9

I'm not actually 100% sure these are out of tune, but they sound out of tune to me. Here are some examples on YouTube:

It's a bit harder to tell in the third example, because it might be that the weird chords contribute to this effect. But the first example seems pretty clear. One thing all such recordings share is that they're all very old, so could it be an artifact of old recording technology?

Most of all, are these guitars actually out of tune, or do they just sound different?

6

First example:

This is a Soviet war-time song "Тёмная ночь" (Dark Is the Night), the soldier is singing about bullets flying outside, his longing to see his love, who he knows is not sleeping and is crying near their baby's crib.

Several considerations come to mind:

  • In the movie, it is shown as a song that is sung by a soldier, and it would be weird if the guitar was ideally in tune and everything sounded polished. The soldier probably had a very cheap guitar, which is bound to have intonation problems (I know my first Russian guitar had). Those who recorded the song for the movie probably had that in mind.
  • I suspect good quality Russian-made acoustic guitars were hard to come by in general, especially in 1930s-1950s.
  • It seems that the video is sped up slightly so that the sound is about a halftone higher than I'd expect it to be (2nd and 3rd open strings should be G and B, not G# and C). Since this is a restored video that has probably been re-recorded and re-encoded multiple times (including digital recording from some mechanically-driven format), it's not really surprising that the pitch moves up and down slightly.
  • It sounds like open 2nd and 3rd string (G and B, both in Russian 7-string tuning and in classical guitar tuning) are slightly out of tune, which is most obvious in the intro. On cheap guitars with high action that could be a result of a compromise in tuning: a proficient guitar player could tune so that open strings are slightly out of tune, but the intonation on some specific frets (typically, 1, 3 for B, 1, 2 for G) is not completely horrible.

Examples 2 and 3:

  • Both are sung by Vladimir Vysotsky, who was known for preferring a slightly out-of-tune guitar (here is a story about Vysotsky getting angry and stopping during a song to detune the guitar when he discovered that someone from the orchestral band he was playing with tuned his guitar before the performance).
  • Example 2 has extremely poor quality, with compression damaging the sound badly.
  • Similarly to Example 1, most of these songs were sold on LPs, which implies mechanically-driven conversion to get the digital version, that could possibly introduce slight pitch shifts which would produce an effect similar to being out of tune.
  • 1
    Here's another Vysotsky video with better sound quality (bar the annoying high pitched whine). His voice sounds amazing, but the guitar sounds pretty odd to my western ear. – Bob Mar 20 '17 at 13:03
  • Ah, that annoying high pitched whine brings back some memories from my childhood: as I expected when I just heard it, it's around 15.625KHz —the sound that old TV flyback transformers produced, that corresponded to the horizontal line scan frequency of PAL TV transmission. That suggests that this video was recorded from a TV, or a TV acoustic noise was present at some stage during rerecording. – Ivan Tarasov Apr 8 '17 at 6:31
9

Sound in tune to me. The second example is a semitone down on standard 440Hz pitch,but still in tune. It may be that Russian tuning is/was not the same as Western standard, but still in tune with itself. Spot the 7 string guitars? Standard low B strung when I bought mine in Leningrad, in 1964 !! So it's not such a modern idea.

The videotapes must be 40-50 yrs old, so a bit of wow and flutter are to be expected, surely?

8

The strings sound quite thin - they have that twangy feel which you get if you string a steel acoustic with very light strings.

Also some of the guitars look quite small meaning a short neck, which means the strings can be looser to get the same note. The looseness adds to the effect Tetsujin mentions :

When you hit the string to get volume, for a moment it stretches while it's vibrating a lot (a bit like bending the string very slightly) and the note is slightly sharpened until the string settles down and gives a more reliable note. It makes things sound slightly out of tune.

The third example (possibly others too) has 'wow' on the recording. This is usually caused where the spindle which drives the tape feed in the recorder is very slightly not perfectly circlular meaning the tape just marginally runs fast-slow-fast, usually about 4 or 5 times a second, as the high spot on the spindle hits the tape.

