The Stones Roll on Wax

Getting Their Licks in on 15 Half-Speed-Mastered LPs

The Stones Roll on Wax

Like the ever-shifting sands of time, the Rolling Stones continue to, well, roll on. In fact, the World’s Greatest Rock ’n’ Roll Band wrapped up their most recent No Filter tour in the U.K. in early July, and there are no signs of them gathering moss anytime soon.

Naturally, a career that spans six decades and counting calls for a properly compartmentalized vinyl box set, hence the recent appearance of the Studio Albums Vinyl Collection 1971–2016 from Promotone B.V./Polydor/UMG, which encompasses the 15 studio albums the Stones released during that 45-year time span, each on 180-gram vinyl. This limited-edition set, which faithfully reproduces each LP’s respective original packaging, also comprises the launch and establishment of the Rolling Stones Records label imprint that followed on the heels of the band’s initial 1960s stint with Decca (currently undertaken by ABKCO). The Stones’ custom label has been distributed by Atlantic, CBS, Virgin/EMI, and Interscope respectively over the years, and it now resides fully under the broader Universal umbrella.

While this era of the Stones catalog has been remastered for vinyl before, Studio Albums Vinyl Collection 1971–2016 is well worth the three-figure investment, serving as a fine companion to ABKCO’s 15-LP 2016 box set release, The Rolling Stones in Mono, the decisive on-wax chronicle of the band’s seminal 1960s output. The worth of this new box is mainly thanks to mastering engineer Miles Showell’s undisputed expertise at the half-speed-mastering process, which he deployed prior to his cutting of the box’s entire contents as sourced from the original master tapes. Showell readily admits to following the half-speed lead of his mentor, the late Mobile Fidelity mastering guru Stan Ricker, who passed away in July 2015. (Showell specifically cites Ricker’s work on the MoFi LP editions of Pink Floyd’s The Dark Side of the Moon and The Beatles’ Abbey Road as being “definitive.”)

One of the other secrets to Showell’s half-speed success comes with his expert deployment of a Neumann VMS 80 lathe, which he had refurbished, customized, and ultimately installed permanently in Abbey Road Studios in February 2017. This lathe was initially put to fine use for the benefit of last year’s definitive 180-gram vinyl 50th anniversary edition of The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.

And while the Stones organization would not let Showell take full custody of the original master tapes per se, he was allowed to make a pair of copies from a hard drive—high-resolution PCM files at either 192/24 or 176/24, plus a flat DSD transfer. Stones management also supplied Showell with a complete set of the original U.K. pressings of each album to consult as he worked through the painstaking half-speed process (though he did have to return all those LPs to the Stones mothership once the box-set project was finished).

In my view, Showell’s core half-speed goal was to recreate history without changing it, a supposition with which he wholly agrees. “If I could get a bit more air in the high frequencies and make them a bit more punchy, then fantastic,” he notes. “But I didn’t want to make anything sound like it was recorded yesterday with the compression, because that’s not what these albums are all about. The minute you put an album on that you know well, and then you hear someone has gone crazy with the mastering, you go, ‘What the hell is this?’ You don’t want that at all.”

While the half-speed-mastering was done mostly in chronological order, one track had to be skipped over until its playback-speed issue was resolved—and that track was “Fingerprint File,” the final cut on Side 2 of 1974’s It’s Only Rock ’n’ Roll. Showell discovered the discrepancy when he had the original U.K. LP running concurrently along with the hi-res file, which made him think, “Wait a minute—there’s a way, waaay different speed here.” It was different enough to him that Showell went back to his contact at Universal and said, “Look, I don’t think we’ve got the right mix. Can we request something else? I think I’ve got the wrong one.” The message that came back to him was, “That’s it. Do what you have to do.”

Showell also discovered “Fingerprint File” was half out of phase. “This is what happens at the end of a side, and I was usually able to more sympathetically fix those problems than you could have done in the early 70s,” he continues. When the engineer asked Stones management if they wanted him to handle the speed problem or just replicate the original, the response he got was, “We like the one that replicates the LP. We’ll go with that.” (Knowing all this may color how you perceive your own next playback of “Fingerprint File,” but it’s still a fascinating listen nonetheless.)

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