Known Johnson

August 19, 2008

Know your MoFi

Filed under: Music — Tom @ 10:58 am

Now I remember (again) why I stopped buying the Mobile Fidelity discs way back when. These things are limited editions from the start – small runs intended not to produce panic in the fans but to keep record labels from freaking out about an additional product on the market, and the price reflects that. They’re typically twice the normal price of regular CDs. As the saying goes, you should be getting what you pay for. When they go out of print, which is pretty quickly, up goes their value. Always.

“Back in the day,” which, for me, was before the internet was the handy way to spread music, when these were gone, they were gone. You might find one occasionally in a used record store at a fair price (and, believe me, I did – it’s how I got all three of the older Rush MFSL discs, $8.99-$15.99 each!) but generally, once the new, sealed MFSL discs were out of the bins, you weren’t going to see them again unless you were very, very lucky.

In a sign that I’m getting old, I didn’t even think about that “scourge of the music industry,” bit torrent, until now, with regards to MoFi product. And, really, it’s partially because some of the fun is simply owning these things. But when you see them selling for $100-200 a pop, the fun drizzles out quickly – I just want to hear them at that point. Fire up Google, find a list of old MFSL or DCC discs, and the phrase “(artist or release here) mfsl flac” will lead the way.

Disclaimer: I’m not advocating this for everything. I love owning what I enjoy. You should too. I go out of my way to seek out what I love. But when the price goes up above $30-40 for something like these discs, and they’re long out of print, then I see no problem hitting up the “illegal” routes to get them.

By last night, I had, on my hard drive at home, all four Guns ‘N Roses albums mastered by MFSL, The Who’s Who Are You and Quadrophenia, and both DCC Metallica discs (Master of Puppets, which is INCREDIBLE sounding, and Ride the Lightning, which is “merely” awesome – these blow away the original CDs) By my estimation, this haul is about $600 worth of Ebay auctions. Maybe $1000. Maybe even more. All of these sell for insane prices.

But guess what? I was completely stunned to find that the $5.99 Who Are You that I bought not too long ago, the one that is about 25 years old, sounds nearly identical to the MFSL disc. Granted, it sounds drastically different compared to the one currently available, but that’s because what’s been available since 1996 is a remix. There were also slightly different masters of this album that emerged later in the 80s – I lucked out, as I seem to do – and found one of the very, very early discs that was directly from the vinyl master. It is extremely close in sound. If I listened really closely, I noticed that the cymbals were much sharper and more distinct sounding, but it is absolutely not worth the insane prices people are paying for this disc. Quadrophenia may turn out to be the same, but I need to listen to a few more songs. I found an old version of that on Ebay last year for $15. There’s one in an Ebay store right now for $128, which is actually kind of low considering it’s a two disc set.

Back to what I’d said at the beginning: now I remember why I stopped buying these “back in the day.” It turned out too often like the above, where they simply sounded way too much like the original albums, and too rarely were they a revelation, as they were touted to be, and they should have been. I think I’m gifted with pretty good ears, but when I strain to hear a significant difference, we’re getting into the territory of “diminishing returns.” I can’t afford to invest hard-earned money in something where I may not be able to distinguish the one I forked over a big wad of cash for from the cheap, everyday-looking copy I picked up at a local record store.

That said, some really are worthy of the extreme praise I’ve seen heaped on them. Most impressive to me was Master of Puppets. As Metallica’s classic album and defining moment, sadly I never liked the way it sounded. I have never quite known why, but now, after hearing this, I know – it was pretty badly compressed, even way back in 1986 before compression was such an issue. This version, by Digital Compact Classics, mastered by the renowned Steve Hoffman, has absolutely no compression on it and sounds like a band playing live in the studio. Cymbals ring out and you can sense room reflections; James Hetfield’s voice growls in an especially menacing way; the drums absolutely pound – they way they should have; all because the compression limited what kind of effect the sound could have on the listener. The effect on Ride the Lightning is similar, but lesser so – that album simply didn’t sound as bad to begin with. If only DCC could have handled . . . And Justice For All.

I was also very impressed with the Guns N Roses MoFi discs – the Illusion albums sounded better than I expected, and it makes sense, now that I think about it. The 90s were when the “loudness wars” began in earnest and so a label like MFSL can really make the most of music from that era. But even Appetite sounds different – the drums have a very different sound, much more natural. I wish these weren’t so insanely expensive, I would love to own the real things, but my copies will have to do unless I stumble on someone accidentally selling them at affordable prices. Believe it or not, it happens.

On the entirely legitimate side of things, I received a real copy of the MFSL version of Cheap Trick’s At Budokan. I’ve had the “complete Budokan” for ages, but I never liked the sound – I just assumed it was something to do with the age of the thing. But for being such a legendary album, I thought it was weird, so I did a little investigating last week and “procured” a “test copy” (ahem) of the original. It sounded much better. I knew immediately what had happened to Complete – they added reverb! Why?! It sounds awful. It might be complete, but it’s an aural mess. Off I went to find the best version I could – great music deserves to be heard well. Everywhere I looked, all signs pointed to the MFSL version, which had been out of print since 1997, but apparently they uncovered a batch of them because they’d recently been selling them on their site – but, my luck, it was now, once again, gone. I did find one for a decent price, and it arrived yesterday – and it sound amazing. They can still be had for good prices if you check the usual places (Amazon, Half, Ebay – anything over $35-40 is too much.)

These got me excited to hear what the upcoming Faith No More MFSL disc for Angel Dust will sound like. I have always hated the sound of that album, but it’s one of my favorites – it’s always on my Ipod “just in case.” It’s also from the same time as Use Your Illusion(s), but sounds far more nasty, so I think it’s going to sound pretty great.

The nice thing about these discs is that they aren’t wastes of money. No matter what, they increase in value. Dumb as it may sound, for once, music is an investment. Keep all the stuff that goes with these (outer paper sleeves and such) and, if you ever feel like getting rid of them, collectors will respond with generous offers. Maybe not today, but in a few years, once they’ve gone out of print and demand has gone up. After all, that is how an investment works. Take good care of these things and they probably will take good care of you.

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