Test tracks: Stereo – General

Note: If you’re looking for tracks to test specific aspects of your system, please check out the links on the right.

These are some tracks that can be used as a first-check. These tracks are generally well-recorded and mastered, so they give you a first impression of what problems you might be faced with before digging into other tracks to look for details.

Click here to listen to most of the tracks as a Spotify Playlist (note that not all tracks are available in all countries – please don’t blame me for where you live… And please don’t bother offering snobbish comments about the impossibility of evaluating any loudspeaker using a tune encoded in a 320 kbps Ogg Vorbis CODEC (assuming that you’re paying for your Spotify). I merely offer a Spotify Playlist as a convenience. If you want to hear the “real thing” then buy it.)

 

 

Artist: Jennifer Warnes

Album: Famous Blue Raincoat

Track: Bird on a Wire

Label: BMG International

Comments: This has been called the best recording… ever. (Don’t write to tell me that you think that the Beatles are better than Jennifer Warnes – I’m talking about the recording quality here…) Ask people who work in the pro audio industry (recording engineers and studio people…) and no one will not have heard this recording. Personally, I would estimate that I have heard this tune, on average, at least once per day, since about 1990. Of course, some days I don’t hear it at all, other days, I’ll listen to it 20 or 30 times… (No, I’m not exaggerating…) This track has lots going for it – great imaging, good timbre on each of the instruments and voices, nothing is overly compressed. And, on top of it all, the tune and its performance are great. If you don’t have this album, go out any buy it. Now.

Regarding imaging: I actually keep a “map” of where the instruments are placed in this recording (update: I’ve drawn the map, if you’d like to take a look. It’s at this posting.). The first tomtom is about 10 degrees to the left of centre; the backup vocal is about 15 degrees to the right of centre; there are different triangles – one about 15 deg to the left, the other about 25 deg to the right; the choir spreads far left and right, but behind everything else in the mix, and with a hole in the centre to make room for the lead vocal; the bongos are on the far right; the sax is just to the right of centre; the shaker is about 10-15 degrees to the left…. etc etc….

Regarding timbre: there are a couple of things to listen for. The first is the crack of the very first tomtom. It should have a very clean attack, which is immediately followed by the low end of the drum blooming behind it. It shouldn’t sound like a kick drum – it’s got high end on the attack and low end underneath it. The second tomtom, positioned to the right of centre, is similar. Both drums should feel like they’re surrounded by air – not constricted to a small space.

 

Artist: Robert Shaw, The Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and Chorus

Album: Stravinsky: The Firebird

Track: Infernal Dance of King Kastchei

Label: Telarc

Comments: This, like Bird on a Wire, is one of the historically GREAT recordings. This one is from the early days of digital recording, made using a custom-built recording system that had to be tweaked by hand at the recording sessions. It has been re-released on stereo SACD which sounds much better than the original CD release (both on the SACD and CD layer) due to better sampling rate conversion from the original 50 kHz recording. Lots has been written about this recording by the original recording engineer, Jack Renner – a “what to listen for” guide. Unfortunately, although I have a paper copy of this, I haven’t found it online, and I’m certainly not able to re-distribute it due to copyright issues.

Some things to listen for: the first attack of the orchestra. Stravinsky sometimes used the entire orchestra as a single percussion instrument. This piece is a perfect example of this – and it should feel like it – your tweeters should not sound like they’re working hard to reproduce the piccolo. The front desk of violins should sound close, but not grating. Also, the xylophone should sound distant (compared with the front strings) and about 10 – 15 degrees to the left. The brass should also sound distant, but all of the instruments, regardless of distance, sound like they’re in the same room.

 

Artist: Lyle Lovett

Album: Joshua Judges Ruth

Track: She’s Already Made Up Her Mind

Label: Curb / MCA

Comments: This is a good track for two reasons. The bass, when it comes in, sits underneath the whole recording and holds it up like a foundation of a house. It’s never overpowering, but always present. Also, if you have any problem with ringing or resonances in the upper bass / low midrange region in your speakers or room, the guitar will make them audible… This recording was made by the same guy that mixed “Bird on a Wire.”

