Mo-Fi's "Kind Of Blue": Kind of Blah? (Updated 10/28/15)

Ed. note: I mis-read an interview in which Mark Wilder, who in 1997 produced the remix from the original three track tape used for this reissue, said he'd produced another transfer for the 50th anniversary box. That transfer was from the 1997 two track mix but done using a different playback deck. I mis-read it to mean he'd started again with the three track tape. Sorry for the confusion. So I've re-edited the review.

Donald Rumsfeld once famously said "You go to war with the army you have not the army you want". While reissuing Miles Davis' iconic Kind of Blue is hardly as consequential as invading a country, in context of our little musical and sonic world it probably is.

So it's important to keep in mind a few things: one is that Mobile Fidelity had to work with "the army it had", which was Battery Studios' Mark Wilder's 1997 three-to-two-track mix down to analog tape produced playing back the three track tape on a pristine all tube Presto deck and using a GML custom line mixer and producing a flat transfer at 15IPS using Dolby SR onto an Ampex ATR 102.

Greg Calbi used that mix to produce the lacquers for the 50th Anniversary blue vinyl version and that is what Mobile Fidelity used here. 913kindofblueP1010034.JPG

Photo of three track alternative master during playback at Battery Studios

So when Mobile Fidelity says it has used "the original master tapes" giving credit to "Remix engineer Mark Wilder", we know, despite the "message board" rumor mongers, that this was sourced from analog tape and not from digital.

We do know though that in the process of doing the first transfer from three track to two for Sony's 1992 gold CD, Wilder discovered a tape speed discrepancy produced by the main recorder's having run 1.25% slow during the original recording session for some of the songs, which produced a final original LP that played back side one faster than was accurate. The second back-up machine ran at the correct speed so Wilder used those back up tapes for all subsequent transfers, thus producing the correct pitch throughout, though the result was not "accurate" to the original pressing.

For more about all of this read former Stereophile writer John Marks' encounter at Battery Studios with the three track master tape here.

And be sure to read the review of the recent mono mixdown from the three-track tape produced for a Record Store Day reissue, because both the main and back up mono master tapes disappeared at some point from Columbia's tape vault.

But back to our regularly scheduled Kind of Blue reissue review! In 1997 Sony was still being generous with its master tapes and so Classic Records was able to get for Bernie Grundman one of the two three track master tapes—probably the original that had run slow during the recording session on some tracks. Either that, or Bernie purposely sped up those tracks to produce an 'alternative' disc that ran at the original pressing's elevated speed, along with a second disc that ran at the corrected speed.

If you read John Mark's above linked column, you'll learn that while all of the songs were performed and recorded without edits, the producer "slates" (announcements identifying the takes, etc.) tones, and other chatter had been edited out and splicing tape put in to produce the necessary spaces for the vinyl cutting process. However, the original pressings were not cut from the three track tapes. Instead, they were mixed down to two track tapes, with all fade outs performed during the lacquer cutting. For some reason, no one ever talks about or references those original two track tapes.

So Classic's two versions of Kind of Blue—one a double LP set with one LP cut at the original speed and one with the corrected speed versions of "So What", "Freddie Freeloader" and "Blue in Green" on one side and a previously unissued version of "Flamenco Sketches" (the only alternate take of any tune recorded during these sessions) presented at 45rpm on the other side, and the other a four single-sided 45rpm LP set—were cut from the three track master (or alternative master) and mixed "live" to two track, with Grundman applying the fades manually as he cut, which is how the original was produced from a two track mixdown.

Mobile Fidelity cut from a two track mixdown as was originally done and Classic cut directly from the three track—I figure the only time that was done. And of course Classic's cut was produced in 1995, two years earlier than either of the mixdowns that could possible have been used for this new 45rpm reissue. So why 45rpm? As I've previously written, these are licensing deals wherein the label owning the tapes can specify at which speed it is willing to issue a reissue license. So here it's possible that Sony was only willing to do a 45rpm deal, or perhaps Mobile Fidelity had a choice. We probably will never know.

