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Well they kidnapped my baby, and she was all I had // And they held her for a ten thousand dollar ransom, ooh well well, you know that made me feel so bad - Peetie Wheatstraw, Kidnapper's Blues

Author Topic: Pitch correction in re-issues  (Read 574 times)

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Offline Johnm

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Pitch correction in re-issues
« on: April 09, 2014, 11:59:25 AM »
Hi all,
In recent years I've heard a lot of talk about pitch correction being done on Country Blues 78s being re-issued, often hearing that Richard Nevins corrected the pitch of some record for a Yazoo re-issue or one of the Tefteller calendar CDs.  I have a couple of questions about this process that some more knowledgeable folks might be able to answer:
   * Except where you're dealing with an record that was obviously recorded with malfunctioning equipment, like John Hurt's original recording of "Frankie", where the pitch rises noticeably part of the way through, or the Beale Street Sheiks' August 1927 recording of "It's A Good Thing", where Frank Stokes' vocal tone is obviously compromised, how is it even determined that pitch correction is called for or necessary?
   * The George Mitchell Collection is an example of country Blues recordings made in the relatively recent past in which the recording circumstances are pretty well known and agreed upon.  In listening to the various performances in the set on which guitar provides the accompaniment, a tiny percentage of the the songs were played at concert pitch, relative to the positions in which the songs were played.  Is there any reason to believe that earlier recorded Country Blues performances in which guitar provided the accompaniment were more carefully made with regard to having the player tune his guitar to concert pitch?  It seems a truism of the idiom to me that players have always altered the tuning of their guitars to match the playing position they wished to use with their strongest vocal range.  So how is it determined what is the correct pitch for an old recording?  Is it assumed that if someone was playing in Spanish tuning his/her guitar was tuned to open G, or is playing position/tuning not even taken into consideration in the pitch correction process?

There was a vogue a few years back for pitch-correcting (ostensibly) Robert Johnson's recordings.  I always found this very fishy, for of the surviving Blues musicians who had seen and heard Robert Johnson play a lot, like Johnny Shines, Henry Townsend and Robert Lockwood, Jr., I never heard of a single comment from them stating that the various re-issues which had not had pitch correction performed did not sound like the Robert Johnson they had heard and known.

I hope that pitch correction has more to it than saying "That sounds too high to me.".  Does anyone know the principles governing when it is considered an appropriate course of action and how it is determined what the "correct" pitch for a record is?

All best,

Offline frailer24

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Re: Pitch correction in re-issues
« Reply #1 on: April 09, 2014, 12:52:27 PM »
I've only used it when things are about a quarter tone off on my own stuff. But I've a wonky ear, so absolute pitch is a must.
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Offline Gumbo

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Re: Pitch correction in re-issues
« Reply #2 on: April 09, 2014, 01:30:38 PM »
I seem to recall mention of being able to match against a low frequency hum from either the recording machinery or something similar, when this was discussed somewhere before. no doubt others  have better memories than I :)

Offline Stuart

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Re: Pitch correction in re-issues
« Reply #3 on: April 09, 2014, 01:58:12 PM »
Hi John:

There were a couple of threads over at the now defunct IGS site about this, IIRC. Generally, the 60hz hum was supposedly detectable on some recordings and could be used as a standard to adjust pitch. Another was about recordings and/or sessions where instruments with known pitch were used and thus could be used as a standard. And I believe that some records were recorded at speeds other than 78 RPM, but stated as such, and again IIRC, there were phonographs / gramophones that allowed for speed adjustments to match the record. 

Other than the above examples, I tend to agree that it's a subjective call. Sometimes it's best just to take things at face value and leave the fishiness to the end user who can utilize the available technology to adjust the pitch in the privacy of his or her own home. YMMV.

Offline banjochris

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Re: Pitch correction in re-issues
« Reply #4 on: April 09, 2014, 02:01:05 PM »
Yes, I believe that the 60Hz mains hum can be used as a place to start.

I would think you could also perhaps listen to records from the same session by the same performer to hear an average, if something sounds particularly "off." Especially this would work with piano recordings if you know what position the artist is playing in. I think this was the basis of some of the Jelly Roll Morton LoC pitch correction. Something along the lines of -- we know X tunes were recorded on Tuesday, and on almost all of them the piano is a quarter-tone flat. But if one of the pieces that we know Jelly played in B-flat and that was recorded that day is sounding in A, perhaps the machine was off a bit.

