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1987 Article: Rolling Stones on CD: You Can Get What You Need - Musician Magazine
Posted by: exilestones ()
Date: September 12, 2021 12:31

April 1987 # 102

Rolling Stones on CD: You Can Get What You Need
By Scott Isler

They made their name by playing (and looking) raunchy, dirty and a few galaxies down the block from gentility. The Rolling Stones' idea of revolution verged closer to anarchy than thoughtful improvement. So ironists must be having a field day now that virtually all the Stones' recorded output has been sonically cleaned and combed and issued on compact disc, the Little Lord Fauntleroy of sound reproduction.

What's so funny? Well, nothing, really. The still-costly compact disc has to appeal beyond classical-music audiophiles to establish itself as the dominant recording format (as the industry would like). The Stones, like their friendly rivals the Beatles, make an ideal choice to spread the digital gospel. They're massively popular, with a special pull - okay, call it nostalgia - on the hearts and wallets of aging baby-boomers with enough discretionary income to buy CD players and pay twice the price for albums they already have.

No surprise, then, that last summer ABKCO Records and Columbia Records - the two companies that handle the band's repertoire in the U.S. - simultaneously started preparing Stones recordings for domestic digital release. In November ABKCO's batch of fifteen albums - from the Stones' first through Let It Bleed, the live Get Yer Ya-Ya's Out! and the Hot Rocks 1964-1971 compilation, all originally released on London Records - hit record stores in CD form. Fast as you can say "stocking stuffer," Columbia, the current distributor of the Stones' own label, retaliated with CDs of the band's following fourteen releases, from Sticky Fingers through Undercover and Rewind. (Dirty Work, the most recent Stones album, debuted on CD upon its release last spring.)

Preparing a digital master tape from an analog (i.e. "conventional") source is as much art as science. Digital purists consider their CD players wasted unless they're listening to digital recordings - which is fine as long as your taste in music begins in 1972. But digital encoding can deliver even pre-digital performances as you've never heard them before: with uncompressed dynamic and frequency range, and permanently free from wear. (Try finding an unworn Stones record in anyone's collection!)

ABKCO and Columbia both took pains to insure that the Stones CDs wouldn't be aural disappointments. Andrew Loog Oldham, the Rolling Stones' flamboyant ex-manager and producer of their first nine albums, supervised the digital re-mastering of the ABKCO material. "This cleans it all up," Oldham says of the sonic overhaul. "If it's old to people it becomes new to them. It's wonderful."

Oldham, who was there when it happened, ought to know about the limitations of the Rolling Stones recordings. "It was hit-and-run then," he reminisces. "Your quality control were your ears. I would very often bring things back from California to New York when I knew that I would have to do twenty percent of the mixing before I got on the next plane to go home."

Oldham had no production experience, but such insouciance was what they Rolling Stones were all about. He refused to record the group at Decca, the Stones' British label, preferring to book odd hours in looser (if less equipped) studios. He doesn't regret the policy, "just from remembering what the Decca studio looked like. The control rooms in those places let you know who was in charge: A guy's gotta come down the steps to tell you how it is. I really don't think that's conducive to the change that was going on.

"Technique had nothing to do with it. Whether I wanted to be a producer or not doesn't even come into it. You've definitely got to follow your instinct and say, 'If they're in this place, with this guy with his pipe and his tie and his white shirt-sleeves rolled up, we're not even gonna get horny!' I'd rather go for where the feeling got through."

The feeling got through, and Oldham even learned a little about recording along the way. He certainly started at square one. At the recording session for the Stones' first single, "Come On," the fledgling - and clock-watching - producer was ready to leave when his town hours (and 40 pounds) were up. "We'd done the two things, it was five to six, I said 'Right, let's go.' The engineer turned around to me and said, 'Well, what about mixing it?' I didn't know what he was talking about. I said, 'What's that?' He explained it to me. I figured, if I'm not there I won't have to pay for it; 'I'll pick it up in the morning.' After that we went to a mono studio because I knew we could only deal on the level of 'what you hear is what you get.' That's how the first album and 'Not Fade Away' were done. Then we got up to three tracks at Chess [Studios in Chicago], and four tracks when we went to Los Angeles."

The learn-as-you-earn attitude obviously didn't faze Oldham. "What's the three things that make up a hit record?" he asks rhetorically. "A great song, a great song and a great song....It doesn't matter: scratch, hiss, pop - if you're gonna convert the world."

