Roger Nichols (recording engineer)  

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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel

Roger S. Nichols (September 22, 1944 – April 9, 2011) was an American seven-time Grammy Award-winning recording engineer and producer.

Nichols was best known for his work with the group Steely Dan and John Denver, but his work includes numerous major music acts including the Beach Boys, Stevie Wonder, Frank Zappa, Crosby Stills & Nash, Al Di Meola, Roy Orbison, Cass Elliot, Plácido Domingo, Gloria Estefan, Diana Ross, Bela Fleck & the Flecktones, Rickie Lee Jones, Kenny Loggins, Mark Knopfler, Eddie Murphy, Michael McDonald, James Taylor, and Toots Thielemans, among others. In 2006 Nichols' work was formally recognized by The Recording Academy (Grammys) Producers and Engineers Wing.

In May 2010 Nichols was diagnosed with stage 4 pancreatic cancer. Nichols died at home from his illness surrounded by his family and friends.


The Steely Dan years

First meeting

In 1971 Nichols met Gary Katz, newly hired at the ABC Dunhill label as a record producer. Walter Becker and Donald Fagen were also working at ABC as song writers; one night Nichols was drafted, when no one else on the staff wanted to be involved, to stay and engineer a demo session that Becker and Fagen were holding to record their tunes for use by other artists. Nichols discovered he had a great deal in common with the then-unknown duo, including sharing a taste for impeccable audio quality. Nichols was asked to engineer their first record album in 1972, and he would wind up working with Katz, Becker and Fagen in recording the first, decade-long incarnation of the band that became known as Steely Dan.

Engineering the birth of Steely Dan

As a result of working with Nichols, Becker and Fagen and producer Katz were determined to have him seated behind the recording console for the 1972 start of studio sessions their first album, Can't Buy a Thrill. This conflicted with Nichols' summer vacation, and the decision was made to postpone recording until Nichols returned, much to ABC president Jay Lasker's annoyance, due to the amount of money advanced to the fledgling band. Once begun, the process was exacting. Nichols later commented: "We finished it in six months, which was quick for them. But even then their acceptance level was way above everyone else's. They never had the attitude of 'It's getting late that's good enough', or 'No-one else will notice'. Everything had to be as near perfect as technically and humanly possible." The album sold well and yielded two hit singles, ensuring Nichols would be tied to the band's fortunes.

Nickname: "The Immortal"

Interviewed in 1993 for 'Metal Leg, the Steely Dan Magazine', Nichols stated (regarding his nickname that appears on many of his credits): "...they were trying to kill me. I was working on a Johnny Winter session on the weekends, with Steve Barri all day and with Steely Dan all night, so they had me going 24 hours a day. They tried running me into the ground, but it didn't work. Then there was the time when we were working at Cherokee Studios when two of the tape machines were grounded improperly and I touched both of the machines and everything shorted out. The face plate on one of the machines was completely melted but I didn't feel a thing. They figured something weird was going on."

Innovations for 'Countdown to Ecstasy', and 'The hand'

When Becker and Fagen expressed frustration during the band's second album Countdown to Ecstasy with the difficulty in acquiring a steady drum tempo, Nichols was forced to improvise. The track Show Biz Kids had proved especially challenging in regards to a steady beat. Quoted in Brian Sweet's Steely Dan biography Reelin' in the Years, Nichols recalled:
"It was just one of those tunes that that was so very difficult to play exactly in tempo, with every instrument in sync. ... There were no drum machines in those days, so we made a 24 track, eight bar tape loop, which at 30 ips was a considerable length of tape, trailed it out through the door into the studio, around a little idler which was set up on a camera tripod, back into the studio and then copied that to a second 24 track machine. Everything was on tape except the lead vocal and the lead guitar. It worked like a dream."

The album's back cover photograph featured a photo of Steely Dan in the recording studio control room, and included Nichols' seemingly disembodied hand on the mixing console while he hid beneath it.

Steely Dan's studio-only years

After the third Steely Dan album Pretzel Logic and the tour by the band in support of it, Steely Dan ceased touring and turned into a band that only performed on recordings. Nichols' duties became more diverse, and ranged from diagnosing a flaw on the master tape of the band's biggest selling single, Rikki Don't Lose That Number, (a workman's gob of mustard on the tape was found by Nichols to be to blame), to helping to recover the sound on their fourth album, Katy Lied, which had been recorded at ABC Studios and had suffered when the master tape was processed through a faulty DBX noise reduction system while mixing. He would win three Grammy Awards for his work with the band in these years, and won 3 more for his efforts on 2000's Steely Dan comeback album, Two Against Nature.

Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "Roger Nichols (recording engineer)" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on original research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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