Donald Fagen's "The Nightfly" — Mobile Fidelity Does the Digital One-Step

Before getting to the audiofool controversy surrounding the release of a 3M digital recording on expensive vinyl, there's the music. You're smacked in the face on the side openers "I.G.Y." and "New Frontier" (on the original single LP) by the exuberance and sunlit optimism of the "certain fantasies" entertained by "a young man growing up in the remote suburbs" back when science was venerated and not denigrated as it is today in certain circles as a "liberal plot".

Even the threat of nuclear war didn't interfere with the young man's make-out fantasies in dad's bomb shelter! "I.G.Y."'s optimism is best expressed today as irony. Listening to it reminded me of the "loose affiliation of millionaires and billionaires" that Paul Simon sang about with equal optimism and enthusiasm on Graceland's "Boy in the Bubble", that today sounds positively sinister.

The title tune expressed on the cover shows Fagen flying solo as the WJAZ all-night D.J. back when being a disc jockey was so cool. The microphone is the iconic RCA 77DX, while the turntable is a radio station transcription special (I know, I should know the 'table and arm models cold, but I don't) capable of playing 16 2/3 rpm records. He's got a Sonny Rollins Contemporary jacket next to the old turntable and a Riverside on the platter, but never mind! It's just an album cover.

In the grooves of the record, great jazz, rock and studio cats bring to life the young man's fantasies and even though this was recorded at a time when an over reliance on cheesy synthesizers ruined many an otherwise fine record, Fagen and producer Gary Katz avoided that trap. The production and arrangements for the most part sound remarkably undated and pleasingly contemporary, led by Larry Carlton's sinewy guitar leads. The cast of bass characters is stellar: Anthony Jackson, Chuck Rainey, Abe Laboriel, Marcus Miller and Will Lee! Every seat in the various ensembles is occupied by musical luminaries. Yes, jazz was always in the Steely Dan rock mix, even direct lifts like the opening to "Rikki Don't Lose the Number", but the closer, "Walk Between Raindrops" unabashedly swings—as does the cover of Leiber and Stoller's "Ruby Baby"! Musical history has been kind to this exercise in musical and technical perfection, but more so to the music.

Truth be told, I loved the music but hated the sound of this record when it came out. It sounded "digital"—hashy, gritty and artificial. Is that really what drums, especially cymbals, sound like? It sounded like a drum machine then and it still does to me. I have read that Fagen and producer Gary Katz recorded to both a Studer 24 track and to 3M's 32 track and 4 track recorders and thought the digital far superior. I wonder if Fagen still does? So many musicians at the time were enticed but today have second thoughts.

That said, there are certain excellent qualities to the digital here, especially the transient attack precision and black backgrounds but it all still sounds synthesized to me, including and especially the horns. Your reaction may differ. The 3M system had a 50.4kHz sampling rate and 16 bit depth, though at the time 16 bit converters did not exist. The machine had a 12 bit converter plus 4 "borrowed" from an 8 bit converter and no digital output. I don't have the original Bob Ludwig mastered vinyl but no doubt it was cut from an analog master made directly from the digital two track master. No doubt that's what Mobile Fidelity used for its 1/2 speed mastered version cut using "the original master tape" (MFSL 1-120) released in 1983.

Mobile Fidelity does not identify the source used here. Did they have access to the original 3M digital master tape and a machine with which to play it back? If so did they use the machine's analog output or somehow "jury rig" a digital output (not likely)? I don't know.

Spreading the album out to four 45rpm sides definitely makes it easier to cut and track and no doubt the EQ has been tastefully and moderately manipulated to produce a more pleasing balance than on the earlier Mo-Fi LP cut. Of course the people who say "you can buy this 'on digital'" are missing the point: however you buy The Nightfly, it had to have come from the tape machine in the analog domain. To produce the digital version required another conversion back to digital. Not here though. It's "pure analog" (from digital) and whatever Krieg Wunderlich used as a source, and however he's manipulated the equalization, this should be the best sounding The Nightfly you've ever heard, though the objectionable qualities (to some ears) remain, as they should. They are part of the production. You'll love the sparkly bells on "Green Flower Street", that's for sure. The packaging is similar to Mo-Fi's previous "one step" releases—"classy" in a kind of black and funereal kind of way. I wonder what Donald Fagen thinks of all of this now sold out release (limited to 6000 copies)? One thing's for sure: he's probably made more money from this release of 6000 copies than from a million streams.

labjr's picture

Do you know if the Studer version still exists?

