MoFi

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!

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10 responses to “MoFi

  1. David Anderson

    Hey Randal, I can definitely understand your confusion. Mastering is actually two things: producing a recording from a stereo mix for the disc cutter and the physical process of cutting a disc.

    The master engineer (who produces the recording for the cutter) will almost always use effects: compression and limiting. The stereo mix he receives has the full dynamic range of the studio recording (within limits of the media). The mastering engineer’s job is to apply judicious compression (usually multi-band, so different frequency ranges receive differing levels of compression) and limiting to make sure that the final signal is is within the bounds of the recording equipment. There are very distinct physical limitations to vinyl (and the cutting equipment, including burning out the cutting head) that CDs do not share. Those limitations can potentially translate into a different sound than a CD recording. The cutting specs on the Aardvark site allude to one of those limitations (.0025 vs .004 depth).

    The mastering engineer isn’t just adjusting to accommodate the equipment: the recording must sound good and be a faithful reproduction of the artist’s intent.

    When one speaks of “remastering” or a “remastered” recording, it’s usually understood to mean that a mastering engineer has created a new master for the cutter from either the original stereo mix (the ideal) or attempted to create a new master recreated from a stereo mix on a consumer product (ie vinyl or cd; less than ideal).

    The discs you have that are labeled “Original Master Recording” were, in theory, cut from the original, physical masters. Here’s an interesting bit I just learned this morning: masters need to be replated after about 1000 pressings.

    Based on what Mobile Fidelity says about their original master recordings, they’re taking an original, physical master and having it replated, then pressing from that. Those masters will have picked up some stray dust in storage (no matter how we’ll they’re kept), which is where the pops or ticks are coming from. And you’re also hearing the original mastering job.

    • Hey! The magic of the internet brings out the real experts (and fast)! Thank you! To be honest, I didn’t think I was confused. I sorta thought I got it, but would not be surprised to learn I was wrong. Just starting out here!

      Not sure you are right about MoFi’s process, though. I think they are cutting new masters, based on this:

      “GAIN 2 Ultra Analog™ is a proprietary cutting system built and designed by legendary design genius Tim De Paravicini, with consultation from one of MFSL’s founding fathers – Stan Ricker, an audio engineer responsible for many of MFSL’s most heralded past releases. The GAIN 2 Ultra Analog™ system is comprised of a Studer™ tape machine with customized reproduction electronics* and handcrafted cutting amps that drive an Ortofon cutting head on a restored Neumann VMS-70 lathe.”

      It is the mention of cutting heads, lathes and tape machines that suggests to me that they are making new lacquer masters and having new LPs pressed from those. Still, like I said before, I am open to being wrong and learning, so set me straight!

      Thanks again for coming by and lending your voice! Have a great day.

      p.s. Are you at Saxon Recording?

  2. David Anderson

    Nope, not an expert, just a musician and fellow bicycling enthusiast who’s had to pay attention to these details.

    It does sound like they’re making new lacquer masters for both series. The part about protecting transients and pops and ticks makes sense, now that I’ve read their description. A high quality stylus will certainly “polish the grooves” over time. A cheap one will do it faster 😉 Really, though, the function of a limiter is to prevent transients that would result in pops and ticks. But when you get into the “audiophile” world, anything that affects “neutral and transparent” reproduction is frowned on.

    • Just! I hold musicians in the highest esteem!

      Thanks again for your comments. I write because I enjoy learning and writing. I tell myself I don’t care if anyone reads it, but then I get something back out of the ether and boy do I get excited. So, yeah!

      Take care!

  3. David Anderson

    I thought of your post immediately when I got to the part where Kevin talks about remastering and thought you’d enjoy this for several reasons too. http://pitchfork.com/features/interviews/8809-kevin-shields/

  4. Interesting that I stumbled upon this blog while doing an, accidentally abbreviated, Google search for MoFi Super Record Wash. I hit ENTER after typing “MoFo Super Rec” and presto……a blog that is of use!! And by a fellow Vinyl explorer and cycling enthusiast no less. Wonderful!

    I’ll forewarn that, like you, I like to write, but unlike you, I’m either loquacious or verbose depending on your viewpoint and tend to take several paragraphs to get a simple point across. I’ll apologize in advance!

