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Interview: Bob Ludwig, Master

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It is a matter of context: Mixing involves choosing one direction among a plethora of ways a song can turn out. Mixers are mostly concerned with blending all the parts that are on the recording so everything can be heard. That is the real art of it. Mix engineers will often really crank on an equalizer to get it where they want. 10dB or more eq is not rare. Mastering is the opposite, totally dealing with minutiae. Any particular frequency boosted or dipped 3dB would be a lot of correction. I think many mix engineers have struggled so much to get the mix to where they are happy, to look at it again, under a microscope, is simply too difficult and by that point they are lacking perspective. Mastering is dealing with the trees in the forest of the mix.

In addition, even the best world class mix engineers often mix with decent or good monitors, but seldom are they truly world class playback systems. It turns out that music mastered on the flattest, most accurate systems, creates finished masters that sound good on the widest range of consumer playback gear.

RD: Often times with regard to mastering, bands tend to just want their music to sound louder. Could you describe why this is not as easy as it sounds?

BL:There is the art of mastering and there are butchers who wreck music. The tool which makes CDs sound loud are digital domain “look-ahead” limiters that examine the peak sound before it is processed and the limiter will adjust itself to be at an ideal state when the actual peak occurs. One can have zero or even negative attack times. This was impossible with analog limiters. Before digital domain limiters were invented, CDs made in the 1980’s and early 1990’s often were peak limited with a clipping circuit rather than the limiter circuits. Yes, this caused clipping distortion from the squared-off waveforms and it could only be pushed to a small degree. Going louder than these CDs from the 1980’s requires the mandatory use of compressors. The more you use the compression the louder the music will be, and if not done right, the life will go right out of the music.

The artistic mastering engineer will listen to each song and determine what the maximum level-vs-loudness trade off is. Believe me, there IS a trade-off! Every piece of gear made has a volume control on the playback and every radio station is already in competition with every other radio station to make everything, squashed or very dynamic, to be as loud as possible.

People are naturally attracted to louder versions of the same music. The good mastering engineer will stop the madness from getting too loud so the music has longevity and creates a desire for the listener to hear it again.

RD: You have clearly become the first call and preeminent name for just about every major release at this point. What was the turning point in your career that elevated your status to the cream of the crop in the field of mastering?

BL: I’m very lucky. I can count only a few days in my whole career when I haven’t been very busy (or usually behind!).

While I continue to learn more every day and feel that I am better now than I have ever been, I mastered Led Zeppelin, The Band, Sly and the Family Stone, Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix as well as lots of jazz (Ornette Coleman) and classical during the very first years of my career. See www.allmusic.com for an incomplete list of credits.

RD: I heard on the grapevine that you are quite a good musician as well. Now that you have established a great deal of name recognition, any thoughts of going back and performing or recording some of you own music?

BL:While at the Eastman School of Music I played Principle Trumpet with the Utica Symphony Orchestra. One of my goals as a player was to play the Bach B minor Mass with it’s very high register. The year I was finishing my Master of Music degree I got to play the Bach! Afterwards, it was kind of “OK, now what am I going to do?” I don’t have the time required to get my chops back up to playing trumpet 8 hours a day (Doug Sax has gotten his embouchure back!). I’m much more interested in doing some composing with a midi system which I have not had the time to assemble or learn. I have several compositions from Eastman that I would love to put through the Vienna Symphonic Library!

RD: What do you like to do when you aren’t in putting the finishing touches on the biggest albums in the world?

BL: I enjoy putting the finishing touches on some of the smallest albums in the world! For me, it is satisfying to make an album that sounds like dog meat when it comes to me and make it sound at least “normal”. It is also satisfying to work with the best mixers on the planet and do the final magic to it. When a mix is already finely honed, sometimes doing the smallest thing to it will make a huge difference.

RD:It seemed like back in the late 80s and early nineties, their was a huge crazy of re-releases and box sets with “digitally remastered” being the big selling point. Were things really poorly mastered in the first place or was this a bit of label trickery to make fans feel like they needed to buy the same music they already owned for the second time.

BL:There was nothing wrong with the vinyl LP mastering, which was approved before production by every major artist that made a disk. Of course the labels made a killing when the CD format was invented and people could hear their favorite music with no ticks, pops and no skipping grooves, plus have instant, accurate, access to the start of each of the tracks within the album. Box sets usually presented the vinyl album with additional tracks that were of interest to the fans. Soon after the introduction of the Compact Disc format, there were millions of digital to analog converters in the market place and most of the research and development went into making them better. I distinctly recall a time when there were probably not more than 10 analog to digital converters in New York City! The early converters made by Tom Stockham and the 3M machine were pretty good, but the ones on the early Sony gear, which was the standard for making compact discs, were stolen from industrial analog to digital circuits and were pretty brittle. Also, don’t forget that when the CD was invented there were almost no mastering tools at all in the digital domain which meant that even sonically brilliant recordings like Rush’s “Moving Pictures” CD or the Dire Straits “Brothers In Arms” Neil Dorfsman mixed had to be played back through a DAC (digital to analog converter), worked on through analog gear and then re-recorded using an analog to digital converter, just to master it, or even change levels or do a fade. Thus early excellent recordings took a big hit until digital gear that sounded good was invented. Even up until recently there were only 2 or 3 digital domain equalizers that sounded good.

In my case, my whole chain is vastly better than what I had when I worked for other companies. My analog console is totally state-of-the-art with 124 volt DC rails as is the equalizer, the DACs and ADCs I use are great, I defy anyone to reliably pick out the difference between the source and a digital copy at 192kHz. My analog machines combine for 6 different kinds of playback electronics giving me a wide sonic pallet from which to choose. That, combined with my special room and speakers can make a huge improvement over old digital masterings, they can now sound as good or better than the original vinyl disks!

RD:Has the decline in album sales taken any toll on the mastering business? I imagine for small to middle size acts, there is a temptation to skimp on the costs and go for a less established masterer than to hire a top guy?

BL:I can only speak for myself. In the past, with most CDs sold between Thanksgiving and new Years, it meant that we were busy getting all the new records mastered during the summer (yes, I mastered the Elvis duets album in the summer time!) and things would calm down for Nov and Dec where I could get caught up with all the things that just come up living life. This year there was no break at all, it kept busy right through the winter right up to today.

RD: Furthermore, what do you lose out on in going with a lower profile inexpensive lab as opposed to a lab like Gateway?

BL: You obviously don’t get the experience and ears of someone who has done thousands of albums who also has the best possible quality gear and most importantly monitoring to translate the mastering engineers creativity into a reality. You also miss out on my excellent staff. We get flowers and emails from all over the world thanking us for the way we treat people and respect them.

RD: Finally, what would you say are the three best albums you ever worked on?

BL: I hate to limit so many choices down to 3 because as soon as I submit this I’ll think of others!

1. Born In the USA (Bruce Springsteen)
1. The Band (by The Band)
2, Led Zeppelin II
3. Back in Black (AC/DC).
3. Ancient Voices of Children (George Crumb/Nonesuch)

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