I recently received a link to a What Hifi article entitled “25 of the best tracks for testing bass”. “Cool”, thought I. I’m always after tracks that test the extremes of high-fidelity performance. Let’s have a listen (thank you TIDAL for giving ready access to these!).
The first track on the list was Fat Larry's Band, “Act Like You Know”. Nice upbeat piece of funk, with a very nice bass groove. But challenging bass extremes in depth or extension? Utterly unremarkable. Next was “Angel” by Massive Attack. Good solid thump in the bass kick drum, along with a good bass drone. Defensible for such a list, I guess. But not one I’d have gone for.
New Order’s “Age of Consent”? For bass in early 80s stuff, I’d say … meh. (As I typed on, and the track ended, and the next track -- “We All Stand” – started. It has a far more impressive bass drum. Once that actually sounds deep.)
Number 4: “Mango Drive” by Rhythm & Sound opens … and continues … and finishes … with a nice, deep bass guitar and kick drum thump, with an underwhelming overlay of moderately interesting sounds. The fifth track specified is Igor Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring. But not which recording or section thereof.
A Bach digression
As I child I fell in love with Bach’s Passacaglia and Fugue in C minor, BWV 582. My grandmother had given me a “Music for Pleasure” record of Bach organ works, proclaiming it “too heavy” for her. I loved the Passacaglia (less so the Fugue), but felt that it needed more body, more bass. Over the next decade I searched for a better version. After two or three purchases which failed to impress me, I eventually I found the Telarc recording. The bass modulation on the groove in the Passacaglia – this was still the days of vinyl, of course – was visible to the unaided eye as the groove spacing widened to make room. The fundamental frequency on the C at the end of the repeating motif was 16 hertz.
I was going to share this with you losslessly on TIDAL, but weirdly while some of the album is available there, this track isn’t. (Stokowski described the Passacaglia as the most “sublime” piece of music ever written. Perhaps Bach, from the grave, took that onboard and refused permission to TIDAL.)
But it is available, not so losslessly, on Spotify.
So saying some piece of classical music has good bass doesn’t really help you. Which recording? What Hifi doesn’t say explicitly, but its Amazon link takes you to a two-piano version. Pianos – some Bösendorfer models excepted – bottom out at a 27.5 hertz fundamental. Which, in most cases, is barely audible above the higher harmonics. So, to impress in the bass? Not so much.
Old material, yes and no
But there is some good stuff in there. Miles Davis’ “So What” was recorded in the late 1950s when there was little in the way of audio manipulation. Recent releases have unleashed the walking bass beyond what would have been possible on vinyl in those days. And Rage Against the Machine’s Bullet in the Head ought to be checked out for recording so tight that you could trampoline-bounce right from it into music which is younger than 30 years old.
But “Badge”. Seriously? Yes, Bruce’s bass riff is driving and essential to Cream’s song. But deep? Powerful? No way.
What are you looking for when testing bass?
Loudness? Extension? Actually, both are pretty important. Here are a few suggestions that test one or the other or, for the most part, both.
The now-deceased label Telarc was early into digital recording, and was cheerily indifferent to you blowing up your loudspeakers. That’s unkind. It typically had some boilerplate on its CD sleeves about lack of dynamic compression and such.
So, do have a listen to the Bach linked above. And remember that Telarc had a thing for capturing bass accurately. Any bass drum on any of its orchestral recordings is going to have rare power and depth along with a nice air. And don’t forget the cannon. The picture at the top is the waveform of a cannon blast on Telarc’s 1978 recording of the 1812 Overture. And, yes, it was indeed clipped. I’m pretty sure they overloaded their microphone preamplifier, or possibly the microphones themselves. But that doesn’t take away from the massive amounts of infrasonic bass (Spotify link).
The Police, Synchronicity. Yes, there’s a bit of an irritating 1980s sheen on the snare drum, but on side 2 – the tracks from the creepy “Every Breath You Take” and on for you young’uns – most of the songs have Sting’s bass guitar front and centre and deep. Check out the bass guitar shift into a lower key thirty seconds into “Tea in the Sahara”, the shift, also, around three minutes into “Wrapped Around Your Finger”
Billie Eilish’s When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go achieves much of its power from the use of scads of deep, powerful and musically relevant bass. Really, just about any of the tracks will do, but “Bury a Friend” and “Listen Before I Go” have some particularly impressive stuff.
Of course, all manner of records which employ synthesisers have deep and powerful bass, but why not go back to where it all really started in 1968 with Wendy Carlos’ Switched on Bach. You’ll have to buy that one because, unbelievably, it’s not on either TIDAL or Spotify. Or maybe you won’t want to buy it. On Amazon the CD is selling for $125.90! And if you do get it, or have it, check out “Prelude & Fugure #2”, or “Chorale Prelude ‘Wachet Auf’”. Or, really, just about all the tracks.
Then there’s the Hugo Audiophile CD 1. I hesitate to mention this one because it doesn’t appear to be available on any of the main streaming services. Yes, it is apparently available for purchase from Amazon – new! – for the sum of just $902.81 (I’m not sure if that’s OZ or US, but who cares?) If you do manage to get ahold of that one, check out “Overture of ‘Dagger Society’ Suite”, the second track. This stuff was captured with a single AKG 422 stereo condenser microphone, laid down on a Sony PCM 2500 digital audio tape recorder, in the early 1990s. Eighteen seconds into the (I think) pentatonic music, all the instruments stop for a mighty strike on a Chinese bass drum. It happens one more time around 40 seconds in. Both times, OMG. My room pulsates with the bass tones. The louder the better, up to the limits of your system.
Unexpected delights ... or not
Finally, sometimes the bass is inadvertent. Janis Joplin’s I Got Dem ’Ol Kozmic Blues Again Mama! is a wonderfully present, lively recording with a great uncompressed drum kit and powerful bass. (See above about the occasional wonders of early, unprocessed recordings.) But whoever did the mixing and mastering clearly did not have monitors which were competent in the bass department. At several points, and particularly in the track “Maybe” there is some very deep spurious noise. See if you can hear it. (Some of the tones have a 26 hertz fundamental).
Well, I know I already wrote “Finally”, but this really is the final one: a magnificent recording of Shchedrin's hugely percussive re-imaging of Bizet’s Carmen as a ballet. There are a few versions around, but my favourite by far is a Chandos release with Yuli Torovsky leading the Ensemble Repercussion and I Musici de Montreal. Check it out on Spotify. Again, as a youngster I was introduced to the music by my grandmother. I have several versions. But some years ago I was I was privileged to hear the Chandos release – loud! – on a system with quarter-million-dollar speakers. When the climax came in the Finale, I’d unconsciously braced myself for a disappointing lack of headroom.
And I was wrong. The finale was thunderous, limitless. This is what an unconstrained system, I thought, could deliver.
I frequently use this disc to: 1) enjoy, 2) test the upper limits of systems.