180g Vinyl or Six Ounces Of Plastic With A Hole In The Middle
Modern day records are delivered in what has become a regulatory weight of 180g.  As if the size and thickness of a record has any bearing whatsoever on the sound that it can produce (for me, it hasn’t). But a nice thick heavy record feels good, and this extra weight justifies the added expense. It’s a tactile thing.
 
Science dictates that the thicker a piece of polyvinyl, the more likely it is to distort when exposed to undue heat. Warp. However, some Hi-Fi nuts believe that the reduced resonance and increased damping of a nice, thick platter will improve the sound.
 
In the late 1960s, The RCA Victor Company launched the Dynaflex LP record.  Such records were scarily thin (seemingly like flexi discs) and weighed about 85g. They also wobbled and bent under the slightest pressure. But they did not warp easily and, in my opinion, actually sounded rather good – my copy of Nancy Sinatra & Lee Hazlewood’s Nancy & Lee Again album is as clear and articulate as a vinyl album could ever hope to be.  So is my original copy of David Bowie’s Hunky Dory. Both are Dynaflex. But hold them up to the light and one can see through them. The public did not take to Dynaflex, it was dropped from production in the late 1970s.  Presumably, the prospect of owning thin and wobbly records did not fill record buyers with confidence.
 
The irony surrounding today’s premium quality records on heavyweight vinyl is that the source tapes used are as often as not in the digital format, and heavily remastered at that. Where digital is not used to produce vinyl reissues, the audio results are often disappointing. Bob Dylan’s mono reissue series of a few years back relied strictly on un-remastered analogue sources – the sound was dry and muffled, a world away from the audio revelation one might have expected following the unwrapping of the premium quality packaging, the careful placing of the record on the turntable and the gentle lowering of the stylus into the groove for the first time. Where was the rifle crack of the snare at the start of Like A Rolling Stone? Nowhere.  That’s where.
 
Where analogue tapes are used, substantial equalisation and audio tweaking is required – such as in the case of The Beatles’ 2015 mono masters. Analogue tapes simply do not store well, over the years the sound “softens up”. Despite EMI’s claims, the audio sources used for these records were a world away from those that were used originally, between the years of 1963-68.
 
A cottage industry has built up of specialist companies issuing reissues of old albums, for example 4 Men With Beards and Music on Vinyl. It is not unusual for the myriad of reissue specialists to duplicate each other’s releases (both Simply Vinyl and Classic Vinyl have had a go at reissuing The Who’s Tommy). Popular practice amongst some reissue specialist is the expanding of a 331/3rpm LP onto four sides of 45rpm vinyl, such as Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours and Peter Gabriel’s first four solo albums.
 
It is worth considering that only in recent years has virgin vinyl become the norm for record manufacture. Not too long ago, faulty (and unsold) records were previously re-ground (melted down) and used again - but only for popular I.e. non classical recordings. Clearly, the assumption was that pop and rock fans were far less discerning listeners. The record labels themselves couldn’t be recycled, however, and once machine cut away from the rest of the record were either destroyed or given away as novelty beer mats to employees of the pressing plant.
 
In the late 1980s, the Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab (MFSL) company began issuing what were the sonic equivalent of hand crafted editions of famous (and obscure) LPs. The records boasted ultra quiet playing surfaces, heavyweight packaging and superb sound quality. Which was achieved from sourcing only the original master tapes, which were played back at half speed. The custom built cutting lathe was likewise rotated at half speed, allowing the engineer to cut a more accurate master.  These half speed mastered** records were on the whole remarkable, due to the care and attention that had been paid to every step of the production process, removing whatever audio compromises that were required by the economics of mass production.
 
The records were pressed from a super high quality vinyl compound developed by the Victor Company of Japan.  But the trend for 180g (and even heavier) records had not yet arrived; the records were pressed in a standard weight of c. 105g. They sold for twice the price of standard vinyl copies (over three times in the UK, once the records were imported from the USA) and were issued in limited editions, as a means of quality control. One also suspects that the restricting of the supply was a part of the marketing strategy (limited editions simply, of course, being more desirable).  Furthermore, it is worth remembering that independent companies are seldom given an unlimited time span for the rights to reissue titles by major labels.  After a defined period - say, three years - the license expires.  Ressues are often restricted by territory – albums being licensed for sale in one country alone.  However, this is often flouted quite openly – I know of one particular label that only acquires UK rights but exports nearly every record and CD that it produces. 
 
MFSL’s records soon became highly prized.*  Pop, rock and jazz records were at last pressed to classical standards (and beyond). It was as if several veils had been removed from between the listener and their loudspeakers. The records produced crisp, open sounds with remarkable separation between instruments. Practically silent playing surfaces and a groove cut with such care and diligence that tracking error (inner groove distortion) was practically non-existent.  A remarkable audio upgrade for £15 a pop.
 
However, dilemmas confronted the record buyer. The MFSL catalogue was small but growing slowly. Replacing one’s vinyl collection was hardly an option – their limited selection was clearly aimed at an American market and was no doubt steered by the company owners’ favourite recordings. And MFSL were hardly up to the minute with their releases – it could take years for albums to appear in the new upgraded editions. A listener swayed by MFSL but eager to own a newly released album was perhaps now obliged to buy the thing twice - and to end up pay three to four times the asking price.
 
It was not long before major record labels decided to market their own half speed mastered audiophile vinyl editions. CBS launched a Mastersound range that included Bruce Springsteen’s Born To Run, ELO’s Discovery and Meatloaf’s Bat Out Of Hell.  Polygram remastered Dire Straits' 1st album and Making Movies, 10CC’s Greatest Hits and The Original Soundtrack plus Steve Miller’s Greatest Hits. The sonic results were not exactly jaw dropping. And the packaging was no different, apart from a banner across the top of the sleeve (Half Speed Mastered!) and an insert explaining why you had just paid a few quid more for this edition of the record.
 
