July, 2001

Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab Interview

I recently heard from Gregg Schnitzer, a man who was present in the early days of MFSL. Presented here, with Gregg's permission, are excerpts from our e-mail correspondences - a feast I think, for those who appreciate MFSL.

I took the opportunity to ask Gregg some questions that many of you have e-mailed to me over the last three years. There's plenty of tech stuff here and plenty of non-tech stuff, too. Gregg also provided some great graphics for the site, many of which appear below. Enjoy!

What a wonderful web site!  Thank you for all the hard work.  I was Director of Product Development for MFSL from 1980 to 1986 and also Chief Engineer from 1984-1986, a stockholder and Gary's good friend in the early years. I designed the cassette mechanism and process and there is some nifty background in the research which included Rocketdyne and the Jet Propulsion Laboratories.

There is no mention of the awards won by MFSL (Inventor's Award, The Definitive Award, etc.), on your site, nor of the titles that were mastered there but released on other labels.  Bet you never heard of the D-Ring device.  What about the GeoTape?

It occurs to me that the only person still alive from the earliest days is me.  Gulp.  Let's go waaaay back.  I was working in a high end audio shop that I helped convert from a pawn shop.  I was a flea bag hippie biker who also was a recording engineer when they hired me.  I discovered all of the cool hi-fi in the back room that had been taken in on pawn from G.I.s coming back from Europe and Vietnam, so I cleaned it up and showed the owner how much could be made on this new thing that was replacing muscle cars for the young male market.

About 1974, this 325 lb. gorilla came in and was curious about a good sound system.  Turned out that he was a local celebrity announcer and the voice of NBC in that neck of the woods for TV and radio.  We had, by then, acquired franchises for JBL, Marantz (when it was still a marquee), Thorens and several other elite brands.  This big gorilla listens for a while and then buys a set of JBL L200 floor speakers, a Dynaco 400 power amp kit, a Dynaco PAS-1 pre-amp and an AR-XB turntable with a Shure V-15 cartridge.

Less than a month later he comes back in and says that he's gotten used to the system and now doesn't like the sound of it.  Do we have something better?  This scenario is repeated a few more times within the year.  Now this guy has spurred us to stock even better gear and he's built up quite a charge account at the store that he's having trouble paying.  So he starts working on weekends to pay his bill.  His name was Gary Giorgi.

I watched Gary get so addicted to audio that by the time he had acquired a complete Linn system  (including speakers), a complete Audio Research system, several pair of Magneplanar speakers and subs and various turntable/cartridge combinations, he found himself and his family homeless.  He had to sell his two-story Victorian house on the beautiful south hill of Spokane (right across the street from Manito Park), in order to feed his habit.  He and his wife and children (one a newborn) moved into the basement of her mother's house in Opportunity, Washington, a few blocks from me.

Gary and I would spend many an evening listening to music and cherishing the few albums we could find that would challenge his awesome collection of playback systems.  One Saturday, a Warner Brothers dog and pony show motor home came to town with Brad Miller hawking his quad wares.  Brad set up this display in one of our sound rooms and at the end of the day, Gary cornered him and wanted to know why the sound effect records and trains sounded so good but popular music wasn't available with that kind of quality.

The bug caught Brad and he related how this cutting engineer at JVC, [ Stan Ricker], did awesome work.  If we could only get the original masters we were sure that this approach would work.  As has been omitted in many interviews, the method was found accidentally.  Stan was cutting CD-4 quad records for JVC and a ~30kHz demod carrier was needed for it to function.  Those clever Japanese, who were well aware that the cutting lathes extant couldn't cut above 18kHz, decided to cut at half speed.  No problem.  Use an octave lower demod and you could even get up to 36kHz on the vinyl.  Stan cut some without the carrier and they sounded even better.  That's how it really happened.

Titles were needed so Brad and Gary went a knockin' on doors.  By the time they got to ABC-Dunhill, they finally found a receptive audience.  What Herb Belkin doesn't admit in print is that ABC was losing about $250,000 a day right then, and his job was on shaky ground.  He had already been fired from Capitol.  Brad and Gary offered a stupid royalty, higher than any paid for any record at that time.  Herb, being quite sharp, jumped at it as he nothing to lose.  He had no idea what he was about to start.  The three titles he gave to Gary and Brad were taken to Stan and the lacquers sent to JVC Japan to matrix and to create a test pressing.

Those three titles: John Klemmer's Touch, The Crusaders' Chain Reaction, and Steely Dan's Katy Lied. - J.H.

Our dream was simple at the time.  We wanted to make a small record catalog available to select audio hardware dealers so that they could better demo their systems.  Obviously we were thinking with our wallets.  What could we afford?  Not much and that meant very few pressings.  Brad funded it and we sent out records of the first few masters.  Gary and I were together almost every night then, listening and listening and driving his saint of a wife to her bedroom in exasperation while we got very picky about the discs.  That's when we got a hint of what was about to happen.

When the retailers used our records to demonstrate the high end systems they couldn't close the sale unless the customer could also have the demo record with the purchase of hardware.  Two things happened at this point.  Our sales went from roughly $15,000 per year to $500,000 per year to $5,000,000 per year to almost $15,000,000 per year!  The other thing is that we had accomplished what every record company wanted to do.  We were actually inventoried in the high-end hardware salons and boutique stores.

