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Is the latest Rolling Stones' behemoth vinyl box set worth the big bucks?

You don’t buy Rolling Stones box sets like this because you don’t have the original albums. You buy them because they’re there. One day, you might even play them.
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By Dave Thompson

In terms of big buck behemoths, The Rolling Stones’ Studio Albums Collection 1971 - 2016 takes some beating.

Its contents are straightforward, 15 LPs (five of them doubles), charting the Stones’ complete post-London long-playing studio output. No live albums, no compilations, no Past Masters-type gatherings of B-sides and edits. In fact, no extras whatsoever — no booklet, no buttons, no marbles.

But there is a download card, and a numbered certificate of authenticity, and if you line the package up alongside sundry similarly themed box sets of recent years, it’s comparable with many of them. Indeed, the Stones themselves have already boxed up much of this repertoire once before, in 2010’s 1971-2005 Remastered… identical, in terms of content, to this latest package, bar the absence of Blue & Lonesome (2016). So this one is already superior.

But it’s also very expensive, $450, which means it had better sound good. Better than any past pressing; better than the best of the CD remasters; better, even, than all those pristine first editions you’ve got stashed beneath the bed, awaiting the proverbial rainy day.

The portents are good. Emblazoned across the aforementioned certificate is a hyperbolic explanation of what is meant by “half-speed mastering,” the process to which most of the tapes have been subjected. (Blue & Lonesome utilizes the existing masters.)

What it isn’t, admits Abbey Road Studios’ Miles Showell, the man behind the remastering, is a fully analog recording.

“I was given a hard drive with high resolution transfers from the original tapes, very high res. There were two passes of each of the analog albums, one was DSD (Direct Stream Digital), and there was PCM (Pulse-code modulation), so I’d run the files and the only instruction I was given was, ‘pick your favorite version’.” (For the digital recordings, Dirty Work and thereafter, he was presented flat transfers at the original sample rate.)

For the most part, Showell opted for the DSD version, “but sometimes the PCM, whichever I felt was best, and then I was comparing that with what the original album sounded like” — also at hand was a set of first pressing U.K. LPs.

His goal was not to make the remasters sound exactly the same as their waxen counterparts. “But I didn’t want to be a million miles away, I didn’t want to screw in a load of EQ or compress the hell out of it, just because I can. That’s pointless. There’s a reason why these records have been popular for 45 years, and that’s because of the sounds that were on there. I wanted to keep the feel of the original sessions, but maybe make it slightly nicer.”

While Showell worked on that (and we’ll return to him in a moment), others were designing the package itself. Every album, it is said, restores its original artwork and inserts, and a few might even add some more — lyric sheets for Black and Blue, Some Girls and Undercover seem unfamiliar, but maybe Goldmine just missed them first time around.

True, Some Girls is offered with the “pardon our appearance” inner bag, because the original design remains under injunction, and the thick card-stock which graced Goats Head Soup’s self-explanatory photo insert has been replaced with slick, flimsy paper. But you can forgive that, especially when you realize that not only is Sticky Fingers zippered up like it ought to be, but Dirty Work even reproduces the red shrinkwrap that sealed original copies.

This attention to detail is not all-consuming, however. The stickers that bedecked Undercover’s original cover are printed directly onto the sleeve, and the custom inner bag that accompanied Goats Head Soup is now a simple insert. Minor quibbles and a caveat on the certificate admits such things occur. Apparently, we should blame “modern manufacturing techniques.” (Funny, though. They worked on the other inner bags.)

Back to the music, then, where more “modern manufacturing techniques” come into play.

Different ears hear different thing. Different pressings offer different experiences. Like Showell, Goldmine lined the remasters up alongside… if not first pressings, at least early ones. And, like him, we did not hunt down the most impressive turntable set-up we could find before playing them.

“Listening back to the test pressings (his last chance to check his work before the albums went off to be pressed), I knew there was no point using the best pickup in the world because that’s not what most people are going to be listening to it on.”

After all, if you’re promised “a superlative record,” “excellent high frequency response” and “very solid and stable stereo images,” it shouldn’t matter what you play it on. It should sound good regardless and, in many ways, it does. The three separate set-ups upon which Goldmine played the albums were unanimous, the 20 discs are of very high quality indeed.

But... It’s futile to try saying what does and doesn’t sound right. To these ears, “Brown Sugar”’s opening guitars seemed brittle, “Angie” sounded just a tiny shade slow, “Where The Boys Go” felt as though the guitars had been raucous-ed up a little. The digital origins seem obvious throughout.

However, and this is true across the package, if you’re not rushing to compare every song with another, and just sit and listen to the music, such moments probably aren’t so noticeable.

Usually, anyway. There was that scruffy scuffing sound… a needle-stuck-at-the-end-of-the-side noise… that faded in just as “Angie” faded out, and not having a second copy of the box to compare it to, it’s impossible to say if this is a flaw on the individual disc, or something more sinister. But Showell says it wasn’t on the test pressing, and neither was the skip on our copy of “Hot Stuff,” so hopefully we’ve just got a pair of bum discs.

He also couldn’t legislate for anything that might have been added when the old vinyl masters were cut, so maybe that’s why the original thrilling opening to “Harlem Shuffle” is not so thrilling on the new Dirty Work.

Overall, however, he succeeded in his intention to “make everything sound as authentic as I can.” Yes, there was the odd issue that he noticed, and sought to repair, but only if it really rankled. “I’d think ‘if they’d had the tools that I’ve got now, they’d fix that.’ So I did.

“But a lot of the charm, especially with the first three or four albums, is that it’s quite lo-fi, it’s five or six blokes in the studio, ‘let’s go for it. Hang the sound, let’s get a really good vibe,’ and I wasn’t going to try to kill that vibe.”

In fact, he admits to just one significant alteration — or, should we say, reversion.

“The only track I changed from the tape I was given was ‘Fingerprint File.’ It had been fiddled with on the original cut, and when it’s been remastered in the years since then, they’ve gone with what was on the tape, as opposed to what was done in 1974.

“I spoke with management and said ‘I think we should try and recreate what was done originally. Let’s slow it down to the speed that’s on the record, because that’s the first pressing, that’s obviously how they wanted it to come out, and it’s vastly different in speed. It’s not a mistake, and that’s the only time I brought in any changes. It was important to try and place it back into the same ballpark as it was meant to be. Although actually, a lot of that original track was recorded out of phase. It’s a real mess. God knows what was happening in the studio!”

A few final thoughts, then. Unlike many of the “complete collection” vinyl boxes out there, you’re not going to replicate 1971-2016 in anything better than VG+ condition for much less than you’ll pay for this.

Indeed, you could spend $350 on the ‘90s and noughties alone — a vinyl Voodoo Lounge is currently valued around the $100 mark; Bridges to Babylon nudges $150; A Bigger Bang hovers around $75, and retail on the last album is $30-odd. You probably could pick all the others up for $100 all in, but you’ll get more than one or two scratches.

But the box… “highly bespoke,” says the promo bumpf, “lenticular mounted”… looks a lot more impressive than a pile of original albums, and it weighs a lot more as well. Twenty slabs of 180 gram vinyl are heavier than you’d think. And, if $450 seems a lot to pay now, just wait. The 2010 box often sells for even more than that today, and this both looks and sounds vastly superior to that.

And besides. You don’t buy boxes like this because you don’t have the original albums. You buy them because they’re there. One day, you might even play them.

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