Oakland native Roger Nichols, a recording engineer whose meticulous studio work with Steely Dan and others earned him seven Grammy Awards, died April 9 at his home in Burbank. He was 66.
The cause was pancreatic cancer, his family said.
In a four-decade career, Nichols worked with John Denver, Frank Zappa, the Beach Boys, Rickie Lee Jones, Bela Fleck, Toto, Rosanne Cash and many others. But he is most associated with Steely Dan and its two principal members, Walter Becker and Donald Fagen, whose 1970s recordings are still hallowed by audiophiles for their pristine sound and attention to even the most minute detail.
Becker, Fagen and their producer, Gary Katz, were known for exacting standards and, as their favored engineer, Nichols played a crucial part in their quest for sonic perfection. That included control over all the machinery in the studio and even making some to order: partly to satisfy Fagen's demands for inhumanly steady drumming, Nichols invented an early drum machine, the Wendel, which plays a significant part on the band's 1980 album, "Gaucho."
"Roger made those records sound like they did," Katz said in an interview Friday. "He was extraordinary in his willingness and desire to make records sound better."
Roger Scott Nichols was born Sept. 22, 1944, in Oakland, and grew up in Rancho Cucamonga, near Los Angeles, where his interest in audio recording sprouted early: While in high school he made home recordings with a guitar-playing classmate, Frank Zappa.
Nichols studied nuclear physics at Oregon State University and from 1965 to 1968 worked at the San Onofre nuclear power plant outside San Diego. But his interest in high-fidelity audio led him to quit that job and work in recording, first at a garage studio he opened with friends and later at ABC-Dunhill Records in Los Angeles.
One evening Katz brought Becker and Fagen to ABC-Dunhill to record a demo, and Nichols was the only engineer available. But from the start they all clicked, and Nichols -- whose nickname in Steely Dan's liner notes was "the Immortal" -- became a fixture with the studio-focused band. In a group portrait on the back cover of the 1973 Steely Dan album "Countdown to Ecstasy," Nichols' seemingly disembodied hand creeps out from under the recording console to adjust some sound levels.
Nichols won six of his seven Grammys for work with Steely Dan, including three in 2001 for "Two Against Nature," the band's comeback album after a hiatus of nearly 20 years. His seventh was for his work with Denver.
He is survived by his wife, Connie; two daughters, Cimcie and Ashlee; a sister, Melinda Ryan; and a brother, Jeffrey Nichols.