National Music Centre restoring mobile studio used by Rolling Stones

A legendary studio on wheels that was owned by The Rolling Stones is being restored by technicians at the National Music Centre in Calgary.

Legendary band recorded early-70s classics in the truck, which will be exhibited at new Calgary centre

A legendary studio on wheels that was owned by The Rolling Stones is being restored by technicians at the National Music Centre in Calgary. 

The 'Mighty Mobile', as it was called, recorded dozens of rock classics and will be part of the new National Music Centre (NMC) scheduled to open in East Village next spring.

"It's a magical experience to even be in it," said John Leimseider a technician with the NMC. 

Leimseider remembers well the first time he entered the 10-metre long truck and passed through the sliding studio doors marked with The Rolling Stones tongue and lips logo.

"I was kind of in awe, because so many things I had listened to had been recorded on it,” he said.

“I mean, I loved 'Sticky Fingers' when it came out. I thought that was the best thing the Stones had ever done and played it to death. And most of it was recorded with this truck.”

"It just has a vibe to it."

Stones wanted to record anytime, anywhere 

Leimseider says in 1968 the Rolling Stones' keyboardist at the time, Ian Stewart, came up with the idea for a mobile studio. The band wanted to be able to record anytime, anywhere.

"The Rolling Stones Mobile was the first professional mobile multi-tracking recording studio ever. And that's an important piece of music technology," said Andrew Mosker, NMC president and CEO.

John Leimseider, a technician with the National Music Centre, has been working to restore the historic recording studio for about a year and a half. (Allison Dempster/CBC)

Albums that still rate as rock n' roll masterpieces were made with the souped up truck, including 'Sticky Fingers' and 'Exile on Main St.'

Led Zeppelin, Bob Marley, Fleetwood Mac and David Bowie, along with many other artists, made music with the recording equipment.

Deep Purple immortalized the studio in their rock classic 'Smoke on the Water', referring to it as the "Rolling truck Stones thing". 

"There are [sic] so many great bands that recorded with this. It's just crazy," said Leimseider.

"I mean the fact that it's been out of commission for 20 years is kind of wrong. You can't leave this truck parked somewhere."

That might have been the mobile studio's fate had Leimseider and others at the NMC not intervened. 

About 15 years ago, they heard through the grapevine it had ended up in New York State. 

"We heard it was for sale and we raised the money to acquire it. And it ended up in Calgary in 2001," said Mosker.

Mosker said it cost about $200,000 US, and is now worth at least $1 million. 

"That was a deal for an important piece of rock n' roll history. For us back then it was an investment in our collection," he said.

Painstaking restoration 

The job of restoring a piece of rock n' roll history is painstaking. Leimseider has been at it for about a year and a half. 

"A lot of it has been just you know, grunt work. You sit there and you plug into every input and check every output from every channel," he said. 

"We're not trying to make it a modern studio. We want to keep it as intact as possible. It's a very conservative restoration. But we also want it to work really well and as reliably as possible."

The NMC wants artists to be able to use the recording truck, which includes a Helios console and a 24-track two-inch tape recorder.

"This sort of forces you into a different way of recording and I think the bands that do that are going to gain something out of it they can't get any other way," said Leimseider.

The truck will be installed next to the restored King Edward Hotel.

Musicians will able to record with the historic studio live off the floor of one of Calgary's legendary venues.

"There is something to be said for recording in a sacred space," said Mosker.