[SoundStage!]The Vinyl Word
Back Issue Article

September 2004

Found on Vinyl: The Return of Mobile Fidelity

I never thought I’d be writing a review of new vinyl releases in mid-2004. Weren’t these dust-collecting, noise-ridden, low-bandwidth relics supposed to have gone the way of the dodo by now? I mean, digital anything has to be an improvement, right?

Well, to vinyl-hugging Luddites like me, vinyl still trumps digital in the sound-quality department. Sure, I fire up the digital front-end when I’m after some background music at home, I listen to CDs in the car, and my iPod keeps me entertained while at work and on the road, but wax is where it’s at for all of my serious listening. It's not surprising, then, that I was excited to get my paws on the latest offerings from the undisputed king of the vinyl reissue, Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab.

Historically speaking

Although Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab officially came into existence in 1977, its history dates back to the 1950s when, as a teenager, the late Brad Miller began recording the sounds of steam-engine trains and releasing them on LP under the Mobile Fidelity Records banner. Along with these recordings, Miller also released recordings of his own Mystic Moods Orchestra, which featured environmental sounds mixed with orchestral music. Miller released two other sound-effects recordings in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s (The Power and the Majesty and The Power and the Majesty, Volume 2) using the Mobile Fidelity Sound Labs (MFSL) moniker retained by the company today.

He then wisely began turning the company’s attention to the reissue of commercial recordings with wider appeal. As sound quality was of top priority to Miller, all reissues were produced using the original master tapes (rather than heavily worn production copies) and a process known as "half-speed mastering," which slows down the vinyl cutting system so that information can be transferred from the tape to the vinyl master more faithfully. This series of recordings, dubbed Original Master Recordings (OMR), was met with overwhelming response from the audiophile community and continues to fetch huge sums on today’s used-vinyl market.

The early ‘80s saw the introduction of the company’s Ultra High Quality Record (UHQR), which featured specially formulated 200-gram virgin vinyl and production runs limited to a mere 5000 copies. In addition, the company released three groundbreaking boxed sets: The Beatles – The Collection, which featured 13 OMR LPs; Sinatra, which included 16 of Frank Sinatra’s most popular records that had been given the OMR treatment; and The Rolling Stones, which included 11 OMR LPs.

The introduction and subsequent popularity of the compact disc in the mid-'80s saw Mobile Fidelity abandon the then-dwindling vinyl market in favor of its audiophile-oriented OMR CDs. Further sonic refinements to the OMR CD process led to the introduction of the UHQR CD in 1987, which also featured a 24K-gold coating that was used to resist the oxidation that can cause a breakdown of the aluminum coating used for conventional CDs (UHQR CDs also came packaged in MFSL’s own nifty lift-lock jewel cases).

By 1994, audiophiles were disgruntled with the failed promises of CD’s "perfect sound forever," and demand for audiophile vinyl releases was on an upswing. Mobile Fidelity answered the call with the introduction of the ANADISQ 200 LP series, which featured limited-edition titles produced on 200-gram vinyl and half-speed-mastered from original master tapes using MFSL’s new GAIN system.

In 1999, just as MFSL was bringing an improved GAIN system, dubbed GAIN 2, to fruition, the company was dealt a devastating blow. Its primary distributor filed for bankruptcy, forcing MFSL to follow suit. The company didn’t remain off the map for long, however, as Jim Davis of Music Direct, a Chicago-based audio-equipment and vinyl retailer, purchased all of MFSL’s intellectual and hardware assets and resurrected the company in 2001. Music Direct’s avid support of the vinyl format led to rabid speculation that MFSL might re-enter the vinyl-reissue market. Sure enough, in 2002 MFSL announced that it had added vinyl-mastering guru Stan Ricker to its roster and that audio luminary Tim de Paravincini had designed an all-analog LP-cutting system (the GAIN 2 Ultra Analog System) specifically for MFSL. In 2003, MFSL finally announced a new series of Ultra Analog vinyl releases, with recordings by artists such as John Coltrane, Sonny Rollins, Miles Davis, and Aimee Mann scheduled for reissue. The vinyl finally started flowing in early 2004.

New MFSL vinyl: boon or bust?

Although MFSL has been justifiably revered by vinyl-loving audiophiles for decades, there’s no denying that the company has made its share of missteps. For every superb choice, such as Muddy Waters' Folk Singer or Oscar Peterson and Milt Jackson's Very Tall, there was a clunker such as Olivia Newton-John's Totally Hot or Gino Vanelli's Powerful People. What were they thinking?

As I impatiently tore at the package of new Gain 2 Ultra Analog Series LPs sent my way, I fantasized about what I’d find inside. Would it be Coltrane’s Giant Steps or Miles Davis’s Milestones? Maybe they got their hands on the master tapes for Sonny Rollins’ Volume 1. With sweaty palms I reached into the box and lifted out the first new MFSL LP release in years, and it was…Isaac Hayes' Sweet Buttered Soul? What?! Isn’t this, like, the "Shaft" guy? Panicked, I grabbed at the next LP in the box. John Lennon’s Imagine? No, this just can’t be! With sinking heart, I lifted out the final LP. It was Aimee Mann’s Lost in Space. Aimee Mann? Wasn’t she the lead singer from the short-lived ‘80s band ‘Til Tuesday? What were they thinking?

