Early this year, Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab announced an astonishing breakthrough in high-end software, a playback medium capable of far greater warmth, presence and realism than the best CDs.
It's called the LP.
That's right. Records -- those round, flat, black things they told us were going to be obsolete in the age of digital audio -- are back. In fact, analog is all the rage among audiophiles.
"Analog high-end audio is having an unbelievable renaissance," says Herb Belkin, the president of Mobile Fidelity. "1992 -- I haven't seen the new figures -- was the biggest year in high-end audio for turntables, tone arms and cartridges in the seven preceding years."
That's no small achievement. As Belkin points out, high-end audio is "way more expensive than it used to be." In this market, cartridges -- the gizmo at the end of the tone arm where the needle sits -- go for as much as $2,250, with turntables costing many times more (tone arm and cartridge not included).
Mobile Fidelity's LPs are the only audiophile records on the market at the moment, and are also on the pricey side, boasting a list price of approximately $25. But then, these aren't just any records. Thicker and heavier than mass-manufactured records, Mobile Fidelity's LPs are more painstakingly manufactured than that Billy Joel album you bought back in '78. "There is a high reject rate," says Belkin of the pressing operation. "The people who operate it know our standards, so it's sort of a low-yield operation."
To understand what Belkin means by standards, it helps to know a bit about the record-making process. Most recordings start on tape, and are mixed from multitrack down to a stereo "master tape." This is then taken to a cutting plant, where a disc is cut and then plated with metal in order to mold stamps for the record pressing machines. It's a messy process, one with plenty of room for manufacturing defects to creep in.
Mobile Fidelity developed its sense of standards back in 1977, when the company introduced a line of audiophile LPs that were mastered from the original tapes at half-speed. "Half-speed mastering wasn't something that we invented," says Belkin. "It had been used throughout all of the music business up until about 1950. What we did was say, 'Let's use the old approach, but apply new technology and see what that does.' "
Mobile Fidelity was forced out of the LP business when the Japanese pressing plant the company had been using was torn down to make way for a CD plant. So, like everyone else, Mobile Fidelity got into the CD business, and has been making gold-plated audiophile CDs since 1987. But when the company found a pressing plant willing to meet its standards, it had no trouble returning to the LP approach.
"Basically, it's the same concept today," says Belkin. "1977 was a reasonably long time ago, and there have been enormous strides made in various electronic media. Since we had laid off for a period of time, we said, 'Let's sit down and take a look at the chain, and see what technological innovation and improvement has occurred that can give us a better-performing product.' "
One part of that process was the development of the GAIN (Greater Ambient Information Network) System, an upgrade of the company's mastering system that tweaked everything from the sampling rate of the A/D (analog to digital) converters to the signal path from master tape to cutting lathe. The result was an impressive improvement in the recorded sound.
One of the first albums to benefit from the GAIN System was the Muddy Waters' album "Folk Singer." Recorded in 1963, it was an all-acoustic session that for the most part found the bluesman working either by himself or with guitarist Buddy Guy. It's not an especially flashy recording, but that's part of what appealed to Belkin.
"If I have a philosophy, it's that you demonstrate what we're about through the greatest simplicity," he says. "And if there ever was a recording that demonstrated the simple honesty of the medium, that's it. It was all there. It was a prehistoric room with Neanderthal equipment, but it got everything -- and it got it with passion."
Belkin recalls that he had two teams remastering the album, one to do the CD version, the other to handle the LP. "The guys who were doing the CD, this was their first time around with GAIN, and they came out of there with their eyes bugged out of their head and their hearts banging away. They said, 'Wow, we did it, we did it! Listen to this -- it sounds like a record.'
"And the other guys were just working away, saying, 'Yeah, but wait till you hear what it's supposed to sound like.' And the record just knocks your socks off."
So far, Mobile Fidelity has issued four titles on LP: Muddy Waters' "Folk Singer"; the Manhattan Transfer's 1979 release "Extensions"; Pink Floyd's 1970 album "Atom Heart Mother"; and Emerson, Lake & Palmer's 1971 recording "Tarkus." Two more titles -- "Blues at Carnegie Hall" by the Modern Jazz Quartet, and the Alan Parsons Project's "Tales of Mystery and Imagination -- Edgar Allan Poe" -- are expected later this spring.
At the moment, demand for the LPs is so high that Mobile Fidelity can't keep the titles in stock, though as Belkin points out, "We're not making enormous quantities."
Then again, "the analog experience," as Belkin calls it, isn't for everyone. "The home shopping network person may never be an audiophile, and may never even have the analog experience. And may not care," he says.
"Many of the modern recordings may not lend themselves to the analog experience. The stuff that's happening now -- Guns N' Roses, Nine Inch Nails, gangsta rap -- I'm not sure that we're ever going to experience any of that in our world.
"But if you drift through the musical experience until you get to the point where you start hearing or wanting to hear instruments or performances that are not byte-driven, you ultimately get back to the analog experience."