Do you know what the Rolling Stones' album "Sticky Fingers" sounds like?
"Sure I do," the Stones fans among you are thinking. "Been listening to it for years. How could I not know what it sounds like?"
Quite easily, it turns out. Just ask producer Don Was, who while working with the band on its new album, the soon-to-be-released "Voodoo Lounge," got involved in Virgin Records' remastering "Sticky Fingers" and seven other old Stones albums.
"An album like 'Sticky Fingers' has gone through so many so-called technological advances in the 20 years or so that no one knows what is the truth about that record," says Was. "What is the sound? What did they intend?"
Those aren't just idle questions, either. These days, digital mastering ensures that what an artist hears in the studio is what the consumer hears at home. But the way they made albums back in 1971, when "Sticky Fingers" was first released, involved an additional step of equalization (or "eq") that sculpted the sound for maximum impact on the turntable.
As a result, says Was, "If you listen to just the actual mixes, before they were eq-ed for the album, they don't sound like anything you ever heard before. Because when they released the original album, they eq-ed everything to give it a certain sound. So the original master tapes have no relevance to 'Sticky Fingers' as we know it."
Worse, "the subsequent pressings, and certainly the CDs, were really arbitrary, and made without any regard to the original sound of it. There must be 20 different ways to hear 'Sticky Fingers,' all of which really change the personality of the album. It was a real problem. There was no frame of reference.
"Even these so-called audio vinyl discs -- they sounded like [garbage]. It didn't sound better, it didn't sound like anything. It was just some guy's interpretation of what this album was supposed to sound like. Some guy in a plant someplace decided that the Rolling Stones should have more hi-hat in the record.
"To use a painting analogy, what if people were making prints of the Rembrandt paintings and some guy in the plant decides, 'Ahh, I know he painted 'em one way, but I think we should make these browns a little lighter'? There's no room for interpretation in these things."
That's especially true given the amount of music at stake here. When the Stones left Sony Music for Virgin in 1992, the band took its back catalog -- everything from "Sticky Fingers" on -- with it. (Stones' albums preceding "Sticky Fingers" are owned by Abkco Records, and were not part of the deal with Virgin.) Consequently, the eight titles in this reissue series include some of the band's best-known work: "Sticky Fingers" (1971); "Exile on Main St." (1972); "Goat's Head Soup" (1973); "It's Only Rock 'n Roll" (1975); "Black and Blue" (1976); "Some Girls" (1978); "Emotional Rescue" (1980); and "Tattoo You" (1981).
One of the things lost in translation over the years has been the sense of space in these albums. As Was points out, one of the most important factors in determining how we hear a band in any recording is the sound stage -- the sense of depth and focus that not only allows us to pick out the individual instruments, but also lends them a sense of spatial reality.
"The space is really important," he says. "It's like a Sonny Rollins record, where the spaces that he leaves are as important as the notes he plays. It's the same with the interrelationships in [the Stones]. And with these reissues, I think they have been extremely conscientious about getting as close as they could to their original intentions."
Perhaps the toughest thing was finding the right place to start. "In the end, we went back to the first vinyl pressings of the album, which were the only things where the original eqs were probably employed," says Was. So they started calling record collectors. "We called this Rolling Stones fanatic," he says. "He came to the house. He couldn't believe it, that he was bringing this thing over and it was for the Rolling Stones!"
Once the standard was set, the work of actually remastering the albums was handed over to Bob Ludwig of Gateway Mastering Studios. "Bob Ludwig's a genius," says Was. "You can't put your ego into the remastering of these things, and he did a beautiful job with it.
"But the guy in Germany who did the [Sony] CDs for the Stones -- he should have just gone onstage with them in a wig," he adds derisively.
Ludwig did make a few changes in the albums, though. Going back through the master tapes for "It's Only Rock 'n Roll," he found a bit at the end of the song "Luxury" that had been inadvertently edited out of earlier versions of the album. After asking the Stones about it, he reinserted it.
Likewise, what was to have been the full version of "Slave" had to be shortened when the "Tattoo You" album was being mastered for vinyl. At the band's insistence, the CD now carries the unedited -- and previously unreleased -- version of the song.
Virgin has also done its best to restore the original packaging. For instance, the jacket for "Sticky Fingers" actually comes with a tiny zipper, just like the LP. "Black and Blue" comes complete with a gatefold jacket and mixing diagram inner sleeve, while "Some Girls" re-creates the controversial peek-a-boo cover (but not the snaps of Lucille Ball and other celebs, who threatened legal action the first time around).
Admittedly, these CDs don't quite have the same feel as the LPs. Working with a 5-by-5-inch format instead of 12-by-12 has reduced some of the detail work to magnifying-glass fodder, and though "Exile" does include postcards just the way it used to, they're so small they seem more like postage stamps.
This deluxe packaging does come at a premium, with each CD boasting a suggested list price of $17.98. But Virgin promises cheaper, midline versions of the albums -- minus the fancy
packaging but with the improved sound -- later this year.
To hear excerpts of the Rolling Stones' reissues, call Sundial, The Sun's telephone information service, at (410) 783-1800. In Anne Arundel County, call (410) 268-7736; in Harford County, (410) 836-5028; in Carroll County, (410) 848-0338. Using a touch-tone phone, punch in the four-digit code 6164 after you hear the greeting.