Classic albums given new life at Abbey Road Studios with 'half-speed' vinyl treatment

The Rolling Stones and Cream records among six being given half-speed mastering to reveal a new depth to the recordings

From 78s to CDs and the MP3, popular music has enjoyed countless revolutions. Now acoustic experts claim the path to perfect sonic reproduction is vinyl albums produced at the “half-speed” of 16 2/3 RPM.

Six classic albums, including The Rolling Stones’s Exile On Main Street, have been cut for release at Abbey Road Studios in London using half-speed mastering, a process that promises to reveal a new level of depth and clarity to the recordings.

An artisan process in an era of digital music reproduction, requiring hand-crafted use of a lathe, the records have been mastered by Miles Showell, one of the world’s leading exponents of half-speed cutting.

The 180g vinyl albums, expected to sell for £32, will play at the standard 33 RPM. But they promise to bring “superior high-frequency response (treble) and very solid and stable stereo images”, which will relay every Keith Richards lick and Mick Jagger whoop, as intended by the band back in 1972.

The process involves the original master tape being played back at 16 2/3 RPM, precisely half its recorded speed, while the cutting lathe is similarly turned at half the desired playback speed. 

Vinyl demands: Six of the best

The Rolling Stones – Exile On Main Street Sprawling double album incorporating blues, country and gospel influences. Cut from 24bit/96khz digital transfers and made from the original ¼” tapes.

The Police – Ghost In Machine Multi-platinum 1981 album. Cut from a high-res digital transfer from the best known ¼’’ analogue tape in existence.

John Martyn – Solid Air Ground-breaking, chilled-out jazz-folk album from 1973. Cut from a high-res digital transfer from the original ¼” analogue masters

Cream – Disraeli Gears 1967 psychedelic masterpiece from supergroup led by Eric Clapton and Ginger Baker. Cut from digital transfers made from the original ¼” mono masters.

Free – Fire And Water Third album from Paul Rodgers’ blues-rockers contains big hit All Right Now. Cut from digital transfers from the original ¼” tapes.

Simple Minds – New Gold Dream Shimmering synths on Scots rockers 1982 breakthrough record. Cut from high-res digital transfer from original ½” analogue masters.

This allows the cutting head twice the time to cut the intricate groove into the master lacquer, affording considerably more accuracy over vital sonic matters such as “frequency extremes and micro-dynamic contrasts”.

Using a modified Neumann VMS-80 lathe, described as the finest cutting lathe in the business, Showell is able to cut difficult high-frequency information to mid-range. The result is a record that is capable of “extremely clean and unforced high-frequency response.” Because both the source and the cut were running at half their “normal” speeds, everything plays back at the right speed when the record is played at home.

“It takes forever, more than four times as long as cutting a normal record,” said Showell. “It brings a clear, crisp sound with much better stereo separation and attention to detail than previous versions.”

Only audiophiles will benefit, however. “You won’t get much benefit on a cheap £80 turntable, but a decent £200 turntable should show the difference,” he said.

The greatest challenge with half-speed cutting is “de-essing”, a form of processing the signal whereby the “s ss” and “t” sounds from the vocalist are controlled in order to avoid sibilance and distortion on playback.

“A lot of records are just cut on autopilot by robots in a factory,” said Showell, an award-winning engineer who has applied the half-speed technique to the Beatles and Queen catalogues. 

The new releases include Simple Minds’s 1982 album New Gold Dream. “It’s a long album, 25-minutes a side, which makes it harder to cut to a good level because you run out of room on the disc to fit it all on,” Showell said. He is particularly pleased with the results of his work on John Martyn’s Solid Air, a 1973 folk-jazz classic. “It sounds lovely,” he said.

Further releases from the Universal Music catalogue will follow, and Showell said he hoped that it might encourage a generation used to listening to heavily compressed MP3 tracks through cheap earbuds to sample broader sonic horizons.

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