Still, the digital remastering required for CD gave Oldham a second chance to go over his work. PolyGram, ABKCO's distributor, offered production facilities at its huge CD pressing plant in Hanover, West Germany. Oldham went over the master tapes with a German engineer who "was fortunately the right age. He knew the records," Oldham says. The two developed a sign language to overcome verbal barriers. Oldham would move his palms toward each other - like squeezing an invisible accordion - to signify a narrowing of the stereo soundstage. Another gesture involved moving his hand from the base of his neck over the top of his head; this meant bringing up the vocal.

Sometimes solving one problem created others. With "Nineteenth Nervous Breakdown," for example, Oldham was "totally happy with where the vocal was on the single. But when you put that up with all the clarity that you've got now, you can put the balls back into the tape. Then, for some weird reason, where you put the voice doesn't sound right! It doesn't sound like the right amount of voice; it sounds like not enough. You've got the ball of the track sounding like the other records, and for some reason it's affected the vocal. The requirement is: Lift it up!"

Integration of the sometimes extreme stereo separation was number one on Oldham's list of priorities. He cites the previous stereo mix of "Mother's Little Helper" as a "nightmare." "The guitar sounded like Herman's Hermits. Awful.

"You'd be a fool to think you could correct a lame song, a lame vocal or a track that doesn't move," Oldham says of his remixing philosophy. "But I was able to remember little things like, 'Yeah, that tambourine really bothers me now'; in Hanover we had a little gizmo where we could tuck it under. It's not so much a technical point. I was saying, 'Look, Keith's guitar comes in there. I can't have this.' I knew on things like Flowers or Between The Buttons I was in shock when I heard the tambourine hanging out of the bottom left-hand corner. It was like - no respect. It was aggravating."

Other surprises were easier to take. Oldham heard bass parts he'd never heard before. On "Ruby Tuesday" he discovered someone counting off at the chorus/verse turnaround. (The conscientious timekeeper - possibly the cellist? - whispers twice, at 1:50 and 3:04 into the song.)

Generally, Oldham viewed his mission as "mastering the mystery back in." That mystery lies deep in the primary source - the magnetic particles arranged on the master tape - rather than any mere studio hocus-pocus. "People say to me years later," Oldham says, "'I hear that you got the drum sound on "All Sold Out" by putting Charlie [Watts] in an elevator and running the elevator up and down and recording it on two floors.' It's a great story. That's almost as good as some true ones."

"Andrew's idea," ABKCO president Allen Klein says of the CD project, "was, 'We've got to give people what they heard!' We didn't try to remake a record. Since everyone's concern at the time was what the single sounded like, we used that as a reference." Or at least a starting point: "We always mastered the singles bright," Oldham says, and with a lot of compression for radio.

ABKCO announced its Stones CD series (records and cassettes were overhauled too) in grand style. "THROW AWAY ALL YOUR ROLLING STONES ALBUMS. NOW" trumpeted the headline to a lavish eighteen page trade magazine insert published last fall. But Stones fans with CD players might already have seen compact discs by their heroes well over a year before. Atlantic Records, the former distributor of Rolling Stones Records, issued CDs of the Rewind compilation and Still Life, the 1982 live album. More intriguingly, compact discs of the Stones' 60s albums had been dribbling into the U.S. as European imports. Klein was not happy.

"Those albums are not as good as ours," Klein says of the import Stones CDs, released by the British Decca Record Company with an ABKCO trademark. "We're both starting from the same two-track masters. They're missing an in-between step" - that of equalizing the master tape to yield a powerful sound equivalent to the vinyl counterpart. Master tapes are original source material, but not necessarily the final word (or sound). Engineers commonly fiddle with multi-track masters in preparing the two-track tape that will be used as the source for LPs and cassettes - to compensate for sonic shortcomings in those media and/or to correct problems at the recording session.

The British CDs have their origins in a lavish boxed set of ABKCO Stones LPs distributed by the audiophile-oriented Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab in 1984. MFSL, Inc. president Herb Belkin says his company produced a set of digital masters, at ABKCO's request, while MFSL was in possession of the stereo master tapes. The digital masters went to Decca Records in England for a series of LPs and CDs; MFSL itself didn't have CD rights.

Belkin claims that Decca ran Mobile Fidelity's digital tapes through the Decca Digital System, "which changed the sound." He was so chagrined by the result that he asked Decca to remove the credit line - "Analogue to Digital mastering by Mobile Fidelity Sound" - from the CD packaging. Tony Hawkins, manager of the transcription department at Decca Recording Services in London, remembers receiving the digital tapes from MFSL. He says, though, that the tapes went straight through to Hanover for CD mastering. (PolyGram manufactured the British as well as the U.S. CDs.) Hawkins acknowledges that Decca Digital is an "in-house" system not compatible with the more standard Sony technology used by MFSL. However, "we couldn't even play [the Mobile Fidelity tapes] at that time 'cause we didn't have Sony equipment."