As the first year came to a close, Brad and Gary knew they would have to relocate to LA for closer proximity to Stan Ricker, the record labels, shipping, etc...  Gary asked me to accompany them on the move, but I had a new baby and my own business.  He couldn't pay enough for me to even get lodging in LA so with much sadness I declined and wished him luck.  I also told him that if he could pay enough to live I would gladly come down and join up as janitor (that's how Mike Grantham got his gig.  He offered to be the janitor, just to work there).  Getting ahead of myself there.

A year and a half later, Gary called me again.  He flew me down and picked me up in his new 928.  'Things were great,' he said, and made me an offer I couldn't refuse.  I got my own division of the company and, what was to me, a killer income.  The company was doing so well that Harvard School of Business did a paper on us claiming that we were the fastest growing closed corporation in US history!  That was the year we geared up for the Beatles collection.  We had to lay about $500,000 on the line in letters of credit - to pay for pressing the albums and for vendors such as Modern Album in Hollywood, who made our fantastic packages.  It was a scary time with Herb advising us that we could all be out of work if the Beatles tanked.  Well, they didn't tank and we ended up on Good Morning America, CNN, Today and we even got interviewed by Playboy.  Herb glommed onto all the credit (why does that not surprise me), but I did get my picture in the European Playboy wearing my cute little white lab coat.  Ha!

Oh, a really great story that was never, under pain of death, disclosed.  Jacky Krost, our Director of A&R, was sent to Abbey Road to pick up all of the Beatles original masters and personally fly back with them as carry on luggage, all very hush hush.  They were carefully packed in two heavy mu metal carry cases.  Jacky is walking through Heathrow Airport on his way to his gate when these punkers come running up behind him a snatch one of the cases.  Jacky is about 5"6', plump, friendly and looks like a Hobbit.  Well, he must have seen his life flash before his eyes so he gets this death grip on the case that had been snatched, recovers his balance and did a round house swing with the other case.  He lays this kid out cold with a split skull and then along come the Bobbies...

Jacky tells them that he is really shaken and must make his flight and when the Bobbies ask what is in the cases he makes up some story and they let him go.  They never found out what he was carrying and had they known it would have made international news and probably jeopardized our shot at doing the collection.  We had to post an $11,000,000 bond to get them.  That was a close call and to hear Jacky tell the story would have you on the floor splitting a gut!

One idea I had was used on the Beatles box set.  Peter Senoff, our Director of Marketing, wanted a libretto in the box but didn't know what to do for jacket covers if we did that.  He didn't want to repeat the album cover on the jackets and in the libretto.  I excused myself from the staff meeting for a moment by saying I had an idea that I would like to show everybody.  I went out to the tape vault and grabbed one of the Beatles master tapes and brought it back to show them how the ledger sheet on the mu metal tape cans showed every place the master had been and who had used it for what.  My idea was to use a photo of the master on each jacket have the album art in the high quality libretto.  They loved it and that's what is on the jackets.  Gary tried to take credit for it a couple of years later but I chomped him hard for that and he was a mensch and admitted that I'd made the suggestion.  That and a dollar will now get me almost a full cup of coffee at a cheap cafe.

I've collected a lot of MFSL titles in various formats, including several cassettes, that I will likely never hear - or even tear the cello wrap on - because I don't want to hasten their destruction by exposing them to oxygen or by playing them. This begs the question of why someone would own a sound recording and never actually listen to it?

That has always bothered me, too.  You can't hurt them with normal use and it is especially bad to not exercise the tapes periodically.  We didn't dehorn our stampers, so the records actually get quieter the more they are played and the horn flashing is played out.  Playing them while also keeping them clean and properly stored will result in them sounding wonderful and likely outliving us.  The jackets will deteriorate sooner than the software.  So far my jackets have withstood 20+ years and still look great.

What (presumably) parallel research drew the involvement of Rocketdyne and the JPL?

I was given the tape division and a budget.  My first move was to acquire one of every type of blank cassette available on the market.  Two large walls in my lab were dedicated to the autopsy remains of these cassettes and unwittingly I had started on a path now known as SPC (Statistical Product Control).  I measured everything physical, rotational, magnetic and electrical.

The things I discovered were amazing.  Ever build a model car or airplane where the plastic parts come on a tree?  When you take the part off the tree there is still some flashing left.  The rollers in a cassette are made exactly this way and for some reason the tree connects to the tape path on the rollers instead of the edge or side.  When the rollers were removed from the tree the flashing wasn't trimmed which led to rotational artifacts that affected speed.  The shield above the pressure pad only shielded minimally for hum.  There was no flux shielding.  The pins that held the rollers had flux induced when they were drawn to their wire gauge sizes and the screws were all flux retaining ferrous composites.  There was no allowance for static discharge or for the side friction of the reels and on and on.

The shells on the market were especially rank.  Inconsistent molds made for iffy shells.  This Australian purveyor of plastic things, by the name of Greg Pynt, called me one day and asked for an appointment so that he could show me his products.  His company's name was Plastech.  He brought in six or so models that went from his cheapest polystyrene shell to his most expensive 9000 series polycarbonate shells.

