Audio quality and vinyl weight are not causally related, not that you would guess from the number of “180 gram audiophile pressings” in record shop shelves. However,the deeper groove cut facilitated by thicker heavier vinyl does have important audible benefits, as the music encoded on that deeper groove wall is better protected against damage to the vinyl surface, and heavier vinyl is more stable in the turntable platter.
Depth of vinyl groove is determined during the lacquer master cutting process, and produces the same groove depth whether pressed into wafer thin or jumbo-thick vinyl. That is why King Records in Japan could produce such great sounding Blue Note pressings on less than 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 useful indicator of the probable date of manufacture, in addition to usual paraphernalia for establishing authenticity. I have a “Lexington” which has every mark of authenticity apart from its weight. You can stick a Lexington label on any piece of plastic, but you can’t disguise it comes out of a factory press at a time when 160 gram was the norm and not the 220 gram customary in 1956.
The availability of inexpensive accurate digital scales means it is easy enough to add this knowledge to your armoury of detective skills. As part of a housekeeping exercise my thousand-odd record jazz collection were put on the digital scales, allowing me bring some scientific rigour to my hypothesis about dating records.
An industry-wide overview of vinyl weight
First, an overview of vinyl weight distribution, as found in my 1,000 jazz records spanning from the early ’50s to the mid ’80s. All labels were weighed to establish “norms” for different labels and different times.
LJC Principles in dating Blue Note records
Label and catalogue number were used as a proxy for date of manufacture, allowing that some pressings out of chronological sequence. Records with mixed labels were assigned to the most modern one, hence a Lex/NY combination is an NY record. The change from Blue Note to Liberty is caught by the earless 1966 Liberty NYs, 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.
Blue Note originals and later reissues
Below is the result of a stat analysis I did of 150 Blue Notes a while back:
Company, Label, Plant (sample size) AVG WEIGHT (gm)
Blue Note Lex Plastylite (5) 195 gm
Blue Note 47W63 Plastylite (41) 178 gm
Blue Note NY Plastylite (95) 166 gm
Sure, there are always some outliers. Heaviest 225 gm, lightest 109 gm, but these are real anomalies. I’ve forgotten how to do standard deviation, but they cluster around the averages, and get progressively lighter over time.
The corresponding figures for forty-or about Liberty Blue Note pressings (’66-’70)
grouped by pressing plant:
Liberty DivLib Capitol (6) 150 gm
Liberty DivLib 3rd Party (unk) (4) 147 gm
Liberty DivLib All-Disc (24) 144 gm
Liberty DivLib Bestway (1) 144 gm
Liberty DivLib Keel (7) 141 gm
Liberty DivLib Research Craft (23) 139 gm
Nine US-pressed Blue Note cohorts are found among Original Blue Note Liberty and United Artists, with characteristic average weight difference
The weight of vinyl biscuit and press settings in use varied between plants but reduced over time. Pressure to reduce the cost of manufacture lead to a realisation that a satisfactory fill could be achieved using less vinyl. Vinyl weight therefore remains a useful indicator of probable origin, particularly with records that appear from their labels to be early/original pressings.
Original Blue Note, 1956-66 (n=130)
There were significant changes in vinyl weight between the different label addresses during the original Blue note years. Whilst there are outliers which are untypically heavy or untypically light, none are found below 160 grams before a certain date
Lexington and 47W63rd label (1956-61)
There are many copies of Blue Note records found with earlier labels than their actual date of manufacture. I have 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 first four monsters on the left are my Lexington. The trend is downwards over time.
New York New York
Next, sixty-four NY label pre-66 original Blue Notes of which I am confident, having assigned 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-owned All Disc NJ pressed around a 145 grams, less for some West Coast variants. By the time United Artists and Transamerica accountants had their way, pressing fell to around 135 gram vinyl weight.
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 such as the shift from analogue to digital equipment
JAPANESE REISSUES TOSHIBA EMI (1983 – present day)
Japanese reissues each have a known date of release, hence the trends in weight can be stated definitively. With just the a couple of outliers, Toshiba vary between 110 and 155 grams vinyl weight. With the first wave of reissues 1983-5, vinyl weight was often typically 110-120 grams, very light. The second wave of reissues 1989-93 were actually heavier typically 120-140 gram. What is remarkable is the relative consistency compared with US manufacture, and the setting of minimum standards.
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Have you ever found any of your first or original pressings on any label to be of an abnormally low weight? I recently purchased what looks like a late 50s pressing of Ahmad Jamal’s Chamber Music of the New Jazz with a black deep groove label on Argo that seems original, but weighs 133 g. It’s light enough when you hold it that you’re scratching your head, trying to figure out where and when it came from.
Yes, I occasionally come across one copy that sticks out like a sore thumb from all the other related titles, usually one that is 20-30 grams lighter. Nothing untoward about it other than the weight is “wrong” – though in your case there may be other factors.
