gaucho album sessions. On this session it is called 'Were You Blind That Day?' but this is definitely the backing track for the used version of 'Third Word Man' in every detail, including what sounds almost like a prototype version of the iconic Larry Carlton guitar solo, played live on the tracking date, with the shape of it just arising out of his chordal work and positional slides.

Many will also know that the track 'Peg' doesn't feature Steve Gadd, the album version having been re-recorded, faster and 'funkier', at The Village with Rick Marotta on drums and Roger Nichols in the engineer's chair. The 'Gadd version' has the same structure, but not quite the feel, almost as if they hadn't yet settled on exactly what it should be. Chuck Rainey's allegedly 'stealth' slap-bass part, added against the express style guidance of Becker and Fagen, is actually already there in this version, but isn't sitting well with Gadd's ride cymbal in the choruses. Hearing Marotta's far more complementary hi-hat part in the choruses of the final version, you can see why they refined and re-recorded it.

Two Take Wonder

The tracking-session monitor mix of 'Aja' itself, however, is simply remarkable, in all its musically complex, harmonic and rhythmic sophistication. It is an astonishing experience for anyone more used to today's track-by-track, part-by-part construction of many modern recordings to hear just how complete this sounds with only the original tracking instrumentation. The story of 'Aja' being 'nailed in two takes against all expectation' is fundamentally true, but not the whole story. Piano player Michael Omartian in particular recalls almost three hours of rehearsal of the complex chart, with keeping the band 'stabs' tight and in time through Gadd's drum pyrotechnics proving understandably challenging. But when they were finally ready to record, it was indeed "nailed in just two takes", says Bill, "and even though we are talking about insanely incredible musicians, everyone in the room was still amazed that we did 'Aja' as quickly as we did."

In the final album mix, the kit on 'Aja' sounds perfectly tuned, miked and balanced, with neither the 'cardboard box' deadness of the early '70s, nor the ambient excesses of the '80s. To me, it is a timeless drum sound that serves the music. The remarkable thing is that it sounds like that already in the tracking day's monitor mix. It stands tribute to Bill Schnee's engineering that so very little seems to have been done to it in the final mixing and mastering. It is much the same for the other instruments recorded 'on the day'. Carlton's guitar is just as you hear it in the final mix: mostly clean, neck pickup on his favoured Gibson 335, switching to bridge pickup only when he plays the lower half of the harmony guitar figure that builds from the second chorus to the middle instrumental section that would feature the overdubbed guitar solos of Denny Dias and Walter Becker, as well as Fagen's synth solo. All the piano and Rhodes fills and flourishes are there, too, played live on the tracking date, and Rainey's bass is warm and full, with just enough articulation. Steve Gadd's 'drum solo' section, which appears in the finished track to interact with saxophonist Wayne Shorter's celebrated solo, was played, of course, without knowing what would eventually be there. It sounds coherent, of course, because Shorter is playing to Gadd in the overdub, but the imagination and flamboyance in the original performance, including the famous stick click, is just something above and beyond.

The master version of 'Aja' is supposed to be an edit of the two takes, but Bill Schnee is certain that he didn't do an edit on the two-inch multitrack before it went away for overdubbing, so this monitor mix recording has to be of just one of the two takes. Adjusting for its very slight speed/pitch, discrepancy, I can lay this up alongside the final mix of the album version in software well enough to be certain that this is the take that they actually used for the 'drum solo' and the end section. Given that Gadd was improvising, it would be impossible for the two takes to be the same at those points. The front end matches astonishingly well, too, but that is simpler and could perhaps have been played almost identically on two takes. I'm inclined to wonder if the edit is not a start and a finish, but a section from the middle transplanted into this one, whether that be the first or the second take. Wherever the edit is, it will almost certainly have been done at the Village prior to overdubbing by Roger Nichols, who sadly is no longer here to tell us.

Bill Schnee: "This thing was multiple pages long and really in-depth and challenging even for some of the greatest studio players of all time."

