I think most pitch errors on old records were probably not deliberate
choices by the engineer. They were doing the best they could with what
they had to work with. And spring-powered wind-up phonographs generally
had a variable speed control, which ameliorated some of the problems on the
There are two primary issues here:
(1) has the musical piece been transposed from the key that is the
published score pitch? and
(2) is the recording playing in pitch?
You have to grapple with both issues, which can be problematical when both
are in play.
A great many so-called 78 records do not play at exactly 78.26 RPM
(assuming a 60 Hz power supply), even those nominally recorded at that
speed. I should say especially those nominally recorded at that speed.
What you have to do is tune the record to "correct" pitch (see below) and
then, if it is vocal record, listen to see if the singer's voice sounds
corrupted. A half step going either direction makes a drastic change to a
human singing voice. Instrumental pieces are harder to tell, but in that
case, transpositions were (and are) much less common. For vocal records,
transpositions were fairly common for classical music, less so for popular
music, which would most likely be in a comfortable key for the performer to
There is a further issue of what is the correct pitch--is it the
almost-standard today of A = 440? I will say usually, depending on the
subject matter. This is a big topic, discussed often on this list, and
exceptions abound. For example, field recordings of a rural blues singer
in the 1920's may not have been tuned to A = 440. The performer may not
have had a tuning fork or other pitch reference (apart from his/her own
experience) to tune his accompanying instrument, e.g., guitar.
Getting the pitch/speed right is incredibly important to playback of *all *old
records. Getting that right literally changes the world of what you are
On Mon, Jan 22, 2018 at 11:24 AM, BURNHAM <[log in to unmask]> wrote:
> Well I guess the engineer could have slowed down the recording turntable
> so that on playback the pitch would have been higher, but it would be
> difficult to do with any precision, and since there was little accuracy in
> playback speed, the actual playback pitch would be difficult to determine.
> Sent from my iPhone
> > On Jan 22, 2018, at 11:09 AM, Terri Brinegar <[log in to unmask]>
> > Hello All,
> > Can anyone tell me if recordings in the 1920s were transferred to disc
> at exactly the same speed as they were recorded? In other words, if someone
> is singing an “F” pitch on the recording, is that the actual pitch sung or
> could the engineer possibly speed it up somehow, thus raising the pitch?
> Not sure if that was possible back then.
> > Thank you!
> > Terri Brinegar
> > PhD Candidate in Ethnomusicology
> > University of Florida
> > [log in to unmask]
> > [log in to unmask]