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After all these years, the Rolling Stones’ priceless ABKCO catalog -- the group’s first six years of music, including "Satisfaction," "The Last Time," "Paint It, Black," "Ruby Tuesday," "Jumpin' Jack Flash," "Honky Tonk Women" and so many others recorded for Decca and London Records between 1963-69 -- will come back to mono when The Rolling Stones in Mono, a 15-CD/16-LP boxed set of meticulously remastered albums, is released on Sept. 30. (The albums are expected to be available individually at some unspecified point in the future; this box does not include the live albums Got Live If You Want It or Get Yer Ya-Ya's Out, the 1975 outtakes collection Metamorphosis, or any greatest-hits collections.)
Billboard got an advance in-studio listen -- and an advance copy of the boxed set, which was gleefully obsessed over by this writer in headphones at maximum volume -- and the results are sonically stunning. To an even greater degree than The Beatles or Little Richard mono reissues, it's obvious that this is the way most of these songs were meant to sound.
While the group's catalog has been reissued and recycled dozens of times over the years, here ABKCO has remained completely faithful to the original releases. This is both a good and bad thing: Like the Beatles, the group’s early albums were drastically and bafflingly different in their U.K. and U.S. versions, with the same or similar covers but wildly different track listings, songs released in one country but not the other, etc. (That practice ended in 1967: from Their Satanic Majesties Request on, the U.K. and U.S. releases were identical.) Be that as it may, each of the 186 songs that the group released during the 1960s are included in this set, with 25 non-album songs compiled into a new collection called Stray Cats.
The remasters bring out different elements in the different phases of the Stones career. The bluesy first albums (the eponymous debut, 12 X 5, Rolling Stones No. 2 and Now) illuminate the way the group’s two guitars locked in with the bass and drums to create a swinging, chugging, driving groove. The percussion pops, Keith Richards and Brian Jones' guitars merge telepathically; Jones' harmonica wafts over the proceedings like smoke then bursts into the foreground for a solo; Mick Jagger's voice reverberates off of the walls of the vocal booth; barely audible piano blends with the guitars and bass to fortify the already formidable rhythm. Incredibly, 52-year-old versions of a hoary old chestnuts like "Walkin' the Dog," "Suzie Q" and "Fortune Teller" sound fresh.
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The group’s mid-'60s period (Out of Our Heads, December’s Children) retains the blues foundation but veers into a more R&B (think Otis Redding) and pop (think Phil Spector) direction, with more keyboard, echo and emphasis on backing vocals, and later into the almost baroque pop of Aftermath, Between the Buttons and Flowers, with more ambitious songwriting and Jones’ pioneering affinity for unlikely instruments like sitar, marimba, dulcimer and recorder. And after the misbegotten psychedelic sidetrip of Satanic Majesties, the one-two punch of Beggars’ Banquet and Let It Bleed finds the Stones swaggering into the supercharged blues-rock that they’ve continued to ply ever since.
Unlike their predecessors, those latter two albums were not mixed specifically for mono -- with the exception of "Sympathy for the Devil," they are “fold-down” mixes, which means the two stereo channels were automatically combined into one -- but their raw rock sounds just as revelatory in the format. (When the catalog was remastered for stereo in 2002, it was discovered that Beggars Banquet was originally mistakenly mastered at a slightly slower speed than intended; while that's been corrected for 14 years, the album still sounds startlingly fast to ears that grew up on it.)
So if mono is technically, arguably, an inferior format, why do these versions sound so much better than their long-favored stereo counterparts? Landi offers the following inside-baseball explanation. "Between 1964 and 1967, the method of recording the band to 3- or 4-track multi-track tape usually dictated how the instruments were panned," she says. "If the rhythm section was cut live and printed to one track and overdubs of other instruments and vocals were printed to the other tracks, there were limitations to how the recording would be panned for a stereo image. The stereo mixes are very wide stereo, with the rhythm section generally panned to one side.
"With mono," she continues, "the rhythm section is fully centered -- and in the case of a recording like 'Satisfaction,' absolutely driving it. There's more punch, immediacy and balance. Mono fills the room you're in."
