Does UMe’s 50th Anniversary What’s Going On Beat MoFi’s One Step?

There’s plenty already said about the musical content of Marvin Gaye’s 1971 classic What’s Going On so I’ll avoid redundancy and just say that its scope—from the sociopolitically-minded lyrics to the carefully assembled song cycle structure and luscious musical arrangements—pushed the boundaries of what a Motown release could be, and truly stands the test of time. It’s an endlessly relevant record (decide yourself if that says more about the album’s excellence or society’s failures), and also one of the most exhaustively reissued: in the past 20 years, we’ve seen Universal’s 30th anniversary 2CD featuring the original Detroit mix, more alternate mixes, and a Kennedy Center live recording from 1972; Mobile Fidelity’s SACD and 33rpm single LP releases; UMG’s 40th anniversary “super deluxe” edition adding further session material and alternate versions; quite a few run-of-the-mill digitally-sourced vinyl reissues of the core album, done at United for the US and GZ for Europe; an Abbey Road half-speed 4LP mirroring the 2001 2CD; and MoFi’s 45rpm double LP UltraDisc One Step cut from tape. That’s not including the “Vinyl Lovers” Russian reissues of dubious legal origin cut and pressed at GZ, the 192kHz/24bit hi-res download, a Blu-ray Audio release (remember that format?), and the Japanese SACDs, CDs, and MQA-UHQCDs featuring a flat transfer of the original master tapes (yes, really!). important to keep in mind.

So what does UMe’s latest reissue, a belated 2LP 50th anniversary edition, have to offer? To start, for the US edition Kevin Gray mastered the core album all-analog at 33rpm, meaning no constant side flipping like MoFi’s 45rpm One Step. There’s also a bonus disc compiling the original mono singles with some alternate versions of the title track, again cut by Gray from a “composite analog reel derived from analog and digital sources,” as per the liner notes. GZ pressed the 180g black vinyl LPs (the hype sticker credits Precision in Canada, though an additional “Made In Czech Republic” sticker means it ended up at GZ), packaged in a glossy tip-on gatefold jacket with printed inner sleeves featuring track details and an essay from author and poet Hanif Abdurraqib. I already have the MoFi One Step, but wanted to see how this 50th anniversary reissue compared. (Please note that Gray did not cut the European What’s Going On 50th anniversary edition, whose hype sticker mentions Dublin Vinyl instead of Precision. While the printed materials credit Gray, Lawrence Dunster at Curve Pusher cut the European pressing from digital files. No matter the reasoning, this is extremely unfair to European customers expecting Gray’s AAA mastering, and is false advertising for which UMe should be held accountable. To be clear, I don’t have anything against Dunster as this isn’t his or Curve Pusher’s fault.)

First, the extra reissue stuff. The short bonus LP is nice but rather inessential. It starts with a new “stripped version” of the title track, using only the vocals, percussion, and some strings; while enjoyable, it’s the only “previously unreleased” track here because it’s a new remix from January 2021. The “rhythm ’n’ strings instrumental mix” rehashed from the 2001 reissue is likewise pleasant but unnecessary. More interesting is a mono test mix of “What’s Going On” believed to be its first ever mix, prepared by Motown’s engineers for a Quality Control meeting before the strings and horns were added. This and “Sympathy (Demo Version),” the song that “What’s Going On” originated from, are easily the most illuminating bonus tracks, but they aren’t new. The mono single mixes on the last side are nice to have in clean LP fidelity, though aside from these alternate versions of “God Is Love” and “Flyin’ High” (the latter labeled as “Sad Tomorrows”), I can’t imagine myself often revisiting them.

This 50th anniversary reissue’s glossy tip-on gatefold faithfully and nicely replicates the original, though the printed inner sleeves are a bit thin and I wish that the records came in poly-lined inner sleeves (there’s a common audiophile complaint you’ll rarely hear from me). Still, the inner sleeves include a poignant essay by writer Hanif Abdurraqib (written on January 6, 2021), a shorter note from professor Andrew Flory appreciating David Van DePitte’s orchestrations, an extra image from the album cover photo shoot, brief but insightful technical info, and extensive credits. Considering I bought this new at Portland’s Second Avenue Records for only $38.99, the packaging is more than satisfactory.

