Like many of my generation, my introduction to British rock band Queen came in the form of their monumental number 1 hit ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’. Their first greatest hits compilation and a couple of live albums followed, and thereafter my quest to discover more of queen’s music lead me not to their original material but to their 1995 release ‘Made in Heaven’ which to this day remains one of my favourite albums of all time.
I own a substantial queen collection, encompassing each album (studio and live) on CD and vinyl in both original and reissue forms, as well as many country-specific imports, 7” and CD singles and a cassette or 2. However some of my pressings have seen better days, and limited pressings, such as the aforementioned ‘Made in Heaven’ are hard to find and demand a premium price. When Virgin records announced the release of a vinyl box set containing Queen’s 15 studio albums, remastered and pressed on 180 gram coloured vinyl with reproduction artwork and an accompanying hardback book, ordering the set was a no brainer.
5 years in the making, the Queen Studio Collection box set (here after referred too as ‘the box set’ in the interest of brevity) was released on September 25, 2015. The set quickly sold out and further limited quantities were remanufactured, with a second release on 1 April 2016. Each album in the set has been remastered, the original intention having been to do so directly from the tapes themselves. However, tapes degrade with age, with some of the original masters exhibiting extraneous noise, speed fluctuation and in some cases loss of audio. The decision was made to transfer the original material into the digital domain, to create 24/96, high-resolution masters to which restoration could then be performed in the digital domain.
Throughout the development process, the best sources for each track were researched and confirmed. While ensuring that nothing was lost or changed for the worst as a result of reverting to earlier sources, 6 tracks, including 5 from the innuendo album and ’Under Pressure’ from the Hot Space album were improved. Following extensive double-blind tests, world-renowned mastering engineer Bob Ludwig was selected to remaster the complete catalogue at USA-based Gateway Mastering.
The half-speed master lacquers for each album were created by Miles Showell at London’s Abbey Road studios, after acetate disks had been created to enable the cutting process for each track to be checked. Each master lacquer was cut on a Neumann VMS80 lathe, its head amplifiers fitted with custom-designed RIAA filters to produce the cleanest possible sound.
Finally, manufacturing and printing was carried out at Optimal in Germany, and underwent an exhaustive quality control procedure whereby test pressings of each disc, both black and coloured, were checked in an effort to minimise unwanted noise. The set saw its first public playback a week before its official release on 19 and 20 September at the UK National Audio Show held at Whittlebury Hall in Northampton. The £45,000 PMC Speakers MB2S XBD-A loudspeakers, as used by Miles Showell at Abbey Road were used as part of the playback system.
My set arrived in a large, foam-lined box reminiscent of that used to ship the similarly proportioned ‘Beatles in Stereo’ set. The box itself features a black outer sleeve, featuring the ‘Studio Collection’ title on the side with an accompanying list of albums contained within, and some highlights of the set printed on the back. Removing the sleeve reveals a gold box, emblazoned with a queen crest and another ‘studio Collection’ title.
Inside, each album is contained within a resealable protective plastic sleeve, with the hardback book shrink-wrapped for extra protection. The set is very neatly presented, and I was particularly pleased to note the lack of foam inserts that are sometimes utilised in these larger sets to keep the contents in place, but in reality make extracting and replacing albums within the set awkward. A card containing a digital download code is also included, the downloads offered in 320KBPS form. Given the 24/96 mastering of these reissues, I was somewhat disappointed to note that the downloads were not offered in high-resolution form. Those files will undoubtedly be released in due course, more than likely at a largely inflated price. That said the MP3s don’t sound bad, and are perfect for your iTunes library.
The set contains Queen’s 15 studio albums, spread across 18 180-gram coloured discs. The colours are in keeping with the theme of each album, some of which bear similarities to the colours of some of the early european pressings. The reproduction artwork, for the most part, remains faithful to the original UK album releases with 1 or 2 minor revisions as noted below. The records themselves are encased in high quality poly-lined inner sleeves.
3 of the albums (Queen II, Innuendo and Made in Heaven) have been extended for this release. Queen II is presented here pressed on 2 LPs (coloured white and black for side white and side black respectively) and features the queen crest on the B side of each LP.
