In the December issue of Mix, mastering engineer Bob Ludwig chats with editor Sarah Jones about changing technologies, the loudness wars, and more than four decades of musical inspiration. Here is the expanded interview.
One focus of our December mastering issue is preparing for a variety of release formats. Are you seeing an increase in particular formats, such as vinyl?
I did vinyl mastering my whole career. Several years ago I sold my lathe; I sold it to Sony, and now I’ve heard they’ve just sold it to Sterling.
Gateway was the first independent mastering studio to be open without a working lathe, because we didn’t need it. In ’93, when we opened up, it really looked like LPs were just going to die completely. And then it was kind of hanging in there, so at some point we assembled the lathe that we had bought, and we cut a bunch of records. But back then, the record companies weren’t quality-controlling it. We did this one record, and I never got a test pressing or anything like that, and Michael Fremer, who’s an analog vinyl guy, called me up and said, “Gee, Bob, I’ve got this pressing that says you did it, and it doesn’t sound like you did it; it’s kind of dull sounding.” I said, “Wow, well, I never heard what happened,” and I got a copy of the pressing, and sure enough the thing did come out dull. That’s the problem with vinyl; lots can go wrong with it. So I called the record company and said, “Who approved this?” and she said, “We don’t even have a turntable in our A&R department.” I said, “So nobody listened to it before it was pressed?” And she said, “No, the UK department listened to it,” and I said, “Well, what were they comparing it to?” And she said, nothing, it “just sounded good” to her. Literally, at that moment, I decided to sell the lathe. Because vinyl’s so difficult, as far as quality control goes, that I didn’t want something with my name on it out there that wasn’t quality controlled. Now that there’s been this kind of funny resurgence in vinyl, the record companies are paying more attention to it.
When we do vinyl projects, we just send equalized masters to whomever the record company is using or to certain disk cutters that we like—with the approval of the record company—so they cut from high-resolution files. So, theoretically, the vinyl releases of most of our stuff should have another octave of top end on them that the CD doesn’t have, even though it’s in a supersonic area. [Laughs]
What do you think is driving the resurgence in vinyl? I’d like to think it’s a backlash against…
I’d like to think it is.
Well, I think part of it is. The kids who have grown up in this generation have never experienced having a vinyl record in their hands, with that big artwork; it’s so tactile, so physical. It’s really such a different kind of a creature than a cold MP3 file. You know, if it’s coming over an Internet connection and it goes in your ears; there’s nothing to feel with your hands. A lot of it might be that.
Do you think the loudness wars have finally reached critical mass?
I’m having that feeling, yeah. Hopefully this whole loudness war thing that we’ve been through with the CD, there’s no more room to go any louder. These things are just stupidly loud and annoying to listen to. There’s quite a big backlash.
I’m thinking people are realizing that there is a musical price to pay to have your iPod on “shuffle” and have your song be the loudest thing. I admit, to put out something that won’t sound as loud as what comes before and after it on a iPod shuffle does take a certain amount of guts as a producer, but more and more producers and artists are getting back into dynamic range again.
As a mastering engineer, people sometimes blame us for things we have no control over. Mixers themselves have found that A&R departments, and certain record company executives, wouldn’t approve their mixes unless they were already that loud. So the mixers, in self defense, started premastering stuff before they send it to me, and pre-squishing it and compressing it. And then we get it, and everybody in the band is used to this by now, and if you don’t give them something back that’s at least that loud, they think you’re not very good. It’s a very deadly situation.
So what do you do?
Well, you try to educate. There’s a couple of bands I work with, like Tool—I remember Danny Carey, the drummer from the band, walked into the studio session and said, “We don’t care if our record’s the loudest record on the radio, we just want to have the quality of what we’ve achieved in the mix,” and I just have to admire that.
Do you ever master with the end result in mind? You want to master for the highest-quality listening experience, but do you ever take into consideration that it’s going to end up on iTunes?
The AAC files in iTunes, in spite all of the bitching people do about them are, as far as frequency response goes, pretty accurate. A low-bit-rate file like a 128kbit MP3—if I walk into a room cold, I can probably say, “That’s probably an MP3,” because of the artifacts that I can hear. But the AAC files that they use for iTunes are really quite a bit better for the same bit rate.