Now, the sound quality. To avoid confusion, in this review I’ll mostly ignore the Detroit mix, which was the initial mix that Berry Gordy deemed uncommercial; I’ll focus only on the more polished West Hollywood mix that you hear on the final record. In 2019, Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab reissued What’s Going On as an UltraDisc One Step, spreading it over a 45rpm double LP pressed at RTI on 180g MoFi SuperVinyl (a Neotech- and RTI-developed compound free of carbon black, also marketed as SRX and VR900). Michael Fremer found that the UD1S “destroys” the RCA-mastered original Tamla LP as well as MoFi’s 2008 half-speed mastered 33rpm single LP: “It’s difficult to believe these are sourced from the same tape. […] The resolution of musical and spatial detail that’s smeared on the other versions is huge. I’ve heard complaints about there being ‘too much bass’ but I think that’s what’s on the tape that’s previously been rolled off. This reissue is a major sonic step forward both for Mobile Fidelity and for vinyl reissues generally.”

However, that supreme quality comes at the expense of the originally intended continuous listening experience, as the sides are split in half. The fades between sides don’t really bother me, though for many it was a dealbreaker, not to mention that the UD1S was a $125 retail (now $300+ on Discogs) box set whose bespoke lift-off packaging is just as inconvenient as the discs it holds, especially for an album less than 36 minutes long. The core album LP in UMe’s US 50th anniversary reissue, cut by Kevin Gray right from those same tapes, solves the side split problem, but how does it sound?

On initial listen, this new pressing sounds quite good, with plenty of definition, a wide soundstage, and sweet-sounding strings. You surely won’t hear the vocals this intricately detailed on any digital version (save for maybe the Japanese flat transfer discs which I haven’t heard), nor will the finger snaps and percussion embellishments be as clear. The tonal balance leans bright, but that’s obviously what’s on the tape and the bass is still tight, focused, and very much present. If you’ve only ever heard digital versions or digitally-sourced vinyl pressings of What’s Going On, this will surely be an upgrade, and it might even beat vintage LP pressings but I don’t have those to compare.

Still, the One Step absolutely obliterates this new pressing to the point where it’s not even funny. Kevin Gray’s cut is very good… until you hear the MoFi. By the time you’ve heard the first 10 seconds, it’s already better: there’s so much more space around the vocals (almost as if Marvin Gaye is right there), an absurd improvement in soundstage depth and three-dimensionality, deep and strong bass, shimmering triangles, vivid shakers and congas, and panoramic strings. I’m not sure what the measurements would say, but the stunningly involving UD1S certainly sounds more dynamic than the KG cut, which in comparison sounds thicker and flattened out, with the bass dialed in a bit. It still retains the analog goodness typical of AAA vinyl, but in terms of spatial detail the One Step wins without contest.

Do you need this 50th anniversary reissue? If you have the One Step and don’t mind the side breaks and other minor inconveniences, you’re all set. If you don’t have the One Step, then whether that one’s still worth the hefty price difference depends on how much you like this record. If What’s Going On is one of your top favorite albums ever and you have the money, don’t hesitate on the One Step. If you only listen to it sporadically, buy the UMe US 2LP and you’ll be plenty satisfied. Still, I’ve included excerpts of the title track (digitized using the SSL 2+ interface)so you can compare the two and determine that yourself.

50th Anniversary Excerpt

MoFi UD1S Excerpt

Considering the mixed source quality, the bonus LP in this 50th anniversary package sounds as good as it reasonably can, and the fact that it was cut from a composite analog reel shows that someone really invested the time and effort into properly doing this reissue. Yet, if you’re in the market for the nth What’s Going On reissue, the all-analog mastering probably means more to you than a slapped together bonus disc; I would’ve preferred the Detroit mix over the singles and alternates compilation, but UMe probably assumes that you already have that or they’re currently devising a way to sell it to you again. GZ did a decent job plating and pressing the 180g LPs, though my copy has some (negligible) non-fill issues as well as light surface noise that after vacuum cleaning dissipated only a bit. The noise floor is of course higher than the SuperVinyl One Step, but that’s an unfair comparison. If my review of this new reissue sounds rather negative, it’s because the One Step is just that great. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with Kevin Gray’s 50th anniversary cut, which is placed in a value-minded, high quality package that will leave most listeners very happy and hopefully set a new standard for UMG vinyl.