I loaded them with tape and proceeded to do a thorough analysis.  His high end shell stank for side to side azimuth consistency and speed but the clear polycarb had an awesome lack of memory, would always return to its original shape after being severely bent and didn't need a glued in window as it was pure, uncontaminated, clear polycarbonate (think bullet proof body armor).  His cheapest shell was mind boggling in azimuth accuracy and speed but had a glue in window and looked like cheese.  After the evaluation, which took several hours, I explained that I couldn't use his product but if he wanted to make a killer shell he should use the mold for the cheaper shell, sans window, and the materials from the expensive shell.

Time went on and I didn't think about Mr. Pynt any longer.  I saw him, mistakenly I now admit, as somebody who was looking for bucks for his company and had already done all the R&D he cared to do.  Six or so months went by and I got an excited call from Mr. Pynt.  He had just flown into town with the exact shell that I had specified to him.  His voice was shaky on the phone and later I realized that he had hocked the farm to make the mold I had suggested.  It took him three tries and at $80,000 USD per mold he was scared stiff.

The rest is history.  He and I partnered on the technology and I disclosed my findings on the rest of the mechanism.  He located a metallurgist in Ohio to fabricate mu metal, copper, mu metal sandwiches for the hum shield.  He located a source for brass pins for the idlers (no flux retention and low friction with special rollers).  He sourced a company to make the special silicone slip sheets.  The idler wheels without path flash he obtained from a huge manufacturer by brow beating them to death.  He sourced brass screws with no flux retention characteristics.  Greg Pynt became a convert,  and an evangelist for the MFSL cause and came up with the finest cassette shell ever made.  The odd thing is that he was never given any credit in print by MFSL and due to our exclusivity agreement and low output he failed to recoup his investment.

While Mr. Pynt was brewing up his super shell we went ahead and used the BASF shells with their goofy arm mechanism.  The chief of tech for BASF told me that it was invented by a relative of one of the owners, a nepotistic type of thing.  Anyway, we manufactured tapes with the BASF black shell for a while and the MFSL catalog labels were royal blue instead of the black that was used later with the custom shells.

Early Copy of MFC-005 with the BASF Black Shell.

That was all cool, but I hadn't yet settled on which tape stock to use.  Here comes Rocketdyne and JPL.  There was this over-educated fellow named Mark Colen.  Mark had degrees in electronics, physics, medicine, economics and business management, an assortment of masters degrees and one or two PhDs.  And he was only in his thirties!  His job was as researcher at JPL/Rocketdyne and his heart's desire was to be CEO at MFSL.  Herb knew that would never happen, but encouraged Gary and I to find something for him to do.  After asking Mark a few questions it became obvious to Gary and me that Mark had access to an electron microscope and thermal spectral analysis gear.  He was also well versed in the use of the equipment.  Hmmmm.  I'd already done bias, level, distortion and countless other tests but didn't have the ability to look closely at the calendaring of tape stock.

At this time BASF was on the skids.  They weren't marketing effectively and the Japanese had configured all of their cassette recorders so that there would be insufficient bias for using pure chrome tape.  BASF wouldn't license the Japanese manufacturers for the chrome technology, so the Japanese retaliated by using cobalt doping and weird crystal configurations that used less bias and so sounded better in their recorders while BASF chrome tape would under-bias and sound like crap.  The main cause for this was their insistence on 12V power supplies.  Nothing could touch BASF if the deck were properly set up, but they were down to selling their stuff for $2 retail and the end was in sight.

Mark's electron microscopy of dozens of tape samples I gave him clinched the decision.  At 10,000x to 50,000x magnification all of the tape samples looked like big, rocky land slides.  Chunks as big as houses laying all over the tape face along with hopelessly misaligned crystals.  Except for one sample.  It looked like a mirror at 10,000x and at 50,000x you could see all of the +uniformly+ sized crystals neatly aligned the same way.  Almost like the tape was woven.  No visual flaws.  Perfect.  After doing spectral analysis of the remains that were incinerated we made our decision.

Now we knew, without a doubt, what the finest cassette tape in the world was.  Great knowledge but we hadn't found a tape recorder that could use it in an optimum fashion.  Bear in mind that once a tape is recorded properly it will play back beautifully in just about any deck.  I acquired one or two of every recorder made at the time.  It was an impressive collection of hardware and included all of Nakamichi's offerings along with Studer and Luxman.  Nakamichi wanted to be our supplier, desperately, but they wouldn't fix the problem and were not happy about German tape in their machines.  Years later I did tons of research with Steve Mascenik of Nakamichi and Hiro Nakamichi relented, made the changes we suggested and also did auto azimuth align for playback.  Remember the Dragon?  The remote ladder azimuth control for car decks was one of my bright ideas.

As we slogged through the re-engineering of the candidate decks we started feeling a bit overwhelmed.  The task looked hopeless.  Then, one day, I opened up a KD A77 JVC deck.  It was a mid priced unit but lo and behold.  It had a 15V power supply.  Whoooopeeee.  It could drive full swing from the wider bandwidth LF353 op amps we were replacing 4558's with and could punch the bias where it needed to be.  Those changes and a few other little things and we had the ultra hotrod recorder of our dreams.  They weren't super at playback but man oh man, could they print a mean signal.

