“I know that this revelation of Mobile Fidelity cutting from transfers made to digital is sort-of anathema to some of our purest fans, and I understand that strictly from what you might read on a piece of paper. But the truth is that us cutting from digital transfers that we ourselves made is not an example of us losing our way, it’s actually an example of us adhering to it adhering to the purest aesthetic and perfecting things beyond anything in the past and the past goes back now 45 years…. Preserving the tape.”
— Rob LoVerde, Mastering Engineer, Mobile Fidelity Sound Labs
The talk of the audiophile world the past few weeks has been the controversy over Mobile Fidelity Sound Labs’ vinyl releases. In short, it’s been revealed that MFSL has been including a digital step in its “One-Step” vinyl releases.
Up until this week, the impression that MoFi’s promotional materials gave was that the company created the lacquer for each “One-Step” release directly from the original master tape:
This seemed plausible to buyers when the company was pressing only a few thousand numbered copies of each “One-Step” release. That’s because each stamper is good for around 1,000 records, at best.
Briefly, the “One-Step” process involves the mastering engineer playing back the master tape and making their equalization, compression, and other moves directly to a lacquer. That lacquer is then used to create a stamper, which contains the inverse (negative) of the lacquer’s (positive) grooves.
However, this process damages the fragile lacquer. In the mass production of records, as opposed to “One-Step,” the lacquer is used to make intermediate “Fathers” and “Mothers,” depending on the number of steps, which can then be used to produce more stampers, each still good for 1,000 or so records. As Vinyl Moon explains, “A stamper will wear out after creating about 1000 records. A mother can produce around 10 stampers, and a father can produce about 10 mothers. This means that with the two-step process, about 11,000 records can be created before you need to start the entire process over with a new lacquer (remastering). The three-step process can produce about 100,000 records before remastering.” In the “One-Step” process, though, one has to go back to the master tape after the (single) stamper wears out.
Buyers could imagine this return to the master tape was happening with something like MFSL’s lauded “One-Step” of Santana’s Abraxas, which was limited to 2,500 copies. But as the numbers crept up, doubts crept in. The damn broke with the “One-Step” release of Michael Jackson’s Thriller, for which the company pressed 40,000 copies. Would Sony really let MoFi run the precious master tape of the best-selling album of all-time forty times?
It seems the first skepticism was voiced by Michael Ludwigs of 45 RPM Audiophile on July 11th. In a video on his YouTube channel, Ludwigs wondered whether the Thriller ”One-Step” could really be all-analog with that many copies being pressed. While it seems Ludwigs’s video was based on speculation, Mike Esposito of The ‘In’ Groove (a Phoenix record store and a YouTube channel) confirmed the speculation a few days later based on sources at MoFi.
Esposito followed up that video on July 20th with an interview, recorded at Mobile Fidelity, with mastering engineers Shawn Britton, Krieg Wunderlich, and Rob LoVerde. That conversation is fascinating and informative, with lots of great observations and tidbits, especially to a geek like me who loves hearing about how audiophile-quality masterings are made. But the headline for most viewers was that MFSL’s engineers admitted that some the “One-Step” releases involved converting the original master tape to 4x DSD, then mastering from that digital flat transfer.
The engineers gave several reasons for this. The first is that sometimes it’s just not feasible to run a precious master tape that many times. As a digital consumer, I appreciate that. I don’t want the master tape of Thriller ruined for a “One-Step.” (In fact, I wish that record companies would take even better care of their tapes!)
“There are certain tapes on the ‘One-Step’ process that you don’t want to play repeatedly,” Britton told Esposito. “That’s not the best thing for the tape.”
“And if we can’t get the tapes, well we can’t put out the records,” Wunderlich added. “And that wouldn’t sound very good would it?”
The other reason for the DSD step offered by the MoFi engineers is that many labels will not let their tapes be taken off-site. This means that engineers who want to make an audiophile-quality mastering don’t have the time necessary to do so if they’re working solely from the master tape on-site (as opposed to making a flat copy that they can with them back to MFSL headquarters).
LoVerde: “When we have to go to Sony to capture master tapes…what we are really endeavoring to do is to create a Mobile Fidelity environment in the space where they’re allowing their masters to reside. So all we really need from them is a power outlet, you know, and the rest is our equipment that we ship over from here — that we use here — and also a technician who works here as well…. If we can’t bring the tape here we bring here to the tape. We’re trying to really optimize the work under the conditions that are specified sometimes by the record label. The ‘the less is more credo’ still stands — minimal cable lengths, no unnecessary circuitry in the system, and the like — to get the cleanest, flattest transfer that that we can then bring back here to work on from the mastering end. So the work off site is all about transfer. It’s not really about any editorializing. It’s about just creating a literal clone of the master as neutrally as possible and then bringing that clone here to say, ‘Okay, this is as if we had the master tape here at Mobile Fidelity.’ So that is what we do when necessitated.”