New Heights

I'm not at all sure that 'Aja' is really the "pinnacle of '70s studio rock", as it has been more than once described. You could argue that the whole centre section is a piece of indulgent excess consistent with artists who by now were allowed by their record company to write their own sleeve notes in the form of a fake interview with themselves! You could, but I won't. It is of its time: a classy, imaginative piece of work that pushes beyond the boundaries of popular song form, well into jazz, without ever actually 'being jazz'.

Despite its reputation, the chording itself is not actually too fearsome: a few 'maj7 b5' and 'minor 11s' and, as far as I can hear, only one 'Steely Dan special' add 2, or 'mu-major' chord. It is, as always with Becker and Fagen, the exact voicing of the chords that makes or breaks the progressions. Hearing, in the raw, these great studio musicians, at the peak of their powers, nail this piece so well has been a real privilege for which I am eternally grateful to Bill Schnee, along with his great efforts to remember details from just one of hundreds of recording sessions from a long-distant part of his stellar engineering and production career.

For Steely Dan, things were never to be quite the same again. Bill Schnee got a well deserved Grammy for Aja and another for 1980's Gaucho album when the unused 'Were You Blind That Day?' track from the Aja sessions was reworked to become 'Third World Man'. "On Aja," he recalls," Walter and Donald did something they'd never done before — this whole thing with multiple drummers, a drug-free zone, recording in LA, and everything comes out great. Everybody's thrilled. So for the next album they just do everything different! I can feel the tension in the Gaucho tracks. It's been highly documented that they encountered a myriad of problems making the album, including having a complete song accidentally erased. But they did bring my good friend Jeff Porcaro, sadly also no longer with us, to New York to play drums on a few songs. When he came back from New York he told me, 'They had me playing a song over and over and over, with a few different rhythm sections, all in an effort just to get a perfect drum track. It was insane!'" This quest for perfection led the guys during the making of the album to commission Roger Nichols to build 'Wendell', the first drum-sampling computer.

After Gaucho Becker and Fagen weren't to record again as Steely Dan for nearly 20 years, and welcome though the later albums are for any Steely Dan fan, few would argue that Aja the album, and for some, 'Aja' the track, was the summit: the purest and most successful realisation of the vision and artistry of its makers.

Thanks to Clay Blair at Boulevard Recording for permission to use some of these images.

Mixing Aja

"Every day when we finished a tracking session, I made a cassette to listen to in my car on the way home and thought 'What is this'? It's jazz with elements of rock, but it is totally unique and absolutely incredible,'" says Bill Schnee. "At the end of all the tracking sessions Donald and Walter said they were going off to do overdubs and would I mix it when they were finished? I said I would love to, but I was pretty sure our mixing styles were too different. From their past reputation around town, I had heard about them nit-picking mixes for days. So, six months later they finally had the first song 'done' and ready to mix and we got together for a day. I started mixing the way I like to mix — back then I really just liked to mix for a performance and didn't use any automation. The first Neve moving-fader automation system, NECAM, was out, but I found it to be quite clunky and not terribly accurate. I just wanted to mix for a performance in a whole pass, and then edit mixes together, if necessary. But Donald and Walter soon started with the 'what about this?' and 'what about that?' I'm not putting them down in any way at all — the road to anybody's art is as simple or as complex as they want to make it. It just is what it is, and I'm perfectly fine with that.

"It became very obvious that we were both getting frustrated and in the end we just shook hands and I said 'Good luck with it guys, it's going to be a great album'. They went to my good friend Elliot Scheiner, who is a much, much, much more patient man than I am, and he did a phenomenal job! The NECAM mix automation system was just perfect for Becker and Fagen — they could do pass after pass after pass I believe audio engineering is a service business — you are there to serve the music, the artist and their vision — and, believe me, I wanted to make them happy. Our mixing styles just weren't complementary."

