In early April I drove up from an artist retreat south of San Francisco, where I’d been staying for a month, to Sebastopol, which is in Sonoma County, California, where Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab (MFSL) is located. Mobile Fidelity specializes in remastering new LP records from the original master tapes and has been doing so since 1977.
For audiophiles, Mobile Fidelity pressings are among the most prized of any for their sound, meticulous packaging, and exacting reproductions of the original album art. I wanted a tour of the company’s facility and an introduction to the art of vinyl mastering, and I got it, thanks to engineers Shawn Britton and Rob LoVerde, and the administrative team of John Kamiyama Wood and Michael Grantham. Below you’ll find a summary of what I saw that day.
Whistling Thru Dixie, a recording of effects that were “beyond belief,” according to senior mastering engineer Shawn Britton, was one of Mobile Fidelity’s earliest releases.
Shawn Britton with a tape deck and accompanying reproducing amplifier designed by E.A.R.’s Tim de Paravicini that is used for playback of original master tapes.
The Neumann VMS 66 mastering lathe, cutterhead, and lacquer on the cutting platter. Mobile Fidelity uses Ortofon and Neumann cutterheads cooled with helium gas (the cutterhead heats up, especially with high-frequency content). Britton says he writes “navigation charts” for each recording before cutting in order to better steer the cutterhead for passages that have wide swings of dynamic range or lots of high-frequency content.
When Britton writes a “navigation chart” for each mastering session, he notes general characteristics, but especially focuses on difficult dynamic passages or ones with extensive high-frequency information, as they demand great attention, agility, and alertness in the management of the cutterhead, tape machine, equalizers, and console and lathe, thus allowing for the sheer amount of audio information to be inscribed on the lacquer disc. He jittered, leaned, and torqued his body around as he described what he had to do to manage the lathe and steer the cutterhead, looking a lot like I imagined a river pilot steering a stern paddle-wheeler might. He showed me the grooves under a microscope then, and I noted the intricate gullies, canyons, and crevasses cut into the lacquer.
The process starts with a metal disc treated with a layer of lacquer material that is applied through a chemical process. This layer is smooth and pristine. It is then placed on the platter where the cutterhead incises it with an analog trace created by the sound of the master tape being played back through the audio system translated into movement by the turnings of the lathe and the action of the cutterhead.
Above is a disc after an analog signal has been cut into it. You can see that it is no longer smooth and pristine, but that there are grooves now.
The Dolby unit, Tim de Paravicini’s equalizer, and a Prism Sound equalizer that controls tonal quality throughout various frequency bands.
A portrait of the late Stan Ricker, the original mastering engineer at MFSL and a great pioneer in the field. The guys at Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab pay homage to their teachers and very much think in terms of artisanal lineage, much like craftsmen in traditional arts in Europe and Asia do.
Mastering engineer Rob LoVerde in his own mastering studio. Rob and Shawn each have their own personal labs with their boards set up just the way they like them, as setups are idiosyncratic, each with their own style and characteristics. No two engineers hear exactly alike, but each creates his own characteristic sound, shaping the material according to sensibility, acuity, and interaction with the equipment.
Ry Cooder’s Paradise and Lunch, his fourth album, mastered by Rob LoVerde and Krieg Wunderlich, about to be played back for me on the turntable of the lathe upon which it was originally cut. “Most of the time, we do a record we like,” Rob said. He used a 12" SME tonearm fitted with a Sumiko headshell and Dynavector DV-10X5 cartridge. The rest of the system consisted of Lipinski monitors, Pass Labs X250.5 monoblocks, the console, and an Avid Pellere phono stage. The sweet spot was nearfield (as is normal for engineering). The sound was ultra-clear, tight, and punchy. I heard terrific skin-action on the drums, a satisfying crunch to electric guitars, and great centerfill with guitar and vocal imaging forward and bass to the rear.
Another special treat was hearing the title track from the test pressing of Simon & Garfunkel’s Bridge over Troubled Water, originally released back in 1970. Again, it was cut directly from the original master tape. I heard Art Garfunkel’s pure, airy tenor with a holographic vocal image and a soft, harmonic haze around it. The piano was like a river flowing across the entire soundstage as Garfunkel’s voice palpitated with a light vibrato. As Paul Simon’s voice joined in, the doubled voices presented more diffuse images and stretched chorus-like across the soundstage.
Before I left, LoVerde invited me back for another visit, next time to witness a full mastering session. Look soon for another road report on MFSL, probably by summer’s end.
I left with a haul of about 20 Mobile Fidelity LPs, so many I needed a box to carry them away in. But I swear I made only one request -- The Band, which Rob told me was out of print and doubtful a copy could be had. He ran back to a storeroom, though, as soon as he said it and came back in a few minutes with the prized recording in hand, saying, “You’re in luck.” There was just one copy stuck somewhere back in the stacks, and I got it.