February 21st, 2011
A friend of mine asked for this recently, so I thought I’d provide it on the blog. When I want to audition or evaluate audio equipment or settings, I use a playlist that I burn specifically for that purpose. Here’s what’s on that playlist and what I listen for. (Note that I have all these on CD, and so these are uncompressed when testing or listening at home—links are for convenience, I don’t recommend testing with compressed music.)
1. Art of Noise, “Il Pleure (At the Turn of the Century)”
from The Seduction of Claude Debussy, 1999
This is a slightly weird track, in that it mixes spoken word, acoustic piano, drum machines, opera, and of course AON synth. Looking for clear differentiation of instruments, but mostly for how the the female opera vocals are handled. Unnatural mids make this sound poor.
2. Nine Inch Nails, “Into the Void”
from The Fragile (disc 2), 1999
I actually stopped in an audio shop one day on a whim, and didn’t have the older version of my test mix with me, and the sales guy demo’d with this track. The important part is the intro, which starts with a high-end, well, I’m not sure what it is—almost a squeak, then something xylophone-sounding, then adds cello, then acoustic guitar, then some light percussion, then the full force kicks in. I’m listening for the clarity of the instruments in the early stuff, which is quiet, and the force when more stuff kicks in.
3. Tool, “Stinkfist”
from Ænima, 1996
4. The Cult, “Wild Flower”
from Electric, 1987
A good audio setup needs to sound good when the electric guitars attack. The Tool recording is an excellent recording, The Cult recording is less so and is useful for seeing how things handle slightly less clean-sounding guitars. On a bad setup this will just devolve into distortion and little else. (Sorry no link on the Tool track. Come on, Tool, get it together and get on Amazon or iTunes.)
5. Tears for Fears, “Start of the Breakdown”
from The Hurting, 1983
There’s a lot of left-right panning in this track, so anything that impacts channel separation shows up immediately here. Obviously, this is not so much an issue with headphones, but if you don’t get the sense of something moving back and forth in space, something is definitely amiss.
6. Michael Hedges, “Breakfast in the Field”
from Live on the Double Planet, 1987
This is acoustic guitar originally recorded live on digital equipment. Different guitar strings should be distinct, and some ambient sounds (e.g., foot taps) are evident on better equipment.
7. Rodrigo y Gabriela, “Hanuman”
from 11:11, 2009
The latest addition. This is acoustic guitar as well as the last track, but sounds almost nothing at all like it. Not only are RyG absolutely fabulous and this album especially excellent, but it’s also a terrific recording. (Yes, I’m running out of superlatives.) You should be able to separate the two guitars very distinctly, and the percussion should not sound like drums when you listen carefully, because of course it isn’t, it’s Gabriela drumming with her hand on the guitar—and that’s what it should sound like.
8. George Winston, “Spring Creek”
from Summer, 1991
This is an acoustic piano piece which runs through a pretty thorough range of the 88 keys. Keys should sound distinct and be identifiable in chords when not struck perfectly in synch, which of course real human players do. Bass keys should sound natural, high keys shouldn’t sound harsh, mids should not get lost.
9. Vivaldi, “Summer (presto)”
from Janine Jansen’s The Four Seasons, 2004 (CD layer from SACD mastering)
Classical makes different demands than the rock/techno/acoustic on the rest of this list, and this is a good piece, heavy on different strings. Viola should be distinct from both violin and cello, the cello bits should be moving without being overwhelming. Setups that are too bass-heavy (equalized for rock/techno) don’t sound right here. Setups which are too bright can make the violins sound screechy. This is a pristine recording and flaws are quickly evident.
10. Bach, “Concerto for 2 Violins, Strings and Continuo in D minor, BWV. 1043: I. Vivace”
from Hilary Hahn & the L.A. Chamber Orchestra, Bach Concertos, 2002 (CD layer from SACD mastering)
I’m a sucker for violins, particularly in testing audio. Bad setups make it sound screechy, particularly Miss Hahn’s particular style. (Some might say her poor fingering, but I think on good equipment it sounds just fine.) Violins here should sound like, well, violins. This is another outstanding recording and can sound very close to lifelike on good equipment.
11. The Power Station, “Some Like It Hot”
from The Power Station, 1985
Listening almost entirely to Tony Thompson’s slamming drum intro to this song. If it doesn’t slam, the bass needs work. This is not a particularly great recording, but it doesn’t need to be for what it’s trying to deliver. Big toms and bass drums, that’s what you’re after here. (Please ignore the Duran Duran lineage here. This is about Tony Thompson’s drum work, OK?)
12. Underworld, “Little Speaker”
from A Hundred Days Off, 2002
Very bass-heavy electronica. Weak bass really shows here, should get that dance-club ”thump“ in full force. This is synthesized bass, so it will and should sound different from the slams in the previous track.
13. Thomas Newman, “Root Beer”
from American Beauty Score, 2000
If you’ve seen the movie, the is from the bit where Kevin Spacey has one of his waking dreams about Mena Suvari, this one while he’s getting her a root beer from the fridge. Lots of cymbal transients to test the treble response, and well as some really low bass rumbling; this gets down around 20-25 Hz, so if whatever equipment you’re listening to doesn’t really rumble, your bass extension isn’t good enough. (Sorry no link. Amazon has the CD version…)
14. Shadowfax, “Oasis”
from The Odd Get Even, 1990 (track also appears on Pure Shadowfax)
This is also a fully-digital recording with a mix of strange instruments and traditional rock instruments. I find Paiste cymbals to have slightly different timbre (don’t ask me to describe it) from other cymbals (not better, just different), and that should be evident as they are mixed very prominently here. The high whistle (or whatever it is) should also not be shrill. There’s a lot going on here—be sure all instruments sound distinct.
15. Tori Amos, “Precious Things”
from Little Earthquakes, 1991
I find Tori’s voice is sometimes difficult to reproduce well, and this is a good test for it. Good mix of acoustic piano, drum, and electric guitar. When the guitar kicks in on the line ”I want to smash the faces“ right around 1:50 into the track, it should be very involving but not overwhelming. If the setup is too forward, the guitar there will overwhelm the vocals, which is bad.
16. The Police, “Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic”
from Ghost in the Machine, 1981
You wouldn’t think a Police track would ask much of your setup, but this one does because Stewart Copeland does some really great cymbal work here which isn’t mixed super prominently (not like the Shadowfax track). If the setup has much mid- or bass-push, they tend to get lost, which is bad. I have yet to hear this sound right through MP3 compression, either. (In general, that’s where MP3-style compression bothers me the most—cymbals never sound natural.)
17. Propaganda, “Strength to Dream”
from A Secret Wish, 1985 (CD layer from SACD mastering)
This is a fully-digital recording which has a thunderstorm in it. If you’re in a an audio shop and turn this way up, people should start looking out the windows for rain. Seriously.
18. Pink Floyd, “The Happiest Days of Our Lives”
from The Wall, 1977
This is in here just for fun. The first time I heard this track after I had put in new speakers and an amp in my car, I had The Wall in and had really stopped paying attention to it, then suddenly I found myself looking for a helicopter. Took me a second to realize it wasn’t really a helicopter, it was my stereo. Always trying to reproduce that.
Yes, this is a pretty wide range of stuff. If you can find something on which everything here sounds really good… buy it!