Acoustic Sounds

Steely Dan

Aja

Music

Sound

Produced By: Gary Katz

Engineered By: Roger Nichols, Elliot Scheiner, Bill Schnee, Al Schmitt

Mastered By: Bernie Grundman

Lacquers Cut By: Bernie Grundman

By: Michael Fremer

October 30th, 2023

Genre:

Rock Jazz Fusion

Format:

Vinyl

When All Your Dime Dancing Is Through You'll Order UHQR "Aja"

more detail as requested

When I visited Paul Gold's Salt Mastering recently, I asked him why he named his facility "Salt Mastering" and he replied that mastering should be like using salt to season food: you shouldn't taste the salt, it should be used judiciously, only to bring out the intrinsic flavors of the ingredients.

Bernie Grundman's original Aja mastering certainly lived up to that mastering definition, which is why it's considered a great sounding record—and I'm not getting into the "AA" vs "AB" nonsense.

There were two other Aja's of note: one released by Mobile Fidelity (MFSL 1-033) in 1980 cut by Stan Ricker but with mastering credits going to Gary Giorgi and SR, and a more recent one released in 2007 by Cisco Records (CLP-1006) mastered by Kevin Gray and Robert Pincus.

Before writing the short but to the point review that some readers didn't like and others thought was written to please Chad Kassem (which is kind of funny considering how the Pretzel Logic review must therefore have been written to displease CK—neither of which charges are true or make any sense) I listened to Bernie's original cut, to the Mobile Fidelity and to the Cisco kid.

The published review was short because the timing couldn't have been worse: the finished UHQR version arrived as I was preparing to travel to Warsaw for the 2023 Audio Video show and I wanted to get the review on the site before I left on Tuesday the 24th, which I just managed to do, setting it to publish that Friday, which it did.

Though Mo-Fi, pressed its edition in Japan on that fabulous JVC "super vinyl" the record has ludicrous amounts of bass—something many Mo-Fi's of that era suffered from, though some listeners enjoy that. The Mo-Fi Sticky Fingers is similarly afflicted but that one is more 'fun' because it's only rock and roll. Ricker and Giorgi scoop the salt onto the Mo-Fi Aja mastering to where the bottom end becomes obtrusive and annoying. They also more lightly but obviously use the shaker on the top end to produce the famous Mo-Fi "smiley face" EQ.

Mo-Fi's version is quiet, the tape was quite fresh and Stan used the Ortofon cutting system. Remember, Mo-Fi founder Herb Belkin worked for ABC-Records and you can be certain or fairly certain Stan worked from the original tape. It's just too bad Stan the bass player and Giorgi the cynic worked to differentiate their version from Bernie Grundman's original. In that they succeeded but too much salt!

Kevin Gray cut the Cisco edition in 2007 at which time he was cutting at his AcousTech Mastering located within RTI's pressing plant in Camarillo, CA. While many great sounding records were cut there for various clients, once Kevin moved to Cohearent in 2010 and again re-did his cutting chain the results were markedly more transparent.

I like to play for people the double 45 of Kenny Burrell's Midnight Blue cut at AcousTech with the one cut for Music Matters at 33 1/3. The latter is far more open and transparent with cleaner, more detailed transients. Those who like soft and warm might prefer the double 45 but for rock the new Cohearent set up is far better (as it is for jazz too!) and the Cisco has both the soft and warm signature and Kevin was cutting with input from client Robert Pincus and using a never clearly identified tape. At best it was a copy of what Bernie Grundman used for the new UHQR, which you can see in the booklet accompanying the UHQR boxed set.

Bernie's cutting system today is better than what he was using in the late '70's. Compare his more recent Joni Mitchell Reprise box set cuts with his '60s era originals. I don't know what happened to the Aslyum box cuts, which didn't sound very good but I've been told that the tapes from that era were not in great shape.

The 1/2" 15IPS Dolby "A" tape Bernie used for the UHQR is a "one off" the master safety. The master no longer exists and not, so I've been told, because it was lost in the 2008 Universal fire. Remember: the Cisco was cut in 2007 a year before the fire.

So I'll repeat: the new UHQR is the best Aja you will hear. I'm 100% confident of that. The tape is quiet, the top end has "fresh tape" sparkle (even though it's obviously not a fresh tape), the balance Grundman achieves is masterful (no pun intended) and not at all salty but it brings out much detail (or it, combined with the Clarity Vinyl formulation's quiet does).

