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electronic MUSICIAN

Ask– What's the digital equivalent of variable speed tape?

February 3, 2014

I’VE BEEN LISTENING TO SOME OF THE GREAT POP MUSIC OF THE ’60S AND ’70S, AND NOTICED SOME OF THE SONGS HAVE A SORT OF BRIGHT SOUND WITH WHAT I CAN ONLY DESCRIBE AS EXTRA “PRESENCE.” I’VE WANTED TO DO COVERS OF SOME OF THESE, BUT I NOTICED THAT SOME OF THEM ARE A LITTLE BIT TO A LOT SHARP. WAS IT STANDARD BACK IN THOSE DAYS TO TUNE DIFFERENTLY TO GIVE A DIFFERENT TIMBRE?

Charlie Cameron Spokane, WA via e-mail

Charlie—It’s more likely that what you’re referring to was the practice of mixing down to a two-track tape deck with its variable speed set a little bit slow, like 2 percent or so. Then when it ran at normal speed the tempo was a little faster, the pitch a little sharper, and the rhythm a bit tighter because a hit that was off by a few milliseconds would be off by somewhat less. Furthermore, the formant and timbre would be somewhat brighter overall. It was also possible to create the same effect by running a multitrack with variable speed capability a little faster during mixdown.

Although most of today’s DAWs don’t have the equivalent of variable speed, during the mastering process you can reproduce this effect easily with a digital audio editing program like Sony Sound Forge. Look for a DSP pitch-shift option, then raise the pitch by a couple percent. Do not select anything that preserves duration, as that will affect sound quality— speeding up tempo is a natural result of transposing the pitch upwards. Try this on some of your songs, particularly ones that seem to lag a little bit, and you’ll probably hear the sound you want. THE EDITORS

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