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I can precisely tune my turntable to play at concert pitch. But there's quite a bit of variation in pitch on each record or even each track on classic vinyl.

Why is that? Is it variation in studio tape transport speeds or in the speed that the master was cut or something else?

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The reasons you suggest do happen. And other causes are possible too.

Perhaps the recording session itself wasn't on-pitch (maybe the band was playing for many hours and didn't re-tune in the middle). There's the famous case of The Beatles' Strawberry Fields Forever where there were 2 takes that they liked: the beginning of 1 take and the ending of the other. Problem was: the 2 takes were out-of-tune with each other! So they mastered by starting one, slowing adjusting the speed until they matched, then cross-fading to the other take, and on to the end.

It can also happen that the pitch was adjusted in order the change the playing time of the song. Maybe it clocked at 3:15, but the producers want the song to be an even 3 minutes.

  • 1
    They often used to speed them up slightly just to make them a bit tighter & pacier, resulting in them being sharp too. – Tetsujin Jun 4 '16 at 5:45
  • Indeed, or to give it that Dolly-Parton/Alvin-and-the-Chipmunks sound. – luser droog Jun 4 '16 at 9:53
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    "Strawberry Fileds" wasn't two takes where the tuning had dropped! It was two sessions, with different production concepts, in different keys and at different tempos. "Let's use both!" was thrown at the producer. It turned out that a certain degree of speeding up made both the keys and speeds (nearly) match. (In those days "faster" also meant "higher", they didn't have our tools for independently changing pitch and tempo.) Lucky, wasn't it? If you didn't know there was a join, you wouldn't know, would you? – Laurence Payne Jun 4 '16 at 10:54
  • Speaking of Dolly Parton... Ever heard this? it's 100% legit, I did this with my digital copy too. Frickin' scary. She sounds like a guy. And the song is actually much more soulful. – Johnny Bones Jun 6 '16 at 15:29
2

Classical orchestras sometimes use a higher a (442 Hz or even 444 Hz) for various reasons, most often to let the notes "shine" more. Due to the higher tension of the strings on stringed instruments, the effect might be more pronounced than the one gotten by simply playing the master tape at a higher speed.

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    Ithink the OP is asking about change in pitch within a recording. – Carl Witthoft Jun 4 '16 at 15:38

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