In preparing this review of the sonics only (so much has already been written about the music that more would be superfluous. However I recommend Ashley Kahn's "Kind of Blue: The Making of The Miles Davis Masterpiece"), I compared to this new reissue: two original "6-Eye" pressings

as well as the Classic Records version at both 45 and 33 1/3 as well as two British pressings. One a late '60s orange CBS label edition and a 1998 Absolute Analogue version mastered by Ray Staff from what must have been the tape shipped to England back in 1959. Fortunately this is an album one never grows tired of listening to!

Firstly, the "magic" on the original pressing cannot be fully duplicated elsewhere in terms of the air and space available when the tape was fresh—even with the 3-2 mixdown and that's taking into account the high frequency "bump" produced when the tape was played 1.25% fast on side one's recorded tracks. The cymbal decay that seems to go on forever on the original isn't there to the same degree on any of the reissues. Drummer Jimmy Cobb is famously quoted as having said about the KOB recording " clearly hear the wood of the drumstick against the cymbal." And while you can on all versions, it's best presented on the original. On the other hand, the original is, as Calbi notes, "bright" as was the style of the day.

So the piano whether Evans's or Wynton Kelly's (on "Freddy Freeloader" only), sounds slightly cardboardy, but boy is there air and reverb behind both Adderley's and Coltrane's saxophones, even though as Marks reports, the reverb chamber "send" was only on the center channel on which only Davis and Chambers were recorded.

Going directly from the original to this Mobile Fidelity reissues makes obvious the speed difference—even to someone without perfect pitch. Also obvious is that the piano sounds more like a piano and less "cardboardy". There's plenty of "...wood of the drumstick against the cymbal" just not quite as much, which could be the result of the speed difference and the less bright overall equalization (or lack thereof). There's plenty of reverb around Miles's horn but the instrument sounds somewhat less "brassy". Whether this translates to greater instrumental accuracy or 'dullness' will be system dependent. As is usually the case, the brighter, faster version (the original) will sound more "exciting" but that's not the same thing as "more accurate"!

Moving to the Grundman cut, and comparing "sped up apples to sped up apples" the Classic reissue more greatly resembles the original in terms of air and space and tonality than the Classic resembles the warmer, richer Mobile Fidelity reissue. The Classic's corrected speed side at 33 1/3 more closely resembles the Mo-Fi in terms of tonality but the Classic single sided 45rpm version of "Freddie Freeloader" was definitely more open, spacious and transparent than was the Mo-Fi, but given that the former was cut directly from the three track and the latter was probably from a copy of the two track mixdown (Sony/BMG does not allow original masters off the east coast so Mo-Fi probably lugged its superb Tim DeParavicini designed R2R deck to Battery and made a copy), that is not surprising. On the other hand image focus, especially of the piano was better on the Mo-Fi reissue.

All of these issues that I compared sounded great but the speed issue makes direct comparisons difficult. The original, speed issue and all is "the document" and some people will want that because it is "the the"—though finding a clean copy isn't easy and it will cost you a lot of money! I thought the Ray Staff cut Absolute Analogue edition, cut from whatever source, sounded remarkably close to the original and I've seen those around for not much money.

Twenty years later, the Classic double LP set with both the incorrect and correct side one plus the alternate take of "Flamenco Sketches" is certainly a prize worthy of seeking out as is the four single sided 45rpm issue.

That said, considering the care that's gone into this Mobile Fidelity reissue, the high quality RTI pressing and the reasonably well produced booklet with great studio photos included (glossy, thick paper stock would have been nice instead of the matte finish), this reissue strikes me as a complete success. It does not sound like the original but consider that Mobile Fidelity went to war with the army it had, not the army it might have wanted. I think the "army" was Mark Wilder's admittedly warmer sounding transfer/mixdown and so if that was the case, this reissue is a complete success and as good as can be expected fifty six years after it's original release. I know the folks at Mobile Fidelity worked really hard and spent the money to get this one right.

