The Finch Formerly Known As Gold

21 February 2007

How not to B flat

Shouting Thomas scales the subject:

If you try to play along with some of the great recordings pre-1968, you'll discover some very unusual things. The tonal center wanders from song to song. (Try this with The Lovin' Spoonful.) Prior to the widespread proliferation of electronic tuners, a band tuned up in a haphazard fashion.

"Who's in tune?" somebody would call out at the beginning of a session.

And, perhaps, the bass player would respond: "I am."

"Let me hear your A," another player would say.

And the band would tune up to the bass player's A. The bass player may have tuned to a piano a week ago, and his A might be A = 430, as opposed to a perfect A = 440. Or it might be A = 445.

So, bands would be in tune to one another, but rarely would they be in perfect pitch. Since recordings were made in different sessions, it was not unusual for the tonal center to vary widely. Try to play along with a 60s band and you'll discover you have to re-tune for almost every song.

This does not necessarily explain George Martin's quandary with "Strawberry Fields Forever" — John Lennon had wanted the first half of Take 7 to be spliced to the last half of Take 26, and 7 was in A while 26 was in C, likely a greater difference than you'd hear by random tuning adjustments — but it does remind me that there was a time when I used to overdub my own instrumental parts onto favored records, and this always seemed to work better with post-1968 tracks.

(In the 1970s, I bought a four-track quarter-inch recorder: it was sold as a quadraphonic machine, but it was capable of doing some of the same studio trickery that went into Sixties hits, albeit with a less-impressive signal-to-noise ratio, and I wielded a mighty splicing blade in those days. Eventually I added, yes, Dolby noise reduction, via an outboard box.)

Incidentally, the invention of the tuning fork is credited to John Shore, sergeant trumpeter to His Majesty's Court, circa 1711. Shore's A was 423.5. (A-flat, in the equal-tempered scale set to A = 440, is about 415.3.)

Posted at 11:42 AM to Tongue and Groove