Steely Surround

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Donald Fagen's new album is out ("Sunken Condos") and getting some groovy reviews around these Interwebs. As such, I thought this might be a good time to share a reminder of the many cool audiophile-esque and surround sound discs related to him and his musical partner Walter Becker, collectively known as Steely Dan. Many of these are 24-bit, 96 kHz recordings so they are worth seeking out.

GAUCHO - While I have had and enjoyed the SACD of this "last" album of the original Steely Dan run for a while, I recently picked up a DVD-Audio version of the album and found it an even fuller experience. I recognize that technically they should be the same, but to my ear the DVD-A version sounds somehow warmer and more engaging. The surround mix is fun with a good use of the surrounds for horns and backing vocals and the occasional cymbal "ting"coming from behind to great effect. Never my fave Steely Dan album, I have come to like Gaucho a lot more since hearing it in surround. FYI, there is also a DTS 5.1 Disc version of this album available but that is a compressed format (which may in fact sound fine, but I have never heard it).

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MORPH THE CAT - This third solo album from Donald Fagen was available in a three disc set using Warner's short lived Music Video Interactive platform (more on that in a moment).  It was also out as a CD+DVD Audio disc (which I own) and I can attest that that disc sounds just ducky -- lush and swinging' as you'd expect a Donald Fagen album to be! You can find used copies for under $20 on Amazon, so grab 'em while you can!

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EVERYTHING MUST GO - Again, this came out on DVD Audio and is perhaps my favorite Steely Dan surround disc to date, with a rich immersive feel as well as the band's trademark exemplary musicianship. My only problem with this album overall is that the beautifully recorded drums tend to sound the same in the mix throughout, track-to-track, likely due to a production efficiency technique not unique to Steely Dan. When setting up a recording session, its not uncommon for engineers and producers to spend a couple days just working on drum sound before actual recording begins, doing all the necessary tweaking to get the sound just right. Then, when it is time to record, the drummer comes in an lays down the tracks using that same set up.The upside is consistency and it speeds up the mixing process. The downside is also consistency -- too much consistency! Thus, the drums -- and the songs -- can all start to feel sort of same-y (if you will). Perhaps this is why Steely Dan varied their drummers on earlier albums (when they no doubt had fatter record label budgets to fall back on). Apart from that, I like "Everything Must Go" and am happy to own high resolution surround mix of it. 

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TWO AGAINST NATURE - I do not own this album in surround sound yet -- the first of the comeback recordings Steely Dan made -- but I know it it is available on DVD Audio. Those discs are going for around $50-100 on eBay. Yikes! (Hey record label: you could probably sell a few of these pups if you'd re-release them!)

TWO AGAINST NATURE LIVE - There is a DTS 5.1 surround standard DVD featuring concert footage of the reformed Steely Dan breaking out its new album as well as classic hits from back in the day. I have this on my "TO GET" list as well.

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THE NIGHTFLY - This now classic album was out on SACD at one point and subsequently came out as a DualDisc (essentially a two sided DVD A disc with a standard CD side and a DVDA side).  Ouch -- It's going for about $150 used on Amazon!  A great album, no doubt. I will be curious to get this in a surround format someday when I can find a reasonably priced copy. $150? I don't think so.  To that, I remember not being entirely thrilled with the  digital-i-ness of the CD when it came out; in fact, the Quiex vinyl version I eventually got sounded much better than my original CD (so I sold the latter to a used record shop).  Hopefully in a higher resolution format this album will sound even better.

KAMAKIRIAD - This was also released in 5.1 on DVD Audio. And I am kicking myself for not picking it up when I could have. Now it is fetching collector's prices that are, well, out of my reach for a single album going from $65 - 140 on Amazon.   Still, its good to know it exists so you can keep your eye out for a bargain.

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NIGHTFLY TRILOGY - This MVI box set came and went in a flash, so now it is commanding heftier coinage ($89 used on Amazon!). But for that price you get CDs AND DVDs of the DTS and Dolby 5.1 mixes (as well as Advanced resolution PCM stereo, which I'm assuming means uncompressed full resolution audio) of each of Donald Fagen's first three solo albums , "The Nightfly", "Kamakiriad" and "Morph The Cat."  You also get a fourth disc that compiles all the "bonus" tracks on the individual albums onto a separate disc -- this is the kind of thing collectors love and would have probably do on their own anyhow (nice touch Warner Bros!).  The MVI format gives  you other goodies such as MP3s of each album, digital album art, interviews with the artist, ringtone generator, song lyrics, etc. Not a bad deal really. But if you are just looking for a high resolution surround mix, look for the DVD Audio or SACD versions separately.

WISH LIST: No, this is not a lost Steely Dan album. But it is a place to put out a request to the powers that be to open the archives already! You see, many of Steely Dan's early albums were released in Quadrophonic LP formats back in the day. So there are at least four-channel mixes of the first three seminal albums stashed away somewhere! Why aren't they out? We may never know.Hopefully, one day, we'll get them all in high res and 5.1.  We can dream, right?

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