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Three Overlooked Lessons from The Mo-Fi Analog Master Tape Dumpster Fire

by September 12, 2022
MoFi Records

MoFi Records

There is so much to unpack from the recent news that Mobile Fidelity wasn’t exactly being completely forthright about their analog mastering process en route to sell well-heeled audiophiles massively expensive vinyl versions of creatively important music. It wouldn’t be the first audiophile fib told by a company in the industry. It likely won’t be the last. But many important plot lines are being overlooked in this scandalous story.

We covered the background facts of the topic in our article: Mobile Fidelity’s Digital Vinyl Debacle: Are your records really analog?  But digging deeper into the implications, here are three key points that aren’t being discussed enough.

Issue One: Analog Master Tape Is Great, But It Isn’t “Perfect Sound Forever”

Understandably, most audiophiles haven’t spent a lot of time in a professional recording studio. It isn’t hard to blame them; getting access to these cave-like Meccas of recording technology isn’t super-easy for the non-recording-engineering-producing-or-performing people of the world.

1-Studio-Board

One thing you learn if you work in the pro audio space or, in my case, studied this stuff in college is that analog and digital master tape are both able to record gorgeous, dynamic, and pretty low-distortion music. That goes for analog master tape (1/4, 2-inch etc.) digital master tape (a bit of an old format) and today’s chosen method, which is to record HD music right onto a high-capacity hard drive.

1. Analog Tape Physically Degrades Over Time: This means that one can’t play an analog master tape repeatedly (unlike a file on a hard drive), especially the original master tape, which is likely physically cut, spliced and edited in ways that make it even more delicate. The magnetic nature of the tape also additionally makes it degrade over time. Think of the reverse reverb effect on “Whole Lot of Love” from Led Zeppelin II. Legend says that the reverse call-and-response part by Robert Plant was because of tape bleed through. That is just the nature of analog tape specifically back in the late 1960s, when engineers like Eddie Kramer were pushing the limits of multi-track recording. Hard drives obviously don’t have these types of physical wear issues, yet can reproduce every bit as much of the sound, if not more than old-school analog tape. My colleague, Jacob Green, talks about how many times that MoFi would have had to play Thriller from the master tape to make 40,000 vinyl records. That would not happen if Sony Music has any say, and they do. Lots of say.

2.  Analog Tape Is Really Tough to Store Correctly: Do you remember the 2008 fire at Universal Studios that burned up unthinkable volumes of historically important music, including a lot of master tapes? If not, check out the New York Times article here. To store analog master tape correctly, you need to treat it with kid gloves. Temperature control and humidity control are also key elements of the costly and complicated process. The Library of Congress does such work. Many major record labels do too, but that doesn’t keep things like fires from happening. Simply put, every master tape has more than one digital backup because that the physical reality of the format. Analog tape has its slight perks, but it is a total pain in the ass to maintain over time, and in time, the tape will degrade.

3. Very Few Studios Have Analog Tape Machines Anymore. At USC back in the mid-1990s, we learned how to align the heads on a Studer A-800 analog tape deck, which is a famous recorder that was an industry standard for years in the pro audio world.

1.5-ReelToReel

Many of us enjoyed working with analog better than digital tape most times, but today finding a fully functioning Studer A-800 or any other recording deck that can professionally play back (or record) two-inch analog master tape is pretty challenging. Motors for a deck like an A-800 as well as various other mechanical parts go for $1,200 to $1,500. Those parts are like a Lamborghini collector feverishly buying up Coutach wheels for $10,000 a rim when (if) they see them so that they have parts for the future. The reality is: the future is here and analog tape isn’t. The logistics, the physical issues, and most importantly the costs make working in analog the way of the past even if there are certain audiophiles who can’t break away from the ways of the past.

4. Forget Finding the Tape Machines—Nobody Had Any Tape 20 Years Ago, Let Alone Today. The argument against analog tape gets worse, folks. Finding new, two-inch analog tape is pretty tricky. Many engineers record over old recordings, which doesn’t make for a longer lifespan for the tape with the new recording on it. Hard drives are everywhere. They are also cheap and easy to access, with solid state ones being even more reliable.

