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

Ludwig with his LP-cutting lathes at Masterdisk

Another new company, another new job – Masterdisk
When Ludwig joined Sterling, the facility got off to a fast start and "was really, really hot," with a streak of high-profile hit records. The founders, Hulko and Paschek, sold it to a public company, OCG Technology, which manufactured medical devices on Long Island. The advantage was a large umbrella ownership, easy access to lines of credit, and a corporate structure to handle risk and liability. OCG had a money-making division that gave the stock some sex appeal via its connection to the music business. The company did so well with Sterling that it acquired Mercury Records' mastering operations, also located at 110 W 57th Street in Manhattan, and formed a new company called Masterdisk.

At Sterling, the mastering suite expanded to include George Marino, hired from the Record Plant's cutting room. "It was George and Lee and I for a long time," Ludwig said. At Masterdisk, OCG retained Mercury mastering engineer Gilbert Kong, and made arrangements to do Mercury's cutting in New York.

Then Hulko and Paschek bought Sterling back from OCG, in 1976. They demanded Ludwig sign an employment contract that included a non-compete clause. "I was their first employee, and I worked very, very hard for them. I felt I helped establish that place ... [and that] they shouldn't do something like that," he said. OCG management offered him a job at their other mastering studio. "I moved sideways from Sterling to Masterdisk, as chief engineer."

The move required learning a new room and a slightly different disc-mastering setup. "I started at Masterdisk with an Ortofon (cutter)head ... on a Neumann VMS-70 lathe," he said. He didn't like the Ortofon so management agreed to replace it with a Neumann SX-74 like he had at Sterling (the SX-74 came out in 1974, and many SX-68 users, including Sterling, upgraded to it). The tape machine was a Studer A80 with preview head. By the mid-80s, his mastering suite included a Teldec Direct-Metal Mastering lathe. His room soon featured Mark Levinson's HQD System monitor speakers.

At Masterdisk, Ludwig had another memorable learning experience with a golden-eared client, someone you might not associate with fine-tuned hearing: Frank Zappa.

"One of the most amazing sessions I had in my whole career was ... several days with Frank Zappa. Frank had I suppose the best ears of anyone I encountered. And this was a guy who had been playing loud guitar for I don't know how many years. Very impressive," Ludwig remembered. "This was the Sheik Yerbouti record (footnote 7). ... Joe Chiccarelli mixed this thing, so it sounds amazing. The album is this funny mix of studio recordings and live recordings. ... I told the front office, 'I just mastered a masterpiece yet I couldn't play it for my mom!' It is so scatological in places."

He said mastering the album involved so many fades, EQ, and other moves on the mastering console. It required a stack of song-specific notes, called cutting cards. "I really had to memorize the entire record because [mastering changes] happened so fast."

Ludwig remembers that Zappa could tell he made a 250Hz cut for a few seconds with the wrong EQ-curve shape. "Instead of the medium bandwidth, I went too far and went with the sharp bandwidth. As soon as that happened, he turned around and said to me, 'Uh, something doesn't sound quite right there'. ... Frank had this thing in his head how he heard it."

Ludwig led Masterdisk into the digital era, first cutting lacquers from digital sources (Soundstream, 3M Digital, Sony) then as an early US compact disc mastering facility (see Decades of Digital Devices). In 1984, he mastered the first CD manufactured in the US: Bruce Springsteen's Born In The USA (footnote 8). Ludwig told me that CDs had a slow but steady climb in the American market after their 1983 introduction. "When CDs were first coming out, I visited Tower Records down by Lincoln Center, and the CD section was just a yard or two wide."

In those days, the tape used to make the CD master was often an "equalized" copy that had gone through the mastering console from the "flat" master tape and included all the EQ and dynamics changes that mastering engineer made to cut the LP lacquer. Ludwig said clients often didn't want to pay for a separate CD master, so there might be audible things like increased brightness in songs toward the inner diameter of an LP, bass centered to optimize LP loudness and trackability and the like. "I would master the best I could for vinyl, while keeping an open mind for the CD. Occasionally I'd do a separate master for the CD," he said.