We announced our choice for tape and our cassette plans at CES and BASF came back to me and told me that I would never have to pay for tape stock for our catalog.  When the news hit the street BASF was inundated with orders and over $10,000,000 in orders for tape stock were made at the show!  Wow.  We only ordered about $20,000 worth every quarter to six months.  They loved us and went way out of their way to do any improvements we wanted including not flying our shipments over the north pole and not hit it with bias as part of their slitter lines.  Very cool people, BASF.  They became the premier supplier for dupe houses worldwide and were duly compensated for all of their efforts on our behalf.

The first production line was set up and we did a run for the debut.  We conducted a double blind test at the U of Miami that included disc, CD and cassette and the listening audience consistently picked the cassette as the best sounding.  We were on our way.

My next stop was a flight to Detroit to meet with GM on their debut of the GM/Delco/Bose system and who would get the contract for the demo tape that came with their cars equipped with the premium system.  I got off the plane and was escorted to their limo.  Two other competitors for the contract were there.  The company rep asked if we had any cassettes with us that he could play in the car while driving to his office.  Nobody said anything so being young and stupid I said, "Sure, here's one."  He put the tape in, John Klemmer's Touch, and after half the first song had played the guy from CBS said, "Let me out here so I can catch the next plane home.  There's no way I can touch that sound quality on a cassette."

We got the contract!  One of the really cool fringe bennies is that they supplied me with one of each of the cars to do analysis.  Do you have any idea what happens when you're driving a not yet released new body style Corvette around at night listening to cassettes in the San Fernando Valley?  Fun stuff.

GM Delco/Bose System Demonstration Cassette

BASF wanted our shell for their alignment tapes, but Herb declined and wanted to keep the research proprietary.  I wish he'd gone for it.  BASF gave me the Inventor's Award for my work.  It's a Lucite block containing 1 inch of the first mag tape ever made and the block is mounted on hand oiled black walnut.  I treasure that more than my gold and platinum records.

As time went on we made the factory tapes for Toyota, Saab, Porsche, Volkswagen, Audi, Mercedes and several others including the GM luxury and luxury sports cars.  For several years I and Wink Martindale were the voices of Blaupunkt.  If you bought a new car with the deluxe Blaupunkt deck you would hear one of us introducing you to the system when you played the tape that came with the car.

Blaupunkt System Demonstration Cassette

MFSL did remastering for other labels?  This makes sense, of course.  An early article I have somewhere quotes Herb Belkin as saying that "MFSL produced many CDs for other labels."

Yup.  We mastered stuff like Billy Squiers' album, Stan did [Frank Zappa's] Joe's Garage.  We did some Windham Hill titles.  I mastered all of the Chrysalis Jethro Tull CDs and Robin Trower's Bridge Of Sighs.  One of the albums that we did was Daylight Again by Crosby, Stills and Nash.  I still have the mother from the pressing that didn't happen.  Seems like Stephen wrote this one song that infringed on a copyright held by Rose Royce and they had to scrap all of the art and pressing hardware and remaster.  My gold record was supposed to be made from that mother.  Interesting to note is that the song they weren't supposed to let out in any form is on that mother and plays just fine.

Why was there no MFSL LP sampler?  Why no cassette sampler aside from the Cafe sampler (MFSL's original music imprint)?

Licensing was the roadblock.  When we acquired the rights for many of these titles they only covered extant media.  We couldn't get a deal that included all future unknown media.  On some titles we had that and on others we didn't.  If you think about our premise it was some touchy politics.  We would go to the major labels and effectively say, "Give us this to do as we can do it better than you did it."  Touchy stuff, politically, especially when the label tech staff had something to say in the deal.  Oddly enough they were lining up an begging to be included in our catalog after a couple of years.  That only lasted until CDs came out and some genius in the press said that, "CD's make the word 'audiophile' obsolete."  Want to know how bad the snake oil burned?  CBS converted many of their masters to first generation CDs for storage considerations and then destroyed the stereo masters.  OUCH!!

The only way a sampler LP could've been made would have been to have all the masters on site at the same time.  Then the songs would have to be cut, with a razor blade, out of their respective masters and spliced together.  There was no way in the world that any record company would let us splice one of their catalog songs together with a release from a competitor.  Bad juju - it would never happen.

CBS sent me a catalog and invited me to pick a baker's dozen of titles that I would like to do on vinyl.  So I picked lots of neat stuff like Abraxas, Joni Mitchell, Ten Years After, Earth Wind and Fire and so on, and ordered the records for tech review.  I sent the list of my choices back and they sent me records but I never heard from them again.  Several months later I was cruising a record store and I see this glitzy rack with the 13 titles I had picked.  It said, "CBS  Master Sound - Audiophile Pressing - Half Speed Mastered."  Boy, was I pissed.  I bought one of each and went back to the lab.  After I cooled down I called Gary to see if he could do some listening with me.

Thirty seconds after dropping the needle on the first disc we stopped and looked at each other in horror.  Then we tried another of the CBS discs.  We stopped that one, looked at each other, and laughed till we had tears in our eyes and cramps in our sides.  CBS tried to do an end run on us by having us do the A&R work.  The problem was that they, apparently, cut the discs at half speed but didn't adjust their EQ or Dolby systems down an octave.  They just cut it at half speed with their real time mastering notes for processing.  Man, it sounded like watermelon seeds shooting out the speakers.  Those poor guys looked real bad after that and we looked real good. They never did get it right and eventually stopped trying.