Michael Fremer's picture
I guess I didn't make it clear: they did a test and compared. They didn't record both ways...
Hats Domino's picture

While I wouldn't want to discount Roger Nichol's perceptions of the sonic improvements gained from 24-bit conversion over 16-bit, the technical explanations he offers in this article are based on an incorrect understanding of digital audio, combined with some greatly misleading graphical misrepresentations. In short, his arguments completely ignore the critical role of dithering.

His claims that the improved resolution is due entirely to smaller quantising step sizes is flawed; there are no steps at all in a correctly dithered conversion system. Indeed, dithering ensures that the repeating amplitude differences he ascribes to the difference in quantising levels don't exist because of the randomisation in level caused by dither noise.

Consequently, the perceived improvement in 'resolution' is restricted entirely to a reduction in the noise floor and the related pyscho-acoustic effects of that. The noise floor in a dithered 24-bit system is 256 times (48dB) lower than that of a 16-bit system. Hugh Robjohns - SOS Technical Editor

For more information on the fundamental principles of digital audio, please read:

Michael Fremer's picture
Did you post that? If you are suggesting 16 bit is "good enough" and that 24 bit isn't audibly better, hahahaha.
Hats Domino's picture

I was cataloging all the mistakes in this article and inadvertently made a post. You can delete it. I'll have something of more substance soon. But until then, you should read what I posted as I don't think you understand these basics of digital audio yet.

Michael Fremer's picture
You have not learned how to read with comprehension. I made zero factual errors in what I wrote. You are reading things into what I wrote.
mb's picture

While the original LP and CD came from an analog tape copy, I’ve read that Roger Nichols did a direct digital to digital conversion with no analog tape step from 16/50 to 24/48 using the original 3M machine (which he still owned) for the DVD-A. And CD issues subsequent to the original CD release apparently also had no analog tape step.

If true, it is entirely possible this LP came directly from a digital source.

mb's picture

Meant to write “...entirely possible not just this LP came directly from a digital source”.

DanaHolmes's picture

This release is by far the best sounding LP(s) in my collection. Blew me away upon first play. So quiet and flat - a must for me.

my new username's picture

It makes sense that all versions of this would derive from an analog master, as the 3M recorder was its own entity, devoid of any sort of system that would have included a 50.4kHz mixing desk for example. Back then, digital recorders were a way to record without hiss or tape speed issues. In other words, they took care of the "obvious" analog flaws and little more.

Still, it'd be nice to know what MFSL used here, as the definition of "master" is not always what we assume it to mean, especially when cutting an LP and especially when these days, labels have long ago already digitized catalogs in some fairly standard-ish ways based on some multiple of 44.1kHz.

I've heard the SACD and the Quiex II LP, each as running on my computer. The LP rip is very well done, by someone several readers here likely know, both in terms of methodology and gear usage. The LP reveals fingers sliding on bass on New Frontier at the opening. The SACD does not, to cite one example'd difference I hear over my cheap playback gear.

Whether that's a basic frequency response error being emphasized by the cartridge or my headphones (for example) I don't really care. I hear more music.

I'd like to know how this new MFSL compares to other vinyl versions.

labjr's picture

I would call Music Direct and and ask about the master. I spoke with with Bes Nievera last month when I called to pre-order the Simon and Garfunkel one step vinyl. He seems pretty knowledgeable. I probably would have ordered The Nightfly just for collectability but it was sold out. I wish I'd gotten the Abraxas too.

Speaking of 3M, I think the first two Christopher Cross albums were recorded on the 3M machine. They sound good but pretty dry. I attributed the goodness to good clean engineering, mic'ing etc.

