If you are an audiophile tweaking the last little bit of sonic truth out of your system, there are essentially two types of tracks for objectively gauging its sonic qualities. This series covers both types:
These days, you can get test tracks as either compact discs (CDs), downloadable tracks or applications. The driving force behind Reference Recordings (RR) is Keith de Osma Johnson (KOJ). He makes some of the very highest-quality music recordings you can find. On the Enjoy the Music.com scale, they rank three and four Blue Notes for Very Good and for Excellent Performance. They really do offer "The Best Seat In The House."
Three of Johnson's latest releases now join my reference
stack. That stack morphed over the years to a hard disk, now a USB flash drive.
Soon I will simply point my phone at a player and pull the tracks from the
In any form, my list still includes RR's Dick
Hyman's From the Age of Swing. This bopping disc is still one of RR's all-time bestsellers and for good reason. The quality and upbeat tempo of
this disc – along with alto, tenor and baritone saxophones, trombone,
trumpets, string bass and piano samplings (but no vocals) – make it excellent
test tracks [RR-59, $16.98].
I love testing home musical reproduction systems with full
orchestral music because the performances have not only wide and full frequency
response (see our chart at "How We Review"*), but also enormous dynamic
range. As I found out at AXPONA*, it is very hard for most systems to do
both equally well at the same time; orchestral crescendos easily reveal all
sorts of system shortcomings.
Therefore, also on my list of highest possible quality test tracks is RR's TUTTI! An Orchestral Sampler.Tutti, Italian for 'all together now,' has 16 classical orchestral releases. These include Rimsky-Korsakov, Stravinsky, Mozart, Vivaldi, Strauss, Mussorgsky. It does not however, have many solo instrument movements,Tutti has violins, horns, piano, wind instruments, deep tympani rumblings. [RR-906 HDCD, $9.98]
What KOJ does for Reference Recordings (RR) bears no
resemblance to the simple recording and playing back of concerts known as the
"field recordings." This also refers to simple monaural or stereo
recordings taken of musicians in familiar and casual surroundings, such as the
ethnomusicology recordings pioneered by John Lomax, Nonesuch Records and
Vanguard Records. One of the reasons a home audio equipment vendor at an audio
show like AXPONA* might want to make a field recording in the same room as their
demonstration equipment is so all listeners hear the same original sound. Then
listeners can pass personal judgment on how well the demonstration equipment
replays the sound back. Personally, I think an audiophile club such as mine
(Meet up.com), would find it educational to witness a basic recording made and
then listen back to it on a variety of systems. It helps train your ears.
KOJ designed and patented many innovative products in the
professional and consumer fields. The RR sound comes from his singular methods
and equipment, hand-built or extensively modified by him. His microphone
techniques range from single-point Blumlein mics to spaced omnidirectional
microphones to complex studio mixes, depending on the musical forces and the
performing space involved. Their goal is to recreate the sound of real musicians
making music in real space.
KOJ's investigation of electronic behavior and acoustic
perception led most recently to his development (with digital engineer Michael
Pflaumer) of the revolutionary High Definition Compatible Digital (HDCD)
encoding process, produced and marketed by Pacific Microsonics (acquired by
Microsoft in 2000'). HDCD is widely considered one of the most accurate
recording processes ever invented.
Since Windows Media Player 9, PCs (not Apple) are capable of
decoding and playing HDCDs on personal computers with a 24-bit sound card
installed. Media Player 9 indicates the presence of an HDCD by flashing the logo
in the control bar at the bottom of the application window. This was changed in
versions 10 and 11. If an HDCD is inserted into a PC drive with WMP 10/11
running, the HDCD logo appears only if the HDCD feature is disabled, thus,
signaling that it should be enabled for proper decoding. My Oppo had no problems
with any of the RR discs (see Reviewer's Bio* for their reference equipment
and listening rooms).
RR has vinyl discs available too. Three of their new CDs are now in my Reference stack...
Garson The Bowie Variations
Having played the Bowie songbook in concert countless times, Garson always had the ambition to record his own original variations on these well-known themes.
Using a Yamaha Disklavier piano, Garson was able to create
several exciting sonic overlays, without abandoning RR's audiophile approach
to recording. Using floppy disks as a recording medium, the Disklavier piano
plays a high-quality acoustic piano during playback, ensuring that tonal
irregularities, noise and distortion typically found in audio recordings of a
piano, are completely avoided. The result is "true" piano sound from a
high-quality acoustic piano, instead of a recording of one. "It is like
having six hands!" Garson said.
Recorded in the Oxnard, California, Center for the Performing
Arts (venue of several previous RR successes), this program has realistic
spatial characteristics not possible with standard studio techniques.
Reinaldo Brahn Brasileiro Soul
Notable on the album is the foot-tapping percussion of Jim
Brock. Within a forty-five year career in music, Brock has appeared on literally
hundreds of recordings with artists such as Joe Walsh, Joan Baez, Kathy Mattea,
Joe Cocker, Janis Ian, River Phoenix and James McMurtry. He has five solo
This disc was recorded at Reflection Sound Studios in
Charlotte, NC, the site of previous RR discs. [RR-124 HDCD, $16.98]
*See Enjoy the Music.com article.
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