Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Test Drive

Whenever you purchase a new car, it is absolutely critical that you carefully test the single most important, vital piece of equipment in it.

Of course, I'm referring to the sound system.

And when it comes to testing a sound system -- any sound system, not merely the ones on wheels -- selecting just the right music is crucial. What are the key criteria for making that selection? I'm glad I asked.

1. The music should be very familiar. It should be something you know backwards and forwards and left, right and sideways, so you can detect the tiniest glitch, the teensiest hiccup. It should be something you've heard via multiple sources (radio, CD, MP3, out a bathroom window, whatever) so you have a frame of reference. I love hearing brand new songs, but for the purposes of a sound test, they simply will not do.

A friend of mine once purchased a big ol' honkin' stereo set-up back in the early nineties and made the mistake of playing Loveless by My Bloody Valentine on its inauguration. Great album, but unless you're familiar with it, you may think all those warped sounding tempos and notes are in error, which is exactly what my friend thought. He was all set to box his new toy up and haul it back to the store when cooler heads prevailed and he tried it out with something a little less avant-garde.

New stuff is great, but for a sound test, you need to go with the classics.

2. The music should have a significant degree of dynamism. There should be high highs and low lows and lots of tinkly bits in between. You need something that rollicks along, but also slows up and lets a note or two breathe. A good sound system will handle all of that in stride, so put it through its paces.

3. The music should have lots of different instrumentation. Similar to the dynamism at Point No. 2. You might know a great classic tune with lots of peaks and valleys, but if it's all just an acoustic guitar or a piano, that won't give you the reading you want. You wanna pile on. Think symphonic. But with some velocity.

4. The music should be an old-school analog recording. There are some awesome digital recordings out there, but they're a little too chummy with the current sound system technology to really give it a workout. Analog recordings are fuzzier and often exist in the middle ground between "1" and "0." That's what you need.

"So what did you choose to fit this eclectic bill, John?" I hear you query.

I cranked up the volume knob and immersed myself in "Roll Over Beethoven" by the one and only Electric Light Orchestra. It opens with a snippet of the Fifth Symphony, segues into pounding Chuck Berry guitar rock, then breaks down into show-off solos for the many musicians. Performed by a full rock band, with a string section sawing away, it gives you a glimpse at each instrumental sound both as featured solos and within a group setting. It's an an early 1970s recording, so old-school all the way.

And I know it better than I know my own phone number.

The car stereo handled it well, with ripsaw strings and punchy guitar. Now if you'll excuse me, I have to go tell Tchaikovsky the news.

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