Mixonline Exclusive Interview: Bob Ludwig

Dec 9, 2008 2:02 PM


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photo of Bob Ludwig

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…
Supercompressed MP3s?

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.

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