Columbia Matrix Numbers

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See: Lessons from the pressings of Kind Of Blue – Matrix codes.

 

 

Learn to speak Columbian – understanding  Columbia matrix numbering system

(info from Steve Hoffman Forums)

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.

http://forums.stevehoffman.tv/threads/columbia-stamper-info-needed.79832/

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

Columbia Matrix Sequence A B C

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 35 lacquer cuttings?  A good question to which there is no satisfactory answer. Except they did cut many more lacquers than they strictly  needed.

Opinion:

ljcthinks2I 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 matrix number is a process control procedure necessary to manage the duplication of a large number of intermediary stage lacquers to support long pressing runs. What this confirms to LJC is 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.

It also tells me that for any record with a very high volume of sales there is no simple linear relationship like “closer to source is best”. With may be 30 master lacquers cut 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.

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.

Next: The Columbia US Labels

36 thoughts on “Columbia Matrix Numbers

  1. A few questions and comments from this devil’s advocate (my Client is currently too busy peddling vinyl on eBay to be personally bothered with the piffle trivia of the vinyl collectors’ fears, obsessions and compulsions, so he outsourced the odious task to yours truly). As always, please pardon the laconic brevity and utter lack of any elaboration and detail

    (A) The first paragraph of the article claims that, in the Columbia matrix numbering system, the alpha character(s) following the numerical character, say, as C in – 3C (the paragraph actually reads “before the number”, which is clearly a typo) represents the generation of the lacquer. However, only one paragraph below, the same author (apparently an anonymous genius from the Steve Hoffman blog), claims that the alpha character represents the location of the pressing facility, a claim substantiated by the master tape notes found on Bob Dylan’s John Wesley Harding.. The two statements are logically and syntactically mutually exclusive. The letter character can either denote the location of the pressing facility or the generation of the lacquer, but not both. This is an either/or, not and/or proposition. Which one is it, then?

    Unless Columbia management was so logistically brilliant and talented to be able to – for whatever mysterious reasons known only to them – synchronize in time and space the sequence of the release of stampers (mind you, they were releasing STAMPERS, NOT LACQUERS) to various Columbia pressing facilities, a technical maneuver that would serve no visible purpose whatsoever, I see no way that the letter character could simultaneously denote both the lacquer/stamper generation AND the Columbia pressing facility.

    (B) The idea that the numerical character (say: 1 in -1C) stands for the generation of the production tape is also rather dubious. There are numerous examples – probably hundreds – in Columbia’s extensive discography where demonstrably first pressings with the suffix numbered -1 do not exist and, in all likelihood, have never been produced (titles by such artists as Bob Dylan, Thelonious Monk, Barbra Streisand, Tony Bennett and Paul Simon come to mind, there are dozens upon dozens upon dozens of others). Although it is understandable why those Columbia titles which have undergone significant changes AFTER the initial pressing will never be found with a stamper -1 beyond the clearly modified first pressing (two Bob Dylan titles come to mind: The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, which had four tracks excised for political reasons and replaced with four more non-controversial tracks, and ‘Highway 61 Revisited’ which had one track replaced with the correct take) , this does not help explain why other Columbia titles started their press run with production tape # 2, or higher.

    Was Bob Dylan so hysterically perfectionist that he – to a huge chagrin of the Columbia’s management – demanded than not one, not two, but possibly as many as three generations of the production tape be scrapped at the very last minute prior to the pressing of ‘Blonde on Blonde’? Or, perhaps the inebriated Albert Grossman had lost the first three generations of the production tapes in the NYC cab (as Jimi Hendrix and John Lennon did with their works). Did Paul Simon and Billy Joel discard the tape # 1 and demand that all their pressings start with tape #2 because they harbored superstitious feelings vis-a-vis evil number 1? More to the point, if the number denotes the generation of the tape, should we not be able to detect a subtle deterioration in sound definition or subpar sound grade? And, if so, what do we compare the sound in pressing generation -4 to? To the nonexistent pressing #3? Or to the likewise nonexistent pressing generations -2 and -1? What is the collector’s point of reference?

    If the recording label decides – for whatever reason – to start the physical production with the tape generation -2 or higher, the issue of generation of the tape used becomes truly metaphysical to the end user (collector), because – by definition – he will never get to hear the discarded earlier generations of the tape (unless, of course, the artist’s retirement fund suddenly and inexplicably dries up and expires before the artist does and he is forced to start releasing “unreleased masters” from his vault in his waning days). To all of us other, occasionally sane, rational and lucid record collectors out there, if the numerical pressing number #1 does not exist, the earliest known numerical generation automatically and by default becomes the first generation of the pressing. To those chasing the mythical, long rumored to exist, but never actually spotted, filmed or captured #1 pressing generation of Bob Dylan’s Blonde on Blonde, I have this to say: send us a postcard when you get there and when you, finally capture the elusive species. Be prepared, however, to sacrifice most, if not all, of your life to this – truly trivial – pursuit and to squander your life’s joys and pleasures in the process – to absolutely NO rhyme, reason and common sense or any form of gratification, either material or spiritual. .

