Peter Gabriel – So – Our Shootout Winner from 2010

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A distinguished member of the Better Records Rock and Pop Hall of Fame.

TWO A+++ SIDES give you AMAZINGLY ANALOG SOUND for this digital recording! I don’t think you could find another copy of this album that sounds this good no matter what you do! We recently finished another big shootout for So, and we can tell you that the majority of copies — even the ones with the right stamper numbers — tend to be fairly harsh, edgy, and altogether unpleasant. When you find a copy like this, though, it’s worth all the trouble.    

With grades of A Triple Plus for both sides, this copy is SUPERB — punchy down low, sweet up top, full-bodied, lively, and above all, not too bright, spitty, or grainy. The vocals are present and clear and the bottom end is less opaque, blurry and bloated than on any copy you are ever likely to play.

Both sides are BIG and BOLD with incredible presence. The clarity is INSANE — this is Master Tape Sound from top to bottom, and you are getting EVERYTHING on this pressing that was recorded at the studio. All the detail, all the texture, all the ambience… and then some!

No Mean Feat!

It’s exceptionally hard to find good sounding copies of this album, as you can read about below. With a digital recording such as this, the margin for mastering error is very slim. Most copies just aren’t worth the vinyl they’re pressed on. They can sound harsh, gritty, grainy, edgy, and thin. We love this music and we know there are great copies out there, so we keep picking these up. More often than not, we’re left cold.

We did a shootout years ago that taught us a few things. The most surprising finding? The Brit copy I had in my own collection sucked — how about that! As a rule I like the Brit pressings best for PG, but that rule got broken after playing all these domestic copies, some of which really sound good, clearly better than the average Brit.

Digital Recording Issues

This is a digital recording, and most of the time it is BRIGHT, SPITTY and GRAINY like a typical digital recording, which plays right into our prejudices. After hearing a bad copy, what audiophile wouldn’t conclude that all copies will have these bad qualities? After all, it’s digital. It can’t be fixed simply by putting it on vinyl.

Ah, but that’s where the logic breaks down. Proper mastering can ameliorate many if not most of a recording’s sins. When we say Hot Stampers, we are talking about high quality mastering doing exactly that.

Mass Produced Plastic Problems

But of course the mastering is only one part of the puzzle. I have multiple copies with the same stampers. Some of them are terrible, some of them are wonderful — you just can’t rely on the numbers to guide you with a piece of mass-produced plastic like this. You have no choice but to play the record to know what it sounds like. (And that’s a good thing. Keeps you honest. There’s no “cheating” when you have nothing to go by but the sound.)

This album sold in the millions. They stamped it out until the metalwork was as smooth as a baby’s bottom. Those badly pressed copies are not going to have any high frequency extension, which leaves them with all the harsh upper mids sticking out of the mix to peel the paint in your livingroom and make your ears bleed.

Another unfortunate by-product of the mass production of this record is the surface noise. Finding a copy that plays at a true Mint Minus is nothing shy of miraculous. So if you are a pop and tick counter, this may not be the title for you. Some of the more introspective songs are recorded at fairly low levels, exposing the surface noise mercilessly. With a quiet cartridge and top quality front end — those are the ones that reduce surface noise, don’t you know — you can still make the best of those quieter passages. With anything else you may be in trouble. (No Regas need apply.)

One More Thing

I think the tapes may be bass shy. Bernie cut this one for Classic and failed to add the bass the album needs. Of course, he didn’t really address any of the other problems in the recording, so the result is not very good. No surprises there, right? When’s the last time you heard a really good Classic record? The better my stereo gets the worse their records sound. Many can be found in our Hall of Shame as a matter of fact.

Track Commentary

The track commentary for this record is extensive; click on the Track Listing tab above to read all about it.

TRACK LISTING

Side One

Red Rain Track Commentary

Peter Gabriel’s soaring vocals here are a great test for transparency, especially during the last minute of the song when they really become more intimate, present, delicate and breathy.

Sledgehammer Track Commentary

Not unlike “Red Rain”, the flute intro here is a solid test for transparency and texture. But this moment passes quickly to make room for the huge horns that fire up the biggest hit on this album. The trumpets should have weight, dynamics, and texture. If they are smeary, blary or lifeless, you probably are listening to a typical compressed, low-resolution copy. (Sidenote: listen for the chatter before the singing begins – is someone talking on the phone? Last minute insructions from Peter? If you can figure out what they are saying we’ll give you this record for free!)

Don’t be alarmed at the veiled sound of the first two bars of vocals – it’s just the recording talking. When the verse comes in full swing, you’ll probably notice a little bit of spit, which is unavoidable here, especially on the super-sibilant “steam train” or “blue sky back”. However, the good copies make this problem non-offensive, and actually beneficial to the life of the music. The spit should not sound gritty or grainy; if it has a somewhat silky quality that’s a very good sign. But it has to be there if your copy is to have any life or presence in the midrange.

The backup singers that come in at the end of the first chorus should be subtle yet still present and clear. Also, pay attention to the reintroduction of the horns at the beginning of the second verse. The dynamic here is extremely important. The last note of their phrases should really swell up and make you appreciate what those guys are doing. (Maybe it’s Peter talking in the background, reminding the horn players not to forget to do that little dynamic trick.)

Don’t Give Up
That Voice Again

Side Two

In Your Eyes Track Commentary

This track has the potential to be the most dynamic and powerful on the record. The music is so good that the average compressed copy you play is just that much more disappointing. The better copies have consistent strengths. The triangle that drives the intro is one. You should clearly be able to hear two distinctive parts to the sound of this instrument:

1. The attack (the striker hitting the triangle);
2. The tone (the actual note of the triangle and its harmonic trails)

More often than not, we could hear one or the other during our shootout. If we only got attack, the copy generally did not have any top end. If we only got tone, the copy generally didn’t have any dynamic weight and felt lifeless. When you hear it, you know the feeling: I gotta have more triangle!

The African percussion is also integral to this recording. Those (mostly drum) instruments are actually playing notes! You might not know that if you’ve only heard the typical copy where that information is pratically non-existent. I speak from experience; it took us about six copies before we heard it. Also, pay attention to the sonic landscape presented by these African drums. They should be really spread out from left to right, layered front to back, and sit nicely behind the more prominent elements in the mix.

Mercy Street
Big Time Track Commentary

The instrumentation of this track has ’80s written all over it. However, it can still have great sound. On the better copies the electronic drum sounds are large and energetic, with a solid kick drum and a lot of whack in the snare. Peter Gabriel’s vocals will be present and smooth, even though the best copies still had a little spit in them.

Also take special note of (the amazing) Tony Levin’s bass solo. Though it is almost all attack, the better copies actually give his instrument some weight. Coming out of the solo section, the funky guitars that kick in can really tear up your sensitive ears with edgy high end. When you’ve got a good one, the only thing that should get torn up is the dance floor – ’80s-style!

We Do What We’re Told Track Commentary

No, we don’t.

AMG Review

Sledgehammer’ propelled the record toward blockbuster status, and Gabriel had enough songs with single potential to keep it there. There was ‘Big Time,’ another colorful dance number; ‘Don’t Give Up,’ a moving duet with Kate Bush; ‘Red Rain,’ a stately anthem popular on album rock radio; and “In Your Eyes,” Gabriel’s greatest love song which achieved genuine classic status after being featured in Cameron Crowe’s classic, Say Anything. These all illustrated the strengths of the album: Gabriel’s increased melodicism and ability to blend African music, jangly pop, and soul into his moody art rock.