"You've gotta hand it to the Rolling Stones," says Abbey Road mastering engineer Miles Showell with a laugh. "They've been at the top of their game for, oh, about 55 years now. Nobody's ever going to do that again, are they?"
Showell spent much of last summer and fall literally up to his ears in more than four decades' worth of Stones recordings, resulting in The Rolling Stones Studio Albums Vinyl Collection 1971-2016, a hefty new limited-edition box set that contains special 180-gram vinyl pressings of every Stones studio album from 1971's Sticky Fingers through 2016's Blue & Lonesome. Each album in the set (out Friday) comes housed in a heavyweight replica of its original packaging – Sticky Fingers has a working zipper, Exile on Main St. contains reprints of its original postcards – but it's the sound of the LPs that will be the real treat for Stones fans. Lovingly remastered by Showell from analog transfers using a painstaking process known as half-speed mastering, the albums boast a richer, more detailed aural picture with a sparkling top end, all while keeping the punch and groove of the original recordings intact.
"If you imagine the original version of each album turned up to 11, to kind of quote Spinal Tap, it's that – it's just one better," Showell explains. "That's what I was going for, without disrespecting the feel and the atmosphere of what's there."
Unless you're a diehard audiophile or vinyl collector, it's likely that you've never heard of Showell. But he's been Abbey Road's go-to guy for half-speed mastering since 2013, trusted with the delicate task of cutting vinyl reissues of albums by the Beatles, the Who, Queen, the Police, Marvin Gaye, ABBA, Amy Winehouse and many others. So devoted is Showell to the half-speed mastering process – in which a recording played back at half its normal speed is cut to an acetate revolving at 16 2/3 RPMs (instead of 33 1/3), thus allowing more recorded information to make it into the grooves of the vinyl pressing – that he now cuts the acetates for each project on his very own Neumann VMS 80 lathe. He spent over 18 months (and a considerable sum of his own money) restoring the vintage lathe, which he keeps at Abbey Road since it would take up far too much space in his home.
"This lathe works significantly better than a new one would have done 35 years ago, and is far and away the best lathe I have ever cut on," he raves. "I spent a lot more on the restoration and modifications than most studios would, but I wanted a secret weapon."
Inspired by the audiophile-oriented work of Mobile Fidelity Sound Labs, which began releasing limited half-speed master editions of classic albums in the 1970s, Showell – who has been working as a mastering engineer since 1984 – says he began experimenting with half-speed mastering about 15 years ago. "It's actually pretty soul-destroyingly awful to listen to, as an engineer, while I'm cutting it," he says, mimicking the sepulchral growl of a record spinning at half its normal speed. "But when you put the record on after you're done, you're thinking, 'My God, this just sounds incredible!' That's why you do it, really. That's my OCD, just to kind of noodle away at stuff and get it as good as you possibly can."
Showell spoke to Rolling Stone about how the big box set came together.
When did you start work on the Stones vinyl box, and how long did it take?
They contacted me about this time last year, and I started probably about mid-August. I didn't work on it solidly the whole time; it was on and off. I do very long days, three days a week here [at Abbey Road], because I work on a rotation system with another engineer; we share the room. So I'd say probably two of the three days a week that I spent in the building were spent on the Stones. And I did that for eight weeks ... so about 16, 18 very long days, about 14, 15 hours apiece. And some of the work I was also doing at home, because there was some preparation work I needed to do, just to get rid of any extraneous noises, or fix any drop-outs, or do any "de-essing," which I can do on a workstation at home.
Were there any difficulties in tracking down the original master tapes for this project?
I didn't have any original master tapes for this. The management of the band archived everything digitally a few years back, and I was loaned a hard drive – they said, "You can have this for 24 hours; take anything you need off of it, and then it has to come back." They had several high-resolution transfers of each album, or at least high-resolution where the source was analog tape, which was most of it. They just said, "Take your pick, and work with whichever transfer you feel is better with you."
I'd have liked to have got hold of the tape, but old analog tape is starting to get quite fragile, especially the stuff from the late Seventies and early Eighties, because the tape was not great. Tape from the Sixties is fine, that's holding up really well, but the Seventies- and Eighties-era tape is getting very fragile. It's considered nowadays kind of bad practice to continually keep trying to play these old tapes, because you're just going to wear 'em out. I don't want to be the person who destroyed the master for Black and Blue, you know? [Laughs] I don't want that on my conscience! If they'd given me a hard drive full of rotten transfers, I'd have said, "Look, if you want to do a high-quality box, then we have to try and get the tapes out, and see if I can get anything better." But what I had was good – and in most cases, it was very good – so I was happy to work with what they gave me.
Are you a big Stones fan?
Yeah! I wouldn't say I lived and breathed the Rolling Stones, and some of these albums were new to me. But I knew a lot of them, and I knew Some Girls pretty well. That one, when it was new, was probably when I first woke up to them. But now, being so close to this library, I have to say I really like Goats Head Soup and Black and Blue – just the songs and the atmosphere, and you can really hear them getting together in a room, just people having fun and enjoying themselves.
I already knew Exile on Main St., because I worked on [a half-speed mastered version of] that about five years ago. And that one is what it is – just, like, chuck some mics in the air, and away you go. Some people will kind of rehearse and rehearse and rehearse stuff and make it so note-perfect that it's a bit devoid of atmosphere and vibe, whereas this is all about vibe and getting the right feel, and hang the rest of it. And I kind of like that attitude, really. And even the later albums, A Bigger Bang and Voodoo Lounge, they're great!
Vibe has been such an integral part of the Stones' magic since their very first recordings. Is it difficult to avoid tampering with that element when you're remastering their records?