    (C) The notion that the double letters following the numerical character (say, as AB in -2AB) stand for significantly later-cut lacquers and that that, despite their late place in the chronological sequence, they can still be found coupled with the earliest (1A thru 1C) lacquers is truly of the science-fiction variety and is worthy of the Star Drek fame. One can’t help being utterly derisive and dismissive about such claims. As John Ryan Horse’s comment (July 25, 2015 at 00:24), points out, this would mean that the two sides of the same disc could be pressed by using lacquers 10 (or more) generations removed from each other. While this is undoubtedly technically feasible because the two lacquer sides were never conjoined at the hip to begin with and can be used randomly and independently from each other, such move truly wouldn’t make any sense on any number of levels. And resorting to such bizarre productional methods on a truly massive industrial scale (and especially in the very long press runs) as a matter of sustained and enforced corporate policy would make even less sense. Seriously: what kind of dimwit would couple first generation side 1 with 35th generation side B?

    (D) Then there are logical issues with such claims (that double letters denote very late lacquer generations). I have seen myriads and myriads of lesser (lesser as in “less commercially successful”, not “less artistically acclaimed”) Columbia artists with their titles pressed well into the AA – LL range. One would be misled into believing that Columbia habitually dedicated 35+ lacquers to a relatively marginal Jazz name such as John Handy III, while granting Barbra Streisand – the label’s most commercially successful artist of the 1960s – only a handful or lacquers and stampers per title. This is a non-starter.

    In reality, this record collector has ONLY TWICE seen a vinyl stamper numbered above #60 and only one a stamper above #100 (on the same title: RCA Victor’s 1959 recording of the Van Cliburn’s performance of the Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto #1). Pressings made of stampers above #40 (except on select Beatles titles, which sold zillions, such as the White Album), are so inordinately rare as to be virtually nonexistent. To assume that at least a quarter of Columbia’s physical output was so wildly commercially successful as to merit tens upon tens of lacquer replacements defies belief, logic and common sense.

    (E) In response to W.B., (July 28, 2014 at 21:43): Yes, it IS possible for a company to go through 130 lacquers on a certain title over the life of the release (typically a decade or longer), but those instances are truly aberrant and exceptional. This kind of treatment is reserved only for the most commercially successful titles, not for the run-of-the-mill releases. West Side Story was (and I believe still remains, but I may be wrong), the most successful Broadway show in the history of the Broadway zuckerwasser, and – correct me if I am wrong – the WSS soundtrack was the single most commercially successful Broadway score in the history of Columbia records. Of course they had used up 100+ lacquers over the course of the lifetime of this title. However, there is absolutely NO WAY that Columbia used up 30+ lacquers on something so commercially marginal as Bob Dylan’s first album, which is KNOWN to have been printed in only 2500 copies on the original six-eye label (2000 monos, 500 stereos).

    (F) In my occasional contacts with the three Columbia executives (all since retired), I have come to realize that Columbia’s matrix numbering system ISN’T and WAS NEVER MEANT to be a linear, transparent statement understandable to the buyer, as this article would have us believe. It was meant to be an opaque internal code or, if you will, an algorithm which only Columbia insiders could divine. To this day, neither one of the three gentlemen affiliated with Columbia could give me a firm, concise and final answer to a very simple question: what do these numbers and letters denote and how can we decode them? I did, however, receive a very interesting tidbit from one of them: a person working in Columbia’s NYC HQs [I am guessing the same individual Michael Fremer is referencing in his post] once told me that up to and including the year 1966, Columbia’s corporate records and files and session and production logs were meticulously maintained and organized. Starting with the year 1966 (which neatly dovetails with the meteoric corporate rise of Clive Davis, corporate switch from Broadway musicals and movie soundtracks to Rock, and massive influx of heroin, LSD and cocaine into the corporate culture (three presumably unrelated events), things got messy and wildly disorganized: details went missing or unrecorded, corporate files went misfiled, stolen, missing or vandalized, all hell done broke lose and the entire corporate memory went haywire. Fifty years later, this early music business corporate chaos looks like a Golden Age of corporate functionality and rationality.

    (G) i am in absolute, total agreement with Michael Fremer, who wrote:

    : "No doubt anything with a 6 eye label and a single letter after the “1” is pretty early but a true  “first pressing” would be 1A, 1B and 1C. If sound is your consideration, it’s difficult to know even if you have an early pressing. For one thing, you don’t know if your copy is the first pressed from a given stamper or the last from a very tired stamper" . 
    

    To this – other than my lavish praise – I can only add the following: this is PRECISELY why God invented sane and rational vinyl collectors, who use LABELS AND LABELS ALONE in order to determine the APPROXIMATE timeframe of their pressings. My advice to the novice collectors of Columbia titles: if you have a (a) six-eye pressing (b) with deep groove and (c) with a -1(n) suffix, seek no further. You are good and done (a caveat: most Columbia six-eyes released after 1961 do not have deep grooves

    (H) To our Blogmaster:

    I am in disagreement with a number of your points.

