The music goes round and….. 

Near enough for jazz?  (An article about pitch rectification)    by Dave Senior 

Like many of my contemporaries I started listening to New Orleans jazz in the fifties. The music was so exciting I wanted to play it, so I went out and bought my first trombone. Didn’t give a fig about tuning because it was not an issue. As soon as I knew how to make ‘B flat’ I was in the ballpark along with the rest. Later on however, I got a little more serious and started trying to play along with records in order to learn some of the more challenging pieces. I soon discovered however, that getting ‘in tune’ with the records was not always easy and sometimes not possible at all. Despite my musical knowledge being quite limited I could find my way around the basic keys used in traditional jazz. So, imagine my frustration, and disappointment, when I often found myself floundering. I’m sure this must sound familiar to some. Meanwhile, I did not realize that I was the victim of recordings that for one reason or another were running at incorrect speeds. It was like navigating in a tonal fog. I wondered if the musicians were playing ‘out of tune’, surely not I thought, or whether something may have been wrong with my instrument. Adjusting the tuning slides on the horn simply made things worse it seemed. If only someone had told me! Of course, a turntable with a variable speed control would have been the answer, but I am honest enough to admit that even if you’d thrown one at me, I wouldn’t have known what to do with it. Forgive me…. 

Meanwhile, it is a pity that certain critics have been known to dismiss examples of early jazz and particularly material from the revival as being 'out of tune'. The musicians certainly weren't out of tune though occasionally they may have had intonation problems due to frailty, the heat, a bum piano/instrument, humidity and so on. Moreover, jazz musicians can make 'mistakes' i.e. simply by playing 'wrong' notes or by not being sure of the chords. Especially, abundant examples can be found on recording sessions that were thrown together quickly (as so many were). Even undisputable gems like the Hot 5/7s were not without their blemishes. And where would we be without them? 

This article is about tuning or, rather, it is about ‘pitch’… The fact is that many old recordings are plagued because of what appears to be incorrect pitch and false tempos. Indeed, many old recordings have been ‘infected’ and for several possible reasons. The reason may have been a mechanically less than perfect original recording machine, some fluctuations in electric current, subsequent transfers from machine to machine etc etc. To compound the problem, the record player used to finally listen to the ‘product’ could be the culprit. One could go on. Any permutation of these factors may contribute to the corruption of the pitch.
Just to discount some other stories bandied about, some argue that standard pitch wasn’t the same in those early recording days, or that the instruments used were old ‘military’ (high pitch) ones. This latter may have had some credence before the turn of the C19th and there might inevitably have been transitional problems. However, it is highly unlikely that either of these arguments apply when referring to any early jazz recordings. The differences between high, low and military pitch (and the instruments made to those standards) explained below, are too great and therefore any attempt to mix these in one ensemble would have been virtually impossible or chaos, the least.  

Here are some facts on this subject: About High Pitch - Low Pitch

German orchestras in the mid- to late 1800's played in a pitch where A=440 hz (this is the standard  ‘concert’ pitch of today also known as "American Standard Pitch“). Meanwhile, bands and orchestras in France, England and the US used "high pitch" (A=452.5 hz). To confuse matters further, U.S. "military high pitch" was even higher at A=457 hz. However, around the turn of the century, US, France and U.K were all starting to use low pitch by preference. While high pitch still existed however, many horns were still made with extra tuning shanks to allow the player to adjust. Finally, in 1917, the American Federation of Musicians officially adopted A=440 as the standard  pitch for the U.S. after which  production of horns with accessory slides for high pitch adjustment rapidly declined and eventually ceased. 

So, if at one time if you mentioned the word ‘pitch’ to me, I would have thought that you were talking about cricket or some black sticky substance used for making boats. Only later did I become aware that pitch was also a term used in music. According to the dictionary, in a musical context it essentially means “highness or lowness of a note”. Importantly, it refers to the variability of a note and you don’t necessarily have to be a musician to recognize when something is wrong in this department. When an instrument plays ‘off key’ or if a singer is ‘out of tune’ most people can hear it. For example, the singer may not be respecting the same “highness or lowness of the notes” as the orchestra. Alternatively, one or more orchestra members may be ‘out of tune’ with each other. When these events occur we usually perceive some sort of dissonance. Conversely, when everything is in harmony the “highness or lowness of the notes” are concordant and the music appears to be normal, harmonious or ‘in tune’.
It also follows that to play harmoniously together on different instruments we need a system which tells us exactly where to ‘pitch’ our notes and which, putting it very basically, is why there is a system, something like a grid, of fixed keys (think of do re mi etc). Simply, if I play a note pitched at A440 (piano A) on one instrument, it should agree with the “highness or lowness” of the same note produced on any other instrument and so on. This is more or less what happens when we hear the musicians ‘tuning up’ before a performance… they are ‘agreeing pitch’ with one another, after which they will hopefully play ‘in tune’. And this is usually what happens.
But, what about ‘pitch’ in the case of recorded music? The musicians can’t tune up any more can they? (This seems a stupid observation but wait!) Well, if you play the recording back constantly at just the same speed that it was recorded it will still be in tune. That much is sure. However, what about if you play the recording at a different speed… is it still in tune then? How can you tell? And does it matter anyway? To answer these questions I need to recount some personal experiences. 

