When I started hanging around in audio shops in the late ’70s, I noticed a small rack of LPs close to the cash register in nearly every one of them. Audiophile vinyl wasn’t something you’d find in the average record store in central Pennsylvania, except for the occasional Japanese pressing in the small imports section. So it was up to stereo shops, whether mid-fi or audiophile, to carry quality records in an era when major labels in America were pressing on recycled vinyl. Some of the records they sold were direct-to-disc, but the most prominent records in those racks were made by Mobile Fidelity, the first audiophile vinyl label that most of us would know of.
Mobile Fidelity, also known as MFSL and MoFi, issued its first record Emotions, by the Mystic Moods Orchestra, in 1978. After two more Mystic Moods LPs, the label released its first rock title, Supertramp’s Crime of the Century. Many pop and jazz releases followed, including Steely Dan’s Katy Lied and the Crusaders’ Chain Reaction. Mobile Fidelity’s records were sourced from the original master tapes, pressed in Japan on a high-quality virgin vinyl compound that was exclusive to them, and packaged in heavy stock covers and anti-static sleeves. Suddenly, Americans who loved The Dark Side of the Moon could have a meticulously mastered and manufactured copy pressed on superior, quiet vinyl.
According to Josh Bizar, director of sales and marketing for Music Direct / Mobile Fidelity, "Mobile Fidelity was the first record label to try to make better versions of records that people loved -- it was the first, and it’s still imitated by everyone." From 1979 to 1999, MoFi released countless titles, and some were coups. Imagine an audiophile label now being able to negotiate, as MoFi did in the late ’70s and early ’80s, the release of all the Beatles’ original British LP titles. Or all of Frank Sinatra’s Capitol recordings.
When CD technology came along, MoFi released gold CDs that showed a similar attention to detail. But in 1999, the company filed for bankruptcy when industry changes and the failure of its primary distributor caused financial difficulties. Two years later, Music Direct announced that it had purchased Mobile Fidelity. "My boss [Music Direct’s owner, Jim Davis] thought a world without Mobile Fidelity was a travesty," Bizar said, "so we bought it and upgraded a lot of the equipment used in the process." The revitalized MoFi produces vinyl, gold CDs and SACDs, and a line of vinyl and CD/SACD care products.
From the beginning, Mobile Fidelity has believed that, as it describes on its website, "Mastering systems should be neutral and transparent." As Bizar pointed out, "Our engineers take everything so seriously. They want to reproduce it exactly as the engineers heard it on the two-channel tape." MoFi’s records have always been half-speed mastered (i.e., the tape that’s the source for cutting the master lacquer is run at half speed, allowing the cutting stylus to transfer more detail). Audio legend Tim de Paravicini helped further refine analog for the label by developing the Gain 2 Ultra Analog system, which extracts even more information from the master. Mr. de Paravicini’s Gain 2 process also brought significant improvements to Mobile Fidelity’s gold CDs and SACDs.
While the original MoFi LPs were pressed in Japan, the company now uses RTI (Record Technology Incorporated) in California. Tim de Paravicini and the other remastering engineers at MoFi are very picky about all aspects of the analog process, and they chose RTI over other manufacturers. The records are packaged in even heavier covers than in the past, with an anti-static sleeve and a cardboard insert that surrounds the inner sleeve and slides into the cover. I auditioned some recent Mobile Fidelity pressings and compared them to other vinyl pressings of the same titles, as well as to the CD versions. I should note right off the bat that all of the pressings I listened to were remarkably quiet, and the covers were slightly larger than standard LP covers so the heavy 180-gram records wouldn’t cause them to split during shipment.
Armed Forces (MFSL-1-331) is MoFi’s third vinyl release of Elvis Costello’s work, following its reissues of his first two LPs, My Aim Is True, and This Year's Model. Costello’s third album solidified his status as a leader of the New Wave movement in rock, and it demonstrated his versatility, as well as that of his backing band, the Attractions. This Year’s Model was sleek and fast, almost punk rock to American ears. Costello kept his lyrical edge sharp for Armed Forces, but the music was just a bit more refined than its predecessor and it rocked just as hard. Producer Nick Lowe was always interested in capturing the feel of the music, so his recordings sometimes leaned more toward energy than good sonics, but Armed Forces is a lively and immediate-sounding record.
I have a Columbia Records pressing that I bought the day it was released. The record has a lot of slam and force, and the MoFi sounds slightly laid back at first. A quick side-by-side, however, reveals a fair amount of compression on the earlier pressing. Bruce Thomas’s bass has plenty of presence but no detail, while on the MoFi you can hear each note cleanly. Pete Thomas’s drums are more distinct tonally on the new pressing and more clearly separated from the rest of the instruments. As the second chorus on "Accidents Will Happen" leads into the bridge, Thomas does a roll on one of the toms that builds to a rim shot on the snare. On the MoFi, the roll builds and the snare rings out sharply. On the Columbia pressing, by contrast, the beginning of the roll is indistinct and flabby. The snare hit has fire, but it decays quickly rather than lingering and decaying naturally.