 

Artist: Bette Midler

Album: Some People’s Lives

Track: Miss Otis Regrets

Label: Atlantic

Why: It’s a bright, but clean big-band recording of a great arrangement of this classic Cole Porter tune

Artist: Various

 

Artist: Minnesota Orchestra, Eiji Oue

Album: Tutti! Orchestral Sampler

Track: Dance of the Tumblers

Label: Reference Recordings

Why: Clean recordings with attention paid to the technical details

 

Artist: Densil Pinnock and Bill Coon

Album: Mona Lisa

Track: Corcovado

Label: Verve / ERC

Comments: I use this recording a lot because I recorded it, which means that I know what the intentions of the artists were, because I was one of them… This was a great CD to work on, because the producer and the duo gave me complete license to try whatever I wanted in terms of microphone technique, recording style, processing… etc. In the case of this particular track, there were three microphones on the voice (two condenser omni’s and a bidirectional ribbon) which were moved and balanced to get the imaging and timbre (no panning, and no eq!). There were 6 microphones on the guitar (yes, 6…) two on the neck for the squeaky left hand movements, two on the strings near the right hand and two for the body of the guitar. All 6 were condensers of various polar patterns. The feeling you should get with this track is the voice on the left, the guitar on the right (with the guitar neck a little further out than the body and picking), both of them slightly in front of the speakers. Oh, and the speaker locations shouldn’t be easily audible.

 

Artist: Les Idées heureuses

Album: Christoph Graupner – Musique instrumentale et vocale, vol.1

Track: Concerto pour basson, deux violons, alto et basse continue en si bémol majeur, GWV 340 (vers 1731) : III. Allegro

Label: Analekta

Comments: This is another one of my own recordings. This was done in a church, north of Montreal, with 4 microphones (Sennheiser MKH20’s with a separation of about 2 m as the main pair and B&K (now DPA Microphones) 4006 as the outriggers, each placed about 2 m on either side of the main pair) and no additional processing (no eq, no compression, no reverberation…. nothing) The sound should be spacious and a bit “phasy”, but the bassoon should be reasonably easy to locate in the centre. However, it will move left and right a little bit due to the spaced omni’s technique exaggerating small movements of the performer.

 

Artist: Claire Martin (no relation)

Album: Too Darn Hot!

Track: Black Coffee

Label: Linn Records

Comments: I use this track almost every day to check loudspeakers. It doesn’t have a huge crest factor, but it’s a good recording nonetheless. Tight, deep electric bass, nice job on the vocals, and generally a good recording. One nice thing about this is that, if you buy the SACD, you also get a multichannel version!

 

Artist: Helge Lien Trio

Album: Hello Troll

Track: Troozee

Label: Linn Records

Comments: None yet… but BOY is it good!!

 

Artist: Octarium

Album: Essentials

Track: Sing Me To Heaven

Label: ??

Comments: This is an excellent performance and a great recording of a beautiful piece of music. The interesting thing here is that Octarium is an octet (no surprise there), so you get a recording choral music with the added benefit of imaging, since there are so few voices to identify. The placement of the singers in the stereo sound stage appears to be well-thought out by the engineer with a great perception of distance and therefore depth in the reflections and reverberant tail.

 

Artist: Mary Chapin Carpenter

Album: Songs From The Movie

Track: Mrs. Hemingway

Label:  Zoe Records

Comments: This recording was done at Lyndhurst Hall at Air Studios in London, which is a very nice room indeed. The engineer did a great job of the overall presentation of the orchestra without it sounding in-your-face or too distant. There is a lovely breadth to the ensemble that never feels claustrophobic. The vocals are nicely recorded without just enough proximity effect to warm them up, and presented in front of the orchestra. Note that there is an audible noise floor in this recording. Also note that (at least in the Spotify version) there is an occasional weird distortion that sounds a little like aliasing around 7-10 kHz (for example – listen to the high end on the oboe solo at 00:06 – 00:08). I don’t know if that’s in the original recording or just an artefact of the Ogg Vorbis codec fighting with something in the recording (like noise shaping, for example?) because my “real” copy hasn’t arrived yet.