    Here goes:

    (1) – You write: “So why 35 lacquer cuttings? A good question to which there is no satisfactory answer. Except they did cut many more lacquers than they strictly needed.”

    I assure you that this theory does not and cannot stand. Any corporate staffer who gratuitously and unjustifiably raises the corporate overhead to no matching appreciation in corporate profits would promptly end up unemployed, if not in Bellevue Hospital, with a straightjacket, and in the rubber room. Columbia was no exception: they were cutting overhead aggressively, left and right. Which, in fact, was the single biggest reason why Clive Davis eliminated the entire MONO production line:

    (2) You say that ” and what do we know about 1D and higher?”. My answer would be: NOTHING. Not only do we not know anything about suffix 1D, we do not know anything about 1E, !F, 1G, IH, 1I, 1J, IK or 1L. Which then kicks me back to my point (F), which is that Columbia was using their matrix-numbering as a secret code, a cypher, not as a clear and transparent statement. They simply did not want the buyer to know or understand the source and the provenance of the disc they’d bought.

    (3) You say that: “…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”

    This is not necessarily true. In fact, playing the master – or any other – tape repeatedly WILL cause the loss of information, measurable drop in the magnetic flux embedded in the ferrous oxide, and general wear and tear. It is only how – with how much care and general pedantry – the recording label archived and took care of their master tapes that will determine the degree of their usefulness and integrity over time. Frank Zappa claimed, in justifying his decision to re-record certain drum segments on ‘We’re Only In It For The Money” that the original master tapes were treated with so much neglect and general disdain by MGM records that the tape layers had completely caked and decayed and could not be physically separated (a claim since debunked, but still credible as a general observation)

    (4) You say that” “the only indicator of first or early place in stamper life is the test pressing, and possibly, initial run of promotional copies”.

    This may be technically true for test pressings, but this decidedly ISN’T true for promotional copies. Promotional releases are basically split into two groups: promos by the recording label’s marketing department, and promos by the distributor (sometimes the two overlap or are one and the same). Neither group produces promotional releases per se or AHEAD of the actual physical production; they both pluck out the promo subset from already pressed and warehoused records waiting to be sold or distributed, then affix the promo labels or other markings and send promo copies to the VIPs on their mailing list. There is no correlation whatsoever between the matrix stamps and , say, white label promos. In fact, in many cases the actual white promo label LAGS one generation behind the stock label (James Taylor’s 1970 ‘Sweet Baby James’ comes to mind) and way behind -1A stampers.

    (5) You say: “You only need to listen to the gap in quality between test pressings and subsequent commercial releases to suggest there may be truth in the explanation.”

    Sir, you apparently have better ears than I do . In my decades of collecting, I have ONLY ONCE (on an Asylum test pressing by Judee Sill) heard a test pressing that sounds demonstrably better than the regular, well-made, stock copy. Frankly, I think that the popular belief that test pressings and promos sound better is merely a collectors’ fetish lacking any substance or merit. I will give you this, though: the ACETATES (when properly stored and nicely preserved) WILL sound better and more realistic than any subsequent generation of either reference- or stock pressings.

    (H) To W.B. (July 28, 2014 at 21:43). You say: “First lacquers of albums like John Wesley Harding would have been cut in Nashville (with hand-etched lacquer numbers in the deadwax) before the tapes went to New York for later cuttings (and their trademark machine-stamped type which spelt out the lacquer numbers),

    My files are telling me that, since 2003, I have sold 25 MONO copies of JWH (my favorite Dylan album, in a highly unlikely case anyone cares to know) and NOT A SINGLE ONE of them had a machine stamp. About a third of them were 1A/1A, third were 1B/1B, and the third were 1C/1C, which I find it interesting as a tidbit: namely, this title had all mono copies either pressed in the same facility, or used perfectly matching lacquer generations. Perhaps Dylan was given a preferential treatment by Columbia and accorded general care and consistency not granted to other Columbia artists?

    (I) To Scott LaBenne: You write ” recently found Bob Dylan’s “Nashville Skyline”, 1st pressing. Side one has a ‘1-J’ designation after the matrix #, and Side two has ‘1-A’. This record honestly sounds better than any other pressing or format I’ve heard, whether it’s CD, LP, or high-resolution 24/192kHz. This particular record sounds amazing.”

    This probably has more to do with the fact that Bob Dylan was Columbia’s biggest princess and that he was given a star treatment (see the preceding paragraph) and the best producers (John Hammond Sr., Tom Wilson, Bob Johnston, Jerry Wexler & Barry Beckett, Don DeVito, Daniel Lanois, etc) , engineers and session players (anyone from Al Kooper and Mike Bloomfield to George Harrison) money could buy. In addition, Nashville Skyline came out one and a half year after his sudden and mysterious disappearance from the public eye, so his new release (Nashville Skyline) was awaited more tense anticipation than anything else this side of The Return Of The Messiah. If you listen to other Columbia releases of 1969 (say, Johnny Winter’s eponymous Columbia release, or Janis Joplin’s ‘Kozmic Blues’), you won’t find this same kind of sonic splendor and worm glow..

