Recording alongside nearly 40 musicians, band leaders Donald Fagen and Walter Becker pushed Steely Dan further into experimenting with different combinations of session players while pursuing longer, more sophisticated compositions for the album. “They just told me to play what I felt…,” Christlieb told the Wall Street Journal. “It’s the only time I remember mixing a record all day and, when the mix was done, feeling like I wanted to hear it over and over again. When Walter Becker passed away in September 2017, it marked the end of one of the most quixotic music partnerships in modern American popular music. I prefer the 1984 CD mastering, but probably because I know it's the 1984 mastering when I put it on. Â. I have a 1984 release marked 37214 also, but dunno if it is Mastering #3 or #4. There were notes for EQ and not really as much for level setting.  I have a #3. Then I turn the monitor back up, so here’s this mix coming out of the speakers. Photo: Hideki Fujii Aja reached the rare heights, for a Steely Dan album, of number three in the US charts and number five in the UK. To my knowledge, all of the existing releases as of this writing feature one of the seven masterings mentioned above. Fagen and Becker were breaking new ground and experimenting with a more open drum sound. Now METAlliance members Al Schmitt and Elliot Scheiner share the inside scoop on how they engineered a classic. Fields, the Marx Brothers, science fiction, Nabokov, Kurt Vonnegut, Thomas Berger, and Robert Altman,” as Fagen put it, to create songs that were as lyrically obtuse as they were musically complex. The same is true for Rainey’s bass on “Peg,” despite the fact that the song’s equalization on the Hoffman and Takiguchi CDs is nearly identical. We’ll be done in two months maximum.” … and I didn’t know enough about how they worked. “They are the most demanding group of people in the industry that I’ve worked for,” guitarist Larry Carlton, whom Becker and Fagen trusted to write many of their arrangements, told the Times in ’77. This was a subtle improvement, but was obvious when taken in and out of the signal path.”. • The METAlliance Report: Ed Cherney (1950–2019), by Elliot Scheiner, Nov. 25, 2019. It was the best-sounding thing I ever heard before it was ruined.” Becker: “If you had heard that album the way it originally went down on tape, you would have heard something else.”) But a sonic debacle by Steely Dan standards was still audiophile quality for its time. I just got out. The final CEDAR process was their “Phase Correction”, which in reality is a digital azimuth correction. If three of the guys are cutting the part great and one doesn’t feel just right, they’ll call in a whole new band and redo the whole thing.”Â, But according to Katz, there was a method to their madness. Rather, Nichols, Becker, and Fagen actively participated “in the mastering session with [Grundman] and [Grundman, Nichols, Becker, and Fagen] did the album together.”Â. I really enjoyed it. He would come in to start the session and then drift out. The final CEDAR process was their “Phase Correction”, which in reality is a digital azimuth correction. But on most tracks, Nichols’s ’84 mastering has more upper-midrange and treble than Hoffman’s, leading to a brighter sound, as the GIF below comparing Nichols’s (light blue) and Hoffman’s (purple) masterings of “Aja,” “Deacon Blues,” “Home at Last,” and “Peg” using Har-Bal’s “average power” graphs demonstrates: (click on image to see the animated comparison), Despite the significant differences in sound, it’s difficult to visually distinguish Hoffman-mastered ‘84 CDs from Nichols-mastered ‘84 CDs, since the liner notes don’t list the mastering engineer. The former featured a minor hit about their time at Bard, “My Old School,” and latter spawned their biggest single, “Rikki Don't Lose That Number, which reached number four on the Billboard Hot 100. That’s when he really knew that they had ears—they could hear and they knew what they were doing. That brings us to Aja, which was Steely Dan’s sixth album, released in 1978. This is more noticeable on headphones than speakers, and it might just be a case of one of the many edits in the song being more apparent on the MFSL than on other masterings.Â. At that time, the CD masters were initiallyÂ. “We were embarrassed for them and for us,” Fagen admitted to Breithaupt.  was that a request for a new set of CD masters was sent to the MCA studios. “Chuck and I had played together so much that we got into a groove… [Y]ou could have hung a coat up on the groove.” (In the process of laying down that groove, Rainey smartly defied Becker and Fagen’s instructions not to play slap bass by erecting a studio partition so that they couldn’t see that he was slapping. • The METAlliance Report: Critical Listening and Critical Evaluation, by George Massenburg, Jan. 30, 2019 (“Black Friday” from Katy Lied reached number 37, and “The Fez” from The Royal Scam peaked at 59. That’s not working. Yes, using EAC or XLD (or the Computer ReplayGain feature in Audirvana) to get the peak levels is the easiest way to tell. Released in 1977, the album peaked at number three on the US charts and number five in the UK. At some point, we finished. “It is a testimony to their studio prowess that the ‘flawed’ sound on Katy Lied is still much advanced compared to any of the competition,” Crowe mused in his ’77 piece.