Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab (MOFI) – A Pioneer in Audiophile Pressings

02 Dec Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab (MOFI) – A Pioneer in Audiophile Pressings

Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab

While I could save them for the very end, it would be unfair to start this blog with none other than the audiophile label ‘Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab.’  Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab is usually the label that everyone commonly gets exposed to first since your common crate digger will occasionally find copies of their late 70’s or early 80’s vinyl masterings in the wild.   Commonly they can be found amongst the wall of display records in the used record stores.

Unlike any of the other vinyl reissuers, Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab has a unique branding across the top of their album or CD jackets that makes them immediately recognizable.  Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab, or Mofi for short, has built up a cult following through the years and many of their pressings are quite prized by collectors.  While debatable on some of their remasters, their track record on producing records that meet or exceed the sound of an original is quite good.  The company’s premise is to treat each album as a prized piece of furniture that should be examined for its individualistic virtues versus the generic, mass produced furniture of an IKEA or Wal-Mart.   Like any good audiophile label, time and tender loving care is put into the mastering so that it best reflects what is on the master tapes.  Moreover, given their history of a producing a high quality product, the resurrection of interest in the Vinyl LP has led to new breed of audiophile labels popping up in the United States and Europe with the aim to replicate Mofi’s success.

A History Of Mofi In Brief

Mobile Fidelity’s existence dates back to the late fifties, when its founder, Brad Miller, began recording locomotive sounds throughout the country and getting them pressed on wax.  While his first few releases were in Mono, Mobile Fidelity’s forth release was in stereo.  At the time, stereo records were just breaking into the market and one of the best ways of demonstrating early stereo equipment was to play something with a wide dynamic ranges that would span two channels.   The roaring sound of a locomotive, zooming past the sound engineer, was a useful tool in exciting the public’s imagination in the possibilities of a stereo recording. Mr. Miller would continue to produce stereo recordings of steam engines into the seventies.  Proceeding into the sixties, Mr. Miller began to experiment with field recordings of environmental sounds.  In 1964, a San Francisco Radio Disc Jockey mixed one of Brad Miller’s field records with music from another LP while on the air.  The public response to the live, on-the-air mix experiment was enormous.   This drove him to the formation of the Mystic Moods Orchestra in the mid-sixties which recorded for Phillips but later for the incarnation of Mobile Fidelity we know today.

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Mobile Fidelity’s 4th Release (first in Stereo) & Mobile Fidelity’s 1st Release (in Mono)

Enter the year 1977. Brad Miller’s quest for sonic excellence led to the incarnation of the Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab, which we know today.  His first release for the renewed Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab label was none other than his own band, the Mystic Moods Orchestra.   Mr. Miller chose the 1968 album, Emotions (MFSL 001) and used the Mystic Moods Orchestra for the next three albums.  The Emotions LP was released in several different incarnations since its debut and as with any Mystic Moods release, featured an orchestral reworking of pop sounds of the sixties blended environmental sounds.  While this type of music has drifted far from the public’s mainstream music buying taste, the production that went into Mobile Fidelity Sound Labs first issue and subsequent issues was unique.

Mofi employed the use of Half-Speed Mastering which was then only being utilized for subset of classical music recordings by Decca in the UK.  The theory behind Half-Speed Mastering is that the tape and lacquer cutting process are run at a reduced rate for a more accurate cut of the lacquer and thus a more faithful sonic reproduction of what was on the tapes.   To further enhance the listener’s aural experience, the records were pressed in Japan by JVC using their proprietary SuperVinyl compound.  SuperVinyl was known for very low surface noise and durability.   SuperVinyl is also noted for being somewhat transparent when held up to light and this compound is analogous to Quiex vinyl later used by Classic Records.   SuperVinyl was quite the contrast to the standard vinyl that was being used my many pressing plants in the United States in the 70’s which contained many impurities.  In some cases, pressing plants were using recycled vinyl material which contained shredded label fragments leading to higher surface noise.

Protection of the records was further enhanced by putting them in Japanese three-ply, antistatic, poly sleeves with the album jacket being printed on thicker stock cardboard.  The use of half-speed mastering, protective sleeves, and thick cardboard jackets have been a point of consistency for the company since its ’77 founding and are still in use today.

