As we stated earlier in the news, MCA has admitted to using faulty masters for the recent pressings of the entire Steely Dan catalog. It was exposed by Dan engineer Roger Nichols in the following article he wrote for the October 1991 issue of EQ Magazine.
By Roger Nichols
I originally got involved in recording music because I hated clicks
and pops on record. I figured that the only way that I was going to get good
quality recordings to play was to record them myself. I could then bring home
two-track 15 ips copies to play on my stereo. Much better than the Rice Crispy
sound of vinyl LPs.
When the Compact Disc became a reality, I was beside myself. 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. Since CDs preserved all the characteristics of the original master tape, I could now enjoy music without the drawbacks of black vinyl.
The first project I worked on that became a Compact Disc was Donald Fagen's "Nightfly" album. I couldn't wait to get the CD in my hot little hands and compare it with the original mixes. When the CD arrived, I ran to my audio system and threw the CD into my player. After about 30 seconds I was ready to throw in the towel. The CD didn't sound anything like the final mixes. Was I wrong about digital audio? Was the Compact Disc truly inferior to the vinyl disc that it was to replace?
I started doing some checking with the mastering facility where we mastered the album. Bob Ludwig at Masterdisk in New York told me that the record company never asked for the 1610 digital master that we'd made. Instead, they had requested a 30 ips half-inch analog tape copy of our digital mixes. Then they made the CD master from this analog copy. No wonder my CD didn't sound like the original mixes. After we raised enough hell, new CD masters were prepared and new CDs were pressed. I compared the new one to the original mixes.It matched perfectly. Whew!
This was in late 1982. I figured that there was a necessary learning curve for the record companies to get their act together and realize that digital audio Compact Discs should not be made from second or third generation analog tape copies. Isn't nine years enough time?
In 1982, Donald Fagen, Gary Katz and myself gathered up all of the original Steely Dan tapes (15 ips analog) and transferred them to digital format so that they would not deteriorate any further. This was in anticipation of catalog re-release in the new Compact Disc format. The first two albums to be released on CD were "Aja" and "Gaucho." I listened to the CDs and they were fine.
Mobile Fidelity is licensed to produce gold-plated CDs of "Aja" and "Gaucho." They called me up to ask me if I liked the sound of their pressings. I listened to them and compared them to the CDs from MCA. I figured the only difference I would hear would be the difference between the gold plating and the aluminum plating on the stock CD. I was shocked! They sounded completely different. The gold ones sounded worse. The gold "Gaucho" CD was even a different speed, about a quarter tone sharper than the original CD from MCA.
A writer I know called me to ask if I heard any difference between the stock CDs and the gold CDs. I told him what I found. He said that he didn't hear any difference. The lightbulp went on in my thought balloon! The stock CDs that I had were produced seven years ago and the ones my friend used were just purchased at Tower Records. I jumped in my car and zipped over to the nearest record store and purchased new copies of the CDs in question. He was right, the new stock CDs sounded exactly like the gold CDs, including the pitch shift on the "Gaucho" CD.
The time we spent transferring all of the original masters was wasted. The record company in their infinite wisdom decided that when they needed new 1630 CD masters to send to the CD plant, that it would be better to use the EQ'd analog copy that had been sitting around for 15 years instead of the digital tapes that we supplied to them nine years ago for just this purpose. And on top of everything else, they couldn't even make sure that the analog machine that played back the "Gaucho" tape was going the right speed.
I guess this is all just a part of a grander scheme -- make all of the CDs sound worse and worse until we can't tell the difference between Compact Discs and the new Digital Compact Cassette that the record companies are pushing.
I went to my storage locker and found all of my old vinyl LPs. I haven't thrown my turntable away yet either. Maybe the clicks and pops aren't quite so bad after all.
Then, in the January 11, 1992 issue of Billboard, MCA admitted there was a mistake...
By Dan Levitin
LOS ANGELES -- MCA Records accidentally used inferior master tapes in the manufacturing of seven Steely Dan compact discs, the label has admitted.
All of Steely Dan's original albums, from 1972's "Can't Buy A Thrill" through 1980's "Gaucho," were transferred to CD from the proper master tapes for their initial run in 1985; but subsequent pressings, including current warehouse and retailer stock, were made from faulty masters.
Billboard learned of the mistake as MCA was assembling "Steely Dan Gold -- Expanded Edition." The new release, however, was mastered from the proper tapes. Modeled after 1982's vinyl compilation, "Steely Dan Gold," the set includes two Donald Fagen solo cuts written for film soundtracks, as well as a rare live version of "Bodhisattva" from the group's 1974 tour.
Andy McKaie, VP of catalog development and special products A&R for MCA, says the first seven Steely Dan CDs will be remanufactured from the proper masters and released chronologically, two at a time," beginning in early 1992. The new CDs will bear a "digitally remastered" sticker.
"We made a mistake and we'll fix it," McKaie explains. "We're committed to getting the right product out there. There have been other errors which we also fixed, involving CDs from Elton John and the Who." There have been no consumer complaints about the Steely Dan CDs, he adds.
