Half-Speed Mastered and other Audiophile LPs

 
Back in the 60's and early 70's, it was a record industry practice to use good quality vinyl for records. Just locate some old, first pressing 60's albums. Pick it up, shake it… it's heavy, and the vinyl is thick and very solid. You can find old copies with all types of marks and streaks and they'd play just fine.

By the late 70's, the quality of LPs had declined badly, and it was normal to buy albums that were warped or skipped or had lots of surface noise (we call that post-energy-crisis vinyl). Yes, the 1974 energy crisis made its mark (unfortunately) on records. It became a practice to melt down records and mix the recycled stuff into the vinyl vats at the plants. On top of that, vinyl became thinner and more susceptible to warp. I'll admit it- when I cut the cellophane open on a new-sealed copy of Serenade… "Yes I Will" had lots of surface noise and "I've Been This Way Before" had some little bumps embedded in the vinyl.

People with high-end stereo systems had gotten sick of this poor quality. This was before CDs were even invented, and the LP was the primary media of the day. One option was to buy imported LPs from Germany or Japan. Although the quality of the vinyl was often better, there were times when the master tape source was poorer than the U.S. sources.

Mobile Fidelity Sound Labs stepped in to fill the audiophile niche market. Their Half Speed Masters were special pressings of the albums. They (smartly) realized that not all audiophiles were classical music buffs, and that the rock generation was beginning to come into its own, with big bucks to spend. Mobile Fidelity Sound Labs had made superior quality pressings of albums by using thick, virgin vinyl, and by locating low-generation copies of the master tapes and using those as a source for their albums. The term "half-speed" refers to slowing the cutting lathe to half-speed while cutting the album stamper, resulting in a more accurate and deeply etched groove that held low tones better.

The first one I bought was Abbey Road by the Beatles in 1979. There's a huge difference between that and the normal Capitol pressing. At the time, MFSL albums cost twice as much as normal albums. But, when the CD revolution came, people no longer needed MFSL albums because CDs inherently did not have surface noise or pops and ticks. MFSL eventually did find a way to stay in business, coming up with "gold" CDs.

CBS also made their own series of half-speed mastered audiophile albums (most ND half-speed LPs are by CBS). However, it is generally thought that the CBS discs were not as good sonically as the MFSL discs. These days, the CBS discs are interesting primarily as a collectable, not as the ultimate listening experience.

Be aware that quadraphonic and the half-speed pressings are two different things. Creating Quadraphonic albums required the use of the session tapes (pre-two-track stereo mixdown) and at times resulted in delightful alternate versions of well-known songs. This is because using the session tapes opened up the possibility of using a different vocal track, or picking up an extra verse that was "left out" of the regular stereo mixdown tape, or using additional instrumental tracks that had not been used originally.

Half-speed pressings do not contain alternate takes or mixes or longer edits of songs- they use the same 2-track stereo mixdowns as the regular albums. Their main purpose was to utilize lower generation master tapes, to create clearer and better-sounding pressings of the albums. Hence, the music itself was not altered- the reproduction of it was simply (and drastically) improved. Both quadraphonic and half-speed albums play perfectly on standard stereo systems (assuming that you have a turntable!)

There was another type of audiophile pressing- the dbx-encoded disc. This was an attempt to expand the dynamic range of LPs. At the time, it was standard practice to "compress" the music in order to be able to transfer it to LP. If compression was not done, a listener would have to strain to hear the quiet parts of the music, and get their eardrums blasted during the loud parts, all without even touching the volume knob. On top of that, if the dynamic range of an LP was too wide, it opened up too many chances of having the stylus (needle) "jump" the groove while playing loud sections. Some audiophile LPs were encoded with dbx, which was a compression algorithm that allowed the full dynamic range of a recording to be stored on an LP. The idea was that the hi-fi owner had to buy a "black box" that would read the dbx-compressed music on the LP and then decompress it to its full range when it sent the music to your speakers. The major drawback with dbx is that it rendered dbx discs incompatible with stereo systems without the "black box". If you tried to play dbx without the decoder, the result is some seriously-compressed music with odd volume fluctuations. It is not very enjoyable or listenable. The only reason why I know about dbx is because one of my cassette decks had dbx compression and I had toyed with it back in the 80's. I didn’t like it, and stuck with the more-standard Dolby B system.


This article is Copyright 1999, K.F. Louie. May not be reproduced without the written permission of the author.

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