Although I have lately written exclusively about Mobile Fidelity’s vinyl reissues, in the past I have covered their very good work on CD. Their CDs have been lovingly remastered and pressed on gold discs. The label’s Ultradisc UHR Hybrid SACDs present music in higher resolution than CDs. They begin with the GAIN 2 mastering system that is the basis for all their releases, including LPs. Their SACDs add the advantages of the higher sampling rate (2.8MHz) and frequency response (up to 100kHz) available through Direct Stream Digital in order to create discs that sound as close as possible to the original recording.
MoFi also takes steps to ensure that the CD layer retains, as they put it, the “sonic integrity of the original DSD capture.” I happened to get three of their new SACD hybrids at a moment when articles appeared disputing the superiority of high-resolution digital formats over CD quality. The discussion gets even muddier when hi-res advocates, such as Mark Waldrep, wonder if analog recordings can ever really be HD. I will let others argue over how, or if, higher sampling rates and bit depths result in better sound and just trust my ears.
The three titles evaluated here were recorded before the advent of CDs, so the recordings are analog. My experience is that SACDs sourced from analog recordings do provide a better picture of what occurred in the recording studio than CDs. In addition, when those hybrid SACDs are released by MoFi, Analogue Productions, and other audiophile labels, the mastering is almost always better than that of their major label counterparts; they are less compressed, more musical, and closer to the kind of enjoyment I get from vinyl.
In the case of two of the SACDs I have been listening to, my points of comparison will be the vinyl copies I own. For the Los Angeles-based band Love’s Forever Changes (Mobile Fidelity UDSACD 2131), however, I have copies on both vinyl and CD that I used as my baseline. Although Forever Changes was not a commercial success when it was released in 1967, it was well received by critics and its reputation has only grown over the years. It is a strangely beautiful record, eschewing Summer of Love platitudes for a harder, cynical look at the dark side of hippie culture. Stories about the difficulty of the album’s recording and who ended up playing on it (reputedly crack LA session players such as Hal Blaine and Carol Kaye) abound, but it stands as one of the great records from an exceptional year in rock music.
Elektra Records released Forever Changes on CD in 1990 and, if memory serves me, Rhino used the same master when it included the album in full on the excellent two-disc 1995 compilation Love Story 1966-1972. Rhino reissued the CD once again in 2001 with bonus tracks. That remaster is louder and brighter than its predecessor, and while at first you think you are hearing more detail, after three tracks you are fatigued from the lack of subtlety and space.
The music breathes on vinyl, both in the original pressing I own and in a Sundazed reissue from 2001. Arthur Lee's voice gets more space and the reverb surrounding it has more presence. The twin guitars on the instrumental close of “A House is Not a Motel” snake around each other and it is easier to hear each of them. The strings on “Andmoreagain” are richer and deeper. The Sundazed pressing does not have the level of clarity and resolution of the original pressing, but it is as close as you are likely to get without paying a collector’s price.
The MoFi SACD is certainly closer to the sound of the original vinyl than my CD copies. The age of the master tape shows in a slight haze in the sound, which is also present on the Sundazed LP. The earlier pressing is just more vibrant and spacious than any of the other copies I have, but the SACD sounds surprisingly like the LP. I was especially pleased at how clear the bass attack is. Percussion is better defined on the SACD without being too aggressive in the way it is on the CDs, especially the more recent one. String and horn arrangements are deeper and more enveloping, and Lee's voice is fuller and more nuanced than it is on CD.
While I often find higher-resolution digital to be more enjoyable and less fatiguing than CD sound, I still find that on older recordings it is missing the warmth and three-dimensionality I get from vinyl. On this SACD of Forever Changes I found myself listening and enjoying in a way I normally associate with LPs. The music was engaging, and I found that I was listening intently without losing focus. If you can find an original pressing at a good cost, buy it. Otherwise, consider this reissue.
When the Band decided to break up after 16 years on the road, they left in style on Thanksgiving Day in 1976 by hosting a concert at the Winterland Ballroom in San Francisco. They invited some friends to help them celebrate, including Bob Dylan, Paul Butterfield, Neil Young, and their first employer, Ronnie Hawkins. Martin Scorsese filmed the concert, along with soundstage footage and interviews with the band. The resulting movie, The Last Waltz, is a standout rock documentary and the soundtrack has been popular since its release in 1978.
I have the original three-LP set, but I have never bought it on CD, whether in its initial two-disc incarnation or in the four-disc expanded version released in 2003. The Band sounded sharper and more committed on Rock of Ages, its December 1971 live album, and some performers, such as Neil Diamond, seem out of place (guitarist Robbie Robertson had recently produced an album for him). There are high points -- Muddy Waters and Van Morrison -- but I have been content to enjoy them on vinyl.
The mastering on the SACD of The Last Waltz (Mobile Fidelity UDSACD 2-2139) shows great care and is smoother overall than the LP, which sounds slightly tipped-up by comparison. Switching back and forth between the two, I thought the SACD presented the instruments in a more balanced fashion and gave Rick Danko’s bass more body. Individual instruments were easier to pick out in the opening “Theme from the Last Waltz,” and Young’s guitar on “Helpless” is harmonically fuller; you can hear the chords better.