Given all this, should buyers of MFSL’s vinyl “One-Step” releases be angry?
There’s a technological angle to that question, and then there’s a consumer transparency angle.
Taking the latter first, it’s understandable that someone who bought a MoFi “One-Step” vinyl believing that it was all-analog feels misled when they find out that a digital step was involved. Even as someone who’s digital-only, I understand. You thought you were buying one thing, and you got another. Clearly, it would’ve been better had Mobile Fidelity been transparent from the beginning about the digital step. However, I applaud the company’s response to this controversy, which — beyond the interview with Esposito — is to make the full path clear for each release. That’s something that’s already happening, not just for new releases, but also for old ones. MFSL’s updating the web pages for past releases to make clear which ones had a DSD step. That’s the right thing to do.
That leaves the technological angle.
For many analog fans, digital is (in the immortal words of Žižek) “violence!“ They want all-analog releases because they don’t want their sound to ever reside as bits. This feeling may come from the mistaken belief that digital, as a process of discrete sampling, is somehow unable to reproduce a continuous sound, meaning that vinyl records with a digital step will sound worse than ones with an all-analog signal path.
For example, Michael Fremer (whose writing I enjoy) went on Ludwigs’s YouTube show to criticize Esposito’s interview with the MoFi engineers. Among other claims, Fremer says, “When people say, ‘Well you can’t hear the difference [between all-analog vinyl and vinyl with a digital step],’ I tell [them], ‘If you play the Analog Productions [Stevie Ray Vaughan] Couldn’t Stand the Weather cut from a tape versus the ‘One-Step’ cut from a DSD master…you can hear the difference. There’s a softness to it. There’s this lack of something.”
However, it’s worth asking how true that is. Fremer gushed in his review of MoFi’s “One-Step” of Abraxas. He rated the sound an eleven out of ten and wrote:
Halfway through this ‘One-Step’ side one I said to myself, “This might be the best record I’ve ever heard.” I meant by that the technical quality of the record and how much it resembles tape in four critical parameters: the wide dynamics and low bass response, the unlimited dynamic range, the tape-like sense of flow and especially the enormity of the soundstage presentation….
I had to refresh my sonic memory with the alternative versions I have here that include two originals, a German pressing from the 1990s and the Columbia “Mastersound” half-speed mastered version. First of all, about half of this record is magnificently recorded and hard work would be necessary to make it sound bad but this “one step” version is mind-glowingly better than any of the other versions I have beginning with the earth shaking bass that extends to near-impossible depths, moving on to the enormity of the stage width and especially depth and the transparency and the dynamic slam plus the blackest backdrops you’ll hear on a record. I’m telling you, if you love the album it’s worth spending $100 on it. Compared to this version the half-speed mastered Columbia sounds like a cassette tape.
Yet, in the interview with Esposito, the engineers said[*] that the “One-Step” Abraxas included a DSD step. This has been confirmed as MoFi has updated its site with source info. The old release page for Abraxas said, “MOBILE FIDELITY’S PREMIER ULTRADISC ONE-STEP RELEASE: MASTERED FROM THE ORIGINAL MASTER TAPES, REACHES SONIC HEIGHTS NEVER BEFORE ACHIEVED BY ANALOG.” The new one adds, “1/4” / 15 IPS analog master to DSD 256.”
In other words, Fremer thought a release with a DSD step, rather than being “soft” or suffering from a “lack of something,” sounded like “best record [he’d] ever heard.”
Putting aside this (in my opinion, misplaced) dislike of digital sound, other consumers of MoFi’s “One-Step” releases may feel cheated because they’re motivated by a simple desire to keep things analog. After all, why buy analog music if it’s sourced from digital? That’s not for me to judge.
Audiophiles are persnickety perfectionists by their nature. I know I am. That’s actually why I’m a digital-only audiophile. Vinyl suffers from a limited dynamic range and various kinds of sonic limitations and distortions. That would bother me.
Making matters worse, my OCD (and I don’t use that colloquially) couldn’t abide knowing that other copies of the exact same release I own (not a different mastering or pressing) could sound better than mine. Fewer clicks and pops. A “hot stamper.” Etc. Vinyl is simply too fickle and fragile for someone like me. Beyond its dynamic range and clean playbacks, I love digital for its ability to be copied losslessly.