In the late nineties a friend and musical colleague, bassist Barry Richardson, dug out some old beat up cassettes of his old London rock band ‘Bees Make Honey’. He knew that I was interested in computers and had started to ‘burn’ CDs of some music that I had on tapes. That was about the extent of what I could do then. So Barry said that he would really love to have these old tapes transferred to CD and I agreed to have a go. Actually putting them into the digital domain was a revelation. Without doing anything particularly technical, by default they just seemed much brighter when on CD. Barry was most enthusiastic and got his bass guitar out but could barely play along with the music. There was a ’tuning’ problem. At this point, I knew that there was a possible solution. Perhaps I could make some adjustments… My first digital recording apparatus, primitive by modern standards because the storage medium was minidisk, nevertheless had an adjustment facility for pitch. Bingo, I thought, and after much trial and error I got those tracks to run in tune and in the correct keys. In my practice studio I have a Roland digital piano which of course is perfectly tuneable and absolutely reliable as far as holding pitch is concerned.. Then because most of the songs were relatively easy to play along with, at least as far as determining whether the pitch was correct or not, in no time at all I had the knack of ascertaining the necessary adjustments. The spin-off was that some of the songs sounded brighter in the case of those that had been running too slow, and the reverse in others resulting in a more relaxed feel. Wonderful, we concluded… and after some more collaborative tweaking of the hifi we made quite a respectable job of the whole thing. The reward here was the eventual issue of a double CD anthology on a specialist label dedicated to the London pub rock scene of the late 60’s early 70’s. I was credited in the sleeve notes and was very proud … no dough of course, but it certainly motivated me to engage myself further with this kind of activity.

My next step was to familiarize myself more with the technology and practice messing around with wave editing tools. I have so much stuff on tapes that I thought it might be useful to transfer more of my cassettes to CD. Meanwhile, I began to pay much more attention to the aspect of pitch, simply because it was frequently an annoying issue. Stuff would be either too fast or too slow. By now, I had acquired a more sophisticated wave editor (audio processing application) and discovered that I could in fact adjust pitch more easily just by twiddling some ‘virtual’ knobs, almost like speeding a tape speed up or down accordingly. Moreover, I began to get curious and started testing commercially produced CDs for pitch integrity. What I found was that recently recorded material was nearly always correct. This is likely because they were made digitally in the first place and have never been out of the ‘digital domain’. On the other hand, many older (jazz) recordings, where old and originally analogue material has been dubbed (dumped might be a better word)) into the digital domain, failed the test too many times for comfort. One can only conclude that somebody forgot, didn’t care or didn’t know better. What a pity. The bottom line is that if you are a producer/musician, there is no real excuse; conversely, if you are just a producer (sans chops), you should get someone to check your stuff before you issue it…please.

Here is an edited extract from a story published elsewhere describing the next link in this story.
In December 2002 Dan Pawson sadly passed away and I went to his funeral in Birmingham, England along. Among the many old faces was Rob 'the raver' Ridley a band devotee. We reminisced and you can imagine my surprise when he told me that he still had all his reel to reel recordings that he had made of the Artesian Hall Stompers live back in the 60’s… thirty-two hours worth … I started compiling CD's from them just for fun. So far I have reached volume six. Luckily the original tapes have survived quite well and the only real chore was some pitch correction usually caused by inconsistent tape speeds (all too often ignored by commercial producers who should know better; but that's another story!). So, taking into account the conditions, two mikes and a lively pub room, the results are just fine. 

Well, some of these tracks now appear on the 504/La Croix (CD93)DAN PAWSON 1966 – 1971 A Tribute” and soon there will be more on 504/La Croix CDs produced by ‘Lord’ Richard Ekins. 

Even more recently ‘Lord’ Richard approached me to check out his proposed re-issue on CD of the Louis James Orchestra sessions from 1967 (originally issued on vinyl). I was delighted to be trusted with this task and set to work. There were also three tracks of the Artesian Hall Stompers from Rob Ridley’s archive that I had not previously heard.

I set to work by first ripping the master tracks to my wave editor. The sound quality on all tracks was excellent considering the original tapes had been kicked around somewhat. Meanwhile as expected, the music itself was first class as will undoubtedly be reviewed elsewhere. However, the state of the pitch was not good at all. The Louis James tracks were running far too slowly with the result that the music was sounding a good quarter tone below concert pitch. Pulling these up to pitch really made a tremendous difference, the result sounding much brighter with the consequent tweaking up of the tempo. In the case of the Artesian sides the opposite was true. They sounded a bit frantic, being the same problem I had experienced with the earlier batches of AHS music. Imagine the difference when these were slowed slightly down to reflect correct pitch and tempo. Fantastic swinging jazz at the pace and in the correct key as originally played. Note that in both of the above cases it was initially not really possible to ‘play along’ comfortably, if at all, because of the false pitch situation. Now you can… if you’re a musician, just try it and you will agree. 

My conclusion is simply that in these days of digital processing there is no longer any excuse to issue music that is not secure pitch-wise. But they do; even the majors! (Dare I say that I have Geo Lewis at Vespers on CD which is way, way out! Corrected it for myself. No labels mentioned but)... say no more. 

Meanwhile, times have changed and whilst I may not have known the difference, I think that the young musician of today will. If you plan on re-issuing old recordings please make sure they’re ‘in tune’ so we all can join in. It’s not rocket science…                                        
Dave Senior 2008


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