    Also, although the original pressings of Nashville Skyline do, indeed, sound lively, warm and translucent, after hearing the 2003 SACD version, I never looked back. I am not sure which 24/192Khz hi-rez version you are referring to, but I am not trading my SACD for the original vinyl any time soon. Just call me weird and/or contrarian..

    Finally, and in the defense of our Beloved Fearless Blogmaster (this is my Client talking now), I must say that this article – which I became aware of belatedly – wasn’t really written by him. As he humbly pointed out himself in the preamble, this was a condensed compendium of loose and disjointed ramblings and popular Columbia myth-and-lore bricnbrac found on the Steve Hoffman forum (of questionable provenance and reliability), and our blogmaster must be credited for making the best of the horrible situation and producing the best and the most literate printworthy digest from the otherwise incoherent and inarticulate source material. You really can’t turn cave drawings into a Sistine Chapel no matter how hard you try (kudos to our blogmaster for even bothering to) Personally, I am somewhat adverse to counting the angels on a pinhead, but – hey! – to each his own. This is a free country, still.

    I am discarding the entire article lock, stock and barrel. There is very little salvageable here and practically nothing of any value to the collector of any level of expertise. Mind y’all, I am not being personally dismissive or nasty. Every good-faith effort is worthy of our admiration, even when futile. Even the trips that end in a ditch have some educational value.

    Ah, wait! I stand corrected!. There is one morsel of wisdom worth salvaging and savoring for the future: the terribly lonesome, inconspicuous, timid admission buried almost as a wayside footnote somewhere in the article: Our blogmaster writes, wisely and succinctly, the following:

    "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"
    

    Ah, yes! There, among the bushes, the shrubbery and the outcroppings of the article, thrown from the bus and left for dead, lies the hidden buried treasure of this article: the timid recognition that the lone random act by the lone overworked, underpaid, frustrated, sick and tired corporate employee who could not care less about matrix numbers or their sequence or integrity can suddenly throw a monkey wrench into our carefully constructed understanding of the record-making business, render all our record collecting “science” worthless, pointless. and moot and all our data compilations, research of corporate archives, history books, corporate logs research and statistical data mining utterly, tragically and almost surreally pointless.

    Which then bestows even more wisdom to our blogmaster’s closing statement:

    “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”

    To which I can only add: HALLELUJAH! I am floating my boat to the Mediterranean as we speak, , leaving all my Columbia (and Epic…and Harmony…and Ode…) matrix numbers way, way behind and trading all my Columbia 1As, 1Bs and 1Cs for two weeks worth of sea, sun, surf and s…and. Nyanyanyanyanya!

    • “The two statements are logically and syntactically mutually exclusive. The letter character can either denote the location of the pressing facility or the generation of the lacquer, but not both. This is an either/or, not and/or proposition. Which one is it, then?”

      Not sure why you find this hard to follow. The letter is the generation of lacquer that was cut, with each cut destined for a different pressing facility. Boom, it is both the generation AND the location of pressing facility, problem solved.

      • Here;s the inconsistency: the article claims that the letter designates a generation of the LACQUER (which, of course, isn’t meant to be shipped to a specific Columbia facility — in fact, it isn’t meant to be shipped at all), NOT a STAMPER (which is). Perhaps I am being a little too technical here, but if the stamp is etched/printed on the stamper, shouldn’t it also appear on the lacquer? After all, the latter (stamper) is the mirror image of the former (lacquer), isn’t it? If, however, lacquers are produced without any visible stamps, how does the engineer who produces stampers know just exactly which generation of the lacquer it came from, and what can prevent him from causing a massive confusion in the continuity and contiguity of the press run?

        In other words, if the matrix stamp is a reflection of the Columbia facility where it is meant to be delivered, it should also appear on the stamper. If it appears on the stamper, it should also appear on the lacquer. If it appears on the lacquer and denotes the Columbia facility, then it apparently cannot at the same time denote the generation of the lacquer.

        To put it differently: the matrix information “travels” along the production line from the lacquer to the actual record. If one believes the article, somewhere along this “journey” the matrix info loses its original meaning and is transformed from the generation of the lacquer to the destination where it is meant to be shipped. To me, this doesn’t make much sense.
        .

        • “In other words, if the matrix stamp is a reflection of the Columbia facility where it is meant to be delivered, it should also appear on the stamper. If it appears on the stamper, it should also appear on the lacquer. If it appears on the lacquer and denotes the Columbia facility, then it apparently cannot at the same time denote the generation of the lacquer.”

          I think this is where the confusion lies, the matrix stamp is not a reflection of where is is meant to be delivered but rather that each set of stampers were delivered to the different individual facilities for the initial pressing run.

          Here is a scenario, the mastering engineer sits down with the tape, spools it up and cuts the first lacquer disc for side 1, this one he stamps 1A for instance. He rewinds the tape, puts on a second lacquer for side 1 and stamps 1B on this one and continues until he has cut enough lacquers for each plant involved in the initial run. The 1A cuts are sent to plant “X”, the 1B are sent to plant “Y”, etc.