I wish Mo-Fi would be more forthcoming about this critical reissue so I wouldn't have to be guessing and speculating here, but they were tight lipped, which left me no choice other than to guess about certain facts. And please consider that this was not really a "stereo" recording but rather three mono tracks with some reverb and microphone leakage. Of course it still sounds incredibly spacious and magical but don't neglect the mono version if you can find either an original or the RSD reissue.

BTW: I have the HDTracks high resolution download and it is very, very good but well you know where this is going so I'll let you finish it! As for the "blah" headline, well that was nothing but "click bait". Sorry.

Music Direct Buy It Now

iyke's picture

I have to respectfully disagree with Mikey's review of the this Mofi KOB. I just finished comparing it's sonic qualities with Music Matters 33rpm of Wayne Shorter SPEAK NO EVIL. I have to say the MM record is what a record sourced from a tape sounds like. If someone placed a banner over this MM reissue that says "ORIGINAL MASTER RECORDING" I'd be hard pressed to find any argument to dispute the claim.

Mikey, if you give a 10 stars rating on sound to this weak Mofi effort on KOB, I dare say you have to you have to increase your rating scale to 20 stars because that's what SPEAK NO EVIL deserves when you get around to reviewing it

Michael Fremer's picture
And you must put the rating in context of the opening paragraph.
iyke's picture

If we are talking about musical styles of both records, yes, apples and oranges.

But I am squarely talking about analog recordings. Both records are supposedly analog, yet if you go through a checklist of the qualities that give analog recordings their uniqueness, the Mofi KOB falls flat on it's face as an analog record. It has very little dynamics and the amped up bass seems intentionally amped up to mask the record's shortcomings.

Mofi used to stand for something. They used to be the gold standard in analog records. When you are in that position, and the best your KOB can be is what you put out; you tell yourself that's not good enough. That is what Analogue Productions and Music Matters do. They don't put out sub par records. I guess it's no mystery why both have overshadowed Mofi in the analog game.

Todd Lainhart's picture

I sat down this evening and compared:

  • Late-70's early-80's Columbia
  • RSD Mono version
  • MOFI recent issue

...listening to "Flamenco Sketches" a couple of times on each.

It's a tough call, but I think that I prefer the mono for overall presentation. The Mofi did stand out when it came to Adderly's solo - the richness and complexity of his horn came through better than on the mono (oddly) and the late 70's Columbia.

But I was surprised on how good the late 70's sounded compared to the Mofi.

halloween jack's picture

So it looks like Mofi has used the same '97 Wilder remix as Mosaic's Complete Columbia Davis/Coltrane set, right? Anyone had a chance to compare them?

Michael Fremer's picture
But I didn't compare. My bad.
rakalm's picture

Sorry that I neglected RSD KOB but I did get Jazz Track, Someday My Prince Will Come, Round About Midnight, Milestones, and both of the 10 inch (Volume 1 and 2, flat edge pressed by QRP?)RSD Linen Box Sets. I have a nice sounding 70's version of KOB. They are all really very nice pressings which I couldn't resist. Glad the hype about analog was correct. Nice they were all numbered except the 2 Prestige box sets. Off to Discogs look up my KOB. Loved that Blah intro, sure got my attention.

Russo7516's picture

I have KOB 6 EYE first pressing, Plus a two eye mono version. Plus 180 gram pressing and now KOB MoFi. The MOFi pressing ok .
My only question is how much will that Mofi pressing be worth in the future . I have # 2059 .
I see 70's and 80's pressing going for over 100 buck. Princeton Exchange is selling a Rolling Stones Box set from MOFI for 1600 and O just saw a Beatles mono Mofi go for over 300 grand on ebay .

