Mobile Fidelity's "The Band" Reissue Produces Shock and Awe

What would Mobile Fidelity do without a master tape? It doesn't exist. Or at least it can't be found. A Mo-Fi person asked me what I knew. I told them I knew the tape's been missing for years but that I'd check with the late Levon Helm's people to see what they might know. A search of Levon's tape library didn't produce it and someone else I know checked with Robbie Robertson's people. No master.

A tape copy had been sent to the UK for the original UK release (E-ST 132) of the album, which had first been released in September of 1969. That tape was probably used for EMI's 1997 Centenary reissue stickered with a label claiming "Analogue Cutting From Analogue Tapes" and pressed in the UK. That one sounded very, very good but of course none sounded better than an original Capitol "RL" (Robert Ludwig) original on the lime green Capitol label. Not every lime green copy is an "RL" however.

Mobile Fidelity did the legwork but the best it could do was find what appears to be an unequalized copy of the master tape. Because it was not sourced from the master tape, the label couldn't put the "Original Master Recording®" banner on the jacket front but it was still issued as part of the premium series not as a less expensive "silver label" edition. Some of Mobile Fidelity's less expensive "silver label" series reissues are only so-so, while others are superb, including those from Stevie Wonder. Wonder is covetous of his tapes and wouldn't give them to Mobile Fidelity so the company had to bring a tape recorder to wherever those tapes are stored and make a copy.

This The Band reissue though was uncharted territory because whatever tapes could be found had less than reliable provenances. Mobile Fidelity sifted through what was available and after much listening to both tapes and original "RL" pressings chose the tape that sounded the most transparent and lowest in tape noise and closest to an original pressing.

A few years ago Capitol produced a reasonably good reissue mastered by Ron McMaster and more recently did so again but the latest one sounded CD-sourced. Listening to Mobile Fidelity's reissue you'll have no doubt you're listening to a tape source—and not because you can hear tape hiss.

But first a bit about the music (not that most reading this need any introduction). Here are excerpts of the review of the earlier Capitol vinyl reissue:
Looking at the sepia toned cover photo, listening to the Civil War era Americana-themed lyrics and unraveling the thick, dark, tuba-tinged instrumental atmospherics, you might easily imagine the recording venue to have been a log cabin in the woods.

Instead, the group set up shop in sun-splashed Los Angeles, more specifically at 8850 Evanview Drive just off of Sunset Plaza, in Sammy Davis Junior’s pool cabana. There’s a Rhino-released, BBC produced DVD on the making of the album that hardcore fans will find worth watching.

With the windows boxed off and stuffed with blankets and baffles hung on the walls, the group set about recording most of what is arguably the group’s second best album after their magical, mysterious debut Music From Big Pink (though most consider this to be the best). Three songs, “Up on Cripple Creek,” “Jemima Surrender,” and the always astonishing “Whispering Pines,” were recorded later at New York’ Hit Factory.

While it’s clear an attempt was made to reproduce the pool cabana’s singular, warm, muffled, powerful sound, there was no way to re-create the cabana’s steam and shower room derived echo chamber!

Robbie Robertson envisioned “…a woody, thuddy sound,” for the record and that’s what he got, aided in great part by the antique $130 wood-rimmed drum set Garth Hudson picked up in an L.A. pawn shop and Levon Helm played throughout. Though producer John Simon is credited as engineer, Robertson placed the mikes and mixed at the board.

When this thick, woody-sounding album was first released, even reviewers not concerned with sound quality condemned it for being murky and cloudy. Most of them then, like reviewers now listen on shitty gear because, “man, they’re into the music, not the sound.” Just as film critics are content to screen new movies on bed sheets. NOT! Even on a decent turntable back then, the record’s bass energy overwhelmed to the point where the drums, bass and occasional tuba parts congealed to produce a thick bass stew.

Going back now to the Robert Ludwig mastered original (look for “RL” scribed into the lead-out groove area), if your turntable and cartridge can deal with the bass energy and your speakers can produce the goods and your turntable is sufficiently isolated to resist the feedback, this record continues to overwhelm, but this time the senses more than the stereo!

The power unleashed by Levon Helm's kick drum is simply astonishing. It will knock you over. But the bass and tuba lines will be easily separated in the mix. What’s more, the bass will not overwhelm the clarity and sheen of the guitars nor will it cloud the vocals.