Also, weren't some labels known for recording at slightly different speeds?

On top of this, a lot of reissues have been compiled from tape over the years, which could have stretched, etc. Maybe in some cases "pitch-corrected" could really mean "we copied it from the 78 playing at 78 rpm for a change."

I'm sure Nevins is doing this tastefully and carefully; I think that whole Robert Johnson thing was hooey, too.

PS I think Stuart and I posted at the same time!
« Last Edit: April 09, 2014, 02:02:27 PM by banjochris »

Offline Norfolk Slim

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Re: Pitch correction in re-issues
« Reply #5 on: April 09, 2014, 02:11:44 PM »
As I recall, from that IGS thread years ago, there was also a theory about picking up the pitch / frequency of the sounds made by slides knocking against the neck / frets.  In theory, if one knew approximately what the guitar was, then one could reproduce the knocks and measure frequency, so as to compare with the sounds on the record and then adjust accordingly.  I dont recall if anyone actually succeeded in doing it...

Offline harriet

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Re: Pitch correction in re-issues
« Reply #6 on: April 09, 2014, 02:18:04 PM »
I think that I read what Gumbo said as well.

If they speeded the record up to match then a second adjustment might have been necessary if the sound got higher, for accuracy. I would question whether they had the same electric capabilities to run the recording machinery as it was run back then, though and as to how they did the second adjustment, if they did.

IMHO I don't think most of them used strict concert pitch standards in tuning, perhaps church or group singing was a guide, their voices were their pitch pipes, and if they woke up with a cold and their voice changed they'd adjust it, that seems to be an ensemble playing standard imposed on the form.

In any case I would think that John Miller, some of the Weenies, who've studied the music, and posted the keys and positions would be more of an accurate reference than the guy trying to shove an irregular peg in a round hole, shaving off a little here, rounding off a little there.

And lastly my objection to "correction" is that it  IMHO trashes what was originally sold and heard by people at the time the recording was released in favor of something allegedly "better."
« Last Edit: April 09, 2014, 02:39:36 PM by harriet »

Offline dj

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Re: Pitch correction in re-issues
« Reply #7 on: April 09, 2014, 02:23:31 PM »
Everything I can find on the subject mentions the 60 mhz hum as a point of reference.  The problem with this is that the farther you go back in recording history, the less standard the cycle frequency of the electrical current, especially outside of the larger cities (so in places like Richmond Indiana and Grafton Wisconsin).

The bigger problem is one I've never been able to answer to my satisfaction, and that's "What do I want in audio restoration?  To hear the sound as closely as possible to what it sounded like in the studio as it was being recorded, or as closely as possible to what it sounded like to a person who bought the record as it was originally issued?"  I go back and forth endlessly on this question, but really I think both are equally valid.

Offline harriet

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Re: Pitch correction in re-issues
« Reply #8 on: April 09, 2014, 02:49:41 PM »
Dj - I agree to a certain extent with you on your last point that both are valid, but I don't think they are equal.

The one "corrected" I feel should be sold and marketed IMHO with the sound engineer's name as their interpretation of the original recording, you know like Paramount put out their version then from the source and this newfangled version is a manipulation of that recording.

Offline Stuart

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Re: Pitch correction in re-issues
« Reply #9 on: April 09, 2014, 03:58:48 PM »
Hi dj:

I think the problem of 60hz as standard was addressed and answered on the IGS thread. IIRC, by the 1920s 60hz was the standard and relatively stable owing both to the evolution of technology and to the requirements of appliances, etc., --but especially those of electric clocks. There were a couple of posters with EE backgrounds who were familiar with the history who chimed in on the subject. Obviously, there could have been exceptions--and there may have been other factors, but that's what I remember from the thread.

I, too, always wish that I was there to hear our heroes live in the studio, but like a lot of things, we take what we can get. And there's really no way to tell how closely the high tech remasters approximate the original performance. They're certainly closer than a whupped 78 IMHO, but other than that, I guess you had to be there.

Offline blueshome

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Re: Pitch correction in re-issues
« Reply #10 on: April 10, 2014, 01:28:06 AM »
Another thing to bear in mind is that today's standard concert pitch at A 440 wasn't standard during most of the pre-war period.


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