Steely Dan Aja vinyl shootout

Discussion in 'Music Corner' started by Sam, Aug 12, 2013.

  1. TLMusic

    TLMusic Musician & record collector

    Records made at the Columbia Santa Maria plant can be identified by a couple deadwax features:

    1. Handwritten sub stamper codes in the deadwax. These will be separate from the matrix numbers, and usually are a capital letter followed by a number. A4, B13, D1, for example. Based on some research by people on this forum, the best guess is that the letter refers to the mother, and the number is the stamper.

    2. Santa Maria pressings typically feature a faint, small handwritten "s" in the deadwax. The "s" is usually on both sides, but I have a fair number of records with the "s" only on one side. The "s" may also be backwards.



    At the time Santa Maria was making records, Columbia also had two other big pressing plants in operation. Here's how to distinguish records made by them:

    The Pitman, New Jersey plant pressings have a small stamped letter "P" in the deadwax, and have machine stamped substamper codes.

    Columbia Terre Haute, Indiana pressings have a fairly large letter "T" in the deadwax, usually etched, but sometimes stamped. If there are sub stamper codes at all in the deadwax, they are typically stamped.

    Hope this helps. :wave:


    P.S. Forum member @W.B. has noted label font differences between the various Columbia pressing plants. I'm not familiar with the details, though.
     
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  2. TLMusic

    TLMusic Musician & record collector

    OK, I've tried to capture an image of the Aja -1A Santa Maria deadwax. Photographing deadwax etchings is not easy with a cell phone camera! Sorry for the fuzzy pics.

    Here's the matrix, featuring the handwriting style associated with Bernie
    Grundman.
    [​IMG]

    To the left of the matrix, one can just make out the faint "S" for Santa Maria.
    [​IMG]
     
  3. Massproductions

    Massproductions Active Member

    Location:
    Boston, MA, USA
    Since when was a 2:1 compressed copy used for the CD? The original MCA Japan JVC Pressed CD is a flat transfer by Roger Nichols.
     
  4. rob303

    rob303 Forum Resident

    Location:
    Denver, CO
    Thanks @tlmusic! I was hoping you would chime in with an image! Looks like I have the fabled Santa Maria AB with 1A on both sides! Thank you so much!

    I was looking specifically regarding the "Aja" release since Santa Maria was inconsistant in how they scribed their plant markings. This being the thread which discusses the original "Aja" vinyl release at length (which I've read-through more than once and have followed for over a year), I was certain one of the contributors here would be able to get right to the point (and they did!).
     
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  5. W.B.

    W.B. Forum Resident

    Location:
    New York, NY, USA
    A little after Aja's release, the Santa Maria plant ditched the old Varityper fonts associated with that plant since 1966 (with updates in 1968) and seen on the labels of this album, and replaced them with the same package of Linotype phototypesetting 'VIP' fonts used in Pitman since mid-1974 and Terre Haute not long afterwards. An example of Santa Maria's post-August/September 1977 typesetting with the newer set of fonts can be found on this page which spotlighted what little variants there were of the band's hit single from this LP, "Peg."

    But a primer on the differences in typesetting and layout amongst the three Columbia plants can be seen on this page relating to Jimmy Buffett's (edited) single "Margaritaville"; in order of presentation, Pitman typesetting came first, then Santa Maria, then Terre Haute.
     
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  6. TLMusic

    TLMusic Musician & record collector

    Wow, the differences look subtle, to me. Might take a bit of practice to recognize, especially the later CSM label font. Thanks for the detailed explanation!
     
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  7. DPM

    DPM Forum Resident

    Location:
    Nevada, USA
    That 2:1 copy became the de facto master tape. The original CD sounds very much like the original vinyl pressing. They both share the fattened bass and slightly punchier sound--brought on by the slight compression. The Cisco LP has wider dynamics, leaner bass and a bit more air in the soundstage.
     
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  8. AnalogJ

    AnalogJ Forum Resident

    Location:
    Salem, MA
    Sometimes the punchier sound of compression can make a song rock more, and that can work with some material. Also, too much dynamics can be hard more for lesser tonearm/cartridges to track, the result being that the sound is confused rather than open and clear. Compression, in that case, will make the record sound better.