Â, Despite the sonic advances of Katy Lied and 1976’s The Royal Scam (which took more than three months and over $100,000 to record), Steely Dan’s commercial prospects had dimmed since they stopped touring. “We don’t construct them as puzzles,” Fagen claimed to Rolling Stone in 1977. “We try to tell a big story in a very short period of time. The box set was simply a re-edit adjusting sequence to match that provided by MCA to fit on 4 CD’s. Steely Dan is an American rock band founded in 1972 by core members Walter Becker (guitars, bass, backing vocals) and Donald Fagen (keyboards, lead vocals). “How else to know the true banality of ‘Come Sail Away,’ ‘Hot Legs,’ and ‘Three Times a Lady’ (all of which shared chart space with songs from Aja)?”, With the fanatically pursued perfection of Aja, Becker and Fagen exposed the “mediocrity” that so terrified Fagen. Finding it hard to identify the different versions on Amazon. While Hoffman’s mastering wasn’t supposed to be released, some nonetheless eventually found their way into stores.Â. On the older albums, a light processing. Tags ⋅ A&R Studios ⋅ AJA ⋅ Al Schmitt ⋅ Bill Schnee ⋅ Capitol Studios ⋅ Donald Fagen ⋅ Elliot Scheiner ⋅ Gary Katz ⋅ Grammy Award ⋅ METAlliance ⋅ METAlliance Report ⋅ Roger Nichols ⋅ Sound Labs Studio ⋅ Steely Dan ⋅ Village Recorder ⋅ Walter Becker. Steely Dan hadn't been a real working band since Pretzel Logic, but with Aja, Walter Becker and Donald Fagen's obsession with sonic detail and fascination with composition reached new heights. The masters that were created for CD were done with the Sony PCM 1600 system. I mixed another one, “Deacon Blues,” and then at that same time, they were doing “FM (No Static at All),” [the theme song to] the movie FM, and they asked me to record. I was also close by the side of any record company exec who could get me any discs to play on my new found CD player. Gosh. It’s excluded not only because of questions about the fidelity of the MQA format, but also because it’s exceedingly rare. But the 2010 180-gram vinyl re-issue of Steely Dan's "Aja" is a real gem. Two of the three — an ABC AB 1006 Santa Maria pressing and a Japanese YX-8114-AB pressing — featured EQ that was remarkably similar according to Har-Bal. It was the comprehensive sound of the thing: the song itself, its character, the way the instruments sounded and the way Tom Scott’s tight horn arrangement fit in.”, While the meaning of “Deacon Blues” is fairly straightforward, the cryptic “Aja” has been meticulously dissected by writers and fans. Making matters more complicated, there’s also a mastering on some ’84 Japanese CDs that’s neither Hoffman’s nor Nichols’s. Sound,” even though they had little use for their adopted home city. The oldest albums were of course in the worst shape at the time of the analog transfers. While they earned armloads of plaudits and Grammys proving they were right in their rigor, it’s the sound of their records that really makes the point. He started listening to the drum solo and was nodding like, “This is incredible!” And at the end of the song, he said, “Who’s playing drums?” [Laughs]. It seems like the name truly didn't surface (for baby names) until that time. I said, “That’s impossible.” I thought about everything that went into that and the last thing I wanted to do was do it again, but at some point, I thought to myself in the night, is it possible that I didn’t switch it on when it had to be muted? Also, several functions of CEDARÂ,  used. “That’s what I like about popular music. After releasing a number of albums in the early 1970s Steely Dan became a studio entity in 1974. Elliot: Yeah—I remember on [the follow-up album] Gaucho, they would record songs five, six, seven times, and with completely different bands. They came over to bring their tape and brought five or six 1176 limiters—I don’t know what the hell they wanted me to use them on, but they did. My. After it finished, he looked at Donald and Walter and said, “There’s not enough cymbals.” [Laughs] Walter looked at me and said, “You know, wherever you are, get the f— out of here and go back there.”. The only constant members of Steely Dan, Becker and co-conspirator Donald Fagen created some of the most lyrical intelligent, musically intricate, and sonically impeccable albums of the past 40 years.Â, For both record buyers and audiophiles, none looms larger than 1977’s Aja, the subject of the third installment of “The Best Version Of…” (TBVO).Â, Together with longtime producer Gary Katz and engineer Roger Nichols, Becker and Fagen marshalled their (in)famous attention to detail to make Aja their best selling and best sounding release. Great essay!  Looking forward to the next installment! ), Becker and Fagen began recording Aja in Los Angeles in January 1977. One of the most significant differences, for example, comes on “Deacon Blues.” Hoffman’s master has more low-end, which tends to make it sound slightly bloated on some gear, relative to the original vinyl or the Takiguchi mastering. Sign up for a new account in our community. 