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Lots of recordings were (sometimes intentionally) speed up/slowed down before final mastering, so that, even if the band was tuned to concert pitch, it isn't in the released version.

If you have a concert pitch-tuned instrument at hand, you can generally play along with these if the recording's pitch ends up within 15 cents or so of some note within concert pitch. E.g. if a recorded A is close to concert Bb or G#, you can play along in the next key up/down.

Is there a formal term for when a recording, or another musician, is pitched too far away from concert pitch to be "compatible" with concert pitch-tuned instruments? E.g. A = 452Hz (440 + 50 cents). I've heard this referred to as "in the cracks", but is there a more precise term?

I wouldn't say the recording is "out of tune" (though many individual instruments may be), and something like "off pitch" to me doesn't necessarily imply that the current pitch is in one of the dissonant ranges.

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I'm aware of the issue you describe. I work with a gentleman who masters old (19-teens) recordings and found this to be a big issue. I've never heard of there being a special term for it though. –  Reina Abolofia Dec 5 '11 at 9:38
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I heard Strawberry Fields is notorious for this. They had two takes at two different pitches: one with a good beginning, one with a good ending. So they had to slightly speed-up the playback before cross-fading. Hence you can't play-along with the song: if you're in-tune at the beginning, you won't be at the end. –  luser droog Dec 5 '11 at 10:07
    
First, this happens even on modern recordings. Second, when dealing with winds and/or strings, the pitch can change through even a live performance. Strings tend to go flat, while winds tend to go sharp. The group may or may not adjust for this difference to stay at the same pitch level as when they started playing. –  Andrew Dec 5 '11 at 16:22
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@luserdroog, I'm slowly building a collection of my favorite songs re-pitched as close as possible to 440 using Audition (and a lot of patience). I haven't taken on Strawberry Fields yet. –  Steve Clay Dec 6 '11 at 2:54
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3 Answers

up vote 5 down vote accepted

I would say the phrase "not at concert pitch" is the closest to being accurate and widely understood. Or, if you want to allow for those recordings that are close enough to play along to, "not close to concert pitch".

Don't fall into the trap of believing that concert pitch is "right" and everything else is "wrong". Concert pitch is widely used, but nonetheless, the standard A440 tuning was chosen completely arbitrarily at some point in history.

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Much agreed, especially the second paragraph. Many American orchestras tune to A442 and European orchestras tend to tune even higher (I've heard of some up to A446). –  Reina Abolofia Dec 7 '11 at 7:25
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I can't add a comment, but here I go...

What is a cent? You mention 15 and 50 but then refer to Hz.

Also, no instrument produces 440Hz exactly. This can only be done electronically with a sine wave. While 440Hz is the fundamental frequency, many harmonic frequencies are added to it.

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Google "cent music" –  Steve Clay Oct 6 '12 at 2:43
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In the cracks is pretty succinct! It isn't just speeding up or slowing down the recording - in the 60s, a band with just guitars and bass would merely tune to each other - there was no need for any more accurate reference - and make the recording. The Kinks had some tracks that were right in the middle of, for example, F# and G.I remember in the 60s, learning to play along with the radio, I'd have to re-micro-tune my guitar quite often!

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