    As many have stated here, the better the systems, the more certain records sound worse and others better.
     
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  9. Massproductions

    Massproductions Active Member

    Location:
    Boston, MA, USA
    and where did you get this piece of mis-information? In the early 80's, Roger Nichols did flat transfers of the original masters to an early 3M digital format in order to preserve them. MCA was missing the original side B master, but thankfully he ran two decks at the same time and therefore had another first generation tape. I assure you Roger Nichols was not the kind of guy to use a 2:1 LP cutting tape to master a CD from.
     
  10. Drew769

    Drew769 Forum Resident

    Location:
    NJ
    Me and CWsiggy who posts here did a shoot out of three of my Aja's a while back - the Mofi, an original ABC, and the Cisco. We agreed that the Mofi was too bright. The ABC seemed to be a perfect happy medium, whereas the Cisco had kind of a laid back quality to it, much like some of the Japanese pressings. We both preferred the Cisco.

    I don't think Black Cow is the best audition tune on the album, though. The title track really covers all of the bases - delicate percussion, smooth vocals, a monster sax solo, and relentless drumming, courtesy of Steve Gadd. It is an audio test unto itself!

    Although bright, the Mofi has some wonderful detail and a nice black background. I'm glad I have a copy of it.
     
  11. Drew769

    Drew769 Forum Resident

    Location:
    NJ
    [​IMG]
    Didn't include this one in the shoutout, either, but it looks pretty cool. The Canadian gold Aja...
     
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  12. Raynie

    Raynie Forum Resident

    Location:
    Portland, OR
    I have a 1989 SRV album In Step, they didn't make many copies on vinyl so this might be a good example. The record is a G1 with 1A/1A matrix (I believe they all are), but the handwritten substampers are simply "C" and "B". It seems a bit odd they'd make 2-3 mothers for a recording when only 1-2 stampers were ever produced. Is this just more Columbia insanity?
     
    Last edited: Mar 31, 2015
  13. TLMusic

    TLMusic Musician & record collector

    The Columbia Santa Maria plant closed in 1981. I should have mentioned that the pressing features I listed really only apply to vinyl made from the mid 1960s to about 1980. (the stuff about Santa Maria, Terre Haute and Pitman pressing plants)

    US 1980s vinyl pressings are a bit of a mystery. Columbia seems to have adopted a different system, I don't understand it yet.
     
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  14. Raynie

    Raynie Forum Resident

    Location:
    Portland, OR
    I see. It might have been the plating process was jacked up, or they probably were overstaffed and had the time to try 3 times. The record sounds amazing, as you prob know. Electroplating is a very complicated process.

    I just checked some 70s records randomly:

    record 'a' -2AG matrix, B1 substamper. This makes sense, AG= (roughly) 20th stamper, B1 1st stamper on 2nd mother
    record 'b' -1B matrix, A4 substamper. ? No.
    record 'c' -1E matrix, B4 substamper. ? No.
    record 'd' -1A matrix, A1 substamper. This makes sense.
    record 'e' -1A matrix, A5 substamper. ? No.

    I was feeling really good about this after the first one, but then it breaks down. I must be missing something.
     
  15. TLMusic

    TLMusic Musician & record collector

    A5 substamper sounds pretty low to me. First mother, fifth stamper. I've got some -1A records with substampers much higher. In fact, right now I'm looking at a Van Morrison Band and street Choir WB green label with -1A matrix and C8 substamper. My understanding is that tens of thousands of records can be pressed from metal generated from one set of lacquers.
     
  16. Raynie

    Raynie Forum Resident

    Location:
    Portland, OR
    I forgot that this is lacquer not stamper in the matrix, so this does all make sense. Thanks
     
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  17. W.B.