And while the single-speaker concept makes mono seem simple, it's not simple at all. As Sean Magee, a Grammy-winning engineer at Abbey Road who cut this collection for vinyl with colleague Alex Wharton, told this writer in 2014, "[Mono] takes very skillful arranging and mixing: It's a bit like a sonic jigsaw puzzle where you have to put everything in its right little spot or they overlap and start to interfere with each other."
As one might expect, the process of faithfully rendering 50-year-old recordings in an obsolete format into the digital realm of 2016 is painstaking and complicated. First, the original master tapes must be obtained, which are safely stored in a “secure, climate controlled vault” according to ABKCO CEO Jody Klein, son of company founder Allen Klein, who served as the Stones' business manager during the '60s and acquired the rights to the recordings from this era. Asked where this vault is located, Klein and Landi laugh uproariously and start reeling off fictional addresses. While multiple bootlegs of Stones studio material from the '60s have emerged over the decades, "the recorded works of the Rolling Stones are well archived and managed at this point,” Klein says. “That’s not to say [rare] things aren't still out there -- we do find oddities from time to time, acetates and things like that."
Once the tapes are in hand, Landi continues, “You start with a really great machine, like this Ampex ATR-102, which was made in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s,” she says, gesturing to the dishwasher-sized recorder in front of us, which has tape reels, razor blades and a tweaker (a plastic utensil used for tape alignment) on it. "You make sure it has a full-track mono [tape] head -- and that makes a difference, because if you transfer full-track mono tapes from a stereo head you're not transferring all the information” (for intricate reasons involving the width of the tape head). “When we embarked upon restoring the Stones’ catalog, we did a test between an Ampex with electronics from a solid state machine like this -- this particular one has upgraded electronics -- and an older Ampex with tube electronics."
“And sometimes the old tube machine actually sounds better,” Klein adds. “It reproduces the sound of the tape more authentically, rather than putting it on a machine that sounds too precise or too clinical."
The tapes are transferred to high-resolution DSD and PCM digital formats, and sent to “super-genius mastering engineer” Bob Ludwig at his Gateway Mastering studio, where he masters the catalog from the DSD digital source files. Gateway then preps the mastered files for CD manufacturing, standard digital release (MP3), iTunes digital (Mastered for iTunes AAC), high-definition digital release (HD) and lacquer cutting for vinyl manufacturing. Universal Music Group handles the distribution of all formats, including streaming.
The effort paid off: Not only is The Rolling Stones in Mono the most sonically satisfying version of these songs, it dramatically illuminates the group's remarkable skills as musicians, arrangers and at performing as a unit purely in service of the songs (for example, on "Good Times Bad Times," Charlie Watts just plays a bass drum). But the artist who truly emerges from the shadows is the band's eternally underrated original bassist, Bill Wyman. For decades, his innovative, melodic bass playing was buried in muddy stereo mixes. Here, it's front and center without being overwhelming, providing the connective tissue between the stinging, driving guitars and Watts' preternatural swing; the two of them are almost undoubtedly the greatest rhythm section in rock history. During this era, Wyman was the band's true soloist, zooming up and down the fretboard with a flair that's somehow flashy and understated at the same time.
The set isn't perfect: The art in the booklet is rather perfunctory and, in the CD version, the type is tiny; while the album covers are nearly exact reproductions of the originals, that makes them nearly illegible when shrunk down to CD size, and the lack of an inner sleeve means the discs fall out alarmingly easily. But this set hits the mark where it really matters: In the grooves.
Several stellar archival Stones items have been released over the past 20 years: the Charlie Is My Darling 1965 album and documentary, The Rock N’ Roll Circus concert, a beautifully remastered and expanded box of the live 1970 Get Yer Ya-Ya’s Out album, the Some Girls Live in Texas '78 DVD, expanded versions of Sticky Fingers and Exile on Main Street. And the '60s catalog was remastered in 2002, which was a vast improvement but at times made them sound almost too good -- too shiny and shimmery for such a gorgeously dirty sound.
These mono remasters are the ultimate: They lift a sonic veil from songs you thought you already knew completely.