 

Artist: Gordon Goodwin’s Big Phat Band

Album: Swingin’ For The Fences

Track: Sing Sang Sung

Label:  Silverline

Comments:

 

Artist: Jason Mraz

Album: We Sing. We Dance. We Steal Things.

Track: Butterfly

Label:  Atlantic

Comments:

 

Artist: Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra

Album: Shostakovich: The Jazz Album

Track: Jazz Suite No. 2: 6. Waltz II

Label:  Decca

Comments:

 

Artist: Tower of Power

Album: Great American Soulbook

Track: Me & Mrs. Jones

Label:  Top Records

Comments:

 

Artist: Cassandre McKinley, Stephen Angellis, Marty Ballou, Vincent Pagano

Album: Til Tomorrow (Remembering Marvin Gaye)

Track: I Wish It Would Rain

Label:  Maxjazz

Comments:

 

Artist: Ray Brown, André Previn, Jow Pass

Album:After Hours

Track: All The Things You Are

Label:  Telarc International

Comments:

 

Artist: Quatour Ébène

Album: Debussy, Fauré & Ravel: String Quartets

Track: String Quartet in F Major: II. Assez vif – Très rythmé

Label:  EMI Records / Virgin Classics

Comments:

 

Artist: Hebrides Ensemble

Album: Olivier Messiaen: Chamber Works

Track: Quatuor pour la fin du Temps – I Liturgie de cristal

Label:  Linn Records

Comments:

 

 

 

 

 

 

  1. Hi Geoff,
    One cd that absolutly has to be included to this list is the psalms recording of the turtle creek chorale conducted by Timothy Seelig and recorded by prof. Johnson on the reference recordings label.
    If your stereo can play this recording at reference level without breaking a sweat, losing composure or fine detail you have a very respectable system indeed!

    Kind regards
    Bart

  2. Hi again Bart,

    I debated putting in the Turtle Creek Chorale recording of the Pie Jesu from John Rutter’s Requiem for the bass. However, every time I listen to that recording, I get annoyed because I wish that they had paid a little more attention to the intonation.

    cheers
    -geoff

  3. Hi Geoff,
    Since we cannot add suggestions to the ‘Test tracks: Stereo – By Instrument’ page i thought i post some here for the ‘Solo Voice’.
    I found this recording of a soprano called Emma Eames on the ‘Victor Talking Machine Company’ label.
    http://www.wesangbetter.com/sound-samples/
    Imaging on this recording is probably not great (remember, these are 78-rpm recordings made in 1906-1911) but nevertheless a good example of a great singing voice.

    Kind regards
    Bart

  4. Here are a series of Contralto recordings, as sung by Janet Spencer, a student of Hermann Klein, that had been acquired by record collector John Wolfson, who has generously made them available for study. The listener hears the famous singing method of Manuel García as preserved by early gramophone technology.
    https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLdErLefOOJZUIhxey8y_tjA2I5v2zlv9c
    These are also great recordings showing how beautiful a well trained voice can sound.

    Kind regards
    Bart

  5. Hi Bart,

    Thanks for the suggestions – but please remember that this list is for the recording quality as much as the technical abilities of the performer…

    Cheers
    -geoff

  6. Martin K. says:

    Hey there,

    here is a link to most of the above on TIdal:
    tidal.com/playlist/226c2347-1e9d-4b88-90aa-1f767b23a184

    Cheers,

    Martin

  7. Hi Geoff,
    I have another suggestion for the ‘Test tracks: ‘Stereo – By Instrument’ page for the ‘Solo Voice’.
    The 1916 John McCormack recording of Mozart’s Il mio tesoro on the The Victor Talking Machine Company label:
    https://youtu.be/wSHnxlf2DPs
    John Francis Count McCormack was a world-famous Irish tenor singer, celebrated for his performances of the operatic and popular song repertoires.
    Famous for his extraordinary breath control, he could sing 64 notes on one breath in Mozart’s Il mio tesoro from Don Giovanni.
    This aria is considered by many to be the definitive interpretation or version of “Il mio tesoro.” With his usual flawless pronunciation and phenomenal breath control John McCormack put this song virtually forever out of the reach of other singers, at least as far as bettering his beautiful version.
    This recording of Mozart’s ‘il mio tesoro’ from Don Giovanni was declared in 2006 by The Library Of Congress as one of the greatest music recordings of the 20th Century.

