The really important things about most records are their performer, and the title. But in order to keep records in logical order on their stock shelves, manufacturers & dealers also needed numbers and letters and sometimes other signs. Come to that, so do we, to help us keep our collections in order. Mind you, early on, it was quite common to find records with a different ‘catalogue’ number on each side. As late as 1926, Odeon had an Austrian series that had no number common to both sides. It will be a useful example to analyse. (The labels are in fact the same colour; the difference only arose during my scanning, sorry.) So let’s get to work…
A record such as this would have to be ordered by quoting just one side. Perhaps even people in Austria found difficulty in ordering these too, because they are quite scarce. Still, ordering records is not particularly what this page is about. The sort of letters and numbers we’re really interested in, are the other markings & printings to be found on the label, under the label and in the wax. They can tell us all sorts of things about the side. Above all, where and when it was recorded.
We have scanned a larger area to include the space between the end of the grooves and the label. The contrast and brightness have been stepped up to show the various numbers &c. At arrow No. 1 is the most important number we see, and it’s also on the label. Be 5642 is the master number, also sometimes called the matrix number. This is indeed the number of the original wax ‘Master Record’ from which all copies are derived.
Record companies have had many different systems for numbering their masters. Sometimes they have a prefix, as here. It is very common for the master number to appear both in the wax and on the label – probably just to make sure the right label is used. Do prefixes mean anything specific? They may or may not; but in this case it does: and (no prizes for guessing) ‘Be’ signifies an Odeon master made in Berlin. If we had a listing of those masters with dates, we could find out when this side was recorded. Alas, I don’t have such a list, but the tune – which is sung in English – was current around the middle of 1926.
What else can we see? Arrow 2 indicates the Odeon ‘face number’, and this also appears on the label, but with an A- prefix – for a reason not known to me. Arrow 3 is interesting: both in the wax and under the label appears a small ‘W’ in a circle. This is a symbol meaning that the side was recorded using the then-newish Western Electric recording system. Before early 1925, virtually all records had been recorded by a purely mechanical, or ‘acoustic’ system. The ‘W’ is not there just as an ornament – far from it! The Western Electric Company leased their equipment to record companies, and took a royalty on every disc resulting from the use of their gear. They had to be distinguished from those made by any other system.
At 4 we see AUSTRIA pressed into the wax. (This used to strike us as odd; the apparent use of English. Why does it not say ‘Österreich’ in the wax? Only in 2017 did a correspondent, Wes Williams, kindly tell us that it had puzzled him also, but he had established that Austrians themselves call their country Austria – which is its ancient Latin name. Their vehicles have ‘AT’ as international identification letters.) On the other hand, ‘Made in Germany’ appears in English on lots of German records, even including some made during the Second World War, 1939-1945! But we digress. On to the other side…
Here we have the master number on the label – S74168b – and also in the wax on the right. Note that all the things we’ve looked at so far have been stamped with dies. But here the master number in the wax is hand-written. Does this tell us anything? Indeed it does!
Records are pressed from robust metal stampers, so if you want to identify that stamper, you can’t write on it. You have to carefully stamp it with number dies. But you can write, with a stylo, in the wax of the original master record. So we can fairly conclude that this is what has been done. All the other markings are stamped – so we can equally conclude that those markings have been stamped into ‘metal parts’ further down the manufacturing process.
At the top appears 60275: the Odeon ‘catalogue’ for this side, and again at the bottom of the label. ‘AUSTRIA’ also appears, which we already know about. Note that there is no ‘W’ in a circle on this side: therefore it was not recorded by the Western Electric process. So who did record it, how, where and when? The label helpfully tells us that the Goofus Five were ‘New York’. So what record company was in New York that had masters such as S-74168-B?
The answer lies in the remaining number in ‘the wax’, 40624-A. It is the catalogue number of an OKeh record. OKeh was a famous U.S. label closely related to Odeon. They recorded an immense amount of excellent stuff, especially if you like dance bands, jazz and blues, and their master series then, was in the S-74000s. Because there are many jazz Discographies available, we can look up The Goofus Five in Brian Rust’s ‘Jazz Records’, and learn that master S-74168-B was made in New York on 12th May 1926. It was made with OKeh’s own electrical process, which wasn’t very good; but that’s not important right now, except that it explains the absence the ‘W’.
