Test Records and Demo Discs, Part One

Test Records and Demo Discs, Part One

Written by Rich Isaacs

In the days before digital music, the primary medium for sound reproduction was records. Sure, there were some who preferred reel-to-reel tapes, but they were in the minority. The turntable was king, and it had to be properly set up. Any audiophile worth his (or her) salt owned at least one or two test records specifically designed for that task.

Most such albums had test tones at various frequencies, and some had tracks that would challenge the trackability of your cartridge or help you determine whether or not your system was properly wired in phase. Many contained recordings of music (or sounds) that were meant to show off your hi-fi. In addition, a strobe pattern was often printed on the label to show whether or not the platter was rotating at the precisely correct speed. Some discs were issued by record labels, some by audio publications, and others were the product of equipment manufacturers.

Over the years, I’ve collected a disproportionate number of such discs (it helped that I worked in record stores for much of my adult life, so I could obtain the ones I wanted at reasonable prices). Here are some of them:



An Adventure in High Fidelity (1954)

One of the oldest albums in my collection predates the stereo era. This boxed release was put out by RCA Victor to demonstrate their “New Orthophonic” recording system. Along with a single LP and a turntable mat, it included a rather extensive booklet covering audio terms, with charts showing the frequency range of various instruments, and a lengthy essay by Robert D. Darrell, who “achieved international renown as an authority on phonograph records with the publication in 1936 of his Gramophone Shop Encyclopedia of Recorded Music, a pioneering work that instituted the art of discography.”

The music on the disc includes a nine-part symphonic suite commissioned by RCA and composed by Robert Russell Bennett, a highly regarded orchestrator of the time. Each part is given a paragraph noting the instrumentation. It’s worth listing the titles of the parts: “The Arrival at the Great Gates of the Castle Hi Fi,” “Welcome of the Page Boy Dynam,” “The Variable Pitch of Princess Rhumbamba,” “The Balinese Ballad of the Tweeter and the Woofer,” “The Circular Serenade of the Diamond Stylus,” “The Waltz of the Vinylite Biscuits,” “The Tomb of the Ogre Distortion,” “Blasphemy of the Amplifier,” and “The Full Frequency Fountain of Farewell.” Clearly, Mr. Bennett imbued his commission with equal parts of seriousness and whimsy. The notes for the finale concluded with: “It leaves the listener overwhelmed by a sonal (sic) experience unlike any he ever can have known before – a dream of High Fidelity that Bennett, his musicians, and RCA Victor engineers have made an incomparable reality.”

The rest of the music on the LP ranges from classical to opera to pop/easy listening. And yes, it’s a mono “Shaded Dog” pressing.



Elektra Playback System Calibration Record (1956)

This was a 10-inch pressing from the Elektra record label. In contrast to the above album, it consists entirely of test tones at various frequencies with no musical selections. The notes say: “The purpose of this record is to provide a standard for the calibration of playback mechanisms designed for 33-1/3 microgroove recordings.” It is interesting to note that the mastering was done without the high-frequency pre-emphasis inherent in the RIAA equalization curve. The explanation given is that, “in order to make a test record according to the standard pre-emphasized characteristic, the average level would have to be impractically low.” I have to believe that this limitation has been overcome in modern pressings, as most of my other, newer test records utilize the standard pre-emphasis.

For those unfamiliar with the RIAA (Record Industry Association of America) curve, it is an equalization standard that boosts the high frequencies and attenuates the low frequencies presented to the mastering lathe, relying on an inverse equalization curve (provided in all phono stages) to achieve flat response upon playback. This process results in reduced surface noise, improved trackability, and greater playing time per side because the grooves can be closer together. In the early days of LPs, different labels had different curves, and hi-fi preamps often allowed you to select from as many as four or five varying standards. The adoption of the RIAA curve as universal occurred around the mid-1950s.



CBS Laboratories Broadcast Test Record (Date unknown)

This is another seriously technical test record with tones but no music. One side is for monaural reproduction and the other side is for stereo. Unlike the Elektra record, the disc was mastered with the full RIAA curve, as evidenced by the chart of said curve printed on the back. A unique feature of the album is the inclusion of strobe patterns for 33-1/3 and 45 RPM actually pressed into the plastic as the last bands on sides one and two. In this case, rather than serving as visual indicators, the patterns are intended to be played into an oscilloscope to determine speed accuracy.



Seven Steps to Better Listening (1964)

One more from CBS Laboratories – this time intended more for the non-professional audience. The seven steps address channel identification (left/right), phasing, balance, tone settings, channel separation, elimination of buzzes and rattles, and adjustments to reduce record wear.

The notes state: “Whether you are an advanced High Fidelity enthusiast, and/or a down-to-earth lover of good music, you will find SEVEN STEPS TO BETTER LISTENING an invaluable key to musical enjoyment. You will learn to depend upon it to adjust your equipment, regardless of cost, whether it is new or old, and also to appraise the true capability of any equipment you plan to purchase. You will use it again and again because it shows how to improve the quality and naturalness of reproduction of all your records, and enables you to capture the true spirit of each performance.” Lofty words, indeed.

The accompanying booklet says, “PLEASE READ BEFORE PLAYING THIS RECORD,” followed by the line “This record is self-explanatory.” While that would seem contradictory, the point is that you are being warned not to play side A with a monaural cartridge/stylus. (By the way, explanatory is misspelled as expanatory.) The notes were written by Audio magazine’s Edward Tatnall Canby, a highly-regarded audio writer of the time.



CBS Laboratories SQ Quadrophonic Test Record (1973)

Wow – remember Quad? Twice the speakers, twice the amplifier channels, twice the setup headaches, three times (SQ, QS, CD-4) the formats!

I have to believe that my copy is missing a booklet, as the track listings on the back (and label) include some seriously technical jargon, e.g., “1kHz, 0 dB channel level, Right Back – Counterclockwise Helical Modulation, 3.54 cm/sec–Right +90º rel left, each 2.5cm/sec rms.”

Phew! Glad I didn’t go down that rabbit hole in the ’70s. Why do I even own this record?



An Introduction to the World of SQ Quadrophonic Sound (1973)

The category is Most test and demonstration albums from a single label” (at least in my collection). And the envelope goes to… Columbia/CBS! Bonus – “This disc may also be played on any conventional stereo system as any other high fidelity recording.”

Another unnecessary acquisition, but at least I can listen to this, as it’s all music and no test tones, but do I really want to hear Andy Williams sing “MacArthur Park”?

The next installment in this series will feature test records issued by various stereo equipment manufacturers.

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