    • “My files are telling me that, since 2003, I have sold 25 MONO copies of JWH (my favorite Dylan album, in a highly unlikely case anyone cares to know) and NOT A SINGLE ONE of them had a machine stamp. About a third of them were 1A/1A, third were 1B/1B, and the third were 1C/1C, which I find it interesting as a tidbit: namely, this title had all mono copies either pressed in the same facility, or used perfectly matching lacquer generations.”

      OR the 1A/1A lacquers (or metalwork derived from the lacquers) were used to press records at Terre Haute, the 1B/1B at Santa Maria and the 1C/1C at Pitman? Maybe?

    • Where to begin? Well . . .
      – That only three sets of lacquers, all hand-etched, of “JWH’s” mono release were ever cut, in Nashville, with hand-etched matrix numbers (and no subsequent cuttings out of New York with their machine-stamped matrix numbers) is not exactly a surprise, given how mono was being phased out by this time and they were going for all-stereo LP releases. But it wasn’t simply Dylan being Dylan and having a certain status at Columbia; after the 1966-67 period, original lacquer cuttings of albums or singles reflected overall the original recording venue. In the case of “JWH,” Dylan recorded the album in Nashville, thus all mono LP lacquers (and initial stereo LP lacquers) were cut there. (In those days at the “Quonset Hut,” mono records were cut on a vintage c.1939 Scully 501 lathe and stereo product on a Scully 601 made around or just before the time Columbia acquired the studio from legendary Nashville producer Owen Bradley, in 1962.) 1967 was the first year for Nashville lacquers being cut for Columbia, Epic et al. product. 1966 was the first for Hollywood. In both cases, there’d have been unique matrix number blocks for each “hub.” Chicago’s studios were added to the mix in 1969, and of course in 1971 San Francisco. And in some cases there were massive variances in sound quality. I have different copies of two 45’s – “More Today Than Yesterday” by the Spiral Starecase and “Arizona” by Mark Lindsay, where initial lacquers were cut in Hollywood and later ones in New York; generally, the Hollywood lacquers were a bit duller and relatively more muffled on the high end than the New York lacquers.
      – With some artists like Dylan or Joel or Simon & Garfunkel, the -2x, -3x, -4x etc. dash numbers indicate everything from different mixes for certain tracks (i.e. “I Want You” from “Blonde On Blonde”), to replacing one track or take with another, to a tape master wearing out from repeated cuttings of lacquers and having to assemble a new tape master. (I’ve seen, on some Broadway LP’s from Columbia Masterworks, -6x lacquers on at least one side – but that was years and years after original release, of course.)
      – Not just on high-selling titles would you have multiple lacquers such as ‘-1LL’. In some cases, like with Masterworks releases, some of the lacquers in the bunch would have been rejected for a variety of reasons. The classical field was, according to legend, far more meticulous in terms of audio quality, groove spacing, etc., than in pop or even jazz.

      • Thanks WB, much appreciated!

        You write:

        ” That only three sets of lacquers, all hand-etched, of “JWH’s” mono release were ever cut, in Nashville, with hand-etched matrix numbers (and no subsequent cuttings out of New York with their machine-stamped matrix numbers) is not exactly a surprise, given how mono was being phased out by this time and they were going for all-stereo LP releases. But it wasn’t simply Dylan being Dylan and having a certain status at Columbia; after the 1966-67 period, original lacquer cuttings of albums or singles reflected overall the original recording venue. In the case of “JWH,” Dylan recorded the album in Nashville, thus all mono LP lacquers (and initial stereo LP lacquers) were cut there.”

        BD: It really doesn’t surprise me that much of Columbia’s recording and production focused in and around Nashville. Columbia (and Epic, in particular) had a very potent C&W production line, many of their greatest session players lived and worked there, and dozens of dozens of Bob Dylan, John Cash, Skip Spence and George Jones & Tammy Wynette albums were recorded there. Correct me if I am wrong, I believe Bob Johnston (Dylan’s producer) was a Nashville native.

        You write:

        – With some artists like Dylan or Joel or Simon & Garfunkel, the -2x, -3x, -4x etc. dash numbers indicate everything from different mixes for certain tracks (i.e. “I Want You” from “Blonde On Blonde”), to replacing one track or take with another, to a tape master wearing out from repeated cuttings of lacquers and having to assemble a new tape master. (I’ve seen, on some Broadway LP’s from Columbia Masterworks, -6x lacquers on at least one side – but that was years and years after original release, of course.)

        BD: This is all fine and dandy, and I generally have no problem with your statement. The problem, however, is logical: what do we make of the releases – such as Blonde on Blonde – which have a high STARTING number?

        The first problem is this: if the “dash numbers” start with the higher number because the tape master needed to be replaced, what happened to the missing lower numbers? Where are they? Has anyone seen them? Do they exist? Is this relevant for our analysis?

        The second problem is more psychological than technical: If the company goes through XYZ number of production tape “trail balloons” before it decides to use a, say, tape #3, why would anyone actually even care to find out what happened to missing matrices # 1 and 2? If the press run starts with tape generation # 3, and there are no antecedents, for a casual collector, #3 should be as good as #1, and any information about the missing generations #1 and #2 should be seen as purely speculative, if not downright meaningless. .