In the comments on the post announcing this blog, @Rexp reasonably wondered why TBVO (The Best Version Of…) isn’t known as TBDVO (The Best Digital Version Of…). The above is part of the answer. The other part is that I simply couldn’t write TBVO the same way — or maybe at all — if I were to include vinyl. For some TBVO columns, I’ve used one (or more) vinyl-to-digital rips as a shadow comparison. The reason I haven’t done that more is that I’ve experienced downloading two, three, or even four rips of what’s ostensibly the same pressing, only to have them vary in equalization more than distinct CD masterings. Wear to the stamper, wear from use, different styluses…. There are just too many variables. That’s not to say that someone with a great vinyl setup couldn’t do a TBVO-like column — I’d even license them the TBVO moniker for a small (large) fee! — but I’m just not that person.
What I think is clear is that the MoFi engineers believe that what they were doing gave them the best chance to make the highest-quality product, and I agree. (Ultimately, if I have any criticism of MoFi’s decisions, it’s that I prefer hi-res PCM to DSD, but I realize that’s a controversial take.)
LoVerde: “I know that this revelation of Mobile Fidelity cutting from transfers made to digital is sort-of anathema to some of our purest fans, and I understand that strictly from what you might read on a piece of paper. But the truth is that us cutting from digital transfers that we ourselves made is not an example of us losing our way, it’s actually an example of us adhering to it adhering to the purest aesthetic and perfecting things beyond anything in the past, and the past goes back now 45 years…. Preserving the tape.”
Britton: “One of the things that we do without getting into too much detail again is we try in our transfers — I think we achieve; we don’t just try — we recreate what the original recorder alignment was. So that requires a skill set that we learned from Stan Ricker himself. These techniques have been handed down, and I want to emphasize that. The MoFi that you know and love from back in the day from the ‘70s, that methodology has not changed. The technology has certainly, and Mobile Fidelity is, no pun intended, on the cutting edge of technology in that we keep up with new trends. But we have that same ethos, that same way of transferring the tapes.”
It’s worth noting that MFSL could’ve brought an analog copy of the master back to Mobile Fidelity headquarters, thereby keeping the process all-analog. But — and this is where the technological angle perhaps trumps consumers’ preferences — the engineers feel that a digital copy sounds better!
Wunderlich: “The 30 IPS analog [or a tape of any sort] is not actually as accurate as the 4x DSD. It’s truly a very transparent format. With the pre-emphasis and de-emphasis in the analog tape machine, yes it is analog, but it is another generation of analog that [is] another thumb print between the master tape and the lathe, and it’s a thumb print that we really don’t want. We’ve tried it. We auditioned several different [options] — 30 ips, 15 ips, one-inch, half-inch, Dolby SR, no Dolby, all of these things… maybe in some cases it’s a little bit of a benefit, [but] in other cases it does change things. It’s best in this case to get absolutely as close to the master tape as you can. To not change things, and then bring that to the lathe and let it do its magic.”
To be sure, Mobile Fidelity should’ve been transparent about the DSD step from the beginning. But it’s worth noting that — for the vast, vast majority of releases, analog or digital — consumers usually have no idea what the source is. Mobile Fidelity’s dedication to tracking down the actual master tape and playing it back on a properly calibrated machine is to be applauded.
It’s common for commercial releases to be sourced from copies of the master tape. Often, it’s not even clear what should properly be called the “master tape.” Back in the analog era, some labels sent copies of the flat two-track master around the world for various regional pressings. That meant that each of these pressings had a different mastering. Other companies made EQ’d “cutting master” tapes from the flat two-track masters. These cutting master tapes were sent around the world to ensure that the mastering on each regional release was (roughly) the same. Some not-so-great sounding early CDs were made from these cutting masters, which had been equalized for vinyl’s limitations. Things get more complex when the original master tape is worn. In that case, a safety copy might sound better. And on and on.
Getting the best available transfer of the actual master tape (or the best surviving copy) is crucial, and that’s the first thing that separates and audiophile-quality release from the others.
Britton: “Getting those original tape transfers right makes a greater difference than some of the differences between analog and digital…. I’m not going to name any mastering houses. There’s a lot of people doing great stuff out there…. It’s not like the old days of MoFi where it was easier to redo an album and the commercial versions were lacking…. [But] the DSD transfers that we do are accurate representations of that tape. Now if somebody’s mastering at a commercial mastering house, and they’re paying $500 an hour, they don’t have the time to swap out cables or, as I mentioned earlier today, adjust Dolbys in two-tenths of a dB increments until you get that alignment spot on, just right. So we have the luxury of time, and that difference that we make is what makes the Mobile Fidelity records so great.”