I'm not going to go cut by cut but my first listen brought out in great relief Joe Sample's clavinet as I've never before noticed it, Chuck Rainey's bass line had a solidity missing from Bernie' original cut and the three-dimensional presentation of background singers Clydie King, Rebecca Louis, Sherrie Matthews and Venetta Fields was a new sensation (admittedly to a certain degree the original pressing had some of that played through the CH Precision P10 phono preamp, itself 6dB quieter than the older P1, which was very quiet to begin with.

Wayne Shorter's sax solo on the title tune sounded remarkably more timbrally complete—it has a fully fleshed out "grandeur" and greater three-dimensionality than on Bernie's original.

And I'll return to the advantages of cutting at 45rpm and ending sides well before the groove radii begin to "crunch" together the engraved waveforms, which attenuates the higher frequencies. Compare "Deacon Blues" at 33 1/3 at the end of side 1 with the UHQR 45 that occupies all of side 2 and concludes well before the grooves get small. The top is all there.

Also, I'm sure you'll hear extended decay with notes lingering longer in space before fading into blackness and more solid, well-defined but not excess bass produced by obvious EQ boost.

But even if you listen without trying to pick apart why what you hear sounds so much more vivid and pleasing, I think you will hear further into the production on every track. All of the mind numbing work that went into this recording both becomes more obvious in that you can better hear the components and better melds together to produce a most pleasing complete whole.

That's what happens when you season with care and Bernie, though not infallible, can still shake with the best of them.

Music Specifications

Label: Analogue Productions/Geffen

Catalog No: UHQR 0014-45

Pressing Plant: Quality Record Pressings

SPARS Code: AAA

Speed/RPM: 45

Weight: 200 grams

Size: 12"

Channels: Stereo

Source: 1/2" 15IPS Dolby "A" copy master

Presentation: Box Set

Comments

  • 2023-10-30 03:55:46 PM

    Come on wrote:

    So now everyone’s happy please and yes, Bernie still rules by several examples! And I remember quite a few remasterings of the past of him (for example Classic Records ones), still unmatched by any later one.

  • 2023-10-30 04:02:30 PM

    Mark wrote:

    Hello Michael - asking as a Cisco Aja owner - and not meaning to be argumentative or mischievous - but what is the evidence for this statement 'At best it was a copy of what Bernie Grundman used for the new UHQR.'? How do you know for certain it was not the copy Grundman has used on the UHQR, or that used for the Mo-Fi, which you surmise was from the original tape?

  • 2023-10-30 05:34:32 PM

    AnalogJ wrote:

    While you didn't ask me, I prefer my original AB-1006 overall to the Cisco. The Cisco goes deeper and has more weight in the low end, but it sounds a bit thick in the middle and rolled off on top. In comparison, my AB-1006 sounds remarkably fresh, incredibly wide open in the midband, and very immediate. A wonderfully recorded album.

    I'll probably get the UHQR, as I'm a fan of great mastering to 45rpm, and a fan of Steely Dan.

    What I hope is that there will be an even more visceral impact and appreciation for the album with this pressing.

    BTW, I also have the MoFi, and it's not good, although it's initially impressive with the quiet surfaces and dynamics. But that "smile EQ" kills the midrange. I haven't listened to it in a while, but I'll probably pull it out to revisit it.

    • 2023-10-31 03:49:46 PM

      Michael Fremer wrote:

      We are 100% in agreement

      • 2023-10-31 10:47:37 PM

        Mark wrote:

        We are 100% in agreement that you have thus far avoided answering my question. If your statement is based on a hunch, then just be honest. It's the best policy.

        • 2023-10-31 11:14:31 PM

          Michael Fremer wrote:

          I do not deal in hunches. I wrote based on facts. Because an NDA is involved I cannot be more specific but the evidence is specific.

  • 2023-10-31 12:09:59 PM

    Azmoon wrote:

    The original AB sounds fantastic - better than the Cisco. Despite the nonsense remark above. Maybe MF has never heard it so it becomes "nonsense". Kind of like his first review - total nonsense.

    • 2023-10-31 03:52:48 PM

      Michael Fremer wrote:

      I own both AA and AB versions and both sound fantastic and better than the Cisco or the MoFi. However, differences between the AA and AB versions are not major IMO and as we all know with a stack of either one, there are differences between samples, which is the Tom Port business model. Pressing variations can be significant among AA or AB copies and so sometimes comparing AA and AB copies can produce major sonic differences too...that's my position and I'm sticking with it.

