Bob Ludwig was texting a fellow mastering engineer on a Friday afternoon, exchanging opinions on a recording they both had worked on, when he decided he needed to call his colleague to clarify a few things.
“You’re talking about Peter Frampton? I thought you were talking about Peter Wolf,” said Ludwig, 71, seated behind his 10-foot-long audio control panel in his Portland studio. “Peter’s is great, too. It’s all good except for one track with some sibilance (a pronounced ‘S’ sound.)”
Forgive him the confusion. Ludwig, one of the top mastering engineers in pop music for more than 45 years, has been working on albums lately from both ’70s rock star Frampton and J. Geils frontman Wolf. In fact, he deals with rock legends as regularly and as casually as the rest of us interact with our co-workers or our relatives.
Ludwig’s own name these days is listed alongside music superstars like Frank Sinatra, George Harrison, Paul Simon and Stevie Wonder. At the Grammy Awards on Monday in Los Angeles, Ludwig has a chance to win his fourth consecutive Album of the Year award, for “Sound & Color” by Alabama Shakes. A win would make him the first person in the 58-year-history of the Grammys to win that prestigious award four different times. The above-named musicians, and three producers, each had three albums win the honor.
Ludwig, who spends up to 11 hours a day in his Portland studio and masters some 200 albums a year, just shook his head and smiled when asked to consider the Grammy company he’s keeping these days.
“I can’t even think about that,” Ludwig said when he found out about his Grammys status. “Those artists are iconic masters of their music, while I’m a mastering engineer. I certainly make a contribution to getting my artist’s musical vision out to the public, but, compared to those (artists who create the music) I’m simply not worthy of being mentioned in the same breath.”
While many Grammys are given for an individual achievement – best new artist or best pop solo performance – several are considered more like team awards. For Album of the Year, considered one of the most prestigious, individual Grammys are given to everyone who had a major role, including the artist, producers, mixing engineer, and mastering engineer. The same goes for Record of the Year.
Ludwig has won a total of 10 Grammys in various categories. It’s quite a record considering mastering engineers are only eligible in five of the 80-plus Grammy categories: Record of the Year, Album of the Year, Best Engineered Album Non-Classical, Best Surround Sound Album and Best Historical Album.
MASTER OF HIS CRAFT
Ludwig’s professional resume spans nearly the entirety of the rock era. Beginning in the late 1960s, he mastered songs by Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix and Led Zeppelin. His client list includes longtime rock hit makers Bruce Springsteen, Eric Clapton and The Rolling Stones. His consecutive album of the year Grammys over the last three years were for recordings by Mumford & Sons, Daft Punk and Beck.
Mastering is the last creative stop a recording makes on the way to public consumption. After the music and vocals are recorded and mixed, the recording is sent to a mastering engineer, whose job it is to listen with a finely trained ear and make hours’ worth of small adjustments aimed at improving clarity, definition and overall sound. Sometimes it’s removing sibilance from the vocals, or adjusting the sonic distance between the quietest and loudest moments, so that both are as clear as possible.
Often, Ludwig says, it’s looking for sonic anomalies, things that just sound out of place or are even “disturbing” to Ludwig’s well-trained ear. On many albums, he’ll work off and on for two or three months, making changes.
Mastering is a job producers and musicians say can make a huge difference to a finished recording. So when they find a mastering engineer they like, they stick with him.
Ludwig is “unusual for his combination of great skill and great taste, and his love and commitment to what he does,” said music producer Tony Berg, whose work with Aimee Mann, Andrew Bird and others has been mastered by Ludwig. “I send everything I do, and everyone I know, to him.”
Ludwig gets a lot of his big-name clients by word of mouth. Berg started working with Ludwig on the strong recommendation of producer and engineer Bob Clearmountain, who has worked with Paul McCartney, The Who and The Rolling Stones, among others. Those artists are all Ludwig clients as well.
Berg, in turn, recommended Ludwig to Blake Mills, the producer of “Sound & Color” by Alabama Shakes. The bluesy rock band is fronted by 27-year-old Brittany Howard, whose vocals can include soulful growls and joyful howls. Mills really wanted a mastering engineer who could make the recording as clear and defined as possible without losing the rough edges.
When the chore of picking a mastering engineer is at hand, Ludwig’s name “is always on everyone’s radar,” Mills said.
“There was some stuff on this record that was a little crazy, and we didn’t want to lose that,” Mills said. “Bob was able to keep in the band’s insanity on certain moments and not water it down. What he does is sort of like a great haircut – you don’t always notice it but it feels just right.”
Mills said part of Ludwig’s job is to make the recording sound as good as it can on all media, so that people listening on their computer, their car radio or their stereo system all get the best possible sound. Even though Ludwig listens to recordings in his specially built listening room, complete with towers of speakers and dozens of acoustic panels, he has to imagine what the song will sound like in many different places.
Ludwig said he listens to a recording, “imagines” what it could sound like, and then proceeds to “move my knobs until it sounds like it does in my head.” His knobs, by the way, number in the hundreds, if not thousands. His control panel looks like a prop in “Apollo 13” or some other movie about NASA and space travel.
On a nearby wall, one of the few pictures in the listening room shows Ludwig accepting the Les Paul Award, given annually for excellence in the use of recording technology, from guitar pioneer Les Paul himself.
But a close look at the award shows it doesn’t name Ludwig. Instead it has “Bruce Springsteen” printed on it.
“When I got mine, from Les, nobody took a picture. When Bruce got his, he couldn’t go and asked me to accept,” said Ludwig.
MAN WITH A HORN, AND AN EAR
Ludwig grew up in the then-rural town of South Salem, New York, near the Connecticut border. His father worked in the family business, a New York hardware manufacturer founded in the 1850s.