37214 also, but dunno if it is Mastering #3 or #4. We had a deal: “Come out to L.A. and we’ll do the record. Transfers were made from the 3M system for mastering. Producer (s) Gary Katz. " Aja (pronounced Asia) is the sixth studio album by Steely Dan. Released in September 1977, Aja found the duo of Walter Becker and Donald Fagen in top form, once again working with producer Gary Katz. Aja (pronounced Asia) is the sixth studio album by Steely Dan. Al: I got a call while at Sound Labs Studio 2 [in Hollywood]. He made some phone calls, and told the MCA vault that they needed to find Sony Digital masters made at Masterdisk, and that they were the correct CD master source tapes. The only difference, as far as I can tell, is that some of the clones fix a track mark issue, where the first second of the next track is actually at the end of the previous track if you rip the CD. Aja is the sixth album by the jazz rock band Steely Dan, originally released in 1977 it became the group's best-selling album. Roger was able to locate the FLAT 3m 4 track masters that were recorded when the fist mastering was done for CD release. Those were sent to me in Nashville, were there is/was still a working set of 3M digital recorders. The band stopped touring and focused on songwriting and recording. While there are limits to what Har-Bal’s filters can do (the Hoffman master still had more low bass), it was relatively difficult to tell the resulting files apart when comparing them side-by-side in Audacity, and I doubt anyone could detect differences in clarity between the two a blind test. This was in the VERY early days of Digital recording. 5.  There’s been great debate as to whether “Mastering 3” and “Mastering 6” as defined in these posts is the same as the confirmed Hoffman mastering (“Mastering 7” in the posts). We play rock and roll, but we swing when we play. Processing included all digital EQ/Compression signal processing. When Nichols mastered the first run of Steely Dan CDs, including Aja, he used the digital tapes he’d prepared a few years earlier. The case the CD is in (and which hopefully matches the CD) does say DIDY 55 on the back and on the 'spine' so maybe I have Mastering #3 (or a case for Mastering #3)... You guys can run your CDs through EAC or XLD to see what the track levels are and match from there.Â. “And the basic idea is that there’s a kind of culture of losers that he’d rather be part of than the general way of life in America.”, Ultimately, “Deacon Blues” is a tribute to the other working- and middle-class kids like Becker and Fagen who, through music and the entire “alterative culture” that comes with it, learned to reject the façade of the American Dream and embrace their outsider status, even if they remained “losers” by the standards of the kids who drove “Porsches and Jaguars” around the college campus. Songwriter (s) Donald Fagen. Then Aja—Steely Dan’s sixth album, ... Becker told Crowe that they spent most of their time writing, recording, and obsessively tinkering. How did I miss that?” That’s the perfectionist in us. Try to play the blues.’… [So] I play bluesy for a while. We played it back and thought it really sounded great. Aja required a budget that made The Royal Scam’s look like “chicken feed” and took longer to record than any previous Steely Dan album, even though with only seven cuts — “Black Cow,” “Aja,” “Deacon Blues,” “Peg,” “Home at Last,” “I Got the News,” and “Josie” — it contain the fewest songs of any Dan album. Steely Dan were notorious perfectionists, and would edit take after take ... session, or the vocals, or whatever, group it the way you do. Josh is currently a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Virginia, where he teaches classes on modern U.S. politics and the history of popular music. However, if the audio files are trimmed to contain the exact same parts of the songs, the three different graphs available in Har-Bal all show that masterings three, six, and seven are all Hoffman’s mastering, at least according to the copies of each that I have.Â. ), Aja works so well together as a whole that singling out individual songs seems almost perverse. I sound like a broken record, but this is amazing Josh. The Cisco is overhyped, the Santa Maria pressing the "One". Roger asked for the master tapes be sent to Nashville so that he and I could master the 4 additional cuts and create new CD masters. “I usually come up with germinal musical idea, and then we will arrange to meet…,” Fagen told the New York Times. Move forward several years, there were now several domestic CD plants in operation, and MCA decided to move manufacturing from overseas to domestic US plants. What happened, was that a request for a new set of CD masters was sent to the MCA studios. I could listen to Steely Dan all day and never understand all that is going on on those records. What followed was a warm recollection of the days when the studios were big and the budgets were even bigger. “We felt silly spending all this money for this one brief blues solo.”, They finally brought in L.A. session guitarist Jay Graydon, who’d played on albums by Marvin Gaye, Joe Cocker, and Wayne Shorter.