Understanding labels and pressings

Very experienced collectors know a lot about different labels & pressings of collectable LPs, and they know which ones they want to buy. But if you are less experienced, it can be difficult to be sure which label or pressing to buy, particularly as not all sellers are consistent. So I want to give you the information you need to make the right choice for you.

Table of contents

Decca SXL

Wide band

So first let’s look at a “wide band” Decca label.

Decca Wide Band

It has “ffss” in a silver circle at the top of the label. The “wide band” is the the silver band just above the spindle hole, that says “Full Frequency Stereophonic Sound”.

About 20 years ago, collectors divided Decca SXL wide band labels into 3 categories.

ED1

ED1 is the first wide band label. They have “Original Recording" between 9 & 12 o'clock, round the edge of the label. And they have a groove in the vinyl, under the label, about 1cm from the outer edge of the label. This groove is what makes it a “groove pressing”. A few very early issues have the groove very near the edge of the label - about 2mm from the edge. These are very rare and are called pancake pressings.

Decca ED1

All the SXL 2000 series have an ED1 label, as their first label, A lot of SXL 6000s series have ED1 as their first label too. We’ll talk more about that later.

ED2

ED2 is the second wide band label. They have "Made in England" between 9 & 12 o'clock, round the edge of the label. And they have a groove in the vinyl, under the label, about 1cm from the outer edge of the label.

Decca ED2

For early SXLs, SXL 2000 series and many SXL 6000 series, ED2 is not the original label, as the original label is ED1. But there are many in the SXL 6000 series where ED2 is the original label, and no ED1 label exists. All SXL wide bands from SXL 6364 onward have ED2 or ED3 as the original label. But so do many earlier SXL 6000 series. Again we’ll talk more about that later

ED3

ED3 is the third and last wide band label. They have "Made in England" between 9 & 12 o'clock, round the edge of the label, but they don’t have a groove in the pressing.

Decca ED3

Again, ED3 is the original label for many SXLs. But where ED2 is the original label, then ED3 is the second label. And where ED1 is the original label, ED3 is the third label. So, for example, if you have an SXL 2000 series with an ED3 label, then it is the third label.

Narrow band

The last ED3 is SXL 6448. All SXLs from SXL 6449 onwards have a narrow band label as their original label. Some call this ED4. English pressed narrow band labels have a silver rectangle that says DECCA, and “Made in England” in small print above the rectangle. As you can see the silver band saying “Full Frequency Stereophonic Sound” (below the rectangle), is narrower than the wide band on ED1, ED2, ED3.

Decca Narrow Band

Dutch pressings

In 1979 Decca moved their pressing plant to Holland. SXLs pressed in Holland say “Made in Holland” at the bottom of the label. I call these “Dutch pressings”. All Decca records issued from 1980 onwards are Dutch pressings. A few SXLs issued in 1979 are English pressings, but most are Dutch pressings.

Decca Dutch Pressing

So that’s rather complicated, isn’t it! But I’m afraid it gets a lot more complicated when we look at which SXLs have ED1, or ED2, or ED3 as their original label. The highest number ED1 in the SXL 6000 series that I have ever seen is SXL 6363. That was issued in 1968. But a lot of lower numbered SXL 6000s don’t have an ED1 label, their original label is ED2. The lowest number original ED3 is SXL 6355 and the last ED3 is SXL 6448

Blue back sleeves

A few of the earliest SXL 2000 series have a “blue back sleeve”. Sometimes described as a “blue riband”

Blue Band Sleeve

These are quite rare, and only the first few SXLs issued had these sleeves on the earliest pressing. The last blue back sleeve I know of is SXL 2115, but there are probably earlier numbers where no blue back sleeve exists

Which Decca SXL label should you buy?

