Bob Ludwig—The Mastering Master Bids Farewell (Part 1)

Photo: Peter Luehr

This is Part 1 of a two-part article. Click here for Part 2.

If album sales, longevity of career, position on the leading edge of audio technology, reputation in the music business, and involvement in many of the most important albums in history are the measurements, Bob Ludwig is the GOAT (footnote 1) of music mastering.

"I'm an old goat, anyway," he joked during our multiday, many-hours conversation, centered around his recent retirement announcement and his five-plus decades as a mastering engineer.

If Bob Ludwig is the Michael Jordan of music mastering—and the case can definitely be made—then this is big news. I'll repeat it for emphasis: Bob Ludwig is retiring. Ludwig stopped taking new work on June 30, 2023.

Bob is the person who put the final sonic touches on countless singles and albums dating from mono 45RPM singles cut at the legendary A&R Studios in New York to high-resolution surround-sound music video projects, SACDs, and current-day streaming hits completed at his own Gateway Mastering Studios in Portland Maine. (See Sidebar 1)

I asked what he's still working on.

"As you know, all mastering engineers live like the CIA, the less you talk about the better," he said. "I mastered the new Metallica record (72 Seasons, above, released April 14), which is an example of required confidentiality. We worked on that many months ago."

After Wilco's new album, Cousin, due out September 29, was announced, Ludwig confirmed he mastered it.

"I honestly don't know when (the last of the on-going projects) will be released," he added. "I'll only say it's over when it's over."

Although he won't discuss what's in the Gateway workstations these days, Ludwig was generous with his time and his all-encompassing memory of the people, places, and incidents that shaped his life and career. His mastering skills have touched albums and singles that sold billions of copies over decades. If you have a music collection, it is highly likely to contain some of Ludwig's work, and you've certainly heard it on the radio or streaming.

In the era when vinyl was the mainstream music medium, Ludwig was known for cutting loud, punchy rock and pop records, but he also cut hundreds of dynamic, high-fidelity classical platters for Nonesuch and other labels. At A&R, Sterling Sound, Masterdisk, then Gateway, he continually pushed the envelope, producing memorable-sounding records.

In the digital era, Ludwig stayed in front of the curve, finding and using the best-sounding gear and developing the best practices as the technology evolved.

As he winds down Gateway, Ludwig (who owns the facility and the building it's in) is on his own. His long-time associate mastering engineer, Adam Ayan, has started his own mastering business, Ayan Mastering, also in the Portland area. Engineers and collaborators Brian Lee and Bob Jackson have established Waygate Mastering but are currently working on contract assisting Ludwig as he finishes the last Gateway projects. His wife, Gail, is often on-hand these days even though her duties as Gateway’s business manager are complete.

I asked, why retire now? Ludwig was vague but resolute about his decision. "When it's time to retire, you'll know." He started making plans for an orderly closure several years ago. He began putting the pieces in place last year.

Ludwig is proud of the Gateway's 31-year legacy. "One of the things I determined when I started my own business in 1992 was that my company was never going to lie, not ever. We could withhold some things, but we could never lie. I've seen in my past career what even a small lie can do. So everybody has always had full trust in us, and well-deserved trust."

"Life in general has been just amazing for me. I feel I'm a very happy person. I've had some health issues here and there, but I'm doing pretty well today."

Hitting Rewind
Enough about the end of a great run in a tough business. How did Bob Ludwig get to this place, so that he can now retire on top? His career has been long and storied, and his exceptional sonic skills and listening abilities have roots in a musical childhood.

Robert C. Ludwig was born December 11—he notes that he shares a birthdate with Hector Berlioz, Elliott Carter, and his friend Mark Levinson—1944 on the Hunter Army-Air Force base (now called Hunter Army Airfield, part of Fort Stewart), near Savannah, Georgia. After his father finished his WWII service as an airplane-engine mechanic, the family moved to Mount Vernon, New York in lower Westchester County. Ludwig's father worked for his grandfather in the family's business: A. Ludwig Inc. made brass hardware such as drawer handles and card-catalog label holders, with a factory in Brooklyn and offices on Spring Street in Manhattan. After Bob finished 4th grade, Ludwig's family moved to South Salem, in northern Westchester County, to a house on Lake Rippowam, an area best described during the "ex-urban" or "country."

