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
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
Why: It’s a bright, but clean big-band recording of a great arrangement of this classic Cole Porter tune
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
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
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
Label: Linn Records
Comments: None yet… but BOY is it good!!
Track: Sing Me To Heaven
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
Artist: Jason Mraz
Album: We Sing. We Dance. We Steal Things.
Artist: Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra
Album: Shostakovich: The Jazz Album
Track: Jazz Suite No. 2: 6. Waltz II
Artist: Tower of Power
Album: Great American Soulbook
Track: Me & Mrs. Jones
Label: Top Records
Artist: Cassandre McKinley, Stephen Angellis, Marty Ballou, Vincent Pagano
Album: Til Tomorrow (Remembering Marvin Gaye)
Track: I Wish It Would Rain
Artist: Ray Brown, André Previn, Jow Pass
Track: All The Things You Are
Label: Telarc International
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
Artist: Hebrides Ensemble
Album: Olivier Messiaen: Chamber Works
Track: Quatuor pour la fin du Temps – I Liturgie de cristal
Label: Linn Records