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That's Got 'Em!The Life and Music of Wilbur C. Sweatman$

Mark Berresford

Print publication date: 2010

Print ISBN-13: 9781604730999

Published to University Press of Mississippi: March 2014

DOI: 10.14325/mississippi/9781604730999.001.0001

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(p.182) Appendix 3 The Speeds and Pitches of Wilbur Sweatman’s Recordings

(p.182) Appendix 3 The Speeds and Pitches of Wilbur Sweatman’s Recordings

Source:
That's Got 'Em!
Author(s):

Ron Geesin

Publisher:
University Press of Mississippi

I HAVE ALWAYS BEEN FOND OF THE WILD RANTINGS leaping out of the Sweatman Columbia grooves. One reason is that the roaring, wailings, and thrashings healthily oppose any idea of “straight” or “classical” postures, even judged by jazz standards and, in any case, appeal to my sense of humor.

But I have also felt that Columbia exaggerated the band’s ravings by intentionally recording it at slower-than-normal speed, so that it would appear faster and wilder when played back at 78–80 rpm. However, after years of spasmodic study, I have concluded that my perception of the creative use of actual recording methods in the late 1910s has been over-sensitized by my own compositional development and use of such studio techniques at the present time (the beginning of the twenty-first century). So I was wrong. (Not necessarily. Victor, Columbia’s main rival, deliberately recorded Caruso and other singers at a slower speed, so that on playback at 78 r.p.m., the voice took on a brighter edge and gave the impression of the singer possessing a greater range and brilliance.—MB)

Yes, there is a certain amount of speed fluctuation, but I do not think it was intentional. Recording technology was still in its early stages of development; falling weight–driven cutting lathes may have been heavily greased, or incorrectly set, or not warmed up on a cold day. The band simply played fast—as if on some kind of stimulant—and the solo front-line instruments are all played with an unusually fast vibrato. The wildest period is from matrix 77856 to 78192. Although the trombone and tuba sound richer when slowed down by up to one tone in pitch, the trumpet attack becomes too slow. The more one listens, the more confused one can become. (p.183)

Based on the fact that the standard of pitch in America at that time was the same as in the present day—A above middle C as 440 vibrations per second (Hertz or Hz)—it is possible to pitch records of ensembles that contain a piano fairly accurately. Brass and woodwind instruments can drift a quarter-tone or so either side of center, depending on the temperature and the players’ adjustments to the length of tube or pipe. Furthermore, human input—the manner of blowing an instrument, whether calculated or not, can take the pitch further off either side of center. An electronic keyboard capable of being set at A=440, and of generating a fairly pure tone with minimum overtones, is the best pitch reference, and a variable-speed turntable is essential.

I made recordings of all of Sweatman’s Columbia sides, repitching as I went, noting all the main keys in each piece and, when I doubted which key (say, whether B or A), I recorded both in sequence. Then I was able to go through the whole tape and decide about the keys. I then visited Mark Berresford and not only double-checked the speeds with him, but also subjected the rest of Sweatman’s recorded output to the same process. You will see from the discography that the band favored the easiest keys for front-line brass and woodwind instruments: F, B, and E (and their relative minors).

Unless one owns some kind of sophisticated digital clock arrangement, it is impossible to set the exact speed in revolutions per minute. Besides this, many early recordings rise in pitch toward the end of the record, sometimes as much as a semitone, due to either a rise in pitch by the musicians as outlined above, or a slowing down of the cutting lathe, or a combination of both factors. This can be corrected manually (with difficulty) or by computer; but for the sake of this exercise, the speeds quoted in the table were calculated from pitch readings taken about halfway through each side.

The most convenient method of setting speed is by means of a strobo-scope, which is calculated to be read using the pulse rate of an alternating current lamp (50 Hz in UK and 60 Hz in the USA). This however does give different readings for what is nominally the same speed. For example, the nearest a 50 Hz stroboscope can get to 78 rpm is 77.92, while a 60Hz stroboscope will give the same nominal speed a reading of 78.26. Because of the aforementioned speed drift, and variations between 50 and 60 Hz electricity supplies, to keep things simple, the speeds and pitches quoted in the discography are given to the nearest one-half revolution per minute. There are several websites that offer stroboscopes or software to produce (p.184) them, and the reader is recommended to enter the words “record stroboscope” into a search engine to find what is available.

Pitch and Speed Table of Wilbur Sweatman’s Recordings

Matrix Number

Key(s)

Speed (RPM)

1200

F

80

2375

F

80

1201

C/B

80

2377

F

80

66030

F/B

79

66031

B

78

66032

C/F/B

79

66033

B/E

79

66037

Am/C

79

66096

B/F

77

77740

F

75.5

77741

F

75.5

851

F

76

852

F

76

77856

C/F/B

77

77857

B

77

77889

Gm/B/E/G

77

77924

C/F

77

78000

F/C

78

78001

F/B

78

78016

B/E

82

78096

B

77

996

B

76

78191

B/E

80

78192

B

80

1039

E

79

1041

B

79

78255

Gm/E

80

78256

F/B

80

78292

E

80

78294

C/F

80

1091

E

80

1092

G/E

80

78366

F

79

78367

F

79

1192

F

79

78373

F/B

80

78374

B/Gm/E

80

78588

E/Em

80

78692

B/E

80

79257

F/B

80

79277

B

79

9083

E/A

79

9782

E/A

81

9782

F

See Note

3847

C

79

3848

A/E

79

3296

E

78

3313

E

78

3314

E

78

62209

E

78

62210

Cm/E

78

62211

F

78

62212

E

78

17187

B

80

17188

E

80

17189

E

80

17190

F/B

80

Note: Matrix 9782 survives as a test pressing at the Edison National Historic Site and its pitch is taken from subsequent reissues.

(p.185)