    W.B. Forum Resident

    Location:
    New York, NY, USA
    The 'G1's' indicated a pressing from their Carrollton, GA plant, which began pressing vinyl in late 1981 prior to the Santa Maria plant's closure, and ceased same in late 1991 (being the last Columbia plant to turn out styrene records). Terre Haute ceased pressing vinyl in late 1982 (later turned by Sony into a CD plant), and around that time Pitman switched from the small stamped 'P' to a large handwritten one. Of course by then, ABC Records no longer existed, and whatever Steely Dan product was pressed by Columbia, was solely for members of their record club.
     
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  18. DPM

    DPM Forum Resident

    Location:
    Nevada, USA
    I read/heard this info from several different sources at the time the Cisco pressing was released. In fact, Cisco trumpeted the fact that their LP was the first time the true stereo master had been used to press vinyl. (Were they lying?) As for the original CD, I got that info on this forum. How do you explain the fact that the original CD and the original LP share a very similar sound quality (fattened bass, punchier sound) while the Cisco is more dynamic with leaner bass? The differences are certainly not night and day, but they are there.

    Now, don't get me wrong. I think that original CD sounds very good as does the original vinyl. In some ways (on some songs) they exceed the Cisco LP--mainly with the side one tracks.

    In any case, those are the facts of the matter as I read/heard them years ago. My ears tell me those facts are correct. Now, could the sources from whom I got the info have been misinformed? Maybe. Could you be misinformed? Maybe. Could we both be misinformed? Maybe. At this point I don't really care what happened as I like the Cisco vinyl the best, and the particulars are just so much hearsay. Really, when all is said and done what matters most is the results.

    Roger Nichols was a great engineer. Those Steely Dan albums speak for themselves. I just wish we could get an ultimate version of Aja on SACD--both stereo and surround. (Katy Lied too.)

    OK, I'm now done with this discussion as further arguing is not going to settle anything. I wasn't there at the original recording/mastering sessions, and I'm betting you weren't either. Who knows what happened with the various masters that were created back then. What, with the myriad of recording industry horror stories of master tapes ending up in wrong boxes or disappearing you could end up giving yourself a conniption worrying about this stuff. Do we even know where the two original (non-compressed) stereo master reels are now? How about the multi-tracks?

    Argh! :laugh:
     
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  19. TLMusic

    TLMusic Musician & record collector

    :wave: Thanks again for more great information! Now I can start to identify where my 1980s records were made.
     
  20. AnalogJ

    AnalogJ Forum Resident

    Location:
    Salem, MA
    Okay, so I got a straight, hand written AB 1006 copy with (RE-3) on both sides. On one side, this is followed by A, the other side followed by BX, with that X carved more faintly. There are no other markings on all of the dead wax on either side. Where does that make this pressed? I haven't played it yet, but I have both a MoFi and the Cisco.
     
  21. GentleSenator

    GentleSenator Forum Resident

    Location:
    Portland, OR
    Such a great thread. Thanks to everyone!
     
  22. AnalogJ

    AnalogJ Forum Resident

    Location:
    Salem, MA
    Okay, so I just did a back to back with the first press AB1006 A b/w AB 1006BX dead wax stamper copy, and the Cisco.

    All I played for comparison was the first side. First of all, I have what is equivalent to a Scout 2 w/peripheral clamp and SDS, mounted with a Benz M2 (the wood body series that goes for about $1500). Decent enough, but it does have the 9" tonearm, which can be limiting when it comes to playing well near the dead wax. Both the original and Cisco have the groove extending until about 2/3" from the label. Many better audiophile mastering engineers are now preferring to keep as far as the label as possible, ensuring that the speed of the groove is as high as possible. Highest fidelity is at the beginning of the record when the groove is moving fastest. It's a reason why 45rpm 12" records, all other things being equal, sound better throughout the record.

    Anyway, first up was the original. I can absolutely see why many love this pressing. It's detailed and very open in the midband. It also sounds fresh. The top end is a hair rolled off, sounding slightly closed, but the bottom end isn't all that extended either, so it sounds balanced. Instrumental and vocal body sounds a bit thin, but just a bit. The acoustic piano sounds a bit metallic, exhibiting more mallet hitting the string than the resonance of the body. There is sparkle, though, to instruments and vocals. It's quite easy to hear the individual background singers. Harmonic complexity of instruments and vocals are well represented. And, of course, the music is great!

