Bob Ludwig Talks Mastering And The Loudness Wars

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After having worked on literally hundreds of platinum and gold records and mastered projects that have been nominated for scores of Grammys, Bob Ludwig certainly stands among the giants in the mastering business. After leaving New York City to open his own Gateway Mastering in Portland, Maine in 1993, Bob proved that you can still be in the center of the media business without being in a media center long before it became easy to do because of the Internet. In this excerpt from the Mastering Engineer’s Handbook 4th Edition, Bob provides some insight as to why Gateway Mastering has long been the top mastering destination for so many top artists, as well as how the loudness wars actually got started.

Bobby Owsinski: What do you think is the difference between someone who’s just merely competent and someone who’s really great as a mastering engineer?

Bob Ludwig: I always say that the secret of being a great mastering engineer is being able to hear a raw tape and then in your mind hear what it could sound like, and then knowing what knobs to move to make it sound that way. 

You know where you’re going right from the beginning then, right?

Bob Ludwig: Pretty much. It’s a little bit like the Bob Clearmountain school, where after 45 minutes of mixing he’s practically there and then spends most of the rest of the day just fine-tuning that last 10 percent. I think I can get 90 percent of the way there sometimes in a couple of minutes, and just keep hanging with it and keep fine-tuning it from there. It comes very, very fast to me when I hear something, and I immediately can tell what I think it should sound like. The frustration is, sometimes you get what I call a “pristine piece of crud,” because it’s a bad mix and anything you do to it will make it worse in some other way. Ninety-nine percent of the time, I hear something and I can figure out what it needs, and fortunately I know what all my gear does well enough to make it happen. 

The loudness wars… Where did that come from?

I think it came from the invention of digital-domain compressors. When digital first came out, people knew that every time the overload light went red, you were clipping, and that hasn’t changed. 

We’re all afraid of the over levels, so people started inventing these digital-domain compressors where you could just start cranking the level up. Because it was in the digital domain, you could look ahead in the circuit and have a theoretical zero attack time or even have a negative attack time if you wanted to. It was able to do things that you couldn’t do with any piece of analog gear. It will give you that kind of an apparent level increase without audibly destroying the music, up to a point. And of course, once they achieved that, then people started pushing it as far as it would go.   

I always tell people, “Thank God these things weren’t invented when The Beatles were around, because for sure they would’ve put it on their music and would’ve destroyed its longevity.” I’m totally convinced that over-compression destroys the longevity of a piece. When someone’s insisting on hot levels where it’s not really appropriate, I find I can barely make it through the mastering session.

Another thing that contributed to it was the fact that in Nashville, the top 200 Country stations got serviced with records from the record company, but there was an agreement that the major record companies have for all the other stations to get serviced with a special CD every week that had the different label’s new singles on it.

When they started doing that, the A&R people would go, “Well, how come my record isn’t as loud as this guy’s record?” And that led to level wars, where everyone wanted their song to be the hottest one on the compilation. When the program director of the radio station is going through a stack of CDs, a mediocre song that’s twice as loud as a great song might seem more impressive at first, just because it grabs you by the neck. It has a certain impressiveness about it, so you listen to it before realizing there’s no song there, but at least on first listen it might get the program director’s attention.  

I suppose that’s well and good when it’s a single for radio, but when you give that treatment to an entire album’s worth of material, it’s just exhausting. It’s a very unnatural situation. Never in the history of mankind have we listened to such compressed music as we listen to now. 

That’s all beginning to change a little, don’t you think?

We’re trying to. Whenever I’m doing an album that starts with a single, I’ll have time to do it at several different levels so they can hear what they’d be missing if they squash it to death. Then there are some artists like Jack White, where we did a version of his Blunderbuss record with no compression except what he did in mixing. You actually have to turn up the level on your playback system when you play it back, but when you do it sounds amazing. His fans were all raving about how great it sounded. The Daft Punk record [Random Access Memories] is not heavily squished either, compared to other electronica records. We raised the level, but it’s not insane.

I’ve been working with the Core Audio people at Apple about different issues. Album Sound Check in iTunes means that if you download an album, there’ll be one sound-check figure that all the albums will refer to, and all the mastering between the loud and soft tracks will remain correct. Apple did that only as a preference, but there’s no reason why they can’t turn on Sound Check on iTunes [and Apple Music] as a default, like they did for iTunes Radio. We keep trying to educate producers all the time that you have to check it out on your computer with Sound Check turned on to hear how it will sound when it’s streamed. 

Tell me about your monitors.

I used to have Duntech Sovereign 2001 monitors when I worked at Masterdisk, and when I started Gateway, I got another pair of Duntechs with a new pair of Cello Performance Mark II amplifiers. These are the amps that will put out like 6,000-watt peaks. One never listens that loudly, but when you listen, it sounds as though there’s an unlimited source of power attached to the speakers. You’re never straining the amp, ever. I used those Duntechs for quite a while. 

Then, when I began doing 5.1 surround music, I really fell in love with EgglestonWorks Andras. I told Bill Eggleston if he ever decided to build a bigger version of the Andras to let me know, and maybe I’d consider changing my Duntechs if I thought they sounded better. He decided to build what he thought was the ultimate speaker, which is called the EgglestonWorks Ivy speaker. [He names all of his speakers after former wives or girlfriends.] These speakers have granite on the sides of them and weigh close to 800 pounds a piece. There are three woofers on the bottom, a couple of mids, a tweeter, and then a couple of more mids on the top. Actually, each cabinet has 23 speakers in it. 

They’re amazing. Every client that comes in, once they tune in to what they’re listening to, starts commenting on how they’re hearing things in their mixes that they never heard before, even sometimes after working weeks on them. It’s great for mastering because they’re just so accurate that there’s never much doubt as to what’s really on the mix. 

One reason I’ve always tried to get the very best speaker I can is I’ve found that when something sounds really right on an accurate speaker, it tends to sound right on a wide variety of speakers. I’ve never been a big fan of trying to get things to sound right only on NS10Ms. 

Do you have a specific approach to mastering?

To me, music is a very sacred thing. I believe that music has the power to heal people. A lot of the music that I work on, even some of the heavy-metal stuff, is healing some 13-year-old kid’s angst and making him feel better, no matter what his parents might think about it, so I treat all music very seriously.

I love all kinds of music. I master everything from pop and some jazz to classical and even avant-garde. I used to be principle trumpet player in the Utica, New York Symphony Orchestra, so I always put myself in the artist’s shoes and ask myself, “What if this were my record? What would I do with it?” That’s why I try to get some input from the artist. If they’re not here, at least I try to get them on the phone and just talk about what things they like. I just take it all very seriously.

Find out more about Bob Ludwig and Gateway Mastering here.

You can read more from The Mastering Engineer’s Handbook and my other books on the excerpt section of

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