Canadian Columbia Releases Notes

A few years back, Micheal Fremer wrote a post about Cracking Columbia Code for all to enjoy. Since Columbia happens to be one of my favourites labels, I decided to share some of what I learned over the years about their Canadian pressings. In order for anything in this article to make sense, I strongly suggest you familiarize yourself with the terms matrix, run-out groove and stampers.

I tried too divide my notes by decades/era as the quality and practices changed over the years. 

The 6-Eye era: Columbia’s Golden Age?

1955-1962

Columbia 6-eye
Columbia 6-Eye

This label, often referred as the 6-Eye label feature 6 Columbia ‘eyes’ on it.

I don’t own nearly as many 6-Eyes as I probably should. These pressings date from the mid 50’s to early 60’s, and are hard to find in good condition. Most of my 6-Eye LPs are classical recordings, as popular albums with that label in good condition tend to be too expensive. I often opt for 360 reissues which are generally of high quality and sometime better.

Most Canadian 6-Eye LPs shared the same stampers as the American pressings. These stampers used the master tape as a source. The best way to know if  your copy used a US stamper is to look at the inner groove: if you see a machine-stamped matrix, it probably used US parts. Canadian plants hand-etched the matrix in the inner groove. They also feature Since fewer Canadian records were pressed, the quality control was sometimes better. The thickness of American and Canadian records of that era was about the same. However, Canadian records are much cheaper.

Advantage for this era: Canadian LPs

The 360 era: My favourite Era

1962-1970 [1971 for Canada]

Canadian Chicago II  on the Columbia 360 label
Canadian Chicago II on Columbia 360 [KGP-24]

I know that a lot of purists swear by the 6-Eye pressings but, as far as I am concerned, very few labels can put a smile on my face like the 360 stereo 2-Eye label does. Too many great artists, as well as strong mono and stereo mixes; I’d even go as far to say that Columbia flat out beat their sworn rival RCA in that decade.

Just like 6-Eye LPs,  Canadian 360 records were very often pressed using US stampers that had been cut from the original master tapes. As a result, my Canadian copy of Chicago II sounds almost identical to my US copy. In addition, Canadian pressings are often thicker and used excellent plastic. Since fewer were pressed, the quality control was generally higher. That might just save you an import or two.  Just look out for that machine-stamped matrix to make sure it used US stampers.

Note that Canada kept the Columbia 360 label for an extra year, which is why it is possible to find a Santana Abraxas on the much classier 360 label

Advantage for this era: tied

Columbia, Columbia era

[1971-1976]

Canadian Born to Run on the Columbia label

I generally look at this era as the beginning of the end for Columbia as a whole. After retiring the 360 Label, Columbia started using this new label with Columbia written 5 five times around the diameter of the label. Incidentally, this label also has 6 Columbia Eyes, but it is not a 6-Eye label.

By the mid-seventies, LPs got significantly thinner thanks to the petrol crisis and a desire to keep the cost down. While RCA was coming up with Dynaflex, Columbia used cheaper plastic.

While Canadian Pressings were thicker on average, Columbia stopped almost entirely shipping US stampers to Canada. In 1971, Columbia Canada set up a large Record Plan in Don Mills, Ontario where local engineers cut the masters for most releases.

While we had many great cutting engineers, I usually find Canadian Columbia pressings from to mid to late 70’s to be underwhelming, especially in comparison with their US equivalents. For instance, my Canadian copy of  Born to Run is pretty poor despite being thicker than its US cousins.  

To make matters worse, Columbia US also started etching the matrix for a number of releases. My US copy of Piano Man has two etched matrices.

 1970’s Canadian records cut at Don Mills usually have a matrix that starts with DM “Don Mills and/or ends with HK etched in the groove. However, I found that’s not always the case, and I recommend you assume that your Canadian mid 70’s LPs were cut here.

The only notable exceptions are some stampers coming from Sterling and Masterdisk. They have “STERLING” and “MASTERDIK” machine-stamped into the groove. Why they decided to ship them over, I have no idea…

If I were to import any era of Columbia records, it would be mid to late 70’s releases.

Advantage: US Pressings

CBS Canada

[1976-1988]

CBS label used for all non-US artist from 1976 and onward
CBS label used for all non-US artists from 1976 and onward

In 1976, Columbia Record Canada was renamed CBS Records Canada. All US albums kept the Columbia label and the other release took on the CBS label. These include albums from international artists as well as local Quebecois artists. I generally find that Canadian pressings of international albums suffered the same problems as our pressings of US Albums mastered here. Meanwhile, local artists benefited from 1st generation master tapes. They generally sound fantastic. Our engineers were great, but one can only do so much with a copy tape.

However, things do get better as I do find Canadian 80’s pressings to be really good, often beating their US counterpart.

For instance, my copy of Michael Jackson’s Thriller [not on the Columbia label but pressed by CBS at Don Mill]   is great.  I have a hard time deciding which one I prefer. Both Canadian and American LPs of that era are considerably thinner, but the worst offenders definitely come from our neighbour.

While they are rare, you can still find a few Canadians Release using US metal parts. Take this 1985 copy of Mick Jagger She’s the Boss, which used a US stamper identified, by a ‘MASTERDISK’ stamp in the inner groove. Not that anyone should listen to Mick Jagger’s solo albums.

Mick Jagger, she's the boss
On the Columbia label, 1985
1986 Columbia, Mick Jagger she’s the boss

Advantage for that Era: varies.

The End of the Don Mill Pressing Plan – Cinram

[1988-1992]

In 1988, the CBS record Canada closed its Don Mill Pressing Plan and contracted Cinram to press Columbia and CBS records. Cinram’s standards are generally well regarded, but by then most LPs were mastered from a digital source. Early digital masters have not aged well at all. I would recommend you walk away from them. However, if I had to pick between a Canadian and a US pressing from that era, I’d gladly go with the Canadian.

Next time…

Hope you enjoyed my impressions of Columbia Record Canada/CBS Record Canada releases. Next time, I might talk about the legendary RCA Smith Falls pressing plant, or maybe a retrospective on Quality Records. There is so much to be said about records! I’ll get to it.

Stay groovy!

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