While in London a few days back i was privy to a very exclusive tour of Peter Gabriel's Real World facility. There was only four of us total taking part during this very important time as the new album, Up, was due to be released only hours later. Up is the first studio album in almost a decade as Us was originally released back in 1992 (has it been that long?).
Every audiophile worth his salt is familiar with the term "remastered", but what does this term really mean? Usually, something from the vaults labeled "Master" on it is sent to a facility to be used on top-flight equipment to make a reissue. Rarely, though sometimes one more of the original personnel are present to help with guidance. Eventually we the public gets the opportunity to purchase the carefully crafted outcome. While the sound quality of remastered projects may vary as compared to the original, the music is virtually identical... and so lies the twist.
Virtually everyone who is closely associated with Peter Gabriel knows that what may be the norm with other musical artists is done in a completely different way. Mix boards are not just for mixing, but are used as a musical instrument in their own way. In fact it was told to me that instead of just a normal electronic equalizer, Peter Gabriel wanted a unique custom feature. Specifically, a random button where the device would simply set itself independently, and differently, with each consecutive press of the button was added to the equalizer. While this may go against the normal rationale of 99.9 percent of the way an equalizer is employed within recording studios, it brilliantly adds another dimension where a creative musical artist can easily experiment!
Furthermore, when the idea of re-mastering the entire catalog of albums by Peter Gabriel was considered, so was another way of thinking that has caused one reconsider the usage of the word "remastered". You see, these re-releases of previous material are also a rethinking. The task was not to simply regurgitate the same song in exactly the same way. Instead, it gave Peter Gabriel another chance to reinterpret the music he made years earlier! In a sense, to make a new album from the previous tracks. Now before you spout off about this being a re-mix as many DJs do today, this is not the case of just sampling a few key parts of a song, add new bass lines, bass drum beats and what-have-you. What we have here is a true adherence to the original artist's goal with changes made by the artist himself, yet with updated technics and ideas to reach the proverbial Brass Ring. With a keen sense of new technology and benefits from past experiences, these new re-masters are available in not just the digital format, but will also be available on vinyl as well. Enter Michael Hobson of Classic Records.
Fresh from their success in releasing many recordings from the critically acclaimed Led Zeppelin catalog, the chance came for Classic Records to do a more in-depth project. One where it was not just a few titles, but a complete repertoire! With negations made and contracts signed, we music lovers will soon be able to experience Peter Gabriel's music in a new light. While the digital CD is reaching markets all around the world, there were those listeners who also desired vinyl. In fact, and as much as one of the top ranked men who works closely with Peter Gabriel dares admit, there is a deep love and devotion to acquiring top-notch vinyl replay. Now i really should not say this, though two guys at the Real World facility are major vinyl fanatics while during my visit there was whispers of a deal to purchase not one, not two, but ten turntables!
Getting back to the point at hand, these new re-masters of Peter Gabriel's musical artistry will pass though the remastering process of Classic records, then to the loving hands of Bernie Grundman for vinyl mastering. Lastly, off to RTI for pressing on Classic Records' own 200 gram Quiex SV-P analog pressings.
And now a few words about the new album.… As loyal Peter Gabriel fans know, he does not release a new album every year to please the bean counters and at the record company. As this is the first album since the highly successful release of Us back in 1992, the new album Up became available on September 21st, only five days from this (initial) writing. According to the press material "He (Peter) describes this album as 'up and down, more vertical than horizontal'..."
Having listened to my copy of Us i can say that taken as a whole, the new album has a deep and dark feel to it. It is also a way of expressing the downward spiral of humanity through the rubbish as seen on daytime TV such as the Jerry Springer show. In fact the press release confirms this quite boldly. To quote "There is dark humor in 'The Barry Williams Show' which explores the outer limits of reality TV and the marriage of dysfunctional behavior and mass television." Of course with the don comes the up where the next track on the album "My Head Sounds Like That" offers a more serene and deeper soul searching. While mainstream America will not be able to see the music video and its deep, dark message and mockery of the Jerry Springer show.
