January 1999

Tom Petty - Full Moon Fever (Remastered)
Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab UDCD 735
Originally released: 1989
Remaster released: 1998

by Greg Smith

Sound Quality ****1/2

Comparison Releases:

Full Moon Fever
MCA Records MCAD-6253

Sound Quality ***1/2

Playback (boxed set)
MCA Records MCAD6-11375, 1995

Sound Quality ****

[Reviewed on Gold CD]When Mobile Fidelity debuts a new remastering system, it's big news for audiophiles. I read the press releases about their new GAIN 2 equipment and process, first showcased by a remastered version of Tom Petty's best-selling Full Moon Fever, and expected a reviewer feeding frenzy. You might think that I'd be able to capitalize on the fact that I write for a magazine that publishes in bits instead of print by being one of the first to review this new disc. Indeed, I had hoped to get an early look myself. Alas, I was defeated by the evil forces of the postal system. Having moved recently, my old address is still in many of the computers that print mailing labels attached to items intended for me. So the hot-off-the-presses Tom Petty disc started its journey with the wrong final destination. Inexplicably (and unsurprisingly), that one package didn't get forwarded to my new location, even though all my bills managed to be re-routed correctly. Luckily the new renters of my old apartment were kind enough to return the package as incorrectly addressed, so it did eventually find its way to me. By the time that little delivery adventure was finished and I opened the package, I'd already read half a dozen reviews of the disc. My chance to be a reviewing trailblazer was lost.

Not that any of this matters a bit to me, mind you, because none of the early reviews I'd read addressed exactly what I wanted to find out anyway. Comparisons to the mediocre original CD release from MCA aren't all that helpful, as it's certainly no sonic treasure -- any good remastering is bound to sound quite improved. Looking at the '93 Greatest Hits is better, as it's a superior-sounding disc, but now we're only talking about a three-song overlap for comparison. No, the real test is to see how the Ultradisc stands up when compared with the marvelous Tom Petty boxed set from 1995, Playback. A must for any serious Tom Petty listener, the four-disc Playback set is not only well assembled, it features remastered tracks converted to 16/44.1 digital using the HDCD process. HDCD has been making inroads into a lot of big studios lately, and Joe Gastwirt at Ocean View Digital Mastering applied that technology quite well for Playback. Note that the digital "Playback" system I use, centered around the Lexicon DC-1, does not feature HDCD decoding. I decided that made for a fair comparison anyway, as all contenders were equally constrained by the limits of the regular old compact-disc standard.

"Free Fallin'"

Ever get a song parody stuck in your head so far you hear it over the original? Many years ago I heard a little ditty about an oversized woman titled "Three-Fourty," and to this day it haunts any attempts to take the Petty tune too seriously.

  • MCA Original: While it's good overall, there's a really artificial edge to the ever-present acoustic guitars that I find rather annoying on this version.
  • Playback: First off, the boxed-set mastering is considerably louder. Along with that increase in dynamics comes a substantial improvement in the subtle details of the bass guitar during the opening. Instead of being buried in the mix, barely distinguishable from the kick drum, it grooves. The tambourine in the background is also moved considerably forward in the soundstage, to good effect.
  • MoFi: This version is partway between the other two in terms of overall volume level. Despite that, it's the clear winner at bringing the cymbals to life. There's a distinctness to the acoustic material that the other versions don't really pull off as successfully. It's interesting that the tambourines aren't nearly as forward as with the boxed-set mastering, almost as if a bit of EQ were applied to that earlier release to enhance them.

"I Won't Back Down"

  • MCA Original: A big step down from the previous track, this one features a sloppy mess on the bottom-end, lackluster vocals, and tinny percussion.
  • Playback: It's like a whole new set of instruments were used in the recording -- this version sounds so much better.
  • MoFi: This version is best at unraveling the subtle details of the mixing process. And the bass is certainly the best of the three. But I have to admit that I like the way the vocals sound on the HDCD version a bit more. The balance of the mastering on the Playback track just plain works better for this track, I think.

"Love Is A Long Road"

  • MCA Original: This time around, we get fake-sounding keyboards. Everything sounds loud, but not dynamic -- like a bad compressor was used.
  • Playback: The bass is unleashed, and the interplay between the keyboard and the "ahh" vocals is nicely pulled out. An all-new crunch to the electric guitars helps fill out the soundstage.
  • MoFi: The low-level details of the opening sound even better here. The vocal realism is unmatched by either of the other releases. And like a new-and-improved breakfast cereal, there's even more crunch.

"Runnin' Down a Dream"

  • MCA Original: On this one, the seemingly fake instruments of the moment are the cymbals.
  • Playback: The cymbals are better, but still not quite right. There is a whole new dimension to the bass to help make up for it.
  • MoFi: Compared with the HDCD version, the tonal characteristics of the GAIN 2 mastering for this song favor the bass over the high frequencies. But, surprisingly enough, the MoFi still does the best job on the problematic cymbals of the bunch. When it sounds like there's less top-end but things are nonetheless more realistic, that's a clear sign to me of a superior mastering job.

"Yer So Bad"

  • MCA Original: While overall it's not very lively, that doesn't prevent the vocals around lines like "sister's ex-husband" from being annoyingly over-emphasized, a flaw not shared by the other two releases.
  • Playback: After just hearing the old MCA release, the count at the opening was scary in its realism. The sense of recording space is fantastic, but it's a touch tinny at the higher frequencies.
  • MoFi: The better resolution of the GAIN 2 process solves the problems I noted with the earlier releases, but not without a price. The illusion of realism breaks down a little bit in the process, making it more obvious that this is a bunch of people in the recording studio at different times laying down tracks.

"Zombie Zoo"

Even though it's not on Playback for a full comparison here, I had to mention how my favorite Full Moon Fever track fared. For someone like me who loves this song, just the huge improvement in the driving bass (especially the kick drum during the chorus) is almost worth the price of admission for the GAIN 2-remastered disc. And the scream after "Boris Karloff" is even more fun than it used to be. I love it.

I usually do a quick look at liner notes and packaging here, but there's not a lot to say. Playback features a huge booklet with an enormous amount of information about the band, the songs, and similar Petty pursuits. Note that there are no song lyrics. As for the MoFi disc, you get nothing extra above what comes with the regular old CD.

Mobile Fidelity's release of Full Moon Fever just barely fails to capture my top rating for sound quality, as I don't think it quite matches the best of the earlier GAIN releases (ie, my personal favorites like Tales of Mystery and Imagination and Robbie Robertson). But I don't think that this should serve as a judgment of the GAIN 2 process. Many of the things I perceive as flaws are obviously issues with the original master, which is obvious when you correlate with the HDCD mastering used for Playback. What MoFi really succeeds at is pulling every instrument and vocal out so that you can hear the edges of the recording and mixing processes that went into construction of the master tape. The resolving power of the GAIN 2 Full Moon Fever actually lives up to the old disclaimer: "Because of its high resolution, however, the Compact Disc can reveal limitations of the source tape."