It is odd because it is very infrequent.If weights were random, everything would be all over the place, but they are far from random. They are very quite purposeful.
The size of the vinyl biscuit and the calibration of the press are pressing plant-related variables, so it may be that a particular copy has been pressed at a West Coast plant – they always seem to be a fair bit lighter (eg Contemporary) than New Jersey output. Just another theory.
I got lots of theories.
That copy of Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers is a powerful record – it’s one of my only stereo LPs which gets that “hot” sort of top end sound…it’s hard to tell if its the limits of my system or a little groove wear (my guess? A little of both.)
My current theory is that those Blakey “hot” top ends are a combination of van Gelder’s choice of and placement of microphones, and the magic worked on a Scully lathe set to provide a deep cut groove – generating that extra volume.
This may be entirely wrong, but the more you find out about microphones – Neumann U47 and AKG C12 – the more they look like the source of goodness, and the masters touch at the Scully.
My BN1508 Blakey Bohemia Vol 2 Lexington (225g), despite its signs of groove wear, remains the most powerful recording in my entire collection.
I briefly had a stereo copy of Mosaic – same power on the high end with a little distortion on my stereo, but also on one of Wayne Shorter’s solos, his sax bounced from one channel to the other a few times. I sent it back…the seller said they didn’t hear the issue, but I made sure to check it out with my headphones and I know I’m not crazy. Weirdest thing.
I auditioned an original mono copy of “Mosaic” recently and there was distortion all over the place. I’m guessing it’s gonna be tough to find a copy of this without groove wear that plays well. The hotter everything is and the hotter a record is mastered, the easier it is for distortion to creep into those grooves =\ This is the great paradox of the beloved Van Gelder sound.
Bravo for stepping on the scales! To boldly go where no-one else has! (Just to be clear, my weights are just naked vinyl: no cover, no sleeve, nothing but the bare disk and its label)
I have found there is no precise uniformity in weight for a particular cohort of records, but a general pattern, with a normal distribution around the average, plus the occasional outlier.I probably should at some time calculate the standard deviations and all that stuff, but with a limited number of observations it seemed a bit shaky.
Some of your heavier NY/47W63rds are surprising. Especially that Smith/Crazy baby at 200g. My copy is 163g which is a helluva lot different. I have no way of knowing if your copy was pressing say 1962 and mine 1966, who knows. It is intruiging that the same record and pressing might have such different weight, but I don’t have too many exact doubles to tell.
With other labels Like Prestige and Riverside pressing was farmed out to different plants with different presses and practices, but with Blue Note at least we know is all Plastylite NJ, so all other variables are eliminated.
I believe vinyl weight provides a useful diagnostic tool, which adds another bit of information, but it may be a blunt knife and not a scalpel. However I know all my forty Japanese King pressings average 121g with variation max 10g in either direction. Fifties and Sixties US pressing has much greater variation, which we don’t understand.
Some time it may be interesting to pool knowledge of Blue Note weights – with many more observations come higher confidence.
I’ve been charting the weight of all my jazz LPs as I’ve been reorganizing them by label and the results really have been fascinating. I learned a lot about the likely origins of my own Blue Note LPs – things that I didn’t notice at first because I was collecting with far less knowledge than I posses now.
Forgive me if you address this, but the lack of pattern with the spikes that occur, especially with LPs that make it up near 200, is so lerplexing. i own three Lexingtons (Eminent JJ vol. 1, Cave Bohemia vol. 2, Horace Silver/Jazz Messengers) which weigh 195, 202, and 201 respectively. My other records that make it up to that territory are:
Amazing Bud Powell vol. 1 with NY USA label: 191 g
Horace Silver – Finger Poppin’ – 193 g
Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers – Self titled (Moanin) STEREO with the 43 West address on the label and the (R) – 203 g
Jimmy Smith – Crazy Baby – 200 g
Both of the Donald Byrd records with voices: 193 g and 192 g
Everything else I have are generally NY USA pressings that linger around 165 as you had noticed. But the handful of pre-NY USA LPs I have weigh significantly less than the heavyweights I’ve listed above. It makes me suspicious that perhaps some of them aren’t as old as they claim to be (which is totally fine, but truly fascinating).
So far I’ve gotten through my Columbias, Prestiges, and Riversides and I’ve noticed something similarly interesting about my Prestiges (I only have 9): my two W 50th LPs (Django and Blue Haze) weigh 164 and 181 respectively. Only Eddie “Lockjaw” Davis’s first cookbook weighs less than Django, 2 are between those weights, and 4 of those NJ pressings are heavier than Blue Haze, including Miles Davis Quintet/Sextet and Soultrane which both weigh in at 200! You really do hear a volume difference and it was cool to realize that AFTER playing the LPs rather than before.
Is there a point to this comment? Yes and no. I think weight is a subject that deserves more attention but what the purpose of that conversation is I’m not yet totally sure.