The end result if that the recording (or maybe just playback) ends up with a vibrato effect because the speed of the tape is varying. Wow is a slow variation - if it gets faster, it's called 'flutter'.

It's a subtle effect and something we're not used to these days because digital media has eliminated it completely. It's more noticable on piano music.

On a guitar, sometimes people play with a bit of vibrato, and often use it vocally, and maybe your mind puts it down to that. There's no "whammy bar" on a piano (there's an idea..) so the notes are very steady, making it much more noticable if they do waver owing to 'wow'.

The 3rd example also seems to have something which is just plain out of tune, though.

5

In addition to the excellent answers given by others, there are reasons why "in-tune" old Russian songs might sound "out-of-tune" to a modern western ear.

At a basic level, a guitar is made for western chromatic scales. However bends are very easy to achieve, and players in some styles do them almost without thinking. This is all over blues guitar playing, for example.

This semi-traditional Russian music is in a mode that's moderately unfamiliar to the Western ear; but in addition to that, the heritage of the music flows back to traditions that weren't based around the 12 semitone chromatic scale. Russia borders China and Mongolia; Stalin suppressed hundreds of indigenous languages and cultures, but didn't quite manage to stamp them out -- these had their own music which left its mark on Russian music.

Early balalaikas had movable frets (just rings of gut wrapped around the neck).

I think that some of the notes you hear as "out of tune" are in-tune, within a microtonal scale that would be familiar to Russian ears of the period.

  • It's worth noting, in this context, that 12-edo tuning was actually invented in China, long before western music started to take it up! Arguably, the tuning is better suited for many far-eastern styles (which tend to be mostly 3-limit), than for western classical music (whose 5-limit thirds are not represented so well by 12-edo). Of course, this doesn't mean far-eastern influences (which may include excessive pitch bends, and some styles probably also have higher limits like in Indian music) are not a factor which might make Russian music sound off to western ears in the age of autotune. – leftaroundabout May 21 '15 at 1:13
4

There's no reason why a Russian guitar should sound any more out of tune than Western six string, but there are many reasons why it might...

Firstly, consider that all guitars, even perfectly built and tuned ones, sound slightly out of tune to harmonic purists on account of their equal temperament tuning, without which they would not sound "in tune" to anyone. This is not a technical deficiency of the guitar, but of the music and the way in which we perceive harmony, which forces us to relentlessly seek out intervals whose base frequencies exist in the perfect integer ratios of the harmonic series; intervals which fixed pitch instrument such as pianos and guitars cannot accomodate.

Secondly, the guitars in these videos may not be very well built. In the early part of the 20th century many manufacturers were still using the archaic rule of 18 to place the frets. Even today, many Gibsons still use this formula in place of the 12th root of 2.

The players in the videos may not have tuned their guitars properly. Most guitar technicians are familiar with the phenomenon where guitarists tune their guitar so that the E chord sounds "right" only to find that the open C and G chords sound dissonant. The Russian guitar is traditionally tuned to a G chord. Doing this by ear results in a similar problem: the frets divide the strings by equal temperament intervals but the courses are tuned to natural harmonic intervals. This results in fretted notes on adjacent strings being different, particularly in relation to open strings. Furthermore, if the guitar hasn't been well built - the bridge/saddle combination may not be located properly, the frets placed according to an outdated formula, the neck is bent or has too much arc relief, all of which are common issues on early 20th century guitars - then tuning the guitar to the standards expected by modern musicians raised with digital tuners and precision CNC build technology may be literally impossible.

  • Pretty sure I myself can't really hear the difference between equal temperament chords and "just" chords. Good point that these guitars could have simply been made very badly and impossible to tune well! That could explain why I can't find a recent video with the same effect just as well as the theory that it's the poor old-tech recording that makes it sound weird. – RomanSt Apr 26 '15 at 13:33
3

The gliss hurts; cheap strings, hit too hard - after half a second or so they settle down to tuning (ish), but both 1 & 2 are a bit painful for me.

I'm not sure I can bear to listen to 3...

Edit 1 bar of 3, switched it off.

Answer to the question... "Yes, they are out of tune"

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