The Absolute Sound October 2022
A scandal has cropped up in the tiny world of high-end audio and it's cropped up in a place you'd never expect. Turns out that Mobile Fidelity, the world-famous company that has long claimed to source its celebrated LP reissues from verified "original masters," has actually been using digital rather than analog copies of those original mastertapes, recorded at DSD4x (11.28MHz), to master its One-Step LPs. Where record lovers thought they were buying all-analog vinyl ("AAA," to use the old SPARS code), they were actually being sold digitally duplicated and mastered recordings ("ADA") and at premium prices. To make matters worse, it appears that the digital wool wasn't just pulled over the eyes of One-Step buyers; MoFi apparently has been doing this very same thing (or something like it) on many of its other "original master" releases since at least 2008!
I don't know and won't know until MoFi comes out with a list exactly which of its reissues were digitally copied and mastered prior to the One-Steps, but I do know, per our Michael Fremer, that anything sourced from Columbia records (e.g., Bob Dylan, Michael Jackson, Santana, Blood, Sweat & Tears to name a few) was likely digitally copied and mastered, since Columbia was unwilling to send its original mastertapes to MoFi's Sebastopol, CA, production facility for duplication.
This is an embarrassing mess, and MoFi needs to clarify it. Of course, calling its products "original master recordings" isn't exactly a fib. The company was copying verified original analog mastertapes (or at least the closest things its engineers could find to the original masters); it was just copying them (or many of them) to high-res digital files and didn't say so. (There isn't a word in any of MoFi's literature, dating back to the turn of the millennium, that suggests a "digital" step in the mastering process. Indeed, Mobile Fidelity's publicity has deliberately left the impression that everything is accomplished in the analog domain.)
Having said this, I must add an important proviso. To wit, I have liked and continue to like many other recordings pressed to vinyl that were not just mastered but also recorded digitally. (Take the Diana Krall LP Turn Up the Quiet on Verve, for one of numerous examples.) When all is said and done, I've never been an "AAA" purist when it comes to vinyl. If a record sounds good and a whole bunch of audiophile LPs that were recorded, mixed, and mastered digitally do I could care less about its provenance. There is something "magical" about vinyl playback that can make even the most primitive recordings (Dead Can Dance, for instance, which was recorded on Betamax Video) sound quite a bit better than listenable. LPs are consistently more dimensional, "continuous," colorful, and natural less flat, isolate, pallid, and ersatz than the same recordings played back as CDs, SACDs, or streams. (And this holds true for digitally sourced reel-to-reel tapes just listen to the 15ips dub of Café Blue, for instance.)
So... the only real bone I have to pick with MoFi isn't about the way it copies and masters its LPs. It's about the less than forthright way it has advertised and promoted them. If the company had been candid about what it was doing and explained why it was doing it (and there are, as I noted about Columbia's recordings, legitimate reasons for taking the digital route) it wouldn't be in this embarrassing pickle.
After decades of keeping the LP alive and kicking and releasing many, many sonic triumphs over that span (including the One-Steps) it would be worse than ungrateful of audiophiles not to show some charity here. If the company comes clean about what it's done and tells us precisely which records ended up with 1s and 0s in their genetic code (and which future releases will do so, as well) I for one am willing to let the whole matter drop. As I said, if recordings come as close to the sound of the real thing as many MoFi LPs do, what difference does it make how they were recorded, copied, and mastered?