    Kind regards
    Bart

  8. Hi Bart,
    While this may or may not be an impressive performance, given that it’s from 1916, I’m not sure that it’s appropriate for adding to a list of track for testing loudspeaker performance. Stereo itself wasn’t invented until about 20 years after that…
    Cheers
    -geoff

  9. David Minn says:

    >Artist: Robert Shaw, The Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and Chorus …xylophone should sound distant…All of the instruments, regardless of distance, sound like they’re in the same room.

    Hello,
    This recording is obviously recoded using multiple solo instrument microphones, and with my studio monitor speakers. I can only hear it as it is recorded with multiple microphones.

    I wonder B&O speaker does playback this recording as if the music is played in the same room? If so, I have to say something is wrong with your speakers.

    Best,

  10. Hi David,

    Using spot mic’ing does not preclude the recording from portraying distance – or having all of the instruments in the same room. In the “old days” (this recording was done in 1978!), Telarc made no secret of the fact that they used spot mic’s in their recordings – however, in my opinion, they were quite successful at using this technique.

    Cheers
    – geoff

  11. David Minn says:

    Hello Geoff,

    Thank you for your sincere reply. I agree that some recordings are “quite” successful mimicking the room and distance, but arguably, today’s high-end speakers should reveal the “mic technic” brutally instead of projecting the pseudo image of the room.

    If the goal of the B&O speakers is latter, to project the pseudo image, B&O must be very successful to project the sound of the xylophone distant in this recording. That is great. But with my speakers, I can’t hear that way. The xylophone sounds it is recorded with close mic, and mixed with main mics with additional digital reverb. I can clearly hear the intention of the producer of this recording, he wants the xylophone to be louder.

    I’m not saying one is better than the other, they are just 2 different goals.

    Best,

  12. Hi David,

    I intentionally made no mention on that page about which loudspeakers I used to make the evaluations. In fact, the stuff I wrote about the Firebird recording probably goes waaaaay back to my days working in a studio – before I knew much about Bang & Olufsen. I certainly would not make any generalisations about how B&O loudspeakers should behave – since, in my experience, each loudspeaker model behaves differently. This is particularly true when it comes to directivity. For example, BeoLab 90 in its three different directivity modes result in three very different spatial representations in a room with reflective surfaces.

    It would be interesting to go back to the stuff Jack Renner wrote about that recording – I remember having a “listening notes” document from Telarc about it. I’ll try to dig it out of my stacks of papers from the 90’s and give it a re-read.

    Cheers
    -geoff

  13. Bart De Bie says:

    Hi Geoff,
    I recently discovered that in 2007 they made a remaster of the “Jennifer Warnes -Famous Blue Raincoat” album.
    What I find strange about that remaster is that it has apparently slightly less dynamic range than the original cd release.
    http://dr.loudness-war.info/album/list?artist=&album=famous+blue+raincoat
    Do you have any idea why they would have done something like that?
    Could it be that maby differences in studio equipment/loudspeakers/monitoring volume could account for that small change in dynamic range?

    On a sidenote: I recently purchased the “Christoph Graupner – Musique instrumentale et vocale, vol.1” through itunes in the best possible quality (AAC) and I realy like it. It now is definitely one of my favourite test tracks. You did an awesome job on that recording, it sounds beautiful!

    Kind regards
    Bart

  14. Hi Bart,

    My only guess regarding the answer to your question is that someone involved in the re-mastering process has a different set of priorities than you or I. Personally, one of the things that I love about the original FBR is the headroom allowance for the spikes. That’s why I still play my original CD (or a .wav version of it).

    Regarding the the compliments on the Graupner recording – thanks! It’s not a great CD for testing pin-point imaging, since it can’t have any. The mic’s were too far apart for that. But for other attributes like timbre and spaciousness (and maybe even distance/depth…) it turned out nicely, the Producer on that recording had a lot of influence on the final sound. If he hadn’t said anything, the imaging would have been better, but it would not have been nearly as nice a recording, overall… I’m glad he talked me out of the plans that I had for the recording. :-)

    Cheers
    -geoff

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