Following the inevitable months of trawling user reviews, taking manufacturers’ testimony with a pinch of marketing salt, and online window-shopping to the point of tearing the scroll-bar cleanly from your browser, a pivotal time eventually rolls around in studio monitor buying whereby it becomes necessary to give your ears a well-deserved treat and listen to a selection of speakers for side-by-side comparison!
Having compared pricing and specifications to nail down your shortlist to three or four key contenders, the only remaining question prior to journeying off to your local studio equipment vendor is down to your listening material. In this article we take a look at just a handful of well-crafted tracks with a unique aptitude for putting near and mid-field monitors through their paces and, with any luck, highlighting the strengths and vulnerabilities in each model you may choose to listen to. It’s time to get your ears around some of the best studio monitor demo songs!
Steely Dan – Babylon Sisters (Gaucho)
Few demo playlists exist in studio test suites across the country without a look-in from this classic Jazz-Rock outfit. ‘Babylon Sisters’ along with a number of other Steely Dan numbers are true testaments to the band’s neurotic devotion to creating the ultimate studio recording – a Rolling Stone interview from the early 80s revealed that no fewer than fifty-five attempts were made to perfectly mix the track’s fifty-second fade out. This maniacal attention to detail still serves our critical listening applications with speakers thirty years on. ‘Babylon Sisters’ is a great way to test any monitor’s take on ‘the flat response.’
Damian Marley – Welcome to Jamrock (Welcome to Jamrock)
As Steve Yates of the Observer so eloquently put it: ‘Like his father, Damian [Marley] is tucked in well behind the cutting edge of digital production,’ and nobody could be inclined to disagree with such a claim after hearing Damian ‘Junior Gong’ Marley’s 2005 track ‘Welcome to Jamrock’. This should feature highly on any demo playlist for fans of reggae and great production values alike when selecting monitors – particularly if you’re a key interest is bass response.
Hans Zimmer – Time (Inception OST)
Whether you’re a fan of Christopher Nolan’s 2010 blockbuster or not, Hans Zimmer’s accompanying film score is arguably some of his best work. From the full orchestra (featuring one of the largest brass sections ever compiled), to the gentle overlying riffs of special guest guitarist Johnny Marr, ‘Time’ combines a wide range of dynamics and timbres, dramatics and subtleties, and is an enthralling listening choice not only for film scoring enthusiasts, but for music producers across the board.
Aphex Twin – minipops 67 [120.2] (Syro)
The title of this first track from Richard D. James’s sixth album release ‘Syro’ is an affectionate nod to the original Korg Mini Pops drum machines of the mid 1960s – the production values, in contrast, are almost certainly a far cry from the grainy analogue rhythm box noises we all just imagined in our heads. Auditioning ‘minipops 67 [120.2]’ presents the listener with a seemingly endless expanse of different electronic sampled material, synths, rhythms and effects, and is a great way to testing a studio monitor’s frequency range to its fullest. Immaculately mixed and mastered, ‘minipops 67 [120.2]’ has made its way rapidly into the demo playlists of many electronica fanatics.
Grizzly Bear – Yet Again (Shields)
One of the more aggressive efforts from New York based Indie-Rock outfit Grizzly Bear. ‘Yet Again’ is a master class in organising a multitude of unique overlapping acoustic timbres and finding each their own special place within the mix along with delicious helpings of plate reverb. The array of different instruments and sounds that make up the track makes ‘Yet Again’ an ideal song to subjectively measure not only the various frequency sections but also the overall ‘space’ that studio monitors are capable of.
Massive Attack – Paradise Circus (Heligoland)
Given their long reaching, multiple-genre spanning and altogether dauntingly successful back catalogue, there could easily be a strong argument for an all-Massive Attack playlist, but in the interest of balance we’ve chosen just one of our current favourites from the Bristol trip-hoppers. ‘Paradise Circus’ was lovingly mastered at London’s Metropolis Studios and features the voice of American singer Hope Sandoval. The track delicately balances crisp piano and vocal highs with thick dub-style electronic bass, and combines more and more orchestral instruments to a climactic finish. A great tool for exposing the prominence of highs versus mid-frequencies versus lows, by the time this track comes to a close there’s a good chance you’ll have picked a favourite amongst your studio monitor shortlist.
Tool – Schism (Lateralus)
A track to cater for the metal and progressive rock enthusiasts among us, Tool’s ‘Schism’ from the 2001 album ‘Lateralus’ utilises the production talents of Mr David Bottrill – whose credits are also featured on releases by Muse, The Smashing Pumpkins and King Crimson. The song features a colourful mix of epic rock passages coupled with subtle interludes and dramatically building crescendos – no small task for any mix engineer, but the excellent balance and sheer excitement of this finished track should shine through on any monitor worthy of your hard-earned pennies.
Whilst this collation of different musical material will undoubtedly give the drivers of your chosen monitors the aerobic workout of their life and hopefully aid your decision as to which lucky pair will be taken home with you, it is also important to remember that some of the most valuable demoing material is music that you know inside and out. Before embarking on a listening session, ensure that you have at least a couple of tracks that you know note-for-note to give yourself a balanced reference point – this will save you from being drawn in by any new or exciting music!
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