MOFI - Mystic Moods Orchestra

MFSL 1-001 – Mystic Moods Orchestra ‘’Emotions’

For its fifth release, Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab obtained the licensing rights to issue Supertramp’s seminal 1974 album, “Crime of the Century,” and the rest is history.   This was the first ever audiophile release of a pop album.  Its issuance and several other cherished 70’s pop albums that followed caused the recording industry to stand up and take notice.  Columbia and MCA would soon go on to develop their own versions of audiophile records using titles they owned.  That same year would also see California based Nautilus Productions go into audiophile production using the same Half-Speed Mastering technique.  Hitting 1979, Mofi would hit even greater acclaim but trying their hand at mastering all time classics such as ‘Dark Side of the Moon’ by Pink Floyd, Fleetwood Mac’s self-titled album, and ‘Fly Like an Eagle’ by the Steve Miller Band just to name a few.   Henry Belkin, a noted music attorney and executive for Capitol and ABC records, purchased Mofi from Brad Miller that same year and helped guide the company to further success.

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Pink Floyd’s ‘Dark Side Of The Moon,’ Supertramp’s ‘Crime of the Century,’ Fleetwood Mac’s self-titled LP, and Stever Miller Band’s ‘Fly Like An Eagle’ were all early releases in Mofi’s early history.

Mofi continued to produce vinyl LPs through the early eighties and entered the classical music foray with its own dedicated series of classical music reissues.  In the world of popular music, what is most noteworthy, Mofi attained licensing rights to issue lavish box sets and individual albums by the Beatles, Rolling Stones, and Frank Sinatra.  For these three artists, outside of their parent labels, reissues of these full length albums had not been done by a private company before.   In the case of the Beatles, this was the first time their studio masters were allowed to leave the United Kingdom.  Long out of print, these highly prized Mofi box sets often go for thousands of dollars in the aftermarket in good condition

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The Rolling Stones, Beatles, and Frank Sinatra Box Sets

Mofi’s innovation further ensued with the production of eight Ultra High Quality Record (UHQR) albums.  These albums were pressed on 200-gram, virgin vinyl by JVC in Japan and were limited to 5000 numbered pressings which was another first for an audiophile label.  The vinyl formulation for these albums claimed to have the lowest surface noise of any album at the time with further enhancement to the midrange and high frequencies.  All eight albums are also highly sought out in the aftermarket but in particular the Beatles, ‘Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Heart’s Club Band,’ Pink Floyd’s ‘Dark Side of the Moon,’ and Cat Steven’s ‘Tea for the Tillerman’ can go for hundreds of dollars or more.

 

Dark Side of the Moon on UHQR Vinyl

With the introduction of the Compact Disc, Mofi began to concentrate their attention on pressing audiophile CDs in the late eighties.  Vinyl production was stopped with JVC shutting down all vinyl operations with the change in interest in the marketplace to digital.   Mofi vinyl pressings would not return until the mid-90’s.  The first Compact Disc produced by Mofi was Sonny Rollins’ ‘Way Out West’ with the manufacturing being done by Sanyo in Japan.  Mofi issued hundreds of titles between 1984 and 1987 using a standard aluminum disc design.

MOFI - Sonny Rollins Way Out West

Sonny Rollins ‘Way Out West’

1987 ushered in a new innovation for Mofi’s CD line, the CD’s were now pressed on gold foil versus aluminum to combat pitting caused by aluminum oxidization thus resulting in CD read errors.  More improvements were made to the digital mastering chain and the remastering engineers would only focus on one title at a time versus multiple titles in parallel.  Continuing the tradition started in 1984, CD transfers featured no use of compression and equalization was used judiciously.  The jewel cases on the new CDs were also unique in that a lift lock mechanism was used to keep the disc retained in the case.  These new innovations were labelled as the Ultradisc.  The Ultradiscs were pressed in Japan up until 1992.  Afterwards the CD pressings were then done in the United States and labelled as Ultradiscs II.

