Last Updated: January 15, 2020
Skip to: the Columbia US Labels
Also see: Lessons from the pressings of Kind Of Blue – Matrix codes.
Learn to speak Columbian – understanding Columbia matrix numbering system
The number before the letter(s) indicates the tape (or mix) used in the mastering: If a matrix on Columbia issues ends in -1AE, the 1 indicates the first tape or mix used, while the AE indicates the lacquer cutting. Columbia used only the letters A-L, excluding I; thus, the -1AE side is the 16th cutting from the first tape mix or generation
A – 1st cutting
B – 2nd cutting
C – 3rd cutting
D – 4th cutting
E – 5th cutting
F – 6th cutting
G – 7th cutting
H – 8th cutting
J – 9th cutting
K – 10th cutting
L – 11th cutting
AA – 12th cutting
Thus, -#AB would represent a 13th cutting. AA through AL would be cuttings 12-22, BA through BL would be 23-33, and so on.
LJC’s FULL TABLE
A 1st cutting; B 2nd; C 3rd; D 4th; E 5th; F 6th; G 7th; H 8th; J 9th; K 10th; L 11th; AA 12th; AB 13th; AC 14th; AD 15th; AE 16th; AF 17th; AG 18th; AH 19th; AJ 20th; AK 21st; AL 22nd; BA 23rd; BB 24th; BC 25th; BD 26th; BE 27th; BF 28th; BG 29th; BH 30th; BJ 31st; BK 32nd; BL 33rd; CA 34th; CB 35th; CC 36th; CD 37th; CE 38th; CF 39th; CG 40th; CH 41st; CJ 42nd; CK 43rd; CL 44th; DA 45th; DB 46th; DC 47th; DD 48th; DE 49th; DF 50th;………………ad infinitum.
Identification of Columbia plants
It would appear from evidence of the above tape box dated 1967 that the designation 1A, 1B, and 1C indicates respectively Terre Haute Indiana, Santa Maria CA, and Pitman NJ. Whether this sequence is consistently applied, or just what the engineer picked that day, is not known. Nor does it throw any light on the large number of other codes, but suggests A B and C are equally “first pressings”.
Why so many lacquers?
Columbia needed to supply at least its three US pressing plants – east, west and centre . Assuming typical industry figures, each lacquer cutting was capable of generating say 8 mothers before quality fell below acceptable, each mother generating 8 stampers, and each stamper pair, say pressed 2,500 records before it was worn out and needed replacing. Doing the maths, one lacquer cutting = around 150,000 records, three lacquer cuttings gets you close to a half million records.
So why so many lacquer cuttings? Columbia did cut many more lacquers than they strictly needed. However the Columbia process provided inexpensive redundancy – multiple lacquers at little cost – at least two pairs to each of three pressing plants – meant any faulty or damaged part could be discarded without interrupting production. Distributing identical lacquers ensured consistent quality from all plants, and production volume could be increased at will. Makes manufacturing process sense, to the disappointment of collectors.
The tell on how a particular record was mass produced is the matrix code/s found on promos. Promos – usually the earliest pressing – are found with much later letters than a simple A – B – C.
The matrix number is a process control identifier required to manage the duplication of a large number of intermediary stage lacquers to support long pressing runs. The systems for manufacturing control at Columbia were geared to very large volumes of sales – often millions of units, and very large volumes of titles. Something of a different order of magnitude to the usual jazz pressing run of ten or twenty thousand units for an independent label.
For any record with a very high volume of sales there is no linear relationship like “closer to source is best”. With may be 30 master lacquers cut simultaneously from one source tape, distributed to a number of different plants across the US, and a string of mothers and stampers from each lacquer, and say 2,500 pressings from each stamper, any individual record could be from anywhere in that chain of production.
There is no reason to believe any one master lacquer “sounds better” than another lacquer from the same tape cut around the same time. Playing the original master tape a dozen times (the engineer and artists probably having already played it many times) does not create loss of information in the way that applying a hundred tons pressure to metal stamper does. The most important determinant of vinyl audio quality remains the place of a record between the first off a fresh stamper and the last off a worn stamper, the stamper grooves being progressively deformed by pressing repetition.
I am not convinced knowing your copy is from the 35th cutting is of any use to you whatsoever, but at least you now know.
The only indicator of first or early place in stamper life is the test pressing, and possibly, initial run of promotional copies. Other than this, there is no way of predicting audio quality better than simply listening. The search for that elusive and prized 1A matrix is in my opinion simply “collector lust”, which is an expensive way to feel good, but whatever floats your boat. It’s never wrong to love vinyl. Or to want music to sound better.
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