The tapes used to master the inferior Steely Dan CDs were the original analog masters; but according to Roger Nichols, one of Steely Dan's recording engineers, they were in terrible shape, due to improper storage, and had poor fidelity. In 1981, Nichols meticulously transferred them to new 3M digital masters, in anticipation of demand for CD catalog reissues. Although MCA used the new digital masters for an initial release in 1985, subsequent runs were mistakenly made from the old analog masters, which have been steadily deteriorating.
Ironically, Mobile Fidelity Sound Labs, manufacturer of high-quality, gold-plated CDs that sell for twice the price of standard CDs, was also furnished the wrong masters by MCA and used them for its Ultradisc releases of "Aja" and "Gaucho."
Nichol's immediate reaction was one of disgust. "What pisses me off is to spend 20 years doing this, and spending two years on "Gaucho" alone. Two years, every fucking day in the studio, and it comes to this. I have no reason to continue. I quit. I'm quitting the music business."
Steely Dan's recordings are considered by experts to contain some of the finest engineering of all time. "Gaucho" won the best-engineering Grammy in 1980, and previous efforts, including 1977's "Aja" and 1975's "Katy Lied" have been hailed as recording masterpieces.
To get more information on the problem, ICE, the CD newsletter followed up with Andy McKaie, VP of catalog development at MCA:
For a clarification and follow-up, ICE contacted Andy McKaie, MCA's VP of catalog development and special markets A&R. While McKaie admits the story was factually correct, he feels it may have blown things out of proportion a bit since his department has never received a consumer complaint about the sound quality of its Steely Dan CDs. (Neither has ICE, for that matter.) The CDs in question -- the second run onwards -- were actually remastered from the true analog master tapes, usually a best case scenario. But in Steely Dan's case, the group and engineer Nichols had painstakingly prepared better, more permanent masters back in 1985 that were used only for the first run of CDs and then inadvertently shelved.
"When digital first came in, there were many formats being kicked around," McKaie tells ICE. "One of them was these oversized Scotch reels, digitally encoded analogs. That's what Steely Dan chose. Realizing their analog masters were deteriorating, they went in and remastered all the albums on these oversized, heavy-duty reels. When it came time to do the CDs, they said 'Use those,' so on the first go-around, they (MCA employees) did. Unfortunately, the oversized reels was one of the formats that lost. So when they did the second go-around of CDs, the studio (engineers) didn't have access to those machines: there are only a couple of places that do. So, having the original analog tapes, they probably just did what they thought was right and used those. Unfortunately, those original analogs don't sound as good as the digital transfers that the group did on the oversized analogs don't sound as good as the digital transfers that the group did on the oversized Scotch reels, because Steely Dan had really worked on them to get them right."
"Hence, the second CDs don't sound as good as the first, albeit they don't sound bad, and I've never had any complaints. They sound as good as the average, straight reissue CD out there today. So you're dealing with, 'Yes, they could sound better, but they sound fine.' It's unfortunate, and I feel bad about it, but it's not the same as when we did Elton John's 11-17-70 where half the CD was taken from a third generation source. We're probably going to stop all our (production) orders, remaster them all at once, sell off what we have in the marketplace and then go right into production of the new ones. We'll definitely upgrade them and put a little sticker on them so that you know they're upgraded."
"McKaie says that the label does not plan to offer consumers exchanges for their old CDs. Besides that, he could offer ICE no tips or guidelines to determine the original CDs from the re-runs, but he pointed out that the initial runs were undoubtedly large. "This is what you get into when you have all these damn systems," he says in obvious frustration. "Sometimes when we remaster, we have to go out and rent a quadraphonic machine, because some of the '70s stuff was mixed to quad."
While MCA does not have a "formal" return policy, we believe it's only fair for them to exchange an inferior CD for a correctly remastered one. Andy McKaie is not as bad as some record executives and inherited the problem so we don't think that we should make his life a living hell at this time. Since the remastered CDs will not be available for several months, there's nothing for him to offer in exchange. So there's no point in writing him until all the new CDs are in the marketplace.
What you can do until that time is to try to determine if you have any defective CDs. It won't be easy since there are no distinctive serial numbers to differentiate the pressings, so you will have to let your ears tell the difference. If you have a copy of "Gold -- Expanded Edition," you can compare the sound of its tracks (which used the correct tapes) to the respective tracks on your other Dan CDs. If you can't hear a difference, you don't have a problem. If you hear a difference, make a note of what you hear that is inferior and hang tight.
After the remastered CDs are all available, you should send your inferior CDs with a nice letter to Andy McKaie detailing the differences you've found in sound quality and how you would like to exchange your inferior CDs for good ones. No threats, no boycotts, no profanity. Just communicate an expectation of a reasonable response for a reasonable request.
Make sure you get the CDs insured when you mail them, and send them "return receipt requested" to confirm delivery. We think this is your best chance to allow MCA to handle the situation maturely. We will keep you up-to-date on this situation.
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