In the 1950’s and 60’s, four main plants were responsible for most jazz LP UK pressings: Decca, Philips, EMI, and CBS-Oriole. Each has its own distinctive matrix code format which enables collectors not only to identify the pressing organisation and plant, but more importantly, differentiate an original pressing from a later reissue, in the absence of other clues of origin.
Though collectors sometimes describe the differences in words, online, very few have the technical proficiency to show you what they look like. Those that do often give you a close up of the engraving, which leaves out the many of the important tell-tale clues about size and location of the engraving in the run-out. The LJC all-in-one-view technique banishes all these problems, and offers a full screen view of the matrix code in situ, at high resolution, as you will see it in the real world. Impress your friends, at a glance, you too can be a matrix expert.
This is what the big four look like (click twice to view full screen at 1800 pixel):
DECCA: stamped in a straight line – usually letter VGMT followed by four-digit number, a “1” followed by a letter which is code for the identity of the mastering engineer. Example here is “B” – Ron Mason as the mastering engineer, though often the recording engineer differs – according to Tubby Hayes interviews, Bert Steffens was their regular jazz recording engineer.
PHILIPS: also stamped, but in a crescent following the curve of the runout groove. The important part is the country code, preceded by a triangle, 420 indicating UK pressing, or 670 indicating Dutch pressing, other codes indicating other country of origin, rarely seen here.
EMI: stamped (or drilled) similar to Decca, but always in a curve following the runout groove. Generously spaced numbers and letters.
ORIOLE/CBS: stamped, generally a short very compactly-spaced alpha numeric code with little or no additional information beyond the matrix identifier.
For what it’s worth , my hierarchy of audio quality, based on a few thousand records, award first place to Decca, who are in my view consistently the finest, closely followed by Philips. EMI are good but trailing a little. CBS Oriole is way down the list. When US Columbia set up CBS to be their UK/European distribution arm, they purchased the Oriole label for their two record pressing plants, in Slough and Bucks. The plants main previous role was rapidly pressing very large volumes of cover versions of pop hits to get into stores like Woolworths, and by reputation their plant was largely worn out, and it was several years before they refurbished them.
In addition to the big four plants, independents turn up, but generally they competed on price and offer lower standards.
In some respects the pressing plant is a given. Miles Davis mid to later 60’s UK releases are all pressed by CBS/Oriole, and are weak. Its not like you have a choice – it’s the only way they come. Though not exactly – the equivalent US Columbia two-eye pressings are significantly better – better mastered and better pressed. With Riverside, the earliest are Decca pressings, and re-pressing of early titles are Philips pressings.
With UK pressings of American recordings, you are also depending on the engineering skills of whoever transferred the US copy tape to its UK master and metalwork. With a few exceptions, the re-mastering is highly competent, and the quality of copy tape is not itself an issue. The resolution of tape transfers at high speed to a pretty good second generation copy. The problem is more how those tapes aged over the decades that followed. When offered an audiophile reissue (mastered from the original tapes !!!) those tapes often haven’t aged well, 1st or 2nd generation.
Fifties and early Sixties American recordings issued in the US both in Mono and Stereo format, were often only released in the UK in Mono – a commercial judgement at the time. If you want stereo, you often have no choice but to look for a US seller and all the postage, customs, and general aggravation that can incur.
I found your article here to be a very informative, engaging (to the discophile- audiophile communities at least) and interesting, webpage, You provide valuable details for collectors, and record enthusiasts. The information here certainly puts to rest what the general understanding was among collectors and enthusiats in the USA – that English pressings (all labels) are much better than the American pressings because of overall commitment to higher quality control. Your descriptions of the CBS-Oriole pressings certainly belies that assumption.
During the late 60s early 70s, I thought that Island pressings (rock) were much superior to those appearing on A&M, Atlantic, etc. in the States. Decca and EMI were viewed as being top of the heap for quality by many of us over here. The latter, EMI, mostly being based on the quality of Beatles pressings versus the U.S. Capitol’s.
Looking forward to more articles like these – especially coverage such as this of the European labels (CBS France, Germany etc. EMI, EMI-Odeon, Philips for example.
Very glad I’ve subscribed to your blog!
Ed from New York
I have the B of Decca Mastering engineers down as Ron Mason, in the list of:
A = Guy Fletcher
B = Ron Mason
C = Trevor Fletcher
D = Jack Law
E = Stan Goodall
F = Cyril Windebank
G = Ted Burkett
K = Tony Hawkins
L = George Bettys or Bettyes (Check spelling)
V = Quentin Williams
W = Harry Fisher
But I am prepared to stand corrected if you can provide a source. (Mine is from the Journal of the Audio Engineering Society, a lot of issues available on line).
Tony Hall, Head of Tempo Records, commented on the “problem” of sound engineers:
“every session was a struggle with the engineers. They didn’t understand jazz and they didn’t really want to do jazz dates…. The Decca engineers could not get the tight Van Gelder sound, they just couldn’t get the balance right. I couldn’t specify the engineer I wanted. It was a case of who was left over at the time. Bert Steffens did a lot of the Tempo stuff, but he didn’t feel the music, you had to keep the beer flowing for him. ..”
The link I got this from has expired so I can’t re-source it. Another reference:
….There are two other contributory factors which made the sessions what they were. One was the excellent recording by engineer Bert Steffens. The other was the handy proximity of The Railway Hotel to the Decca studios. It seemed that every time we slipped out for ‘a little taste’ we always came back into the studios and made a satisfying ‘take’. Don Rendell, the original sleeve note.
Lost in the mists of time, I have seen references
I’ve seen the “B=Ron Mason” in the list at http://stonesondecca.com/3A1_Matrix.html
which is the same as yours. No mention of Bert Steffens.
I have no reason to know what is right, Bert seems to get a few mentions from musicians present at the time. It may well be that the engineer credited with mastering was not the engineer on the microphones in the studio.
I bow to anyone else’s knowledge.
That’s what I get for correcting your spelling — more typos than a monkey on a Remington! Please correct my errors and save my blushes!
Philips has only one “L”. I know that! It’s crept into my WordPress spell-checker dictionary with two L’s, so it either doesn’t highlight the error, or auto-corrects it behind my back to two L’s. Mischievous, this technology
You may remember at the height of the hifi boom in the Seventies Philips ran an ad campaign referring to themselves as “Phirips” – as good as Japanese electronics
Just one L in crystaline?
This is such an entertaining and educational website. The enigma-esque cracking of LP pressing codes in is extraordinarily illuminating. I agree that the Philips (which has one “L”) pressings of CBS LPS are massively superior to the later Oriole efforts. The most obvious example I have is a the 1963 Philips pressing of The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan which is so much present and crystaline as to render the 1965 Oriole press unlistenable by comparison. As the LP is just guitar and voice, the difference between the two cutting engineers and presses is absolutely strikingly audible. As always keep up the good work.