Whereas many professional music producers and engineers seem woefully disinterested in their home hi-fi hardware. Bob runs a Well Tempered turntable, custom modified Manley Steelhead phono stage and EMM Labs (Ed Meitner modified) Switchman preamplifier, various power amplifiers and Eggleston Works Andra and ATC-SCM50 loudspeakers. “The system sounds excellent,” he beams. Oh, and factor in a serious Sony SACD player, and his system is good enough to stand the scrutiny of the pickiest of audiophiles. In the studio, he uses a whole range of pro kit, and loves his dCS analogue-to-digital convertors and DACs, which he believes to be indispensable tools of his trade.
Of course, hi-fi is not his greatest passion – like everyone reading this of course, that would be music. As a mastering engineer, Bob sees himself as a custodian, someone who curates other people’s original recordings and makes them accessible in their best possible light, for the wider world outside the studio. “The raison d’être for mastering is to make the commercial release sound as good as possible,” he says. “Analogue original masters can range from dull and muddy to exceedingly bright. Usually with classical recordings (back when they used to record to tape), there was a ‘live’ performance that was being captured, usually by excellent microphones in a great acoustic. The average classical recording tends to sound better than pop recordings, which are more like musique crète, a recorded mix of overdubbed sounds that never occurred together at the same time. The basic tracks plus the overdubs are electronically modified and, via a pair of loudspeakers as the sole criteria, and mixed together to create a musical composition that usually never took place in real time.”
Bob’s speciality is what he calls, “the final creative step in the record making chain, and the first step in the distribution chain”. He needs to hone the recorded and mixed music into something that is universally palatable. It has to be balanced and clean sounding; something that the tapes he starts with often emphatically are not. “If a tape or digital recording is muddy, we clean it up and enhance its clarity. If a recording is brittle and sibilant, we can add warmth and reduce the high frequency clatter. It is usually mastering that helps create the power and good sonics of a final recording. Some famous classic pop original masters sound awful when heard in their original unmastered state.” This is where his skill comes into its own. Many can master music, but few can master mastering – and the public never gets to hear the original, pre-mastered work, done before the engineer has “fixed” it, so doesn’t get the chance to tell the difference.
“Most of my musician clients are thrilled with the results of mastering. Often, I can take the music to a place that exceeds their expectations. It is normal to master a recording, then the artist lives with my reference and often decides to remix a song and gives comments to me, so sometimes we go through several versions of refinements until the album reference is approved. For example, Lou Reed’s Set The Twilight Reeling album was a tour de force of engineering by Steve Rosenthal. The guitar is notoriously difficult to record so what one hears coming out of the amplifiers in the studio ends up sounding the same way in the control room. Lou and Steve, before recording, went through an arduous comparisons of different guitars, different necks on the guitars, different guitar amps, microphones, mic preamps, consoles. When we mastered it, Lou and Steve were at my studio in Portland, Maine and it sounded wonderful. The final mastering kept the wonderful guitar sounds they created. A few months later I was in New York City at Lou’s apartment and he said, “remember that guitar sound?” and picked up one of his electric guitars, turned on the amp and played a lick. And it sounded exactly like the recording.”
It’s hard to describe the sheer breadth and depth of Bob Ludwig’s career. In his own words, he “started right at the top” when he was very young, for it was no less a talent than Jimi Hendrix whom he began working with, while the first records he mastered were Led Zeppelin II and Houses of the Holy. He also worked on The Band’s Music From the Big Pink, The Band’s eponymous brown album, through Rock of Ages and then their three albums in the nineteen nineties. The late, great Lou Reed was another major staging post. “I started my relationship with Lou when he did his iconic quadrophonic Metal Machine Music”, he tells me. “Even though I have a Masters Degree in Music Literature and know many masterpieces, punk music has always appealed to me through its absolute directness of purpose. At first hearing, groups like the Ramones can sound pretty un-musical, but getting past that, their energy speaks in a way no classical music that I’ve heard can.”
These are not the utterances of a dirty fingernailed rock and roller, because Robert is a classically trained musician. But his luck, if you can call it that, was to be around some of the greatest musicians of the rock era, when they were at their respective creative peaks, and most prolific. To this day his passion is undimmed. “While I worked with the great British engineer Bill Price, I didn’t get to work on The Sex Pistols’ Never Mind the Bollocks that he engineered, which I consider to be one of the world’s great records”, he proclaims. Still, just to make up he did do “a little work” for The Clash and Joan Jett.