After I left, in 1986, it became harder and harder for MFSL to get good titles. Most of the company focus was in Russia and that came to a less than wonderful end.  The fellow who replaced me, Joe Bermudez, was an avaricious, greedy money grubber with a tin ear and a private agenda.  He drove what was left of any quality out of MFSL.  Sad.  He was also a revisionist on the history and did his best to eliminate any names but his, Herb's and his buddy Nelson Pass.  The GAIN system was a gambit to recharge that "we've got something special and you don't" cachet that MFSL had.  It was a blatant good-old-boys thing as Joe was CEO of Pass audio before one of its excursions to belly up status.  It's funny that he as much as admits that in a couple of interviews.  By the time Joe had heart surgery and they got him out of there the damage was permanent.  If I could place the blame on any one person for what happened to the company it would be Joe (R.I.P.).

Herb was good for the company and bad, too.  He cut Brad and Gary out of the picture by 1984 and feathered his own nest heavily.  Oh well.  By mid 1986, I just couldn't deal with what the company had become so I sold back my stock, took my technology and hit the road as an independent engineer.  I never looked back.

There's some controversy about the weights of the early MFSL LPs.

I have noticed in press releases that there is some confusion as to the mass of the standard pressings done by MFSL. Even Belkin, in an interview, made the comment that our standard stuff was 180 gram. This is not correct!  If it were true then we would have been wasting our time and money doing the 200 gram UHQR series. The standard mass was 100 gram give or take a few grams. If one were anal enough to weigh each record in their collection they would find the numbers would run from the mid 90 gram to as high as 122 gram!

In 1982 and 1983, we did some experiments with a slightly heavier than standard pressing for the purpose of reducing vinyl resonance, but trying not to hit the price point of the UHQR.  The possibility was for a third price point or even make our standard the 140 gram weight.  The test pressings for this run are very rare and very desirable.

Rare and very desirable..

One more fun trivia item. Curtis Chan, head of pro audio US for Sony, was a big fan and avid supporter. MFSL got several of the latest, greatest tech items from Sony before most people had even become aware of the existence of those items. One of them was the PCM-1600. We went with his suggestion for using a 1" transport with the 1600 and started testing everything we could about it. One of the first modifications was to replace the output stages with Jensen 990 op amps. There were some other minor improvements and we went to work.

There was one title about which nobody asked the obvious questions. Remember your question about a sampler LP? Remember my answer? Apply the same logic to The Best Of Kenny Rogers.  How did that happen? Here I go, talking out of class again.

The assumption made by many is that the individual songs were spliced together. Wrong. A&M wouldn't allow it. They gave us all of the masters involved but we weren't allowed to make the cuts and we didn't pursue it that vigorously anyway. See, we had another agenda. One of our biggest beefs about digital was that there was, and still is, insufficient bandwidth. Gary and I had beat on Curtis and hounded him to try for more bandwidth. He said it just couldn't be done.

Concurrent with this was the problem with a high quality delay line. If we were going to cut vinyl from digital then the original signal would have to feed the preview circuit for the lathe and the signal that got cut, coming later to the cutter head circuit, would be a digitally delayed copy of the original signal. If the delay wasn't perfect then all bets were off. When cutting from analog tape this doesn't present a problem as the same source is read by both preview and program heads. It's a different process for digital and one of the reasons that early vinyl cut from digital could take the paint off your walls on playback. FYI, the preview head fed a 'computer' that controlled the spiral drive on the lathe. This allowed for predictive spacing for bass heavy or dynamic sections and could keep the grooves from kissing each other. Without this function a dynamic program would have to be cut at fixed pitch and eats up lots of disc space, sometimes not allowing for all of the program to be cut on a side.

We covered the need for an adequate delay line. Now Stan loaded the individual Kenny Rogers songs into the digital system at half-speed. This means that the resulting vinyl would exhibit a sampling rate of 88kHz. Curtis never figured out that we had done this at half speed. Gary and I set him up big time. If someone believes something can be done they will work on it till it happens. We told Curtis that we had managed to get 88kHz sampling rate out of his 1600 so why couldn't Sony?  Curtis was given a test pressing of The Best Of Kenny Rogers and he analyzed it to death with his Nicolette analyzer and concluded that we had indeed raised the sampling rate. That we had indeed achieved close to 40kHz of bandwidth.

The consumers were never told about this. Nobody ever related the sound of that disc to digital. This may be the first time anyone outside the company has been told the truth. That album was digitally remastered and for that reason alone is one of the most unusual and rare items from the MFSL early catalog!

What about Curtis? He called Gary and me a few months later and invited us down to Compton to see his latest achievement. He had gotten a PCM-1600 to sample and store to tape at 100kHz! Think about that. Because he believed we had done it he accepted it as possible, something he had earlier declared impossible. He was proud as punch and as he felt his version was better he agreed to share and disclose technology. I really liked that guy. He even invited me to his wedding. I was one of the very few non-Chinese at his traditional Chinese wedding.

There were some MFSL gift items available through their catalogs in the later years, golf caps and such.  Any cool stuff from the early years?

Oh yes.  Some of the coolest looking jackets you've ever seen.  I think I still have a couple in different colors.  There were also posters (24" x 24"), in gold, black or silver frames for the Beatles, Stones and Sinatra collections, that were made for a very short period of time.

