A copper metal mother for OKeh matrix # W81572, "Since My Best Girl Turned Me Down," by Bix Beiderbecke and his Gang. This item was recently offered for sale on Ebay.
The abundance of vintage recordings available on LP records and compact discs often makes music enthusiasts wonder how the music makes the transition from shellac to modern media.
Record collectors, too, have their curiosity piqued when they examine or listen to a newly-acquired record and discover that they have found something that is slightly different from its well-known version. Discovering an alternate performance invariably leads collectors to ask, "How many alternate versions of this performance were recorded?" How many were released? And how many of them still exist?"
Most people assume that the answers to those questions lie in the vaults of major record companies, and in the metal parts held there in storage.
Perhaps the best way to introduce you to a recording company vault is to let you see one for yourself. This 1942 film, narrated by the noted opera critic Milton Cross, explains in detail how RCA Victor manufactures its records. It also includes a segment inside the vault, where a guard shows metal parts for records by Sousa, Chaliapin, and Caruso. This is part one of the film; part two is here.
(By the way, the main building of the "Camden Plant of RCA Victor" shown in the opening sequence of the film -- the building with the 3-story clock tower visible -- has recently been renovated and reopened as The Victor, a luxury apartment complex. The rest of the plant was demolished decades ago. More about that further down ...)
The process for making shellac (or vinyl) records is rather complicated. After the wax (or lacquer) matrix is engraved with the sound from the cutting stylus, it is placed in an electroplating bath, where it is plated with copper. After the copper plating, the wax is stripped away and the metal master is plated again with nickel, and then given a special coating that allows additional layers to be electroplated onto it and then removed.
The metal master is then electroplated again and again, each time producing a metal "mother" disc (like the one shown at the top of this article). These mother discs are then coated and electroplated in order to make "stamper" discs, which are a negative impression of the record, just like the original metal master disc. However, the stampers are also plated with a layer of chromium, which strengthens them enough to be used to press the shellac records that are retailed to the public. The metal stampers are mounted in pressing machines, where they mold a glob of heated bakelite/shellac mixture into the final two-sided disc record.
Most music enthusiasts would assume that when a record is no longer being manufactured, a metal mother disc or a metal stamper would be filed away in the company vault as part of an archival system designed to preserve the company's entire catalog of recorded sound. So, if a researcher needed to look up information about a particular recording (such as how many takes were recorded and mastered) all they would need to do is make a visit to the company record vaults. Likewise, if a recording was to be reissued, the process would be no more difficult than recovering the metal parts from the vault.
Unfortunately, this is usually not the case.
Small, independent record companies often vanished completely without a trace during the 1920's and 1930's. Metal parts, recording logs, office records -- literally everything -- was thrown away or sold for scrap for pennies on the dollar. The demise of Paramount Records, faithfully documented in this article by Alex Van Der Tuuk, was typical of what happened to many of these independent companies. Quoting a witness who grew up near Paramount's old warehouses near Port Washington,Wisconsin, Van Der Tuuk writes,
Brian Wilburn, June 2002:
“When we were kids, Chair Factory # 2 was closed and all they used it for was storage. Of course we found our way into it. Kids were going in and out all the time, we weren’t supposed to be, but we were. Empty buildings are a magnet for kids ... We were in that plant all the time and I probably destroyed two to three thousand records. We made frisbees out of them, we sailed them off the roof. And when we got a little older we used a shotgun. You could get away with it, using a shotgun in city limits. The building was right next to the railroad tracks. There was nothing around it so it was not dangerous.”
“They had all the masters, the castings, the bronze and brass, stuff to produce records, stored in Plant # 2 on the west side. It was all in one great big room. After the war started they started scrap metal drives, find bronze and brass, that kind of stuff, for the war. They suddenly realized they had a load of that stuff they didn’t need. So it all got loaded in a couple of freight cars [and was] shipped off. I am sure it got sold to some scrap dealer. That was the end of that. This was during the summer of 1942."