After finishing his degree at the Eastman School of Music, he became Phil Ramone’s assistant for the first recording workshop held at Eastman during a summer session. “Phil was one of the world’s greatest engineers and producers”, he recalls, “and asked me to come work for him at A&R Recording Studios in New York. So I left my outside job as Principal Trumpet for the Utica, New York Symphony and became an assistant for Phil and the other senior engineers. All the new engineers had to learn how to cut discs so they would know first-hand the limitations of the vinyl record, and thus make better mixes that would not have problems during the disk cutting. When I got into mastering I seemed to have a genetic gift for it and I loved it. And because I knew how to read music scores, A&R Recording started attracting clients, like Nonesuch Records, who had never worked at a pop studio in the past. I was lucky.”
Ludwig believes his classical training is an important part of what makes him good at his craft, but admits that being a musician can sometimes be as much a hindrance as it is a help. “Having been a trumpet player in several orchestras I guess one’s brain is programmed for all the musical nuances that occur within the symphony, and perhaps we musicians fill in the acoustic holes. While the fundamental pitch of the basses can not be reproduced by a small speaker, our brains know how to infer what was intended,” he explains. “Most musicians I know care a lot about the sound quality of the recordings, although most (including me) would rather listen to a great performance of a mediocre recording than listen to a brilliant recording of a mediocre performance,” he adds.
His love of classical music is such that he cites, “any song from the Bach B Minor Mass” as one of his most beloved pieces of music, alongside the Morton Feldman String Quartet II, “which is five continuous hours long without a pause.” He also confesses to being a great fan of Billie Holiday’s Strange Fruit and Dinah Washington’s What a Difference a Day Makes. Indeed, the whole period of the late nineteen fifties to the early sixties is special to him; Bob thinks this was high point of recorded jazz music. “By then, the great Neumann microphones had recently been invented – and they are still prized today – and good sounding tape machines and that great analogue gear captured some of the most seminal jazz recordings ever made (Kind of Blue, The Shape of Jazz to Come, Giant Steps, Mingus Ah Um, etc.). For rock, Bob reckons the golden years were the nineteen seventies and eighties, “where everything was analogue, the studios and engineers were professional and the budgets the largest in music history”. Interestingly, he feels classical’s finest time is now, “as almost all is recorded and edited digitally, and we have the best sounding microphones and digital converters we have ever had.”
Although he’s been right at the coalface of state-of-the-art audiophile mastering over the many years, Ludwig has still found time to step out into the wider world and campaign against what he regards to be one of the scourges of the modern recording industry – compression. Indeed, he has become one of the key protagonists fighting what he calls the loudness war. “I am constantly trying, and sometimes succeeding, on getting producers, artists and A&R people to back-off the level war,” he says. He sometimes finds clients insisting on something “screaming loud and squashed”, and will give them what they want, but only after he has done a “dynamic version” first so they can make a more informed decision. “I have also worked with the Producers and Engineers Wing of The Recording Academy evangelising there and getting the concepts networked”, he adds.
Ludwig isn’t against compression per se. A little can do a lot of good, but a lot does the Devil’s own work, he believes. “It is one hundred percent the heart of rock and roll, and pop music in general, and even some jazz, so it’s crucial to use great sounding, tasteful compressors to generate the kind of excitement this kind of music can offer. But there is a crucial point where further increasing the amount of compression, merely to turn up the volume, not the music, can lead to boring lifeless music that does not stimulate the brain except for short-term exposure.”
The problem is often the musicians themselves. It is too often assumed that it is Neanderthals in the mastering room who are responsible such heavily compressed music, but Bob himself has often be lent on by the original artists. He tells me that he has had producers asking for louder records since the start of his career, to the point of making vinyl records skip on cheaper playback systems. “I was working with Kelly Isley (of The Isley Brothers), mastering his follow-up single to It’s Your Thing, which I knew skipped on some cheap turntables. He asked for the new single to be as ‘hot’ or even ‘hotter’ and I said, “Kelly, It’s Your Thing skipped on cheap turntables, and you don’t want that!”. He replied, “it skipped its way to three million records sold!”
