MWE3 Feature Story
conducted by Robert Silverstein for 
mwe3.com  


mwe3.com presents
an interview with

Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab founder
HERB BELKIN

 

Continued From Home Page


THE AUDIOPHILE EXPERIENCE OF
MOBILE FIDELITY SOUND LAB


The name Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab is music to the ears of audiophiles and music purists. For the past 20 years, Mobile have been supplying hi-fi buffs and music lovers with some of the cleanest, crispest sounding musical software ever reissued. Starting with their half-speed mastered vinyl albums in the ‘70s and later on, their state-of-the-art audiophile gold CDs, Mobile have captured the imagination of audio buffs and music collectors worldwide. Every Mobile Fidelity gold CD provides a wonderful listening experience, and because each Mobile release is a limited edition, each CD is also a guaranteed collectors item. Simply put, the Mobile Fidelity catalog of CDs contains some of the greatest albums of all time. A list of artists whose music have been given the Mobile Fidelity gold disc treatment reads like a who’s who of rock royalty. Classic titles by Traffic, Cream, XTC, The Kinks, Robbie Robertson, John Lennon & Yoko Ono, Ten Years After, Nirvana, Neil Young, Pink Floyd and Queen are just a few favorites from the pages of Mobile’s catalog. Although it would be impossible to give enough review space to each gold disc Mobile has released over the past 10 years, several new titles definitely deserve some mention here and now. Among the latest round of gold disc releases on Mobile are Edgar Winter’s 1971 classic, entitled Edgar Winter’s White Trash, the 1976 album from Blue Oyster Cult entitled Agents Of Fortune, the 1977 soundtrack to the movie Saturday Night Fever (with The BeeGees and others), the 1968 self-titled album debut from Steppenwolf (featuring their best known song “Born To Be Wild”) and The End Of The Innocence from former Eagles member Don Henley. Perhaps the most impressive of all the recent Mobile Fidelity reissues are new gold offerings by progressive rock legends The Moody Blues and Jethro Tull. Fans owe it to themselves to hunt down all of The Moody Blues gold CDs on Mobile including To Our Children’s Children’s Children, Every Good Boy Deserves Favor and the Moodies 1973 classic Seventh Sojourn. Like all of their Moody Blues gold discs, Mobile’s Seventh Sojourn sounds fabulous, while the packaging contains a detailed reproduction of the original album artwork and lyrics. The last of the fabled ‘Classic 7’ albums from the Moodies, Mobile’s gold disc of Seventh Sojourn is clearly an essential investment for their many fans. The latest and perhaps the greatest of all the recent Mobile gold CDs is Passion Play—the all-time classic from progressive rock legend Jethro Tull. Released in 1973 on Chrysalis Records, Mobile’s gold CD of Passion Play is truly a historic Tull item. The CD marks the first time Passion Play has been edited with 16 individual tracks. The original LP and CD was originally programmed into 2 separate sidelong tracks. However, thanks to some fancy digital editing by Mobile and Tull founder Ian Anderson, Tull fans can now pick and choose among 16 different tracks on Passion Play. Mobile’s superb sounding CD of Passion Play also includes the first ever reproduction of the entire program guide which came with the original album. Among the most ambitious albums of the ‘70s, Passion Play broke new ground for rock music and stands as a landmark event for modern progressive music in general. With the abundance of great gold disc titles in their catalog, 20th Century Guitar thought it would be appropriate to speak with the founder of Mobile Fidelity Herb Belkin. We now present part of that illuminating interview between Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab CEO Herb Belkin and musicologist was written, produced, recorded, transcribed and edited by Robert Silverstein of 20th Century Guitar magazine as it was recorded on Tuesday February 24, 1998.


Mobile Fidelity Recordings CEO Herb Belkin was interviewed by
Robert Silverstein on Tuesday February 24, 1998.


RS:
In your bio, I see that you have quite a vast background in the music biz. I read that you signed Grand Funk and The Raspberries at Capitol.

