Bob Ludwig—The Mastering Master Bids Farewell (Part 1) Page 2

Bob's bedroom in South Salem, New York, in 1962, before he headed to the Eastman School of Music. You can see his sound system: A Thorens turntable, Ampex 960, Bell tape recorder, Lafayette Radio preamplifier, and an FM tuner; he doesn't remember the brand. "That blue panel with a meter on the left was a direct line my folks got from the phone company," Bob says. "It went to my best friend’s house about 2 miles from me on Lake Waccabuc. We could send or receive to each other, talk, playing tapes!" .

In high school, Ludwig got serious with his trumpet studies. He joined the Westchester Youth Symphony, organized by Norman Leyden, who was musical director for Arthur Godfrey's radio program and was a staff arranger at RCA Records. "That remains one of the greatest experiences that I've had in my life. This was a true case of it blowing my mind. I couldn't believe the other kids were that good, and they were. This was a serious attempt to get the very best out of the county that was possible." His co-leader in the trumpet section was Mark Gould, who went on to a long career as principal trumpet in the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra.

As high school wound down, Ludwig had to decide if he wanted to follow the path to Cornell engineering school—enthusiastically endorsed by his father—or follow his musical passions. One of his music teachers suggested he apply early to the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, New York. That is another story. "One of the worst things for me ever was my audition ... I asked, 'should I bring an accompanist?' I was told 'no, we have one here.' When I arrived, there was no one! They told me, 'just count the rests silently to yourself!' My knees were literally knocking against each other. But I made it through, and they accepted me." He was accepted in the music-education department. At the time, Eastman offered degrees in either music performance or music education.

Ludwig entered Eastman in the fall of 1962. He exited with a Masters degree in 1967. He calls that time "an awesome five years of my life." While at Eastman, he studied trumpet with Harry Glantz, a legendary player and teacher, for one summer (footnote 3). "That one summer was the most musical experience I ever had with anyone."

He joined the Utica Symphony, a part-time performing outfit based a couple of hours east of Rochester, as principal trumpet. With that ensemble, he performed Bach's Mass in B-minor; he had long studied and practiced that trumpet part. "The was one of my very long-term goals as a trumpet player. All of a sudden, it came up. And after I finished doing it, ... I felt more complete than I thought I was going to be."

From musician to mastering
Even as he was immersed in music at Eastman, Ludwig joined the school's Recording Department as an unpaid assistant. This not only allowed him to indulge his other lifelong passion—pushing that red button—it also led to a life-changing connection.

During his last summer in Rochester, Eastman held a weeks-long recording workshop where professionals from New York City and elsewhere conducted intense, hands-on training in recording techniques, tape editing, music production, etc. As part of the recording department, Ludwig made himself available to the visiting instructors. He formed an immediate bond with Phil Ramone, founder and co-owner of A&R Studios, later a legendary record producer of Billy Joel and others but then a recording engineer with hits to his credit including "The Girl from Ipanema."

"When I got to work with Phil Ramone that summer session, I think that's what really did it. How much I loved being around him and doing that stuff," Ludwig said. He made himself present and useful. "I was Phil's de facto assistant because I was there. ... They couldn't kick me out," he joked. Ramone was impressed enough to offer him a job.

Ludwig began work at A&R less than month after graduating Eastman, choosing sound and recordings over trumpet-playing or teaching music as his career path.

Ludwig began as a session-setup man, low on the ladder, then caught a break when he was taught disc-cutting by Jay Messina, then a staff engineer and later producer or engineer—one or the other—for recordings by Aerosmith, KISS, Miles Davis, John Lennon, and others. He started on a monophonic Neumann lathe.

As the rookie cutter, Ludwig's main job was to make reference lacquers for clients, usually the producers. One frequent client was Bob Crewe, producer of The Four Seasons and many other late-'60s pop acts. Crewe often worked with engineer Roy Cicala, and Ludwig worked to make the reference lacquers sound as close to the master mixes as possible. Crewe, though, would take the tapes to Bell Sound and have mastering engineer Dominic Romeo make the final cuts. Frustrated, Ludwig decided to investigate.

"When this one single came out, I went and bought it and compared it to what I had done. It had nothing to do with what I did, nothing to do with Roy's mix. The midrange was all boosted, the vocal was shooting out, the midrange ... broadcast beautifully on AM radio. ... It was an eye-opener. I said to Bob [Crewe], 'That's what you like? It's not what you mixed.' And Bob said, 'I put it on my little boombox, and, coming off of that, it gives me the feeling I had when I was listening to it in the studio.'"

That conversation opened the door to what mastering could be. Bob Crewe's encouragement made him realize, "you are free, you are free as an engineer to do things." Things like brightening the sound and raising the level. "I ... became a little more ambitious" with altering the sound of a lacquer compared to the sound of a master tape, thinking about how a song would sound on a portable radio or on a typical home record player.

This is as good a point as any to consider Ludwig's definition of a mastering engineer—what his job is, what a mastering engineer does.

"I hear the sound. I imagine in my head how I think it ought to sound. And then I know what knobs to move to make it sound like it does in my head. So it's very simple, but also very difficult. And very individual."

"I truly learn new things every day. So I feel like every week I'm a better mastering engineer than I was the previous week. Incrementally but still improving. And there's still stuff to learn, which is daunting when you're starting out, because it may look simple."

There's an element of "I know good art when I see it" here. It's the nature of the beast. How does an artist describe a great picture except "it looks the way it ought to look"?

Another important thing happened at A&R: Ludwig worked with people who taught him about critical listening. Enoch Light's Project 3 Records was a frequent client. Julie Klages, Light's daughter, attended the mastering sessions. "This is my first exposure to a human being with incredible hearing acuity and super-subtle details. Julie Klages ... taught me how to hear really deeply into mixes."

At A&R, the VMS-66 lathe and tube-cutting electronics.

Toward the end of his time at A&R, he worked with songwriting and producing icons Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller. "Those two also had ... razor-sharp insights into what's going on. Mike once turned to me and said, 'you know, I've never made a mix that I really liked.' He could always find something wrong with it. [But] they made a lot of hits!"

Klages and Leiber & Stoller "are who I point to as having really taught me how to hear."

Look for Part 2 of Bob's story, which will be posted soon.

Footnote 3: 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