Thanks so much for taking a few moments out of your seemingly never-ending schedule. And without further ado…
Wilco HQ: In layman terms, what does it mean to master a record?
Bob Ludwig: Mastering is the final creative step in the record making chain and the first step in the manufacturing process. The purpose of creative mastering is to enhance as much of the musicality that is inherent in the master mixes we are given. It it bright enough? Enough bass? Does it punch? Does it communicate as much of the artistic vision the artist intended? The collection of mixes we are given that make up an album have never “lived” together before so we have to be sure that they all flow properly from one to another. We primarily use level controls, equalization (similar to your bass and treble controls, but any frequency) and compression or limiting as our main tools, but there are many other types of enhancement that can be used as well. Once it is creatively approved we put on our manufacturing hat and carefully quality control for any anomalies or problems. We create the parts that go to the CD plant with the metadata included.
HQ: Why is mastering a recording so important?
BL: When a recording is mixed, everyone tries to get it as perfect as possible and usually, taken on it’s own terms, it is often very good. When the record is going to be competing with all other commercial recordings on a server like iTunes it is important that the new recoding sound competitive in quality and level. But by far the most important thing is to be sure every second of the record is sounding as good as it possibly can be and that all of the relationships between the songs flow properly.
HQ: You are known in the Wilco camp as having some of the best ears in the world. What’s your secret?
BL: That’s very kind of them to say that! I was a professional trumpet player in the Utica Symphony Orchestra so I’ve grown up knowing what real instruments sound like without any amplification or recording screwing up the sound. I treat my job like an athlete treats theirs in that I always try to be sure I have enough sleep, eat the right foods and not abuse my body so I am always at 100% at the start of every day ready to go to work with maximum attentiveness. Early on I worked with great clients like Lieber and Stoller who taught me how to hear very deeply into a mix and appreciate the complexities of pop music.
HQ: How long have you been running Gateway?
BL: Gateway Mastering Studios’ birthday is June 10th, 1992 so we are coming up on our 20th Anniversary!
HQ: Happy almost anniversary.
HQ: You’ve mastered a lot of Wilco’s albums.. AM (vinyl remaster), Being There, Summerteeth, Mermaid Avenue Volume 1, Sky Blue Sky, Wilco (the album), and now The Whole Love. Any favorite memories from the sessions (aren’t you glad we didn’t ask which is your favorite)?
BL: My main memories are how focused Jeff, the band and the engineer are on getting it right. Our company slogan is “perfect is good enough” and I feel they are right there with me in that regard. No detail is left un-heard.
You didn’t ask, and it might be because we just finished this one, but “The Whole Love” definitely ranks as my personal favorite Wilco record. For me, I had the same thrill as exploring a new Beatles record for the first time, SO much to discover here! I remember when everyone first came into the mastering studio and I spot-checked the whole album to see where we would be traveling (musically) and just “dropping the needle” on all of these songs I could immediately tell that we had something really special going on here, and within the very high standard already set by Wilco, that was quite a feeling!
HQ: In addition to mastering The Whole Love, you approved the vinyl test pressings. What do you listen for when approving these?
BL: The first priority is that the vinyl sounded as close as possible to my high resolution mastered files. As I sold my lathe years ago, I worked with Chris Bellman from Bernie Grundman Mastering in Hollywood to be sure he would cut it as I would have cut it and indeed I’m 100% satisfied. The test pressings, being that that are cut from high resolution files, sound a little better to me than the CD does which is how it should be. Of course step one is to choose the best pressing plants in the world to manufacture the disks in the first place. So starting from that, I listen for any ticks and pops in the playback that appear at the same spot in several test pressings I have. If they do, it might be on the metal stamper creating the disk which would mean all pressings would have the problem. If that happens, we contact the plant and either have them fix it, or actually go back and re-cut the lacquer to have another go at it. Vinyl disks require infinitely more quality control than compact discs do.
HQ: Last question… what are 10 albums (excluding Wilco-related) you’ve worked on and love?
BL: In no particular order, and just thinking about it today (tomorrow I’d have a different list!):
Foo Fighters: “The Colour and the Shape”
Bruce Springsteen: Nebraska
Nirvana: In Utero
Sly and the Family Stone: “There’s A Riot Going On”
Jimi Hendrix: “The Cry of Love”
The Rolling Stones: (almost whole catalog!) but “Tattoo You”
Queen: whole catalog and “Queen II”
Dire Straits: “Brothers In Arms”
Led Zeppelin: “Led Zeppelin II” and “Houses Of the Holy”
AC/DC: “Back In Black”
Wilco: “The Whole Love”
Nirvana: “20th Anniversary Boxset of “Nevermind”
Tedeschi Trucks Band: “Revelator”
Thurston Moore: “Demolished Thoughts”
Soundgarden: “Live On I-95”
Ryan Adams: “III/IV”
Bruce Springsteen: “Promise”
Peter Wolf: “Midnight Souvenirs”
Regina Spektor: “Far”
Mumford & Sons: “Sign No More”
Check back tomorrow for more…
Bob Ludwig is the founder & head engineer of Gateway Mastering Inc. in Portland, ME