Becker ‘Steels’ Production Spotlight

By Susan Nunziata
Billboard

NEW YORK — Producer Walter Becker is hoping to demonstrate the evolution of his production style with a series of jazz recordings for Triloka Records. Recording the material live to multitrack, with only occasional overdubs and effects, represents a dramatic change from his days performing in and co-producing Steely Dan with Gary Katz.

“There are a lot of rock ‘n’ roll things that I enjoy listening to that I think I could do a good job working with, but those people don’t think I could be appropriate,” says Becker. “Part of it is the perfectionist association of Steely Dan, with 9 million takes and cutting the same track over and over and the solos over and over with every musician in town. It’s true that we did do that, but there has been a considerable evolution to my thinking since than, so I no longer really work that way.” Teaming with engineer Roger Nicholas, Becker is co-producing an upcoming solo album on Warner Bros. for Steely Dan’s Donald Fagen between Triloka projects. The long-awaited Fagen project, which Fagen is co-producing, is slated for release “sometime before the end of the century,” quips Becker, although more realistic estimates from Fagen narrow the album’s release down to 1992.

Different Strokes

The two projects represent an interesting contrast for Becker. Unlike the Triloka material, which is being recorded and mixed over several weeks, the Fagen project is layered and intricate. It is a “one-track-at-a-time kind of procedure, stretched out in time, where every track is very finely honed to fit with what’s already there, and then each successive layer has the same level of perfection and scrutiny and so on,” says Becker. “With the things we’ve been doing with the jazz artists, basically everybody’s playing at once and we’re going more for the overall quality of the performance, the main artists’ solos probably a primary concern, so if there are little glitches here and there or little flaws, that’s part of it.”

Among the Triloka projects Becker has produced thus far have been Leeann Ledgerwood’s You Wish, Andy Lavaerne’s Pleasure Seekers, and Jeff Beal’s Objects In The Mirror.

Upcoming Becker-produced releases on the label include albums by Jeremy Steig, due in February, David Kikosi in March, Lorraine Feather in summer 1992, and Sam Butler in fall 1992.

“My approach to these things is that, when you’re working for a very condensed period of time in a studio, there’s only so much room for a producer to add his 2 cents to what’s going on,” says Becker. “For the most part I just try and facilitate what the artist wants to do. It’s really their time up at bat, and Roger [Nichols] is really helpful in that way, too.”

Nichols, Becker, and Fagen have worked together for approximately 20 years, since the first Steely Dan release, “Can’t Buy A Thrill,” in 1972. “When you’ve been working with the same guy over a period of 20 years, you can pretty much trust that he knows that you’ve worked out a lot of procedures to do things, and that saves a lot of time,” Becker says.

Fagen Takes Control

While the Triloka projects have everyone playing simultaneously for a collective moment and energy that can happen only once, Becker notes that Fagen puts himself in the position of an auteur individually responsible for everything on his album. Fagen “has tremendous control over the final output,” says Becker. “And that’s an appropriate thing for what he’s doing now.

“The way the melodies work, and the songs work, they’re very dependent on having a certain precise rhythmic feel, or else they just aren’t going to sing right,” he continues. “That’s why we’re doing it this way. Because we know, when we get to the point of putting vocals on these things, it’s all going to add up. From our past experience we’ve learned with cutting tracks with live musicians it’s very hard to have that level of control.”

Becker brings a strong philosophy to all his work. “In most of the jazz records I would like them to be drier, typically, than the artist would like to hear them,” he says. “My model is more akin to the ’50s kind of jazz recording, where whatever ambiance there was was the ambiance of the hall and, in many cases, you had a very upfront, closeup shot of the guy’s instrument. A lot of the artists coming in are more influenced by contemporary pop records or the kind of very lush, big electronic echo things. When that happens I usually just try to find some middle ground between what I think is most effective and what the artist wants to do.”

Despite his complex production work with Steely Dan, Becker says, “The only other thing I always try to bring to the date is to keep in my mind that the music is the primary thing, and not get caught up in any sort of techno-boondoggle over anything,” he says. Sounding like a dieter in a chocolate shop, Becker adds, “It’s tempting because there’s so much swell gear in a studio and it seems like a shame not to be using it all, all the time. But in a lot of cases … you don’t need it.”

Keeping It Simple

Now based in Maui, Hawaii, Becker describes his own studio as small and simple. It uses a Soundtracs console, the usual array of outboard gear, and a 3M digital tape machine, which Becker calls the best-sounding digital machine. “The only drawback is that it’s incompatible with almost every other recording studio in the entire world, and the machine constantly needs to be tweaked to keep from blowing up.”

Noting that he has “plenty of inputs and the EQ sounds good,” Becker adds that “in some cases, when I’m recording things rather than using the mike preamps in the console I have these splendid audiophile mike preamps that I use instead and go straight onto the tape.”

The studio has been the site of some of the upcoming Fagen material, which is also being worked on at River Sound, the New York studio Fagen co-owns with Katz. The Triloka albums have been recorded at several facilities, including Soundworks West in Los Angeles, and Clinton Recording in New York.

A proponent of digital recording, Becker has several items on his technological wish list. “Everybody’s waiting for hard disc multitrack to become practical so you don’t have to use tape anymore,” he says. “To be able to not have to rewind tape; to be able to do all of this cut-and-paste computer stuff with your multitrack master … That’s the big thing that’s just now becoming a reality.”

Becker would also like to see more dramatic improvements in microphone technology and a computer program that offers the coloring effects of older tube equipment and processors.

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