Mixonline Exclusive Interview: Bob Ludwig

Dec 9, 2008 2:02 PM


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Led Zeppelin II album cover

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.

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