MFSL CD Metal Master - UDCD 538 "Songs for Swingin' Lovers"
By Rob Stewart - JustMastering.com
I was a youngster when the compact disc first arrived on the scene, and I have always been fascinated by them. Before CDs, we had a choice of tape (either cassettes or 8-track tapes), or vinyl. I was an early adopter of the CD because - even as a child - I had grown very tired of cassette tapes which were inherently noisy, and prone to damage caused by either usage or a poorly aligned player. I had also grown tired of vinyl for the sheer size of the discs and the fact that every spec of dust could be heard.
CDs were very "high tech" in their day. Imagine that at the time, lasers were specialized products that were expensive and hard to purchase. Suddenly there was a home audio device that had a laser "in the box" that was used to pick up sound off of a small, highly reflective jewel-like disc. CDs were not the first optical format (the "laserdisc" arrived on the scene a few years prior), but, they were the first consumer format to support digital audio. They were originally called Compact Laserdisc before being shortened to Compact Disc or CD.
CDs promised to offer music lovers "studio quality" sound, for the first time. You no longer had to deal with the hiss and distortion of cassette or 8-track tapes, or the pops, clicks and mechanical noises that often came with vinyl (assuming an entry/mid-level player at the time). In my experience, CDs delivered on everything that they ever promised. They offered the highest fidelity available at the time, and were designed to last a lifetime. Even today, CDs continue to offer music lovers a very high standard of quality, despite that we now have high resolution formats available today.
Part of my interest in CDs is with the manufacturing process. I spent over 20 years looking to buy a metal CD master, so that I could own a piece of that process. CD masters are not easy to come by, because CD manufacturers have typically been secretive about their manufacturing processes. Even though information about the major steps in manufacturing a CD is widely available, every manufacturer has adjusted their methods to help maximize their quality, and some have been more successful at that than others.
A few months ago, after over 20 years of searching, I finally found a metal CD master or "stamper" for sale on eBay, and so I bought it right away. This article was originally going to discuss CD manufacturing with the stamper I bought as part of the story, but as you'll read, the story I uncovered when researching this disc proved to be much more interesting.
First, here's a picture of the CD master I bought. I believe this is a "son" that - according to my research - was manufactured by Sanyo Corporation in Japan, for Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab's 1990 Ultradisc audiophile release of "Songs for Swingin' Lovers" by Frank Sinatra (UDCD 538).
You will see a few codes on the case, along with some Japanese writing.
It may not be too apparent from this picture, but the width of this metal master is wider than a CD, because this stamper gets mounted into an injection molding machine. The hole in the center is also much wider than a CD.
The disc inside is very thin. From my research, these "sons" are created from "mothers", which are created from the original glass master. A glass master disc has a coating on it that can be etched by laser, to engrave the pits and lands of the CD. The mother is therefore a mirror image of the disc, which is not playable, but the son is a mirror of the mother which makes it a playable copy of the original glass master.
This disc, to the right, is the metal masterwith the case open. This picture is small but you might notice the UDCD 538 in reverse in the ring to the left of the center hole.
CD Stampers ("sons") can be used thousands of times, and can even be washed and re-used again if they become slightly dirty during the manufacturing process. Being made of nickel, they are very durable.
You can see a bit of chemical residue on the rim of the disc (the band in the shiny area around the edge of the disc) which I believe is a releasing agent used to help separate the metal disc from the polycarbonate used in injection molding.
Some history that I learned about MFSL's UDCD 538 releases
The Japanese-manufactured release came first (Ultradisc), and then a few years later, MFSL re-released the album with US manufacturing (Ultradisc II). As I mentioned above, from looking at a UD vs UDII disc side by side, it is clear that they created new metal masters for the American Ultradisc II release. The artwork between the two is almost the same, right down to the UPC code, except for the "Ultradisc" vs "Ultradisc II" logos on the back, and the missing Capitol Records logo on the American-made Ultradisc II release.
This is a picture of an actual 24kt Gold MFSL Ultradisc CD (Japanese) version of "Songs for Swingin' Lovers". It is challenging to get a clear shot of the numbers on this disc because it is so shiny, but in the right light, you can see UDCD 538 in reverse, the very same as what you see above on the nickel metal master disc.
Being way too curious for my own good, I actually purchased a Japanese-made Ultradisc and an American-made Ultradisc II copy of this release, and I can confirm that they look completely different, clearly having being made using different metal masters, which confirms that the stamper disc pictured above was used only for the Japanese-made Ultradisc release.
After 20 years of searching for a CD master, and being lucky enough to find one for a Frank Sinatra audiophile release, I was compelled to show it off.
I purchased this Perfect Cases Display Case to both protect and show off my exhibit. I am very happy with this case. It is very well built, of glass. It is wall mountable, and the top glass is hinged so that I can open the case and reach in to look at these pieces at any time.
2014: A new state-of-the-art high resolution release
You can purchase the new Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab SACD release of "Songs for Swingin' Lovers" at the mofi.com website.
More information about what happened with the original masters over the years
MFSL has a limited-run release available on hybrid SACD, which is completely new. You might think that this is just a gimmick to convince you to "buy up" to a high resolution copy, but, it is not.
MFSL is known for creating exceptional quality audiophile releases of popular recordings direct from original master recordings with minimal processing. Their focus is on technical refinement, and ensuring that what you hear is exactly what the original recording and mix engineers wanted you to hear. From what I have read, when MFSL first created their audiophile release of "Songs for Swingin' Lovers" in the 1990s, they were given the wrong tapes, which were not the original master recordings. Instead, they were copies which were equalized and processed with an echo sometime in the 1960s.
There is a whole back story about this, but the end result is that MFSL eventually sourced the real original mono master recordings which have the best sound, as the producer and engineer intended you to hear it.
By the way, this is my old Electrohome Madeira console stereo (circa 1968). I grew up listening to records on this system, and it still works today. You may notice from the picture that it features a Dual 1210 Turntable.
A word about John Palladino
John Palladino was the engineer who recorded Songs for Swingin' Lovers in 1956. John was considered a top recording engineer, who worked with various artists on numerous releases between 1940 and 1982. He, and a few of his peers created a characteristic sound that many labels and artists have attempted to emulate ever since. "Songs for Swingin' Lovers" is a great example of that sound, which is full, round and crisp. MFSL's latest SACD version of this release gives you the closest possible representation of the original analog master tapes.
John's career spanned various technologies (wax, acetate, magnetic tape with overdubbing and eventually multitrack tape recording). He was an early adopter of analog tape when it appeared in the U.S. in the 1940s, because tape made editing possible. John was fondly referred to as "Mr. Snips" by some, because of his exceptional editing skills.
John worked with a long list of well known artists including Frank Sinatra, Steve Miller, Nat King Cole, among many others. John decided to retire in 1982 because of his hearing loss, and because of changes in the industry, but his influence is heard and felt in popular music to this day.
John Palladino died on Dec 20, 2014 at the age of 94.
More information about John Palladino
- John Palladino: Have mikes, will record Parts 1 and 2
- SCVNews - John Palladino - Pioneer recording engineer dies at 94
Did someone say "Vinyl"?
I am still researching this, but I understand that the original 1956 pressings had grey "Capitol Records" labels, and (in the U.S.) were manufactured on the east and west coasts of the U.S.A. They were also manufactured in other countries, including Australia and England.
I have read that the D-series grey label pressings are considered superior because they were using the original master tapes, whereas the "N" series were made in New York from copies of the master tapes. I was lucky enough to find a NM (near mint) copy of an original west coast pressing, and I must say I am very happy with it.