Naturally attracted to music and sound, young Bob settled on trumpet as his instrument and avidly recorded radio broadcasts with a Pentron tape recorder. "My whole life I've loved hitting the record button." His mother "could play piano by ear ... She didn't play much at home, but she would always play at cocktail parties."

Ludwig describes the first time his ears and brain paid close attention to a piece of music: "When I heard (Stravinsky's) Firebird, on a record, I thought it was amazingly dissonant, just amazing. To this day, I'm surprised by my reaction, but that's what it was. I got acclimated to it, and then it didn't sound all that dissonant to me." He had an early affinity to classical music. "My first recollection of classical music that my parents played was Scheherazade, Handel's Messiah, and, while visiting my grandfather in NYC, Brailowsky Plays Liszt (footnote 2), the Mephisto Waltz (track 1 on that LP), which I loved, and Bruckner, which I hated when I was 10!"

He received WQXR's printed monthly broadcast schedule in the mail and remembered a note from a station executive thanking him for being their youngest subscriber. Starting in seventh grade, Ludwig was in the first class to go all the way through then-new John Jay High School. He remembers the names of all his music teachers from elementary school onward and is still in touch with some of their children.

Though his first love was classical music, Ludwig heard plenty of jazz in his parents' record collection and started listening to pop music on the radio. He recalls buying early Chuck Berry singles and listening to Alan Freed and Murray "the K" Kaufman on WINS-AM.

Footnote 1: Greatest Of All Time. There are and have been other great mastering engineers with decades-long careers and many hits to their credit: Bernie Grundman; Ted Jensen, and Greg Calbi of Sterling Sound; the late Doug Sax of The Mastering Lab; the late George Piros of Fine Sound, Fine Recording, and Atlantic Records; the late George Marino of Record Plant and Sterling Sound; etc.

Footnote 2: See

Glotz's picture

If we could infuse him with the fountain of youth elixir... lol.

The first time I saw his name on a record and thought about him and his role was in 1984 on REM's Reckoning. Super GOAT!

I hope he enjoys all of his retirement and lives a long life!

Doctor Fine's picture

Bob is leaving a sinking ship. Our "Western Enlightenment culture" is dead. Today feeling refreshed by exposure to high quality compositions is a lost experience. You have to dig everything out yourself to find even a hint of real art or real music that isn't over 50 years old! Look at this ridiculous magazine touting the NEWEST WARREN ZEVON album! I mean the guy died years ago. Not that he wasn't cool for five minutes back in the 70s but c'mon. If I was Bob Ludwig I would have quit years ago. Mastering old dead recordings is for clowns. Move on Bob. Ever hear Magnetic Fields on radio lately? Kurt Vile? Cass McCombs? I thought not.

Lazer's picture

Please block this “a..hole”.

darthlaker's picture

Thanks for the incredible interview! Would have been great if we heard Roberts thoughts on vinyl vs digital! :)

monetschemist's picture

... to Bob Ludwig, for so much enjoyable effort over the years. And, best wishes for a long and lovely retirement.

Johnmac's picture

I would love to hear more about the whole story of the “Robert Ludgwig” mastering story for Led Zep ll. As you may know, he originally mastered led zep ll but it was then remastered, with supposedly the record company complaining that the heavy and wide dynamic range mastering was throwing cartridges off track. Original ‘RL’ in the dead wax copies are going for four figures on eBay. I will say it does sound quite incredible and even my VG copy is what I test any system on. Thoughts?

John M. Marks's picture

I first started working with Bob in 1991 in NYC, when he fastidiously remastered the LP version of Arturo Delmoni's "Songs My Mother Taught Me," which blows the North Star LP into the weeds. Bob later, in Maine, remastered the digital version, which similarly blew the MFSL "Songs My Mother" CD into the weeds. Bob's SMMTM digital remastering is now available again, this time from IMPEX, as a gold CD. For my last "The Fifth Element" Stereophile column, Bob graciously consented to be interviewed by me: If you don't recall it, it is very much worth revisiting. With all my best wishes to Bob and Gail. john