By John "Jay Jay" French
The words “musician,” “record collector” and “audiophile” do not necessarily find themselves used in the same article. In the case of my latest story on the history of Mobile Fidelity, they all come together, because I am all three of them.
Most musicians are to some degree record collectors, but not necessarily audiophiles. Most audiophiles are not musicians, but are usually record collectors. Most record collectors are not musicians, but may, on occasion, be audiophiles.
I came to all three at about the same time (at age 12) and have grown into a huge record collector, a longtime audiophile and, of course, as the guitarist for Twisted Sister, a musician.
The first album that I bought was Meet the Beatles! in 1964 for $3.99, my first guitar was a Hagstrom bass in 1965 for $25 and the first stereo I bought in 1967 (turntable, receiver and speakers) for $600.
Mobile Fidelity is the story of a company that wants to bring a better listening experience to those of you who desire to have it. To those of you who collect for the sake of rare album covers, original pressings of vinyl, CD or cassette and/or albums that coincide with a special time in your life, then this may not matter to you. For the rest of you who desire to get closer to what the artists heard when they were in the studio, listening back at the recording console, the Mobile Fidelity experience aims to get you there.
Can you hear the difference between an original label release and a Mobile Fidelity version of an album that you may own and is considered a classic? That really depends on the quality of your music system.
You don’t have to get crazy, but a $99 turntable would not be my choice. You need to spend around $300 for a better turntable and cartridge, hooked up to a better amplifier and a decent pair of speakers. At this point, the sound will start to be worth the extra money.
Quality Beatles turntables that go beyond novelty
Mobile Fidelity knows what it’s doing. If you take the time and money to invest into a good playback system, your ears will be rewarded. Read the following interview with Mobile Fidelity executives to understand what they do, and the lengths they go to make the reproduction of vinyl a great experience in your home.
Mobile Fidelity is not the only high-end manufacturer of ultra-high quality versions of some of the most famous recordings ever made, but they are the most well known. Other companies are Analogue Productions, DCC, Sundazed, M&K, AudioQuest, Sheffield and Reference Recordings. Personally, I own albums from all these companies.
You may read about all kinds of different ways these companies make their product. 180 gram and 200 gram vinyl, Direct to Disc, One-Step and 45 rpm albums. These processes are combined, too. But the point is to make a better sounding product.
Mobile Fidelity, however, is the granddaddy of them all and I hope that you will learn about the passion that people have to make this hobby of record collecting even more satisfying.
The following is an interview with Michael Grantham and Josh Bizar.
GOLDMINE: What year was Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab (MFSL) created and who were the founders?
MICHAEL GRANTHAM: The first Mobile Fidelity LPs started showing up with the ORIGINAL MASTER RECORDING stripe across the jacket in 1977. But Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab and its original logo date back at least a decade before, when recording engineer Brad Miller established the label to release LPs featuring mostly vintage steam engines, various trains and thunderstorms. He lurked under trestles with a portable 8-track and mic in the rails to capture passing trains. The recordings were a step up from previous hi-fi demo discs of ping-pong matches and weird stereo sound effects. Brad then met up with hi-fi enthusiast and disc jockey Gary Georgi in Washington State. They began sharing philosophies, working together on how to get Brad’s superb live recordings — some that had levels that normal cartridges couldn’t track — to sound on vinyl like they did on his tapes. Research led them to the half-speed mastering process, then used for cutting quad recordings, and ultimately, Stan Ricker in Hollywood. Besides cutting their first test discs of Brad’s material at half-speed, Stan turned them on to Japanese virgin vinyl pressed by JVC in Yokohama. Brad and Gary became convinced the marriage of great recordings, using the original first-generation tape, adhering to half-speed mastering, and pressing on superior vinyl was the magic recipe that could take current popular LP titles to a new level of playback for the burgeoning high-end community — a group that shortly thereafter, following MFSL’s burst out of the gate, took “audiophile” from niche hobbyism to a worldwide movement.
