Before continuing with my methodology on how to pitch 78 recordings, there
are a few things I should clarify. A number of persons have expressed concern
about the actual pitch used at the time early 78 recordings were made, since
this would obviously affect playing speeds. I'm afraid I don't have an answer
which will satisfy all. We know that for many years, A-440 has been
considered standard pitch, but what it was at the time the records were
actually made is an unanswerable question. Since I wasn't there, nor was
anyone else still presently alive, your guess is as good as mine. I intend to
outline in my methodology the steps necessary to arrive at an approximately
correct speed based on the premise that A=440, which in the case of American
recordings is probably true. It may not be true of all European recordings,
but those of you who are mathematicians and who feel you are clairvoyant
enough to know what the correct pitch used was can follow my steps and make
any necessary adjustments to achieve the speeds your clairvoyancy tells you.
The rest of you can take my word that speeds attained using my system will
still be closer to the correct ones than continuing to play all 78's at 78
rpm. Further discussion on the subject will only bog us down (without any
final resolution) and prevent any attempts on my part to assist those
My next clarification concerns the nature of the records I am best equipped
to discuss -
those of vocal artists. Although my method should also be be of help in
arriving at fairly correct speeds for non-vocal recordings, many of the
techniques I use are based on the unique characteristics of the human voice
and the musical material used, and may not be applicable to other types of
instruments. If your interest differs from my main thrust, I would suggest
you stop reading at this point, and I beg your forgiveness for having led you
so far astray.
TOOLS OF THE TRADE
For those of you who wish to proceed further, there are a number of tools
1. A reliable variable-speed turntable. I started out pitching records with
turntables where speed variation was achieved by mechanical means. Today,
there are a number of fine turntables with electronic mechanisms which are
less prone to getting off-speed, and which take much less time to warm up.
However, unless the turntable has a digital readout of speeds attained, one
must resort to the use of a stroboscope. There are a number of such
turntables available, and if anyone wishes information as to how one can be
obtained, please feel free to contact me privately. As for stroboscopes, I
don't know how easily obtainable they are today, but as a last resort, I will
let you in on a little trade secret - place a piece of paper under the record
so that it sticks out a bit, and when you have attained a pitch you feel to
be correct, count the number of times the paper goes around in a minute. That
will give you the approximate rpm.
2. A reliable tuning instrument. I, personally, use a pitchpipe, but I have
been told that they are not always reliable as to true pitch. Be that as it
may, they have served my purpose, and even though I may be a little off, I'm
sure I'm still closer than I would be if I didn't use them. Dan Hladik
recommends the use of an electronic keyboard, and for further information on
that subject, I suggest you contact him. In any case, you are free to choose
any instrument you like, as long as you feel the pitch is reliable.
3. A book of musical themes. The best book I know is one written by
Morgenstern and Barlow (?) called, I believe, "Dictionary of Vocal Themes". I
am writing this during a long period away from home, and I don't have access
to my reference materials. If I'm wrong, I'm sure somebody will correct me.
This book contains a tremendous number of opening measures of opera arias in
the original keys, plus an equally large number of opening measures of songs.
I doubt if the book is still in print, but you may be able to find one in a
used bookstore, or at your public library. An alternative is to have a
complete collection of opera scores and every collection of songs. However,
don't despair; I will show you how to get along without such aids if it's
4. A china marker. This is used to mark the speed attained in the space
between the label and the last groove in the recording.
5. A good ear. Here I can't help you. You either have one or you don't. If
you don't, ask your dog, your spouse, or a friend for help.
For those of you concerned about the pitch used at the time of early 78
recordings, the worst case scenario would have been A=435 vs A=440. Dan
Hladik informs me that that would cause a difference in speed of
approximately .8 rpm. If you remember that I told you it takes approximately
5 rpm to raise or lower pitch by one key, you will see that this amount is
rather insignificant. It also now relieves one of the necessity of being a
mathematician, but still leaves the need to be clairvoyant to know if A=435
Now we come to that for which you have all been waiting: How to Pitch a 78.
For those among you who aren't deeply versed in music theory, you will be
pleased to find that all that's really necessary is the ability to read the
notes of the scale, and even that isn't absolutely necessary, as you will
see. However, it does make things simpler.