Some collectors want original labels. These are often the most expensive. They are certainly the most “collectable”. Many collectors believe that original labels have the best sound, but I don’t agree that this is always the case. Vinyl from the late 1950s and early 1960s has a slightly noisier surface than vinyl pressed in the mid 1960s onwards. You get a quieter surface on ED2 pressings and on ED3 pressings. They are all “audiophile” pressings with superb sound quality. As indeed are very many narrow bands. Second and third labels are a good deal less expensive than “original” labels, and I recommend them, as it is sound quality that interests me most. So you don’t need to spend a fortune to start to build up a superb-sounding collection of SXLs.

Note: Some less experienced sellers have recently been using the term ED1 incorrectly. They think ED1 means “first edition”. They call an any SXL that it is the first pressing of that recording “ED1”. I have seen original ED3 labels described as ED1. The unwary buyer thinks they have found a very rare item with an ED1 label. You can be sure if you buy from Spiral Classics that when I say that the label is ED1, it is the ED1 label that I have shown you above.

Decca SET series

The SET series are also an original Decca label. Decca usually used the SET prefix for records that have a libretto, like Opera boxed sets, Oratorios, and recitals by Singers. But occasionally they used the SET prefix for other records, such as SET 332 and SET 231.

The labels are identical to ED1, ED2, ED3, and narrow band except for their colour. They are silver on plum.

Decca SET label

These recordings have the superb SXL sound. The Opera recordings are magical! And many of them are amazingly good value.

Columbia SAX labels

Columbia SAXs are another superb-sounding series, pressed by EMI. SAX numbers run from SAX 2252 to SAX 2589, and from SAX 5251 to SAX 5294.

Silver/blue

The first label is the original silver/blue label, pale blue with silver curved lines.

Columbia Silver Blue

The highest number SAX silver/blue label is SAX 2538. But there are many earlier SAX numbers where there is no silver/blue label.

Red semi-circle

The second label is the red semi-circle label.

Columbia Semi-circle

This is the original label for SAX 2526 & SAX 2527. The next original semi-circles are SAX 2532, SAX 2534, SAX 2536, SAX 2537. From SAX 2539 onwards no silver/blue label exists, so the semi-circle label is the original. So all the SAX 5000 series have semi-circle as their original label. The highest SAX is SAX 5294

Magic notes

The third label is the red label with musical notes and the word “Columbia” in a black rectangle.

ColumbiaRectangle

There’s various ways of describing this one. “Magic notes label”, “magic notes in stamp” label, “rectangle label”, “stamp label”. This is the second label for all SAXs that have the semi-circle label as the original, and the third label for the early SAX’s that have a silver/blue label as the first label.

Which Columbia SAX label should you buy?

I do hear some differences between blue/silver labels and semi-circle labels where the semi-circle is the second label. But that doesn’t necessarily mean the that the blue/silver labels are the “best”. You usually get a quieter surface on semi-circle label records than blue/silver label ones, and their sound quality is also superb. And of course when the semi-circle is the second label, it’s much more reasonably priced than the original silver/blue. I have sometimes been disappointed by the stamp label particularly when it’s the third label for that issue. When it’s the second label I’m less likely to be disappointed by the sound. They are very good value, particularly when the original is extremely expensive.

HMV ASD series

The earliest ASDs have 3 digits after ASD. The first one is ASD 251 Scheherazade, conducted Beecham, and was issued in 1958, and the last one was ASD 655, Jacqueline Du Pre and Janet Baker, conducted Barbirolli, issued in 1965.

White/gold

From ASD 251 to ASD 575, the first label is called “white/gold”

White/gold

Semi-circle

From ASD 576 up to ASD 655 the original label is “semi-circle”. The label shows the painting of “Nipper”, the HMV dog, hearing His Masters Voice the horn of an early gramophone. The picture is in a semi-circle with HIS MASTER’S VOICE in white above it.