    I thought it was just me: I’m soon to be 46 and so grew up with 33-1/3 records, but put them away c. 1986 when I started buying CD’s.

    Recently I realized I missed the Japanese tea ceremony aspect of listening to music “the way it was meant to be heard….one side at a time” and, after dusting off my 1981 Technics turntable, installing a new cartridge, discovering that my 2005 Marantz “receiver” (actually a 5.1 Home Theater unit) unlike my 1978 Marantz receiver (which fortunately I was able to locate in the attic) doesn’t have a Phono Input, started buying fresh pressings of both classics I still own, but that are heavily worn, as well as new pressings of albums I never got around to buying pre-CD.

    I’ve also picked up albums by artists I hadn’t yet been introduced to in the mid 80’s like Miles Davis.

    Without further research, never stepping beyond MoFi’s marketing, I rushed to purchase several hundred dollars worth of their Original Master Recordings. Like you, Randal, I’ve been somewhat shocked by the variation in sound quality from one record to the next. Odd, but when I bought all music on light-weight vinyl in the late 70’s through mid-80’s I don’t remember so much variation in high-end content, midrange congestion or pops and ticks that are expected to wear away with play.

    The most surprising thus far has been a pretty spendy 45rpm copy of Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours (not a MoFi release) all four sides of which pop, snap, tick and crackle at such an exaggerated volume that my dog is occasionally startled enough to leave his post lying beside the left channel speaker. Dogs……….God love ’em…….not overly bright,

    On the other hand, my $40.00 import copy of Beck’s Guero, pressed on something like 70 gram vinyl, sounds amazing.

    My best experiences so far seem to be with pressings from Back to Black; all of which have been quiet and open sounding.

    A final note on MoFi’s offerings: by far the best I’ve purchased is Little Feat’s Sailing Shoes. That one sounds truly fantastic…..the way I had hoped they’d all sound.

    Blog Bookmarked! Nice to meet you,
    Stuart

    • Ah, very fun! Thanks for writing. Despite getting a hundred hits a day, almost no one writes. I suppose it is because most people are looking for something that my blog doesn’t offer. So be it! Glad to meet someone who bothered to read it!

      Funny that you write just now. I hadn’t turned on my hifi all summer (thinking, probably wrongly, that the heat in the house during the summer is not good for the tube equipment) until today. I should get over that. The tubes get so crazy hot that they probably don’t care if the room in which they are operating is 65 or 90. Anyway…

      Thanks for all the input on MoFi! It helps to know my experience isn’t aberrant. Keep in touch with other recommendations. Serious listening season is just around the corner!

      Randy

  5. Hi Randy,
    Thank you for the warm welcome!

    No worries about the summer heat; My knowledge of HiFi gear is minimal, but I sell high-end, tube, guitar amplifiers for a living and can tell you that thermal fatigue will only be a problem if there is a component (capacitor, resistor, etc…) lurking somewhere in one of your units that was predisposed to early failure from the get-go. And, while that does happen from time-to-time, you shouldn’t let it worry you one bit.

    I imagine that, like vacuum tube guitar amplifiers, if you have a really extended listening session in a hot environment you may lose some clarity and focus as things get super warm, but that’s a temporary issue that resolves itself once the components cool down.

    When I performed as a working guitarist I’d always run a fan or two pointed at the chassis of my amplifier when playing outdoor summer gigs or clubs known to be sweltering, but this was mainly to extend tube life and to stave off increased tube sag so as to make it through the set before my amp started to get truly squishy sounding.

    Newest Arrival: Beck’s Sea Change – MoFi Ultra Gain 2

    Among the top three pressings, from any label, purchased so far. Deep, rich “blacks”, incredible overall complexity and detail, super silent.
    An album I’d been enjoying in digital format since its released, but the richness and depth of this one in vinyl format is just astounding. Makes me wish for a much nicer turntable and phono pre……….but that will have to wait!

    Fantastic listening experience…… Highly Recommended!

    Buy This One!

    Best Regards,
    Stu

    • Thanks, Stu! That makes sense and gives me much comfort. Thanks also for the review of the Beck pressing. I have enjoyed some of his other releases, so I will check out MoFi’s pressing.

      Have good one and stay in touch!

      Randy

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