Upon initial release, Innuendo and Made in Heaven were edited to fit a single LP. Here, however, each album is presented in full across 2 discs totalling 4 sides. Innuendo is pressed on pale blue and purple disks, with Made in Heaven being pressed on dark blue and semi-clear vinyl and including reproductions of the 3 original posters depicting Freddie Mercury with each of the remaining band members.
Queen’s original self-titled album, originally released in 1973 on black vinyl, is featured here in bright purple. Their third studio album, Sheer Heart Attack, was originally released in 1974 and is pressed on red vinyl.
Their fourth, and arguably most famous album ‘A Night at The Opera’ was originally released in 1975. This release features the embossed queen crest on the cover, as well as an inner picture sleeve and a white vinyl pressing with a coloured crest on either side of the label. Album number five, ‘A Day at The Races’, is pressed on black vinyl, and features the original cover artwork, a reproduction gatefold lyric sleeve and an inner picture sleeve showing the face of each band member and a cutout to show the queen crest on the vinyl label.
The sixth album, ‘News of The World’, features a robot image gatefold sleeve, with a reproduction of the original inner sleeve (minus the di-cut hole which has been replaced with an image of the robot’s face). The album is pressed on opaque green vinyl, similar to the 1978 French release.
Jazz, their seventh album originally released in 1978, features a gatefold cover showing the band at Mountain Studios, Montreux with the Jazz title embossed on the front and back. An inner sleeve contains the track listing and updated liner notes, while a lyric poster contained within the opposite side of the sleeve features a picture of the naked cyclists and the lyrics to each track. The vinyl, pressed on opaque pink vinyl features the cyclists around the labels on each side.
Album number eight, ‘The Game’, includes a reproduction of the original metallic-effect cover, an inner lyric sleeve including photos of each band member and some additional credits, and a grey vinyl. Number nine, the soundtrack to the movie Flash Gordon, is pressed on yellow vinyl and includes a reproduction inner sleeve.
The tenth album, ‘Hot Space’, is pressed on blue vinyl with a reproduction cover, inner lyric sleeve and an extra outer sleeve with plastic liner. The eleventh album, ‘The Works’ includes reproduction inner sleeves and is pressed on red vinyl; though a different shade of red to the aforementioned Sheer Heart Attack album.
The twelfth album, A Kind of Magic’, features a reproduction of the original gatefold sleeve, an inner lyric sleeve with extended liner notes, and a transparent orange vinyl; a lighter shade of vinyl than the original 1986 New Zealand pressing. Finally, the 13th album ‘The Miracle’ features an inner lyric sleeve and a turquoise green vinyl pressing.
Sound wise the vinyl are uncommonly quiet (near silent in fact), though with a slight background hiss that in my opinion lends itself to the recordings. There’s a warmth the sound that makes them a pleasure to listen too, the highs having no tendency to become shrill or harsh as is the case with many modern, heavily compressed remasters. This is particularly evident in both the title track and ‘The Show Must go On’ from Innuendo, both the original and the 2011 remasters of which are difficult to play at high volumes.
That slight hiss is particularly evident in tracks such as ‘Days of Our Lives’, ‘You Take My Breath Away’ and ‘Millionaire Waltz’, all of which I felt when listening to the digital remasters had been cleaned up a little too much, losing some of the analogue magic in their recordings. Thankfully played from the studio collection discs they sound as good as they ever did.
Are the Studio Collection remasters better than the original pressings? The answer is a resounding yes. Though the original pressings are some of the best-sounding vinyl I own, they do suffer from a certain harshness and exhibit a higher noise floor due to the nature of them being heavily mass-produced and therefore of lower quality. And of course this is the first time Innuendo and Made in Heaven have been pressed to vinyl in their entirety, and to me being 2 of the best Queen albums the set is worth it for them alone.
In summary, this is an exceptional collection that is a must buy for any serious Queen fan, collector or vinyl enthusiast. The quality of the records is outstanding and the set is excellent value for money. Here’s hoping for a similar release containing Queen’s extensive catalogue of live material. Grab one while you can!