When planning his fourth solo album, Sunken Condos, Steely Dan’s Donald Fagen knew he wanted a warm, rich sound, the kind he and Walter Becker achieved when working at such fabled New York rooms as A&R and Automated Sound. “Those studios all had their own sound and each room had its own sound,” Fagen recalls. “The live chambers at A&R were famous because Phil Ramone had tuned them a certain way. We used them when were mixing Aja. They had this beautiful sound when you clapped your hands, a really transparent sound. It didn’t have any of that “ssh” you hear with digital echo. It was beautiful. We always looked forward to working in those studios. But now you have to adapt.”
Even for an artist of Fagen’s stature, new rules insist on guerilla recording and getting the most bang for your studio buck. Joined by longtime Steely Dan associate, multi-instrumentalist, and producer Michael Leonhart, Fagen and a cast of Steely Dan regulars set off on recording at such boutique New York studios as Audio Paint, Hirsch Studios, Stratosphere, and “Pat Dillett’s Studio,” as well as Sear Sound, Avatar, and Leon- hart’s own Candyland.
“The incentive was to find a place where we could have a lockout seven days a week to have more time and perhaps save money,” Leonhart explains. “Morph the Cat was recorded almost like a live jazz album, with musicians in the room and not a lot of overdubbing; it was a break from the Steely Dan records and Donald’s earlier solo albums. Donald wanted to approach this one like a painter, doing some things live and overdubbing other things. When you’re adding Prophet 5s and keyboards that have different tunings and soloists are coming in and out, you need a lot more time.”
Lacking the corporate backing once afforded Steely Dan, Fagen and Leonhart were also looking to save money. “If we’re paying $2,000 a day, seven days a week, that’s 14 grand,” Leonhart says. “So we figured, ‘How do we do it and maintain the fidelity?’ I made up an Excel chart diagramming which studio would be best for each element of the session. It’s like being a parent and deciding which school the kids are going to.”
But saving cash didn’t mean they scrimped on gear. Candyland, where drums and some instruments were recorded, is a feast of vintage keys including an Optagon, Hammond L100, Clavinet D6, Prophet 5 (from Aja), Fender Jaguar organ, Hohner E7 clavinet, Roland Juno-6, 140 and 200A Wurlitzers, Hohner Bass 3, Farfisa organ with a Partner 14 Drum Machine, Crumar organ, and a ’70s Realistic synthesizer by Moog, as well as Univox Hofner bass, Melody Maker bass, and an electric sitar given to Leonhart as a wedding present from Walter Becker. Leonhart records in Logic, and uses outboard gear including a UA M610 preamp, Shadow Hills Quad Golden Age, Altec 1591a, Teletronix LA2A, and Neumann U87 and KM84, JRS-34 Cloud and Shure SM57 microphones.
Ultimately, the bang is in the buck, Sunken Con- dos sounding extremely rich, nuanced, and clean. Fagen’s vocals are especially relaxed sounding, and the intimacy of Leonhart’s drum work (credited as “Earl Cooke, Jr.”) imbues the entire album with a cozy R&B groove.
Sunken Condos sounds very warm and intimate. Was there a sonic template for the album?
Fagen: I’ve always looked for a natural sound. I like a fairly dead room; I don’t like a big roomy sound. It was recorded mainly in two studios. We did some horns in the bigger rooms, but I think it’s really just a matter of taste and just knowing what mics to use. Using tunable key- boards are important. They sound more natural than synthesizers.
Was recording in smaller rooms about getting the most out of limitations?
Fagen: Pretty much. Even though Steely Dan recorded in the greatest studios, we never needed really high-tech gear. We always had some state-of-the-art stuff, but as far as instruments, we used traditional instruments for the most part. Getting a good sound is really a matter of taste, if you want to know the truth. It’s not so much about equipment as knowing the difference between what sounds good, and what only sounds good for a minute. You have to know what’s going to sound good next week.
How does one develop those ears?