Michael Fremer's picture
no such thing as a MONO Beatles Mo-Fi box. At least not at I am aware of.
Russo7516's picture

Yes the MOFI Beatles MONO came in a Red Box. Academy records in Brooklyn had one

Michael Fremer's picture
There was a red mono UK box but Mobile Fidelity absolutely did not issue a mono Beatles box set!
john ryan horse's picture

$1,600 for the Stones box and $300,000 for the Beatles box, do I have that right? Some "rivalry"...The Beatles must be like the art market. If I'd invested 20 years ago I'd be a middle class man today!

Russo7516's picture

Sorry I meant 3 grand for Mono

Michael Fremer's picture
Of a mono Mo-Fi Beatles box. When the stereo box came out I picked mine up directly from Mobile Fidelity from the producers and Herb Belkin. No one mentioned a mono box. You'd have to show it to me for me to believe it existed.
ViciAudio's picture

... it just kills my Classic Records 33rpm (200g Quiex SVP) and my 50th Anniversary Box (European pressing from Optimal, not the noisy US pressing). The piano finally sounds almost right, the bass has tonality and realistic resonance (for the room where it was played) like never before, every vital aspect has been improved and nothing that was right before was changed or made to sound worse... what's not to like? Thank you MFSL :)

hi-fi's picture

Thank you MFSL for sharing how great your version sounds :-)

Just kidding, I'm glad to see someone stand up for the MFSL. It's difficult to tell what's sincere and what's disingenuous because of various personal biases and possible agendas. Even I took a cynical swipe just now but that's because I couldn't resist, it was merely playful fun :-)

Seriously though, any high profile release produces anticipated speculation followed by actual listening assessments, and with Mr. Fremer's review as the catalyst for readers to discuss and amend with their own experiences, we reshape the speculations into something the reader can better base the success of the product. Still, there comes the issue of not only the many variables in playback systems but just as many interpretations of what each owner of those systems concludes. You'd think as fidelity increases while reducing otherwise coloration-type distortions, the ability to hear "truth" would help gather a rather uniform consensus, but still the disparity between opinions with those likely to have such playback systems yields too many different opinions and preferences. In the end these reviews and shared experiences help put together a road map, but to the wise who want to get to the bottom of owning what they feel could be "the best", listening for yourself is clearly the only way you'll determine that choice for you and your system, unless you unconsciously enjoy endless enigmas. I for one appreciate the review and feedback from the comments. The road map thanks to everyone's involvement is great. So where am I, lol? I know I have to take routes that have been both favorable and unfavorable to others, but at least I have an idea of some of the terrain I'll encounter during my own KOB journey, thanks for that :-)

Grant M's picture

I've read several times now how Sony won't let the master tapes out. Isn't it possible there are exceptions to this policy? Setting KOB aside for a moment, what about the eleven other MOFI titles in the Miles series, and what about all the Bob Dylan series that have "original master recording" banners? For some reason, people haven't questioned the issue of tape availability in those cases. Isn't it possible the MOFI deal with Sony was based on getting access to the original tapes? This seems like an 800lb gorilla in the room. Are people correct who say that there is no access for MoFi to get the tapes? If that's true, how can MoFi support their claims of original tape? To me, it just seems incomprehensible that MoFi would embark on these two major projects without a deal to get the tapes, and just claim to have them. This may be an exception to Sonys policy (if it really exists) but it's a reasonable explanation for Mofis claims. When MoFi doesn't have the original tapes, they don't make the "original master recording" claim, as in the case of several Dylan albums where the original masters are unusable or lost. Ultimately, what's the basis to question Mofis claims?

Michael Fremer's picture
I've written about this before in reviews. Perhaps you missed it. It is true that Sony does not ship master tapes off the East Coast. And that it has a trusted relationship with Sterling Sound that does have access to master tapes. Mobile Fidelity's Sony releases (Dylan, Miles) are certainly not cut from the master tapes. What Mobile Fidelity does is take it's Tim DeParavicini "super-deck" to where the master tapes can be accessed (probably Sterling, or perhaps Battery) and they make a flat transfer from the master and cut from that.

