Saturday, 16 April 2011

Roger Nichols Interview

Roger (The Immortal) Nichols has engineered all of the Steely Dan records, Donald Fagen's "Nightfly" and upcoming "Kamakiriad" as well as many of the jazz and pop efforts produced by Walter Becker. He also discovered and broke the news that MCA had been using inferior master tapes for nearly all of the Steely Dan CDs manufactured in 1990-92. In the following piece put together a few years ago by "Metal Leg" founder Brian Sweet, Nichols talks about how he got into the recording business and then gives us a behind-the-scenes look at the how Becker and Fagen operated as Steely Dan in the studio.

Brian Sweet: Tell us about your background.
Roger Nichols: I was born in California and lived all over the U.S. until junior high school because my Dad was in the Air Force. He flew B-47s. When he got out of the Air Force in 1957 I went to high school in Cucamonga, the same one Frank Zappa went to. Frank actually used to come over to my house and mess around with guitars and things. After that I went to Oregon State University where I studied nuclear physics. Then I worked for Southern California Edison at the San Onofre Nuclear Power Plant as a nuclear operator from 1965 to 1968.

BS: How did you make the switch from nuclear power to rock?
RN: Me and a couple of friends built a recording studio, Quantum Studios, in Torrance, just south of Los Angeles. It started out as a four-car garage and when we'd converted it into our studio in about 1965 we recorded high school bands in our spare time. We built a hi-fi store also and began to supply custom equipment to people in the music business. That led to a lot of business for the studio and a lot of contacts. We made commercials -- Karen Carpenter sang on a lot of the ads and Larry Carlton did arrangements and played guitar. We also did some work with Kenny Rogers when he was still with the First Edition. So we expanded, building a larger studio out of an old post office and moved up from 4 tracks to 16 tracks. Then we started supplying equipment for other studios, including all the machinery for ABC's first studio. Phil Kaye was in charge of that studio and he hired me in about 1970 to do maintenance and engineering. I started right in working with Steve Barri and Phil Kaye on albums by the Grass Roots and Hamilton, Joe Frank and Reynolds and John Phillips and Denny Doherty of the Mama and the Papas.

BS: How did you get together with Steely Dan?
RN: Gary Katz came to ABC about a year after I did and he brought in Steely Dan. No one at ABC quite knew what to make of Donald and Walter so by default I started working with them. We hit it right off. The main reason I had gotten involved in the music business and recording was that I hated clicks, pops and ticks on records. I wanted to be able to play 2-track stuff direct from the studio on my system at home and have it really hi-fi. The only way I could get 2-track 15 i.p.s. masters was if I was working on them, so that was my big incentive for doing it. The strive for true hi-fi was common ground with Donald and Walter and Gary -- we're all perfectionists, especially Walter with his quad electrostatic speakers at home and the latest tone arm. It wasn't a drag for me to do things over and over until it was perfect, as here it would have driven a lot of other engineers up the wall. In my own way, I'm just as crazy as they are.

BS: At what stage are the Steely Dan songs when you are brought in?
RN: It depends. Either they haven't cut anything or, if Elliot Scheiner has been engineering in New York, I'll come in from the first overdub. They do their demos -- just the piano and voice stuff -- just the three of them, but as soon as anything is recorded, Elliot or myself is there.

BS: By that time, they have a good idea what they're after, right?
RN: It's amazing, my mouth still hangs open. They seem to know what's going to fill a little hole in a chorus that won't be recorded for a year. I don't know how they do it. I don't know if they know how they do it either, but they do. It makes it very easy to work. We never have to do things over again because of arrangement problems or because one instrument conflicts with another. Stuff will get done over again because a player's style won't match the tune, or a player's execution isn't good enough, or the horn section is out of tune, or something like that.

BS: Was Donald and Walter's contribution equal?
RN: It was always Donald and Walter together. They're both equally talented and it really was a fifty-fifty operation. Either one of them could've done the records alone, but you can tell there is a difference when both of them bounce ideas off each other. They get fine-tuned that much more. Walter's a great guitar player. The only thing is, he takes a long time to do solos, about an hour a bar, so it takes us a day to do an eight-bar solo. When we started using studio musicians, Walter would show 'em what he wanted, so the later guitar parts were very much influenced by him.

BS: How did Fagen and Becker get so much out of jaded session musicians?
RN: It's like the musical Olympics. Here's a musician whose style and capability they know, and they'll push him to ten percent beyond his limits. Just the chords they've written and the things they have in their mind; maybe Larry Carlton's not used to playing these scales over these chords. Another big factor is that we don't care how long it takes. The musicians will say, 'Hey, I'm really sorry it's taking so long. It's a great idea, I'm trying to execute it,' and we say, 'We don't care how long you take.' It's all constructively done, and it just takes a long time to do it. But every time somebody comes out, they say they've never played that well in their lives. And then they always want to come back.

BS: What's the story behind the solo in "Peg," which apparently frustrated an awful lot of guitarists?
RN: There were only eight guitarists who tried that tune, not thirty. It was just that everyone had their own idea of what the solo should be, and it just didn't match up to what Donald and Walter expected of it. Jay Graydon was their last ditch effort -- it became the Jay Graydon solo by default. It came out pretty much the way they had in mind, though. Usually they'd put a band together for the rhythm sections based on the tune and the style of the musicians: 'These three guys will work together on this tune, let's put 'em together and try it.' Sometimes it worked out, sometimes it didn't quite work out, so you'd put together another rhythm date later with a different combination. But it wasn't like there were ten tunes to cut and you tried to cut five different bands on all ten, and then picked the best one. It sort of got blown all out of proportion by the times the rumors started spreading around 'Eighty-five bands tried that tune!'