It is not as if ‘hot’ mastering is a new phenomenon, then. It is something that has always been asked for, and indeed when it didn’t happen it was only because of physical constraints on the vinyl disc – such as mistracking. Bob says that musicians were under the misapprehension that the louder the record was cut, the louder it would sound on the radio, “which was as false then as it is now.” He points to the obvious evidence of the very quietly cut The Beatles’ Hey Jude single, which spent nine weeks at number one in the US, but even this doesn’t disabuse musicians of the louder-is-better idea. Hey Jude was seven minutes and eleven seconds long, “yet the A&R people wanted to cram it on to seven inch single and still have everything hot!”
The change from analogue to digital music formats presented new challenges for mastering engineers, he says. “When working in the analogue domain, the calibrated recording level represented a certain amount of distortion and pushing the levels past that point would gradually increase the distortion. When we went to the CD as a release medium, once one reached the ‘maximum level’ any increase past that was instantly and dramatically heavily distorted.” The result was a range of “look ahead” limiters from by Junger, TC Electronics, Waves and SPL, which were designed to help mastering engineers ram everything up to maximum. They were gratefully received, and not sparingly used. He remembers, “I did a mastering of a record and the artist I worked with owned one of the first Finalizers, and he sent me what he had done with his box and it was twice as loud as what I did – but he loved it.”
One very good way of countering this is the use of Apple’s Sound Check facility built in to iTunes, which intelligently lowers the level of songs that are very loud and compressed, and brings up those that are very quiet so the listener can go from one to another and still have a satisfying listening experience. Ludwig first contacted an Apple Core Audio engineer back in 2008, by which time Sound Check had already been invented, but he pointed out that it was important to turn the system on by default. He argued that doing this would help lead to the end of the loudness wars, and also that before this was done, Apple should first implement Album Sound Check. This would mean that if one buys an album and selects ‘album playback’ on their iOS device, the Sound Check value will be the lowest value on the album and remain constant within the album playback. In other words, it would make different tracks within the album related to one another correctly. “A year ago in 2013, Apple quietly did this with my blessings”, it transpires.
It is great that Bob Ludwig is at the height of his powers now. His amazing experience in the music industry has led to his services being in great demand. Only recently, he has mastered the new albums from Daft Punk, Bruce Springsteen, Beck, Pharrell Williams, Beyoncé, The Kronos Quartet and Smashing Pumpkins. There are also “many others I can’t talk about yet”, he adds. He is revered because he’s both a fine musician and an audiophile, yet unlike so many of either he is not an ideologue. He loves both analogue and digital formats, he says, noting that either genre can work for against the music production. “Most pop engineers I know seem to benefit from recording their mixes to analogue as it adds extra ‘glue’ to the sound. However, there are some great mixers where what comes out of the console is precisely what they wish it to be, and now the warmth of analogue translates as ‘muddy’ and lack of quick transients.”
In the final analysis, he reckons that only hi-res digital can accurately capture a signal, citing the fact that it is now “totally possible” to make a high resolution digital copy of an analogue tape that the listener cannot distinguish between, but it isn’t possible to make an analogue copy of a high resolution digital master that can not be picked out. He’s optimistic about digital then, adding that there are now many digital work station plug-ins that recreate tape saturation and other traits of the analogue world, so as time goes by digital will be able to pick up more of analogue’s good traits, while analogue can not be improved to match a great sounding digital recording. Still, ever the pragmatist, Bob admits digital isn’t quite there yet, especially what is reaching the consumer. “Already, the vast majority of big record label titles we do are being sold on HDtracks and other high resolution web stores. Record companies are pushing to have producers record at least at 96kHz/24bit. But because of gigantic multi-track counts when recording, many of them currently record at 44.1kHz/24 bit or 48kHz/24 bit.”
In the second decade of the twenty first century, we are finally entering a brave new world of music recording and mastering – with fast-improving hardware and some enlightened thinking courtesy of men like Bob. In the years ahead, it really is possible to say that we may never have had it so good – and that after far too long a time, the music industry may be able to give audiophiles truly wholesome sounding recordings once again. After too many years, we may finally begin to win the Loudness Wars, thanks in no small part to one Mr Robert Ludwig. Don’t you forget about him.