        You write:

        ” Not just on high-selling titles would you have multiple lacquers such as ‘-1LL’. In some cases, like with Masterworks releases, some of the lacquers in the bunch would have been rejected for a variety of reasons. The classical field was, according to legend, far more meticulous in terms of audio quality, groove spacing, etc., than in pop or even jazz.”

        BD: This is a very elegant and classy explanation, for which I am thankful, But see, being who I am (a devil’s advocate, although I occasionally represent various other demons), I must retort with a rhetorical question:

        Visualize yourself as a CEO or CFO of the major record company. Your firm releases hundreds of titles every year. You have a name that is essentially a symbol of the industry. You maintain different genre production lines, some more commercially viable than others: your Broadway musicals sell by the s#itload, your Folk and Rock line sells decently, but can’t compete with nascent Beatlemania, and your Classical department sells next to nothing, but you have to maintain the Classical production line in order to maintain your snob status and the perception of classiness and haute couture on the East Coast (read: NYC). Essentially, your Broadway & Hollywood lines (and – gasp! – Mitch Miller singalongs!) subsidize everything else you produce.

        Enter Roger the engineer. You have this guy working at your lathe-cutting facility who has a nasty habit of running through and discarding, say, 40 (rather expensive) lacquers, before he figures out that he is happy with the lacquer #41. And all this unnecessary hassle and overhead on a title by Alban Berg that will ultimately sell 30 copies (or less).

        Now, multiply this horrendous waste by the index of hundreds of titles you produce annually.

        Would you tolerate such excessive lacquer waste to no economic rhyme or reason?. Moi, being a Louis Cyphre’s legal representative on earth, would fire on the spot not only the engineer, but the entire lathe-cutting department, and would then outsource the entire production to East Rohingya and beyond. Because there is no way on earth (or in hell) that I am letting a tech dimwit dump 40 useless and wasted lacquers (and countless work hours and other associated overhead) at the expense of the dividends payable to my beloved investors (who, in all likelihood, are my own family members)..

        But that’s only me. Let’s just say that I have somewhat idiosyncratic ways of doing business. What would you do?

  2. I recently found Bob Dylan’s “Nashville Skyline”, 1st pressing. Side one has a ‘1-J’ designation after the matrix #, and Side two has ‘1-A’. This record honestly sounds better than any other pressing or format I’ve heard, whether it’s CD, LP, or high-resolution 24/192kHz. This particular record sounds amazing.

  3. “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”

    Your point is well-taken, but as you say, this only holds for lacquers/stampers from the same tape. The value of a 1A (or as close to it as possible) is that it is probably cut from the earliest generation tape. According to engineer Phil Brown: “For the original order I’d cut 6 sets of lacquers, 2 sets each for 3 plants. I’d also make some copies for file and tape production. For a few weeks if recuts are needed I’d make them. but in 6 months some production guy is going to cut them from a copy. And how that turns out is anybody’s guess. I’ve been that guy and If I have a big stack of recuts I want to get them over as soon as possible and go on to something more interesting. That’s why you want a pressing from the original lacquers.”

  4. At this point it also seems like the theory that stamper wear would have been audible near the end of a stamper run is being called into question (or never was questioned for some), that stampers broke more often than they were naturally pulled, but in either case there should not have been audible wear. This would leave the major differences between pressings to be attributed to each record’s playback history through the years more so than things happening at the factory…?

    • As I understand it, the grooves of a metal stamper are increasingly deformed by the tons of pressure during pressing. The top edge of the groove takes the brunt of the force and more affected by groove compression. After several thousand repetitions, the quality drops to the point fresh stampers are required.

      Teldec and JVC have documented their opinion ( I have the article somewhere in a serious hifi mag feature) how many records you could press from a stamper before quality fell off – 3,000 for highest quality, 6,000 middle of the road, 8,000 plus for pop where there isn’t much quality to be lost. This is a hifi journalist interviewing the old guys that worked in plants.

      This may of course be nonsense but it comes from serious sources, not (ahem) websites and forums. You only need to listen to the gap in quality between test pressings and subsequent commercial releases to suggest there may be truth in the explanation.

      I should say I have no personal experience in pressing records, and merely try to make sense of what I hear and what I am told. Anyone knows better , speak up.

      • It’s nice to know about that article, Andy. My source is a modern vinyl mastering engineer who claims that (most?) plants would have done a good job of pulling stampers before a decline in quality would have been noticeable, if they didn’t break before it was time to pull them. And of course, just like you I’m just telling it like I heard it, I’ve never been inside a pressing plant in my life ha.

        • The bottom line probably is that there are no two vinyl records that sound exactly the same, and there will always be a chance of your neighbour’s Kind Of Blue Six-Eye being slightly “better” than yours…

          • Agreed. Regardless of the reason, most copies of a vintage record will sound different at this point in time. However, I think it would remain to be seen if two different unplayed originals of something like Kind of Blue would actually sound that different, even if the matrix numbers were different.