HERB BELKIN: I joined Capitol Records in late 1969, and I went to work for them on the East Coast. At around that time EMI had recently acquired the company. At then in early mid ‘70 they discovered that Capitol, for the first time in it’s history was going to lose money. And so they started this huge shake up. Since I was a lawyer hired from the West Coast, every time they fired someone they’d give me his job. So literally I’m in the music business maybe six months, and I became the head of East Coast operations for Capitol Records. I get to the point where they let everybody go, and I’m sitting in my office on 6th Avenue one day and the phone rings. A disconnected voice on the other end says to me, “Belkin, A&R is like baseball, you get three strikes and you’re out, start swinging.” About 10 days later, a guy by the name of Artie Mogull, who was the head of A&R for Capitol comes to New York and says to me, “So what’ya got for me?”. So from that point on I started crawling at the clubs, talking to people and finding things, and I signed a couple artists. About a year later, they invited me out to California and become the head of the A&R department. In the ‘60s and ‘70s the business was so crazy and frenetic, things like that happened all the time. There were a lot of interesting bands that came out from that time. It was a circus, the whole business was a circus in those days.

RS: After leaving Capitol, you soon joined Atlantic Records right?

HB: What happened was, as life would have it in those days, you could rise quickly and you could fall quickly. I left Capitol and when I left in 1972 I was courted by Jerry Greenberg and Jerry Wexler at Atlantic at that time to take over and run the West Coast operation of Atlantic Records. Which I did for about a year and a half. I developed a lot of their marketing plans including a whole program, which we called ‘The British Invasion’ or ‘The Rockers From Britain.’ It started with Led Zeppelin and then Yes, King Crimson, ELP and Roxy Music. Also about that time we broke Dr. John. It was very cool. The result of that was about a year after I got there, they asked me to come back to New York, and become the head of marketing for Atlantic Records.

RS: In those days Atlantic made some great-sounding vinyl pressings.

HB: In those days it depended on what plant you used. And the problem with all of these record companies was they didn’t apply the standard throughout all their operations. So, you could get a plant that made very good quality records and that same record would be made at another plant somewhere else in the country and it would be awful. So you couldn’t ever know what you were going to get when you opened up an LP. The standards were just totally different. So, you could have the same record, and you would have five different quality levels to your pressing. It was crazy, but true.

RS: How did you eventually go to work at ABC Records?

HB: I had a friend in the business who was was given the job of chairman of ABC Records. He talked me into helping him bring the company to mainstream. At the time I was there we had Jimmy Buffett, Steely Dan and we had some good R&B acts, but we were not strong enough to carry the day. It was the beginning of the emergence of the giants.

RS: How did you go from ABC Records to join Mobile Fidelity?

HB: I was executive VP at ABC Records and we were not doing very well. One day two guys, unannounced came to the lobby and asked to see me. There was Brad Miller and Gary Giorgi. They were the guys who started Mobile Fidelity. Mobile Fidelity Records was started by Brad Miller in the ‘50s. What Brad Miller did is he learned how to do field recordings, very high tech for it’s day. He would go out and record steam engines. And he would go back and make the steam engine recordings into phonograph records, which he would sell to hobby stores which sold model train sets. He then used his setup to record some natural phenomena such as thunderstorms and he created this thing called Power And Majesty, which is thunderstorms on one side and steam engines on another. From that he got ambitious and he began to do sound effects with music. He created an entity called The Mystic Moods Orchestra. Somewhere in the late ‘60s, he met this fellow called Gary Giorgi, who was a D.J. in Washington and who also was a hi-fi salesman. He was a true audiophile. A few years after they first met, they came up with an idea to create reference discs so that high-end audio salesmen could play these discs and demonstrate to consumers the high end features of audio equipment. They were very dissatisfied with the quality of phonograph records at that time, in the early ‘70s. In 1975 they went to JVC, who had an experimental cutting lab in Hollywood in 1975. There they met a guy named Stan Ricker, who was a master mastering engineer. So, now you have Brad Miller, Gary Giorgi and Stan Ricker all trying to figure out how to bring out the greatest potential in vinyl phonograph records. Stan told them that they could get more information on a lacquer by going back to half-speed mastering, but use the state of the art electronics today. So, it was Stan's idea to try half-speed mastering and it was Brad and Gary’s idea to do a higher quality vinyl, which they got JVC in Japan to try and do. So when they made their first recordings, there were three Mystic Moods albums and The Power And The Majesty, they put them out and they were gobbled up by the hi-fi stores. So, here we are. They’ve done all of this stuff and now they don’t have any more of their own recordings. So they decided to come to the music industry to see if anyone would license them any material. So then they showed up at my office and I can’t tell you why I let them in. But I was the first one to license them masters. And Stan’s view was if you were going to do this you had to use the original two-track stereo master. Not a copy. And with half-speed mastering you would get a vastly superior performing product. So I licensed them four titles. A Crusaders title, a Joe Sample title, a Steely Dan title and a John Klemmer title. A couple months later they came back with test pressings and we put on the John Klemmer test pressing and I was astounded. It was that substantially better than any recording I ever heard to date. I literally became an apostle. I went out and started telling people about this wondrous stuff. Around the same time I decided to leave ABC Records and I went into my own business and part of my business was consulting record labels. And these guys came to me and asked me if I would take them on as a consulting client. So from the end of ‘78 to the end of ‘79 I ran my business and they were one of my clients. In 1979 I got them the original two-track master to Dark Side Of The Moon. They mastered it and they put it out at the Consumer Electronic Show in 1979 and it was so spectacular that it turned this whole little audiophile software business and Mobile Fidelity on it’s ear. The demand for the title was so enormous that these guys got frightened and lost and they basically asked me to come in and run the company for them. I became president of Mobile Fidelity on January 1, 1980.