Scrap metal became an important commodity during World War II, since aluminum and copper were desperately needed for the war effort. Unfortunately, record company vaults were full of copper and other metals. Writing on the Duke Ellington Music Society message board, archivist and produced Steven Lasker reported:
Metal was a strategic commodity during WWII, and was rationed in the U.S. for non-military use ... A source who worked many years as RCA's vault- keeper, informed me in 1987, shortly before his retirement, that many of Victor's metal parts, including much race and ethnic material, were melted down during the war years contrary to the wishes and behind the back of David Sarnoff [president of RCA]. In those years, RCA had to be miserly with metal, so much so that they didn't necessarily furnish their foreign affiliates with metal stampers but may have instead provided them with a pressing called a "transfer mould" which could be dubbed to produce a stamper.
Sadly, other major record companies were as negligent -- or worse -- than RCA Victor about saving metal parts. Bill Holland explored the problem of "vault trashing" and the lax attitude of record companies regarding their archival material in a sobering 1997 article published in Billboard magazine. Writes Holland:
Because of other decisions at pre-Sony CBS, usually based on storage concerns, many of the company's metal manufacturing parts for old Columbia and Okeh records are also gone, although many of the fragile lacquer disc acetates remain. "Columbia scrapped a lot of metal parts," explained a vet, "especially during the war years. RCA Victor did too, but not as much. They have many more metal parts."
"RCA had their own storage buildings, so they didn't have to worry about storage costs as much as other companies," said a source. "That meant it was easier to just keep things."
Also, as far back as the 1920's, Columbia (and its subsidiary OKeh) destroyed all metal parts and test pressings for all the alternate takes made during recording sessions. Columbia only kept metal parts for the master take. Up until WWII, RCA Victor kept metal parts and test pressings for virtually all the complete takes cut during recording sessions. But don't think for a minute that RCA Victor emerges as the "good guy" in this story. Remember RCA Victor's Camden, NJ record plant and master record vault? Read on:
The most spectacular case of wholesale vault trashing is the decision by RCA in the early '60s to demolish its warehouse in Camden, N.J. The warehouse, according to collectors and industry veterans, held four floors of catalogue product, pre-tape-era material ranging from metal parts, acetates, shellac disc masters and alternate takes to test pressings, master matrix books and session rehearsal recordings.
Several days before the demolition, officials from French RCA gained permission to go through the building and withdraw whatever material they could carry for their vinyl "Black and White" jazz reissue series. A few American collectors were also allowed in the building to salvage any items they could carry out.
A few days later, as dozens of RCA officials and collectors stood on a nearby Delaware Bridge, demolition experts ignited the dynamite charges. Eyewitnesses said they saw "clouds of debris, black and metal chunks flying out the windows" of the collapsing building.
The building wreckage was then bulldozed into the Delaware River. A pier was built on top of the detritus.
A small portion of vintage material has been saved in the form of original metal parts or original lacquer matrix discs. We can thank early reissue producers and discographers like George Avakian, Charles Edward Smith, and Charles DeLaunay, who searched record company vaults prior to World War Two and during the 1950's before much wholesale vault trashing occurred, hunting for alternate takes and previously unissued material, and preserving or relocating items of interest that they found. Other record company officials have been instrumental in preserving the collected works of major artists like Duke Ellington (who was the subject of a monumental 24-CD box set containing every master, alternate, rehearsal, and miscellaneous recording preserved by RCA Victor) and Louis Armstrong.
Sadly though, much of the work of obscure artists who recorded for small independent labels has been lost, or exists only on worn or damaged shellac 78 rpm records. And most reissues of 78rpm-era material today are produced from retail 78 rpm records, although the producers go to great lengths to find the best quality records available for transfer to compact disc.
But occasionally something new turns up, perhaps a previously-unknown shellac test pressing, or a metal part miraculously preserved in a private collection. These are the things that thrill record collectors and music researchers, and give them an incentive to continue their work. It is unfortunate that very few of these discoveries are likely to come from the major record company vaults.