Danko's bass is more clearly defined on Joni Mitchell's “Coyote” on the SACD and Levon Helm’s brushes on the snare drum are easier to hear. The sound of the Band behind Mitchell is more cohesive and her acoustic guitar resonates more clearly. A high point of the set is Morrison's appearance for two tunes, including a moving version of “Tura Lura Lural (That's an Irish Lullaby).” The voices of Morrison and Richard Manuel are rounder toned and the subtlety of the Band's backing comes through even more clearly than on the vinyl version. The horn arrangements on both tracks are also better separated and more focused. The harmonic overtones in Robertson's guitar lines are especially impressive and ringing.
The texture and three dimensionality of Waters's voice on “Mannish Boy” are remarkable on the SACD and Robertson's exhortations behind him are more emphatic. Butterfield's harmonica playing is also easier to hear and his importance to the overall impact of the track is now undeniable. Eric Clapton has played “Further on up the Road” far too many times, but this time Robertson pushed him to play harder and, truth be told, smoked him. On this track, Clapton's guitar had more edge on vinyl, but, once again, the overall flow of the music is better on the SACD.
The film The Last Waltz catches the Band on a very good, but not great, night, and its value is in the reminiscences of the musicians about life on the road. The performances, by the Band and its guests, vary in quality, but the best of them -- Morrison, Young, Waters, and Dylan in particular -- are worth returning to. The film captures a moment in rock history, but I still come away from it with the feeling that it is a series of celebrity walk-ons, and the soundtrack only reinforces that conviction. It is thoroughly enjoyable, but not essential. If you are a fan, however, you will be very pleased with the sound on this MoFi SACD version.
When FM rock stations started playing the Pretenders in 1979, my friends and I scoffed (“What is this punk rock garbage?”) until we heard the band’s version of the Kinks’s “Stop Your Sobbing.” Most of us ended up picking up the band’s debut LP, then waited in anticipation for the follow-up. It took two years, an eternity for a rock band in those days, and 1981’s Pretenders II was definitely a sophomore effort. It is not a slump, really, but a small step down. “The Adultress” sounds like another band’s idea for a Pretenders song and “Bad Boys Get Spanked” tries too hard for the bracing edge that came so easily on the first album.
Those tracks open the LP, so it was easy to feel let down, but any record that includes “Talk of the Town,” “Message of Love,” and another great Kinks cover, “I Go to Sleep,” cannot be easily dismissed. To return to Pretenders II after more than 30 years is to be reminded that “Pack it Up” is a good, tough rock tune, and that “Louie Louie” is the kind of noble failure only a truly great rock band could create.
While the other discs sounded close to their vinyl counterparts, the SACD of Pretenders II (Mobile Fidelity UDSACD 2056) is fuller sounding, with much more bottom-end punch than on my Sire Records US pressing. The LP is brighter sounding overall, and Pete Farndon's bass lines are less pronounced than they are on the SACD. Martin Chambers's drums are also bigger sounding on the SACD, but while the mastering in this case gives more fullness and more immediate impact to the recording, it sacrifices some smart details that make the original LP work.
Chrissie Hynde's voice on the SACD is more focused and centered, but the reverb around her is clearer on vinyl and it is easier to hear how she uses vocal dynamics and breathing to make her points. The sound of a whip that punctuates “Bad Boys Get Spanked” gets lost in the SACD, while on LP it rings out, as does the echo applied to Hynde's voice. Chambers's drums resonate more fully on the SACD, but the snare drum lacks his characteristic snap and the cymbals do not have the same splash.
When Hynde sings “Talk to me, darling” at the end of “Message of Love,” it is heavily processed but more clearly etched on the LP. Her overdubbed vocal call and response on “Talk of the Town” recedes into the soundstage on the SACD, but it jumps out on LP. Pretenders II is not especially well recorded, and the remastering engineer for this MoFi disc, Rob LoVerde, seems to have made choices in an attempt to make this release more sonically valid to audiophile ears. Listening to it without comparing it to the LP, it sounds fine. It is just that the LP conveys the spirit of the music better, even if it is not sonically palatable to audiophiles.
All three of these SACDs have an ease and musicality that I usually associate with vinyl. I would be interested in comparing these reissues with vinyl versions if Mobile Fidelity ever releases them in that format. Listening to the CD and SACD layers shows the advantages of the higher-resolution format and its ability to convey the spirit of the music. Acoustic guitars sound more realistic and harmonically complex, strings are better textured. The CD layer sounded very good, but the SACD layer was much closer to the vinyl experience I usually hear, even from other SACDs. I look forward to hearing more Ultradisc UHR Stereo Hybrid discs from Mobile Fidelity, but how about something unexpected, such as Steve Miller’s Sailor, or Moby Grape’s debut? Maybe something recent, such as Wilco? Just a thought.
. . . Joseph Taylor