The major labels attempts at catering to the audiophile market was not a success, the records were quietly deleted. It was the early 1980s, Sony and Philips were about to launch the compact disc.
 
MFSL continued expanding their catalogue, titles selling out as quickly as new ones were added. Perhaps their crowning moment was a complete set of the U.K. Versions of The Beatles’ studio LPs (plus the American version of Magical Mystery Tour). The records sounded excellent – the self titled double album (aka The White Album) introduced depth, separation and detail that is still absent from the compact disc versions (latest remastering 2009, as of the time of writing). 
 
A super deluxe range – UHQR, or Ultra High Quality Recordings, was introduced. These records came in a box set (complete with MFSL’s Geo-Disc cartridge alignment tool), boasted thicker vinyl (blimey – 200g!) and promised an even further improvement in sound quality. This perhaps came as something of a disappointment to anyone who had already bought an MFSL title (and had been promised, by suggestion at least, the ultimate vinyl version. No, hang on – here’s an even better copy…) Pink Floyd’s Dark Side Of The Moon and Cat Stevens’ Tea For The Tillerman were two such UHQRs.
 
MFSL also marketed cassette tapes (pre-recorded and blank) and of course, compact discs and later, SACDs. To my ears, their compact discs sound very flat and dull – the standard domestic CD versions of The Moody Blues and Elton John’s albums are far and away a better listen than Mobile Fidelity’s.
 
Standard Japanese vinyl albums also sounded tended to sound better (cleaner, quieter, brighter) than domestic issues due perhaps to higher quality vinyl, better mastering and more rigorous quality control. Some listeners (myself included) are of the opinion that American pressings are also generally superior to UK equivalents.
 
In the mid 1980s, Teldec introduced direct metal mastering, a method of record production that reduced the number of steps in the cutting process. EMI adopted this method of record production for their classical albums. Direct Metal Mastering, or DMM, produced very good records indeed, although some listeners considered them over bright and even harsh. Ironically, as the quality if vinyl records approached its zenith, LPs were phased out.
 
Today’s 180g releases serve a need, a demand. A premium quality audio source for the owners of fabulous and esoteric turntables. There’s not much wrong in that. And such records can sound exceptional, coupled with the feel of an expensive, high quality – and exclusive – edition. Away from the mainstream, an alternative to the mass produced, generic CD, download or audio stream. And they satisfy those that believe that digital recordings can never equal the accuracy portrayed by an analogue source; especially when the end product of the audio chain is a flat piece of plastic, whose information is being extracted via a diamond tipped stylus coupled to a magnetic transducer, tracing a concentric groove.
 
I recall a technology programme on UK Channel Five where a blindfold test was held - a keen eared audience was treated to mp3, compact disc and vinyl versions of the same pieces of music, and asked to vote for which they thought sounded best. The music was played back in a concert hall auditorium, on a very high end audio set up. The result – in first place, mp3, then CD, then LP. If anything, the experiment went to prove that even today, high fidelity audio and real, live music can be at best, distant cousins.
 
I once conducted a similar blindfold test on some friends – The Dark Side Of The Moon, of course, was on the turntable. As ever, the LP sounded thrilling in every respect. It was a triumph for the vinyl version. Hooray for the old.
 
But my friends had actually been listening to a 320kps mp3 of Alan Parsons’ 1973 quadrophonic mix of the album. I had tagged on the audio “clunk” of a stylus dropping into (and lifting out of) the groove to the beginning and of each side of the album. By sleight of hand I managed to synchronise the mp3 file with the vinyl copy, which was on the turntable, but playing effectively to nobody.
 
Granted, Alan Parson’s mix of the album is truly something special (it is now available as part of the Immersion box set of DSOTM). Even on mp3, it is astonishingly clear and dynamic. An understandable mistake for my friends to have made?
 
But the experiment proved that of all the senses, the eyes have it. You’ll hear what you want to hear. In much the same way as white wine is largely indistinguishable from red when served at room temperature (try it…) your audio experience will be coloured – manipulated – by what your eyes tell you that you are hearing. A £15,000 turntable set up fitted with a £1,000 moving coil cartridge playing a £35 180g LP must sound superb – pure, unadulterated, warm with that otherwise indefinably liquid sound only found on high end, vinyl equipment. Meanwhile, a £100 compact disc player spinning a £5 copy of the same album, connected to the same amplifier and loudspeakers, will sound absolutely fractured, brittle and cold.
 
Right?
 
Just so long as one’s audio experience involves the visualisation of some masterpiece of audio engineering, one that has the appearance of a small space station, rotating a nice shiny extra thick black plastic LP. Don’t forget the 2” thick translucent turntable platter, a tangential tone arm, with the record clamped down hard, and a moving coil cartridge as delicate and fragile as a butterfly’s wing. Now That’s What I Call Music…
 

*To these ears, one of the most desirable MFSL issues, Pink Floyd’s Dark Side Of The Moon was nothing special, especially when compared with EMI’s SQ quadrophonic issue of the same album
 
** Half speed mastering had arrived a few years earlier, for the JVC CD-4 discrete vinyl  quadraphonic system. Such records required a c. 45 KHz carrier signal to be encoded  in the groove, to allow a decoder to split the stereo signal into four channels. The cutting lathe could not achieve such high frequency in real time, so the lathe and mastering tape were both run at half speed. It was noticed by some that certain CD-4 albums were bass light, suggesting that the lower frequencies had been lost once the tapes rolled at half speed. This criticism was never levelled at MFSL.  It was also mentioned by some that the inner groove distortion on CD4 albums was unbearable.