What is a test track? At its simplest, it's a piece of music you know well, which you can use to reveal how a system sounds. If you're changing something in your system or auditioning a new product, listening to your chosen test tracks will allow you to hear what sounds different, thereby helping reveal a little information about a product or system.
We use them as tools, our day job being as it is to test products in a comparative fashion: how one set of speakers delivers a piece of music differently to another, for example. But in reality, there needn't be anything too special about them.
They don't need to be perfect recordings or even particularly well produced. What's important is that you know them well, so you can hear differences. And, we think, that they're pieces of music that you enjoy listening to. Otherwise, what's the point?
Some tracks will make this easier than others by being great tests of certain aspects of music. Timing, dynamics, voices. Stereo imaging. Treble and bass. Having a range of tracks that together cover off these essentials simply makes the business of comparative testing easier. But remember, you should be using music you love first and foremost.
Here follows a list of some of the best dance music tracks for testing your system, which we think also double as great electronic music tracks in their own right. We hope you enjoy, and let us know your favourites in the comments below...
Kraftwerk – Autobahn (1974)
With each passing year, it only seems more implausible that this was released in 1974. Kraftwerk really were doing half a century ago what many are still trying to do today. The electronic music blueprint. Twenty-three minutes of masterful machine control that will poke your system in every way imaginable.
Cybotron – Clear (1983)
More ground-breaking electronic music, this time coming from Detroit. Juan Atkins and Richard Davis deliver fresh electro sounds that would be sampled for years to come, and lay the foundations for the city to deliver techno to the world. The zingy delivery will soon reveal a bright system.
Tangerine Dream – Love On A Real Train (1984)
A soundtrack to a so-so Tom Cruise teen-coming-of-age film isn’t the most obvious place to find a synth classic, but Risky Business really did deliver Tangerine Dream’s most popular track. The band in fact made plenty of film scores, their dramatic and evocative synth lines lending themselves perfectly to the cinema screen. If you don't spend the four minutes transfixed then your system may be lacking a little when it comes to timing and emotion.
Larry Heard – What About This Love? (1989)
From Detroit to Chicago, with deep, dubby bass lines, warm piano keys and those smooth, soulful vocals. Larry Heard has made enough classic dance tunes to fill a separate feature, and inspired a house sound that remains as popular as ever today. Thanks perhaps to his jazz and soul background, the productions are far more complex than the average dance tune, with plenty of intricate inflections to keep your system on its toes.
Massive Attack – Unfinished Sympathy (1991)
The band were forced to sell their car in order to pay the orchestra who added the strings to this UK classic, but it was clearly the right move, as repeat listenings to this powerful track testify. There are deep bass notes, emotive vocals, and intricate drums that will require careful detail recovery. If you’re not moved, something’s wrong somewhere.
Aphex Twin – Ageispolis (1992)
Frankly, you can take your pick from Aphex Twin’s back catalogue, both in terms of delivering quality music and testing tracks for your system. Even though the production here might at times make you wonder if you’re hearing things clearly – especially on some vinyl copies – there are great testing moments here.
We like the deep sub-bass notes on Ageispolis, which under-pin the rolling bass melody. Rapid hi-hats and cymbals provide a pleasant counter-balance before the introduction of cinematic synth lines and echoey treble notes. A highlight from the classic LP, Selected Ambient Works 85-92.
Plastikman – Gak (1993)
Wondering if your system can handle complex rhythms? This slow-burner from electronic music master Richie Hawtin slowly unravels into a barrage of complex drums, percussion and effects, after a brooding build-up. The nursery rhyme style hook that remains constant gives your system a horizon to look on to, while the best systems will have no issue delivering tight drums in an orderly fashion despite the burst of action.
Underworld – Dark & Long (Dark Train) (1994)
Underworld do lush and epic better than most and this is possibly the best example. Driving drums, ethereal spoken lyrics, warm synths and a big, roomy soundstage make for an enveloping test track that will sound heady and happy on a good system.
