Weighty Matters

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.

Postscript

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.

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10 thoughts on “Weighty Matters

  1. I am in complete agreement with Diana: this stuff is just great, amazing etc.

    Though I understand that there is not a correlation between weight and fidelity, I gotta say: I much prefer handling a thick, sturdy piece of wax opposed to a cheap, flimsy one, and this does in fact have an effect on the desirability of a record for me. Psychologically, I don’t like thinking that the manufacturer “cheaped out” for the sake of profit while providing me with an inferior product. Mattyman and LJC, you guys are right: the decline in weight must be a result of the slow but steady realization by the manufacturer and the label over time that they didn’t NEED to press vinyl at a heavier weight (the word “need” here of course refers to fidelity) For me, that’s not what it’s ALL about; I want a quality product, and when quality is compromised in the name of profits as it is in the case of lightweight vinyl, it’s a turn-off (I tried but I couldn’t avoid sexual innuendos the whole post 😛

  2. Looking at the first graph in the article, I wonder if it would be possible to confirm that the obvious downward line of ever decreasing vinyl weight would be in direct relation to an ever increasing price of crude oil?

    • The oil price explosion in 1973 definitely affected the economics of high volume pressing. My few reissues from later Seventies and Eighties include some on 100-110 gram. I know nothing, but from what I see, the falling weight of the vinyl biscuit could have been simply effort to reduce costs and improve profitabilty, and competition between NY pressing plants for work. I read somewhere a record production manager’s opinion that 120 grams provides an adequate fill for a pressing. May be it became the industry view that there was no advantage in heavy, and a cost disadvantage. I have to keep reminding myself virtually no-one had sophisticated hifi in those days.

      • I almost forgot to mention that distributing hundreds of thousands “heavy pressings” by trucks and/or plane may have been another reason to use less vinyl per pressing. Think of a truck that has to either transport ten thousand 200 gram records or twenty thousand 100 gram records. Fuel- and money wise it’s clear that the last option costs less and harvests more profit. Not?

        • Commercial logic indisputable, Matty, everything points to reducing the amount of vinyl to the minimum required to do the job.

          I was playing a Prestige/Fantasy pressing dating from 1973 last night which weighs just 102 grams. Sounds absolutely perfect – rich dynamic range, nothing “wrong” with it at all. If the quality is captured there in the original recording and master cutting, it doesn’t much matter what thickness of vinyl you press it into.

          What I think now is that the superior quality of analog recording and mastering of Fifties/Sixties jazz like our Rudy just coincidentally correlates with the time thicker vinyl was commonly in use.

  3. HI Andrew:

    I think the essence of your “weighty” comment lies in the closing paragraph, with which I wholeheartedly agree:

    “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.”

    Indeed!. The weight of the vinyl is but one of the myriad telltale signs and tangential factors in the sound quality and grade. The problem here is that the weight of the vinyl, its thickness and rigidity had become so embedded in collective collector psyche as something critical and essential to the sound, that it is really difficult to separate the two without sounding like a, well…lowly debutante or at least an ill-informed amateur. . As a seller, I routinely repeat this mantra because I have no other choice — between Bob Djukic’s word and the word of Sony/Columbia/Universal/EMI/Warner/Rhino/Sundazed, who would believe a poor little pitiful online seller like me?

    To those who uncritically worship vinyl thickness, width, depth and girth, a question: one of the poorest-sounding records I’ve played in my life was Mel Torme’s California Suite (Capitol version, not Bethlehem’s) which was recorded in late 1949 or early 1950 (easily one of the earliest 12-inchers I have seen) and was probably one of the thickest slabs of concrete I have held in my hands. That monster was close to half a centimeter thick (no exaggeration) and weighed close to half a kilo (no exaggeration either). And it sounded like horror on steroids. Thin, frosty, without deep end and with heavily distorted upper range. Yikes!
    So, my question is: if the sound quality is so directly proportional to the vinyl thickness, how do we explain my Mel Torme disaster? Oh, sure. One would be tempted to attribute it to the stone-age pressing technology that produced it, but then some of the period pressings (notably Columbia’s or Mercury’s) sound rather decent on regular vinyl — even today, sixty years later.

    The vinyl collecting is full of similar examples. Thick ‘n’ heavy pressings on Specialty, Duke, Modern, Vee Jay. Fire/Fury/Enjoy — are literally exercises in audio agony. Granted, the vinyl that these cheap companies were using was almost as dreadful as their production standards and protocols, so one can always attribute their poor sound to the poor quality of the vinyl, but the same lo-grade vinyl produced significantly better results when it was used by other labels, such as Atlantic or Autumn.. So, really, it is the optimal combination of a number of factors that produces the good sound: this includes, but is not limited to, good engineering and mastering, great recording equipment, intuitive and resourceful producer and recording engineer, vinyl quality, vinyl thickness, pressing equipment, environmental and cultural issues, production standards, audio reproduction equipment and who knows what else. Vinyl weight, again, is but a tiny speck in the galaxy of Great Sound.

    Moreover, not even the latest generation of the 180- and 200-gram reissues is immune to the poor sound (typically, the extreme ends of the dynamic range are compressed or overequalized). But there are exceptions: Capitol’s 2001 stereo pressing of the Beach Boys ‘Pet Sounds” (yes, I know, I know, it is not a Jazz album, you Jazz snobs out there) sounds like an audio manna from heaven and I could easily recommend it over the original mono pressing..

    My firm belief is that many companies are using the vinyl thickness fad to conceal the fact that they either do not possess the original tape source (or even a close production equivalent) and that they are forced to digitally “bake” the inferior audio source they do have in order to make the product sound (and look) credible. I am EXTREMELY skeptical about those “mastered-from-the-original-first-generation-source-tape” claims. Some of the major reissue companies (I shall not name them), routinely churn out product which is AUDIBLY remixed and re-equalized for the purpose of a 180-gram reissue.

    My advice: give the 180/200 gram reissue a spin and listen to it (if you can, use stores with playstations) BEFORE you decide to spend ungodly amount of money on it. Be skeptical. Be very, very, skeptical. Argue with your preconceptions. Do not allow your brain to accept as “superior” something that your ears tell you is a rather poor replica, if not a downright fake.

    My personal preference in 180- and 200-gram reissues are Steve Hoffman’s pressings (on ANY label, Give me a little Steve Hoffman and nobody gets hurt!!!) and Bernie Grundman’s masters on RTI (notably those commissioned by Rhino/Warner). I am withholding my judgment on Mobile Fidelity pressings (please feel free to read between the lines :-)).

    In other words, as always: CAVEAT EMPTOR! Or, to paraphrase Syms Department Store’s motto: “Educated consumer is our best customer”.

    • Blimey, Bob, I agree with everything you say. I may need to review my medication.

      At the other end of the scales, King Japan produce some extraordinary good sounding pressings on no more than 110 gram of vinyl.

      The weight thing seems a fetish of the DJ community. They say the handling is better, flipping from disc to disc under battlefield conditions, as they do. A good argument if you are a DJ, though a piss-poor one for a retired pensioner.

  4. Wow. I am struck a little speechless. I love {and I mean really love} music, but you take it to unbelievable levels. In a good way ! ( I think….) 🙂

    Love it. And love getting out of my head for a moment to feel what it must be like to be you.
    Diana

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