Steely Dan’s Pursuit of Perfection with MLA

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Rock and Roll Hall of Famers Walter Becker and Donald Fagen took Steely Dan’s "Jamalot Ever After" tour across the U.S. and Canada this summer, with OSA International, Inc. providing Martin Audio’s Multi-cellular Loudspeaker Array (MLA) sound system.

Steely Dan has a reputation among audiophiles and throughout Pro Audio for their fastidious attention to sound production, so much so that many FOH engineers and system techs use a Steely Dan track to tune a system. When it comes to live sound, their expectations for the PA are no less demanding.

Returning to mix Steely Dan is Mark Dowdle, whose extensive credits include Elton John, Gloria Estefan, Fleetwood Mac, Tina Turner and Jackson Browne, to name just a few. Last year’s tour included a stop at Ravinia Festival in Chicago, where Dowdle mixed on two 7-box MLA arrays, the first year of a new OSA installation and the first new PA in a decade at North America’s oldest music festival.

[caption id="attachment_59059" align="aligncenter" width="300"] Mark Dowdle[/caption]

Late last year, Steely Dan’s road manager, tour sound icon Robert ‘Nitebob’ Czaykowski, introduced Walter Becker to MLA at a demonstration at New York’s Manhattan Center, where they were able to walk around and hear the evenness of its response and coverage. Steely Dan often plays theaters, where the mix position is usually at the back, beneath a balcony. “I go out there every day and listen to it; that’s part of my gig,” Czaykowski said. “What really knocks me out about MLA is that you can really control it so it’s not splattering off a back wall or cluttering up in the lower balcony.”

Present also at the NYC demo was Jim Risgin, Vice President for OSA–owners of the largest inventory of MLA in North America. With offices in Chicago, Las Vegas and now also Nashville, OSA have built an impressive reputation and client list providing complete technical services to some of the largest corporate, sporting events and concert tours in the U.S. The NYC demo was followed by extensive research from Mark Dowdle to confirm that the system would deliver the desired performance, and as a result Steely Dan added MLA to their tour.

Across the demanding 56-stop tour, MLA showed its versatility, control and overall sound performance credentials. Dowdle points out that the MLA provides extremely even front-to-back SPL as well as evenness of frequency response throughout the listening area. “The coverage is very smooth, especially its shading,” he said. “You can walk up on the PA in the front and it sounds just like it does in the back of the room.”

Dowdle also mentions an improvement to the stereo field. “Everything is more defined, so that automatically translates into the stereo field being more discernable,” he said. “MLA gives me dynamic range, clarity and definition so that I’m able to position and layer sounds in the stereo field which you can really hear where they all are.” He adds that the MLA’s sound is extremely coherent and is very responsive from a mixing standpoint. “You make a small fader move and it’s immediately noticeable.”

Furthermore, Dowdle is surprised by the constant comments from the audience. “I’ve been mixing for a long time and usually nobody ever says anything. This particular tour I’ve had more response from the audience than any tour I’ve ever done in my entire career, and it’s always been very positive and it’s always been very poignant. That’s in large part because of MLA allowing me to get it exactly how I want everywhere in the room.”

OSA crew chief and MLA system engineer Martyn ‘Ferrit’ Rowe is well known from his tenure at Martin Audio as an MLA product specialist before leaving to work for OSA as Director of Engineering. The Steely Dan tour travels in two trucks, carrying consoles and backline (including a Steinway grand) in one, and lights and PA in the second. “We’re carrying 26 MLA and 2 MLD down-fills, as well as 18 MLA Compacts, plus 8 MLX subs and 6 W8LMD used as front-fills,” Rowe explains.

The tour played Oklahoma City’s Chesapeake Energy Arena and New Orleans’ UNO Lakefront Arena using the 14-box MLA main arrays and 9-box MLA Compact side arrays that they carry. “The LA Forum was the only venue on our 56-show itinerary where we had to add PA,” said Mitchell Keller, Steely Dan’s production manager for the fourth year running. “It’s quite impressive that on a two truck tour we can carry enough PA to do arenas.”

The rest of the itinerary ranged from sheds and theaters to casinos. “The smallest venue was Humphrey’s in San Diego, putting in two subwoofers and ground stacking six MLA per side,” Rowe explains. “We recently did four shows in a row with single point hangs using ten MLA enclosures.”

As well as MLA’s flexibility and scalability, Rowe is keen to point out the simplicity of its operation. “It’s like fly by wire; you tell it what you want and the software produces a custom preset for your system and the room,” he said. “This isn’t auto EQ, you still have control over all the decisions that are being made, but the computer is doing the heavy lifting for you.”

So, coming full circle, what did Fagen and Becker make of the sound quality? According to Dowdle, “Both have come out into the audience on a number of occasions and have always been positive with their feedback and what was going on.

“More often than not Donald will come out and listen and frequently comments, ‘It sounds great,’ which is probably the highest compliment that I could ever receive in my career.”

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