Though most everything else was clean to begin with, Showell did have to account for some dropouts found within the decidedly lo-fi master of the band’s 1972 double-LP masterpiece, Exile on Main St. “That album, to me, is one of their greatest works. It’s unbelievably brilliant—but it’s never, ever going to win an award for sound engineering,” he (rightly) opines. “That’s not what this album is about anyway. It was about the guys getting together with a lot of guest musicians, putting a bunch of mics in there, and then just doing it in the moment.”
Showell shines brightest on this box set with his de-essing prowess—i.e., making sure any “s” sounds in the vocals were not overly sibilant or hissy. I feel his QC “s” work is best exemplified by the enunciation clarity of Mick Jagger’s seething lead vocals on “Shattered,” the last track on Side 2 of 1978’s Some Girls. It’s especially evident on the tongue-twisting rapid-fire lines, “Love and hope and sex and dreams / Are still surviving on the street,” the “shmatta, shmatta, shmatta” triple play, the four repeat declarations of “success!” toward the end of the song, and the recurring “Sha-doobie / Shattered” chorus line. “Yeah, that was pretty tough. It could have gone the wrong way,” Showell admits.
It’s also worth mentioning the Side 2-ending song on 1973’s Goats Head Soup, “Star Star” (“That’s what’s on the label; it’s not what they’re singing!” Showell observes with a chuckle), and the concise end of plural words like “kisses,” “guitars,” “stars,” and “tongues,” as well as at the beginning of “scream,” “silver screen,” and “Steve” (McQueen, that is). “That’s in the worst place on a record, when you come to the end of a side and go down the plughole,” details Showell. “The record is going around slower, and the quality’s not quite as good as if it had been Track 1. You can get away with brighter and sharper ‘s’ sounds with Track 1 than you can with Track 6. You have to take that into account too.” This is quite true—for example, the character of the s’s on the iconic first track on Side 1 of 1981’s Tattoo You, “Start Me Up,” is as spot-on as it gets.
Showell had to take additional de-essing TLC whenever Stones guitarist Keith Richards took on a lead vocal, as he did on cuts like “Happy” (the aforementioned Exile on Main St.), “Little T&A” (Tattoo You), “Slipping Away” (Steel Wheels), and “The Worst” (Voodoo Lounge) among them. “Keith was a bit more problematic with the s’s than Mick, so I had to be extra careful with him,” Showell confirms. “Maybe he smokes more; I don’t know. It makes him extra raspy-sounding—or maybe it was the way the microphones were set up, or whatever. Keith was a bit more challenging, but nothing I couldn’t deal with, I hope!” (Mission accomplished, I’d say.)
Other end-of-side tracks like “Moonlight Mile” on Side 1 of 1971’s Sticky Fingers and “Memory Motel” on Side 2 of 1976’s Black and Blue could have presented the engineer with major headaches, but Showell was up to the challenge. “You have to be more careful with the high frequencies on those tracks—especially with vocals, which are the main problem,” he details. “The beauty is, as you’re rolling across the high frequencies, it’s happening gradually over 20 minutes. Most people who aren’t golden ears won’t notice, or are not even aware, that that’s a thing. My job is to keep them unaware of it while making it sound clean. The whole point of doing the mastering is: If you do your job properly, no one really notices if you’ve done anything. And the goal is not to spot that I’ve done anything.” (Again, mission accomplished, in my opinion.)
In addition to the above-mentioned tracks, other highlights include the haunting atmosphere of “I Just Want to See His Face” from Exile on Main St.; Sonny Rollins’ sultry sax work on the downtown funk of “Slave” from Tattoo You; Richards’ delicate vocal touch on “Sleep Tonight” from Dirty Work (and the ensuing, uber-low-level, 33-second-long “Key to the Highway” piano outro excerpt from original Stones piano man/roadie Ian Stewart, who passed away a few months prior to the album’s release); the all-out full-band instrumental frenzy during the choruses to “Out of Control” on Bridges to Babylon; and Ronnie Wood’s impeccably zippy slide-guitar work on “Rough Justice,” the opening track on the band’s last album of all-original material, 2005’s A Bigger Bang.
Some may say, “It’s only rock ’n’ roll,” but I say, “Start me up,” because I’ll never stop digging into the seemingly endless pleasures of Studio Albums Vinyl Collection 1971–2016. The results of Showell’s meticulous half-speed-mastered precision and care is in fine evidence all throughout the grooves of this comprehensive box set. It’s a stellar representation of the Stones the way they were meant to be heard on wax—and I like it, like it, yes I do.