To sum up, this obscure Odeon record with its two different catalogue numbers, couples a side made in Berlin (by Odeon itself) probably in late 1926, with one made several months earlier in New York, by OKeh.
There is also a dealer’s label, so we know the record was purchased from Schmid’s record shop, which was at Rösselmülg. 6A in Graz. Of course, whether it was originally purchased there new in late 1926 -1927 we don’t know. It might have gone through Schmid’s shop as a second-hand item years later? The green copyright royalty stamps have an address in Vienna. So you see, there is much we can learn from looking at these markings on 78s.
Not all discs tell us as much as that Odeon did. But at the very least, besides the catalogue number & master number on the label, most should also carry the master number in the wax, or under the label. An example of this straightforward type of disc is shown above. The catalogue number, Z4698 is there to the right of the hole, and the only other number is E 3938, in brackets at the left of the hole. This should be the master number – and indeed it is. In the wax there is just one number as you see here:Appearing with it is our old friend, the W in the circle, signifying that this record was made by the Western Electric system. However, our expected number 3938 has ‘-2’ appended to it. Does this mean anything important? It certainly does. This is the ‘take number’. After the artiste made the first take, for whatever reason, they decided to record it again, and it was this second take that was issued.
E-3938 was recorded in early 1931 for the British label Parlophone. It was they who supplied J Graves of Sheffield with their house label ‘Ariel’.
In general, most 78 records will carry information of this type and this format. We’ll just deal with three more, or else this page will become too long!
The most famous UK label is of course His Master’s Voice. However, the company who made them was always called The Gramophone Company – it was set up in 1898 from the U.S.A., and at first their discs were simply called ‘Gramophone’ records. Let’s go back through time and look at a 1905 issue, when their 10″ (25cm) discs were called Gramophone Concert Records, and were single-sided.
Here, the only number on the label is G.C.-2-131. This is the catalogue number.There is also a number in the wax, at 6 o’clock. This is the master number, and thanks to the labours of many discographers – above all the late Alan Kelly – the earlier master listings have been transcribed from the company archives. From Alan Kelly’s work, we find that this master was recorded on 27th July 1905. It was in fact the second take of this tune, but this company, as did some others, used a new number for each take. The first take of this side (which was never issued) was master 2319. So at this period, there are no -1, -2, -3, or -A, -B, -C suffixes to indicate different takes on Gramophone Co. discs. In other words, without Alan Kelly’s listings, we would have little idea how many takes of any side had been made.
Now I hear you say, this number does have a suffix – a small letter ‘e’. And you are quite correct; but this ‘e’ does not indicate the fifth take of master 2320. It is rather more interesting than that: it tells us which recording engineer was responsible for making the side. They were called ‘recording experts’ in those days, and various letters and combinations thereof were used by this company to identify them, and also, they indicate what size the disc was. OK, the size of the disc is manifest just by looking at it. But this information would be used by clerks and company officials who would be looking to issue certain records at certain prices &c., and they were working from ledgers & paperwork, so they needed to know what size the recording was. Fred Gaisberg was the chief recording expert, so when they introduced this ‘ident’ system, he was given the letters a, b, and c. A (lower case) was for 7″ discs, b was for 10″ discs and c was for 12″ discs. His younger brother Will Gaisberg came next, and had the letters d, e & f. And so it went on as more people were involved. So 2320e tells us not only was it was recorded on 27th July 1905, but further that it was recorded by Will Gaisberg, and was a 10″ disc.
We now look at 12 o’clock in the wax above the label, and see the following:Obviously, 2-131 is the catalogue number of this disc; but we also see III after the catalogue number. This is the stamper number. ‘Coon Band Contest’ was a very popular tune, and even though records were very expensive in those days, it sold well. Evidently the first stamper wore out, so they made another one from the mother. This new stamper would have had ‘II’ after the catalogue number. But even II wore out, so they made a third, III, from which this copy was pressed. Quite possibly, they went on and made even more. (By the way, the first stamper did not carry a number; so in this era, the absence of the Roman numeral I indicates the first stamper.)
