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Peter Gabriel - So 2012 Remaster

A comparison between the 2012 remaster, the 2002 remaster and the 1986 original

Let me start up by saying the differences between the 1986 original and the remasters of 2002 and 2012 are very subtle and are hardly noticeable even when you switch directly between them (i.e. If you switch between the loudness-compensated songs without any breaks). Without compensation you would be blown away from your speakers every second switch: In 1986 mastering was done on U-matic, a tape-like system that could only be written to in realtime without the possibility to change anything later, and there were no hard-limiters, so they had to leave a significant headroom to the recording level limit. As with the first Beatles CDs the peak levels of the original 1986 CD are at around -3dBFS. The 2002 remaster made full use of these 3dB headroom and the average level was some 4.5 dB higher. Some hard limiting that left only slight audible acoustic traces was the price for that. The 2012 version is, most superfluously, another 2-4 dB louder so that it is at least twice as loud as the original!

(top to bottom: 2012, 2002, 1986)

It should be noted that this difference in loudness is not constant throughout the album. The louder songs are around 6.5 dB louder, the quieter ones up to 8 dB. This means that the difference between the louder and the quieter songs on the album has decreased a bit.

If you hear a difference in the 2012 version it is a multiband compressor that is a bit stronger but sounds better in its time responses. The music and particularly the vocals sound fuller and more in-your-face, which is not a bad thing at all, especially since you can hear the original compressor waver a bit at times. This gives you the impression as if some syllables in the vocals were quieter than others. Take, for example, the first line of Sledgehammer, „you could have a steam train“ - only the word „steam“ sounds a tad quieter in 1986 as if someone had played with the fader for a bit. This slight flaw that you will not notice unless you compare recordings had been eliminated in both the 2002 and 2012 remasters.

Another interesting thing is the comparison between the 1986 and 2002 versions: There is no difference in the sound of Red Rain, only the level of the new version has been raised by 4.4 dB. The 2012 version, like Sledgehammer, comes out the winner because it sounds more rounded.

Sledgehammer - bold lines: 2012, thin lines: 1986, peaks in yellow, average in green

Big Time was the song that sounded a bit flat in the 1986 original. Because there were no deep sounds one could hear the difference to the other tracks on stereo sets with a subwoofer. The 2002 already boosted the bass which is very audible in the bigger bass drum kick.

Big Time - bold lines: 2002, thin lines: 1986, peaks in yellow, average in green

Big Time - bold lines: 2012, thin lines: 2002, peaks in yellow, average in green

The 2012 remaster moves in the opposite direction: The bass frequency curve was carried over from the 2002 version, but the frequencies above 250Hz follow the curve of 1986.

Almost no acoustic difference can be found between the 1986 and 2012 versions of Mercy Street, Don't Give Up, That Voice Again, We Do What We're Told and This Is The Picture. Only the low bass has been raised by 1-2 dB in 2012. The 2002 version reveals only slightly elevated treble, but the difference is subtle.

That Voice Again - Bold lines: 2012, thin lines: 1986, peaks in yellow, average in green

In Your Eyes sounds better in the 1986 version; the 2012 follows closely but sounds very slightly less balanced. It differs from the 2002 version in strongly elevated trebles: There is a rather unmotivated rise of almost 3 dB in the 9.5 kHz range that gives the song a harder, less pleasant character. The winner in this song is the 2002 version that lowers the critical treble and adds some oomph to the bass.

In Your Eyes - Bold lines: 2012, thin lines: 2002, peaks in yellow, average in green

All in all

The statements that this remaster would be close to the 1986 original are true. „Even clearer definition in the top end“, however, remains a phrase. In some songs there is only a very subtle difference, in others there is none at all. The 2012 compression is superior to that of 1986 acoustically, but the original sounds clearer – there are fewer distortions without the hard-limiting – but that is hardly audible.  What seems more serious to me is the change of loudness proportions between the songs on each CD. The switch between quiet ballads and powerful songs and vice versa is one of the interesting properties of the album – raising the loudness of some songs more than of others seems counterproductive. The least consistent of all three versions in this respect is the 2002 remaster: It had elevated treble (which was already high), which can be tiring to listen to over longer periods.

The 1986 and 2012 versions are certainly better, perhaps with a slight advantage for the new version. But if you already have the 1986 original you do not have to buy the 2012 version – the sound is not that different at all.

by Tom Morgenstern, English by Martin Klinkhardt

Peter Gabriel

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