(Malachi Lui is an AnalogPlanet contributing editor, music obsessive, avid record collector, and art enthusiast. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram.)

COMMENTS
Michael Fremer's picture
I am responsible for posting his review but I didn't write it. He made a one sentence observation that you disagree with (as do I) It was gratuitous and unnecessary but he's a kid and you I assume are an adult and I don't see where what he wrote was so offensive and please! Is "everything" here about politics. Come on....
kelossus's picture

Michael it does surprise me why you allow controversial statements as posted above.

Comments like that aren't necessary and they are dividing your audience.

MalachiLui's picture

are controversial, and everyone (for better or worse) is entitled to their own opinions.

Bigmule1972's picture

I try to avoid your content, and only realized it was your article when you made that irrelevant comment.

No one cares about your social justice views on Analog Planet. Start a different platform to spout your non related music opinions…and if this is an issue then put your morals where your mouth is and stop working for a white owned AP and start your own platform….bet you won’t….because in theory, social justice is great until the individual has to make a sacrifice, then the decisions get tough.

PeterPani's picture

it is relevant. Its the first choice of the reviewer what is relevant.

kelossus's picture

This was a review on a Marvin Gaye LP. Why you felt the need to express your political views is confounding.

SorinB's picture

Does anyone else notice more sibilannce on MOFI version? 00:53
For me, Kevin Gray's cut sounds more natural and with plenty detail. A winner for me.

MalachiLui's picture

the mofi certainly has more sibilance...

DaveyF's picture

Personally I appreciated the review by ML and his thoughts about the music industry and how they have ripped off artists for decades. I read a recent obituary of one of the music industry honchos, wherein it stated that this fellow ( to be nameless) had signed one of the better known black artists and paid him something like five cents a record for one of the best known hits in history! The artist did receive a few thousand dollars, but the label and this honcho...made an absolute mint! So, when i see folk come on here and try and give ML a hard time for having the supposed 'temerity' to bring this up, that is more than weak IMHO. Good on you Malachi.

Bigmule1972's picture

Total BS…. So are we going to rewrite history to reflect that it was only black musicians that were exploited…hardly.

Theae artists agreed and signed a contract. if you sign something and don’t understand or agree with, that’s 100% on you. Thats life and here is a news flash, life’s not fair, and never will be. Furthermore, how you feel about fairness is useless, because feelings don’t matter. If you feel that strongly about, each time you listen, you should be sending money directly to each of these artists families, but I’m guessing that’s not happening.

I writer knows his audience, and ML clearly does, and that comment was purposely included for a reason, (I believe to showcase himself rather than the content of the article) and now ML is back peddling…boo hoo

The title of the topic was in the form of “is X better than Y…?” and not about the history and exploitation of musicians. Once again, it has to do with relevance.

Stick to the topic, leave race out of it because it has no relevance, and that type of drum beating is cheap.

ML, you are a great writer (not my preference, but still a great writer) and you weaken your work with these tactics.

Perpetuity can be tough to digest, and your words will catch up with you.

DaveyF's picture

From a bloated entitled ...Pathetic.

Glotz's picture

The whole 'tough shit' rationale if you were fucked over by the record labels as a Black man. His response is "I'm White, fuck you"...

DaveyF's picture

+1000

Michael Fremer's picture
Was constructive. Thank you.
swimming1's picture

M,don't respond to these cretins. You're observations are greatly appreciated by most us. What you are seeing is middle class anger,which is predominant in the glutenous USA! As you grow older you will hear it more and more.Don't get involved, walk away from it. Cheers,Chet

fruff1976's picture

about responding. You did your work. Continuing to be combative in the comments section does no good, other than making you look bad. It' one of the reasons I rarely read Analog Planet. Second, Chet, I'm sure wherever on this earth you live, there are "gluttonous" people also. Don't use this as an excuse to slam the USA, which actually provides the bulk of excellent Audiophile releases everyone around the world loves so much.

BillK's picture

The big difference I hear is the 50th version sounds good, but flat - there is no depth to the soundstage at all, it's as if everything is on the same plane.

