Sonic Grade: D
In 2012 the new MoFi put out another remastered Big Pink. Since their track record at this point is, to be honest, abysmal, we have not felt the need to audition it.
It’s very possible, even likely, that they restored some of the bass that’s missing from the originals. But bad half-speed mastered bass — poorly defined, never deep and never punchy — is that the kind of bass that would even be desirable?
To us, it is very much a problem. Bad bass is just plain annoying. Fortunately for us it is a problem we have to deal with much less often now that we’ve all but stopped playing half-speed mastered records.
I was a big Mobile Fidelity fan in 1982 when they released this album, which, for some strange reason, I knew practically nothing about. I was 15 when the second album came out and I played that album all the time, but the first album had eluded me. How it managed to do that I cannot understand, not at this late date anyway. A major malfunction on my part to be sure.
At some point in the early ’90s I got hold of an early British pressing of the album. Comparing it to my MoFi I was shocked to hear the singers in the band so present and clear. Having only played MoFi’s remastered LP I had never heard them sound like that. The MoFi had them standing ten feet back; the Brit put them front and center. There was no question in my mind which presentation was right. Around that time I was noticing that many Mobile Fidelity pressings seemed to be finding that same distant-midrange sound, and finding it on wildly different recordings.
Recordings from different studios, by different engineers, in different eras. Can that be right?
That MoFi Sound
The Doors first album was yet another obvious example of MoFi’s predilection for sucked-out mids. Scooping out the middle of the midrange has the effect of creating an artificial sense of depth where none belongs. Play any original Bruce Botnick engineered album by Love or The Doors and you will notice immediately that the vocals are front and center.
When the DCC Doors first album was released on vinyl we noted that the vocals were finally back where they belonged: after having lived with the MoFi for so many years we’d almost forgotten. And now of course we can’t tolerate the smear and opacity of the DCC. We like to think we’re simply setting higher standards these days. We expect that you are too or you wouldn’t be on our site reading all this.
The midrange suckout effect is easily reproducible in your very own listening room. Pull your speakers farther out into the room and farther apart and you can get that MoFi sound on every record you play. I’ve been hearing it in the various audiophile systems I’ve been exposed to for more than 30 years. Nowadays I would place it under the general heading of My-Fi, not Hi-Fi. Our one goal for every tweak and upgrade we make is to increase the latter and reduce the former.
And note also that when you play your records too quietly it results in an exaggerated, artificial sense of depth. That’s one of the main reasons we play them loud; we want to hear the pressings with real presence and immediacy, because they’re the ones that are most likely to win our shootouts. If you have any of our White Hot stampers you surely know what I’m talking about.
The band’s discography through 1978 follows.
Music from Big Pink (1968)
The Band (1969)
Stage Fright (1970)
Rock of Ages (1972)
Moondog Matinee (1973)
Northern Lights – Southern Cross (1975)
The Last Waltz (1978)
Wikipedia on The Band
The Band’s music fused many elements: primarily old country music and early rock and roll, though the rhythm section often was reminiscent of Stax or Motown, and Robertson cites Curtis Mayfield and the Staple Singers as major influences, resulting in a synthesis of many musical genres. As to the group’s songwriting, very few of their early compositions were based on conventional blues and doo-wop chord changes.
Every member was a multi-instrumentalist. There was little instrument-switching when they played live, but when recording, the musicians could make up different configurations in service of the songs. Hudson in particular was able to coax a wide range of timbres from his Lowrey organ; on the choruses of “Tears of Rage”, for example, it sounds like a mellotron. Helm’s drumming was often praised: critic Jon Carroll declared that Helm was “the only drummer who can make you cry,” while prolific session drummer Jim Keltner admits to appropriating several of Helm’s techniques.
Singers Manuel, Danko, and Helm each brought a distinctive voice to the Band: Helm’s southern voice had more than a hint of country, Danko sang in a tenor, and Manuel alternated between falsetto and baritone. The singers regularly blended in harmonies. Though the singing was more or less evenly shared among the three men, both Danko and Helm have stated that they saw Manuel as the Band’s “lead” singer.
Robertson was the group’s chief songwriter, but he sang lead vocals on only three studio songs released by the Band (“To Kingdom Come”, “Knockin’ Lost John” and “Out Of The Blue”). This role, and Robertson’s resulting claim to the copyright of most of the compositions, would later become a point of much antagonism, especially that directed towards Robertson by Helm, who, in his autobiography This Wheel’s on Fire – Levon Helm and the Story of The Band, disputes the validity of Robertson’s place as chief songwriter, as the Band’s songs were often honed and recorded through collaboration between all members.
Robertson for his part angrily denied that Helm had written any of the songs attributed to Robertson and his daughter later pointed out in a letter to the Los Angeles Times that Levon Helm’s solo work consists almost entirely of songs written by others. Strains appeared in the 1980s, when the bulk of songwriting royalties were going to Robertson alone while the others had to rely on income from touring. This had not arisen as an issue in the late sixties and early seventies, when a number of Band songs, mostly credited to Robertson alone, were covered successfully by other artists – such as Smith’s version of “The Weight” for the Easy Rider soundtrack LP and Joan Baez’s cover of “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” in 1971.
Producer John Simon is cited as a “sixth member” of the Band for producing and playing on Music from Big Pink, co-producing and playing on The Band, and playing on other songs up through the Band’s 1993 reunion album Jericho.