If you have an original 6-Eye "Kind of Blue" you can be pretty sure it too was cut from a copy of the original master, and not from the actual master. So in that sense, the two would be from the same generation.

Grant M's picture

I've read that before, but never confirmed nor heard that it applied to the Dyan tapes and to Miles. But it's shocking to me that MOFI can legally say their "original master recordings" are made from the master tape if they are in actual effect just copying them. I guess the results speak for themselves whether or not they sound good, but it seems totally disingenuous which i'm not sure now how i feel about spending my money on them. Like you and many followers here, i just wish all this process was far more transparent.

vinylrig's picture

Got my copy of the MoFi release and it's simply superb in every possible way - sonics, quality of the pressing, packaging (I agree with Michael glossy insert would have been a cherry on top). Not only am I shocked by the negative comments on here, but almost offended that those posters offer no specific criticism but blanket statements how MoFi "blew it." No mention of the equipment for the most part either. It's absurd. I got two copies as this is a historic release of a historic record. Don't let the naysayers discourage those who are debating whether to get it. Absolutely spectacular.

Lyra Delos
VPI Classic with Valhalla wiring and SDS
Sensor Prelude
Rogue tube 99 Preamp and M-180 monoblocks
Silverline Audio SR-17.5 with redone crossover

mraudioguru's picture

You are right on with your comments. I have listened to this several times through now and find it SUPERB!

I think the people who have pooh-poohed this release should get their ears cleaned or get a new system.

azmoon's picture

I have the Classic Records 33 and the MFSL 45 is better to my ears. More dynamic. Can also hear Bill Evan's piano more than on the Classic version. I also have a VG original which does not compare to either in my opinion. If you love this album and have the cash it is well worth it.
Classic 3 TT with Dynavector XX2
McIntosh C2300 into MC 402
Dali Euphonia MS5 speakers
REL Strata 3 subwoofer

luizfcoimbra's picture

and it´s totally worth the price. I´d like to second the above comments by vinylrig and azmoon... This is top notch stuff. If I had to be picky, I´d say that the bass could be over eq´d in some tracks (So What comes to mind). However, Freddie Freeloader really took me to another place. I cannot tell how/why it sounds so good and maybe better than everything I´ve ever heard at home because I was REALLY enjoying it. And this pressing somehow has less tape hiss than what I was used to when listening to other pressings of this record (I do have the outstanding RSD mono).

I´d love to compare it to the original pressings, like Michael did, but that´s not an option to me and, quite frankly, the MoFi beats all the other options available at this time IMHO, maybe because its warmer and has better instrument placing and those are qualities that affect me to a great extent than some others.

It´s REALLY GOOD stuff, on par with the previous top notch releases. It´s a matter of taste/system matching, but there´s really no reason to rant.

Kuzma TT/Tonearm, Transfiguration Phoenix cart
BAT amp/preamp
Thiel 2.7

If you love this album, buy the MoFi pressing while you still can. Oh! It´s DEAD QUIET and faultless by the way.

bwright's picture

This is a great thread - I just received this box set, and will be listening to it shortly!

I'm also wondering if you've heard the Classic blue vinyl 180 gram limited issue.

It has a different sound than the other Classic KOBs in my collection - this includes the 180 gram black vinyl, the 180 gram 33/45 double album, or the later 200 gram blue vinyl & black vinyl versions. Although I don't have this set myself, I'm told it sounds most like the Classic 45 rpm two disc release.

Keep an eye out for it - it has a small, rectangular black sticker on the bottom right cover of the album, which is different than the oval stickers found on the other Classics.

mauriciodice's picture

Hi Michael, do u know something about the Kind of Blue : the Stereo and Mono Versions of Green Corner label? In jazz messengers page says that both are from the masters. Thanks a lot!

ViciAudio's picture

... it's just another "public domain" scalper label, so maybe they used the low-res digital MP3 masters they downloaded from the internet :(