The acclaimed producer, engineer and sonic innovator – who was closely identified with the work of Steely Dan and John Denver – has passed away, aged 66, writes David Davies.
Bela Fleck & the Flecktones, Rosanne Cash, Rickie Lee Jones, Roy Orbison, Kenny Rogers, Diana Ross, Frank Sinatra and Toots Thielemans were among the many other artists to come into Nichols’s orbit during his 45-year studio career.
Having grown up in California – where his friends included musician and fellow audio obsessive Frank Zappa – Nichols initially seemed set for a very different kind of career when he went to Oregon State University to study nuclear physics and, subsequently, became a nuclear operator at the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station.
But an interest in music and sound technology first explored in home experiments with Zappa never faded, and in the mid ‘60s he and some friends established a studio facility, Quantum, in Torrance, California. Guitarist Larry Carlton – with whom Nichols would go on to work extensively during Steely Dan sessions – was among the gifted musicians to contribute to Quantum recordings, which were frequently in the service of commercials.
With word of Nichols’s talents spreading, he was appointed to maintain equipment and engineer at ABC Records’ first recording studio in 1970. Shortly after joining ABC, he was introduced to Walter Becker and Donald Fagen – then a struggling songwriting duo trying to place their songs with frequently incompatible artists, but increasingly aware that the only real way forward was to cut the material themselves. The hastily put-together first incarnation of Steely Dan recorded its first album, Can’t Buy A Thrill, with Nichols at the board; it was the beginning of an enormously fruitful association between Nichols and Becker/Fagen that would endure for more than 30 years.
All three men shared an obsession with audio quality and, thanks to Nichols’s persistence and ingenuity, the seven original Steely Dan studio albums would become benchmarks for sonic quality. Album sessions would frequently run on for many months as Becker and Fagen put scores of musicians – generally the top sessioneers of their time – through their paces in search of ideal takes.
In indulging their penchant for perfection, the two songwriters were invaluably assisted by Nichols’s eye for innovation. The drum/percussion sampler, nicknamed Wendel, that he developed in 1978 – and refined through several successive incarnations – helped bring a then revolutionary-combination of live and sampled playing to Steely Dan’s 1980 album Gaucho. He also invented and produced a rubidium nuclear clock to enable enhanced synchronisation of digital recording equipment, while in later years he would turn his attention to a new generation of microphone technology.
Following Steely Dan’s split in 1980, Nichols would continue to work with both Becker and Fagen separately – in particular, Wendel is much in evidence on Fagen’s classic 1982 solo debut, The Nightfly – and then with the reunited duo on 2000’s comeback album, Two Against Nature. That release would net Nichols three Grammys to add to the trio he had already picked up during the band’s first period.
Ever at the cutting edge of audio technology, Nichols wrote extensively for the trade press and, during his final decade, channelled much of his energy into plug-in company Roger Nichols Digital.
Nichols was diagnosed with advanced pancreatic cancer in May 2010. Despite an expensive programme of treatment, he lived for less than a year, passing away on 9 April at the age of 66.
Fellow engineer/producers and equipment manufacturers lined up to pay tribute to Nichols – among them Meyer Sound. Nichols was the first engineer to use HD-1 monitors for a recording – Rickie Lee Jones’s Flying Cowboys, produced by Becker – with John Meyer noting that “it takes a visionary like Roger to steer change and break new grounds in technology. He raised the important question about whether loudspeakers should play a neutral role in the audio chain and this opened up the path for reinforcement systems to be built for transparency and linearity. He was a talented individual who took a relentless scientific approach to improving sound.”
Meanwhile, guitarist Elliott Randall told BBC Radio 4’s obituary programme, The Last Word, about Nichols’ determination to find the “magical place” in which to record Randall’s celebrated solo on Steely Dan’s ‘Reelin’ in the Years’. He had, said Randall, an “incredible sense of sonics; he just made it right. [For that song] I don’t think he touched the EQ knob; he just knew where to put the mic in the place where it would capture that we were looking to capture. He was so keen at paying attention to every detail.”
Nichols’s fight against cancer devastated his finances, and those wishing to make a donation to his family can do so via www.rogernichols.com.