Semi-circle

This is also the original label for the some of the ASD four digit record codes. These start with ASD 2251. The last semi-circle label ASD is ASD 2478. There is no semi-circle label for ASD 2476

HMV/Melodiya

Just to confuse us, there’s a lot of ASDs below ASD 2478 where there is no semi-circle label. These are LPs that were recorded by Melodiya in the USSR and pressed by HMV in the UK. These are HMV/Melodiya. The first of these that I know of is ASD 2407, Oistrakh. This is their original label:

HMV/Melodiya

Just like the UK recorded ASDs, the HMV/Melodiyas have superb sound.

Original coloured dog/stamp

From ASD 2485 onwards the original label for the UK recordings is “original coloured dog/stamp”. (Sometimes I abbreviate this to “orig col dog/stamp”)

Original coloured dog/stamp

The coloured “dog/stamp” is easy to identify. The dog Nipper is in rectangle that’s a bit like a postage stamp. But this “early” dog in stamp label mustn’t be confused with the “late” dog in stamp from the early 1980s. This “early” or “original” dog in stamp is on a solid red background. (The “late coloured dog/stamp” has a white circle round the edge of the label).

The last original coloured dog/stamp I have seen is ASD 2809. But there are many ASD numbers before this where the original label is the next label: “black & white dog/stamp”. One example of this is ASD 2719.

Black & white dog/stamp

So what does the “black & white dog/stamp” label look like? As you can no doubt guess the picture of Nipper in the rectangle is in black & white rather than colour. And it has a white line round the circumference.

Black & white dog/stamp

The last black/white dog/stamp I have seen is ASD 3807

Late coloured dog/stamp

Then comes the late coloured dog/stamp which has a white line round the circumference.

Late coloured dog/stamp

Large dog

The last HMV label is the “large dog” label. These are often German pressings.

Large dog

Which HMV ASD label should you buy?

Nearly all the HMV pressings have superb sound, when they are the original label for that record code. Just like I’ve said for SAXs, I find that the second label for the early ASDs also have superb sound, and slightly quieter vinyl. I find both the early white/gold label, and the semi-circle label, whether original or second label, are wonderful.

Black/white dog stamps are also splendid, when they are the original label for that issue. I have occasionally been disappointed when they are not the original label, but that disappointment is rare. The HMV/Melodiyas show how good the Russian recordings are. When combined with the UK pressings they are outstanding.

RCA SB Series

If you like the Decca sound, it's well worth exploring RCA's SB series. Up until the mid 1970s, all UK RCA issues were pressed by Decca. They were recorded in the United States, where they were issued on LSC, and copies of the master tapes were sent to Decca. There are two SB series, the SB 2100 series and the SB 6000 series.

Silver/red

The first SB 2100, issued in 1961, was SB 2100, the last one that I know of was SB 2156, issued in 1962. The original label for all of these SB 2100 series is original silver/red label, and they are all groove -pressings, like Decca SXLs. You can find many superb recordings, by Heifetz, Reiner, Martinon, Munch, Szeryng, Rubinstein for example, in the SB 2100 series

SB Silver/Red

In 1962 RCA/Decca changed to SB 6000 series, starting with SB 6500, and continued with the silver/red label. The last silver/red label that I know of is SB 6558, though there are lower numbers where there is no silver/ed label, such as SB 6548.

Original red label/black spot

The next label is the one I call "original red label/black spot". Some people call this the orange label. The highest number I've seen with this label is SB 6786, though as usual there are lower numbers where I've never seen this label.

Original red label/black spot

Most of the records, but not all of the records with this label also can have groove pressings, so except for the highest numbers, the earliest pressing is a groove pressing, and if there's no groove (like an ED3 SXL) it's a slightly later pressing

Smaller red label

Then RCA moved on to a smaller red label. Some of these are still Decca pressings, such as SB 6813.