A MFSL Satin Jacket

Why were some titles (e.g. MFC-1-125 Stray Cats) released only as cassettes?

Because the licensing only allowed for that format.  Herb and Mike tried to get licensing for as many formats as possible, but these labels weren't getting the lucrative royalty that we originally gave to ABC.  Herb tightened that up so his stock would be worth more.  I can't blame him for that as I would've done the same thing in his position most likely...

MFC-125 - only released on cassette.

Why is there a difference (stereo v. mono) between the Beatles' Magical Mystery Tour cassette and LP versions?

Magical Mystery Tour on cassette was full stereo, unlike the LP ( on "Baby You're A Rich Man," :"Penny Lane" and "All You Need Is Love").  We were cutting the LP's from the original master.  That meant the original master, period.  Jacky Krost, our Director of A&R, had grown up with and was childhood friends with the members of the Beatles, Stones and Led Zep.  His brother Barry managed Cat Stevens.   See were the rights came from?  We sent Jacky to Germany to hunt down the fabled stereo masters that were cut at the same time as the mono masters.  Stereo was still seen as a novelty when Magical Mystery Tour was recorded and they made stereo masters on a second machine just to have them.  The cassettes were never cut from the original masters.  There was a PCM-1600 and a BVH-1000 1" recorder used to make the running masters.  That made it a piece of cake to insert the stereo mixes and voila, instant collector item.

Many many people are interested in this next question.  How many units were produced of any particular title?

I can give you a hint.  For vinyl it was directly proportionate to the number of lacquers cut.  Some titles only got as high as A1 and B1 or even A2 and B2.  Others would go as high as A9 or even A11 or A12.  Look on the disc, just outside the label land where the lead out groove is at the end of the record side.  You will see a scribe mark of the lacquer side and who did it.  Stan Ricker would be SR/2, Jack Hunt would be JH/2, John LeMay would be JL/2 and so on.

The number of discs to press was guess work.  Sometimes we would cut extras and have them plated but never need to make stampers from them.  Others we would run out of and have to request the masters back for another go.  They would carry a mark like A1-1 and would almost always sound a bit different from the original work we'd done as our gear was not total recall.  Cassettes never had a run on the bank with big numbers.  A few thousand each maybe.  The big numbers came from Bose and other outside contractors but they did use the MFSL catalog for the most part.

The Beatles were tough to deal with as we did have to specify an upper limit of 25,000 of the collections and we had to deal with over 100 different people to get licensing.  More were cut due to the same releases outside the collections so it would be anybody's guess.  Mine would be in the area of 50,000 each on the Beatles.  Another interesting point is that there were multiples of the same number.  There are many more than one of serial number 1 on the Beatles collection.  I know of a few that got number 1.  Same with 2 and 3 and a few more.  Lots of bakshish in those days.

Oddly enough the rarest of the collections would have to be the Frank Sinatra box.  I think he bought more of them as gifts than all the other sales of them combined.  My take is that we lost money on Frank - and Gary confirmed that.

The Stones were easy as we only had to deal with Allen Kline for the rights but I don't think an upper limit was discussed other than that he had the rights to the ones that went over. That was a weird deal.

How about quantities for the cassette versions - John Lennon's Imagine, for example?

I can't imagine MFSL flogging those poor JVC decks for long after I left the company so the number would be low for sure.  The decks were on their third set of heads with some tired technology when I left, and MFSL was looking at mid speed (~10:1) at that time.

There are a bunch of Pink Floyd collectors who'd kill me if I didn't ask this - Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon LP?

If I recall correctly, that one went out of production at right around 25,000 pieces.  We didn't cut enough lacquers to go much past that and here's a piece of trivia for which I could get shot.  Did you know that the Dark Side of the Moon master was ruined?  Somebody put it on a recorder instead of a playback only mastering deck and a little piece of Super Tramp got dubbed onto the outro of Breath.  Big secret, that.  Stan had left the company so a redux wasn't gonna happen.  Makes me seriously wonder where MFSL got the source for the Dark Side of the Moon CD.  Hmmm.  It would have had to have been a second generation safety or the digital master I made for the cassette run.

The cassette run master would've been suitable as it didn't have any gawd awful EQ done for the duplication.  It was very close in master prep to what the vinyl sounded like with one significant difference.  Want some cool trivia?  Back in the early '80's digital was a bit unpredictable and flaky which is why we used a very expensive 1" video deck (BVH 1000) instead of a U-Matic type 3/4".  I'd get these random ticks and pops which we affectionately called zits.

One night I sat in the studio listening to the DSOM digital copy and was horrified when I heard lots of low level clicks and zit like sounds.  So I called my wife to tell her I'd be working till sunup as the approval copy had to go to Alan Parsons via counter-to-counter air ASAP.  I turned the lights off so I wouldn't be distracted and sat there all night long with the first DAE-1100 editor and made a few hundred 1 millisecond edits to get rid of those zits I was hearing.  Then I made an approval copy cassette for Alan, sent it on its way and went home to sleep for a day or two.