Â, “I found out I was the seventh guy. On the older albums, a light processing of De-Noise was applied. There were also EQ tape copies that were used for cassette duplication (and 8track going WAY back). Whether measured by crest factor DR score or R128 dynamic range, all of the masterings have very similar dynamics, registering a DR score between 13 and 15 and an R128 between 6.5 and 7.9 dB. Since CDs preserved all the characteristics of the original master tape, I could now enjoy music without the drawbacks of black vinyl. “Aja,” Steely Dan’s sixth album in five years, was released in September 1977. With each succeeding album, Becker and Fagen’s desire to tour decreased and their desire to use studio musicians to augment (and, eventually, supplant) the band’s other members increased. Albums were approved as initially presented to them, no changes. Â, But the basic story is that there have been (at least)1 seven digital masterings of Aja: 1) a 1984 CD mastered by Steve Hoffman, 2) a 1984 CD mastered by Nichols, 3) a 1984 Japanese CD with uncertain mastering credits, 4) a 1988 Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab CD remaster, 5) a 1993 remaster by Glenn Meadows found on the Citizen Steely Dan CD box set, 6) a 1999 CD remaster by Nichols, and 7) a 2010 “flat transfe[r] from Japan[ese] original analogue master tapes” by Hitoshi Takiguchi at Tokyo’s Universal Music Studios, used for both a 2010 SACD and several subsequent CDs.Â, Aja’s path to digital began years before the first CD release of the album.Â, With the help and encouragement of Nichols, Becker and Fagen had been early adopters of digital technology in the studio. “You know we were both kids who grew up in the suburbs,” Fagen said. Given that we know that the initial mastering of Aja both reflected the band’s artistic intent and made Aja an audiophile landmark, it’s worth investigating how the digital masterings compare to the original vinyl Aja. This is a quite useful post over on the Hoffman forums: https://forums.stevehoffman.tv/threads/steely-dan-cds-different-masterings-the-summary-thread.561226/#post-14611213. It was also realized at that point, that the analog tapes were in VERY poor condition due to continuous use for cutting master lacquers to keep pressing records. From now on, I’ll try to add info about streaming in the articles or as a footnote when possible.Â, You have one of the Hoffman “clones.” Over at SHF, some people have claimed the “confirmed” Hoffman sounds slightly better than/different from the clones, but I checked three clones (including two I just bought in the For Sale section at SHF for this piece!) While “Deacon Blues,” “Aja,” and “Peg” are some of my favorites, deep cuts like “Home at Last” (which Fagen called “a little blues about Ulysses”) are just as good. “So useless to ask me why, Throw a kiss and say goodbye / I'll make it this time, I'm ready to cross that fine line / Learn to work the saxophone, I play just what I feel / Drink Scotch whiskey all night long, And die behind the wheel.”Â, It’s a pipe dream, and the protagonist knows it. Before Al came in, I was mixing the entire record. (“I don’t love L.A. particularly,” Fagen lamented in 1974. “I mean, it’s comfortable to live here, but you know they’ve got it all set up so you never see any poor people? It works similar to what mastering engineers have used for years to fine tune azimuth on tape playback (reverse polarity then mono and null the HF content in the middle). That’s why it’s worth it for true Dan-o-philes to pursue the perfect digital version or Aja — or as close to it as we can get.Â, The digital mastering history of Aja is complex, the differences between the masterings are notable, and debate on the interwebs about which is the best has been particularly heated. Discuss the production behind `` Deacon Blues '' from `` Aja. nominally remained Steely Dan’s member... That a request for a diva to front his outfit and found her singing in mid-‘70s. [ Becker ] wears smoked glasses, accenting a somewhat gnomish face by! S no bass on this. ” I started to laugh and they said there ’ s mix! Over Ebay steely dan recording aja under $ 20 their “Phase Correction”, which was the band stopped touring and on! That Al had mixed two songs whole that singling out individual songs seems perverse. Were re-mastered, and about three weeks after, they had a track done, it over! 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Of Katy Lied’s tracks the new York Times was like eight pages long — three music in... Reached number 37, and that was how all 7 of the Century, followed by Aja. and! Cd manufacture. were famous for their adopted home city Scheiner share the inside scoop how! The August 2020 issue of Pro sound News is part of Future plc, an international media and. Spent their days, Becker and Fagen integrated their diverse musical influences effortlessly! The steely dan recording aja at the original master tape, I was able to successfully remove the last of! Levels, and noise floor, the album peaked at number three the... Of classic album reviews? ” that ’ s sixth album, released in,... No changes into stores. was able track down three high resolution digital transfers listed have different... Only thing that was how all 7 of the overdubs over.” “Yeah, got... Band 's first platinum album and ultimately became their best-selling studio release, eventually selling over 5 copies. 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