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The last time I went to buy some new studio monitors, I was lost. While I browsed the twelve or so different options, I realized that I had no idea what I was looking for, and that the staff people I spoke with were… less than helpful. Beyond the marketing text written on the boxes, it seemed like they knew about as much as I did about each product.
Since then, I’ve realized a lot of people have the same issue when picking out new speakers or headphones to use for mixing their music at home or in their studio.
What I really needed more than anything, was to hear for myself how the speakers responded to a variety of sonic timbres and qualities, as references for the dynamic extremes in my own music. So I put together a playlist of songs that would help me quickly get a sense of how different speakers and headphones handle different dynamics.
Here they are in no particular order. (Read the Soundfly social community’s responses to what songs YOU chose to test headphones and speakers with in our roundup here.)
1. Lil Wayne — “A Milli”
What to test: Low resonating bass frequencies
This song has a big kick drum sound that hangs in the mix for a good moment. Listen to the long tail on the kick drum, does it feel powerful and well-rounded without dominating the track? Some headphones like Beats by Dre, boost the bass to give listeners some extra vibrations for aesthetic preference. And although the kick in this instance is supposed to dominate, a bass-boost would make trap songs like this just absolutely drown in those sub-frequencies coming off the electronic kick drum beat, giving you an inaccurate picture of the mix balance. So make sure you’re not just listening for a loud bass sound — the kick should be loud and driving, but make sure you can hear the rest of the track, too.
2. Radiohead — “The National Anthem”
What to test: Overall balance and frequency separation
When: The whole song, but especially when the ride comes in at 0:56, and the horn solo at 3:01
This is a great song to start off your headphone or speaker testing adventure. Why? There’s a mix of acoustic and electric instruments, as well as spacey effects panned all across the headphone spectrum — and all of these elements should be distinctly audible. It starts off with a fun laser sound which can give you an idea if you can hear high, textured sounds, and then it goes right into a distorted bass guitar. The bass is punchy and seems to have more mids than lows in it. And with the LFO-affected synth added in, it should give you an accurate sense of how the mids can blend on your new monitors.
When the drums come in at 0:14 make sure you can hear every piece of the kit. Finally, when the horn solo begins around 2:57 and builds to those high squeals, make sure it doesn’t push the other frequencies off the table. The song has interesting, textured sounds all across the frequency range so make sure you can hear every little thing happening.
3. Max Roach — “Lonesome Lover”
What to test: Treble quality
When: 0:00-0:08 and 3:00-3:12
Right off the bat, Roach opens with some great hi-hat and ride work alongside the piano. Listen to how he hits the cymbals. You should be able to differentiate the different sounds by tone and frequency, even though they are very similar in timbre. Each part of his kit should feel like it has its own little home, both in the left-of-center stereo range, and in the frequency range. The ride shouldn’t be drowned out by the other instruments, either. Make sure you can hear its tail. The high notes in the saxophone’s run starting from 3:00 (and at 3:22) give you a sense how how your speakers or headphones will handle shriller, more piercing tones in the high range.
4. Johnny Cash — Hurt”
What to test: Space
Listen to the chorus of this song. Pay attention to how the song lifts itself by weaving new instruments into the mix. The sparse arrangement transitions beautifully and organically to a fuller arrangement. This should feel gentle, yet powerful. Also, there are two guitars playing the the riff in the chorus, each in their own channel, and the piano fills out a bit of the middle space. You want to be able to hear both guitars without them becoming muddied together.
5. Roy Orbison — “Ride Away”
What to test: How much frequency differentiation can you get from older recordings
When: The whole song
This is a bit of an odd one. This song is beautiful, and the strings are arranged to perfection, but only if you can hear the differentiation between all the instruments. They seem to have been recorded all at the same time with room mics, so there’s a lot of bleed. You don’t want to hear mix soup, where everything is blended into one big mess. Make sure you can hear two guitars; try to hear the strings being plucked on the upright bass; and make sure you can pick out the back-up vocals whenever they appear.
6. Enya — “Orinoco Flow”
What to test: The mix of highs, mids, and lows
When: 0:16-0:32 and 1:49-2:05
What would an article in 2020 be without Enya? When the harmonious vocals come in, you can split the song into three pieces: the marimbas for the highs, the vocals for mids, and the strings for the low end. Make sure you can hear every part of this very full sonic space when the vocals come in — it’s dense in there! The marimbas are short and stabby, while the vocals have a nice reverberating effect. Try to hear these effects play out.
7. The Chemical Brothers — “Das Spiegel”
What to test: Attack and decay speed and quality
When: The whole song
This song is a fantastic collection of crazy sounds that stop and start almost randomly. I’d suggest using this one to test your new speakers or headphones by making sure nothing sounds too shrill or abrupt. The plucky sound that comes in at 3:31 is a great anchor spot, as well. Listen to how the kick drum comes in at 4:01. It should feel short and punchy with no tail whatsoever. In a mix like this, the kick drum is used to hold a lot of the more bizarre sounds together, it should not be the center of attention.
8. John Williams — “A Life in Music (Star Wars Theme)”
What to test: Dynamic range/overall quality
Okay, I’ll admit, part of me just added this song to the list because when you’re standing in a store playing music out of a brand new pair of speakers, it’s incredibly fun to blast this song and watch the attention you get! But yes, John Williams is also master of dynamics.
That’s one of the reasons his music is so epic, and it trickles through both the compositional process and the recording/mixing process. In his music, moments of high intensity (1:45) feel just as lush and vibrant as the moments of low intensity (around 1:30) and they flow so perfectly into each other that they should capture your auditory attention almost equally. You don’t always want to be turning up the low parts of your mix because your speakers don’t adjust well to low dynamic moments.
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