Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab
Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab (MFSL or MoFi) is a re-issue record label known as an innovator in the production of audiophile-quality sound recordings. The label's 'Original Master Recording' releases are created from the first-generation analog master recordings via a custom-engineered tape machine. MFSL has issued titles on LP, cassette tape, DAT, CD and SACD. Each title is licensed from the original record company for a limited period of time and production runs are usually restricted to a few thousand units each.
The emphasis on quality at MFSL has been praised by critics and music fans. After the label's initial success, both major record labels and small startups began producing half-speed mastered releases and albums advertised as being sourced directly from the original master tape. These include Columbia Records Mastersound, MCA Records Ultimate MasterDisc, Nautilus SuperDiscs, Dunhill Records DCC series, Practical HiFi Magazine's Nimbus Supercut, JVC's XRCDs, Audio Fidelity and Acoustic Sounds' Analogue Productions.
Half-speed LP mastering
Half-speed mastering was not a new concept. Decca Records (UK) in particular used half-speed mastering frequently for their stereo classical music LP releases from 1958 to about 1967. It was a time consuming process that also presented technical challenges so its use was never common or widespread, despite its sonic advantages. Mobile Fidelity revived the practice, refined it, and made it the company's major selling point. All LP releases are pressed from lacquers cut at 1/2 normal playing speed. This is accomplished by playing master tape at half its normal speed, while simultaneously running the cutting lathe at half speed. For instance, a 30 inch per second (ips) speed tape would be played at 15 ips, while the lathe is running at 16 2⁄3 RPM (when cutting a standard 33 1⁄3 RPM LP). The half-speed mastering technique allows for extended frequency response and better transient attack.
Early MFSL titles were pressed by JVC in Japan on virgin "SuperVinyl" vinyl. JVC originally developed this proprietary plastic compound in the early 1970s to reduce record wear on LP records. Supervinyl is a harder and more durable vinyl formula than traditional formulas. The pressings exhibit a very low surface noise, as well as fewer pops and clicks. Supervinyl is proprietary JVC technology, which was discontinued in the late 1980s.
Engineer Stan Ricker mastered all of the early MFSL releases. Ricker's work can be recognized by the signature "SR/2" carved in the dead wax.
Jack Hunt ("JH/2") mastered many of MFSL's releases in the 1970s and 1980s. Some later titles were mastered by John LeMay and Paul Stubblebine, with a few uncredited releases. Currently, Shawn R. Britton and Rob LoVerde are mastering most LPs for MFSL. CDs, SACDs, and audio cassette mastering have been done by a variety of engineers, most recently Britton. The company has only had a handful of engineers in its history.
Recording engineer Brad Miller (1939–1998) created the first recordings on the Mobile Fidelity label during the late 1950s and 1960s. These were highly realistic recordings of environmental and locomotive sounds which drew interest from audiophiles but gained little attention from the public. While located in Burbank California in 1971, the company released a 7" 45 rpm single produced by Miller, "Saunders Ferry Lane"/"Early Morning". The record was credited to "Clare" and was sung by British vocalist Clare Torry (of Pink Floyd's The Great Gig In The Sky fame).
LP era, 1977 to 1985
In the 1950s and 1960s, it was common for record labels to press relatively heavy records on virgin vinyl. Through the oil crisis and economic downturn of the 1970s, the cost of record pressing increased. As a result, record labels opted to press light weight vinyl out of recycled material (which contains impurities). This resulted in releases that contained pops, clicks and high levels of surface noise. Additionally, mastering engineers would often compromise the sound of the original tape by applying some equalization, dynamic range compression and groove velocity limitation when cutting a record, in order to ensure that the album was playable even on low grade consumer equipment. Sound quality could also vary based on production run or geographic region, as the stampers were cut from different generation tapes.
In 1977, Mobile Fidelity began offering a line of Original Master Recording LPs - re-issued albums of popular rock and pop acts. These albums were all cut at 1/2 speed from the original tapes, using no compression or velocity limiting (equalization was used, however). The records were then pressed on JVC Supervinyl. Sleeves featured glossy, detailed artwork reproductions on heavy cardboard and plastic liner sleeves.
The company was originally based out of Veradale, Washington (a suburb of Spokane). MFSL's first four LPs in this series were pop-orchestral titles performed by the Mystic Moods Orchestra. These albums also made extensive use of natural sound effects. Following this MFSL shifted course, offering mostly well known Rock, Pop, and Jazz titles licensed from major record companies. The first of these was Crime of the Century by Supertramp, originally released by A&M Records in 1974. Another early success was Katy Lied (1975) by Steely Dan, licensed from ABC Records.