BS: How were the duties of Gary Katz and yourself divided?
RN: It worked out pretty well. Once in a while I'd have to slam him against the wall, keep him in line. 'I'm not doing that! Kerrump!' But it's just one of those things that clicks. The musicians pretty much know what they want. They're in charge of that, I'm in charge of getting it on tape and making it sound great.

BS: And Gary Katz's specialty?
RN: Hiring and firing musicians. (Roger laughs) No, Gary's good at getting the most out of Donald when he's doing his vocals. The rest of the time it was pretty much Donald and Walter leading the musicians down the right path, and then Gary Katz more or less the executive producer.

BS: As Steely Dan's records grew more mature, the complaint began to be heard that they were too perfect, that the raw edges had been homogenized out. How do you feel about that?
RN: We achieved perfection and abandoned it on the second album all in one evening. I remember mixing "King of the World." Everyone else went home; Gary Katz fell asleep on the floor and Denny Dias and I stayed until seven in the morning, doing it in little sections, getting the balance between all the instruments perfect, then on to the next section, all of it perfect. Then we spliced the 2-track master sections together, which is how we used to mix down before we got the Necam digital mixing system. The next afternoon we came to the studio and played it back; the song started, and then the fade came. We went, 'Wait a minute. Did we leave something out? What's going on here?' And we played it back again and we had to really concentrate to realize the song was going by. You could hear everything, but you couldn't hear anything, like sonic wallpa-per- really strange. We ended up using the mix we'd done ten hours before which had more three-dimensionality to it.

BS: Tell us about Wendel, the drum machine you designed.
RN: We found that there were certain feels that we couldn't get out of real drummers -- they weren't steady enough. So we had to design something that would do it perfectly, but with some human feeling, the right amount of layback. Instead of just one high-hat sound that repeats machine-like over and over, we had sixteen different ones, so it had the inflections. Wendel can play exactly what the drummer plays -- if he plays a little early or a little hard, Wendel plays it a little early or a little hard. Play it once, Wendel memorizes the song, then you play it again and it repeats what it hears.

BS: What happened to the song "The Second Arrangement?"
RN: A maintenance guy at Soundworks accidentally erased it -- the best tune on the album. We tried to recut it but it never came out well, so it was never on the album. That track was impossible to get anyway.

BS: Weren't there any safety copies made?
RN: No, because we'd made up our minds a long time before that we'd never use a safety, and we didn't want to be tempted to, because it's a copy, and it wouldn't be as good as it could be.

BS: Was there any special outboard equipment that you used with Steely Dan?
RN: When we were recording, we didn't use anything. Instead of using eq on the board to change a drum sound, for instance, we'd bring in 52 different kick or snare drums to try to get the sound we want. We found it's better to make the adjustments at the instrument end rather than try to fix it with eq and things. So we'll try many different instrument and microphone combinations with minimum or no eq at all to get something that sounds right.

BS: So Fagen and Becker were methodical but quite conventional in recording. What about mixing?
RN: When we were mixing we'd use a lot of limiters, especially the dbx limiters because they're nice and fast and you can't hear them do anything. We'd use those on most of the vocals just to level things out. We'd try not to bounce tracks together. A lot of people I've worked with would take backgrounds, which might be on 5 or 6 tracks and then bounce them together onto 2 tracks or 1 track, just as a matter of course. Or they'd ping-pong all the guitars together or all the horns together just because it's easy that way: one knob for the guitars, one knob for the horns and so on. But bouncing is a generation down (in analog recordings) and if you listen you can hear the difference, no matter how good the machine is. And the ambience disappears when you ping-pong things together. So, we tried to keep all the instruments apart on the separate tracks they were recorded on, so that you get true hi-fi, with the least amount of generations before it gets to record.

BS: Did you and Elliot Scheiner work together on the mixes?
RN: The way it started was, when it came down to mixing "The Royal Scam," they wanted to do it at A&R Studios in New York. They wanted me to do it, but I figured it would be better if Elliot did because he works in that studio every day and he knows the board and the room and he knows what things sound like on those particular speakers. I came in on it later and we worked as a team. I thought that was better than doing it all myself just out of ego or something. Also, bringing in someone who hadn't heard the material before, with fresh ears, helps. The stuff came out great because Elliot was new to the songs and would work the knob while I, who had already been working on the recording of the songs for about a year, could contribute more on the balances and the overall sound. It's just different levels of concentration and we've found that things come out best that way..

BS: How about explaining how you got the nickname 'The Immortal'?
RN: That was just a series of things over the years. See, they were trying to kill me. I was working on a Johnny Winter session on the weekends, with Steve Barn all day and with Steely Dan all night, so they had me going 24 hours a day. They tried running me into the ground, but it didn't work. Then there was the time when we were working at Cherokee Studios when two of the tape machines were grounded improperly and I touched both of the machines and everything shorted out. The face plate on one of the machines was completely melted but I didn't feel a thing. They figured something weird was going on.

BS: It must have been those years you spent in that nuclear power plant.
RN: Right. Radiation poisoning.

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