Why are professional recordings recorded at a different pitch?

June 8, 2015 at 05:45 AM · So this past week, I could not, by the love of god, play anything in tune, and for a while, I couldn't figure out why. I would always listen to an excerpt/line from a recording of the piece I'm currently working on, then try to play it myself, but the open string always sounded off.

At first, I thought the problem was my violin, so I made sure to tune it once every 5 minutes during my practice session, and really listen carefully to the tuner. After that, I blamed it on the online tuner I used, but someone in another post verified that the tuner was in fact, relatively accurate.

After that, I blamed my ear, and thought I had a completely warped sense of intonation. However, I listened to the recording again, more carefully, clip by clip, and tried to match the sound. What I discovered about that particular recording is that the open strings were not just a little bit sharp, but very sharp. An open a would be like, and a sharp, or maybe closer to a b!

This made me realize that the recordings that I've been listening to are actually out of tune/tuned differently. Of course, it would not make any sense for the performer to tune his/her violin differently while recording, so the only conclusion that I could make, is that the recordings were altered afterwards to make the pitch higher or lower.

Unless I am completely mistaken, this has to be the case because after discovering this, I went back to play my piece based on my own sense of intonation, and the tune seemed much more consistent than before.

Just out of curiosity, can someone who is familiar with recording techniques explain to me why something like this is done? Like, what's the purpose of altering something if it's tuned properly? If I'm completely off base with this assumption then correct me :). I just wanted to start a discussion regarding this topic, and see what other people had to say about it.

Replies (21)

June 8, 2015 at 07:20 AM · Most recordings should be at the pitch A = 440Hz but occasionally with some European recordings they may be at A = 444 or A = 445 Hz

Of course period instrument recordings are usually made at a lower pitch - a quarter of a tone lower and sometimes even lower.

Digital recording and playback is accurate so if it's recorded at A = 440 Hz then it will play back at that pitch. However, editing programs can alter the pitch and this can be deliberate. Here in the UK for modern instruments and orchestras it is A = 440 HZ and thats how pianos are tuned as well.

June 8, 2015 at 09:36 AM · In Videos, whether on DVD or U-toob, the CD-style digital (or digitalised) recording is necessarily "compressed"; the sound is simplified as it is being packed up, and re-expanded in real time during each playback, with results depending on the individual player. I don't actually know if the pitch can be guaranteed.

NB, a semitone rise is an inrease in frequency of 6%.

If the clip's audio comes originally from a 78rpm or LP turntable, or from a cassette player, anything can happen!

June 8, 2015 at 11:02 AM · My violin teacher told me more than two decade ago that when the recording was mastered, the tape speed was increased to make things sound brighter and faster. Not sure if that was really the case but it certainly explained the rise in pitch.

June 8, 2015 at 11:20 AM · Compression does not alter the pitch, it just makes things sound more crappy.

June 8, 2015 at 01:30 PM · I discussed an example of this problem I experienced myself, here on http://www.violinist.com/discussion/response.cfm?ID=26652. See my post of March 25th, 2015.

There is plenty of audio editing software out there that can change the pitch of a recording, and usually with a setting to keep the speed constant if so desired. So in principle you should be able reverse whatever was done in post production editing.

June 8, 2015 at 02:13 PM · One has to take into account that these processes re-write each byte, so there will be some inevitable degredation of the original sound.

Best to record the original 24 bit (or whatever) file a bit sharp, rather than carry out re-processing.

June 8, 2015 at 02:18 PM · In the not-too-distant past string quartets had a habit of tuning sharp presumably to increase the brilliance and penetration of the sound. For example, from memory the Amadeus used to do this,and maybe the Smetana, but not the Fine Arts for some reason. Not sure about soloists/orchestras,but I do recall having to tune quite sharp to play along with some recordings - maybe my equipment was not correctly calibrated. For chamber music with piano one is stuck with the pitch of the piano.

I once had a set of LP's by the Fine Arts which I'm convinced had been 'sharpened' during the editing/pressing process, and speeded up very slightly as this was in analog days. The articulation just didn't sound right. So I took the liberty of editing them down to A=440 and they sounded much more convincing. The difference was only a few hertz but it transformed the resulting sound and performance. So analogue recordings particularly may not be entirely trustworthy, as they are dependent on consistent calibration of all the links in the editing and reproduction chain, as Adrian has pointed out above.