    What is also apparent is how much compression was used by the mastering engineer. The bass drum and floor tom sound thuddy, as though there was little more than skin and little resonance of the cavity of the drum. It's almost like the sound of hitting a drum practice pad. You really hear this during the title track. The cymbals are hit hard, yet they sound truncated, lacking the force and resonance of a fully vibrating hi-hat and crash cymbal. You hear the harmonic texture, but there's little blossom or outward bloom.

    At the end of Aja, with Steve Gadd really drumming up a storm on the playout, I notice the fidelity is not what it was at the beginning of the song, the midband isn't quite as generously open.

    THEN Deacon Blues starts, and there's little of the midband openness and you really hear the mastering engineer's choice to squash the dynamics here. The song sounds quite small, particularly after the beginning of the album right through the instrumental middle part of Aja. Deacon Blues sounds closed and small, with no dynamics to speak about.

    Onto the Cisco reissue. Right from the start, two things are apparent -- 1) The Cisco is not as harmonically rich. It also sounds slightly warmer and a bit more rolled off. You don't hear the harmonic complexity of the piano or voices, and the midband isn't as open as with the original. 2) The dynamics and soundstage are FAR greater on the Cisco -- not even close. Voices and instruments have more body, though, again, you don't hear the inner harmonic detail as much. Whether it's a saxophone, a piano, drum, or cymbal, the Cisco's presentation is MUCH more impactful dynamically. On Aja, you feel the impact of the drum in the gut. When Gadd smashes the crash cymbal, its impact goes hugely into the room. The smack of the hi-hat is felt pretty sharply. You feel the impact of these instruments. With the sax solo in Aja, you lose some of the screetch that is conveyed with the harmonic change of the character of the sax when it's blown into harder via the Cisco, but it's a fuller bodied instrument and you feel more of the air of the instrument. When Gadd pummels the drum at the outro to Aja, you feel the pummeling, propelling the song. Even with the song fading out, Gadd still mesmerizes you with what he's doing. It's an awesome performance of an awesome song. At the end of the song, I was left thinking that I wished I could marry the two pressings -- the open midband and harmonic resolution of the original, with the much deeper, more layered soundstage and MUCH more impactful dynamic presentation of the Cisco.

    Then Deacon Blues came on. This version of Deacon Blues had life, dynamics -- it was a much more engaging song via the Cisco. Yes, I wish it had the more open midband, but the song breathed, allowing the guitar licks to jump out, the saxes as well -- both more impactful and the song SO much better.

    I hope this is helpful. It was interesting to hear the differences. The punchiness of the original is really what engineers go for when they compress rock music nowadays. There are certainly some things going for the original. The freshness, openness, and width and height of the soundstage are great for the first two songs. But by the time Deacon Blues comes around, even those aspects have been squashed, and the lack of macro-dynamics does in Deacon Blues.

    For those who are fans of this record, it's worth hearing both of these pressings. I also have an original MoFi of this. I remember it having the "smile EQ", but I'll dig it out when I get a chance. I haven't listened to it in a long time.
     
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  23. AnalogJ

    AnalogJ Forum Resident

    Location:
    Salem, MA
    Just compared side 2. Same goes here. The Cisco has the greater volume (as in cubic feet) and macro-dynamics, but feels closed in harmonically in the mid-band. The original is huge vertically and horizontally, the midband wide open, harmonically complex, fairly extended in both directions, but not last word in extension other, but not sounding as rolled off as the Cisco.

    In the end, though, the original wins, if I had to pick one. That AB 1006, in NM condition, cost me all of $6 at a used record store.
     
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  24. AnalogJ

    AnalogJ Forum Resident

    Location:
    Salem, MA
    I
    I understand that these sound very good.
     
  25. Massproductions

    Massproductions Active Member

    Location:
    Boston, MA, USA
    I heard that too, and they look really cool :p
     

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