The MoFi version not only has soundstage width but depth, a palpable sense of space created by not only the vocals but the drums and instrumentation, it's quite obvious and, at least to me, fascinating.

Bigmule1972's picture

Me Entitled? Yeah right pal.. I’m way too old for that noise.

Self made? Yes...100%. And I’m not hanging my head about it.

Once again ML generates more comments regarding this issue rather than the actual topic.

DaveyF's picture

Self made on the backs of the very folk who we are discussing would be my bet. Get lost.

Bigmule1972's picture

You know nothing of my family, my race, nor my background.

Can we still be friends? I'd like that very much.

Glotz's picture

Your rant says it all.

DaveyF's picture

Like Glotz stated, your rant says it all.

freejazz00's picture

M, Mike gave you this platform so you should use it within the confines of whatever you two agreed on when you got started. There is nothing wrong with offering food-for-thought about an inherently political work of art. There are many interviews that Gaye gave at the time speaking to his politics expressed on the album, after all. It is your article and you should do your best to express thoughts, however they come to you. My only recommendation is to not respond to the trolls: don't feed them!!! You don't owe them an explanation; your articles stand on their own regardless of which readers want to post word vomit in the comments section. It is cliché, but true - don't wrestle with a pig; you both get dirty and the pig likes it. You have better things to do with your time. Best of luck,

/d

Hackmartian's picture

I bought the original MoFi What's Going On as well as the "One-Step" and this 50th from UMe is my preferred version by far. As has been pointed out, the nominal gains in fidelity aren't worth the butchering of the music itself so sloppily done on the one-step (seriously--the hard edit that falls AFTER the intro to "Save The Children" rather than before?) and the one-step packaging is a mess, both over-and-under-thought. The artist conceived each side as a continuous suite, without breaks between songs. Retroactively breaking it up to squeeze out a little more detail means prioritizing audiophilia over the music and intent of the artists that made it and that is where the hifi game always loses me. The 50th Anniversary pressing is the best 33-RPM version I've heard and, for once, the artwork is crisp and up to modern standards. The bonus disc is a throwaway and I would have preferred an AAA pressing of the Detroit mix instead of the hodge-podge they went with, but as far as the best representation of the original album on vinyl, this takes the prize.

Andy1974's picture

The comments & 'offence' taken by people here are insane. If you can't comment about race when discussing this album, when can you?

kelossus's picture

Because why does race need to be brought up? There are plenty of artists from all races who are in the same boat.

Glotz's picture

"What's Going On" is the title.. And it is utterly symbolic of the world we live in today.

The same problems, the same ignorance, the same apathy, the same hate.

Rashers's picture

Just don’t do it for me. I get that some audiophiles can hear a marginal difference in sound quality but it does not overcome the inconvenience of getting up and down flipping albums and the significant price differential. These analog era recordings were designed to be two to four sides at 33rpm- most of us nostalgically prefer side a to b or vice versa. The 45rpm ruins the flow. In addition 45rpm are not always better: the Music Matter Blue Notes at 33rpm were significantly better than the 45rpm version - at much lower price - mostly because Kevin Gray upgraded his electronics. I get why one might buy a 45rpm to enjoy or show off the fidelity: I have a bunch of them that take up a huge amount of space (particularly the one steps). Last week I decided to listen to Portrait in Jazz by Bill Evans - I picked up the OJC version and enjoyed it immensely, leaving the one step on the shelf. My vote would be for mofi to do one step / SRX vinyl at 33rpm, drop the price and press up twice the number (two albums instead of two records). I would buy them all.

Bob Henneberger's picture

Malachi when you were doing your comparisons what cartridge were you using? Was it the Ortofon Mc black? did you use the same cart for both albums? i wonder because i dont find the MFSL 1 step that siblant,,,maybe its my cart

MalachiLui's picture

i use the ortofon mc quintet black s for everything...

TokyoMatt's picture

Hey Malachi - forget the trolls, I really enjoyed the review and the fresh perspective - as do the majority of readers.
I hope all the comments nonsense doesn't pressure you to adjust your review style.
Looking forward to your next unfiltered posting.

Chemguy's picture

...is a solid 9 for me, and takes a backseat to no previous pressing. It’s a superb rendition.

