System test tracks – ah yes, certainly a hot-button topic. We decided to enter the fray, asking our panel of veteran audio professionals for their input on the music they use to tune and evaluate PA systems.
Whether it’s tonal balance as a whole or acute details in specific frequency ranges, experienced engineers are always listening for something. Here they tell us what they use and why.
Scott Mullane: I use “Instant Crush” from the Daft Punk Random Access Memories album as it’s an excellent analog recording with a very full range LF that doesn’t get in the way of the full audio spectrum. This is great because you can really hear what the subs are capable of as well as other full range content all in the one track.
I then juxtapose this with the Damii Im version of the Carpenters’ “Close To You” because it is very vocal-forward and lets me understand how the mids in the system are going to behave when pushed with vocals. Between these two tracks it really is a great picture of the entire system, and I’m finding it very accurate during the show.
Ryan O John: I start with Peter Gabriel’s “Sledgehammer.” It’s a very open, uncompressed mix, which will react more like a live show than a very modern compressed record.
I also use Michael Jackson’s “Rock With You” these days; it’s poignant in the 1 kHz range, which is mostly audible in the loud hat and snare, and it also has some very particular frequencies in the 2 to 8 kHz range that can really show harshness in a PA on the loud vocal parts. It’s not overly compressed and has light but tight lows, plus no one on your crew will be annoyed that you play it every day!
Christopher Grimshaw: For me, it’s always “Buena” by Morphine. It’s a really solid all-around recording, and a good system makes the double-tracked saxophone parts very obvious – lesser systems just blur the two parts into one. Bonus: Sum to mono to see if you can still resolve the double-tracking.
Ales Stefancic: There are a few tracks that I play, with the first one being “I Will Remember” by Toto. It has a very linear and balanced production, so anything that seems lacking or over-emphasized is on the part of the PA system setup. The second is “Keep It Coming” by B.B. King featuring Heavy D. I use it to check for any inconsistencies in the low end. The last one is “Assassin” by John Mayer – listening to this track shows me if there are issues in the low-mid part of the frequency spectrum.
Becky Pell: Because I specialize in monitors these days, I’m not sure how relevant my input is, but when I mixed front of house I used “Would I Lie To You” by Eurythmics. It has very clear, well-produced, full-spectrum elements, from a tight and punchy bass line through vocal and brass hi-mids, and airy FX highs. There’s also a hidden a capella track at the end of Alanis Morissette’s Jagged Little Pill album that’s great for vocal clarity. I often followed on with that.
Andy Coules: I have a number of go-to tracks that I like to use when assessing the capabilities of the sound system and how the room reacts to it. “Strict Machine” by Goldfrapp is great for hearing what’s happening at the very bottom end; there’s some sub-bass that kicks in at the chorus that can quickly tell you how well the system (and room) handle the lowest of frequencies.
“Undertow” by Warpaint has a nice fat chunky bass sound that can show if you’re going to have any problems with the key “mud” zone of 120 to 400 Hz. “Living in Jungles” by Bedouin Soundclash is a great all-around track, with a spacious mix and a crisp drum sound that can reveal any undue harshness in the upper midrange. There are also some nice sub-bass accents that tell you about the bottom end.
I always listen to “Carousel” by Mr. Bungle when I’m working with a horn section to see if there are any problems with the upper midrange area. It also brings a smile to my face whenever I hear it. “The Model” by Balanescu Quartet is for whenever I’m working with strings. It’s good for assessing the room decay times between 1 and 6 kHz, and it’s also a nicely relaxing tune for those stressful days.
Finally, I use “Get Some Sleep Tiger” by Red Snapper when I’m working with more jazz-like bands that have a lot of fast moving activity in the lower and upper mid ranges because it can quickly reveal any reverberation issues between 500 Hz and 2 kHz.
Chris Pyne: Perhaps it’s old school, but I still use some Steely Dan tracks. Ultimately they’re still some of the best recorded tracks ever for clean and clear audio. I tend to find these tracks show the most obvious issues in arenas and ambient venues. “Slang” by Steely Dan offers a spacious and clean arrangement with sharp transients, and a slightly mid-range-heavy vocal for clearing the sensitive midrange areas.
Other choices include “Infinite Eyes” by Keb Mo, again a spacious arrangement and heavy midrange vocal, and ultimately a nice song for playing every day for months and months on tour. “Fuhure Mich” by Rammstein provides a very solid heavy guitar-based track for checking the 2 kHz to 3.5 kHz range that’s the most sensitive for harsh frequencies.