This ten-song album is, refreshingly, a complete concept in full. Not the usual 2002 pop fare lacking cohesiveness as found in many releases by other groups. In fact Up is an album that demands to be enjoyed in full, from the brilliant first notes of "Darkness" to the final sounds of "The Drop". This is the same types of completeness in emotional experience that can only happen when listening from beginning to end of many releases by the legendary rock group Pink Floyd or Roger Waters' Amused To Death. Simply start the recording and sit back for the ride.
All told, the album is quite an accomplishment musically. As for sound quality, its tendencies towards being a bit "over the top" digitally may make the die-hard analog junkie cringe from time to time. Still, this is the sonic wallpaper chosen and who are we to criticize an accomplished musical artist? Naturally Classic Records does offer the analog stereo LP and my hopes are to hear it soon and report back accordingly. Just remember that the majority of the music lived in the digital domain, so naturally the master is indeed digital as well.
The Recording Facility
The above room, a home-sized facility -- actually -- began life as Peter Gabriel's main writing room. It eventually turned into his full-blown recoding studio over the years. Here is where the main magic happens, as we must keep in mind there is a total of four studios within the Real World complex. Here is where i was treated to the actual digital master of the song "Barry Williams Show" from the two-channel mix down (long version). While music reviewers such as myself have top-flight gear to analyze a final product, (CD, DVD-Audio, LP, etc.), it was good to hear exactly what the creative artists and engineers heard when making an album.
This two channel facility includes the in Sony OFX-R3 mixboard with Genelec and larger Boxer G3 monitors. A secondary setup in this studio features various keyboards while much of the studio verges on cutting edge technology, here we see good ol' analog keyboards including the Minimoog, Prohet-5, and Hammond XB-2.
Guitars within this room included the Dobro acoustic, Richenbacher hollow body electric. A Fender Telecaster, Ernie Ball Musicman StingRay5, and a beloved Shergold Custom Masquerader finish off the list.
i was also taken into The Big Room. This is a huge, multi-level facility with great acoustics due to proper treatment (RPG, panels, etc), yet Peter Gabriel demanded natural lighting as seen in the picture below.
There was simply too much equipment to consider making a list during my all too short visit. From state-of-the-art Sadie digital professional gear to good ol' analog was there for the choosing. Below is a closer look to the main mixing consoles in The Big Room. Also of note is that this room is available to other bands and, in fact, King Crimson has enjoyed making music in the Real World.
Within another part of The Big Room are smaller, offshoot spaces for recording. Below is what i refer to as the piano room complete with adjustable acoustic panels (center, rear of photo below).
The curious onlooker might ask about the usage of ceramic pipes. According to our gracious host, this type of piping is said to offer a quieter environment and better airflow. Hmmm... Could this be a future audiophile tweak... and a damn expensive one at that?
Going a few floors upward in the same large studio building, it was time to see and hear the complete 5.1-channel setup. Above is where the final surround sound mixdown was made as our then host, Paul Grady was at the helm. This seemed natural as he assisted in the mastering of the 5.1 mix. As i wrote earlier within this article, having the ability to hear exactly what was used during a recordings final production gives insight to the music as it is produced within my home. The songs "I Grieve" and "Darkness" were played from the original digital master and heard through five Mackie HR824 monitors for mains while bass was produced by two M+K subwoofers. While the entire album was recorded via Pro Tools computer software, there was also some analog employed during various mixdowns of the album Up.
In life there are rare opportunities such as this to get a view, if to scratch the surface for a brief period of time, of how legendary musical artists work and to hear exactly what they did when creating their art. Touring the Real World was a revelation and i look forward to seeing Peter Gabriel during one of his upcoming live performances and reporting on it accordingly. As Peter sings, "What a show!"