Here’s a single sided HMV of 1912. (Purely as an aside, why did the name change? Well, naturally the word ‘Gramophone’ was jealously protected by The Gramophone Company; but such was their success that the word soon became generic, and in 1910 court of law ruled that this was definitely the case. The Gramophone Co. was extremely narked by this, and adopted the name His Master’s Voice for their records, having bought Francis Barraud’s famous ‘dog and gramophone’ painting years before. There was a consolation; their new trade mark became, for many decades, the best-known in the world, until it was eventually surpassed by Coca-Cola.)At 6 o’clock in the wax we have the master number, y15844e. Alan Kelly’s list tells us this side was made on 23rd October 1912. The ‘e’ suffix indicates that this master is in the same 10″ ‘Will Gaisberg’ series we saw above in 1905. Actually, by this time it had become the standard series, and that is why the ‘y’ prefix is seen here – it actually means Arthur Clarke recorded it, but that’s not important right now. What we can certainly see, is how busy the Gramophone Co. have been since our lowly 2320 above, as around 13,000 wax masters have been used in 7 years!
Next comes the catalogue number at 12 o’clock: 2-4037, just as it appears on the label. There is no Roman numeral following it, so can we still infer the use of the first stamper from this?
Alas, no; the discographer must always be on his toes! In fact, this disc is indeed from the first stamper, but that fact is now indicated by the appearance of a letter ‘G’ in the wax at 3 o’clock.
For some reason, by 1912 the Gramophone Co. had introduced a new system of indicating stamper numbers. This used letters instead of numbers, and they derived a simple code from the company name: GRAMOPHone Company LTD. The capitals represented the numbers 1 to 10, thus:
G R A M O P H L T D
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10
If this first stamper wore out, then a second would have been made, and the discs pressed from it would bear the letter ‘R’ at 3 o’clock. A third would bear ‘A’ and so on. At first, these letters were relatively large: the one shown above is nearly 5mm tall. Later they were made smaller and fainter, though they remained in use until the démise of HMV 78s in 1958, a period of 36 years. So the disc above was indeed pressed with the first stamper after all!
Fnally, from 1925, one more HMV.By this time, popular issues were on the 10″ B- series, which had begun in 1912. Besides the catalogue number, there appears (4-239).This is the ‘face number’, which is also present in the wax at 12 o’clock. What is this face number? It’s not a terribly important number to us discographers; we are much more interested in the master number, because it is datable. But to HMV, the face number was crucial: it identified the side whatever its source. That source might be the UK, USA, France, Spain, Italy or anywhere the company had branches or had made recordings. And all those places had different series of master numbers. To store the metalwork in many separate series would have been very inconvenient. So HMV as it were pretended that all discs were still single sided, and gave them numbers in the old, single sided catalogue series, and it was the face number that identified the side for them rather than the master number. Many other large, international companies did this also.
The master number appears, as always, at 6 o’clock below the label: Bb6880 III ∆. New series had been introduced in March 1921. Bb for 10″ (25cm) discs, and Cc for 12″ (30cm). The take number is in Roman numerals, superscript: III. The triangle indicates the use of the Western Electric recording system.Last of all, there is the small letter M to be found at 3 o’clock in the wax. This is the stamper number. G – R – A –M… that’s the fourth stamper produced from the mother.
What happened if they made more than 10 stampers? Well, they began again, with two letters. Stamper 11 would be ‘GG’, stamper 12 ‘GR’ and so on. Here is a table covering up to the 110th HMV stamper.
TABLE OF HMV – EMI STAMPER LETTERS.
If they needed still more, GGG would be 111, GGR would be 112 & so on. Though I have never seen a three-letter code, there may well be some instances.
It is extremely unusual for a 78 disc to have no numerical identity whatever; so by looking out for odd things ‘in the wax’ and ‘under the label’, then researching them, you will find much of interest. For example, you occasionally see the initials of the recording expert under the label; sometimes famous artistes were asked to autograph the wax. A collection of those would be make a nice theme subject. A few experts, even, had a small monogram seal or stamp they gently impressed in the wax of the master record. If you ever see CO in elongated italics in a Gramophone Co. pressing, that means the disc is derived from a COpy master – a rare example of of ‘reverse electrotyping’ in which, say, a new matrix has been derived from a mother, or a mother from a stamper; quite the opposite of normal procedure.
Page originally written 2010.
Extensively revised and published here 25th June 2016.