GM: What was the Mobile Fidelity (MoFi) mission statement at the time?
MG: There probably was a business plan for creditors and possible investors — particularly once MoFi went from garage hobbyists to a label reissuing major music titles — but I never saw a copy. It was probably based on “applying the highest form of qualitative mastering technology to give the high-end consumer the definitive software for a live, in-the-studio playback experience.”
GM: How hard was it getting the labels onboard?
MG: After having some test discs cut at half speed by Stan Ricker at the JVC Cutting Center, located in the penthouse of RCA’s “Music Center of the World” studio complex in Hollywood, Brad and Georgi heard the vast improvement in playback. They set out to try and license popular music at very low guarantees and sales expectations from major labels in the Los Angeles area. They had meetings, but 99% of executives had no idea what they were talking about and the numbers were not impressive enough to bother going through the lengthy licensing processes. Herb Belkin, who was riding out a contract at MCA Records, took the time to evaluate what could be heard in A-B tests and took a chance. He licensed them low-risk but good-sounding titles by John Klemmer, Joe Sample and the Crusaders. He also started paperwork on Steely Dan’s Aja and Katy Lied, but left MCA to go independent as a consultant, eventually parlaying his success for MFSL into becoming the label’s president. He followed up finalizing the Steely Dan licenses and then hit up A&M, Capitol, RCA, Columbia and the Warner Music Group through industry connections. The result: A rush of MFSL releases during 1978-79, including mega-titles such as Crime of the Century, Abbey Road, The Doors, Sticky Fingers, Aqualung and Dark Side of the Moon.
GM: MoFi discs are remastered not remixed. Please explain the difference to our readers.
JOSH BIZAR: Remixing is going back to the original multi-track tapes and creating a new mix-down to stereo or a new multi-channel mix. It’s like taking a fresh approach to an album we all love. These projects can differ wildly from the sonic imprint we have all enjoyed over the years. Mobile Fidelity’s focus has always been on locating the original master tapes (hence the Original Master Recording stripe at the top of our releases) and using that original master to make the very best-sounding version of the album ever pressed. Remastering is the art of taking the original masters and attempting to capture the most vivid picture of the what the artist and original producers put down on the master recording.
GM: What does a consumer expect from a MoFi product that he or she isn›t getting for the original label version?
JB: We like to think Mobile Fidelity customers expect fantastic sound. It’s our job to get more off of the master tapes. Our engineers are given the luxury of time and access to the world’s finest equipment to make these discs. No other label expenses the time involved in making a Mobile Fidelity project, which is a big advantage for our team of engineers. It’s always been the label’s philosophy to bring the listener into the studio with their favorite artists.
GM: What is the criteria to do a MoFi version of any particular artist? Does the artist come to you? Does the label? Do you go to them?
JB: We usually work through the labels to license some titles on our wish lists. Occasionally, we have been able to work with the artist directly, or the artist’s team, to help with the licensing, but usually it is accomplished in conjunction with the labels. We remain extremely honored to have been trusted with some of the most prized catalogs in recording history.
GM: MoFi releases vinyl albums on 180 gram weight, which run at 33 1/3, and several titles at the much faster 45 rpm. How does weight and speed make a difference to the reproduction on vinyl and how is it decided which weight and process is to be applied to a particular album?
JB: Without getting too technical, all Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab LPs are pressed without exception on 180 gram vinyl at RTI in California — the world’s finest pressing plant. However, please do not assume that just because a pressing plant might use heavyweight vinyl that the plant will deliver a quality pressing. Gram weight (180 or otherwise) is meaningless without the people running the presses. Some of the best LPs I own are standard-weight pressings. Speed is another story. Record speed, like tape speed, is a simple fact of using more groove space to allow more of the musical information to get imprinted into the grooves. A 45 rpm LP gives us the opportunity to make an even better-sounding record. And while album length and space-per-side helps us make choices on speed decisions, they are usually something specified in the contract by the labels.
