Step inside The Rolling Stones’ mobile recording studio, the iconic ‘studio on wheels’ that changed the course of rock music history

The Rolling Stones’ mobile recording studio - also known as the RSM - is the stuff of rock legend, and the most famous mobile studio ever created. The band has now released a mini documentary that celebrates its history and legacy, explaining why it was built and its influence on rock history.

The story goes that, back in the early ‘70s, Mick Jagger decided that he wanted to use his recently-purchased Stargroves Estate in Hampshire as a recording venue for the Stones’ next album. However, it quickly transpired that transporting all the necessary studio gear to the frontman’s country pile would be a logistical nightmare.

So, in a neat piece of lateral thinking, keyboard player Ian Stewart came up with the idea of actually building the studio into the back of the truck instead.

And so The Rolling Stones Mobile Recording Studio was born - a genuine on-the-road recording facility.

You can always get what you want

The concept of the RSM was formulated by Stewart and producer Glyn Johns, who wanted to put the equivalent of the control room from Olympic Studios on a truck that could go wherever the Stones happened to be.

No expense was spared in its creation - the 3M M79 tape machine, for example, cost $79,000, which equates to $500,000 in today’s money - and other equipment had to be custom-made.

It was worth the effort, though: both 1971 Stones album Sticky Fingers and 1972 follow-up Exile On Main St were recorded in the RSM. It would also be used by other artists who wanted the flexibility that a mobile studio afforded them - the likes of  Led Zeppelin - who recorded both Led Zeppelin III and IV with it - Bob Marley, Fleetwood Mac, The Who and Black Sabbath.

The RSM now resides in the National Music Centre in Calgary, Canada. Museum engineer Jason Tawkin believes that the original reason the Stones created it was because they’d grown tired of the nine-to-five mindset of a traditional recording studio, and wanted a facility that enabled them to be more spontaneous. So, if inspiration hit at 3am in the morning, the band could jump in the truck and get to work.

The Stones created the RSM because they’d grown tired of the nine-to-five mindset of a traditional recording studio and wanted a facility that enabled them to be more spontaneous.

The Stones eventually decided to sell the RSM In the early ‘90s, but it took on a new life in the US, with its American owner driving it round the country and using it to record live albums for the likes of The Ramones and Patti Smith.

However, as the digital recording revolution dawned towards the end of the ‘90s, demand for a fully analogue recording studio on wheels diminished, and that’s when the National Music Centre decided to purchase it. The original plan was to drive it from New York to Calgary, but it only got as far as Chicago before it broke down and had to be towed the rest of the way.

Even today, the RSM is more than just a museum piece, though: it still functions and can be rented out by musicians to record their own projects. And we’ll bet that there’s some magic in those recordings that you wouldn’t get from a laptop.

Ben Rogerson

I’m the Deputy Editor of MusicRadar, having worked on the site since its launch in 2007. I previously spent eight years working on our sister magazine, Computer Music. I’ve been playing the piano, gigging in bands and failing to finish tracks at home for more than 30 years, 24 of which I’ve also spent writing about music and the ever-changing technology used to make it. 

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