||You may never listen to The Rolling Stones the same way again
BYLINE: By Bob Gendron. Special to the Tribune.
When ABKCO Records reissues its newly remastered 22-title Rolling Stones catalog on Super Audio Compact Disc (SACD) on Tuesday, the way people experience the band's music may radically change. Though SACD has existed since September 1999, the magnitude of the Stones event, the biggest single-artist reissue project ever undertaken, gives instant credibility and mainstream access to an audio format that until recently had strictly been an audiophile concern.
With the music industry in dire straits, the time doesn't seem ripe to spring another technology, especially when other attempts (Digital Audio Tape, MiniDisc) came and went. But even in this climate, SACD proponents are betting on the rediscovery of a forgotten art -- listening. Despite continual requests, ABKCO has resisted remastering The Rolling Stones' catalog, one of the most valuable of its kind. (ABKCO doesn't own the rights to every Stones album, just records the band made between its 1964 debut and 1970, considered the Stones' best era.) As digital caught on in the mid-'80s, ABKCO rush-released its Stones catalog on CD in 1986. But CDs didn't offer perfect sound. Digital compression and equalization gave many CDs a thin, plastic, tinny sound. Music sounded artificial and dynamically dead. "Labels assumed that all digital transfers were fine; they didn't see a need to go back to the master tapes," said Robert Harley, author of "The Complete Guide to High-End Audio." Moreover, artists and producers weren't involved, and the primitive analog-to-digital conversion process was flawed. Fearing consumers wouldn't adopt CDs if they heard noise, Harley recalls labels "insisted on no tape hiss; it had to be eliminated at any expense."
According to Colin Cigarran, SACD software development manager at Sony Corporation, "SACD is a much more involving and musically connective format than current CDs, in a way that vinyl was. It has all of the benefits of digital formats -- ease of maintenance, incredible convenience and sound. It's the best of both worlds."
SACDs have the CD's size, shape and thickness, and generally sell for between $18 and $22. Technologically, SACD optimizes Direct Stream Digital (DSD) encoding technology. On CDs, analog audio is converted to digital using Pulse Code Modulation (PCM), which samples the audio waveform at 705,600 bits per second per channel. By comparison, DSD samples data at 2.8224 million bits per second. Besides jaw-dropping sound, SACD has another advantage that stands to revolutionize the way people experience music: multichannel audio. SACDs can contain as many as six separate audio channels, each at full DSD quality. If they so choose, artists can immerse music lovers in a 360-degree sound field, authentically reproduce the actual sound of a studio, or make listeners feel like they're in the 10th row of rock concert, hearing drums and vocals echo from the back and sides.
Future of classical recordings
Andrew Quint, classical music editor for The Absolute Sound, has heard nearly every classical-music SACD available, and is convinced multichannel represents the future of classical recordings.
"With symphonic music, SACD delivers more of the power of an orchestra playing full out, as well as truer instrumental colors," he said. "A well-done multichannel recording provides three more attributes that bring the listening experience at home a lot closer to real: a more three-dimensional depiction of the musicians onstage, the character of the hall itself and the sense of sound being present in the air between the listener and the players that one gets at a concert."
Most SACDs, including all 22 Rolling Stones titles, are hybrid -- they play on all SACD and CD machines. Some SACDs are single layer, which aren't backward compatible and play only on SACD players. So each disc's ability is easily recognized, SACD packages are plainly marked "Hybrid" or "Single Layer." (SACD technology has been added to many DVD players now on the market.)
In addition to ABKCO and Telarc, more than 40 other record labels are signed up for SACD. Sony Music (Legacy, Columbia, Epic, Sony Classical), EMI and Universal Music Group (MCA, Verve, Decca) are aboard, as are many independents, such as Analogue Productions, Delos and Rounder. Domestically, nearly 500 software titles exist; an additional 500 are obtainable from overseas. Consumers can get a good-quality machine that plays stereo and multichannel SACD, DVD-Video, and CD for under $250. Given this, Sony projects 5 million SACD players will be in homes by the end of 2003.
In the midst of the momentum, ABKCO's Stones campaign is the watershed responsible for kicking SACD into high gear.
"This release is not about creating anything new -- it's about restoring the original albums' art and sound to the way they once were, giving the public what they once had in the best-sounding, best-looking way possible," said Jody H. Klein, the series restoration producer.
Klein spent the last year researching ways to preserve and archive the Stones' music.
327 tracks remastered
Covering 327 tracks, ABKCO's The Rolling Stones Remastered Series encompasses 11 studio records, two live albums, five hits collections, a rarities compilation ("Metamorphosis") and, for the first time in the U.S., U.K. versions of three studio records -- "Out of Our Heads," "Aftermath" and "Between the Buttons." Klein attests that hearing these records on SACD "is like being in the control room listening to playback." He's not exaggerating.