I really try not to do that. I'm a vibe person more than I am a sound person, if I'm honest with you. I mean, I like it to sound good, but it's no use having a fabulous-sounding record if the atmosphere is dead, you know? The whole point of having a record, and having a hi-fi, is to get moved by the music, as far as I'm concerned. So that's gotta come first. The last thing I wanted to do was to try and stamp my sound all over these records, because that's not what I'm about. I'm about doing as faithful a transfer as I can.
When I was working on this set, not only did I have the digital archive which they loaned me, but I was also given, for the duration of the sessions, a whole box of original [vinyl] pressings from the Stones' archives. So I would do my thing first, and then put the original record on and see how close I was, with the aim of being a bit better. Now, that's not actually as easy as it sounds, because I've got the advantage of a much cleaner signal path than any of the mastering guys would have had originally; but then, I'm also dealing with much more worn tape, so I've already got one arm behind my back before I start. But I'm happy with what I got, and it definitely feels better to me than what I was hearing from the original pressings.
Did any of the albums present major challenges to you, in terms of remastering?
To be honest with you, there weren't any major challenges. The hardest things to deal with were fixing drop-outs, where there were little holes in the oxide that had been transferred to the digital files. That may be a drop-out that's always been there, or it might just be wear and tear on the tape, or a point where somebody'd crunched the tape when they re-wound it; but with digital restoration software, I can repair those fairly well.
Obviously, in this box, the first three or four albums [Sticky Fingers, Exile on Main St., Goats Head Soup and It's Only Rock 'n Roll] are kind of fairly deliberately lo-fi. It was almost as if, when they went to record Black and Blue, they'd discovered FM radio, and thought, "We'd better make our record sound nice on the FM!" Because suddenly, from Black and Blue onwards, they sound really quite nice – it's a much cleaner sound. But I wasn't going to try and zing up the lo-fi albums, because people know and love them as they are, so it's not for me to try and rewrite history. And it would be wrong; if I was to try and screw in tons of EQ and make it sound really big and bright and smash you in the face, that wouldn't be what people are expecting, because that's not how those records sound. So I tried to be respectful of what was there. I'm quite happy to apply some EQ to a tape that's a bit worn or whatever; but just because I've got seven EQs in the desk, it doesn't mean I have to use all of them. It's like touching up the Mona Lisa – you've got to be careful, and not go too crazy with it.
Were there any big surprises that you encountered?
The only really tricky track was "Fingerprint File," which is on It's Only Rock 'n Roll – it's the last track on Side Two. When I was comparing what I had [on the digital file] to the original record, I thought, "Hmmm, got the wrong speed here!" So I did a load of research, and learned that most versions of the song out there actually are the wrong speed. I went back to the management and I said, "What's going on here?" And they said, "Nope, that's the master; they must have changed the speed at the original session." So I said, "Well, seeing as we're trying to recreate the original album, let's get the speed the same."
In other words, the Stones' original studio recording of the track had been sped up during the mastering of It's Only Rock 'n Roll?
Yes, it must have just been a decision that was taken at the original mastering session. But when I got the digital track [of the original recording] to match the speed of the version on the album, it was all out of phase; it was horrible. Basically, you can't cut out-of-phase music; when the information in one speaker is slightly out of time with the other speaker, it just doesn't work. The original mastering engineer would have had to have basically made it largely mono – or a fairly narrow stereo – to get it onto the record, otherwise it just wouldn't have cut properly. So with a bit of clever digital filtering, I was able to correct that far more elegantly than would have been possible 40 years ago. So that was the biggest challenge, I guess, and that's because I was comparing it to the original LP. If I had been sent one of the later represses [that included the track at its original speed], I might not have spotted it. So I'm lucky that they gave me that, really!
How much input did the Stones have into the project while you were working on it?
Thankfully, for this, they gave me a real free hand; I couldn't believe it, actually. They said, "Here's the music, here are the original records. Go and do your thing!" And that was it. No input from anybody. They didn't get involved until towards the end, when the test pressings were back from the pressing plant, towards the end of last year.
And they were pleased with those?
Yeah, thank God! [Laughs] The management had heard them all first, and they then sent them on to Mick, and he played them all, and the feedback was all positive. It's really good, because if somebody'd said, "No, I don't like this," then that would have been the end of that, and I would have had a lot of egg on my face, and you wouldn't have a box in your collection!
Coming off this major LP box, what's your take on the future of vinyl?
Whoa, that's a good question, and I wish I knew the answer! If you'd asked me this question 10 years ago, I wouldn't have said that we'd be where we're at now, so it's very hard to be sure. But it would appear that vinyl is becoming the format of choice for the audiophiles – who never really gave up on it, anyway – and the true fans of an artist. Quite often a huge fan of an artist will buy their new LP, the vinyl version, and actually not be able to play it; they'll stream it so they can hear it, but they want to express the fact that they're such a fan of this artist that they've bought this physical thing: "Maybe one day I'll get a record player, but I love them so I bought this."
It's never going to be as mass-market as it was 40 years ago, because there aren't enough cutting lathes and pressing plants left; every pressing plant in the world has huge lead times now. But I don't see any reason, if we're all careful and we all work hard – it's not just me, there are other people as well working hard to create nice-sounding records – that it can't carry on as it is. And the good news, I've noticed, is that all of the pressing plants in Europe, and also in America, have really upped their game, and they're all turning out really nice-sounding stuff. But who knows? Maybe somebody will make an amazing disc-cutting lathe, and maybe the pressing plants will get even better, and it will become the format of the future. I struggle to see that, but I certainly don't see it going away. We may well have reached peak vinyl, but that doesn't mean it's going to drop from here.