Steely Dan’s Planet D’Sound Quality

SQ Logic: Our favorite audiophile-centric recording duo wax poetically on the necessary elements of great recordings.

By Mike Mettler
Sound+Vision Magazine

With a score of dates set to go now on sale tomorrow today (4/26) for Steely Dan’s Mood Swings 2013: 8 Miles to Pancake Day summer/fall tour, I thought it only appropriate to revisit the time I’ve spent over the years with our favorite audiophile-centric recording duo, Donald Fagen and Walter Becker. I’ve seen the Dan boys live a number of times, including a few memorable occasions at the Beacon Theatre in New York City. Some shows were transcendent by nature, though one night was clearly and unfortunately mixed by a board neophyte (and the less said about the latter the better). At any rate, the crack band and more and more adventurous set lists that the Dans put together for their semi-annual jaunts shouldn’t be missed.

So here’s the royal skinny: Fagen and I most recently spoke in late 2012 about his fourth solo album, Sunken Condos (Reprise), with co-producer Michael Leonhart also on the line. Becker participated on a multichannel-oriented panel I moderated at CES back in 2005, and we got on the horn a few week after that to talk surround sound and other technical matters. I should also note that Fagen, recurring SD producer Elliot Scheiner, and I also posed for a faux album cover session, which you can find somewhere out in Facebookland, but I digress. Herewith are the SQ-oriented highlights of my chatterings with Steely Dan.

DONALD FAGEN: THE NEW FRONTIERSMAN

METTLER: First, I have to thank you for putting out Sunken Condos on 180-gram, 2-disc clear vinyl.

FAGEN: It’s the invisible vinyl. That’s the most translucent. [all laugh]

METTLER: So I’ll be seeing right through it whenever I’m cuing it up on my turntable.

FAGEN: That’s right. Actually, you’ll be able to see into other people’s souls when you look through it.

METTLER: Did you have to mix differently for vinyl?

MICHAEL LEONHART (Condos co-producer and multi-instrumentalist): Basically, we mixed in digital and analog, knowing that it would go to vinyl. The biggest challenge was how to make the album sound the same on vinyl, which is why we went with three sides. [Side 4 is blank.] That allowed us to mix exactly as we wanted to with no limitations.

FAGEN: We didn’t want to lose the high end the closer the needle got to the label.

METTLER: You must have been somewhat frustrated at the end of the ’70s and into the ’80s, when the vinyl wasn’t as good as it was before then, and as it is now.

FAGEN: Yeah, I remember that. That was horrible.

METTLER: Any consideration for having Condos mixed in 5.1?

FAGEN: Chances are that Elliot [Scheiner] would do it, I would imagine. Elliot’s been preparing for surround, so absolutely. You know, he’ll probably do it. [If an Elliot-mixed 5.1 Condos becomes a go, we will update that information immediately, of course. To date, GauchoTwo Against Nature, and Everything Must Go are the only Steely Dan albums officially released in 5.1. Pretzel Logic was “finished, and it turned out great,” according to what Scheiner told me, ahem, eight years ago, but we’re still waiting for an official release.]

METTLER: Michael, as a horn-section man, I’m curious where you’d like to hear the horns in that 5.1 soundfield.

LEONHART: There are so many options, I don’t even know where you’d start. Having said that, I wouldn’t spread the horns to every corner of the globe. I’d like to keep them as a little gang in the schoolyard.

FAGEN: I’d like to hear the baritone saxophone in its own channel. [ML and MM laugh]

LEONHART: Behind your head!

METTLER: The audio quality evident on songs like “The New Breed” and “Good Stuff” continues to reinforce the idea that anything you do is put up to its own benchmark in our SQ universe.

FAGEN: Well, we do look to get good sound. The microphones sound good, and we take it easyon the EQ. Even in mixing, we tried to preserve the sound of the music as it came out of the studio. These days, mastering engineers want you to, as they say, allow enough for them to boost the level to the volume that people “want” to hear. But what happens is, when they boost the level, the bottom comes up in the mix. So we had to adjust that with some EQ to get back the balance that we had in our original mixes. If we didn’t do that, we wouldn’t have been able to preserve the sound we wanted. It was a real pain in the ass, frankly.

LEONHART: A lot of this comes down to Donald’s ears. He once said you could put him in a soulless studio and he’d find a way to get great sound. If you have a kick drum, piano, or vocal that doesn’t sound good to begin with, it doesn’t matter where you put them in the mix; they’re not going to sound right. I think not enough credit goes to good taste and the patience for getting the equation right.

FAGEN: Of course you want good microphones and all that, but it really has a lot to do with having the experience of knowing a good sound from a not-so-good sound. You’ve got to know it’s going to sound good next month, not just at that moment.

METTLER: Your standards are quite high, much like ours.

FAGEN: Oh, I’m not so much the missionary. I’m very pleasure-principle-oriented. [chuckles] I think Walter and I [pauses]… we started as jazz fans, going back to the origins of jazz in the ’20s — and before, even. It’s not just a matter of respecting traditions; we just like it. We understand the old structures and jazz traditions, and we find them to be valuable.

WALTER BECKER: NATURE’S WAYFARER 

METTLER: When you first started mixing in surround, would it be fair to say you were attempting to “reinterpret” things you’d already done?

BECKER: Actually, I’m still getting used to stereo. [both laugh] Having more channels of information and being able to bring more detail into a listening environment is an intriguing concept. It’s a chance to refresh your relationship with old stuff that you’ve done: revisit the master tapes and see that they’re properly served as you take another shot at rendering the music in this hybrid format. But the whole point of surround sound is novelty. Not novelty in the sense of cheapness, but novelty in terms of creating new effects that we haven’t heard before in music. The thing is, there isn’t a right way or a wrong way to do it. If people are experimenting with creating some sort of striking surround effect to complement their music, they should do exactly that. To try and impose some kind of orthodoxy on it at this point is silly.

METTLER: I like how, with the surround mix on Two Against Nature, I often feel like I’m in the middle of things. The drums and percussion hit me right in the chest. I can really feel it.

BECKER: While we were working on that one, we came to the conclusion that if the stuff is too spread out amongst the speakers, you end up losing some of the impact in the sense of the cohesion of the rhythm section — and the record in general — so we actually ended up moving toward a giant mono sound [laughs], with little splashes of separation here and there for fun. I don’t know if that’s the way other people do it or not.

METTLER: We’ve often talked about how much we love vinyl and surround sound, but how do you feel about downloading?

BECKER: I’ve only downloaded a few things from one of the popular, legitimized sites. Downloading in general has exposed kids to a lot of music that they would not have heard otherwise. Without weighing in on the commercial considerations involved, that is an important good thing. But, you know, contemporary culture has such a gadgetophile quality to it. I’m not sure how serious to take any particular aspect to it.

METTLER: I know you like satellite radio. Can terrestrial radio be saved?

BECKER: Anything that introduces elements of variety and musicality and shares information about who’s playing the music is tremendous. But I think we should take the existing structure of broadcast — in other words, the people who are running the [terrestrial] radio stations and the corporate people who are dictating the content of those stations — and put them into orbit. Then you would see an immediate and profound improvement in radio.

METTLER: Maybe there’s somewhere a terrestrial-radio cabal could meet, and…

BECKER: They do have that place. It’s called Washington, DC. [both laugh]

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