Every Stones title sounds transformed. Made nearly 40 years ago, these recordings sound better than many of today's releases. On SACD, the music has warmth, transparency, purity and a "right in front of you" presence. Clipped songs on the 1986 CDs have been reinstated to their original lengths.
The albums' original art, graphics and texts have been replicated on cardboard digipaks, and the discs will be stocked in CD bins. With the approaching Stones tour, and because the previous ABKCO CDs "were generic and sounded horrible," Mike Camacho, general manager of Tower Records on Clark Street, anticipates the 7 to 10 staple albums will see "quite a bit of demand," and expects the remainder of the catalog to sell moderately.
The recordings' top and bottom ends are the two single-most significant improvements. Mick Jagger's vocals are clear and defined, each syllable distinguishable from the next. Pockets of air hover around the musicians, so studio echoes are preserved, and each member's specific place in the mix is identifiable. Bill Wyman's bass is no longer muddy, but distinct.
Hear it all unfold
The remasters make a case for Charlie Watts as the best R&B-fueled rock timekeeper in history. With boundless versatility and impeccable timing, his achievements literally sock listeners in the face. On certain songs, including the venerable "Satisfaction," Watts puts the listeners right beside his drums. On others, like "Good Times," listeners can feel the drumhead's thickness and sense the drumskin's tightness.
Are mistakes present, notes missed and guitars occasionally out of tune? Yes, and the wonderful thing is that music lovers can hear it all unfold and better understand why they have become part of the music's fabric. Klein credits mastering engineer Bob Ludwig for maintaining the music's natural distortion, rawness and gritty body, traits rubbed out on the 1986 CDs and not as evident on the original LPs.
So where does one start? While it's hard to imagine die-hards bypassing any titles, casual fans will be well-served by the three-disc "The Rolling Stones Singles Collection" or twin "Hot Rocks" volumes. But even they should seek out "Beggars Banquet," "Let It Bleed," and the UK editions of "Out of Our Heads," "Aftermath," and "Between the Buttons."
For the first time, "Beggars Banquet" plays at the correct speed. Klein's comparative analysis discovered that the machine that made the production master tape (from which all consumer copies are cut) was broken. As a result, "Beggars" played slow. It's now heard at the proper tempo, the music more ominous than before. Along with "Beggars," "Let It Bleed" is one of the group's essential albums. The record's nine songs have been made contiguous, without silent pauses separating them, which the Stones never planned. With previously unheard low bass that gives the impression of the devil nipping at the band's heels, "Gimme Shelter," the album's foreboding lead track, has grown more apocalyptic and urgent.
In addition to having dissimilar song sequences, U.K. versions of the studio albums contain tracks that were left off U.S. versions. For example, "Aftermath" (U.K.) contains four songs, including "Take It Or Leave It," absent from the U.S. edition. Furthermore, all electronically reprocessed, or humanly manipulated, stereo recordings have been replaced with the true mono mixes, and, when available, true stereo mixes replaced mono recordings. Hence, songs such as "Jumpin' Jack Flash" and "Paint It, Black" are now in genuine stereo.
The best of Super Audio
In addition to ABKCO's superb Rolling Stones titles, this assortment represents the best of what's available on SACD.
Patricia Barber: "Modern Cool" (Mobile Fidelity). Hybrid Stereo.
Big Brother and the Holding Company (with Janis Joplin): "Cheap Thrills" (Legacy). Single Layer Multichannel.
Bryan Ferry: "Frantic" (Virgin). Hybrid Multichannel.
Hilary Hahn: "Brahms/Stravinsky Violin Concertos" (Sony Classical). Single Layer Multichannel.
Lauryn Hill: "MTV Unplugged 2.0" (Columbia). Single Layer Multichannel.
Alison Krauss: "Now That I've Found You:
A Collection" (Rounder). Hybrid Stereo.
Sonny Rollins: "Way Out West" (Analogue Productions). Hybrid Stereo.
Saint-Saens/Tchaikovsky: Cello Works (Channel Classics). Hybrid Multichannel.
Junior Wells: "Come On In This House" (Telarc). Hybrid Multichannel.
Vaughan Williams: "A Sea Symphony" (Telarc). Hybrid Multichannel.
GRAPHIC: PHOTOS 2PHOTO: (Beggars Banquet album.); PHOTO: Image from The Rolling Stones album, "Hot Rocks 1974-1971."
LOAD-DATE: August 13, 2002
||sounds fuckin great
||Except that what really matters is the way the masters are transferred. I'd defy ANYONE here to hear any friggin' difference between the SACD and CD versions of the same master tape. This is just a gimmick to relaunch a failed new format.
Oh and that stupid SACD promo article confuses the bitrate expressed in bps with the sample rate expressed in khz, this is hilarious...