I guess anything recorded on the 3M machine would have been mixed on a analog desk to an analog master tape? I wonder if they've gone back and remixed any of it for newer releases?

Anton D's picture

We had our local Hi Fi club members bring their various pressings of this LP and had a shoot out with the new pressing.

We had a dozen members that day.

It finished a tie between the Quiex pressing and this Mo Fi release.

Good news for those who have the cheaper issue, good news for those who like the new release!

The Quiex beat the original Mo Fi from 2002.

AnalogJ's picture

Michael, if you're only comparing the previous 1/2 speed MoFi to this, well, then yes, this one wins. But tonally, the Robert Ludwig beats this out. It sounds more natural, relatively speaking. This recording has that digititis, particularly in the top end. There's no way of avoiding it. This is a flawed recording. I feel sorry for anyone who says that this new MoFi is the best sounding recording in their collection. I think many of use could suggest albums which are quite a bit better sounding.

All of that being said, there is a dynamic range and spaciousness to the 1-Step that none of the other versions have. But, again, the original RL is not quite as harsh and artificial as the new one is. Which characteristics are most important to you? That's probably personal preference.

Given, though, how easy and inexpensive it is to find a Robert Ludwig original, in hindsight (and, in fact, in foresight as well), I don't see the point of giving The Nightfly the 1-Step, $100 treatment. To me, the Santana Abraxas and Bill Evans Sunday At The Village Vanguard were more successful.

Anton D's picture

I went in for the Donald Fagen box set for Christmas, and there is yet another pressing of The Nightly in that. Haven't had time to play it yet.

Good luck finding the mastering info!

drummerguy's picture

I'm a big Donald Fagen and Steely Dan fan and this is one of my favourites. I recently phoned MoFi and found out that they have NOT been 1/2 speed mastering for some time now! I don't know if this is common knowledge or not but that's a drag as I believe 1/2 speed mastering is a very positive step in 33 1/3 pressings in particular. I have the "one step" Nightfly also a pristine Bob Ludwig pressing and the 2002 MoFi 1/2 speed also a very clean noise free Japanese and a standard Canadian pressing. I haven't compared them yet but will do so soon should be fun I'll let you know what I've found. My system consists of a heavily modified Rega P5 with Denon DL S1, a Michell GyroDec SE with RB 250 and Benz wood medium output with a Fosgate Signature phono stage, Audio Space Ref 3.1 KT 88 integrated amp and Magnapan 1.7's with 2 REL R 305 subs.

avanti1960's picture

sounds phenomenal- best recording i have ever heard. this includes SACD, DSD, hi-res digital and audiophile LPs. better than any recording I have heard or own. blown away.
- tony near chicago

JC1957's picture

Is the promotional 12" singles of IGY (LP version)/IGY (single edit) and The New Frontier/The Goodbye Look. IMO, until the Mo-Fi One-Step, these sounded the best to my ears sonically. Not pressed on QuiexII and cut at 33 1/3, they could have even sounded better but then again they were designed for radio play.

eatapc's picture

Michael, you mention that the drums have always sounded like a drum machine. According to Wikipedia, the sound did come from a drum machine: "Nichols built a new drum machine, the Wendel II—a sequel to the original Wendel, which was employed for their work on Gaucho. The new model was upgraded from 8 bits to 16 bits, and 'plugged straight into the 3M digital machines, so there was no degradation' in sound."

eatapc's picture

I would think that the original Robert Ludwig LP has a head start in terms of sound quality in that he probably had a first-generation tape to cut the LP from. (And he always did ballsy, dynamic cutting.) But as you mentioned, spreading the album out over 4 sides at 45 rpm will have major benefits. The key question is the provenance of the tape used by Mo-Fi here.

Trevor_Bartram's picture

I remember when the original LP came out in the U.K. I was in a electronics store and it was playing on an AR turntable (unusual for the time and place), big amplifier and big speakers. It impressed the hell out of me, so this is the future! And we're still discussing it 36 years later. Perhaps MFSL will do Bop Till You Drop next.

Bluejimbop's picture

then you've nothing to be smug about - Yoko Ono
Just food for thought.

John777's picture
John777's picture