I always found the Rykodisc CD of Armed Forces to be far superior to Columbia’s awful CD versions, and it’s still a pleasant listen. I preferred the Columbia LP, however, for its overall drive and punch. The MoFi, mastered by Shawn R. Britton, has the overall edge over both of my other copies. Steve Nieve’s solo break on "Party Girl" is set off better, and you can hear the resonance of the piano. Costello’s voice and the reverb surrounding it on "Chemistry Class" are more clearly rendered, and his vocal is placed just in front of the instruments. "What’s So Funny About Peace Love and Understanding" will always be a murky recording, but on the MoFi you can hear Nieve’s Vox or Farfisa organ more clearly than before and, as throughout the LP, Costello’s voice is clearer and more holographic than on my other two copies.
The cover of this new version is from the original UK release, but the song lineup is the one familiar to US listeners. The gatefold reproduces both sides of the US inner sleeve. As I listened to my three copies, I found that I still had a nostalgic affection for the punk edge of the Columbia LP. The Rykodisc CD is a convenient and likable digital copy, but the Mobile Fidelity pressing is definitive. The instruments are more accurately and clearly placed, Costello’s voice is more precise and focused, and the subtlety of the arrangements comes through more clearly. If I want the old Costello anger, I can play the Columbia LP. If I want to hear his musical intentions better, I’ll play the MoFi.
When Marvin Gaye finished recording What’s Going On in 1971, Berry Gordy, the president of Motown Records, was so unhappy with the results that he didn’t want to release the record. But other executives at the company prevailed and What’s Going On established Gaye as a formidable creative force in American music. I bought the record when it was released, and I have a 2002 CD copy. Motown’s pressings (Gaye recorded for one of its subsidiaries, Tamla) often sounded brittle and the vinyl was noisy, so the immediate difference between the old LP and the MoFi is the noise floor. The Mobile Fidelity pressing of What’s Going On (MFSL 1-314) is so quiet I could detect a bit of tube hum in the opening, which is a group of people at a party or on a street corner exchanging greetings.
The hum must be present in the recording chain, a good bit of which was probably still tube-driven in 1971. At any rate, it’s barely audible and disappears when the music on the title track begins. The mastering on the CD is loud, so the instruments on the title track are pushed toward the front of the soundstage. The background vocals and the conga in the left channel become part of an indistinct barrage of sound. The Tamla pressing was surprisingly clean, and the instruments were more clearly separated than on the CD. When I put on the Mobile Fidelity pressing, though, it was as if a film had been removed. The timbre of the saxophone on the intro was clearer, the strings were cleaner and more naturally integrated into the arrangement, and the background vocals supported Gaye’s vocal instead of crowding it. The nuances of the conga drums were much easier to hear, and the finger snaps when Gaye sings "Picket lines and picket signs . . ." had more texture and rang out more convincingly.
The piano intro to "Right On" sounds edgy on the Tamla pressing, but it echoes convincingly enough into the right channel. On the CD it sounds glassy and overpowering, with the bass, flute, and percussion soon joining it to compete for space. On the Mobile Fidelity pressing, the piano sounds warm and open, and each note on Bob Babbitt’s bass rolls out cleanly. On the original LP and the CD, the bass was too prominent, but on this pressing it plays its supporting role without sacrificing its importance to the groove of the song. I could hear the güiro, a Latin percussion instrument, in the right channel better, and the flute had more air around it. The elements of the song are more cleanly presented and are arranged more logically in the soundstage.
Throughout the Mobile Fidelity pressing, I felt I was truly hearing the sound of this LP -- the xylophone on "Wholy Holy," the conga and triangle on "Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler)," and the subtlety and richness of the strings throughout the record. What’s Going On is a beautiful album, one of Gaye’s and Motown’s best, and a significant contribution to American music. It should have long ago received the kind of careful treatment that mastering engineer Rob LoVerde and everyone else at Mobile Fidelity have given it.
I’m a little embarrassed to admit that the sole Roy Orbison record I have is the single LP Roy Orbison’s Greatest Hits on Monument Records that I picked up used. It had already been around the turntable a few times when I got it, so a comparison with Mobile Fidelity’s two-record The All-Time Greatest Hits of Roy Orbison (MFSL 2-304), which Monument originally released in 1972, wouldn’t be honest. But I’ll simply say that I can’t imagine a better-sounding version of these 20 tunes. Orbison, producer Fred Foster, and engineer Bill Porter made audiophile-quality recordings with Orbison’s beautiful voice at the center of them. The strings were lush and rich, the guitars shimmered, and the drums rang out clearly. The amount of detail on this pressing is remarkable -- Orbison is right in the room, and you can get a sense of the scale of the recording space. Mobile Fidelity’s pressing of The All-Time Greatest Hits of Roy Orbison is the kind of record I use to demonstrate why vinyl is my preferred medium for music.
For 30 years, Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab has been synonymous with handling music with care and reissuing recordings as they were meant to be heard. Many of its pressings over the years command top prices from collectors. The revitalized MoFi is among a handful of companies that keep vinyl lovers loyal to a format most people say is dead, and it insists on remaining true to musical values, even for its digital media. In a world of over-compressed reissues, MFSL insists on remaining true to the music. "Mobile Fidelity presses relatively few titles because they are committed to getting the original tapes and mastering them correctly," Josh Bizar said. "If you’re just pressing a copy of a CD on vinyl, what’s the point?"
. . . Joseph Taylor