Rolling Stones Box Sets: Deal or No Deal? Part II

Still, some might find the new records too aggressive. I’m not in that group, but it sounds as if Mr. Grossinger mastered the original LPs, manipulating the tonal balance as he saw fit, whereas it sounds as if the GZ folks just took the files they were sent and cut. I’m just surmising that. It could be the ‘soft’ lacquer versus the ‘hard’ copper.

Still, some might find the new records too aggressive. I’m not in that group, but it sounds as if Mr. Grossinger mastered the original LPs, manipulating the tonal balance as he saw fit, whereas it sounds as if the GZ folks just took the files they were sent and cut. I’m just surmising that. It could be the ‘soft’ lacquer versus the ‘hard’ copper.

If you’re a “digiphobe,” a digitally sourced vinyl set will be a deal breaker. There are also DMM-phobes: people who don’t like how cutting to copper sounds compared to cutting to the softer lacquer. If you’re both a digi and DMM phobe, why are you still reading this?  

If you have the SACDs and a good player, it’s somewhat more difficult to make the case for the box set. It’s an easier case to make if all you have are the CDs and especially if you like the vinyl form factor. Compare the SACD and CD layers on the original hybrids and the case for SACD is easily made.

I found the original SACDs to be somewhat more dynamic and punchier overall than the original LPs and that’s still the case with the new LPs, but far less so. These new pressings really rock with an energetic immediacy the original ABKCO LPs lacked.

The ABKCO box is worth having even if you have original UK pressings, because in some ways, some of the reissued discs are betterthan the originals—particularly Beggar’s Banquetat the correct speed,  but also the early mono discs.

Many of these new LPs are notably more dynamic and have far deeper bass extension compared to the originals—and I think that’s on the tape, not in a twiddled EQ knob. I think the Decca engineers rolled off the bass and perhaps applied a bit of tube compression—particularly on the earlier mono albums, thinking the end user would be a kid with a cheap turntable.

Even Aftermath, recorded by Dave Hassinger at RCA, Hollywood, which I consider to be one of most revealing and transparent Rolling Stones recordings (though uncharacteristically polished, polite and reverberant), produced a different, and in some way more intense listening experience, particularly in terms of dynamics and the sense of listening to a mastertape and not a production master.

In other ways though, Aftermath and all of the others are not as finely rendered as on the original all-analog versions. There’s still a distinctive quality that lets you know that two format conversions have occurred—just as looking at the cover art lets you know there’s been one.

I have heard DMM/lacquer comparisons cut from the same tape and there’s no doubt that DMM produces a faster, some would say more precise transient delivery that others might characterize as hard and even metallic. One person’s lush is another’s mush. I think the music of The Rolling Stones prospers either way and that’s true of the originals versus these DMM DSD sourced reissues.

The listening produced a trade-off between originals and these reissues and I think that’s the best you can expect from a restoration project like this. I’m listening to the box version of Let It Bleed right now and it’s definitely a different listening experience than listening to the Decca FFSS original.

Here's a short segment of the original:

Here's a short segment of the box set version:

The title cut on the DSD sourced reissue definitely emphasizes the instrumental attack at the expense of the sustain, so the piano track really chops the air and the kick drum hits hard. The cymbals on the other hand, even at DSD sampling rate, lose some natural shimmer and ring, and take on a harder, brighter edge with less natural decay. That could also be a factor related to the age of the forty or so year old tape.

 Mick’s voice has a slightly mechanical quality on the DSD sourced version that makes it somewhat less physically present. On the other hand, his vocal gestures and the way he plays with dynamics really stand out in greater relief on the reissue.

Is all of the warmth and midband “fill” on the original, a soft lacquer artifact? Or is the harder edged reissue a result of DMM and digital? Could be both for all I know. The reissue’s lively quality definitely made me want to turn it up really loud, while the original sounded better and more inviting at lower levels.

A 1976 King Records Japanese reissue (London LAX 1014) also lacked the new box’s dynamic punch but it too had a creamy, more transparent midband and just plain more “dots per inch.” Then again, the tape copy they used was much fresher in 1976.

Good luck finding clean Decca stereo or mono individual originals of some of these titles at prices much lower than this whole box! That’s not sufficient reason to buy it, particularly if the transfers and/or overall production were inept.

 In this case, the mastering and pressing quality are both first rate and it sounds as if every attempt was made to give you what’s on the tape within the limits of the technologies involved, so it’s easy to recommend this box set.

If you buy it, have a friend bring over an original or play yours. It will be interesting, but look at these photos I took off my computer screen comparing the same opening segment of “Let It Bleed” from the original Decca and the new box: dynamics have been preserved and perhaps even expanded on the reissue.

 How They Sound: The UMG Box

While the UMG box provides no mastering credits, I suspected Stephen Marcussen produced the files since he mastered the recent Exile on Main Streetbox and provided Doug Sax with 44.1k/24 bit files for the lacquer cut. To me it is absurd in 2010 to not provide at least 96/24 files, or better yet 192/24 bit. Marcussen was also The Rolling Stones’ mastering engineer on the group’s last few releases.

If you read the review of the Exile…box on this site you know I was extremely disappointed by the amount of absolutely unnecessary dynamic compression that was applied.

Perhaps it was done for the same reason the group and Scorsese ‘seeded’ the front rows at The Beacon Theater with hot young girls oogling over the grandfathers on stage. To make them seem still young and hot and attractive to twenty year olds? Equally silly as making these great old recordings sound “modern” by squeezing the life out of them!

 The compression killed the Exile… reissue for me and I was happy to sell the box on Ebay and get some of my money back (I bought the box at retail—a promo copy was not offered). The original U.S. pressing is so much better it’s ridiculous!

