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Steely Dan, Men and Machines
by Denny Dias

I just read an article in the December "95 issue of Electronic Musician about microtuning and synthesizers. The author goes into great detail describing how fretless string players constantly adjust their tuning according to what they hear. The equal temperament of the piano is merely a compromise. Even within the same scale and the same song, the ideal tuning of any particular note will often change according to the context in which it is played. Even though there is a midi tuning standard (MTS) to allow such fine tuning to be controlled by sequencers, only Turtle Beach (according to the article) has seen fit to implement MTS. So this poor sap is constantly retuning and punching in bits of sequences for hours on end while he keeps making his coffee stronger and stronger!

This reminds me of a certain Arp Soloist you can hear on Countdown to Ecstasy. It was used for that melodic passage in King of the World but I am thinking now of the four part harmony in Bodhisattva that feels somewhat like for saxophones playing together. Now, the Arp Soloist was a small plastic keyboard that could only play one note at a time. It had on tiny plastic knob that you turned between your thumb and forefinger to tune the entire unit.

The only way to get four part harmony out of this synthesizer was to record four parts on four separate tracks, one at a time. By the time we progressed to the second of these tracks we could hear tuning problems. "I could swear I had it in tune," said Donald. "Maybe it's just certain intervals," said Walter, proud owner of a book by Hindemith on music theory. So we began tuning and patching bits and pieces of each part. Sometimes we returned to a previous part to repunch a note or two. The air grew thick, and Donald's fingers were getting sore from turning that little knob. This affected his performances so the each bit required more takes. He began saying "I'm gonna kill this thing" every time he had to retune. Then he started saying it whenever the tape stopped rolling.

Then it was done. The last part had been played and played back. The look on Donald's face was one I will never forget. He yanked the wires out of that Arp Soloist and headed for the door. We all followed. Outside the door was a hallway that led to a balcony and stairwell that let out on a courtyard down below. Donald threw the synthesizer down the stairs as hard as he could. He then chased after it and started jumping up and down on it. Several of us joined in with a few kicks and thumps. Roger got some alcohol from the studio and we proceeded to set the thing on fire! That we a warm glow.

That studio was in the same building as ABC Dunhill headquarters. It was therefore no surprise and no accident that the wreckage was discovered the following morning by some men in grey suits. Their response, however, was something else. It must have touched a raw nerve, because they had that twisted lump of burnt plastic framed and mounted on a wall with an engraved plaque. I don't remember the inscription but it said something about Steely Dan, men and machines.

<--- Back To I Remember Steely Don & Walt

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