Columbia History: M-Numbers

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

One of the enduring mysteries of early Columbia discs is the meaning of the additional number, prefixed with an “M,” that was neatly scratched into the surface of many (though not all) cylinders and discs made between 1904 and early 1908. The range of numbers reported is M-1 to M-2035, and they are found on all types of recordings produced by the company—7”, 10” and 12” discs, and standard (4”) and Twentieth Century (6”) cylinders. In fact, the same M-number may appear on several formats, denoting a different recording in each case. For example M-82 is found on the following recordings: 10” disc no. 3063 (Henry Burr, “There Is a Green Hill Far Away”); 12” no. 30080 (Charles Gordon, “From Greenland’s Icy Mountains”); two­minute cylinder no. 32661 (Bob Roberts, “Tennessee”); and Twentieth Century cylinder no. 85111 (Columbia Quartette, “A Meeting of the Hen Roost Club”).

While M-numbers proceed more or less in step with the regular matrix numbers, the two do not appear to be linked, and in some cases they diverge radically. For example, try to make sense out of this pattern:

3441 M-996
3442 M-888
3443 M-942
3444 M-1137
3445 no M-number
3446 M-938

Twelve-inch discs in the 30,000 series seem to begin with M-numbers in the M-680s, rise to about M-780, then drop back to M-1. Foreign language series also sometimes bear the mysterious M-numbers, in no particular order.

It is clear that separate M-number series were maintained concurrently for different formats—or perhaps for different numerical matrix series (e.g., the 3,000s, 5,000s, 30,000s). One hypothesis is that M-numbers were the “true” matrix numbers during this period, applied at the time of the original recording, and that what we know as the “matrix” number was actually a release number. The compiler has seen two early test pressings that bear M-numbers but not normal matrix numbers.104 Alternatively, M-numbers may have been some sort of production code, applied at the time of manufacture.

The fact that M-numbers are absent from so many original pressings from this period, even on different pressings of the same take, suggests that they represented some sort of experimental program, rather than a regular production system. Perhaps “M” stood for “Marconi,” who may have been experimenting with Columbia masters during 1906-1908, or for “Macdonald,” the company’s resident inventor. Hopefully further research, or an as yet undiscovered document, will one day solve the intriguing mystery of the “M­ numbers.”

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