Despite my preconceived notions, it didn’t take me long to become enamored with Aimee Mann's most recent solo effort. Although Lost in Space [MFSL-1-278] deals with themes of addiction, loneliness, and isolation, the album is surprisingly lyrical and melodic. Even with seemingly depressing lyrics like "All the perfect drugs and superheroes wouldn't be enough to bring me up to zero," and "So I try to hold on while you try to let go, you won't tell me it's gone, but baby I'll know," Mann’s clever melding of catchy pop hooks and simple yet effective instrumentation adds up to an intoxicating musical whole. Despite the album’s bleak themes, I found myself playing it through several times in succession, each time discovering something musically or lyrically intriguing that I’d missed previously.

Sonically, Lost in Space is another notch in MFSL’s belt. The reissue sounds crisp, clean and naturally balanced. There isn’t much in the way of soundstage depth, but that’s not surprising for a studio recording. Thanks to the high-quality vinyl employed by MFSL, surface noise and other sonic blemishes have remained virtually non-existent despite the fact that I’ve played the record countless times.

While I may have questioned MFSL’s musical choices over the years, I’ve never been disappointed by the exceptional way the company packages vinyl releases, and Lost in Space is certainly no exception. The album’s cover art has been reproduced beautifully on a heavy-stock cardboard. There's a gatefold jacket, and a terrific set of liner notes is included. The 180-gram LP is protected by an inner cardboard jacket and high-quality polyethylene-lined sleeve. My only minor complaint is that the printed lyrics are a bit fuzzy and hard to read.

Aimee Mann’s Lost in Space is one of the few albums I’ve listened to in recent memory that consistently pleased, both musically and sonically, from start to finish. It represents a strong solo effort from an artist I’d long forgotten and has led me to discover Mann’s earlier solo efforts like Bachelor No.2 (available in hybrid-SACD format from MFSL, and, with any luck, available on Gain2 UltraAnalog vinyl soon) and her film-soundtrack work. MFSL’s first-rate packaging and pressing put the spit-shine on a terrific release. Grab it before it’s too late.

This may sound heretical to some, but I’m simply not much of a John Lennon (or Beatles) fan, and my exposure to his 1971 release Imagine [MFSL-1-277] has done nothing to alter that. Perhaps it’s simply a matter of his work not aging particularly well, although the socio-political themes covered by tracks such as "I Don’t Want to Be a Soldier Mama" are as relevant today as they were three decades ago. Or perhaps it’s simply a matter of this music being too far before my time, although I’m not that young anymore (or so my friends and family keep telling me). For whatever reason, I found little to enjoy musically in this release, and I can’t say I’m disappointed to have missed it the first time around. Still, I have little doubt that there will be some demand for this reissue from diehard fans and Lennon completists, although even the most ardent Lennon devotee must cringe whenever he hears the dreadfully cheesy "Oh Yoko!"

While I didn’t have an original pressing on hand for comparison, I’d be surprised if the sonically excellent MFSL reissue doesn’t trump it in every way. As with the Aimee Mann release, Imagine is well balanced, articulate and sounds much better than I’d expected for a record sourced from an early ‘70s pop recording. I just wish that MFSL’s engineering efforts had been expended on more deserving material. Those who do elect to shell out the $30 for this release will receive a handsomely packaged, limited-edition LP pressed on premium, low-noise vinyl along with an excellent set of liner notes.

I was still in short pants when Hot Buttered Soul [MFSL-1-273] burst onto the R&B scene in 1969, but by all accounts it was a huge hit for Isaac Hayes and Stax/Volt records, eventually hitting a high of number 8 on the Billboard pop music chart. Quite an accomplishment, considering that the album broke from the tradition of the radio-friendly three-minute single and, instead, consisted of a mere four tracks, the shortest of which ("One Woman") exceeded five minutes in length and the longest ("By the Time I Get to Phoenix") was nearly 19 minutes long.

The album opens with a hot, buttery and soulful 12-minute cover of Burt Bacharach’s "Walk On By" that only a talented artist like Hayes could pull off. The track highlights Hayes’ ability to blend rock, soul, and jazz into a uniquely satisfying whole that, while a bit dated stylistically, has managed to withstand the test of time pretty well. With its smooth orchestral backing (played by members of The Detroit Symphony), wailing lead guitar, and slick production, "Walk On By" proved a real treat from start to finish. And don’t miss Hayes crooning "You put the hurt on me, you socked it to me mama." Bacharach must’ve plutzed.

Side one closes with a nearly ten-minute Hayes original, "Hyperbolicsyllabicsesquedalymistic" that had me groovin’. Highlighting the superb rhythm section of The Bar-Kays, this track is the perfect blend of rock and soul that kept my interest on repeated listening.

The album is rounded out by two tracks on the flip side: "One Woman," a lovely soul ballad written by Charlie Chalmers, and Jimmy Webb’s "By the Time I Get to Phoenix," made famous by Glen Campbell in 1967. Hayes’ version of "Phoenix" begins with a 10-minute introductory monologue in Hayes’ signature baritone, accompanied by nothing more than the bell of Willie Hall’s ride cymbal. Bill Dahl’s excellent liner notes point out that the intro was so long that Hall had to pass his drum stick to pianist and producer Marvell Thomas to continue counting time while Hall rested his arm!

MFSL’s reissue of Hot Buttered Soul is a sonic standout, although a minor pressing fault caused some intermittent noise in the left channel on side one. Stereo separation, soundstage depth and imaging were all excellent, and the halo of reverb around Hayes’ voice was easily heard. Once again, MFSL has struck an excellent balance across the board. The wailing electric guitars sound appropriately ragged but not brittle, and Hayes’ husky baritone rumbles faithfully. As with Lost in Space and Imagine, MFSL’s packaging is first-rate, and the liner notes are superb. A pleasant surprise -- this one could become a cult audiophile classic.

...Andrew Chasin
andrew@soundstage.com

 

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