I compared this reissue to a number of “RL” originals, an original UK Capitol pressing (E-ST 132), the 1997 EMI UK Centennial edition cut “analogue from analogue tapes,” and the 2000 CD 24 bit re-master.

First things first: the whereabouts of the original, assembled master tape is in question. JVC was going to issue an XRCD of this album but according to my sources the master tape could not be found. The Band’s own website (www./theband.com says the 2000 CD reissue (with bonus tracks) is said to have been “…produced (mostly) from the original master tapes…" From the Band's official website.

So here's the deal: if you have a clean "RL" original, you'll find that overall this reissue is not quite as immediate as the original but Tim DeParavicini's reworking of Mobile Fidelity's cutting chain and the nuanced EQ choices made by mastering engineer Krieg Wunderlich do for this reissue what they did for Blonde on Blonde: they effortlessly unravel detail against the jet black RTI pressing that will have you marveling at both how much new information is revealed and how much cleaner, more three-dimensional and transparent is much of what you already heard in this masterpiece. Mobile Fidelity has cleaned off the patina without destroying the "old-timey" atmospherics Robertson strove to inject into the proceedings both in the songs and in the engineering and mix.

A completely successful major restoration of one the great records of the rock era and that includes the jacket, which is perfect in every way. The longer I live, the more I find myself marveling at the beauty of "Whispering Pines". It has come to be my favorite song on the record. I have never heard it revealed as cleanly as on this reissue.

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COMMENTS
malosuerte's picture

You really cant say enough good things about this album.  It is a must have in my opinion.

wao62's picture

Picked up my copy yesterday at the Analog Room in San Jose (it's nice to have a local  store that supplies all the new titles from Mofi, Music Matters, Analogue Productions etc).  The clarity and bass response struck me, & I also have an RL original plus the Millennium edition.  The graphics are much improved over the Mofi edition Big Pink, in particular the pictures inside the gatefold. That group picture inside Big Pink seemed blurry and 2nd or 3rd generation. The pictures on this Band album are truer in sharpness to the original.

virtualbryan's picture

A true hidden treasure in San Jose.  I'll have to stop by to grab a copy of this.

Paul Boudreau's picture

...who prefer this LP to "Big Pink" - I think they really hit their stride with it and "Stage Fright."  Thanks for the master-tape info on this and the Stevie Wonder MoFi reissues - "Talking Book" really does sound great.

Stevieray's picture

Wow, what a long strange trip it's been.......

Having been born and raised in the DEEP South, I've been listinging to blues, "roots" music and related most of my life, my first exposure being church and gospel music. 

Having heard of The Band for years, I had only had exposure to "The Last Waltz: and related.  Only a year or so ago did someone turn me on to "Big Pink" and within the last 6 months to "The Band".  I was born in '62 -- where have I been the last 40 years!  These are two of the best albums ever made. 

My first "The Band" purchase was one of those "from the Capital Vaults" pressings 6 months ago, not being able to find anything else.  It sounds just OK, although the pressing and vinyl SUCK.  Don't buy this shit.  I'll never buy another new Capitol pressing again, no matter what.  Of course, never having heard a RL original, I don't have a reference.  However, the best I've heard of this is the Audio Fidelity CD made several years ago, and expensive on the used market.  It sounds heavenly, but I wonder how this Mofi compares.  Steve Hoffman is tight-lipped about the tape source of that CD he remastered, but I don't care if the source was a wax cylinder when it sounds so good! 

I'll probably buy this Mofi (or get for Christmas, hint-hint), and if it sounds good as advertised, give my Capitol Vaults copy to my daughter, where at 25 years of age can "discover" this music much earlier than I did. 

And as good as this whole album is, I consider "Whispering Pines" my favorite.  I swear I just told my wife last night that I thought it was my favorite song in the world.  I don't know what it is, but that song just does it for me.  Richard Manuel and Levon Helms' voices are like a choir of angels.  I want this song played at my funeral; enough said.

Kevin Ray's picture

In the documentary about the making of this (streaming on Netflix), there are scenes where Levon and John Simon are listening to the original tapes and focusing on the various tracks.

kdl6769's picture

Thanks, Mikey.  I have a pristine RL copy on the lime green Capitol label and listen to it all the time; it's one of the best, most "allive" sounding records I own.  Do I want the MoFi?  It sounds like it sacrifices some immediacy and visceral oomph for detail and clarity.  Can you elaborate on the differences?  Many thanks. 

planarhead's picture

My favorite album from The Band. They would never again be able to capture the magic of this album.

