Roger Nichols: Recording engineer who won six Grammys for his work with Steely Dan

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.

News
people
News
people
Arts and Entertainment
Keys to success: Andrew and Julian Lloyd Webber
arts + entsMrs Bach had too many kids to write the great man's music, says Julian Lloyd Webber
Voices
Left: An illustration of the original Jim Crowe, played by TD Rice Right: A Couple dressed as Ray and Janay Rice
voices

By performing as African Americans or Indians, white people get to play act a kind of 'imaginary liberation', writes Michael Mark Cohen

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Hand out press photograph/film still from the movie Mad Max Fury Road (Downloaded from the Warner Bro's media site/Jasin Boland/© 2014 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.)
films'You have to try everything and it’s all a process of elimination, but ultimately you find your path'
Arts and Entertainment
Imelda Staunton as Dolores Umbridge in the Harry Potter films
books

New essay by JK Rowling went live on Pottermore site this morning

News
Russia Today’s new UK channel began broadcasting yesterday. Discussions so far have included why Britons see Russia as ‘the bad guy’
news

New UK station Russia Today gives a very bizarre view of Britain

News
people

Top Gear presenter is no stranger to foot-in-mouth controversy

Arts and Entertainment
Keira Knightley and Benedict Cumberbatch at the premiere of The Imitation Game at the BFI London Film Festival
filmsKeira Knightley tried to miss The Imitation Game premiere to watch Bake Off
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Mobile Developer (.NET / C# / Jason / Jquery / SOA)

£40000 - £65000 per annum + bonus + benefits + OT: Ampersand Consulting LLP: M...

Humanities Teacher - Greater Manchester

£22800 - £33600 per annum: Randstad Education Manchester Secondary: The JobAt ...

Design Technology Teacher

£22800 - £33600 per annum: Randstad Education Manchester Secondary: Calling al...

Foundation Teacher

£100 - £125 per day: Randstad Education Chelmsford: EYFS Teachers - East Essex...

Day In a Page

The drugs revolution starts now as MPs agree its high time for change

The drugs revolution starts now as MPs agree its high time for change

Commons debate highlights growing cross-party consensus on softening UK drugs legislation, unchanged for 43 years
The camera is turned on tabloid editors in Richard Peppiatt's 'One Rogue Reporter'

Gotcha! The camera is turned on tabloid editors

Hugh Grant says Richard Peppiatt's 'One Rogue Reporter' documentary will highlight issues raised by Leveson
Fall of the Berlin Wall: It was thanks to Mikhail Gorbachev that this symbol of division fell

Fall of the Berlin Wall

It was thanks to Gorbachev that this symbol of division fell
Halloween 2014: What makes Ouija boards, demon dolls, and evil clowns so frightening?

What makes ouija boards and demon dolls scary?

Ouija boards, demon dolls, evil children and clowns are all classic tropes of horror, and this year’s Halloween releases feature them all. What makes them so frightening, decade after decade?
A safari in modern Britain: Rose Rouse reveals how her four-year tour of Harlesden taught her as much about the UK as it did about NW10

Rose Rouse's safari in modern Britain

Rouse decided to walk and talk with as many different people as possible in her neighbourhood of Harlesden and her experiences have been published in a new book
Welcome to my world of no smell and odd tastes: How a bike accident left one woman living with unwanted food mash-ups

'My world of no smell and odd tastes'

A head injury from a bicycle accident had the surprising effect of robbing Nell Frizzell of two of her senses

Matt Parker is proud of his square roots

The "stand-up mathematician" is using comedy nights to preach maths to big audiences
Paul Scholes column: Beating Manchester City is vital part of life at Manchester United. This is first major test for Luke Shaw, Angel Di Maria and Radamel Falcao – it’s not a game to lose

Paul Scholes column

Beating City is vital part of life at United. This is first major test for Shaw, Di Maria and Falcao – it’s not a game to lose
Frank Warren: Call me an old git, but I just can't see that there's a place for women’s boxing

Frank Warren column

Call me an old git, but I just can't see that there's a place for women’s boxing
Adrian Heath interview: Former Everton striker prepares his Orlando City side for the MLS - and having Kaka in the dressing room

Adrian Heath's American dream...

Former Everton striker prepares his Orlando City side for the MLS - and having Kaka in the dressing room
Simon Hart: Manchester City will rise again but they need to change their attitude

Manchester City will rise again but they need to change their attitude

Manuel Pellegrini’s side are too good to fail and derby allows them to start again, says Simon Hart
Isis in Syria: A general reveals the lack of communication with the US - and his country's awkward relationship with their allies-by-default

A Syrian general speaks

A senior officer of Bashar al-Assad’s regime talks to Robert Fisk about his army’s brutal struggle with Isis, in a dirty war whose challenges include widespread atrocities
‘A bit of a shock...’ Cambridge economist with Glasgow roots becomes Zambia’s acting President

‘A bit of a shock...’ Economist with Glasgow roots becomes Zambia’s acting President

Guy Scott's predecessor, Michael Sata, died in a London hospital this week after a lengthy illness
Fall of the Berlin Wall: History catches up with Erich Honecker - the East German leader who praised the Iron Curtain and claimed it prevented a Third World War

Fall of the Berlin Wall

History catches up with Erich Honecker - the East German leader who praised the Iron Curtain and claimed it prevented a Third World War
How to turn your mobile phone into easy money

Turn your mobile phone into easy money

There are 90 million unused mobiles in the UK, which would be worth £7bn if we cashed them in, says David Crookes