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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.)

 

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.

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