Four Audio Demos that Are More Finesse than Ferocity

You’d be forgiven for believing that the only elements of a sound mix I value are dynamic range and volume, that the only demos that do it for me are the ones that flap pants legs and peel plaster. But there’s more to a good audio demo than mere cacophony. With that in mind, here's a more laid-back collection of favorite demo tunes that focus more on finesse and fidelity than ferocity and fracas.
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Dig through the collection of Demo Scene articles I’ve written thus far, and you’ll find quite a bit of similar language. It’s not for lack of vocabulary, I assure you; there are simply only so many synonyms for “bombastic” and “raucous” and “kaboom.”

You’d be forgiven for believing that the only elements of a sound mix I value are dynamic range and volume, that the only demos that do it for me are the ones that flap pants legs and peel plaster. And it’s true that I do love those things. But there’s more to a good audio demo than mere cacophony. And, let’s face it: our target audience isn’t getting any younger. The average buyer of high-end audio these days is less likely to be in line for the roller coaster at the local state fair, and more likely to be pursuing the exhibit halls. So maybe the theme-park approach to audio demos isn’t always best for every potential customer.

With that in mind, I thought I’d throw together a more laid-back collection of recent (and not-so-recent) favorite demo tunes that focus more on finesse and fidelity than ferocity and fracas.

Andrew Bird: Things Are Really Great Here, Sort Of... (CD)
Best Track: 9–”Drunk By Noon”

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If you haven’t heard a new Andrew Bird album in a few years, prepare to be pleasantly shocked by the violin virtuoso and world-class whistler’s latest effort. If you haven’t heard a new Andrew Bird album in a few years, prepare to be pleasantly shocked by the violin virtuoso and world-class whistler’s latest effort: a collection of The Handsome Family cover tunes that digs deep into Americana territory without losing sight of Bird’s typical post-postmodern quirk. Imagine if Hank Williams Sr. and Joanna Newsom had a baby, and you’re pretty close to wrapping your head around the album’s tone and style. It’s scaled back, straightforward and heartfelt, but at the same time, slightly subversive and sinister in spite of its beauty.

Check out the gorgeous textures in the intro of the penultimate track, “Drunk By Noon.” The timbre of the slowly plucked and strummed acoustic guitar is hauntingly lifelike, and the sense of space created by the opening notes is simply astounding. Likewise, the striking detail in Bird’s vocals, combined with the luscious ambient echoes and reverberations of the recording room itself, combine to create such a palpable sense of space that I can hardly bear to listen to the song with my eyes open. The disconnect between the tangible dimensionality of the music and the emptiness of the room in front of me is more than my brain can bear.

Then Tift Merritt adds her vocals to Bird’s in the second verse, creating a rich, interwoven harmony that would have broken Marty Robbins’ heart, and at that point a mix that had, to that point, been defined by delicious depth and exquisite width somehow or another grows in height, filling in what little aural space had yet to be explored. You can almost feel Bird stepping up to the mic to deliver the wistful whistled interlude that follows. And just as quickly as it was woven, this auditory illusion gracefully collapses as the tune fades to silence.

Priscilla Ahn: This Is Where We Are (CD)
Best Track: 11–“In a Closet in the Middle of the Night”

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Priscilla Ahn is often dubbed the “female Andrew Bird,” and on her first two albums, she rightly earned that comparison.

Priscilla Ahn is often dubbed the “female Andrew Bird,” and on her first two albums, I think she rightly earned that comparison. But with her latest, the typically indie-folk multi-instrumentalist takes a turn for the experimental, blending her normally ethereal acoustic instrumentation and vocals with a panoply of processing and studio tricks. The results verge on the delightfully weird at times, but through it all, the one thing that ties to the musical experimentation together is Ahn’s angelic voice.

My favorite track is, “In a Closet in the Middle of the Night,” which begins with a thick, rich, Brian Eno-esque mélange of nebulous keyboards whose positions positively defy speaker placement. In fact, don’t be surprised if listeners accuse you of having cheated and added hidden surround speakers to your two-channel demo suite.

Shining through that spacey mix with laser precision but a feather’s touch, Ahn’s voice–first solo, then doubled in a sort of solo round that delicately ping-pongs back and forth between the speakers–downright drips with sumptuous tonal balance and wonderful range. All in all, the song is simplicity incarnate; aside from the keyboards and vocals, the only element of the mix is a tempo-setting ticking that stays locked within the speakers. But in terms of imaging, detail, soundstage, and sheer beauty, it’s everything you could ever hope for in a speaker demo.

Nirvana: MTV Unplugged in New York (CD)
Best Chapter: 11–”Oh Me”

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MTV’s classic Nirvana Unplugged recording represents one of the most beautifully recorded live popular music performances of all time.

Granted, Nirvana probably isn’t the first band you think of when you think “laid-back,” but the band’s mostly acoustical outing on MTV’s classic Unplugged series represents, in my opinion, one of the most beautifully recorded live popular music performances of all time.

It’s difficult to pick a favorite track from the disc, either in terms of performance or potential demo material, but I think the cover of the Meat Puppets’ “Oh Me,” complete with guest guitar and bass from that band’s front men, Chris and Curt Kirkwood, stands out as a particularly bright moment in a sea of shining lights. Since Chris takes over lead guitar duties, the tracks exhibits none of the processing applied to Cobain’s acoustic axe. Every instrument rings through here with wonderful timbral authenticity, but perhaps what’s most surprising is just how well the various acoustical instruments congeal into one, while still retaining their distinct individuality in the mix. Bass is rock solid from 40Hz on up, the midrange is slathered with the intertwining rhythm stylings of bassplayer- turned-guitarist Krist Novoselic and the lead licks of Curt Kirkwood, and Cobain’s rich tenor lies on top of it all like gritty frosting. The mix terrifically toes the line between dense and delicate, and in the wrong hands it could have been a compacted mess, a loud mess, or just a good old-fashioned mess of indeterminate nature. Thankfully, instead, it’s the perfect sonic snapshot of a bygone era. I can’t imagine that it sounded any better live at the Sony Music Studios.

Led Zeppelin: Led Zeppelin III Deluxe Edition (CD or HDTracks)
Best Chapter: 9–”Bron-Y Aur Stomp”

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This Led Zeppelin album was just given a shiny new makeover at the hands of guitarist Jimmy Page.

Of course, you can’t talk about old rockers eschewing the fuzz pedals for a good acoustical jam without discussing Led Zep’s third album. The album has just been given a shiny new makeover at the hands of guitarist Jimmy Page, and although it’s been a long time since I heard a modern remaster that wasn’t a huge disappointment, this one (along with its two predecessors) is a noteworthy exception. Page managed to remove a layer or two of grimy dullness from the music without robbing it of its essence or dynamic range.

Comparing my favorite cut from the album, “Bron-Y Aur Stomp,” via both the ‘90s remastered CD and the new 96/24 download from HDTracks, the latter simply sparkles in a way that the former doesn’t. Page’s muted harmonics and finger picked guitar runs spill out into the room with the utmost in clarity and authority, as if I’d been listening to the track with cotton my ears for years and suddenly tugged it out.

What’s great is that the same is true of the new Deluxe Edition CD release. Comparing the CD to the 96/24 download, the high-res has an obvious advantage on a pretty good DAC. But on a truly great DAC, they’re pretty much neck and neck. So if you’re demoing a budget system, cheat and use the 96/24 files. If you’re demoing a truly world-class system, though, pop in the CD and prepare to proudly proclaim, “This… This is how good a CD can sound!”

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