The success of Steely Dan was built on the unusual, inspired, occasionally acerbic songwriting of Walter Becker and Donald Fagen and their all-encompassing perfectionism.
The recording engineer Roger Nichols shared their obsession with audio quality and assisted them throughout their career, as right-hand man to producer Gary Katz, and then as executive engineer when Becker and Fagen took over production in the 2000s.
Nichols was a core component of the teams awarded six Grammys for the best-selling albums Aja in 1977, Gaucho in 1981 and Two Against Nature in 2000, as well as the soundtrack to the 1978 film FM, including the Dan hit single "FM (No Static At All)". In 1997 he won another Grammy, as producer of Best Children's Album for All Aboard, the last recording by his friend John Denver. In a storied career that lasted over four decades, and took in mastering, remastering, remix work and the development of several pioneering techniques, he also worked with Rickie Lee Jones, Placido Domingo, Toto, Rosanne Cash, Rodney Crowell, the Beach Boys and China Crisis, engineering Flaunt The Imperfection, their beautiful Becker-produced album.
Born in Oakland, California in 1944, he was the son of a USAF pilot. In his early teens the family settled in Rancho Cucamonga near Los Angeles. There, he met Frank Zappa, who shared his interests in music and reel-to-reel recording. "I bought a little stereo quarter-inch machine and Frank would come over to my house and play guitar, and we would do multiple passes of guitars and bounce them together," he recalled.
He began taping club gigs and amateur bands while majoring in nuclear physics at Oregon State University and working at the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station. He built a four-track studio in a garage, where he recorded commercials with Karen Carpenter and early material by Kenny Rodgers and the First Edition. He was recruited to work alongside Phil Kaye and Steve Barri at ABC-Dunhill Records in 1970; the following year, Katz joined, as did Becker and Fagen, originally as songwriters. "The striving for true hi-fi was common ground," Nichols said. "It wasn't a drag for me to do things over and over until it was perfect. In my own way, I'm just as crazy as they are."
Nichols proved so integral to the Dan project that they awaited his return from holiday before embarking on their 1972 debut Can't Buy A Thrill, which contained "Do It Again" and "Reelin' In The Years", their first two US hits. While recording "Show Biz Kids" for the follow-up Countdown To Ecstasy in 1973, Nichols devised an ingenious way of keeping all the instruments in sync before adding overdubs. "We made a 24-track, eight-bar tape loop, which at 30 inches per second 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," he told the Steely Dan biographer Brian Sweet. "Everything was on tape except the lead vocal and the lead guitar. It worked like a dream."
Nichols' contribution was acknowledged when his disembodied hand appeared from underneath the mixing desk on the back cover of Countdown To Ecstasy, along with his credit as "The Immortal". "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," he recalled, though he said his nickname had a dual origin. "At Cherokee Studios two of the tape machines were grounded improperly and I touched both and everything shorted out. The face plate on one of the machines was completely melted but I didn't feel a thing."
His ears and technical know-how proved invaluable in the Dan's pursuit for the audio Holy Grail as they eschewed concerts for longer spells in the studio. He engineered Pretzel Logic (1974), rescuing the future US Top 5 single "Rikki Don't Lose That Number", whose master tape had been affected by a drop of mustard; Katy Lied (1975), spotting that a faulty DBX noise reduction system had compromised the sonics; and The Royal Scam (1976), which featured "Haitian Divorce", their biggest UK hit.
In 1978, during the lengthy gestation of Gaucho, the engineer's willingness to indulge the Dan's insistence on near-metronomic tempos resulted in a computer that sampled drum parts and played them back with a near-human feel. Known as "Wendel", and heard to best effect on "Hey Nineteen", it took six weeks and cost $150,000 but set the template for today's drum machines.
When the Dan went on hiatus in 1981, Nichols helped Becker and Fagen on their solo projects and was on board when they reconvened in 1993. He oversaw the remastering of their catalogue and mixed Alive In America (1995) and Everything Must Go (2003).
Roger Nichols, record engineer and producer: born Oakland, California 22 September 1944; married Conrad Reeder (two daughters); died West Palm Beach, Florida 9 April 2011.