Stu Morgenstern's picture

I bought this at my favorite thrift store for 50 cents about a year ago and always thought that it sounded great, especially the bottom end. I just checked and found the RL. Hooray for me! Still looking for Big Pink.

Michael Fremer's picture

Don't bother looking for an original "Big Pink". Bob Ludwig cut one but Capitol rejected it fearing too much bass would make it skip on the "kiddie's" record players so it recut it, lopping off the bass at 80Hz. No kidding! That's what they did.

So all originals are bass-shy. That is one record where the recent Mobile Fidelity reissue is unquestionably the one to have. It restoreth the bass and the rest it damn good too.

DWisker's picture

I have the original MoFi "Big Pink". How does it stand up to the new one?  

Trevor_Bartram's picture

I have the original CD, it's the only Band album I like, I have the Big Pink CD it's blah, I've listened to sound samples from the other albums, again blah but I love the brown album and The Last Waltz film.

FWIW, Trevor.

JC1957's picture

The recent Mo-Fi SACD of The Band (mastered by Shawn Britton) It's no slouch either.

But I'll be getting the vinyl too.

Michael Fremer's picture

Agreed!

John Vourtsis's picture

I still get chills listening to The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down - albums don't get any better than this.  Thanks for your usual insane details Mikey.  I just confirmed my original green label Capitol that I bought in September of '69 is an "RL."  What an amazing time to have been a teenager - Beatles, Hendrix, The Band.

sluggobeast's picture

I owned a later generation (circa '73) LP of this amazing album -- but last year got my hands on an original RL pressing. Sounds absolutely phenomenal. Love most of MFSL's stuff, but I'll stick with the original. I was always more partial to "Big Pink" -- but together those two albums are all but PERFECT!

Roy Edelsack's picture

If you're over a hundred years old (OK, over 60), you might remember the ad for this album included in the digest-sized programs they used to hand out at the Fillmore East. It said simply:

     "Shhh. The Band is Recording"

rosser's picture

I don't have a lime green RL, but my later purple label Capitol sounds really very good. Don't know what tape they were using by then, but like many of those late 70s-early 80s Capitols, it is very transparent, on nice quiet vinyl. 

musicesq's picture

I have what I think is a first vinyl pressing (purchased on the relase day - Sept 22, 1969) at Discount Records in Eastchester, NY.  It's in mint condition with a lime green label and STAO-1-132-F8 etched into the Side 1 run-off groove and STAO-1-132-W8 on Side 2 along with the same symbol etched into on both sides1/4 around from each resembling an upside down triangle with a line.  No RL but not sure what the symbol or the F8 or W8 stand for.

Michael Fremer's picture

The triangle with a line is the mark of Capitol's Winchester, VA factory. Supposed to look like a rifle.  That plant opened in 1969. Scranton was the East Coast mainstay but Winchester apparently gained in importance over time. If you look on the jacket at the bottom it says factories in Scranton, Ill and CA. Winchester isn't even listed. 

There's a great deal of dispute about what the F and W might mean. Some say those are lathe identifiers and 8 would be either lacquer or stamper numbers. I've been trying to get to the bottom of this for a long time...

But The Band requested Bob Ludwig cut the original so even if yours was bought early, for some reason it was sourced from the newer factory and from a lacquer possibly cut there or supplied by Capitol, which did the cut.

You should hear an "RL" copy because Bob cut the original.  

patony407's picture

I ordered this and waited 1 year for this amazingly sad Mobile Fidelity release.  This is not even close to a crappy German pressing of this record that I have, much less the original.  Cloudy and congested are just two of the adjectives that are evoked by this record.  Where is the tuba and the organ?

Man up and admit when another Mobile Fidelity release is less than fabulous, as you tend to feel everything is.  Afraid this will stop the flow of free records and merchandise?  I doubt it.  These companies know a shill when they read one.

Michael Fremer's picture

I have no problem with you disagreeing with my opinion of this reissue (one shared by most readers and many within the audio industry who don't post here) but when you use a disagreement to question my honesty and actually think I would  be willing to damage my credibility for some free records you show yourself to be a real dick.