Years ago, when MiniDisc came out, I was really interested in that format, and so I did tests: I ran a Fast Fourier Transform and recorded 30 seconds of the flat master vs. going through the [Sony] ATRAC codec that the MiniDisc used and subtracted them, and it was just a flat line. In other words, the codec, over a period of time, didn’t really add any particular frequency, so the brittleness that you hear is really an overtone situation; there’s not that much you can do to really help it.
So basically, the answer’s no. Basically, if it sounds good on a CD, it will generally sound good on iTunes. Having said that, there are some exceptions, but that’s rare.
Early in his career, Ludwig mastered Led Zeppelin II (1969, Atlantic Records) to vinyl
It seems like there’s starting to be more of a consumer awareness surrounding fidelity.
Well, I hope so. Every year, Parsons Audio in Boston has the Parsons Expo; we were talking about this whole thing a couple of years ago, and some kid from the audience raised his hand and said, “Why doesn’t somebody just advertise that SACDs are cool, and high-resolution sounds cool?” There’s nobody out there educating people to think that the “normal” things, their MP3s, aren’t as good as they could be. I think a lot of people falsely think that they don’t have the ears to tell the difference. And I think the average person would be surprised to find out how good their hearing is.
How has technology most changed the way you work?
Without a doubt, the Internet is the thing that’s changed everything. In Portland in 1993, a lot of people thought I was kind of nuts, moving out of one of the major recording areas to start a mastering studio. And fortunately, it was busy from the day we opened our doors, and it hasn’t stopped. When we did the business plan, I figured everything would be done by FedEx. But as it turned out, up until recently we actually had more attended sessions at Gateway in Portland than I did in New York, which was a total surprise to me.
In the past year or so, all attended sessions are way down because of budgets. Record companies just don’t want to pay travel expenses; we still get one or two a week, but it used to be more than that.
The Internet is the answer to our dreams, but like anything else; it’s got its good things and its bad things. The good side is, things can go back and forth much quicker; it used to be if you were ready to do the session and somebody had forgotten to bring something with them, it would be days before you could get to it again. Now somebody can put it on our DigiDelivery or FTP site and we can roll on. These days, especially with the level wars, sometimes I’ll send something to the producer to check out at the beginning of the session. I can send them a WAV file and they’ll burn a CD and check it out, and that’s really, really helpful. We even asked to deliver CD masters to plants now via the internet; not many, but we certainly do some.
The disadvantage is, just like with e-mail, someone will send you something on the DigiDelivery and you don’t even realize it’s there, and they’ll say, “It isn’t done yet?” [laughs] It does accelerate that process quite a lot.
A large percentage of the mastering sessions we do still have analog tape involved. People doing all- digital sessions will mix directly to analog, or they will make copies of their Pro Tools files onto analog, just for the different sound that it creates. Analog is not necessarily better for everything; as digital has gotten higher- and higher-resolution, it holds its own very well and is often preferable, but for some projects, that transfer to analog just seems to do some magic thing to the sound that our ears seem to like. If you’re in a studio where there’s an analog machine, try printing to it and listen yourself to that compared to the digital, and see what you think.
And again, there are guys like Bob Clearmountain who have mixed to nothing but digital for years, and when you do the analog-to-digital shootout, Bob’s digital always wins, because he’s such a good engineer that what comes off his desk is so accurate you need ruler flat digital to capture it. In this case analog “warmth” translates as muddy and lacking in transients.
How much interaction do you have with mixing engineers?
Because of the loudness wars, now, mixers pre-squish a lot of the stuff they send to us. Sometimes I’ll get something and it’s so loud there’s really not much I can do to it. Artistically, it’s just all noise, so a lot of times I’ll ask somebody to go back and send us files they may have had before they put that “compressor-only-for-loudness-sake” on it.
For most of the big projects we do, the mixers do get involved with making sure they approve the mastering, which I’m totally for. It’s the artist’s record, the mixer mixed it; it’s his project, they should be 100-percent happy. We like the calls where they say, “Wow, it sounds amazing; I didn’t think it could be that good.” [Laughs]
How does more widespread access to studio technology these days affect the projects you get?
