Everyone should know that audio quality and vinyl weight are not causally related, not that you would guess that from the volume of “180 gram audiophile pressings” burgeoning record shop shelves. The depth of groove is determined during the lacquer master cutting process, and produces the same groove depth pressed into wafer thin or jumbo-thick vinyl. That is why Japan’s Toshiba and King could produce such great sounding Blue Note pressings on 120 gram vinyl.
Vinyl weight fell by over fifty percent in the decades between the rise of Bebop and the “demise” of mainstream vinyl as it became replaced by The Evil Silver Disk. As a result, vinyl weight is a very useful forensic marker, a proxy for approximate date of manufacture, independent of labels, addresses, covers, and all the usual paraphernalia for establishing or confirming authenticity. I have a supposed Lexington which has every mark of authenticity apart from, intuitively, its weight. You can stick a Lexington label on any piece of plastic, but you can’t disguise it comes out of a pressing run at 160 gram. I wondered if the same might apply to those controversial Blue Notes without ears?
We know from experience when we handle records that some are heavier than others, but there seemed to me a lack of objective science in these matters. The availability of inexpensive (less than $10) accurate digital scales today means it is easy enough to add this knowledge to your armoury of detective skills.
As part of a major housekeeping exercise which has kept blogging light for the week, my thousand record jazz collection has been put on the digital scales as part of my collection database update, a painstaking process which has brought me to shame for such sloppy housekeeping for some years now. Records unable to be found out of order on the shelves, new purchases not added and disposals not deleted from the database, wrong information punched in, sheer laziness. A good opportunity to sort out the collection, and bring some scientific rigour to my hypothesis about dating records.
An overview of vinyl weight
First, the overview of vinyl weight distribution as found in my 1,000 jazz records. I confess have previous professional experience as a data analyst and in database management but have never applied this to records, so a learning curve here, and challenging!
The bottom of the dregs are those anorexic Prestige OJC reissues at below 100 grams in some cases, and the featherweight Fantasy 10th and Parker Prestige catalogue reissues. However there were a lot of surprises along the way. I could have shortcut the process and just weighed the Blue Notes, but the broader context seemed worth establishing more baselines. How do Riverside shape up? Does Prestige follow the Blue Note curve, or did parsimonious Bob Weinstock cut corners from the very beginning?
As I am sure followers of this blog appreciate, there was a lot of chaotic practice in the commercial and physical production of vinyl. What seemed missing was a proper taxonomy – “what you call things” – and some stable definitions, particularly applied to the wonderful world of Blue Note collecting. How to classify a record with a Lexington label one side, an NY label on the other, but no ear?
LJC Principles in dating records
What I settled on is not a strict Cohen-bible of 1st pressings, too small a sample in my possession at the end of the day, but a grouping of probable date of manufacture using label and catalogue number as a rough proxy for time, well aware that includes some pressings out of chronological sequence. The absence of the “ear” is an overriding marker for vinyl pressed prior to 1966 (whatever the label says). Mixed labels are assigned to the most modern one, hence a Lex/NY combination is an NY record (unless you think they had a time machine!) The whole crossover between Blue Note and Liberty is mapped through those earless ones, then the emergence of proper Division of Liberty. United Artists follows the same logic of approximate time periods which applied to label variations.(Japanese and other non-US pressings are excluded throughout).
I identified a set of nine US-pressed cohorts, which have more in common with each other and difference with the other cohorts, and calculated average vinyl weight in each cohort in my personal collection of around 250 US Blue Note pressings. The result is, I think remarkable:
The earless Blue Notes (column number 4 above, average 149 gm) are clearly different for the Plastylite-pressed records whose label they bear (average 165). You can’t hide the pressing practices (size of the vinyl biscuit, the gap between A and B stamper etc) used by Liberty’s New Jersey plant in 1966 and how they differed from Plastylite NJ between 1962-6. Want to check a BINO (Blue Note in Name Only)? Stick it on the scales. While there is individual variation around the average, no system is perfect – this is trying to bring order out of chaos – the weight of the vinyl is an indication of probability of origin.
Blue Note internal history
Getting away from the Blue Note/Liberty quandary, there is the business of first and second pressings on Blue Note’s watch.There were dramatic changes in vinyl weight between the different label addresses under Blue Note management. First the golden years between Lexington and 47 West 63rd Street NY. There are many records floating around with earlier labels than their actual date of manufacture. I have only 34 records I can confidently place in the 1956-61 date of manufacture – here is how they shape up on the scales, using catalogue number as a rough proxy for time.The four monsters in purple on the left are my Lexingtons. OMG, they are heavy (though not as heavy as some of my early Esquires). The trend is downwards over time.
Next, into my sixty-four NY label pre-66 original Blue Notes of which I am confident, having thrown out the earless ones into the later Liberty manufacture period, and letting in the mongrels with mixed labels of which one is NY (with ear, of course) A bigger sample, lots of individual variation, but nevertheless average of 165 gm weight, and a trend toward shrinking the vinyl biscuit over time. Makes sense to me, supported by physical measurements rather than opinion.
The Liberty and United Artists Years
As the cohort chart shows, the Liberty years 1966-70, Liberty’s own plants (All-Disc NJ, ResearchCraft LA and others) pressed vinyl around a 140-149 grams, with the BINOs at the upper end. By the time United Artists and the predatory Transamerica had their way, pressing wight fell into the 130-9 gram bucket.
As noted at the outset, vinyl weight is not causally related to audio quality, however it is a useful shorthand indicator for a thousand other things detrimental to audio quality that came into play in those decades. No matter, the worst was still to come: EMI, Evil Music Industries…More themes on vinyl weight will be draw from the database in future. All I have to do now is try to keep it up to date.
For anyone reading this far who is not au fait with joy of vinyl, I recall a teacher’s account of a school pupil’s assessment of their summer project, about whales.
Asked what they thought of the project, one boy confessed “it had taught me more about whales than I really wanted to know.
More music soon.