There are differences between the British and U.S. Stones CDs, largely attributable to Oldham's supervision of the domestic product. The awkward stereo separation that always marked Aftermath and Between The Buttons - and is even more obvious on the British CD than on LP - has been integrated into a more cohesive, forceful sound. "Let's Spend The Night Together" sports a brighter, louder vocal. On the other hand, some instrumental parts are buried, e.g. the piano on "Amanda Jones" and the acoustic guitar on "Complicated." The two electric-guitar parts on "Goin' Home" are melded into one.

The British Hot Rocks I (sold, unlike the U.S. version, as two separate CDs) has stereo mixes of "Time Is On My Side," "Get Off My Cloud," [sic - LP] "Play With Fire" and "Satisfaction"; we get mono. The U.S. Their Satanic Majesties Request - one of the best recorded of all the early Stones albums, despite its chaotic creation - lops off the opening two notes of "Sing This All Together (See What Happens)," and programs that cut's "We Wish You A Merry Christmas" finale as the beginning of "She's A Rainbow." In its defense, the CD's insert sheet includes all of the cover art of the original gatefold album; the British CD prints only the front cover on a chintzy slip of paper. (Ditto for the British Let It Bleed, lacking personnel credits.)

Well, trivial pursuit is a fascinating game, and doubtless there are other examples. A more substantial difference concerns the Aftermath album: The British CD reproduces the cover art and track line-up of the fourteen-song British LP; the U.S. version retains the stateside order of eleven songs, and is ten minutes shorter. The other British CDs, unlike their vinyl cousins, conform to the U.S. albums in song selection.

"It has nothing to do with trying to cheat anyone," Klein says. "We sat down and figured out what's the best album. Now Out Of Our Heads with 'Satisfaction' on it has to be better than [the British] Out Of Our Heads without 'Satisfaction.'" Klein adds that Aftermath is the only Stones album with more songs on the British than U.S. release. "We did not change Aftermath in the U.K. because that was a studio album."

Oldham goes along with this philosophy. "In England you never put your hit in albums, and here you had to." U.S. record companies viewed singles as promotional teasers for album sales. Oldham is vaguely aware of other discrepancies between U.S. and U.K. Stones recordings. "People would point out to me years later, 'Did you know that "Tell Me" is longer on the fade on the English version?' Quite honestly, no! 'Cause I was too busy. By the time I wasn't too busy, I really didn't care!"

The track-switching disappeared as the Stones took over control of their career. Since starting their own record company, Stones albums have been uniform here and abroad. Other traits were slower to change.

"When you consider the type of people the Stones were in those days, you can imagine the approach they took in the studio." Greg Calbi, mastering engineer at Sterling Sound Studios in New York, speaks from experience: He digitally remastered Sticky Fingers, Exile On Main Street, Some Girls and Emotional Rescue for Columbia Records. "I don't think they really had the patience," Calbi continues. "Because it's the Rolling Stones and it's your favorite record, a lot of times you think a record's gonna be a lot better sounding than it really is. These records were never really recording gems but they were rock classics. That's their big conflict with digital."

Calbi's job - along with Vladimir Meller, the CBS Studios mastering engineer who handled Columbia's other Stones CDs - was to resolve that conflict. Their modus operandi was identical to Klein and Oldham's with the earlier Stones albums. "We bought each of the albums in a store," Calbi says, "and listened to what people had available to buy right now. Then I would go back and listen to the master tape. In some cases they were better, in some cases the record sounded better: Mastering, eq-ing doesn't go onto the master tape; that's done through the recording console. The main thing was to have plenty of time to compare all this stuff and see what was on the market and try to improve on it."

Calbi praises Don DeVito, Columbia's coordinator and supervisor for the Stones CD project. "He was very open to any suggestion. A lot of A&R people might just get the most convenient tape and say, 'Here, make a record out of it.' A few years ago I think they were just interested in getting a CD out. Now the competition is pretty serious. I think they know that if they get bad reviews in any of the magazines, that's just going to hurt the whole catalog."

Calbi and Meller were flooded with tapes: original masters, equalized masters, safety copies of original masters - several different versions for each album. "That gave me a tremendous advantage right off the bat," Calbi says. "In mastering, every stage is so important as far as differences in sound."

Nothing brought that home to Calbi like working on Exile, his self-described "favorite record" when it originally came out. "Exile On Main Street was probably the most perplexing one of all" the Columbia Stones CDs, he says. "The master tape sounded so drastically different from the record that was out on the market. I wouldn't want to insult anybody, but the master tape I had was dreadful. It was very muddy and there was very little separation between everything. It was obvious that whoever mastered the album did something magical to it, something which I couldn't figure out. I worked for two or three days on it, and I just gave up. I thought maybe over the years the tape had lost some quality. I couldn't get it to jump out. I did the best I could.

