- Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab
Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab (MFSL or MoFi) is a company known as an innovator in the production of audiophile-quality sound recordings. All releases are advertised as being produced from the first-generation analog master recordings, and using proprietary technology, which MFSL claims allows for improved sound quality. MFSL has produced LP, CD, DVD and cassette tape releases. Each title is licensed from the original record company as a limited edition item. It is manufactured and sold only within a specific period of time.
The emphasis on quality at MFSL has been praised by critics and music fans. The success of MFSL proved that there was a significant market for premium product and encouraged other labels to emphasize quality also. Many other "audiophile" labels soon sprouted up to compete with MFSL, some of these begun by the major record labels themselves.
Half-Speed LP Mastering
MFSL initially became known to the public for the Half-Speed Mastering technique, which has since been employed by many other record companies. It was the first label to use this as standard on all of its LP releases. The use of this technique was pioneered by engineer Stan Ricker, who mastered all of the early MFSL releases. Ricker's work can be recognized by the signature "SR/2" carved between the run out grooves.
With some notable exceptions, MFSL uses the original master tape as its source. This tape was then played back at half its original speed (if the master tape were recorded at 30 inches per second, it would be played back at 15 ips.) Simultaneously the record cutting lathe runs at 16 ⅔ revolutions per minute (half of its regular speed of 33 ⅓ RPM.)
The Half-Speed Mastering technology allows for cleaner reproduction of high frequencies (by cutting the actual transfer frequency in half) and allows twice as much time to carve a groove that accurately represents the sound on the master tape. It also permits extended high frequency response, extending into the ultrasonic region.
Jack Hunt ("JH/2") mastered many of MFSL's 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. CD, SACD, and audio cassette mastering has been done by a variety of engineers, most recently by Britton. The company has only had a handful of engineers in its history.
Early MFSL titles were pressed by JVC in Japan on virgin 180 gram "SuperVinyl" LP discs. JVC originally developed this proprietary plastic compound in the early 1970s to reduce record wear on discreet 4-channel quadraphonic LP records. Supervinyl is a harder and more durable plastic than is normally used for LP records. The pressings exhibit a very low amount of surface noise, pops, clicks or other defects. Supervinyl remains a proprietary JVC technology and in the late 1980s JVC stopped production of the product. JVC has declined to license the use of Supervinyl to any other manufacturer, including MFSL.
Early History and the LP Era – 1971 to 1984
Recording engineer Brad Miller (1939–1998) created the first recordings on the Mobile Fidelity 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. In 1971, while located in Burbank California, the company released a 7" 45rpm single, MFP-1 "Saunders Ferry Lane"/"Early Morning" by Clare (Torry) which was produced by Brad Miller. (The promotional version used stereo and mono versions of the A-side.) The record was re-issued as A&M Records 1299-S through the Mendes/Graham Association.
MFSL gained a reputation for emphasizing quality at all points in the sound duplication and manufacturing process. At this time MFSL was very unusual in the record industry by offering a premium quality product at prices significantly higher than the major record companies. Simultaneously, most large record labels were forced to lower costs and reduce quality standards. The decline in quality at the major labels was brought on by uncertain economic conditions and high inflation, declining record sales and increasing vinyl costs. In 1977 most major labels were using relatively poor quality disc mastering and duplication methods and had begun pressing their product on thin and often recycled vinyl. These low cost methods led to an unnecessary increase in surface noise and other audio distortions.
By 1977 Miller and entrepreneur Gary Giorgi established Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab as a record company originally based in the suburb of Veradale, Washington, near Spokane. 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 by Steely Dan, licensed from ABC Records.
MFSL moved to the Chatsworth neighborhood of Los Angeles California in 1978. 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', Fleetwood Mac's second eponymous album. Pink Floyd's The Dark Side of the Moon 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 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 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 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 5000 copies and individually numbered. UHQRs were pressed on heavy-weight (200 gram) "virgin" vinyl and pressed on the master stamper, also at JVC in Japan.
Compact Disc Releases – 1985 to 1999
While continuing to sell LP product, MFSL first entered the CD market with its line of aluminum CDs in the mid 1980s. MFSL located the master tape for each title, and the tape was digitally transferred then copied directly to the CD master. The aluminum CD line continued into 1987, when the first disc in the "Ultradisc" series was released. The Ultradisc was a gold plated disc. MFSL claims that the gold surface is more reflective than that of other CDs and that Ultradisc titles sound superior to the standard release counterparts. However, the company has never pressed both aluminum and gold versions of the same title to allow for direct comparison.
Prior to the release of Queen's A Night at the Opera in October 1992 each Ultradisc branded CD release was manufactured in Japan. From this point, discs were made exclusively 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, no equalization was used either, so CDs are essentially straight transfers 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. Sometime in the late 80s or early 90s JVC closed its LP manufacturing plant in Japan. MFSL then built its own LP manufacturing facility in the United States. Belkin retired from MFSL in 1994.
Bankruptcy and purchase by Music Direct – 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. At this time many unsold items were liquidated as cut-out items through discounters. At the same time other dealers also charged premium prices on the collectors market for the most rare and highly acclaimed titles. 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.
Belkin died in 2001 of a heart-attack at age 62. Mobile Fidelity has continued to produce Super Audio CDs, GAIN 2 Ultra Analog Limited Edition vinyl, Ultradisc II Gold CDs and Ultradisc CD-Rs since the company was re-established.
Super Audio CD/CD hybrid discs contain both an SACD layer and a standard CD layer. The SACD layer is sourced from a DSD recording of the original master tape. This version has a digital bit rate that is three to four times higher than a standard CD. The CD layer is a digital conversion of the DSD recording at the normal CD standard bit rate. Current MFSL releases include SACDs and LPs, as well as the traditional Ultradisc II gold discs.
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