P.S.: I have been very critical of other Mobile Fidelity reissues:

http://www.analogplanet.com/content/mobile-fidelitys-dixie-chicken-all-dark-meat-0

Frankly, I think I'm owed an apology but I don't expect it.

patony407's picture

Prehaps i was slightly overboard with my...why did you call me a dick?  The question of if I am a dick or not is irrelevant to my comment.  I will aplogize if you do.

However, as you stated, most of the readers, and many within the industry, have a similar opinion as i expressed.  How do you see an opposing view as yours within this framework?  Is everyone out of step but Mikey?  Can our systems really be so deficient in quality that we cannot hear why this record was reviewed so highly?  Please, help me understand.

I believe that the byline on the review was shock and awe.  Frankly, I am shocked that you praised this effort and in awe that people actually will buy this based on your writings.   This is not a question of honesty, simply a statement of wonderment.  For instance, if everyone feels this is a subpar effort, and you do not, where does this leave other opinions that you put forth?

I changed my mind, I apologize for my previous comment.  I feel no reason to question your honesty as I am pretty sure I know the answer to that question when you called me a dick.

Michael Fremer's picture

Most readers and industry people like the reissue! But again, your opinion is yours and I would never call you a dick for disagreeing with mine. But you questioned my honesty and impugned my integrity so for that I called you a (well deserved) dick. A dick for making that comment. Otherwise I'm sure you're a swell guy like all Analogplanet.com readers.

Paul Boudreau's picture

I'm listening to my new (and cleaned) copy of this and I was a little miffed by the amount of pops & clicks here and there.  Then I remembered the MoFi blurb:

"Once the master lacquer is finished, it is plated in a specialized process that protects transients in the modulated groove.  Due to this process, occasional pops or ticks may be present in initial playback.  But as the disc is played more, a high-quality stylus will actually polish the groove walls and improve the sound."

By "improve the sound," I gather they mean fewer "pops or ticks."  Is this a real thing or a CYA exercise?  Thanks.

boulderskies's picture

Being 60, I "grew up" with this album. I think the lp I bought within the first week of its release had a lime green label. Whether it had RL on it or not, we didnt care back then. We were too busy examining the album cover and listening to the music.

And the music. As was the case with a lot of albums back then, we thought, "What the HELL is this?" I know it sound cliche-ish now but back then, we had never heard anything remotely like some of these albums, The Band being foremost. The back-woodsy (I'm in an upscale New York suburban enclave listening on my trusty Garrard turntable with Radio Shack speakers, remember) Americana we were hearing just did not exist. So different and so great.

In the years since, that LP has washed away in mists of time but its been re-incarnated in several forms in my collection. In 2000, I picked up the Capital Re-Mastered edition. It may be me but it seems to lack the punch and impact of that lime green beauty of yesteryear. Kinda flat is how I would classify it.

BUT the recently released Rock of Ages on iTunes - WHOA. This was always my favorite Band album, hands down. But now, in its current incarnation. You guys owe it to yourselves. The sound is 100% improved and it was no slouch in its original release.

I'll let you go now, back to hopefully Netflix to check out The Making of the Band, and, check this one out: Levon Helm-I Aint In It for My Health.

Mikey, keep up the good work. And dont sweat it-we all get called a Dick once in a while.

Scott

FormatOmnivore's picture

I had to wait a while for my copy to arrive, but this MFSL edition certainly knocks spots off the version I already owned.

Just like the job they did on 'Big Pink', this obviates any need to search for pristine first pressings or other expensive versions. It just sounds great!

coaster92's picture

Informative article about the "brown" record. I had read about the sammy davis pool house "studio" in Levon Helm's book. I also heard  rumors about the master tape either being lost or being at Levon Helm's house. I like it but never quite understood  the praise that gets heaped on the brown record- partly for the muddy/boomy sonic character you describe and partly because I think some of the songs are represented in better versions on either "The last waltz" or "Rock of ages", so I often find myself listening to those instead of brown. But like you said "whispering pines" really is something.  I've heard enough versions of brown to know that at least sonically I much prefer the spacious acoustic of Big Pink over brown- of course they both contain classic tunes. Your comment about "music from big pink" and the EQ Ludwig used might explain why my 90's UK/EMI reissue has the bass cut off right about where you said- but it is really good in the midrange, think its possible they used same for that reissue?

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