TESTING TRACKS: David Price
StereoNET’s editor-in-chief outlines three of his favourite hi-fi torture tracks…
Earlier this month, I found myself in Huntingdon, Cambridge, at Cyrus Audio's headquarters, being interviewed by the company's Managing Director, Simon Freethy. It felt more than a little odd because it's typically me who gets to ask the questions. On this occasion, however, I was a guest of the company's excellent Testing Tracks podcast. It's an interesting concept because Simon interviews someone, and gives three of his own top test tracks. This gives us all an insight into some of the music that the company uses when voicing its products, as well as bringing in outside ideas. To hear the podcasts, click here.
In the run-up to the podcast recording, we had hoped to wrap the whole thing up in half an hour, but the discussion went on much longer – we both had too much to say, as it turned out! I can bore anyone off their barstools about music, so I suppose it was always going to run over-time. At this point, it's important to point out that although I love them, these are not my three absolute favourite songs. Instead, they're examples of the sort of thing I typically use while reviewing hi-fi products. I'm lucky because I am spoilt for choice – I have many thousands of LP records thanks largely to a misspent youth, and also own around 1,000 CDs, and use Qobuz. The latter claims to have 50 million tracks, but fascinatingly still doesn't offer much of the music I have on LP – which probably means I am a serious geek. That said, Qobuz does have some impressive rarities, and choice seems to be getting wider by the week.
CROSBY, STILLS, NASH AND YOUNG Country Girl
Those who own the classic album from where this comes – Deja Vu – will be wondering what an analogue recording released on March 11th, 1970, is doing in a list of my top review tracks. This record, made in Wally Heider's Studios in San Francisco and LA, sounds pretty poor compared to any modern wide bandwidth recording, analogue or digital. Yet it's still a great tool to get the measure of any hi-fi system, and here's why…
It's a slow, brooding, sultry minor key ballad that hangs around Neil Young's lead vocal, and he's got a strange voice at the best of times – it's nowhere near a classic rock sound like Roger Daltrey's, for example. At the same time, the musical accompaniment sounds like it was recorded in a farm outbuilding, or maybe a large bathroom – it's pretty lo-fi. Yet I love the song, and I adore Neil Young and his old-head-on-young-shoulders lyrics – and also think the playing is sublime. The band is so laid back yet so in time with one another, that you can tell it was mostly recorded live. You can almost sense – as someone once said – “the warm smell of colitas, rising up though the air”. In effect, it's all there for a hi-fi system to ruin!
This track demands that the system you're using is able to play in time. I know there will be collective groans from those who don't believe in so-called “pace, rhythm and timing”, but I'll just say this. I've heard Country Girl on budget hi-fi systems that have carried the emotional intensity of the song, and I've heard it on six-figure systems that have thrown it all away. It's a thing of beauty, and if the hi-fi you're using doesn't convey the song's poignancy, then it's not doing its job properly.
Country Girl is no pushover, even for a good hi-fi system; it has a weird 'wall of sound'-type recorded acoustic, and features a shrill electric organ and harmonica. Yet the real challenge is to capture the beautiful groove of the performance and its slippery rhythms, as well as the cadences of Neil Young's fragile and often out-of-tune vocal lead. This music must move me, and if it doesn't, then the system's simply not working.
RUSH Red Barchetta
Eleven years later, and Rush's brilliant Moving Pictures hit the album charts. By this time, the band was beginning to establish itself as one of the best of the genre. Messrs Geddy Lee, Neil Peart and Alex Lifeson started off as old-school rockers in the early nineteen seventies, then went through a self-indulgent prog period, but were by now turning out superbly crafted, cutting-edge rock. Released February 12, 1981, and recorded the autumn of the previous year, it ranks as one of the band's greatest albums – and Red Barchetta is arguably the top track.
Unlike Country Girl, this song is very well produced. Indeed it's notable for being one of the first digital rock recordings, done of course in 16-bit – odd then that it's flagged up on Qobuz at 24/96 'hi-res'! The whole album sounds clean and punchy, but not as immediately 'hi-fi' as some of its contemporaries, like Pink Floyd's The Wall. Yet this is one of those albums that opens up more, the better your system gets. It sounds compressed and closed-in via an imperfect system, but a high-resolution one will dig in deep to show its technical perfection.
Red Barchetta's lyrics were inspired by the short story A Nice Morning Drive by Richard S. Foster, published in US car magazine Road & Track. Neil Peart changes the car from an MGB roadster to a Ferrari 166 MM Barchetta, to create this stunning song. A celebration of freedom and derring-do, the band deliver an enthralling performance in one single take. There's great dramatic tension between the players – with Peart's breathtaking drumming taking centre stage. It's set in 4/4 time, but in the middle guitar solo, he switches between 4/4 and 3/4, to further increase the sense of movement. His stick-work is all the more impressive thanks to the use of a pressure zone (boundary) microphone taped on to his chest, which gives a panoramic feel to the drums.
Red Barchetta is an audio assault course, a stern test for any hi-fi. It probes the system's soundstaging, depth perspective, bass grip, treble resolution – but most of all it tests dynamics and detail. If you're not hanging off the edge of your seat, getting the feel of being taken on a rollercoaster ride, then the hi-fi system you're listening to simply isn't up to par.
KRAFTWERK Techno Pop
Moving five more years forward, and we have a dramatically different sounding song from the pioneers of techno music, Kraftwerk. To devotees of the band such as myself, it seemed an age from the time they released 1981's Computer World album to when Electric Café came out on November 10th, 1986. During that time, electronic music had been transformed by technological advances. Although an analogue recording, for the first time – for a Kraftwerk record – it featured commercially available electronics. This included an E-mu Emulator II sampler, Linn drum and a Synclavier, but most striking was the use of digital synthesis from Yamaha FM engines, giving 'bell-like' DX-7 sounds.
Techno Pop isn't even the best song on this album, let alone in the band's canon, yet has a beauty all of its own. Upon its release, this track sounded like the future; making all chart pop appear slow, ponderous, woolly and vague. Beautifully engineered and produced, it has a crystalline clarity that most would associate with digital, yet there's a smoothness and warmth that's only possible from the twilight years of the analogue era. Recorded at the band's own Kling Klang studios in Düsseldorf, Germany, and mastered by the (then) genius-in-the-making Bob Ludwig, it's a seminal piece of work.
The production absolutely brutalises hi-fi systems. It's largely rhythm-driven, as there's little in the way of melody, so the performance lives or dies on the system's ability to stay in time. On a poor set-up, Techno Pop sounds like a random assemblage of banging and crashing noises. Yet even if the hi-fi can resolve the timing cues properly, the song doesn't work if its myriad tonal colours aren't correctly rendered. This is where even some high-end systems struggle, making the recording seem grey and lifeless. Correctly reproduced, you'll hear a wide palette of sounds from rich and full to hard and metallic. I often find that systems which resolve the tonal palette well can't capture the song's transient speed and dynamics, and vice versa.
Electric Café is one of the finest albums of the nineteen-eighties, or at the very least one of the most technologically advanced. The rules of electronic music were still being written, and Kraftwerk's response was to serve up a beautiful bricolage of sound that's still quite spectacular to hear. Techno Pop encapsulates it perfectly.
David started his career in 1993 writing for Hi-Fi World and went on to edit the magazine for nearly a decade. He was then made Editor of Hi-Fi Choice and continued to freelance for it and Hi-Fi News until becoming StereoNET’s Editor-in-Chief.
Posted in: Music