      • 2023-11-06 06:21:24 PM

        Michael A. Arlt wrote:

        The whole AA and AB thing was because ABC jacked up the price a short time after the release, it was a price code thing. My AB copy has the AA markings in the dead wax scratched out and AB scratched in.

    • 2023-10-31 03:54:35 PM

      Michael Fremer wrote:

      My first review may have been perfunctory but it was not "total nonsense". Your comment is total nonsense. Of course you are welcome to be on this site and contribute your comments but given your hostility I wonder why you do.

      • 2023-11-01 02:06:44 PM

        Azmoon wrote:

        Writing a totally rave review on an albums sonics while only commenting on 1 song is nonsense. It was obviously written for someone to use as advertising, which is what was immediately done.

        • 2023-11-01 04:01:31 PM

          Come on wrote:

          I understand your suspect, but MF just recently proved that he doesn’t advertise if it doesn’t apply. And that he published the (assumed true) good news quickly as soon as Aja ships is mainly good for us customers (but admittedly also for Chad, which doesn’t make it a bad act).

        • 2023-11-02 09:01:18 AM

          Tim wrote:

          On what basis would Tracking Angle need to help Chad/AS anyway?

          A 45rpm release of Aja (one of the most successful albums' of all time[and an annoyingly 'Hallmark' audiophile album]) cut by Bernie G is going to sell amazingly regardless...

          Also... wouldn't it make more sense, if you take it as given that Michael was indeed trying to do Chad a favor, to do a long-winded rave review rather than something shorter? I'm sure if the intention was really to make this release out to be something it isn't, one could fabricate any number of ways to convince consumers.

          Your point doesn't make sense on principle and doesn't make sense in form.

  • 2023-10-31 05:22:34 PM

    Silk Dome Mid wrote:

    I guess Azmoon gets up on the wrong side of the bed ALL the time.

  • 2023-10-31 06:58:39 PM

    Jake wrote:

    It's ok to disagree but let's keep things civil peeps. On a related note, I'd be interested to know how different people rate what is the best pressing for a given album. I note Michael Fremer seems to have transients and decay quite up there on the judging criteria, while a lot of others, they lean towards pressings with more bass (and a more is more approach)

  • 2023-10-31 07:03:47 PM

    PeterG wrote:

    Thanks for the additional color, much appreciated. I know sometimes the comments sound like a certain restaurant review... "I hated the food...and the portions were so small!"

  • 2023-11-01 05:52:40 PM

    Dean Cacioppo wrote:

    all I needed to hear was "best Aja ever".

  • 2023-11-02 11:04:32 AM

    Phil Barton wrote:

    It should be the best sounding Aja ever pressed. It’s 45 RPM on 200g Clarity vinyl done by AP/Chad. Seems like the only controversy is that either the tape was a master copy already EQ’d by BG (basically an AA or AB mastered and pressed for 45 RPM ) or a non-EQ’d master copy that was that was remastered again and then pressed on 45 RPM. Sonically either should be incredible. From what I’ve heard from sources close to BG that this was actually a master EQ’d copy. Apparently in Bernie’s catalog of master copies he keeps, virtually all have been EQ’d. Again really shouldn’t matter and it will be the best sounding Aja either way. I just wish after Mofi gate, everyone would come completely clean and transparent with the source of the expensive remastered records we buy. It would be great if Bernie could come out and let us know what the tape source is and what his process was for this special release. With NDA’s and requests for censoring this information screams it was the EQ’d version, even if it was a clerical mistake by AP/AS stating otherwise.

  • 2023-11-02 11:04:33 AM

    Phil Barton wrote:

    It should be the best sounding Aja ever pressed. It’s 45 RPM on 200g Clarity vinyl done by AP/Chad. Seems like the only controversy is that either the tape was a master copy already EQ’d by BG (basically an AA or AB mastered and pressed for 45 RPM ) or a non-EQ’d master copy that was that was remastered again and then pressed on 45 RPM. Sonically either should be incredible. From what I’ve heard from sources close to BG that this was actually a master EQ’d copy. Apparently in Bernie’s catalog of master copies he keeps, virtually all have been EQ’d. Again really shouldn’t matter and it will be the best sounding Aja either way. I just wish after Mofi gate, everyone would come completely clean and transparent with the source of the expensive remastered records we buy. It would be great if Bernie could come out and let us know what the tape source is and what his process was for this special release. With NDA’s and requests for censoring this information screams it was the EQ’d version, even if it was a clerical mistake by AP/AS stating otherwise.