GM: Is the artist ever involved in the MoFi process? How many artists actually care that MoFi is doing a reissue? In general, are you surprised if the artist is an audiophile?
MG: A great many of our artists, along with the labels, have sound approval on test pressings and test discs. Once in a while, an artist, producer or engineer will come to our studios to hang out during mastering. If an artist is still “on roster” at a label, they are most likely notified by said label of our intent and the formats planned. In this day and age, I don’t think anyone at MFSL is surprised if any artists we seek to reissue are audiophiles.
JB: For some reason, the word “audiophile” gets a bad rap. Audiophiles are just people who want to get the best sound quality from their music collections. They want to be transported into the studio, like a fly on the wall, when the original recordings of their favorite albums took place. In my view, audiophiles and music lovers are one and the same.
GM: When did you take over running MoFi?
JB: Jim Davis bought Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab in 1999. Many of the original team members are still on staff to help us make better records. Jim has made tremendous investments in the electronics and studio equipment to allow our mastering engineers to continue to push the envelope on what’s possible. If you ever have the opportunity to listen to one of our new One-Step box sets, you’ll clearly hear the advances we have made.
GM: Explain the incredible One-Step series of releases and why they are so expensive.
JB: In order to explain the process of cutting these records and why the cost is high, I compiled the following from our files. I hope this helps your readers understand what goes into each One-Step title we release.
Instead of utilizing the industry-standard three-step lacquer process: Source Material > Lacquer (Positive) > Father (Negative) > Mother (Positive) > Stamper (Negative) > Vinyl (Positive), Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab’s ULTRADISC ONE-STEP (UD1S) uses only one step, bypassing two processes of generational loss. The MoFi 1-Step process: Original Master Recording > Lacquer (Positive) > Convert (Negative) > Vinyl (Positive). While three-step processing is designed for optimum yield and efficiency, MoFi 1-Step is created for the ultimate in sound quality. The MoFi 1-Step Box Sets represents a state-of-the-art advance in the record-manufacturing process. MFSL engineers begin with the original master tapes and meticulously cut a set of lacquers. These lacquers are used to create a very fragile, pristine UD1S stamper called a “convert.” Delicate “converts” are then formed into the actual record stampers, producing a final product that literally and figuratively brings you closer to the music. By skipping the additional steps of pulling another negative and an additional positive to make additional stampers, a MoFi 1-Step produces a final LP with the lowest noise floor possible today. The removal of the additional two steps of generational loss in the plating process reveals tremendous amounts of extra musical detail and dynamics, which are otherwise lost due to the standard copying process. We are also using a new vinyl material that was recently developed which we call MoFi SuperVinyl. This vinyl is translucent when you hold it up to a light source, and while extremely expensive to manufacture, it produced the best sounding, quietest vinyl our engineering team has ever utilized. We have also designed beautiful, gold-foil embossed boxes and packaging material that suits this series. The exclusive nature of these very limited pressings guarantees that every UD1S pressing serves as an immaculate replica of the lacquer sourced directly from the original master tape. Every conceivable aspect of vinyl production is optimized to produce the most perfect record album available today.
