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Steely Dan Engineer Roger Nichols Dies At Age 66

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Steely Dan Engineer Roger Nichols Dies At Age 66

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Steely Dan Engineer Roger Nichols Dies At Age 66

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The recording industry is mourning the loss of one of the best set of ears in the business. The sound engineer Roger Nichols died earlier this month after a long battle with pancreatic cancer. He worked with many of the greats - Placido Domingo, Frank Sinatra, Rickie Lee Jones and Rosanne Cash. But his work with the group Steely Dan defined his perfectionism on songs like this from the eclectic jazz rock group's third album "Pretzel Logic."

(Soundbite of song, "Rikki, Don't Lose That Number")

STEELY DAN (Music Group): Rikki, don't lose that number. You don't want to call nobody else. Send it off in a letter to yourself. Rikki, don't lose that number.

NORRIS: Steely Dan, by the way, is not a person. It's the name of a music group formed by Walter Becker and Donald Fagen, and Donald Fagen joins us now.

Welcome to the program.

Mr. DONALD FAGEN (Musician, Steely Dan): Hi. How are you doing?

NORRIS: I'm doing all right. I'm so glad that you were able to join us to talk about an engineer and a man who sounds like he was also a good friend.

Mr. FAGEN: Yeah. We worked with Roger for many years, going back to 1971 or '72.

NORRIS: Where do you hear Roger Nichols in your music? Give me an example.

Mr. FAGEN: I think in truth, a lot of it really has to do with the fastidiousness of the recording, making sure everything was recorded properly. In those days, of course, we were working with analog tape, these big multitrack tapes. And I remember once, a tape wouldn't play back in one spot, and it turns out that someone had, you know, like part of their cheese sandwich...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. FAGEN: ...had, you know, fallen into the tape machine, and Roger had to actually cut around the piece of tape with the piece of Muenster cheese on it or something.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. FAGEN: And he could do all that kind of thing, you know?

NORRIS: I want to ask you about one album in particular, the album "Countdown to Ecstasy" and the song "Bodhisattva." Was that an example of Nichols' work?

(Soundbite of song, "Bodhisattva")

Mr. FAGEN: Those days, when you were recording onto tape, the idea was to put as much level onto tape as possible. That is to say recorded the highest volume possible without distortion because that way, you would saturate the tape in a certain way that would make drums and guitars sound fat and rich and...

NORRIS: That's not easy to do, isn't it?

Mr. FAGEN: Well, you have to a lot of experience, and Roger had - in those days, engineers had a lot of experience recording live bands much more than they do now since people work digitally now a lot. And he actually knew all about the acoustics of recording live drums and guitars, and he knew how to get the best sound.

NORRIS: He wasn't just a sound engineer. He was also an innovator. He came up with one of the first drum machines while recording "Gaucho." How that happened?

Mr. FAGEN: We wanted - we were having trouble recording a track, and I remember saying something, gee, if we could just, you know, have a drum sequence or - that sounded as good as a live recording, and that we could manipulate the different elements, how, you know, we would know how to get this track. And Roger said, I can do that. Give me three weeks.

And three weeks later, he came in with a computer and started typing these rows of numbers into it. And we recorded a snare drum, and he hit a key, and we heard a snare drum. And in those days, this was like a big thrill. You know, it was very exciting.

NORRIS: What song do we hear that on?

Mr. FAGEN: Actually, it was on a song called "Hey Nineteen."

(Soundbite of song, "Hey Nineteen")

NORRIS: Donald Fagen, good to talk to you.

Mr. FAGEN: Thanks very much.

NORRIS: That was Donald Fagen. He and Walter Becker founded the band Steely Dan. He was talking to me about Roger Nichols, a sound engineer, who died earlier this month in Burbank, California.

(Soundbite of song, "Hey Nineteen")

STEELY DAN: (Singing) Mm, mm, mm, skate a little lower now. The Cuervo Gold, the fine Columbian...

NORRIS: You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

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