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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
RN: Right. Radiation poisoning.