Ordered five treats direct from Mobile Fidelity Sound Labs. They arrived yesterday. After my initial experience with their Echo and the Bunnymen pressing, my expectations for these five albums were sky high. One LP exceeded them. The next fell way short. Confusing and frustrating, but after a trip to Mahar’s and a good sleep I am at it again with a fresh outlook. Let me share the downs and ups.
Four of the albums were MoFis fancier GAIN 2 Ultra Analog LPs pressed on 180 gram vinyl. The fifth was my second Silver label LP pressed on standard weight vinyl. All involve remastering on special equipment by skilled technicians, so I thought they’d all sound really amazing on my hifi. Maybe they do, but my expectations definitely need some adjusting.
I’ve read a bit more about the record making process since I first wrote about Mobile Fidelity. I now know that there are two things that can be meant when referring to mastering (and hence remastering). Mastering can refer to the work an engineer does when receiving a recording that has been mixed. If I understand it, on a stereo mix the mastering engineer gets two track and adjusts the levels song to song and the levels of the album as a whole. They can also add effects, but the effect would be applied to the entire song (so I’m guessing this doesn’t often happen). See, I don’t think mastering engineers get a recording with separate channels (e.g. vocals, guitars, keyboards, drums (which can be recorded with many mics on their own)), so they can’t adjust levels or add effects to individual channels. At the point of mastering, the mixing engineer has already done that work. And that’s what I always thought about when I heard the term mastering.
Mastering, though, also refers to cutting a master disk (called a lacquer master) on a cutting lathe. The lacquer master is an aluminum plate covered in nitrous cellulous lacquer. After the master is cut, it gets plated with silver and nickel. Then you can use a two step process or a three step process to end up with mother plates (with grooves, like the records you have) and father plates (with ridges, negatives really, that are pressed into hot vinyl to make records). I’ll stop there. If this is interesting to you, I recommend reading every page under every tab on the Aardvark Mastering site. I did and enjoyed it thoroughly. You get to learn a bunch about cutting records and related stuff. You get to learn that the founder got his first record player at age four (and his mother reminds us that the first thing he did was take it apart to see how it worked). Cute! You even get to learn about the founder’s love of penny farthing bicycles (and the spills from which he has recovered only to climb aboard again). Wow. I also learned some from this (and recommend it). Oh! And this (including the first comment). I’ll stop with the links already.
So now I know that when Mobile Fidelity says they remaster a recording, they mean they cut a new lacquer master. A bunch of art in this step and the subsequent steps. All very exciting. Still, Mobile Fidelity can only produce an album as good as the recording they are given. Their aim is to reproduce to the best of their ability the sound the mastering engineer (in the first sense, as in mixing then mastering) heard. They want to neither add or subtract a thing. This is what I need to keep in mind as I judge the pressings one against the other. The Echo and the Bunnymen record was mind blowing. From the new albums I just received, I happened to put on the B-52s LP first. From their Silver LP line. Amazing. Super impressed. I could listen to it a hundred times and continue to be amazed and inspired.
Then Elvis Costello. Originally released in 1977. Listening to this recording, I thought my amp decided to start failing just after the B-52s. The Costello recording was noticeably quieter and darker (less treble). Less of everything really. Like I said above, I got kinda sick.
Today I am running through all the new LPs to see what is up. Nothing is up. They are all great. Just remasterings of very different recordings. The B-52s is bright and crazy fun. The Costello is warm and vintage. The Pixies Surfer Rosa is what it is (amazing), while the next two (Doolittle and Bossanova) are unique as well.
I have so much to learn. For instance, Mobile Fidelity tells me that due to their plating process “there may be occasional pops or ticks inherent in initial play back, but as the disc is played more, a high quality stylus will actually polish the grooves and improve the sound.” There is some surface sound in some of these brand new recordings. MoFis statement sounds like self-serving BS aimed at reducing returns from folks who paid double for a special recording, but, you know, I trust these folks. I’ll play the albums over and over and test their claim.
Just now, I don’t think people would be willing to pay hundreds of dollars for Mobile Fidelity’s out of print Beatles LPs if there wasn’t something to their claims. I probably should be more selective when buying high priced LPs. I should be familiar with the sound of the recording before investing in a really accurate reproduction of something that I won’t find pleasing in any form. I think it is going to be a fun journey, in any event.
I’ve got to get outside. Spring isn’t a time for sitting indoors listening to old albums. Bye!