RS: You must have had good contacts at EMI, because the next really big project on Mobile Fidelity was the 1981 Beatles LP box set.

HB: My contacts and also my ability to demonstrate to people because I was part of a group of people who was known and respected in the industry. I could show them what I was talking about and they would listen. So we created contracts at A&M, Capitol, actually every major company. We were the only people ever to be able to take the original two-track stereo masters of The Beatles out of Abbey Road studios. And again it had to do with the people I knew and the trust they placed in me and the ability for me to convince not only the Capitol people, but the people at Apple that this was something worthy of doing. And they were all on board. The 1981 Beatles box turned out to be this much sought after limited edition set. In order to handle the record companies crown jewels—the original two-track stereo masters—we created these lead-lined containers so that nothing could happen to them and we would hand carry these things between their libraries and our facility. And we over a period of time got in all of the original two-track masters from the Beatles studio albums. We even had them take pictures of the cans these tapes came in so that people would know that these were genuinely the masters that The Beatles had stored at Abbey Road.

RS: Over the years Mobile Fidelity has earned a good reputation for only using the original two-track masters for all it’s releases.

HB: That’s exactly right. And that’s why we locked on to that particular format, because it’s the most pristine form that it’s stored in, it’s been used the least and it’s as close to what they did in the studio as your ever going to get. That’s why we call what we do original master recordings.

RS: Do you think Mobile Fidelity will ever release any Beatles CDs?

HB: I have been in negotiations with EMI and Apple for the last 8 or 9 years. And I think the answer is it’s always possible, but there are always supervening issues that have little to do with us. There’s a very large and complicated relationship that exists between the remaining Beatles, Apple and EMI and we sit in the wings waiting for the opportunity. Being a purist, I would want to to back to the original originals that we used for our LP set. The Beatles CDs available now are not what we heard on those original quarter track two-track masters. I’d like to go back to those. One day something will happen, I can’t tell you what, because we’re constantly having that ongoing discussion.

RS: When Mobile Fidelity first started making CDs, how did you come to find that gold would be the choice medium for manufacturing them?

HB: In ‘82, ‘83 and ‘84, when CD was just beginning to take off we were doing aluminum CDs like everyone else, and we were relying on our mastering to make the difference. Then we discovered an interesting kind of phenomenon that people called laser rot (oxidation). It primarily occurred because people hadn’t gotten the technology down to make CDs. We wanted to provide a disc for people that would be like bulletproof. So, I went to Japan, where the technology really was resting and I started talking to people. I met a group of unusual Japanese entrepreneurs from Mitsubishi and Sony who had gotten some seed money from a large Japanese company and wanted to go into this business. So they did the research for me and they gave me a kinds of samples of CDs made out of nickel, copper, bronze, silver and combinations of bonded discs. After about a year they came to me and they said that the best material to use for making CD is gold and it will be very expensive. So I offered him some money to figure out how to do it. After six months they came back to me and they said we can make you a disc and it’s still going to be expensive, but it’s not going to be what we said before. I said, let’s go for it. In January 1987 at the Consumer Electronic Show we introduced the Ultradisc, which was the first gold CD. It was a thirty year old album by The Modern Jazz Quartet.

RS: How does Mobile Fidelity determine what titles will come out as gold CDs?

HB: It’s a company of music fans. We all do it. Two things happen. We work one or two major label catalogs at a time and then we sit around, and because everybody at the company is very knowledgeable and big fans of music we come up with dream lists. And we’ll say something like, ‘we gotta work Sony this quarter or this year, so here’s the Sony catalog what do you want to do?’ And if it isn’t in the catalog that’s even better, we can have it exclusively. Although I never want the record companies, who I’m beholden to, think that I’m in competition with them.