When the CD first came out, a lot of people would come up to me and say, “I guess you’re out of a job now.” I’d say, “Why?” and they’d say, “Well, I guess you don’t need to cut to vinyl anymore.” And I’d say, “aren’t you’re still trying to make it sound as artistically wonderful as you can?” And they’d say, “Yeah, I guess so.” And when it came time for their CD to come out, to have it sound good would mean they’d sell another 5 to 10 percent; they would say, “Oh yeah, I guess it does need to be mastered.” So the advent of the CD made us busier than ever. Studio technology really changes the recording side. Now, because of the budget cutbacks, many people are recording in basements and records are being recorded by friends of the band, who don’t really know what they’re doing.
The average record comes in to us probably sounding worse than it ever has, as far as quality goes. Believe me, the good guys are still doing great work. But a lot of the indie stuff we get, some of it sounds pretty bad. So a good mastering engineer can turn something that sounds like dog meat into something that sounds at least normal.
So by spending a few thousand dollars on good mastering, it will sound like your budget went up $100,000.
What are some albums that you consider benchmarks of great projects?
When I was really young, I mastered Led Zeppelin II to vinyl, and Houses of the Holy; I never dreamed that all these years later, that band would still be keeping new bands off the air. [Laughs] If you look at 1969, when that record came out, and look at the 39 years it is to here, 39 years before Zeppelin, you’re talking about Louis Armstrong, Gershwin or Cole Porter. It’s just amazing that after the ’60s, the popularity of so much of that music has prevailed for so long. It’s never been that way in the history of pop music before, that I know of.
I did the early Band records; that’s one of my favorite groups ever. I
remember when I first heard that music, I was knocked out by it, and
all these years later it still knocks me out. And then I got to work
with Jimi Hendrix for a day; I cut some reference discs for him on Electric Ladyland.
Through my career there have been artists whose whole catalog I’ve
done, or most of it, like Bruce Springsteen—he’s a superstar in so many
ways; besides being the consummate poet, he’s a great songwriter,
obviously a great musician, performer, and he’s a great person! It’s
always great to be able to have contact with someone like that, even
for a short while. I’ve done most of John Mellencamp’s catalog, all of
Bryan Adams, most of Nirvana by now. And the Foo Fighters. And Beck’s
one of my favorite artists, too. Lots of favorites!
Sorry, that was a hard question! How important is it to bring a musical perspective to mastering?
inconceivable to me to be in the music industry without being a
musician. Everybody at Gateway Mastering [Ludwig’s Portland, Maine
facility] is a musician. There are some mastering guys who have good
reputations who aren’t, and through the years they have learned how to
relate to musicians. But for me mastering is all about the music, the
creative part. All the technical part, you just have to know that 110
percent. Being technically proficient has to be a given. All of the
gear, it’s just got to be so under your fingers that it doesn’t show up
as an issue as much as the creative part of it, trying to see what
aesthetic is going to make this record be as good as it possibly can.
We’re the last shot that an artist and producer have to make the music
that they worked so long and hard on sound better. It’s a
responsibility I take very seriously. I think when you’re mastering, if
you’re any good at it, you try to stay in your right brain, the
creative part of your brain, and the more gear you have that takes you
away from that, the less creative you can be.
You can’t discount the gear; you do have to know it. One little thing
to leave with the readers—especially kids in school and even kids when
they get out of school—they get inundated with all of these different
plug ins. They think, “Gosh, this is new, this plug-in is the latest
thing; should I check it out, should I buy it?” If you want to try to
get into mastering, you really need to just choose a few plug-ins and
get to know them really, really well. The great ones like the
Sony/Sonnox Oxfords, Universal Audio, Massenburg EQ, the Waves stuff,
McDSP, get to know the really high-end plug-ins. And learn them—learn
to know the difference between a Massenburg and an Oxford EQ, or
between that and a Waves EQ; FIR vs. IIR EQs. Get to know what the
different flavors of these EQs are, and do the same with a limited
amount of compressors, and other effects. Learn them so you’re not so
distracted by this plethora of plug-ins that’s always facing you, and
if you’ve got really good equipment, you can make good sounding
records, and you can master good sounding records.
Don’t miss Bob’s blog about mastering Guns ‘N Roses’ Chinese Democracy, a project that demonstrates how dynamics can triumph over sheer loudness.
Sarah Jones is the editor of Mix.