"Three days after I sent out the final product, they found another tape. It was an equalized tape done when they cut the record. I put it on, and it's phenomenal. With the help of some people at Columbia, we stopped production on what we had, and went back and actually used the equalized master that was done for [vinyl] disc. It just sounds fantastic.

"On the other hand, something like Sticky Fingers was fairly easy to improve upon. The bass response particularly was very lightweight and flimsy on disc. The bottom was so much fuller and richer when I got the master tape and played it on my Neve console."

"If you hear bass on an eq master that came out on disc," Meller says, "it's not enough for CD. You can put much more highs on CD. When someone buys a CD, the first thing they expect is more dynamic range than on disc, so why transfer the same sound to CD?"

Calbi cites a "transistory midrange" endemic to early-70s recordings. "The harshness is a hard thing to get rid of. But when I mastered Sticky Fingers I just went for the excitement, for the guitar growl. I figured the people who are going to buy those records want 'em to kick."

By the time of Some Girls (1978), the engineers' job was much easier. "I had all the cutting information at my fingertips," Calbi says. "I had the master tape. I opened up the bass a bit. I reduced the amount of compression considerably. The drums are clearer and louder now."

The Stones' journey to the digital domain is nearly complete. In March ABKCO released Got Live If You Want It! and More Hot Rocks on compact disc. That leaves only Metamorphosis without a CD counterpart. Even Klein seems to prefer it that way: "I don't think it really represents a part of history that this London [Records] era is." (Klein released Metamorphosis, and audio dustbin of 60s demos and out-takes, in 1975.)

And even Calbi is curious about the ABKCO CDs: "A lot of interesting albums are on there. Columbia got the second batch, which has a couple of good records, but has a couple of turkeys too."

Oldham has his own view of things. "I just get hit by the wall of it. We were listening back to stuff, running through in sequence. We'd reached Satanic Majesties, and at one point somebody snores. The engineer said, 'Who's that?' I said, 'Hm! Could be Brian.' He said, 'Oh.' Then I thought, that's interesting: 'We've been through eight albums and this is the first time you've asked me what anybody did!' He said, 'Well, this is when I started listening to them.' Well, each to their own. They'll be able to take those albums as personally as I can take the others."

But don't ask Oldham which is his favorite Stones album. He doesn't have one. "I just have a favorite group."

Re: 1987 Article: Rolling Stones on CD: You Can Get What You Need - Musician Magazine
Posted by: treaclefingers ()
Date: September 13, 2021 05:30

Wow...CD's sound amazing! Maybe I'll ditch all my old records and get into this format after all!

Re: 1987 Article: Rolling Stones on CD: You Can Get What You Need - Musician Magazine
Posted by: gotdablouse ()
Date: September 13, 2021 08:45

Thanks for sharing, Musician was really a good magazine. It's hard to believe that was almost 35 years ago and that the release of a CD was a big thing at the time...I remember the teasing that came with the release of the Beatles CDs ! And now we get the "same" interviews with the release of the Deluxe editions, be it for the Stones or the Beatles ;-)

IORR Links : Essential Studio Outtakes CDs : Audio - History of Rarest Outtakes : Audio

Re: 1987 Article: Rolling Stones on CD: You Can Get What You Need - Musician Magazine
Posted by: vancouver ()
Date: September 13, 2021 13:42

thanks nice reading

Re: 1987 Article: Rolling Stones on CD: You Can Get What You Need - Musician Magazine
Posted by: 24FPS ()
Date: September 13, 2021 19:20

CDs were a real mixed bag when they first arrived in the mid-80s. I remember hearing St. Pepper on CD the first time and was shocked to hear a loud hiss. Some 'expert' told me the CD was so magnificent that the hiss must have been on the original recording, and that the primitive vinyl didn't pick it up. Their 2009 remasters proved that wrong, though the early songs don't have as much punch as they should.

Then I heard a Hendrix CD using the Sonic No Noise solution and it sounded great. Strangely a Buddy Holly collection I got sounded fantastic. I know with modern rock groups they just threw them on CD to make a buck. The 2002 ABKCO Stones CDs were such an improvement. Especially on SACD, which is now a basically defunct format.

Now we have 5.1 Surround Sound Dolby Atmos Blu Ray that blows its predecessors away. They may not be absolutely true to the original mix, but I think they sound better than when a bunch of coke and smack fueled producers made them to begin with.

Re: 1987 Article: Rolling Stones on CD: You Can Get What You Need - Musician Magazine
Posted by: Ricky ()
Date: September 14, 2021 00:44

Thanks !

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