2-DigitalStudio

A full-resolution copy of a master recording will faithfully play back as many times as you want. Anyone with the right tools and access can make edits in the digital domain and not have the physical cuts on the incredibly valuable tape. Digital recording is the modern standard. It just is. MoFi proved that to us even if they told their “true believer,” big-dollar clients something different.

Issue Two: It’s OK to be Angry You Were Sold a Bill of Goods…

This isn’t the first time audiophiles have been taken for a ride, but also remember that those Mobile Fidelity Sound Labs recordings still sound pretty damn good if you can take the acrimony out of the equation. A lot of care went into making those remastered records, even if they weren’t disclosing their digital realities. I remember having somewhat insider access to remixing and remastering old music (albeit, in 5.1-channels surround at DTS) when I was interning in college. The cost and challenges of dealing with B-list (if not C-list) titles were insane. $250,000 to $500,000 for the rights to remix the record is just a starter. Back then, the artists, engineers, and producers often wanted creative control and to be part of the process, which added originality (which is good) but also time and cost to the project. Access to the tapes was a total nightmare. And if I am not mistaken, the best-selling DTS DVD-Audio title was Queen’s A Night at The Opera and that disc sold around 50,000 units. Ouch. Dark Side of The Moon on SACD sold over 1,000,000 copies, but that was a CD-compatible version of one of the top selling records of all time. Few other SACDs or DVD-Audio discs sold very well.

My major issue with MoFi and the Audiophile Elders (think: print magazine evangelists) is that they don’t always deal in fact, science, or truth. As a hobby, we need to stop spewing total anti-technology garbage to consumers. They don’t want to hear it. Accept vinyl for what it is (hint: it’s a “kitsch” audio format, but not high-resolution by analog or digital standards). Accept that getting access to the master tapes for a record like Thriller is an earthly miracle. Don’t regress to old technologies when new ones are likely better, cheaper, more evolved, and safer for the actual master.

The question that you have to ask yourself is: are you hurt/angry enough to want to get in on the class action suit against MoFi? They’ve earned your anger. I feel you. On the other side of the coin: do you want to see them go bankrupt and stop releasing higher-quality versions of beloved older recordings? It is kind of a conundrum, isn’t it?

Issue Three: The Mainstream Media is Talking About the Audiophile Hobby, Which is Stone Cold Awesome

Kim & RayThe New York Times, The Washington Post, CNN and others are covering this late-summer, technology story. And while MoFi’s alleged actions are pretty bad, there is the cliché that suggests that there is no such thing as bad publicity. Need proof? Kim Kardashian was the daughter of one of Orenthal J. Simpson’s “Dream Team” lawyers who worked as Paris Hilton’s personal assistant. I believe she had a sex tape after Paris’ “film” put her on the celebrity map. Today, Kim Kardashian is globally known and rocks a 10-figure net worth. Her entire brand is practically built on scandal and notoriety.

We should be happy that the hobby is getting mainstream ink, even under this negative light. The more people paying attention to high-performance audio, the more fun we are all going to have. If there is meaningful growth in the industry, there will be new companies emerging on both the music side and equipment side as well. There will be more affordable, high-performance gear that can give us more-and-better goosebumps from our listening sessions. And isn’t that what the hobby is all about?

 

About the author:
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Jerry is the Creator and former Publisher of AVRev.com, HomeTheaterReview.com and AudiophileReview.com. Currently, he publishes FutureAudiophile.com, an enthusiast site trying to bring the audio hobby to a new, younger audience.

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Recent Forum Posts:

jeffca posts on September 19, 2022 13:55
Quite interesting. A guy from an audio web site hasn't offered thoroughly non-truthful, opinionated info.

I'm quite taken aback. It happens so rarely.

Keep it up.
VonMagnum posts on September 16, 2022 21:25
The pits on the laserdisc don't represent binary digits for the analog tracks, but FM modulation points so it's not anymore “digital” than FM radio is digital (not HD Radio) and denser data (blue laser) should theoretically produce higher quality analog signals.