A couple of days later we got a heated call from Mr. Parsons wanting to know, "What the f**k did you do to the master?"  I explained that I had done the best mastering job I could and that it compared very favorably to the vinyl and, in fact, I thought it sounded better than the vinyl.  Was there some problem?  He said that when he had mixed DSOM the desk (console) drove him nuts because every time he muted or unmuted a track or switched an EQ in or out there would be a resulting click or pop.  There was no technology to remove these artifacts so he and the band decided to just live with it.  He said, "How the hell did you get rid of those pops.  I love it!"  He was left with a patient explanation that it was proprietary.  Man, I almost soiled my pants only to find out that he was very impressed.

So, if you compare the CD with a vinyl disc and those pops and clicks are gone then there's the answer as to which tape was used.  Once you know what to listen for they are easy to spot as they occur when parts go in or out or the EQ changes.

Were any of the VHS/Beta recordings ever actually released?

Yes.  There were few consumers with that format and CD came hot on its tail.  I still have a few and that, to this day, is my favorite version of DSOM and I Robot.  I made each and every one of those by hand.  There were way less than 100 per title and some only had a run of 25 or so.  Very rare stuff.  We did not keep an inventory of them and only made them when there was an order.  They cost twice as much to make than their retail so we made them for the hell of it, for the quality connection.  They also had the most unbelievable bullet proof case of any Beta or VHS tape I've seen since.  I've got a few of the boxes that I use for other VHS tapes.  They are, after 20 years, indestructible and look as new.

I'd bet these were far superior sound-wise to CDs.

I would agree with you on that point as the data integrity was better on them than the first CD stuff and I was very painstaking with every one made.  The crux of the matter was the playback unit used.  It's like being told by a sales person that one type of DAT tape sounds better than another.  That's just not true.  The numbers are either there or they're not.  The stability of the playback unit and D/A converters is where the difference will be given that the same data from the tape is available to each different player.

One of the things that still bugs me about the early CD stuff is the out gassing of the polycarbonate.  It cracks me up whenever I see Belkin step out there with some tech explanation.  Talk about muddying the waters!  The problem wasn't the aluminum.  It was the polycarbonate.  As it got more exposure to temperature extremes it would out gas internally and one of the byproducts was acetone.  This would, in turn, etch the aluminum and could cause pin holes in the substrate or even complete eradication of the aluminum.

The research on gold CDs was done by me and I accompanied Herb to Japan on that quest.  He would like to make it sound like Mr. Yamaguchi came up with the solution when in reality it was suggested to Mr. Yamaguchi by yours truly as gold wouldn't suffer from the etching process.  The thing is that the aluminum CDs can last a hell of a long time.  Longer than a human lives and more - if it is simply stored correctly.  We knew this from the very first pressings we did.  Gary's 928 was one of my labs.  It had this big back window and I would put CDs on his rear tray in the car and we could make them go clear in one day!  An oven at 130 degrees would do it in a few hours so we knew it wasn't light but heat that hurt them.

I've actually heard of the GeoTape.  It functioned to align cassette heads, right?

The GeoTape was a late night, drug induced revelation for me.  If you are going to align a tape deck to play back a tape then the alignment tape is the tape you are going to play back.  It's not rocket science.  You put the tape you are going to listen to in the deck, set your playback for mono and twaddle the azimuth screw for the playback head back and forth a bit until you achieve maximum high frequency and the least possible phase shift.  Switch back to stereo, sit back and enjoy.  Simple stuff.  The wrong way is to put an alignment tape in the deck, align it, and then put a different tape in for listening.  There's little chance that they would have the same setting on a pro mastering deck much less a cassette deck.

Most people are terrified at the thought of turning any screws in there.  Unreasonable fear, that, but it is based on the obvious question.  "If I set my azimuth on my deck to listen to a certain tape and then later want to record, how do I know that it is set to any kind of standard?"  Enter the GeoTape.  The GeoTape contained stereo pink noise where both channels come from the same pink noise generator but one of them has the polarity reversed.  All you do is set your playback to mono and twaddle until both channels cancel for a null.  You're aligned and ready to go.

What got me is that our marketing department didn't understand even though I'd given it to them in writing.  They put it in the catalog as something that you adjust to and then all your tapes sound great when you play them back.  They resisted even trying to understand and I had to get rather loud about it at a staff meeting right after the catalogs were made.  Reese Haggot, VP of Alpine, wanted to use it in his cassette decks and include it with every deck.  He didn't get it either but I thought what the heck.  He brought along his CFO and told me this guy was so technically illiterate that if I could teach him the concept in less than five minutes he would buy a few thousand of the GeoTapes.  The CFO totally understood it in about three minutes.  Even the part about using it before recording and not playback.  The hysterical part is that he looked at Reese and asked him, "What the hell do we want these for.  Our decks only play back."  That killed me and, of course, we couldn't have made the sale with any ethics intact so we didn't.  The real confusing part about that product is that the audiophiles would buy all kinds of snake oil and tools for the turntables but you couldn't get them to turn one little screw on a cassette deck to achieve nirvana.  The sound of those cassettes properly aligned on a quality deck with Dolby just trashed the vinyl format.  Go figure.

Purportedly there were less than 2,000 of them made but that was because Herb didn't want to pay me the royalty.  Funny stuff.

I have not heard of the D-Ring...

