I have a number of favorite people in audio but one of the people at the top is Besflores Nievera, Jr. or “Bes” as he is commonly known. An outsized personality with a gifted voice, Bes is MusicDirect‘s brand ambassador. Everyone knows him and he seems to know everyone as well. So it was a good omen that I ran into Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab mastering engineer Rob LoVerde in the lobby at the Wyndham Garden hotel Saturday morning and he mentioned that they could probably give me a ride to the show in the rain. But Bes had an interesting plan, to take Peter Beckman of AVM Electronics and Rob to Uncle Mike’s place, to experience an authentic Filipino breakfast. Bes asked if I would mind joining the crew downtown to visit Uncle Mike’s? Of course not. So Bes, Rob, Peter and I headed down the road in Bes’ Subaru to Uncle Mike’s. What a great way to experience some of Bes’ Filipino heritage and see a new Chicago place as well.
A classic neighborhood place, the breakfast Bes suggested was huge. I’m pretty sure lunch will no longer be required. A Filipino breakfast at Uncle Mike’s Place is a feast: our breakfast was a sampler with fried eggs, garlicky fried rice, pork tocino, longaniza (a type of anise and chorizo sausage), all served with a vinegar based tomato and onion relish, a bowl of lugao (rice, scallions, ginger, chicken, lemon and fried garlic in a soup). It was delicious and filling. And so was the conversation as I got to know both Peter and Rob well. I will cover Peter’s excellent AVM electronics in another article but Rob and I sat down for a two-hour lunch interview where I learned a lot about how Mobile Fidelity masters an album for release.
First some background on Rob. Rob has extensive industry experience. Rob worked from 1999-2003 at the Hit Factory then from 2003-2007 at Sony in New York before getting his dream job at Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab. So technical knowledge is tops no doubt but what really becomes evident after talking for a few minutes is Rob’s enthusiasm for great music.
I asked Rob how Mobile Fidelity gets such great sound. Of course, the “MoFi” chain was built by analog legend Tim de Paravicini who is considered one of the best at building analog chains. The equipment has to be in tip-top shape before one spools a valuable master tape through it. On a regular basis, the gear is cleaned, calibrated, and maintained. A Studer A80 is usually involved and test tones, hopefully available on the tape, are employed to make sure things are calibrated. There is tape research and once the true originals are found and they are baked if necessary to combat sticky shed syndrome. Then the tape is spooled through the machine during which tape construction is checked such as presence of tape splices. The tape is then marked for timings of songs. Tape head azimuth is checked and properly aligned for each individual piece of tape as inconsistencies are often present. This is a hugely critical step according to Rob. The test tones are often at the head of master tape but Magnetic Reference Laboratories calibration tapes can also help. This helps calibrate the machine to flat response. The end goal, of course, being to let the tape be played back in such a way to reproduce the final mix in the studio or as Rob says, “it’s more about documentary than drama.”
MoFi engineers are not into leaving their own “mastering signature”. They want to do as little EQ as possible but sometimes a little is needed in areas. The standard operating procedure is to leave well enough alone or at most a “light touch” on the controls. In addition to azimuth, things like polarity and channel balance are checked. Only then is EQ gently manipulated on an as-needed basis.
Rob does a lot of SACDs along with his colleague Shawn Britton. Krieg Wunderlich does much of the recent LP cutting. If you have been collecting these wonderful products, you know that the sound quality is often outstanding and never bad. While it may seem odd to collect an audiophile label to some, it has introduced me to some great music and some albums I would have missed.
Rob asked me which albums I liked recently and I mentioned Hall and Oates’ Private Eyes as being a standout in both performance and sound quality. Rob said they try to do things that honor the artist’s intention but if they feel there is not enough low end punch, they might add some EQ there. But as Rob says, “if you change the sound, you better have a damn good reason.”
How does Mobile Fidelity choose its classic titles though?
The key to the process is long-term (since 1980!) Managing Director of Business Affairs Michael Grantham who also oversaw the early era titles. Michael has two main criteria: is it good and did it sell? In other words, has the album reached classic status even if it didn’t sell well initially? I asked Rob what conversations they have with artists. Do they sometimes provide their own tape? Yes. Pete Townshend had reels of Tommy, Who Are You, and Quadrophenia. David Grisman is a nearby Petaluma resident and brought in his own tapes and supervised his own titles being mastered.
I asked Rob what feedback they get from artists. Rob told me that when MoFi did REM’s Murmur, Mike Mills and Bill Berry said they could finally hear the rhythm section. Rob even got personal approval from Beck on Beck’s Sea Change album. Not surprising to me as both of these albums sound terrific.
Finally, I asked Rob what audiophile tweaks they used for the studio and what they thought of them. He said they use a variety of high quality cables, as a means of contouring the sound as needed. Shunyata Research and Mogami are favorites and they use Shunyata power conditioners too. The power for each mastering suite comes in on its own “leg” or dedicated line. Nothing else is on the power source that feeds the gear. So yep this strange audio nerd stuff also works in a professional studio.
After the interview, I was treated to something special: a test pressing of Dire Straits Love Over Gold. Now I am a die-hard Dire collector and have many pressings of this album but the clarity and warmth on this test pressing was truly special.
Meeting Rob, clearly one of my engineering heroes, was the highlight of Axpona 2018 for me. And so I’m eternally grateful for Bes’ introduction to Rob. Rob’s recent work has included Supertramp’s Breakfast in America on SACD but while I know it will sound great, I doubt it will beat our “Filipino Breakfast in America”.
Many thanks Bes and Rob for your time and for the good work that Mobile Fidelity and MusicDirect do! I cannot wait to hear the Breakfast in America SACD!