RS: Isn’t there an interesting story about how Mobile Fidelity came to release a gold disc of Tommy?

HB: In the ‘60s and ‘70s artists and record companies really didn’t have a great sense of the value of original master recordings. Very often, once they made the copy, they would leave the multi-tracks and the original two-track master at the studio where they made the recording. In 1978 or later, Olympic studio in London, where The Who did a great deal of their recording, was sold by the original guy to another group and when the new group came in they felt they needed space, so they took all these tapes and threw them in the dumpster. The first day they did it, the dumpster was hauled away. The second day a guy who worked there saw this stuff in the dumpster and he called Pete Townshend. Pete drove rapidly into town, and pulled in behind this dumpster and filled his car up with these tapes. That’s how, what there is of original recordings material, multitrack and two tracks of The Who was saved, but a lot of it was destroyed. It was just a major loss. It’s absolutely true.

RS: And the tape used on the Mobile CD of Tommy was Townshend’s own personal tape?

HB: That’s exactly what it was.

RS: After Mobile Fidelity’s gold CD, MCA also put out a single disc version of Tommy.

HB: What happened was they went in and did a remix from the multi-tracks which was even different from the original Tommy CD that was out. In that sense, Mobile Fidelity is not a commercial company, we’re purists. We’re going after-that’s the name of the company-the original master recordings. We’ve missed things and refused to do things because we either could not find the original masters or somebody wanted us to use a remix.

RS: MCA did their own gold disc of Who’s Next.

HB: We couldn’t do it. Couldn’t find it. That’s one of the Olympic Studio disasters. MCA’s gold CD wasn’t from the original two-track. It’s from a copied two-track. For them using a second or third generation is and has always been acceptable. For us it’s not. They had a good tape and that’s what they used. Music companies are in the business of making lots of product available for lots of people quickly and cheaply. Mobile Fidelity is the absolute antithesis of that. Our business is dedicated to making small amounts of product available for small numbers of people slowly and basically without regard to cost.

RS: You also did a two on one gold CD by The Kinks entitled The Kinks and Kinda Kinks.

HB: There’s a good example. In our search, we found in London—from the older recordings, before they went with Arista Records—these two great original masters. We haven’t been able to find masters that were subsequently released. Because, again, what was delivered to the American records companies were production copies. Because the contractual relationship changed between the Kinks and Pye Records or rather the successor in interest to Pye, nobody knows where the masters are. On the other hand there were companies like British Decca and EMI that had and continue to have meticulous records and storage and protection for these masters. I’ve had engineers who’ve worked on one album at Mobile Fidelity off and on for a year to get it to where they though it was ready to come out. A major can’t do that.

RS: Speaking of masterpieces, Mobile Fidelity earned high accolades for their gold CD set of Jethro Tull’s Living In The Past.

HB: First of all, we’ve done, over the years, many Jethro Tull CDs. Ian Anderson is a Mobile Fidelity fan. He has his masters. He’s one of these guys who kept everything. He has always held, not only the multi-tracks but the original two-tracks. And so over the years, we’ve worked with him and he’s been a fan of ours and were a fan of his, so it’s a very mutual kind of thing. Ian is a super professional man. This is the consummate professional in the business. All I can tell you is I have the greatest admiration and respect for Ian Anderson as a musician, a creative person, as a technical wizard and as somebody who truly understands the effort to try and pass the magic of realism along through the recording chain.

RS: The Mobile Fidelity gold discs of Tull’s Stand Up and Thick As A Brick, are now out of print.

HB: When we did that, those were really early on. I would love to get a shot at those again, but the problem for me is I don’t like to do that and I’ve never done that to my consumer. I think it’s unfair. Making you buy things over and over again. Were going to probably have Gain II, and if it’s as dramatic a breakthrough as they tell me it’s going to be, I might say let’s do a few things from the past, because I think we’ll make a major improvement over what we did before,and time will have passed before.

RS: So you license the masters directly from Ian Anderson?

HB: We license them from the company, but the company doesn’t have the masters and our relationships with most companies are, that they know we’re treasure hunters and if they don’t have them they generally let us go find them.

RS: Getting back to Tull, do you think Mobile Fidelity will ever do gold CDs of the Tull classics Benefit and War Child?

HB: Now that you mention that, I was in London and met with Ian recently and I brought back Benefit and War Child. I might actually think about doing a box set of Tull. But, I brought both of those back, so you hit both of the right buttons.