As with the Exile…box, the file sent to GZ was also compressed. In fact all of the reissues in the UMG box have been dynamically compressed to some degree. It wouldn’t be fair to say they were squashed, but they certainly lack the energy and exuberance of the originals in what strikes me as a misguided attempt to make them sound more “modern” (as in shitty).

The top waveform is the original Bob Ludwig mastered American version of "Start Me Up" from Tattoo You. Below is the box set reissue:

  If I were Charlie Watts’ kick drum, in particular, I’d be pissed.There’s certainly more compression applied here than on The Beatles CDs, or at least that’s how it sounds.

The compression is more noticeable on the mid-period records, which were better recorded and more dynamic to begin with. As the years passed, the compression applied to the originals increased but even more compression has been applied here.

Otherwise, with a few exceptions, other than the compression, the UMG box LPs sourced from digital, sound remarkably similar to their all-analog counterparts, which tells me that digital converters have gotten much better over the past decade and that most likely the files sourcing the LPs were 24 bit. If these records were sourced from 16 bit/44.1k files, I’ll eat a CD sandwich.

I made a comparison CD for a high profile reviewer and an even higher profile record producer, giving them back-to-back tracks from original and box versions of eight tunes. The original transfer was done at 96/24 bit and I compared them for my own use at that resolution and I have to say that other than the compression, the two versions sounded very, very close, as they did when I played the tracks “live” to record them. The CD made from the 96/24 files didn’t sound as good but good enough to hear the dynamic and tonal differences between originals and box reissues.

 Even though Stephen Marcussen gets mastering credit for the original Bridges to Babylon (1997), the box set’s edition sounds even more compressed than the original, which was already somewhat compressed and the bass seems to have been bumped up. I have an original UK Virgin pressing mastered at Townhouse that at least has some life to it, even though it’s bright and glazed in the mids and on top compared to the box version.

Here's "Love Is Strong" from the original Voodoo Lounge:

Here's the box set reissue:

Overall then, what’s been done makes the box version more pleasing to the ears and the bass boost works okay. No doubt Bridges to Babylon was a digital production and the improved converters seem to have made the new version somewhat smoother and less harsh. My sources tell me that what was delivered to UMG for mastering was approved by, if not overseen by “Rolling Stones management.” If that’s true, it’s a sad attempt to “modernize” classic recordings, with no possible motive other than $$$. It’s misguided and given that Keith Richards said on The Jimmy Fallon Show that he prefers listening to music on vinyl, simply inexplicable that he would sign off on the dynamic revisions. 

Watch here:

The later few records sound better “fixed up” by improved digital converters and less brightness and glaze, but they don’t sound all that good regardless of what’s been done. They sound as if they were recorded and/or mixed digitally to begin with and digital and rock and roll don’t mix better than digital and blues. When the mix on Bridges to Babylon for instance, gets ‘busy’ in the upper octaves it turns to a sizzling, ear bleeding mess on either version. Final Page of Review

In any case, some listeners will no doubt like the compressed versions because they will hear details brought forward that were buried in the more dynamic originals but is that supposed to be an “improvement?” Not in my book.

So, overall, the early, better recorded Rolling Stones Records reissues sound diminished on the box version compared to the originals—mostly because of dynamic compression, though tonally they are remarkable similar (Exile…excepted). The later albums that were compressed originally, sound similar dynamically on both versions though tonally the box versions are better balanced with more bass and less harshness on top

Depending upon the dynamic capabilities of your audio system, you might not hear any problems with these reissues and in fact, you might prefer them to some of the originals because they are more “punchy” in a tight, constricted way. They will surely be easier to track. I wish they had just left the dynamics present in the original earlier recordings.Considering the ultra-high quality of the pressings—and I mean there was not a single pop or click on any of the perfectly flat discs and backgrounds were dead silent—I’d say both of these sets are worthwhile for those wanting an instant Stones collection on vinyl, but were I to have to pick one, it would be the ABKCO box both because it includes the key classic Stones albums and virtually no filler, plus the DSD resolution transfers are better and dynamics have not been messed with, so that in some cases the reissue actually beats the original.

The UMG box is pretty good, with some of it very good, but it could have been much better had the dynamics not been messed with. You're better off with clean used record bin copies of the originals of everything from Sticky Fingers through Some Girls at least. It’s ironic that the ABKCO box beats the box over which The Stones (or some “suits” in their organization) apparently had control.

Perhaps some day we’ll get another edition of Exile on Mainstreet mastered uncompressed from the original analog tapes by Chris Bellman at Bernie Grundman’s or by George Marino at Sterling or by Doug Sax at his facility.That’s a dream. For now these limited edition boxes is the reality. For vinyl loving Stones fans, it doesn’t represent perfection but it’s better than pretty darn good.



JBo's picture

Great review -- just saw this one

 I was really disappointed with the Some Girls remaster so I stopped there and only bought the remasters that were done for the first box set -- which sound mighty good to me.  The visual displays of the compression is really helpful and I find it helpful when you guys include that type of analysis to help make sense of what has gone right (or wrong).   Like you said, I hope these later day Stones records will someday be done without the silly "modern" compression.   In fact, is it even "modern" anymore?    Many of the recent LPs that I've bought by newer bands actually sound really good and have a lot less compression than a few years ago.    It would be interesting to see a study of whether that was a trend of 2000-2010 and is now falling out of favor in this decade --  I hope so...

john ryan horse's picture

is worth seeking out, cd or vinyl, for both the Live in Texas live cd/dvd (80 minutes of the best live RS since Ya Ya's) and the 'bonus disc' which is a terrific, cohesive 'new' Stones album (12 tracks) that happens to have been (mostly) recorded 1978 - 1980.