Mofi Jazz Sampler – 1st Ultra Disc                                  

1994 saw Henry Belkin leave Mofi as the president and this was also the same year Mofi returned to pressing vinyl but only for a short while.   This time the pressings were done in the United States and not Japan which had scrapped its vinyl pressing plants.  For Mofi, this was quite the gamble since many in the music industry were predicting the vinyl LPs demise but diehard audiophile swore by the format.  These new vinyl pressings were done on 200-gram vinyl, numbered and stamped in gold foil, and utilized their new GAIN mastering system developed the year prior.   These LPs were dubbed the ANADISQ 200 and are now highly prized in the aftermarket because of the small runs on many classic titles which include Nirvana’s ‘Nevermind,’ Emerson, Lake, & Palmer’s ‘Trilogy,’ and Duke Ellington’s ‘Anatomy of A Murder’ just to name a few.  Sadly, the ANADISQ program was cut in 1996 and vinyl pressings would not return to the product line until 2004.

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Nirvana’s Nevermind and Hank Crawford’s Soul Of The Ballad on Mofi’s ANADISQ

Prior to the decade’s end, the Mofi digital mastering chain was further enhanced by utilizing 96 kHz/24 bit and shortly thereafter Direct Stream Digital (DSD) Analog to Digital converters.  The new converts provided the mastering engineers more dynamic range to work with during the mastering.   Being early adopters of the Sony/Philips DSD format, dubbed the Super Audio CD (SACD), put them well ahead of the other audiophile labels that rose to existence in the 90’s such as DCC Compact Classics.  Mofi’s first release using this new means of mastering, dubbed the GAIN II System, was a SACD of Duke Ellington’s Blue’s In Orbit.

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Mofi’s first SACD – Duke Ellington’s ‘Blues In Orbit’

In November of 1999, the company was forced to shut down due to the bankruptcy of its main distributor M.S. Distributors of Illinois.  Through the bankruptcy process, Mofi was unable to collect money or any of its back stock of product from M.S.  When all was said and done, unsold Mofi CD back stock was liquidated on the market as cut outs.  Fortunately for us, a little less than two years later, a small, audiophile loving, internet based company, called Music Direct out of Chicago purchased all of Mofi’s assets and intellectual property.  Music Direct also further invested money in their GAIN  II mastering chain to allow for analog mastering of vinyl once again.  One of the resurrected companies aims was also to recollect some of the original mastering personnel for work and consultation.  Of considerable focus was one of the key contributors to Mofi’s early success, the infamous mastering engineer Stan Ricker, who had worked on many of the releases dating back to its foundation in the seventies.

For the company’s rebirth, Mofi elected to start out by issuing John Lennon’s & Patricia Barber’s catalog on CD, Vinyl and SACD.  Vinyl pressings were done on 180-gram, virgin vinyl at RTI in California and the gold foil stamped jackets were of the same construction as the ANADISQ series back in the 90’s.

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John Lennon’s Imagine & Patricia Barber’s Café Blue

The company further adapted to the growing interest in vinyl in 2010 by issuing the first of their silver label series.  Supposedly, the titles in this series were not from the master tapes but were using the next best possible source they could attain.  These titles did not use the ‘Original Master Recording’ banner on the album jacket but instead use the ‘Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab’ as the banner.  Their first releases for the Silver Label Series was a pair of albums by Dead Can Dance.

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Dead Can Dance’s ‘Into The Labyrinth’ & ‘Spiritchaser’

Further enhancements have ensued these past few years with the exclusive use of Hybrid SACDs (which include a CD layer meaning the CD only production could discontinue) and the issuance of vinyl titles on two or more 12” 45 rpm discs.   For the latter case, Mofi elected to select specific titles in Bob Dylan and Miles Davis’ back catalog for these exclusive 45 rpm issues.   Why 45 rpm you might ask?  The reason is because sonic information can be better cut into a 45 rpm disc versus a 33rpm disc since the groove length is longer.

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Bob Dylan’s ‘The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan’ & Miles Davis’ “Bitches Brew’

As you can see, with almost 40 years of official history behind it, Mofi has been an established industry leader in the audiophile business.  Others have tried to duplicate its innovations and style with varying degrees of success but the question is where will Mofi go from here?  There has been some divergence in the marketplace with some audiophile companies starting to invest in the download and streaming mediums.  For me, while I can understand the trend, if they ever dare venture down this path, I can only hope they will continue to support those who cherish their physical media.  My collection just wouldn’t feel or sound the same without the ability to pull that ‘Original Master Recording’ off the record shelf.

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