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The “Freebird” of Pro Audio

By Clive Young. A while back, I went to New York’s Beacon Theatre one morning to hear its new house system. Once there, we were faced with a quandary: what to listen to. The answer was to put on a song that's become the "Freebird" of Pro Audio.

A while back, I went to New York’s Beacon Theatre one morning to hear its new house system. A number of folks involved with the installation were there, including Tom Arrigoni, head audio engineer at Radio City Music Hall, and legendary FOH engineer Dave Natale (Rolling Stones, Tina Turner), who consulted on the project. We exchanged pleasantries and marveled at the 1920s opulence of the venue, but then we were faced with a quandary: what to actually listen to.

“What’s the name of that Donald Fagan song that everybody plays? I guess you have to hear that,” joked Dave.
The Nightfly?” replied Tom
“The album’s Nightfly, but what’s the name of the song?”
“Oh, you mean ‘I.G.Y.’”
“I.G.Y!” Dave laughed.“Listening wouldn’t be complete without it!”

So “I.G.Y. (What A Beautiful World)” was called up on the laptop at FOH, and sure enough, the Beacon’s new system sounded excellent. Then, with the musical ice broken, people started adding their own favorites, and soon the playlist was ranging anywhere from power pop bombast (Toy Matinee’s “Last Plane Out”) to sublime jazz (“I Remember Bill Evans” by David Benoit).

The moment was amusing, but it’s kind of true: Everyone does play “I.G.Y.” It’s become the “Freebird” of pro audio—visit a linecheck at a major concert venue or a speaker demo at AES or InfoComm, and those familiar strains will turn up sooner or later. It’s a well-recorded song, to be sure, which is why it’s always used to illustrate a system’s “tight low end” or “crystal-clear mids” or, to be honest, any other detail they want to point out.

However, the sheer pervasiveness of “I.G.Y.” within the pro-audio community as the track that you use to tune or show off your PA is remarkable. The distant second place song is, of all things, “Pulp Culture” from Thomas Dolby’s obscure (but admittedly awesome) 1989 funk album, Aliens Ate My Buick.

Bidding everyone adieu, I headed off to Long Island for my second assignment of the day—covering Roger Waters’ epic tour of Pink Floyd’s The Wall. On the train ride, I mused over the idea that a song from 1982 about 1957 would be considered the height of audio in 2010.

Maybe its days in that lofty position are numbered—there’s plenty of engineers who feel the best way to tune a system is to use a live recording of the band that’s playing. With the advent of the Virtual Soundcheck feature on Avid Venue consoles and similar abilities on other desks, pulling that off is a lot easier than it used to be.

Still, pseudo soundchecks ignore one crucial aspect of using a test song. While the whole point is to put on a piece of music that you know well so you can spot what’s wrong, deep down every engineer loves the chance to play something they love on what amounts to a massive stereo system. It reminded me of an interview I did in 2007 with Danny Leake, longtime FOH engineer for Stevie Wonder, where he revealed the surprising music he puts on to prep a system for an old fashioned, 1970s funk workout:

I test the system out with the soundtrack of Silverado which has the big drums, but it’s got the French horns. If I play that on the Martin system and hear all the details, I’m good. A lot of systems don’t pass the Silverado test, but to me it’s not enough to just have it loud and banging, a big bass or whatever; I gotta have details. I like it, I know it well, but it’s not the only one I use, like ‘Only A Dream In Rio’ by James Taylor—I used to use that on rap shows. If I play that and James Taylor sounds like an alien, got a weird voice, then I know something’s wrong. I use ‘Angel’ by Sarah McLachlan for a lot of vocal stuff, too, but generally the grand test is Silverado.

Eventually I got to Nassau Coliseum to cover The Wall, and began chatting with system engineer Bob Weibel. While we talked, FOH engineer/Tour Manager Trip Khalaf fired up the system—and the first song he put on to tune the PA?

Take a wild guess.

Have a favorite song for tuning or demoing a system? Share it below in the comments!