Bill Schnee: Chairman At The Board

Bill Schnee has worked on a host of Grammy-nominated and awarded albums, being responsible for over 135 gold and platinum records and recording or mixing over 50 high-charting singles.Bill Schnee has worked on a host of Grammy-nominated and awarded albums, being responsible for over 135 gold and platinum records and recording or mixing over 50 high-charting singles.Classic Tracks: Steely Dan 'Aja'In an extensive career involving a highly diverse range of artists, renowned LA engineer and producer Bill Schnee has been nominated 11 times for the Best Engineered Album, Non-Classical Grammy Award, winning twice, and worked on a host of other Grammy-nominated and awarded albums, being responsible for over 135 gold and platinum records and recording or mixing over 50 high-charting singles. Like many successful engineers, his first involvement in the business was as a musician: "I was in a band called the LA Teens. We were signed to Decca in 1964 and we recorded at Capitol and United — two of the best studios in Los Angeles. It was the old story: you cut four songs, and if you had a hit you ran in and cut six more and we only cut four songs!"

His band may have been dropped, but Schnee continued to work at the craft of recording: "I went off on my own and learned engineering in a 'Micky Mouse' studio, and fortunately came in contact with a mentor who would help me: a brilliant guy named Toby Foster, who I always refer to as 'the guy that taught me everything I know'. And what he taught me was the basics of recording correctly. I learned fast —it just seemed to come naturally to me — so, two and a half years later, I was able to go to LA producer/engineer Richie Podolor and convince him to hire me to work in his studio."

Schnee was later instrumental in launching Sheffield Lab Records making direct-to-disc audiophile recordings that were recorded in real time directly to the disc-cutting lathe, and in 1981, he opened Schnee Studio in North Hollywood, where he and his engineers built all of the equipment. Highlights of Schnee's stellar credit list include Steely Dan, Chicago, Ringo (with all the Beatles), Natalie Cole, Rod Stewart, Dire Straits, Whitney Houston, Carly Simon, the Pointer Sisters, Gladys Knight, Barry Manilow, Michael Bolton, the Jacksons, Mark Knopfler, Barbra Streisand, Neil Diamond, Marvin Gaye, George Benson, Bette Midler, Amy Grant, Boz Scaggs, Joe Sample, Thelma Houston and many more.

For a man who says he "hates interviews", Bill was a delightful interviewee with a vast fund of stories, many of which (the printable ones, at least) can be found in his forthcoming book Chairman At The Board, to be published early in 2021 by Backbeat Books. I'm certainly looking forward to reading it!

Steve Gadd's Morning Off

"After the first day I gave Richard Perry a call," Bill Schnee recalls. "Richard was one of the most prolific and successful record producers in the '70s — Barbra Streisand, Harry Neilsen, Carly Simon, the Pointer Sisters records, and many more, a lot of which I engineered for him. I said 'Steve Gadd's in town and I'm recording Steely Dan with him. This guy is amazing.' Richard says 'Do you think I could get a session with him?' I called Gary Katz to ask if we could squeeze it in in the morning before we started with Steely Dan at two in the afternoon, and Gary said 'Yes, OK, but you've got to be out on time — the boys will go crazy on me if this impacts their session.' I told Richard, 'OK, but you'll have to come here and do it — I'm not going to have to get the drum sound all over again, and you've got to be out by one. Period.'

"The next morning he came over with his artist, Leo Sayer, and played the demo of 'You Make Me Feel Like Dancing', and Gadd just started up with that drag snare groove, along with Larry Carlton on guitar and Chuck Rainey on bass, and the moment Leo opened his mouth to sing I knew, 'Oh my gosh, we are cutting a hit here.' We got the track in two and a half hours, which was a complete miracle for Richard Perry, who had never got a track in that time before — he was renowned for being incredibly fastidious and painstaking. So, of course Richard says 'Can we do another song?' Then we did 'How Much Love', which was another single off the album. In less than three hours and 15 minutes we got two incredible hit tracks."