Pitching Opera Arias
It must generally be assumed that most singers, in their prime, pretty much
sang operatic arias in the keys in which they were written. There are
exceptions, but we will seek those sneaky one's out.
Since all of my reference materials are over 2000 miles away at the present
time, I will not try to be specific as to particular arias or particular
recordings of them, so, let's make-believe. Let's say you are trying to pitch
a recording of Caruso singing Celeste Aida. From reference materials, or from
your own knowledge, you know that the aria ends with a B-flat*. Place the
record on your turntable at 78 rpm. Hit the spot where the B-flat occurs, and
check it with your tuning instrument. The note you hear is above the B-flat.
Lower the speed of your turntable until a B-flat is as concisely heard as
Using the means at your disposal, you find that the record is playing at 75
rpm. Now, some judgment should be used. Does the voice sound like that of
Caruso at the period during which the recording was made? Could it be
possible that Caruso may have sung the aria transposed up or down a key?
Using your knowledge of the singer's history, would Caruso have had any
reason to transpose the aria up or down? A B-flat was no problem for him, and
why on earth would he want to transpose it up, especially since the upper
part of his voice wasn't his major strength?
However, we want to be sure. Using Byrne's Law, lowering the speed 5 rpm to
reach the next key down, one finds that at 70 rpm the music is not only
dragging, but Caruso is sagging. He may have had a baritonal quality, but he
didn't usually sing as though he had a potato in his mouth. Now, let's try it
one key higher than at 75. At 80 rpm, the voice has become quite a bit
lighter, and nowhere can be heard the baritonal timbre identified with
Caruso. In fact, he almost sounds like a tenore leggiere.
Therefore, I believe that we can safely assume that the record plays at 75
rpm, and that he sang it in the original key. For those of you who may have a
large collection of recordings of certain singers, another test would be to
try to find other recordings of the same singer with fairly consecutive
matrix numbers. Test them out with the same method we just did the Caruso;
you should find that they are all on proper pitch at the same speed. If one
is way out of line with the others as far as sound is concerned, you may well
suspect that you have come across one of our sneaky friends - a
transposition. If you can pitch enough recordings of a particular artist, you
will find that you get a pretty good fix on the normal sound of the voice,
and will easily be able to detect a "sneaker."
* Be careful of one thing. In the early days, records may have begun at one
speed and ended at another. It was not at all uncommon for a record to vary
significantly in speed between the beginning and ending of the record. Test
both ends to find out if you have one of these gems.
The reason I picked the B-flat at the end of the aria is that it is a
sustained tone. This makes it possible to have a little time to make
comparisons with your tuning instrument.
Actually, any note in the music which gives you time to get a "fix" can be
used as the "check note."
There are a number of other ways to check as whether ot not you have attained
a correct speed. As I pointed out, certain labels recorded at certain ranges
of speed during a particular period, and if the speed you find is out of this
range, caveat pitcher.
Since most of you will not necessarily be familiar with these normal speed
ranges, I am always available to give you assistance in the matter, but it
would be best to wait until after mid-April, when I return home. In addition,
the article I mentioned having written earlier contains a table of labels and
speeds. I will be glad to send it to anyone who asks.
Another way to check is to listen to a "reliable" dubbing of that recording.
Does Caruso sing a true B-flat on the dubbing? If so, your speed is probably
correct. However, let's not overlook the fact that whoever pitched the
dubbing may have had a tin ear. It may well be that your ear is better, so
don't rush to change your speed because a so-called expert may have pitched
it differently. I mentioned before that Caruso's G&T recording of the song,
Luna fedel, plays at 69 rpm, even though the HMV Archive repressing shows a
speed of 78 rpm. Since it is a repressing, that means it was made from the
original master, and would thus have retained the original speed of the
master. How do you know it's a repressing rather than a dub? Look for the
matrix number in the margin between the last groove and the label. If it's a
dub, there will be no matrix number. In any case, every dubbing of Luna fedel
I have ever heard places it in the same key as that attained by playing the
original at 69 rpm.
What we have covered so far should give you some idea of the basic technique
necessary to pitch most recordings in general. However, there are some more
sophisticated techniques that I will present in the next installment. Hal
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