June 10, 2015 at 06:28 AM · I learned that the content of cds are routinely sped up in order to make them fit on the disk. That changes the pitch.

June 10, 2015 at 07:20 AM · In actual fact that no longer applies with digital recordings. In the days of tape and analogue recordings an increase in tempo would increase the pitch as well. But since the advent in the 1980's of digital recordings you can incease the tempo and keep the pitch constant. (You can also change the pitch and keep the tempo constant as well).

In the LP days you could change the speed on good or more expensive turntables so there was a provision for that, but the pitch was another thing. You could only change the pitch on expensive reel to reel tape decks, but that would increase or decrease the tempo.

June 10, 2015 at 11:59 AM · Shawn,

You are not crazy. This is a thing, and it's been bugging me for pretty much... forever. Any time I want to play with a recording (which I think is so much fun), I have to carefully tune my instrument to that specifically recording first. They are all different, and most of them are off.

July 22, 2015 at 12:34 PM · It's got to be that they are tuning up. Violin notoriously did not record well in the old days. It's probably a holdover from that.

July 22, 2015 at 07:37 PM · Are you sure it isn't your playback equipment?

July 22, 2015 at 07:37 PM · Are you sure it isn't your playback equipment?

July 23, 2015 at 02:43 PM · If it's digital playback equipment, which I sure hope it is, it has no effect.

July 23, 2015 at 03:01 PM · Charon, to play along with a recording you can load your recording into Audacity and adjust the pitch. The tempo can be changed as well. There may be some loss in fidelity (especially if you try to slow it down a lot because it has to fill in the extra time with something), but it'll definitely still be functional.

When my daughter was learning a fast cello piece I took the piano accompaniment recording and made versions of it at 50%, 60% (etc.) tempo, and yeah, the slow ones sounded like crap, but she learned her entrances just fine.

July 26, 2015 at 03:08 PM · I'm becoming convinced that a violin, like a piano, cannot be tuned to an outside source (with the exception of the the A=440). Once the A is set, the rest of the notes and their partials must be tuned internally amongst themselves. Players with fine intonation do this instinctively (after a while, that is) instead of relying on external tuning devices. Tuning devices can get one close, but as we know, the slightest deviation from pitch on the violin will sound choked off instead of in tune and resonant.

People like to talk about tempering certain notes, such as the major thirds above the open strings, which are often leading tones. But these notes also have to excite the 5th partials, and if they don't (regardless to their relationship to other scale degrees) they will sound out of tune.

It's extremely difficult to get even seasoned professionals to match pitch anyway, which is why I've always wondered why Handel and Haydn have occasional instances of part doubling between first and second violins. Surely they were fine enough musicians to realize upon first hearing that it wouldn't work...

July 26, 2015 at 04:40 PM · Scott, so are you saying that getting one of those tuners that turn green when you play in tune is worth it?

July 26, 2015 at 06:46 PM · Those electronic tuners are fine, but I don't see much purpose besides setting your A. I think you're just as well off with a tuning fork in one of those resonating boxes, except the clip-on tuner is more portable. I have the kind that clips to the scroll. Tuning your A against a piano is fine, but have you noticed how hard it can be to get a pitch from a piano? The A on the piano has three strings and if the unisons are not perfect then it's weird.

July 27, 2015 at 05:10 PM · Shawn,

No, I'm saying the opposite. A visual aid may get you in the ballpark but only if you're on the other side of town. Watching a needle or colored light is totally different than listening for maximum resonance. It's not much different than using tapes on the fingerboard--fine at the very beginning, but not much use in the end.

July 27, 2015 at 05:31 PM · Points to ponder though. Generally accepted that a visual cue for pitch is not effective, but a visual cue for tempo (baton or leaders bow) is the norm.

For me, watching a metronome doesn't work but watching other musicians does. Never played much with a drum section.


July 28, 2015 at 02:05 AM · Most metronomes make noise, so you listen to it rather than watch it. In the beginning if you are not used to metronome work, it helps if the metronome is loud. Use a phone or tablet app and connect to your TV sound bar via Bluetooth. Now that's LOUD.

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