Do you know what’s really etched in the grooves of your vinyl record collection? As reported by Billboard (via Pitchfork), a class-action lawsuit has been filed against record reissue label Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab (Mofi) by a North Carolina resident who claims that the label misrepresented the process used to create its Original Master Recording and Ultradisc One Step releases.
What about those records was misrepresented? According to the lawsuit, the audiophile owners of the best turntables who are buyers of those discs – in this specific case a reissue of the Pretenders’ 1979 debut LP – were expecting them to be produced using a fully analog process, with an original master tape retrieved from a vault used to directly cut a master that would then be sourced to create a very limited run of accordingly high-priced vinyl records.
Instead, Mofi tapped a digital format called DSD (Direct Stream Digital) to create the master used for that Pretenders re-issue, along with many more releases extending back to at least 2011.
The digital divide
Lawsuits notwithstanding, there’s nothing unusual about a digital master being used to create a run of vinyl records. Aside from a small group of boutique labels that insist on analog mastering (which, up until recently, included Mofi) it’s standard music industry practice. DSD was developed as an archival format for audio, and Mofi’s use of DSD 256, which has a sample rate that’s 256 times as high as a regular CD, is actually a much better-quality than average process.
But the problem here is that DSD is not analog – something hardcore collectors expect from their vinyl and are willing to pay handsomely for.
The origin of the situation that got Mofi in hot water – a YouTube record reviewer landed a visit to the company’s California mastering facility and was able to get the engineers to admit to using a digital step as part of their process during an otherwise casual interview – along with the social media fallout that followed is well explained in this post by Canadian audiophile journal SoundStage!
As a result of that intense public scrutiny, Mofi issued a statement and interview on its website addressing the controversy. In the interview, company president Jim Davis makes a completely reasonable case for making the switch from analog to digital mastering, citing that record labels over time had become unwilling to ship out analog master tapes of recordings, even to create limited run reissues. Interestingly, instead of being down in any way on DSD, Davis states that it yields “superior sonics compared to a cut that is direct from the analog tape to the lathe.”
The quest for audio truth
As a casual record collector myself, I learned quickly when the recent vinyl revival kicked in and LP releases became standard again that there wasn’t much of a difference to be heard between the LP version of a new recording by bands that I liked and the CD release of the same. The likely reason: identical digital files had been sourced to create both the vinyl and the CD release.
That’s not to say there’s no difference between CD and vinyl mastering. When I discussed that subject with Gary Hobish, proprietor of A. Hammer Mastering in San Francisco and an engineer with 40 years of experience working with both formats, he told me that less dynamic compression is typically employed for vinyl than for CD. Also, the effects of that should be audible, especially for catalogue re-issues where a vintage vinyl version is available to reference during re-mastering.
I ultimately stopped buying new records but kept on collecting old vinyl that had been issued in the pre-digital audio era. Some of those 1970s analog-era recordings – Rod Stewart’s Every Picture Tells a Story and David Crosby’s If I Could Only Remember My Name, for example – sound fantastic, and were well worth the ten or so dollars each that I paid for them.
I also own a bunch of more recent Mofi Original Master Recordings, and have no quarrel with them when it comes to sound quality. But, like the complainant in the class-action lawsuit, I too thought these were created using an end-to-end analog process. That was mainly due to Mofi’s marketing on each record’s packaging, which speaks of the company’s Gain 2 Ultra Analog system, and how they strive to “ensure optimum sound quality by strictly limiting the number of pressings for each release.”
To me that’s the language of analog mastering of off-the-master tape, limited batch releases, and at Mofi for the last few years at least, that hasn’t exactly been the case. I won’t be lining up for the class-action suit, but I am glad to see that Mofi has started accurately listing when a digital step is used to produce a specific release on its website – something they should have started doing years ago.
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Al Griffin has been writing about and reviewing A/V tech since the days LaserDiscs roamed the earth, and was previously the editor of Sound & Vision magazine.
When not reviewing the latest and greatest gear or watching movies at home, he can usually be found out and about on a bike.