Production Analysis – Black Cow

The track I’m going to pick for this post is by Steely Dan, entitled “Black Cow.”    I’m a big fan of this homemade YouTube video, which features the song recording.  I picked this song in part because Steely Dan is supposedly “known” for their fantastic studio productions.  I just love their songs themselves, but thought it would be interesting to delve into the “other side of the mixing desk.”

Identify all of the sound sources.

This source tells me that this is the instrumentation from the liner notes.

This source has slightly different instrumentation and seems more correct.

Lead Vocals, Synthesizer: Donald Fagen
Guitar: Larry Carlton
Bass: Chuck Rainey
Drums: Paul Humphrey
Clavinet: Joe Sample (Hohner clavinet)
Electric Piano: Victor Feldman
Backing Vocals: Clydie King, Rebecca Louis, Sherlie Matthews, Venetta Fields

Saxophone [Tenor] – Tom Scott

Trumpet? (Doesn’t seem specified anywhere)

Be as specific as you can: which synthesizer was used?

A Hohner clavinet was used on this recording.  It is probably the “D6,” which is the most popular model introduced in 1971, but could also be the “E7,” which was introduced in 1977.  A lot of articles are saying the synthesizer was an ARP Prophet 5.  There’s not a lot of information out there on it, but most forums are saying it was ARP.  There is another source saying the ARP Odyssey.  The electric piano sounds like a Rhodes piano to me.

Be sure to identify the producer(s) and engineer(s).

“Tom Scott…did the horn arrangements on the Aja album,” (and thus on Black Cow)

“It was a work of gleaming surfaces, buffed to a high gloss by the band’s longtime producer Gary Katz and an ultimately Grammy-winning team of engineers. Its reflected light blinded the eye to what lay beneath.”

From this source.

Production of “Aja” – from Wikipedia

  • Executive producer: Stephen Diener [ABC Records]
  • Producer: Gary Katz
  • Engineers: Roger Nichols, Elliot Scheiner, Al Schmitt, Bill Schnee
  • Assistant engineers: Joe Bellamy, Lenise Bent, Ken Klinger, Ron Pangaliman, Ed Rack, Linda Tyler
  • Mastering: Bernie Grundman
  • Production coordination: Barbara Miller
  • Sound consultant: Dinky Dawson
  • Consultant: Daniel Levitin
  • Horn arrangements: Tom Scott
  • Art direction: Vartan Reissue
  • Design: Geoff Westen
  • Photography: Hideki Fujii (cover photo), Walter Becker
  • Liner notes: Walter Becker, Donald Fagen
  • Reissue coordination: Beth Stempel

Did the drums have any special effects or processing on them?

It’s pretty difficult for me to tell from the sources whether there was any special effects processing on the drums.  In the recording, they sound very tight, almost as if they are mixed “dry,” with only the natural room reverb on them.  In this article Fagan talks about using live chambers at A&R and how each studio had its own sound:

“They had this beautiful sound when you clapped your hands, a really transparent sound. It didn’t have any of that “ssh” you hear with digital echo. It was beautiful. We always looked forward to working in those studios. But now you have to adapt.”

As far as other effects go, it sounds like the clavinet has a spring reverb on it, which I would assume was built into the unit.  The vocals (lead and background) also sound like they have a reverb on them.  The horns sound like they have some reverb on them.  The Rhodes piano solo sounds like it has some reverb on it.  I do not know if this was generated internally within the piano,

List each sound in the order that it appears in the track. 

Order of sound entrances for “Black Cow”:

0:00 – Clavinet, Lead Guitar, Bass, Drums enter simultaneously

0:11 – Guitar (rhythm)  (I am also not sure if the electric piano enters here because it is playing the exact same chords/voicings as the rhythm guitar.  If not here, then it enters around 0:33

0:21 – Lead vocals

0:31 – Background vocals

0:33 – Electric Piano

1:35 – Tenor Sax

1:46 – Trumpet? Trombone?

I cannot tell where the synthesizer enters.  But then again, trumpet wasn’t listed in the sources and it sounds like there is definitely trumpet (and maybe trombone?) in this song.

Great YouTube source.

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