Written by 7:03 am Audiophile Music

Steely Surround

Mark Smotroff looks at the Steely Dan surround mixes and finds a lot to like.



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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 LIV
E – 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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