One such occasion was Dire Straits's Brothers in Arms. "When I heard that record, I was just stunned by what (co-producer/mixing engineer) Neil Dorfsman had done," Ludwig remembered. "Just beautiful. I said, 'I'm mastering this one for CD' (footnote 9). So there were two separate masters for that one." The choice to go the extra mile paid dividends. Brothers in Arms was the first CD to outsell the vinyl version. Ludwig calls it "a major breakthrough in the CD format as far as CD's acceptance."

During the time Ludwig worked at Masterdisk, the facility moved twice, around Manhattan. The last move, to West 45th Street near the Intrepid Museum, took place in the late 1980s. Ludwig was too busy to keep a close eye on design and construction, and his brand-new mastering room ended up with sonic issues that required years of acoustic treatment and other adjustments. It ended up "usable ... because I did a lot of work in it."

Around the time of the move, a conversation with a friend, Ian Jones, Managing Director of HHB Communications—then a maker of CD recorders and players—got some wheels turning in Ludwig's head. "He said, 'Bob you really should have your own place.' I said, you know, I've been thinking about that pretty much my whole career. But I had been working constantly every day. He said, 'well, I would back you.' I thought, wow, really? Ian really planted the seed in me."

Ludwig's last room at Masterdisk on 45th street.

A place of his own – Gateway Mastering Studios
It turned out it wasn't Jones who backed Ludwig's mastering studio, far away from Manhattan. It was Bob Crewe's brother Dan (footnote 10). As the 1990s dawned, Ludwig and Dan Crewe began forming a business plan and contemplating where, when, and how.

"I really wanted to own my own business. But what did I know about business back then? Not as much about as I did about disc cutting and mastering," Ludwig said. Crewe and his accountant "came up with this great business plan that on paper looked like it could work, even if it was just a little bit better than (his client list and billing at Masterdisk) ... it looked like the numbers could work. Even though they were big, big numbers and I needed to have six loans." Dan Crewe "helped me build the studio of my dreams. We were building it as if cost was no object. It felt that way."

Why Portland, Maine? "We wondered if anyone would follow us if we went north of Central Park," Ludwig joked. "We thought about Woodstock and Stamford Connecticut." His parents had moved to Stockton Springs, Maine, when he went away to college. "Gail and I were up there countless times visiting them before they passed. We always loved Maine." Considering airport proximity, highways, shipping logistics and other factors necessary to an international music-mastering business, "the only city that made any sense for us in Maine was Portland."

Then fate smiled on Ludwig again. "One day, Dan Crewe says, 'I decided I'm going to move my family from Connecticut to Portland Maine, so I guess I can't be your partner anymore.' Without skipping a beat, I said, "Well, Gail and I have always wanted to be in Portland, so let's go. So we moved to Portland together."

And so began Gateway Mastering Studios's storied 31-year run.

Footnote 7: See

Footnote 8: See

Footnote 9: Recently, for unrelated reasons, I found myself trying to figure out the history of mastering the Brothers in Arms CD. It's confusing. All the 1985 European issues of the CD, on Vertigo, credit Ludwig in the liner notes. But the ones issued in the US, on Warner Bros. Records, credit British mastering engineer John Dent, who at the time was working at the Sound Clinic and was responsible for mastering many late '70s/early 80s reggae titles plus The B-52s. Later issues (prior to the 1990 remastering, which was also done by Ludwig) are all credited to Ludwig. There definitely are at least two distinct masterings out there; on certain songs, the channels even seem to be reversed. But why would Ludwig's mastering end up on the European issues while Dent's (British) mastering was used with the US issues? There is much discussion of this issue on the interwebs, but I haven't yet found a definitive explanation. Got an answer? Send me an email. My address is on the masthead in the magazine.—Jim Austin

Footnote 10: See

doak's picture

BOTH of You guys!!

Bangagong 1's picture

Thank you Robert Ludwig for all of your contributions to the realm of recorded music and setting the bar by which all future recordings of exemplary quality will be measured!! You will be sorely missed but never forgotten!! May your retirement be filled with immense joy!!