RS: Another group Mobile Fidelity has had great success with is The Moody Blues.

HB: The Moodies music lends itself to what we do because they were the first band that obviously married serious classical charts with rock. They were pretty particular also. And early on they were really big fans of ours and their company, Decca, I had done business with from the get-go and they actually at one time wanted us to do a Moodies box set. I may do that yet, I’m not sure.

RS: What have been some of the most successful gold CDs on Mobile Fidelity?

HB: Dark Side Of The Moon was the biggest and best we were ever able to do. That was true by a large quantity. We don’t have that one in the catalog right now. Mobile Fidelity had Dark Side in it’s catalog continuously from 1979 till 1996 and we sold lots of them. We also sold a tremendous number of Meddle. From an audiophile point of view Muddy Waters was an exceptional recording for us. It’s called Folksinger. We’ve also done very well with U2’s Joshua Tree, and Robin Trower’s Bridge Of Sighs.

RS: Which Mobile Fidelity gold discs do you think sound the best?

HB: That’s an interesting question. It depends probably in terms of what were trying to capture. I would suggest you listen to the Muddy Waters CD and listen to Billy Holiday’s Body And Soul and Dinah Washington’s What A Difference A Day Makes. That’s my kind of music, close to doo-wop which is what I grew up with. The best of all—and it has to do with what were trying to do here, which is capture reality—is the R.E.M. CD Murmur. Funny enough, other people say listen to our Bob Marley CD Catch A Fire.

RS: What do you say to audiophile purists who still swear by their old vinyl LPs and sometimes look down on CD?

HB: Yeah, they’re right. In all honesty I’m an analog guy. Until we fix the sampling rate on CDs and fill in blank spots you loose the real ambient feel and that’s what analog gives you. CD gives you a much more accurate representation of the note, but it loses in terms of the note and the ambient environment in which it was played. I think we’ll fix some of that. In other words we have to double the sampling rate. Mobile Fidelity is actually working in those areas right now. And that is when I think you’ll start to discover that CD can compete, if you will, with analog. But I don’t think it can as it exists today. The next generation of CD will be a softer, rounder more natural sounding ambiently appropriate recording medium.

RS: I never want to go back to vinyl.

HB: Our albums don’t have that problem. And you must remember I’m one of those people your talkin’ about. I spent a fortune four years ago to build a brand new state of the art vinyl plant. And for three years we made vinyl records, again! The problem for me was, I discovered, as I describe it that the demand turned out to be a mile wide and a micron deep. There’s a lot of people talking about it and not as many willing to put their money up. After three years I closed the plant.

RS: I still don’t want to go back to my turntables again!

HB: No, no you won’t have to do that! First of all it’s 15 years after CD. You’ve relearned listening, you’ve filled in the blanks on your own. You follow me? So long as people are interested in experiencing the closest thing to realism you can get in the musical experience, the final stages of analog reproduction and the next generation of digital reproduction, not the one were in now, but the next one, which is DVD and DVD audio (DVDA) will be looked upon as the pinnacles of accurate reproduction for their periods. I don’t think what we’re doing now will be looked upon that way at all.

RS: So you’re saying, that in regard to CD we still have one more mountain to climb so to speak?

HB: I think so. Absolutely. The next generation of DVD audio (DVDA) will be much better. Mobile Fidelity is working on making those improvements.

RS: So, I guess I’ve been talking with a real pioneer of the CD movement?

HB: I don’t know. What I know is that we serve a very highly, critical but very small market, and we never try to pull anything over on them. And we’ve always been honest with them. And that’s why we’ve been in business for 21 years.

RS: Herb, I’ll let you go, but first give me your top five desert island discs.

HB: Now you’re really stretching it! OK... The Beatles- Revolver/Rubber Soul...Yes- Close To The Edge...Led Zeppelin- Led Zeppelin II...and Free’s self-titled second album- Free. Gotta Run!


Date: Thursday, September 6, 2001
Retired U.S. music industry executive Herb Belkin died Aug. 22 in Alaska of a heart attack. He was 62. An attorney who joined the music business in 1969, Belkin worked as A&R GM at Capitol, where he was involved in the careers of Grand Funk Railroad, the Raspberries, and others. He later held senior posts at Atlantic and ABC Records. In 1977, Belkin co-founded audiophile firm Mobile Fidelity; in 1987, he established Soviet-American classical venture Art & Electronics.







 
 
 
 
 

 


 

 

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