            • Rich, I should have added the words “in theory”, because in real life I would rather agree with Michael Fremer’s statement below: “If sound is your consideration, it’s difficult to know even if you have an early pressing.” For all the fuss vinyl collectors tend to make about sonic differences and audiophile improvement, I have often asked myself if it’s really the sound they’re after. And if so – what sound? Whenever such basic parameters as eccentricity, frequency range, pitch, distortion etc. are mentioned, the ensuing discussions will invariably become esoteric. On the other hand, collectors can be very rational and scientific about label history. Let’s face it: Being a collector is a very different thing from being a sound engineer, a musician, or a jazz critic. (You may, on occasion, find all those things united in one and the same person, but that’s the exception rather than the rule.) My own personal view is something like: If it’s sonic perfection you’re after, don’t go for the Six-Eye.

  5. I have a question. I was just looking at my ‘original’ copy of Milestones. Are the dead wax engravings on these Columbia disks indented or outdented? If they’re outdented they would have been added to either the metal master or the stamper, but if they’re indented they would have been added to either the lacquer or the mother (most likely the lacquer)…?

  6. Question – I have two copies of Thelonious Monk, “Criss Cross,” CL 2038. I’ll call them X Pressing and Y Pressing. Both 2-eye first pressings; the labels are identical. However, the back of the jackets are very slightly different, and the pressings are slightly different as well; on X Pressing, the grooves on side 2 go much farther in, and the matrix info is handwritten, not machine-stamped (as it is on side 1). On X pressing, the side 2 grooves do not go as far in, and the matrix info is machine-stamped on both sides, as expected. They sound identical. Very strange. Any ideas, anyone (WB)? Is it different pressing plants? Thanks!

    • Different cuttings, for sure. In those days, all LP lacquers for issues on Columbia were cut at their New York studios. I counted at least four lathes (all Scullys, with one an ancient 501 style lathe which cut the bulk of 45’s and some 7″ 33⅓ RPM records of the time; another which was their first variable-pitch lathe c.1953 (but built before then); and two 601-type lathes, one of around pre-1955 make and another put into service around 1961) that cut in mono only in those days. Different cuttings, of course, went to different pressing plants, with the number of lacquers to each of their plants (four, as of the time of the original release in 1963 – Bridgeport, CT; Pitman, NJ; Terre Haute, IN; and Hollywood, CA, which within a year of this release would be superseded by a newer plant in Santa Maria, CA) varying whether it was a jazz act like Monk or, say, one of their popular stars such as Andy Williams or Tony Bennett. What would the respective lacquer numbers of your ‘X’ and ‘Y’ copies be, and any pertinent markings (a small stamped P? a large stamped T? hand-etched H?) within the deadwax? That might be a clue as to which lacquers went where.
      The numbers at the lower right on the back covers, which differ from pressing to pressing, also signify which company fabricated the album jackets (whether Imperial Paper Box Co. or Modern Album). If you have on hand a copy of Volume 2 of The Beatles’ Story on Capitol Records by Bruce Spizer, that might be a clue – and whatever numbers were on the backs of Beatles LP’s may well be also applicable in the case of Columbia albums.

      • X pressing – at the bottom right of the jacket reverse, next to the long rectangle with song info, is an “A”. The liner notes reach all the way down to the rectangle. Matrix side 1 is machine-stamped XLP-59556-2F, and then what looks like a sideways “T” and also a very small sideways “c” or “o”. Opposite that appears to be a very faint sideways “C” and then 6 extremely faint handwritten hash marks. Matrix side 2 is handwritten XLP-59557-2K. That’s it.

        Y pressing – no “A” on jacket reverse, but below the rectangle, there is a small “7” or “1”. The liner notes are formatted slightly differently, as between them and the rectangle is a plug for CL 1965 (“you will enjoy” etc.). Matrix side 1 is XLP-59556-2B and also a very small sideways “c” or “o”. Opposite that is 2 very faint handwritten hash marks; I suppose it could be an “H” (hard to tell). Matrix side 2 is XLP-59557-2B and also a very small sideways “c” or “o”. Opposite that is 2 very faint handwritten hash marks (or “H”).

        Thanks so much – it is always such a great learning experience!

  7. For some titles that have been in print for decades, the count of lacquers cut for a side would reach the stratosphere. On a 1966 pressing of the West Side Story soundtrack on Columbia Masterworks, for example, one side had a -1LJ and the other had a -1LA at the end of the respective lacquer numbers. This would mean that at that point, there were up to 130 lacquers(?), at least, cut of one side (and 122 of the other). I remember once seeing another pressing (can’t remember of which LP) where one side was marked by a -1ABC (146th cut!)!