Smaller red label

Now things get more difficult! How can you tell that this is a Decca pressing, rather than RCA's own 1970s pressing? Firstly the "small red label" is 9 cm in diameter. You can usually see some black vinyl round the label when you look at the cut-out in the inner sleeve. The RCA label is 10 cm in diameter and usually fills the cut-out in the inner sleeve. But there's more. Now you need to look at the matrices stamped on the vinyl. There's a very distinctive "Decca style" to the matrices stamped by Decca. They have crisply cut capitals and numbers, that look like print, and they are in a straight line.

This is what an SXL matrix looks like: SXL 6298 matrices This is a small label RCA matrix: Photo of small label RCA matrices - SB 6781

The last two SB small label Decca pressing that I know of are SB 6837 and SB 6874. I have never seen a Decca pressing of the numbers between SB 6837 and SB 6874, or of any higher numbers. So at some point during 1970 RCA started using their own UK pressing plant.

Which RCA SB label should you buy?

The original silver/red labels have superb sound. But you can still get superb sound from the generally cheaper red label/black spot. As with SXL & ASD, the second label, whether it's original or not, can be very good value with little or no deterioration in sound quality. With the small label, if it's original, you've still got good sound. But I have at times been disappointed with the sound, when the small label is the third label, as the original issue was silver/red.

Having told you all about the Decca pressings, I must add that I have many later RCA pressings in my own collection. Though they don't have that magic "golden era" sound, the sound is very acceptable.

RCA SER Series

SER labels are the same as SB labels. The SER prefix was used by RCA in the UK for all records that included a libretto or similar insert. Most of them are opera boxed sets or recitals by singers, though the SER prefix is also used for other boxed sets, such as Heifetz's mono recording of the Bach Sonatas and Partitas, on SER 5669/71, and Rubinstein's complete stereo Chopin recordings on SER 5692.

They have the same excellent sound quality as the SB series.

Lyrita SRCS

Lyrita label

Lyrita specialised in music by British Composers, mostly of the 20th Century. Every Lyrita stereo pressing has superb sound. Their first issues, from 1959, prefix RCS, were mono only. I don't know who pressed the earliest pressings, but many of these mono-only issues were also pressed by Decca.

Their first stereo issue was in 1966, SRCS 31. Decca pressed all of the stereo Lyritas until 1979 - the year that Decca moved to a pressing plant in Holland. Very occasionally you can find a Decca groove pressing on the earliest issues, but they are rare. The highest number groove pressing I have seen is SRCS 38.

In 1979 Lyrita started having their records pressed by Nimbus. This was a very successful move, as Nimbus pressings have excellent sound. Eventually Lyrita had their own pressing plant. Although many collectors seek out the Decca and Nimbus pressings, the late Lyrita pressings are equally fine.

All Lyrita labels are similar, so you can only tell which pressing you have in your hand by looking at the the matrices and lead out grooves.

Decca pressing matrix

Here again we can see the "Decca style" matrices.

Occasionally we find these Decca style matrices with a pressing that looks similar to SXL Dutch pressings. I think these must have been made just after Decca moved to Holland and before Lyrita moved to Nimbus pressings.

Nimbus pressings

Nimbus matrices look handwritten, in a small neat hand, and somewhere on the lead out grooves is a very small blocky "NIMBUS ENGLAND" stamper.

Nimbus matrix Nimbus stamper

Lyrita's own pressings have the matrices in a larger "scrawly" handwriting

Lyrita matrix

The last SRCS 131 issued in 1985.

Which Lyrita pressing should I buy?

Any and all of them! Splendid music, much of it very little known, and superb sound. The most famous one is SRCS 109, English, Scottish & Cornish Dances by Matthew Arnold. That will be expensive. There are lots of splendid Lyritas at far more reasonable prices.

Further plans

Over the next months I'll be telling you lots more about the Golden Age of English Classical LPs. I'll also be looking at the great mono labels as well as the stereos. Eventually I hope to look at some of the European labels too, such as Deutsche Grammophon and Philips. So please come back to this page in a month or two's time.