But his passion from a young age was music, and sound. When he was 8, in the early 1950s, his father bought him a tape recorder. It was a fairly novel item for a child to have back then. Ludwig recorded “everything” from pop songs on the radio to school concerts and his own voice.
He played the trumpet through high school and college, and he attended the University of Rochester’s Eastman School of Music in Rochester, New York. He got a bachelor’s degree in music education and a master’s degree in performance.
While Ludwig was finishing his master’s degree and also working in the school’s recording department, music producer Phil Ramone came to the school to give a workshop. He ended up offering Ludwig a job at A&R Recording in New York.
Working first with A&R and then with Sterling Sound, Ludwig quickly established himself by working with the biggest stars in the business. Early in his career, he spent a day “cutting reference discs,” demo versions of songs, with guitar superstar Jimi Hendrix.
“He was already a big star by then, but I actually got the feeling he cared about whether I liked his music or not,” Ludwig said. “Which is so great.”
Ludwig also has in his possession a 1969 test vinyl pressing of “Led Zeppelin II.” Though he didn’t master the band’s song “Stairway to Heaven,” he was standing next to guitarist Jimmy Page the first time he heard it.
“I told him I thought the band would get a few more fans with this one,” Ludwig said.
OFF ON HIS OWN, IN MAINE
After working for others in New York for some 20 years, Ludwig started thinking about owning his own mastering operation, where he could hand-pick the equipment and the location. He partnered for a few years with Dan Crewe, a music business veteran and brother of songwriter and producer Bob Crewe. Ludwig had worked with Bob Crewe on some of his recordings with Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons.
At first, Ludwig and Dan Crewe worried that starting a new studio outside of New York City would make clients less likely to work with them. But mastering sessions don’t have to be attended by band members and producers, and they often aren’t. Ludwig’s parents had sold the family business and moved to Maine, so Ludwig began to think of Maine, and Portland in particular, as a place he’d like to live.
Here, he said, he doesn’t feel like he has to “look over your shoulder” on the street as he did during years of living in New York. He has a 10-minute commute from his home in Scarborough to his Portland studio, where he works with his wife of more than 30 years, Gail, who is the company’s chief financial officer. His hobbies include photography and listening to music, particularly contemporary classical music, which he doesn’t get to hear much while working. On a recent Friday, the playlist on his phone was full of jazz artists – Art Blakey, Art Tatum, Bill Evans and Billie Holiday – plus Al Green and some Chinese opera.
Ludwig has two grown daughters, Erika Ludwig, a string instrument teacher, and Alexandra Ludwig, an associate professor of music at Springfield College in Massachusetts, both of whom have attended the Grammy ceremonies as his guest in past years.
Ludwig opened Gateway Mastering in 1993 in a building attached to a parking garage at the corner of High Street and Cumberland Avenue in downtown Portland. Ludwig credits Crewe, who is no longer involved with the business, with coming up with a solid business plan that helped the company survive.
Gateway Mastering is barely noticeable from the outside, with a single door with the business name on it. But as soon as one enters, one sees framed records, posters of rock superstars and a bookcase topped with a dozen or so Grammy Awards. Besides his album of the year awards, Ludwig has won Grammys for Best-Engineered Album and Best Historical Recording, among others. His mastering colleague Adam Ayan, who started as Ludwig’s assistant and is now a mastering engineer with his own clients, won a Grammy for Best Historical Album. Ayan also has won four Latin Grammys.
CELEBRITY FRENZIES IN PORTLAND
Ludwig spends his whole workday in the listening room. The space has one couch, a granite counter with a couple of stools and some magazines. He sometimes comes in around 8 a.m. and often doesn’t leave until 6 or 7 p.m. Appointments, billing and other paperwork are done by Ludwig’s staff, working in other parts of the facility.
When a local construction company was doing some work on the studio a few years ago, the subject of Rush came up in conversation. Ludwig heard Rush mentioned, so he told the workers that Geddy Lee, the lead singer of Rush, had just been in the studio.
This information made no impression on them whatever. The construction guys, it turns out, weren’t talking about Rush, the Canadian rock band known for a string of big songs in the ’70s and ’80s, including “Tom Sawyer” and “New World Man.”
They were big fans of conservative talk radio host Rush Limbaugh.
Ludwig’s clients range from unknown, unsigned artists to major stars, all paying an hourly rate. When the studio first opened, Ludwig said about three out of five sessions were attended by either an artist, or a producer or engineer. But now, when digital audio can travel by itself on the Internet, only about one out of five sessions are attended.
Over the years, Gateway Mastering’s allure has helped create some celebrity frenzies in Portland. More than a decade and a half ago, Eric Clapton was spotted eating a hamburger at Ruby’s Choice, a former Commercial Street eatery. Springsteen is a regular at Gateway, coming to town to master all his major recordings. One place to see the in-shape Springsteen when he’s in town is working out. He’s been spied at the Bay Club in One City Center.
Ludwig has known Springsteen since the early 1980s and considers him a “poet” who is intensely focused on his work. When they master a recording together, Ludwig said Springsteen is “constantly evaluating if there could be something better than what we are hearing.”
Ludwig has gone to the Grammys in the past, but he won’t be at the ceremony Monday. With recordings piling up every day, he said he’s “just too busy” to go. He is also nominated this year in the category of Best- Engineered Album, Non-Classical, also for “Sound & Color.”
Berg, the producer, said anyone who works with Ludwig can tell he loves his job. Even though he’s been mastering since the late 1960s, Ludwig said he still can’t wait to get to work each day.
“What I love is hearing a new piece of music and figuring out what it might need, how it might sound,” he said. “Every day it’s like this huge puzzle I get to work on.”