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