The next step is having the time (and desire) to make sure that the final consumer release sounds as good as it possibly can. Even if the MoFi digital release isn’t always my favorite version, it’s always dynamic, and it’s essentially never a bad mastering.
LoVerde: “I would much rather have a copy — and this is not saying we use copy tapes — [but] I would rather have a copy tape and all the time in the world than [to have] the master tape in a day, because if you’re not doing your job properly [then] the master tape is completely irrelevant… I’d rather do my best job with a copy of the master tape than a rush job with the master tape itself. And being that we make the release schedule… we don’t call a mastering facility and say, ‘Hey we’d like to book time. Can we come in? What’s your hourly rate?’ And then somebody hears, ‘Oh this is gonna cost two thousand dollars. Get in there. You’ve got four hours, Shawn. We’re on the clock. Do it!’ That doesn’t happen there…. That just feels good that when you walk away from the project at the end you can say, ‘No stone was unturned. I wasn’t rushed.’”
Britton: “One of the things that we do have is the luxury of time. We say this over and over, but it’s true. And using the DSD — the 4x DSD — transfers allows us that opportunity to do incremental adjustments and not [be] constrained by trying to do something on the fly.”
If nothing else comes out of this controversy, I’m glad that consumers are getting clarity. That’s a good thing. I also appreciate Esposito’s conversation with the MoFi engineers, which is worth watching in its entirety even if you don’t care about the sourcing of the “One-Step” releases.
Britton, Wunderlich, and LoVerde provide all kinds of behind-the-scenes insights about the mastering process. To cite a few examples:
- LoVerde explains that transferring to another format before mastering to vinyl is necessary in some cases, because there are different calibration tones for each track. He cites Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On as an example. The master takes could also be split across multiple reels. In both cases, one can’t easily master directly from the tape to the lacquer.
- The engineers stress the necessity of reading previous engineering notes carefully due to things like reverse channels. (Something I encountered when writing the TBVO on Tears for Fears’ Songs from the Big Chair.)
- Sometimes extra leader is inserted into master tapes to make it easy to master for singles. However, if they don’t account for that, the gaps between tracks won’t match the original album. So they have to go back to the original album to measure the silence between the tracks.
- There’s a fascinating discussion of how the uncompressed versions of the released takes sometimes sound like a remix, due to the drastic effects that compression had on the original release. (I definitely experienced this when writing the TBVO on Peter Gabriel’s So.)
- While the original Mobile Fidelity company went bankrupt in 1999 and was then bought and relaunched by Jim Davis, the owner of Music Direct, the engineers (some of whom span this changing of the guard) emphasize the continuity between the “old” Mobile Fidelity and the “new” company in terms of philosophy and gear.
Finally, my favorite quote from the interview — and one of the best quotes I’ve ever read about mastering — comes from LoVerde. It’s something that all audiophiles should keep in mind:
One thing that I think is worth noting is that — you know, because I’m a consumer too… we all used to just be consumers [before] we became engineers, but I’m still a consumer — consumers want things to be very black and white. Is it analog? Is it digital? Is it flat? Did you EQ it? Is it compressed? Is it not compressed? Because that’s easy to comprehend, and there’s a psychological satisfaction that derives from that certainty. The reality is that it’s never that black and white — almost never that black and white. If somebody says, ‘Did you transfer that flat?’ Well, that to me means that I didn’t equalize it. ‘Okay, yes, so it’s transferred flat.’ Well what was the calibration of my reproducing amplifier? Was that flat? Okay, flat to what? To an MRL calibration tape? To the project tones that came with that master tape? Who defines flat? What defines flat? All of these things are factors that understandably the average consumer would not [or] should not consider. It’s when we’re approached by those consumers and they want answers then it becomes, ‘We’d love to give those to you, but it’s actually a long story.’ It’s not yes or no. It’s not black or white. There’s a story.
[*] It seems there’s some longstanding beef between Fremer and Esposito. This seems to have prevented Fremer from being fair to Esposito, which caused him to miss key points in the interview. In the video with Ludwigs, Fremer claims that Esposito failed to get the MoFi engineers to tell him whether the famed Abraxis and Miles Davis “One-Step” releases used DSD when, in fact, the engineers do say in the video that both the Abraxis and Miles Davis releases were from DSD.