Everything starts with meticulously cutting a set of lacquers for a very strict number of records to be pressed. Each pass is optimized and tweaked for peak performance. After being cleaned with a proprietary chemical, the lacquers are rinsed in de-ionized water and dipped in stannous chloride, which enables pure silver to adhere to the surface. Silver is deposited on the lacquer by spraying on a combination of chemicals—leaving a pristine, extremely intricate silver layer. The lacquer then gets delicately mounted onto a conductive copper bar and immersed into a pre-plate tank filled with nickel sulfamate and titanium baskets filled with nickel anodes at 98 degrees. As electricity is applied to the silvered lacquer, the nickel slowly begins to deposit onto the lacquer in a manner that preserves the integrity of the grooves. After 10 ampere-hours, the nickel-plated silvered lacquer is removed from the tank. The pre-plated lacquer is then placed into a high-speed rotary tank at 120 degrees. Next, the disc is spun at 88RPM to ensure an evenly deposited layer of nickel. Once the desired thickness of .012” is achieved, the disc gets taken out of the plating tank and the nickel convert is carefully separated from the lacquer. At this point, the convert is formed into a record stamper. Rather than having another positive stamper and yet another negative pulled off—exactly what happens in the three-step process—these two steps are skipped and instead, the first-generation convert is used to make the pinnacle of audiophile vinyl that literally and figuratively brings listeners closer to the music.
GM: How has the market in general changed for MoFi since it began?
JB: I don’t think that it has. From the very beginning, Mobile Fidelity has had a tremendous amount of support from the music-loving community, the record-collector community and audiophiles. There is so much overlap between these groups, we like to think of them as one and the same. We continue to be dedicated to putting out new titles using the most advanced technology and finest mastering engineers to produce the best discs ever manufactured.
GM: Why do you think vinyl has had such amazing staying power?
JB: In short, it goes way beyond the sound quality and, as your readers know, a good piece of vinyl remains unmatched in that department. Today, the vinyl resurgence is also about more than stuffing a phone with files or streaming music that an anonymous service chooses for you. Owning a shelf filled with records is a statement. It says a lot about a person. When this current vinyl resurgence began, we were seeing so many people trying to get away from the files on their phones or those stacks of CDs in their cars. Owning music will always be something real music lovers demand. And let me say that vinyl will always be cool. And it’s also a show of support to the artists that music lovers and collectors really care about. I cannot imagine a time when vinyl is no longer a format with staying power.
GM: Considering how conservative and insanely protective EMI is with The Beatles catalog, how did MoFi convince EMI to let them do the whole catalog?
MG: Having started with Abbey Road, Mobile Fidelity subsequently released on vinyl and cassette Magical Mystery Tour and “The White Album.” The path had then been paved to discuss accelerating the band’s entire U.K. catalog into a boxed collection. MoFi eventually separately released the balance of titles once the box set sold out. It was a different era, long before major labels had full reissue departments. Hence, a high-end version of a title at a much higher price point made good business sense to most label executives. So much so, in fact, most majors developed their own audiophile series, many of which soon crashed and burned. We had a very strong relationship with both Capitol in Hollywood and EMI in London. Ultimately, all desired projects — Beatles, Pink Floyd, John Lennon, etc. — were fast-tracked with complete cooperation and access to Abbey Road’s tape vault.
JB: Michael is being very humble. He personally carried the original Beatles master tapes back from Abbey Road Studios to the Mobile Fidelity mastering facility. This would never take place today (those tapes will never again leave the vaults), but back in the early 1980s, it was very common to get tapes from all over the world sent to MoFi for mastering. Can you imagine flying back to the U.S. with those tapes in a case on the seat next to you on the plane? Michael was a big part of many of MoFi’s coolest projects. Mobile Fidelity was the first company to offer better-sounding, quieter pressings, and singlehandedly created the reissue market we know today. MoFi is the OG of remastering!
GM: Lastly, were there any artists that MoFi couldn’t get?
MG: The short answer is yes, of course. When Mobile Fidelity started and began to grow, we were lucky to have advocates in the form of powerful executives at each of the major labels pushing licensing through for us. In most cases, we were looked upon as non-threatening/non-competing from the label’s basic market. With changing times, two things happened. One, the major labels now have Special Markets Divisions that plan high-quality reissues for themselves. Also, artists have more control over their catalogs with heavy oversight and involvement. We continually pursue each and every title we deem worthy to request and know from past experience that with time, some titles denied prior can miraculously later become available. It’s an ongoing quest.
For more information, go to www.mofi.com