Dolby Digital needed a RF modulator to retrieve a digital signal from a single analog track (imagine if the used all four tracks for AC-3 type encoding how many separate Dolby Digital channels they could have had on one laserdisc movie (I'm figuring at least 20.4 based on separate 5.1 carriers, probably more in reality).

If DVD movies had used a laserdisc sized disc. We could have had HD movie playback a whole lot sooner than blu-ray! In fact, they did in a way in Japan in the early 1990s where HD video was already a reality with the MUSE high definition laserdisc system! I think it was analog HD, however, but still there were HD movies you could buy there as early as 1991!!! That's almost 15 years before HD-DVD and blu-ray!
Eppie posts on September 16, 2022 14:51
TLS Guy, post: 1573067, member: 29650
Yes, it was very similar to the VHS rotating head H–Fi system. The Philips system was laser read and a forerunner of the digital discs. The RCA video disc used a capacitance system, and the discs were loaded and unloaded into a protected container. The disc was ruined if touched by human hand. Strangely both systems worked.
I only knew one guy that collected laser discs. We were both anime fans and he imported discs from Japan. I'm certain that he still has them and a working player as he has a substantial collection of imports. I went from VHS right to DVD.

Many probably don't realize how good the audio was on VHS (excluding the Doc ). Originally the audio was recorded as a stereo track along the edge of the tape, which was not any better than cassette as it used a separate recording head like cassette decks. With the advent of Hi-Fi VHS they started recording the audio along with the video using the rotating VHS head. It did not have as bad tape hiss issues as associated with cassettes. You could record a CD onto Hi-Fi VHS and it was indistinguishable. I used to make 6 hour mix tapes for parties and after 6 hours you could play the whole thing over again as who would remember what played 6 hours ago. Of course it suffered from the same linear problems as cassette with horribly long seek times and the need to rewind, and the tapes were susceptible to physical and magnetic damage like any other magnetic format. Sound quality was excellent, though, especially the units with dBx noise reduction.
TLS Guy posts on September 16, 2022 12:24
Eppie, post: 1573056, member: 94526
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/LaserDisc

I didn't know that laser discs used analogue frequency modulation to encode information. Interesting read on the wiki page. Technically it's still digital as the physical format is a series of pits and lands read by the laser.

Yes, it was very similar to the VHS rotating head H–Fi system. The Philips system was laser read and a forerunner of the digital discs. The RCA video disc used a capacitance system, and the discs were loaded and unloaded into a protected container. The disc was ruined if touched by human hand. Strangely both systems worked.
Eppie posts on September 16, 2022 11:28
VonMagnum, post: 1573013, member: 86028
On a more vinyl/analog general, but related note, I've wondered for a long time if a laserdisc style FM analog medium could be produced on small (say Mini-Disc sized and plastic cartridge protected) discs using Blu-ray UHD technology.

The difference would be, of course that the signal recorded on it would be analog not digital and that higher rates could be used with the more dense, potentially multi-layer discs to achieve sonic levels equivalent to or better yet surpassing conventional Red Book CD audio on a format that would not suffer from playback damage and yet because it's still actually analog, it would not be copyable by conventional means like BD-R writers and would have to be digitized to put it on a computer, defeating the entire prized “analog” nature of the product.

Would it sound better than digital is capable of sounding? Of course not! At best, it would be indistinguishable from digital, but that's not the point. People who believe “analog” is always superior would eat it up. It certainly could easily sound better than LPs and still retain the analog logo and it wouldn't wear out and it couldn't be easily copied without conversion (big plus for record industry).

Imagine the analog wet dream of 7.1 fully discrete analog recordings! What's that Pink Floyd song in suddenly reminded of?

Money!!!
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/LaserDisc

I didn't know that laser discs used analogue frequency modulation to encode information. Interesting read on the wiki page. Technically it's still digital as the physical format is a series of pits and lands read by the laser.
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