Ah, the D-Ring.  That is a heavy duty piece of tech.  When a signal is brick wall filtered there is no way to get around overshoot and ringing.  It doesn't matter how many times you over sample or mess around with bit depth.  Take any of the latest, greatest convertors and hit it with a 1kHz square wave.  Bingo.  Overshoot and ringing.  The overshoot sounds like a hard edged EQ component that ranges between 5kHz and 11kHz.  Ringing has a nasty way of masking HF detail, especially reverb and ambiance cues.  Ringing was the real villain in early digital.  It is what was responsible for instruments sounding like they were pasted on a glass wall with no interaction, sterile.

There are two ways to get around it.  Increase the sampling rate enormously or use the D-Ring.  The D-Ring dynamically generated a model of the overshoot and ringing caused by anti alias filtering and returned it as a side chain (only the distortion, not the source itself) but out of phase with the original.  Digi artifacts gone.  The cool thing is that it is single ended so if a mastering job is done with it there is no need for decoding.  If it wasn't used in the mastering then it can be applied in playback, a consumer device.  The first title it was used on was I, Robot and we won the Billboard Trendsetter Award.

The Billboard Trendsetter Award.

It was used for a few others until the government took it under imminent domain for defense applications.  My technical partner was doing some work for the Dept of the Navy with Kurt Knoppel of Aphex.  It involved speech intelligibility for deep sea divers below 600' where the divers are breathing pure helium and use speech encryption.  He thought that our circuit would do the trick.  It did and the Navy took it.

It's a bummer as several manufacturers wanted it and I could see my retirement income setting itself up.  Sony hounded me and even made an offer of head of pro technical US so that they could get around the NIH thing that haunted them.

I'd not given MFSL much thought in recent years, and feedback in the pro community ran pretty much toward, "they're nice guys but they don't have a clue."  Shawn Britton, who became chief engineer after Krieg and I left,  is a sweetheart.  A truly likable, hard working family man and dedicated.  Fact is, I hired him in late 1985 to run the tape loader in the warehouse.  He was a drummer in a local band with no tech background.  It baffles me as to just where he achieved a technical background for that gig in just a couple of years when it took the rest of us decades of hard work to get there.  Odd.

It becomes clearer when I find interviews with Joe Bermudez.  That guy was the pits and the company was a mammal in that respect.  It changed with generations and the original concept was lost.  When Jack, Gary and Brad passed away I think we all lost something very, very special.  I was the ghost in the machine and ducked press.  Didn't want it but now I see Herb up to his old tricks of taking credit for the hard work of others so I'd like to set the record straight.  Like a fool I agreed with management (hell, I was management) to not giving individual credits to the engineers and change bringers and improvers and radical innovators.  Make the company famous, not the employees.  For that I am truly sorry and feel that Stan could've done a lot more in life had he not been excluded from the press and kudos.  The only one who got famous is Herb and the funny part is that when we started seeing real numbers Brad and Gary panicked and asked Herb to run the company business.  They unwittingly hired him at a salary that was bigger than anything he had ever been paid.  D'oh!

Which brings me to the end of this tome.  What got my interest back in MFSL was seeing a few albums at the end of my couch at home a couple of months ago.  In there were a few MFSL pressings.  They had been sitting there for something like 13 years (dating back to when I sold my Mapleknoll turntable).  I looked at my wife and wondered out loud about what they might bring on eBay as I wanted to get rid of them.  She said what the heck, 'They've gotta be worth $10-12, go for it!'  When I logged on to eBay and looked at all the pages of MFSL stuff at outrageous prices I about had a horncheeser!  Geez have I made a lot of friends on eBay.  Now I've gotten hundreds of emails from collectors and fans all over the world.  I listed my credits on some of the auctions as I wanted to fill background that would otherwise be unknown.  From there I've gone to sites such as yours and think that it's wonderful that some are trying to keep the history true.  Kudos to you for that.

John, thank you for letting me add some input.  With that said I will now give you a list of names of the unsung, true innovators and heroes from the MFSL pantheon.

First and foremost, Mr. David Baskind, the man who was my mentor and designed the mastering system for Stan Ricker, the man who came up with all of the very cool modifications on our equipment, a nuclear physicist who is an audio nut and the one I would first give credit to for all of the fine equipment we utilized.

Harvey Rubens, a friend of David's and mine and a genius.  He developed the modifications and silk screen for the circuit boards in Stan's Steroid Sontech mastering EQ's.

Gary Liden, who selflessly designed much of our distribution systems for no money.

Mr. Bill Westerfield, who performed the modifications on 120 cassette decks in one night per my specs.

Gabriella Van Duzer (now President of VCA Associates), who worked her Teutonic buns off making our product while studying for her EE at night.

Juan Garza whose wiring and assembly skills made two of the production rooms in Chatsworth a reality in only two days.

Gary Giorgi (R.I.P.), whose dream and drive became the MFSL that was our life for so many years.  He was thoroughly stripped of credit wherever possible after he left the company.

John Meyer of Meyer Sound Lab, whose contributions were innumerable.

Kudos to Greg Pynt, whom I mentioned earlier.

And Stan Ricker.  He, more than anyone, made us what we were and are and never, ever got his just press and credits.  Herb took it all for himself and that just isn't right or true.  We would never have had the acclaim without Stan's contribution and to this day I still believe, with just cause, that he was the genie in the bottle.

These are just a few ineffable souls that deserved press and consideration.

Thanks Gregg!


More to Come?


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