    Nashville would have been the studio at which those mono lacquers of John Wesley Harding were cut. (The small number, one for each plant but none to go to Canada, may be attributable to the overall phase-out of mono LP’s which would take full effect within the next year.) Would anyone know who ‘B. Mc’ (who is listed on that box as having cut the mono lacquers) was? I know that, at the time, the Nashville studio (formerly Bradley Recording Studios) had a Scully 501 lathe for cutting mono lacquers (used until about 1973) and a Scully 601 for cutting stereo lacquers (later converted to cutting both mono and stereo after 1973). The Scully 501 setup in Nashville appears similar to the one in use for some years at Paul Brekus’ Aardvark Mastering in Colorado, to wit:
    – 1st gear: 88, 96, 104, 112, 120, 128, 136 lpi
    – 2nd gear: 178, 194, 210, 226, 242, 258, 274 lpi
    (What was written as 240 for Side 1 and 208 for Side 2 could have been 242 and 210, respectively.)
    Columbia’s New York studios, until their move from 799 Seventh Avenue to 49 East 52nd Street in summer 1966, had the same 1st gear set of lpi’s for their Scully 501 (which was retired at the point of the move); the second gear, however, was:
    – 150, 164, 178, 192, 206, 220, 234 lpi
    They also had the capacity to cut at 1.5 times the prescribed pitches (with accompanying decrease in the velocity of the lead-ins and lead-outs), thus:
    – 1st: 132, 144, 156, 168, 180, 192, 204 lpi
    – 2nd: 225, 246, 267, 288, 309, 330, 351 lpi

    First lacquers of albums like JWH would have been cut in Nashville (with hand-etched lacquer numbers in the deadwax) before the tapes went to New York for later cuttings (and their trademark machine-stamped type which spelt out the lacquer numbers).

  8. This confuses me, I still cant figure out how to find an original pressing. For example. People rave about the original columbia 6-eye US pressing. Now if one visits Discogs they can see that it was released in 1959. That issue had Matrix XSM47855-1G TC. So what confuses me is this: the “1” means first tape, yet the issues from 1960, 1962, 1966, even 1971 also have the “1”. Does this mean they are originals as well even if they are 2 eyes or other modern labels from other years. When columbia does a reissue how do I differentiate it from the originals? I am still lost on how to navigate columbia to find the ultimate sounding LP and have not been able to locate a guide, I hope you can clarify this for me and thanks for running an excellent site !!!

    • Columbia had 3 pressing plants back then: 1 in NJ one in IN and one in CA. Lacquers were cut in NY for all three plants. My sources tell me that 1A, 1B and 1C are all first lacquer cuts because one went to NJ one to IN and one to CA. But not necessarily did 1A sides 1 and 2 go to one plant because I’ve seen records with 1A on side 1 and 1B on side two and of course others had 1A on both sides. However, it’s a good bet that these were produced mostly “in 3s” but again not necessarily as one plant could have a need for a second lacquer before another plant. I am friends with someone who produces many Columbia reissues for Sony and unfortunately the provenance for these things beyond a certain point in time is lost. No one really knows for sure beyond that 1A 1B and 1C are “first lacquers. No doubt anything with a 6 eye label and a single letter after the “1” is pretty early but a true “first pressing” would be 1A, 1B and 1C. If sound is your consideration, it’s difficult to know even if you have an early pressing. For one thing, you don’t know if your copy is the first pressed from a given stamper or the last from a very tired stamper. What’s more, pressing plants have quality curves based on time. The first records pressed in the A.M. will usually not sound as good as ones pressed later in the day when the press is “humming”. On the other hand on a hot day when the water exchange system isn’t cooling the water sufficiently, there are often pressing issues. So there are no guarantees that can be made viewing the forensics, but the odds improve the more you know…

      • Hi Michael,
        Good to see you here! To support what you posted, here is a link from Sundazed’s mono release of Bob Dylan’s Columbia album “John Wesley Harding”

        For those that don’t know what to look for or are afraid to click, the tape log on the box shows:
        1A Terre Haute
        1B Santa Maria
        1C Pitman

          • If A, B & C can all be considered “first printings” then how can a record have 1A on one side and 1C on the other? If it was that strict that these stampers would go to particularly factories then there’s no reason for this to ever happen.

            Also, if this is true and ignoring the illogic of how this situation would occur, it would be interesting to know what equipment each pressing plant was using. Perhaps Pitman had the best gear, for example, so the best first pressing available would be 1C’s!

              • Also, I’ve seen releases that have 1A on one side and 1E on the other! The idea of there being 1As with 1Bs or Cs on the flipside makes sense if the laqeurs didn’t always have to go to one of three pressing plants but were semi-random, or maybe there were issues with one of the laquers so a 2nd or even 3rd had to be used instead, but 4 laquers failed before one could be found that worked?

                As a result of this website I’m currently happy buying 1As, 1Bs and 1Cs when looking for first printings, but it would be nice to get this weird detail sorted out. It seems fairly common, particularly on double LPs (two different copies of a Quad Bitches Brew release I saw at the recent Utrecht Record Fair had this same set of matrixes, with all sides 1A except the 4th).

                • Ok I have a mono copy of the first (1962) Dylan LP; it may be pressed circa 1965-66, with a two-eye label, 360 sound….side 1 stamped 1C, side 2 is stamped 1AB…These would seem to be 10 generations apart, right???

  9. In Nashville, Tennessee, the Columbia Owen Bradley Studios charged $125 for a single sided LP lacquer from a master tape, the 45 RPM lacquer $30 for a single side in 1979.

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