Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab
Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab (MFSL or MoFi) is a re-issue record label known for the production of audiophile-quality sound recordings. MFSL recordings are released under the trademark name 'Original Master Recording' and are usually sourced from first-generation analog master tape played through highly specialized equipment. 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, with production runs restricted to a few thousand units.
After the label's initial success in the 1970s, other record labels began producing Half-speed Mastered albums advertised as being sourced directly from original master tapes. Notable examples labels 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.
In the 1950s and 1960s, it was common for record labels to press relatively heavy records on new or "virgin" vinyl. Through the oil crisis and economic downturn of the 1970s, the cost of record pressing increased. As a result, many record labels cut costs by pressing lightweight records from recycled materials (which contain impurities). Recycled vinyl pressings often exhibit inherent pops/clicks and high levels of surface noise. Additionally, lightweight pressings are more prone to warpage than heavier ones.
It was commonplace for a record mastering engineer to compromise the sound quality of a record in order to maximize loudness, overcome record surface noise and make the groove traceable by the stylus of a low quality consumer turntable. Often, records were mastered with additional compression/limiting, equalization and limitation of stereo width. A first pressing was often sourced from the original master tape, with the additional processing applied in real time. It was commonplace for the engineer to cut the first pressing and a "cutting master" tape in parallel. Subsequent pressings were often cut directly from the cutting master. Some pressings were even cut from copies of the cutting master tape. Each subsequent tape copy adds additional levels of tape hiss, and Wow and flutter - degrading sound quality.
The Creation of MFSL
Recording engineer Brad Miller (1939–1998) created the first recordings on the Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab 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 Miller was located in Burbank California in 1971, the company released a few pop and orchestral recordings. This included a 7" 45 rpm single produced by Miller, "Saunders Ferry Lane"/"Early Morning". The record was credited to "Clare" and sung by British vocalist Clare Torry, who later gained fame from her performance on Pink Floyd's song The Great Gig In the Sky.
The LP era, 1977 to 1985
In 1977 Mobile Fidelity began offering a line of Original Master Recording LPs. These albums were all cut at 1/2 speed from original tapes, without the use of compression (although additional EQ was added). The records were then pressed using JVC Supervinyl formula and packaged using heavy cardboard sleeves, inner cardboard stiffeners, and plastic liner sleeves.
At this time MFSL was based in Veradale, Washington (now a part of the city of Spokane Valley). 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 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 (1973) 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.
CD 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 to 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. In around 1988 JVC closed its LP manufacturing plant in Japan and MFSL was forced to end its LP releases. In 1994 MFSL built its own LP manufacturing facility in the United States and resumed LP production. Belkin retired from MFSL in 1994.
Bankruptcy, revival, and SACD, 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. 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.
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 and Audio Fidelity), 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. They have 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.
Mobile Fidelity has continued to produce Super Audio CDs, and GAIN 2 Ultra Analog Limited Edition vinyl records.
In the early 1980 Michael Dion was national sales director. Later that year in December, it was announced that he made director of international sales and marketing. Mark Wexler who was in a previous role was promoted Dion's previous role of national sales director. Former DJM Records general manager, Carmen La Rosa had filled the position of marketing vice-president and general manager. At some stage Mark Wexler had become vice-president. In April 1985, Dion became vice-president of Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab, replacing Mark Wexler who relocated to the East Coast to pursue other interests. Michelle Miller who had worked for the label for five years, and worked in the sales department was made national sales manager.
MFSL was the first record company to make Half-speed Mastering a standard practice for all of its LP releases. MFSL LPs are pressed from disc lacquers cut at 1/2 normal playing speed. This was not a new concept however. The UK Decca Records label had used the same process on many stereo classical music LP releases between 1958 and 1967. MFSL revived the practice, refined it, and made it the company's major selling point. It is a time consuming process that also presented technical challenges, so its use was never common or widespread, despite sonic advantages. Sound is transferred from tape to disc with both the master tape and the disc cutting lathe playing 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). Half-speed Mastering allows for extended frequency response and better transient attack.
Early MFSL titles were pressed by JVC in Japan on virgin "SuperVinyl". JVC originally developed this proprietary plastic compound in the early 1970s to reduce record wear on discreet CD-4 Quadrophonic LP records which were introduced in 1972. Supervinyl is a harder and more durable vinyl than traditional formulas. These pressings exhibit a very low surface noise, as well as fewer pops and clicks. Supervinyl remains a proprietary JVC technology and production of this material was discontinued in the late 1980s.
Stan Ricker mastered all of the early MFSL LP 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 LP 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.
- Strauss, Neil (1994-12-08). "Music Lovers Are Voting for Vinyl". The New York Times. Retrieved 2009-11-03.
- Enjoy the Music: "Enjoy the Music", accessed Nov. 12, 2010
- Newer MFSL CDs/SACDs vs. Older Masterings | Steve Hoffman Music Forums
- Billboard Magazine 13 Dec 1980 ref>Billboard Magazine 13 Dec 1980 Page 4 General News, Executive Turntable, Record Companies
- Billboard Magazine April 20, 1985 Page 4, Executive Turntable