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What's the digital equivalent of variable speed tape?

July 1, 2014
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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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