Fagen: I really don’t know. Walter and I always used the jazz we heard on those records that Rudy Van Gelder used to make for Prestige and Blue Note; that was our template. His records sounded clear and dry, pretty much. Although they sounded very lively.
Do you have a home-recording rig?
Fagen: Yeah, in the beginning, I gave Michael some really cheap demos made in GarageBand. I play everything myself without time correction. I try to get the good groove. I just use whatever sounds come with GarageBand, then I [compose] a drum track and a bass track and a couple keyboards and something that sounds a little bit like a guitar and something that sounds a little bit like a clavinet. I do a little rhythm arrangement of the tune. Then Mike played drums to my arrangements, and we had a drum track. Then we started replacing the parts with real basses, and real pianos, and Rhodes pianos.
What’s your process for tracking vocals?
Fagen: If I write a song, I don’t practice it; I work it out in the studio. I sing the song for the first time in front of an engineer. And then kind of work out how I want to do it by doing takes. I can see why someone if they’re good at clicking a button and recording themselves, that’s a good way to do it. I like to have an engineer there. I do a lot of takes.
Michael, how did you record Donald’s vocals?
Leonhart: Donald needs, in the digital realm, absolutely zero latency. That’s an issue with a lot of digital gear. We were recording the vocals in Logic; Pro Tools to me has a better system for latency; it’s been designed that way. With Donald, we had the mics set up and the levels were good so I would just hit record and make sure nothing was going over [into the red]. A key part of the chain was the Metric Halo LIO-8 A/D converter; I can’t say enough about it. The Metric Halo provided zero latency compared to other pieces. The whole chain was the Metric Halo, the [Teletronix] LA2A, his U87, the UA 610 preamp, and Mogami cabling. Then it was the mix. Just the right amount of groove, then a sense of pitch to give him something to latch onto. I approached any vocal guidance as a lover of his music and his lyrics. He had all the melodies set, and he would sing and I’d use my best bedside manner, there would come a point when he needed to do more takes, or I might recommend a melody line. We developed a sense of trust. And I think he sang his ass off.
What kind of effects did you use on his vocals?
Leonhart: We used some Altiverb plug-ins on vocals in mixing to an SSL board, but we always track vocals dry. We used a little compression from the Teletronix LA2A, just kissing it. In mixing, we also had an EMT 250, a Bricasti Design reverb, and a Studer 2-track for slap. The UA only goes down to -10, so I used an in-line pad, which colored it, but for non-super-high volume, it’s great. We also had a Shadow Hills Quad GAMA with the mod to switch between nickel (Focusrite), iron (Neve), and steel (API) transformers. Donald’s first vocals went through the Neve setting then we moved to Hirsh.
So Michael Leonhart is “Earl Cooke, Jr.”?
Fagan: Yes, that’s his nom de musíque. Michael would get behind the drums sometimes at Steely Dan soundchecks and I thought he had a great feel. So when we started doing this record, I gave him one or two tracks to play on, and he sounded so good that he ended up doing all of them. Being a jazz musician from a young age, he has this little shuffle in his feel, very old-school, and relaxed. That really made the record feel like it does.
Michael, how did you approach the drums on the records?
Leonhart: After choosing the right drums, including a Ludwig & Leedy snare from Homer Steinweiss, and 1970s Ludwig drums I borrowed from Sean Lennon, we started recording what we thought we would be demo drum tracks. Sometimes Donald would say, “It sounds great, do another pass and send it to me tomorrow.” I would do the takes, the feel would be there, but the sound wasn’t right. There was no rush; Donald is never in a hurry. I am a very limited drummer; I do what I do. But nothing is triggered.
Did you grid the drums?