Peshay – Psychosis (1994)
If you thought drum and bass was simply big wobbly basslines and a breakbeat... well, there's a lot of that (and a time and a place for it), but there was also the more 'intelligent' stuff.
The drums on Peshay’s formative Psychosis are more akin to those found on a jazz record than on a club track, giving your system plenty to think about, with hits and rolls varying in weight and texture. Soaring strings and vocals add extra layers of complexity, and there is of course some solid bass punches to keep your low-end drivers occupied.
BT – Flaming June (1997)
Sometimes you just need to take off your shirt and put your hands in the air, no? So how about a mid-90s trance classic? Brian Transeau, aka BT, took his productions pretty seriously, so if you’re revisiting this you may be surprised to hear that the three-minute chart radio smash is actually an eight-and-a-bit-minute epic of sweeping strings, piano, shuffling breakbeats and more.
Leftfield – Phat Planet (1999)
Leftfield know a thing or two about bass. As well as having to manage with the memorable pulsing melody in the lower midrange of this rolling chugger, there’s a steady sine bass drop running throughout for your speaker. Crisp, snapping drums give some balance – and will run into trouble on any harsher sounding systems.
Air – La femme d’argent (1998)
The late '90s and early '00s saw an explosion of laid-back, instantly-familiar melodies, ideal for beach bars, coffee shops and car adverts. 'Chill-out music' became its own genre and, while French duo Air offered far more than generic downtempto beats, La femme d’argent is undoubtedly a seminal track when it comes to the chill-out genre.
Boards of Canada – In A Beautiful Place Out In The Country (2000)
If you ever find yourself listening to one of the many, hugely popular “lo-fi beats to study to” Spotify playlists, then you probably have Boards of Canada to thank. The duo use vintage synthesisers, dusty breakbeats and eerie vocal samples to create soundscapes that are at once melancholic and uplifting. If your system unearths every wistful detail here, you’re in luck.
Claro Intelecto – Peace of Mind (2003)
Mancunian electronic music producer Claro Intelecto is as dedicated to his dub techno sound as he is to his crystal clear productions. Complex layered rhythms and sounds are given plenty of room to breathe, allowing you to pick out individual ticks, pads and thumps as as readily as you can sit back and take in the brilliant whole.
Trentemoller – Take Me Into Your Skin (2006)
Trentemoller really set his stall out with this, the first track from his first album. Cinematic, precise, emotive. This is almost a system-test first, music second, such is the attention to detail – but there’s more to the beeps and clicks than merely testing your speakers’ handling of punch and precision.
Burial – Etched Headplate (2007)
Burial’s lo-fi aesthetic ensures his productions are full of interesting shuffles and ticks, but he still maintains plenty of space and clarity in the mix, giving your system plenty of room to explore. Twisted vocal samples and novel percussive sounds make for a track (and album) which, once you know it well, will really sort a good system from a so-so one.
Nicolas Jaar – Mi Mujer (2010)
As well-known for his club tracks as his experimental tunes, Nicolas Jaar enjoys exploring sound design with a dance music template. Mi Mujer is one of the best examples, combining a dancefloor format with impressive dynamics, a bold but nimble bass line and ornate drums. And some Spanish vocals from the man himself.
Yosi Horikawa – Bubbles (2012)
We’re in proper sound design territory here, but again we’ve chosen a track which remembers that music should entertain and engage rather than just impressing with its production wizardry – though it will do that. A real test of insight and stereo imaging.
Recondite – Caldera (2014)
From the less-is-more school of techno, Recondite delivers moody atmospheres perfect for quiet walks, night-time drives or just cranking your system. Crisp percussion is given plenty of air atop an ominous bassline that delivers just enough thump to keep things moving. A great test of stereo separation and timing.
DJ Koze – Planet Hase (2018)
A deeply emotive bassline, shuffling drums and layered claps with muffled vocals create a soothing, melancholic atmosphere that is made more uplifting once the strings and synths slide the backwards bass line sample into overdrive.