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Monday, May 9, 2011

Roger Nichols, R.I.P.

Last month there was sad news in the music business that Roger Nichols passed away. Don't know him? Not a household name, I admit, but a legend in the recording industry.

I refer you to his website and a Wikipedia article. He was an extraordinarily talented guy with a degree in nuclear physics who became a music recording engineer (also a writer and an airplane pilot). He served artists from Placido Domingo to John Denver and many in between, but in particular he won seven Grammy awards for his work with Steely Dan. When SD emerged in the 1970s, there was nothing like their complex but catchy blend of rock, jazz, and blues. As much as the musicians themselves, Nichols was responsible for the distinctive SD sound that you hear -- not merely the sound that was present in the recording studio.

There is so much more to excellently reproduced sound than renting a studio, deploying a few microphones, and cutting a recording. That's especially true for a "group" like SD which is basically two guys augmented by a variable cadre of 5-10 studio musicians on every track. The art of a recording engineer is to capture each element of the music accurately, preserve it throughout the recording and mixing process, and then help the musicians and the producer get all the nuances of the performance onto the master recording. In the process the recording engineer must push against the limitations, complexities, and the natural imperfections of electronics.

Nichols earned the nickname of The Immortal because he could do this as well as, if not better than, anyone alive. When he needed technology that didn't exist, he invented it. After 30+ years, the SD albums he engineered still sound great. You can play a cut 15 times in a row and still hear new things -- clearly present but subtlely mixed for your eventual discovery. He also developed techniques to conserve old audio tapes.

Great job, Roger.