Recordsmakemeinsane's picture

So basically Kevin Gray gets the masters and Britton or what's his name at MOFI what source did they use they never say was it a digital source transferred to analog and blah blah... The One Step right with 45 RPM sides and all that and Kevin Gray mastering which is usually fantastic is just ehh... I take it the Green Vinyl version wasn't Kevin Gray. And the one sold at Amazon isn't Kevin Gray and the one on that Polish mastering place isn't Gray ... Where is Gray mastering... Does it exist did he even do it.. Is it Kevin Reeves or Suha's .... This is really bumming me out... And for everyone who's putting down this LP you have no soul no anything your probably a 1995 baby who likes all this nice crap... Fremer I wrote you about a Antherm 225 integrated amp and a pair of Dyna Contour 20i the new one's is it crap or did do good ?

MalachiLui's picture

i think i made this pretty clear in the article. the US copies of this new 50th anniversary 'what's going on' are cut from the original tape by kevin gray. it says so in the marketing - "direct to analog mastering" (the liner notes elaborate a bit more). mofi releases with an "original master recording" banner, such as both of their 'what's going on' pressings, indicate that it's cut from an analog source unless it's an inherently digital recording.

Rashers's picture

So - the US version of this release has a hype sticker that claims "Direct to Analog Mastering by Kevin Gray...Pressed...at Precision" when it seems to have been (back cover sticker "made in Czech republic") pressed at GZ. The European version's hype sticker claims "Direct to Analog Mastering by Kevin Gray...Pressed...at Dublin Vinyl" - when it was mastered by Lawrence Dunster (presumably from Digital) - pressed Lord knows where.
Clearly this is mislabeling and an abject failure of marketing, project management and quality control.

Glotz's picture

Great stuff man! You should be thrilled!

supamark's picture

It's funny to me that so many people are getting worked up about a little bit of social commentary in the review of an album which is itself social commentary and inherently political. Like, how do you review an album that is explicitly talking about what's happening in the world at the time of its making without mentioning today's (still very screwed up) world? Seems like a damned if you do, damned if you don't situation to me. Good on ML not taking the safe route.

The controversial sentence was removed before I read the article, but the record industry really is set up to take money from the artist in perpetuity. Here's Steve Albini from about 30 years ago: https://thebaffler.com/salvos/the-problem-with-music

Mark Phillips, contributor SoundStage! Network.

Glotz's picture

And you are right- social commentary is important, especially so with music.

We also ask writers to NOT take the safe route, for the need of new insights and commentary.

But, instead most forced censorship. Sad.

Anton D's picture

I'm leaning toward "stick to the music" at this point.

We say Marvin was victimized by the white man.

If we are going down that road, who stands up for the women Marvin beat or abused?

Google "Marvin Gaye domestic violence" and then get back to me about how to proceed with the social discussion. (I can't listen to Michael Jackson without thinking of his vile behaviors. Same for Gary Glitter, etc.)

If we are going to opine his victimhood, then we should also contextualize his behavior, as well. But, then, Marvin was the product of an abusive home himself and that wasn't perpetrated by any record labels.

So, how do we have any discussion that's more complete than,"White-man record execs abused people of color?" I don't think it's within the scope of LP record nerd chat.

Also....People have pointed out that record labels were pretty much color blind in their abuse of artists, so do we need to talk about this topic when we discuss every record?

I'm just saying it's a tough topic and both sides have points.

TokyoMatt's picture

Well put Mark!

scottyh777's picture

If you don't like marvin then you are racist and ignorant as well.

Mark Cherrington's picture

In amongst all the name calling and hyperventilating, no one seemed to actually talk about what a thorough, thoughtful, and extremely helpful review this is. I can't imagine how much time and thought went into producing it, and the writing is clear and very nicely done (I have some basis for this assessment, as I've made my living as a journalist for 50 years). Also, your inclusion of the recorded clips from the two main pressings was fantastic--again, a lot of time and trouble for you, done entirely for the benefit of us readers. It makes me all the sadder to see people sniping, complaining, and insulting instead of thanking you. Well, here's one heartfelt thank you. I eagerly look forward to your next article, Malachi

stretch35's picture

only if it is on the lead-in groove or lead out.

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