Leonhart: Everything went to click. But Donald is not looking to put everything on the grid, because that feel is awful. Steely Dan was notorious in the ’70s and ’80s for trying to create the perfect drum take. Moving these tiny increments that 99% of the world can’t hear. But Donald is open to anything to get that feel, that snap, but we didn’t line up the kick drum in Pro Tools. That’s not a human feel. So when I was engineering and cutting things up, Donald wouldn’t look. The easy thing would be to snap it to the grid. But Donald has the patience and the discipline to disregard the visual aspect. We recorded the drums in my studio using a Shure SM 57 or vintage AKG D1000E on snare, two Cloud JR34s as overheads, Neumann U87 or Audix D6 on the kick, an old MD421 on toms, and a KM84 on the hi-hat, with no room mics.
The record is very intimate sounding.
Leonhart: That wasn’t a mistake; it took many months to do it. We put up baffles for horns and drums in my studio. At the brownstone, it was a long space, so we put up gobos and cut the room in half. We put up baffles and turned the control room into an iso booth and used the live room as my station to monitor. We did it very patiently and made wise chess moves.
Did Donald enjoy working in the smaller studios?
Leonhart: Well, after mixing the album, Donald asked very sweetly, “Where does it go now? What do I get? Tape or acetate?” I said, “We can email you a hi-res version.” “What is that?” he said. “What planet are you on?” Donald is amazed by those mesmerized, catatonic people who walk down the street looking at their phones.
Is recording in smaller studios about working within the limitations?
Leonhart: Absolutely. I got used to asking myself, “Is there any ambient noise, hard drive noise, refrigerator noise?” When you’re in a huge studio, that is usually taken care of. But even in world-class studios, I’ve heard playbacks where overheads are not on, or they’re clipping. Rookie sh*t. People get sloppy. Working in smaller studios takes more concentration; you have to be very careful to not f*ck it up. For example, today in my studio, it’s raining; I can’t record. So today we’d take a break until it stops raining. Sometimes, it was a nuisance to have to check everything in smaller studios and make sure things were not losing fidelity. With Donald’s albums, if there’s the slightest instance of things smearing or being out of phase or cancelling, it’s thrown out. We got rid of an entire seven- horn arrangement on a Steely Dan recording because the flutes were wrong. Knowing that, you have to really be careful. That’s Donald’s level. I am a fan of lo-fi and sampledelia, or The Band albums; there’s an honesty and integrity to that. But with Donald, that’s not the medium. The medium is getting this extremely rich, three-dimensional thing. That’s been the nicest compliment, people saying this is rich and full and tight sounding.
Donald, do you miss the days of working with analog consoles and tape compared to digital and its speed?
Fagen: The greatest thing about tape was how a really experienced engineer knew how to saturate the tape when recording drums or guitars to fatten everything up. It was a very delicate thing. You don’t want to sound distorted, but you do want a little of that saturation that you get using analog tape. Someone like Phil Ramone knew how to do it; Elliot Scheiner learned it from Phil. It really made the drums sound great. Everything sounded a little warmer on tape. But because we did so much overdubbing, after a while the oxide started to come off and we had a lot of errors. We had a lot of trouble with tape; it would come off cause we played it so many times! So I actually like working in digital.
How do you feel about the notion of work- ing at smaller studios and being more self reliant?
Fagen: Well, I think it makes sense. You can re- ally set up a little studio in your house; that’s obviously the way to go. It’s too bad, ’cause I love recording in [pro] studios. I love the differences between them. I loved working at A&R and Automated Sound and all these great studios that had these beautiful-sounding rooms and I loved the way they smelled and the wood! It was fantastic. And also, I like having a second engineer, and someone to go get coffee and all that stuff! [Laughs.] But that’s not happening now. Leonhart: I tell people to surround themselves with experienced people. When you’re with someone who has a lifetime of experience, that’s how you learn. I can’t record a 30-piece orchestra; I would be sh*tting my pants. So I know when to call someone in. Studio gear is only made to further a great idea. I like gear, but I prefer a great idea, something you can’t buy or put your hands on. It’s great to understand the gear, but do it with humility, realizing that there are people who only do this stuff. That’s their passion. The guys at Daptone and Truth in Soul learned by failing and going to the guys from the ’60s and ’70s. You learn it by making mistakes with people who can show you how to correct it.