  • 2023-11-03 05:05:33 PM

    Bill Bird wrote:

    My 'Aja' skips five times on 'Black Cow'

    • 2023-11-04 11:24:09 PM

      cjp123 wrote:

      Mine skipped on Deacon Blue toward the fadeout. First time a $150 record ever skipped on me! Just contacted Acousticsounds.

      • 2023-11-05 08:15:08 AM

        Come on wrote:

        Oh no, please keep us posted guys. Maybe Michael can find out about it, if it’s a hot cut or wider spread pressing problems.

    • 2023-12-09 05:26:24 PM

      Bill Bird wrote:

      Update: After replacing my cartridge with a MF recommended HANA SL I can now say there is no skip issue with this album. I put it down to an old possibly mis-aligned cart (Nagoaka MP-30). The skips are not there anymore however there is one pop that was a skip so now I reckon a ultra sonic cleaning is in order. Oh Charles...... The record is wonderful sounding now with the HANA by the way.

  • 2023-11-04 03:52:35 AM

    Byron Drake wrote:

    Thank you for your reviews on these UHQR albums. Truthfully I only own the Jimi Hendrix Are You Experienced and this one Aja. I have bought a couple mofi(gate) releases but only because they are such great albums. I can't see why Mobile Fidelity doesn't just make, like this release, a one off copy and then make AAA albums again. DSD 256 is digital and not the same as analog. I won't swallow the pill they are pushing. Thank God for Chad doing our good Lord's work and keeping analog analog. I do listen to digital as well but I think I prefer the imperfection of analog. I still record my vinyl to cassette and enjoy very much. Taking walks with a Sony Walkman vinyl rip recorded on a high bias cassette tape (no Dolby) is marvelous. I trust my ears and I'm not saying you can't have a bad sounding analog recording or you can't have a good digital recording. If the source is analog I would prefer it to stay analog. I'm not sure how this release is done... 30,000 with 1,000 per stamper. So 30 stampers created from one mother or maybe 3? It is interesting anyways. I enjoy many formats of music including minidisc, 8-track, and reel to reel.

    • 2023-11-05 11:13:46 AM

      bwb wrote:

      "I can't see why Mobile Fidelity doesn't just make, like this release, a one off copy and then make AAA albums again. DSD 256 is digital and not the same as analog. I won't swallow the pill they are pushing. " ..... this makes no sense to me.... Ellington said "when it sounds good, it is good.".... and I agree. If these DSD >> vinyl albums sound good (and generally they sound very good) then they are good. Being so concerned about how it was produced and not how it sounds is a sure way to miss out on some very fine records. ..... BTW Fremer.. when are you going to move into the 21st century and update this forum so we can format a paragraph?..... Just look at all the weird ways people are trying to cope with the lack of paragraph breaks, highlights, quotes, and links not to mention trying to work inside the tiny editing box.. ...come on man !!!

      • 2023-11-05 02:23:40 PM

        WesHeadley wrote:

        The CMS used to make this site is called Laravel. One I've never developed with. If this were done in Drupal I could have your HTML toolbar up, running, and optimized to formatting comments in about 5-10 minutes. I agree that no paragraph formatting does make for some occasionally ugly looking comments-- which are less likely to be read BTW. This should be a small matter to remedy if Michael's up for it.

  • 2023-11-09 04:25:57 PM

    bwb wrote:

    I got my copy of this UHQR and I am unimpressed. No way this deserves an 11 for sound. It may be the best version ever. I can't comment on that as I have never heard all the versions being discussed here, but I can comment that as a stand alone recording, the sound on this is not among the best,,,,,, and any 11 should be among the very best sounding recordings in existence. It is better than the previous Steely Dan UHQR releases, but better than mediocre and disappointing is not an 11. I'm a little shocked they have the balls to ask $150 for these. Well, if they can get it I guess that's capitalism, but I'm not buying any more UHQR Steely Dan releases. On the other hand , the UHQR White Stripes release sounds excellent...................Hey Mike, how about updating this forum so we can format our text like every other forum on the internet?

  • 2023-11-10 07:21:21 PM

    JRenRey wrote:

    This is the greatest sounding record I've ever heard. I bought it from hearing your appraisal and I'm so glad I did. The pressing is perfect, the drums and bass are so well defined, and it's dimensional as hell. This really is the last word Aja. Wow.