In 1978, MFSL moved to the Chatsworth neighborhood of Los Angeles. In 1979 Herbert A. Belkin, a music industry attorney and executive who had previously worked at ABC Records and Capitol Records, bought the company from Brad Miller. MFSL reached greater recognition and acclaim with their release of titles such as George Benson's Breezin' (1976), Fleetwood Mac's second eponymous album (1975). Pink Floyd's The Dark Side of the Moon (1974) was the label's biggest success in this period when it was re-issued on LP in the Original Master Recording series in 1979.
MFSL's releases received increased publicity in 1981 when they released a box set of The Beatles recordings. This comprised all 13 original British versions of their albums, mastered from the original Abbey Road Studio master tapes (with the exception of Magical Mystery Tour (1967), which was sourced from a copy of the original US Capitol tapes). An album-sized booklet displaying the original album covers was also included. This project was the first and only time The Beatles master tapes ever left Abbey Road studios.
The Beatles box set was followed up with similar box sets of Frank Sinatra and The Rolling Stones. In addition to the regular-weight LP releases and box sets, MFSL also released eight UHQR (Ultra High Quality Record) title on LP. Each was a single-record box set limited to 5,000 copies, which were individually numbered. UHQRs LPs were pressed on heavy-weight (200 gram) "virgin" vinyl. These discs (along with previous releases) were pressed at JVC in Japan.
Compact disc releases, 1985 to 1999
While continuing to release LP titles, Mobile Fidelity entered the CD market in the mid 1980s with its line of Original Master Recording aluminum CDs. The aluminum CD line was discontinued in 1987, replaced by the gold-plated "Ultradisc" series. As with the aluminum CDs, Ultradisc releases are sourced from the original master tape.
Prior to the release of Queen's A Night at the Opera (1975) in October 1992, each Ultradisc release was manufactured in Japan. From that point, discs were manufactured in the US and given the "Ultradisc II" designation. Many of the early Ultradisc titles were re-pressed in the US as Ultradisc II.
As with the company's record pressings, no dynamic range compression was used in the production of the CDs. For the most part, little or no equalization is applied. Thus, releases are close copies of the original master tape.
The late 1980s and early 1990s was the most successful period for MFSL. In 1988 the company headquarters moved to Sebastopol, California. Sometime in the late 1980s or early 1990s JVC closed its LP manufacturing plant in Japan. MFSL then built its own LP manufacturing facility in the United States. Herbert A. Belkin retired from MFSL in 1994.
Bankruptcy, purchase by Music Direct and new hardware, 1999 to present
In November 1999 MFSL was forced to close its doors after it was unable to collect a large sum of money and product upon the bankruptcy of M.S. Distributing, one of its biggest distributors. At this time many unsold items were liquidated as cut-out items through discounters. At the same time other dealers also charged premium prices on the collectors market for the most rare and highly acclaimed titles. In 2001 the company's assets were acquired by the audiophile products company Music Direct, of Chicago, operated by Jim Davis. Music Direct now owns rights to the technology used in the proprietary mastering chain and all intellectual property owned by Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab.
Herbert A. Belkin died in 2001 of a heart-attack at age 62. Mobile Fidelity has continued to produce Super Audio CDs, GAIN 2 Ultra Analog Limited Edition vinyl, Ultradisc II Gold CDs and Ultradisc CD-Rs since the company was re-established.
After listening tests and technical evaluations, Mobile Fidelity engineers decided to adopt the Super Audio CD over the DVD-Audio disc as a high resolution digital format. As with some other audiophile labels (such as Analogue Productions), Mobile Fidelity is of the opinion that Direct Stream Digital is sonically superior to Pulse-Code Modulation audio. On the label's Hybrid SACD releases, the SACD layer is a direct DSD recording of the analog master tape, while the CD layer is a digital down conversion of the DSD, with Super Bit Mapping applied. Post 2001 CD-only are sourced from DSD, but omit the SACD layer.
Since 1998, Mobile Fidelity has been using Studer A-80 1⁄4 inch tape machine, which was custom modified by audio designer Tim de Paravicini. The deck features custom high bandwidth playback heads and custom playback electronics. This machine exhibits frequency response, which is essentially flat from 10 Hz-44 kHz. Using this tape machine and a record cutting system (also designed by Paravicini), Mobile Fidelity engineers accidentally cut a 122 kHz tape bias tone onto a record lacquer. Mobile Fidelity has revisited several albums with their new mastering chain that were previously released on the old UltraDisc 2 system. Some listeners have noted that the new mastering chain exhibits a 'tighter' sound, particularly in the bass frequencies.