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Miles Davis: Seven Steps to Heaven

Miles Davis: Seven Steps to Heaven

Mobile Fidelity  UDSACD 2260

Stereo Hybrid

Jazz


Miles Davis

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Review by Mark Werlin - November 30, 2023

[Some notes on my initial impressions of this release, and of the continuing problem for SACD collectors of incomplete or ambiguous information provided by the record label.]

The description of the tape source for MoFi's SACD of Seven Steps to Heaven: SOURCED FROM THE ORIGINAL ANALOG MASTER TAPES

The description of the tape source for MoFi's new LP of Seven Steps to Heaven also headlines SOURCED FROM THE ORIGINAL ANALOG MASTER TAPE, but it includes the following details:

1/4" / 15 IPS / Dolby SR analog remix master to DSD 256 to analog console to lathe

After settling the class-action lawsuit brought by vinyl-purchasing customers against MoFi for concealing the use of DSD processing in the mastering of their LPs, the company has used its website to disclose previously withheld technical details for its vinyl products. As an SACD customer, I could interpret the descriptions of the two different versions of the subject album to mean that the SACD was ALSO sourced from the same "1/4" / 15 IPS / Dolby SR analog remix master" as the LP, but MoFi could easily have included that technical info on the SACD web page.

It's not a secret that some of the 'historically' original Miles Davis album master tapes have been superseded by newer analogue master tapes remixed from the original analogue multichannel session tapes. And in the case of "Seven Steps to Heaven", it would not have deterred me from purchasing the SACD if I'd had certain and reliable knowledge about its provenance and mastering methods.

There is an interesting discrepancy between the timings on the MoFi SACD and the timings on SMJI SIGP-14 Miles Davis: Seven Steps to Heaven. The MoFi version's total running time is about 40 seconds less than the 2002 Sony Japan SACD release. If the two SACDs were sourced from the same tape, then the respective tape machines must have been running at slightly different speeds. But a listening comparison reveals enough sonic differences between the two releases that I have to wonder if the sources were actually different tapes.

When was the "1/4" / 15 IPS / Dolby SR analog remix master" of "Seven Steps to Heaven" created? Was it used for any of the earlier SACD releases? Was it the source for the present MoFi SACD, or only for the MoFi LP? MoFi is also about to release a stereo version of "Milestones" on SACD and vinyl. To my knowledge, that album was first remixed to stereo from studio session tapes by Bob Belden and Mark Wilder for "The Complete Columbia Recordings of Miles Davis with John Coltrane", released in 2000. MoFi's earlier SACD of "Milestones" was sourced from a mono original master. Has a newer mix to stereo of "Milestones" been created, or did MoFi use the Belden/Wilder remix?

Setting aside the disclosure issue and the timings discrepancy, there is a clear improvement in the MoFi SACD vs. the 2002 JSACD. Listening through new, highly revealing headphones, I found the 2002 JSACD to have a forward and dry presentation, which is especially noticeable on Miles' trumpet. The MoFi SACD paints an equally detailed sonic picture, but (to extend the metaphor) the colors are warmer, more earth-toned.

Every MoFi SACD from the Miles Davis Columbia catalogue has equaled or exceeded the sound quality of other SACD versions I've heard, and "Seven Steps to Heaven" is no exception.

Copyright © 2023 Mark Werlin and HRAudio.net

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Comment by Downunderman - December 1, 2023 (1 of 4)

Great review Mark and I'm 100% with you on the provenance disclosure issue.

It continues to baffle me why they think being open about the source material is a negative. To my mind the opposite will be true. People will actually be more likely to buy AND more also fairly assess the release on its merits.

Comment by Mark Werlin - December 4, 2023 (2 of 4)

Thanks, Downunderman! I will add more about the performances. It's an album that I had overlooked, but this reissue has captured my attention and interest. The Los Angeles session is unique in Miles Davis' catalogue. It's a fascinating album to hear with fresh ears.

