Columbia History: Matrix and Take Numbering

Columbia Master Book, Volume I, Tim Brooks, ed.

One to three numbers are commonly found in the surface of early Columbia records, in the form “xxxx-x-x.” For example, “3423-2-20” would indicate matrix number 3423, take 2, stamper 20. Later recordings might have three suffixes (probably representing take, mother, and stamper). Matrix numbering began, sensibly enough, at no. 1 (“In a Clock Store”). As with Berliner and early Victor, the matrix number and catalog number was the same and was displayed prominently on the label. This practice continued throughout the single-face era.

It is the compiler’s belief that the Climax/Columbia matrix numbers shown here were not assigned at the time of recording, but days or even weeks later when the masters were being processed for manufacture. Thus the artist and repertoire groupings may seem arbitrary. Henry Burr may have recorded several titles at a single session, but those recordings were apparently given scattered (not sequential) numbers later on. Extreme cases include the Admiral Peary recording, made in 1905 but not assigned a number (3846) until ca. 1908, and several of the Lillian Nordica recordings in the 30,000s which were evidently assigned numbers more than a year after they were made.

It is likely that Columbia did not assign any code number at all at the time of recording. Moreover, when a number was assigned later, it may have been affixed to the metal parts used to press discs, rather than to the original wax master. This would explain occasional anomalies such as test pressings bearing no number at all, and a second pressing of the same take with a different (changed) matrix number. Columbia no doubt varied its manufacturing procedures over time, but the important point is that once a number was assigned it uniquely identified that master in all subsequent issues, including double-faced releases and on other labels. This is the classic definition of a “matrix number,” and we shall treat it as such here.

A second, “phantom” matrix number is found engraved in the wax on some Climax and Climax-derived discs. This second number has been reported on approximately 70 out of the first 826 issues. It ranges from no. 7 to the 1400s, although it is most commonly a number between 1000 and 1300. It bears no apparent relationship to the “main” number. At one time it was thought that this might be the “true” matrix number, but it is absent on too many issues. All Climaxes, including the earliest “Globe” Climaxes, bear the regular number, but only a few have the “phantom” number. The “phantom” number may have denoted masters obtained from another source, or recorded at a different laboratory, and subsequently integrated into Climax’s main numbering system.

Another mystery is why so many low-numbered masters have never been found on Climax, but do turn up later on Columbia. This seems to be more than simply a matter of “we haven't found them yet.” Whole runs of presumably popular low-numbered recordings do not appear on Climax, among them many early band and orchestra numbers, including no. 1, “In a Clock Store.” Nearly half of the masters in the Climax numerical range (1-826) have not been found on that label, even though virtually all of them turn up on Columbia. The missing numbers are scattered throughout the Climax range.

It is this compiler’s theory that the missing numbers were recorded during the Climax era, but not issued until after the Climax label was discontinued in 1902. Columbia was certainly known to hold recordings for months, or even years, before issuing them. This was especially true of standard repertoire, and it is probably not a coincidence that low-numbered standard selections were most likely to be held for issue on Columbia. Low­numbered topical tunes, on the other hand, usually were quickly released on Climax.

Takes are normally sequential recordings of the same title by the same artist, numbered from “1” upwards. Most Climaxes show no take number. Either only one take was made, or more likely, the engineers at this early stage simply weren't keeping track of remakes. The absence of a take does not mean “take zero.” For example, three versions of 7” Climax 157 (“Asleep in the Deep”) have been identified, one by Hooley, one by Myers and one by Stanley, and none have take numbers. Most Columbia takes were numbered in the usual fashion, although occasionally letters or symbols were used (e.g., mx. 521-a).

On early single-faced discs, the stamper is often represented by a letter immediately following the take, with no hyphen. Sometimes these are lower case, e.g. “-1x” or “-1xx.” In the cases studied these have been determined to be aurally identical to take “1” with no suffix. More often the stamper is represented by an upper case letter. (Stamper “O” often causes confusion since when placed immediately after a take it looks like a zero, e.g. “10” or “20 “.) Early takes were also occasionally underlined (or lined above).103

The highest stamper number or letter seen can serve as a rough guide to how many copies were manufactured, and more study in this area would be welcome. Most early discs bear a stamper number under 20, although best sellers could go much higher. Stampers have been seen as high as 254 (on “The Herd Girl’s Dream”) and 390 (on the 1913 Demonstration Record).

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The Columbia Master Book Discography, 4 Volumes, Complied by Brian Rust and Tim Brooks. Reprinted by permission.