Comment by Tony Reif - December 11, 2023 (3 of 4)

That would be a whopping speed difference - 40 seconds out of 46 minutes is almost 1.5%. Most people I think would hear that easily on an A/B comparison. (Anyone know if there's a way of converting this into the difference in cents?) Out of curiosity I just checked the timings on discogs for a few CD releases and the 3 SACDs. Looks like none of them varies by nearly that much for the whole program, and that those variations would be considered typical of mastering differences. The timings for the J-SACD though are not shown on the artwork pictures. Mark, what is its total time, and is that from what your SACD player displays, or booklet timings? The MoFi total time is 46:09 on my SACD player. Adding up the timings of the 6 individual tracks of the 2005 Legacy CD (which I would assume is when the analog remix used by MoFi was done, as Mark Wilder is credited there for mixing and remastering) comes to 45:53. This seems normal as well, particularly as we don't know whether listed track timings incorporate "digital black" pauses between tracks or whether the pauses are only included in the total time.

About the bigger issue of transparency re sources, it's unfortunate that MoFi is still using their Original Master Recordings label as a cover for some undisclosed specifics. When, we might ask, is a master recording not "original"? It's not just a question of what generation of analogue master is used. MoFi has said that if they aren't sure that their source is the original 2-track master or a first generation master mixdown (not 2nd or 3rd generation copies) they don't use the "original" label. But IMO there's also an important distinction to be made between a source created for the record's initial release and a decades-later remix even if from the original multitracks. In particular with Columbia's NY recordings at their 30th St. studio (which is where Seven Steps' NY session took place), there's the question of "crypt reverb". Was it mixed into the original multitracks (Seven Steps was 3-track) during recording or only during mixdown? If the latter, this would mean that later remixes not done at 30th Street will certainly sound different (e.g. Sony's Kind of Blue SACD from a later remix and MoFi's from the original mix). This is the sort of info that recording connoisseurs love to have. One thing we can assume: MoFi used the same transfer to DSD256 for both their LP and the SACD. But did they ever consider using the original mix or try to locate it? Was the original mix used for Columbia's 1992 CD (as the discogs credits seem to imply)?

Since the AP SACD is 3.0 and 2.0 they must have accessed the original 3-channel mix and presumably also the original 2-channel mix (whether a 2-channel session mix if that was done, or, more likely, the later 3-to-2 mixdown for LP). Does anyone have the AP and Mofi for comparison? The lone review of the AP at sa-cd.net says that there's too little reverb to tie the individual sounds together. Can anyone compare a vintage LP to the AP SACD in terms of reverb? Also, does the reverb on the LA and NY tracks sound different on the LP and/or the AP SACD? It certainly does here, indeed the whole approach is so different as to suggest different engineers, though the only engineering credit I've found is Fred Plaut.

Comment by Mark Werlin - December 11, 2023 (4 of 4)

Tony, I have two SACD players, a Marantz and an Oppo. When the MoFi SACD is loaded into the Oppo, timings for each track run 3-4 seconds longer than the timings for the same tracks on the MoFi SACD loaded into the Marantz. I haven't researched this, but I'm sure I'm not the first person to notice that Marantz and Oppo SACD players read out different track timings.

The comparison of timings (below) of the 2002 Sony Japan SACD vs. the 2023 MoFi SACD is based on the properties of DSF (DSD) files extracted from the two SACDs.

Sony Japan SACD

1. 10:36
2. 06:27
3. 06:51
4. 07:03
5. 08:31
6. 07:00

MoFi SACD

1. 10:26
2. 06:21
3. 06:43
4. 06:56
5. 08:23
6. 07:01

The Sony Japan tracks were mastered (or the SACD authored) to include 2-3 seconds more end silence per track than the MoFi SACD. But even when you deduct that extra silence (and why was that added?), the total times are still longer for the Japanese SACD. The 2002 JSACD back cover and OBI do not include timings, but on the back cover, the credits state "Produced for Reissue by Bob Belden". Perhaps MoFi's engineers determined that the earlier DSD transfer was in fact too slow, and correctly adjusted the tape playback speed for their own transfer.

Nondisclosure of the tape provenance for the MoFi SACD of "Seven Steps" makes no sense when the MoiFi LP provenance is described in substantial detail, but I blame Sony more than MoFi. If Sony refuses to allow crediting the tape source and the remix engineer for these licensed reissues, we can only judge by our ears. Through my system, the MoFi SACD sounds better than the Sony Japan SACD. I don't have the AP SACD that contains a three-channel MCH program, but I have to assume the AP SACD was sourced from the same three-channel tapes as were used in remixing a new analogue master, whenever that was actually done.