An Exclusive Interview With Bob Ludwig
by Allan Hirt
Interview conducted via e-mail on May 11, 2004
This interview is ã 2004 Allan Hirt and cannot be copied, altered, or reproduced without my permission.

For those of you who enjoy listening to Styx, it is the result of many people, not the least of which is the mastering engineer. This is the final person in the chain, and can help or hurt what is on tape. One of the best (and well-known) in the business is Bob Ludwig, who is the founder and president of of Gateway Mastering & DVD in scenic Portland, Maine. To see some of Gateway and Bob's accomplishments and awards, click here. Bob has worked with some of the biggest recording artists in the world, and the list reads like a who's who.

Bob has mastered a few Styx releases, including the recent Come Sail Away: The Styx Anthology. Bob was gracious enough to take time out of his incredibly busy schedule to answer a few questions for

Allan Hirt:
You have mastered many A&M releases for Styx. In the past Dennis DeYoung was involved in the mastering process to some degree. For this release, was the band or Dennis involved? How are they to work with?
Bob Ludwig: Oh yes they are always involved, which I think is great. Most times when I am involved in re-issues they artist is involved, but sometimes they aren’t and that isn’t right if they are still interested.
AH: Do you work on autopilot since you've worked with the Styx material before, or do you treat it as a new project each time?
BL: Believe me with me there is no such thing as “autopilot”. Every time it is a new challenge. For instance, even though I have worked on some of these tapes before, this past summer I completely remodeled my room with the latest Transparent Audio MM Opus cable which makes a big difference to me. In addition, I installed the Western Hemisphere’s first 124 volt DC rail 8 channel analog console from Sound Performance Laboratories in Germany. So while I had an excellent signal path before, now I believe it is un-rivaled by anyone in the world.
With the Anthology, it was the first time you had worked with the RCA/Wooden Nickel era material. What were you sent to master from (i.e. ¼” 15ips stereo master for individual
tracks, 1" stereo album master tapes)? By the quality on the release, it sounds like the tapes are in good condition. Is that the case, or did you need to do a lot of work to them?
BL: Yes those tapes were in good shape, as is fortunately almost the whole Styx catalog. We were sent the original ¼” 15ips masters of all the albums. The masters ARE the album takes. Side A is all compiled together, same with Side B. All the singles were derived from those takes I believe. 1” stereo masters did not exist until a few years ago, ½” didn’t come into general use until around 1980.
AH: Since you've done many different Styx releases at this point, do you use the master tapes every time, or do you have them stored somewhere on a hard drive for future use and processing?
BL: We use the original master tapes every time. As I said, I constantly upgrade my studio to the finest components available. If I used digitized transfers of the songs from several years ago they would not enjoy the added dimension of the new cables and console. If we are doing something like a box set and individual album releases, of course then we use the identical mastered sound file for both the box set and the individual album.
AH: In your mastering process, did you transfer the Styx tapes at a higher bitrate (192/24 or 96/24) and then dither down to 44/16? Did you do it all in PCM? And if you did transfer at a higher bitrate, did you do it in mind for future SACD or DVD- A releases?
BL: Yes and no. Our Pacific Microsonic always records everything at 176.4 kHz (4 x 441000 Hz) and decimates it to 44.1kHz. If there were plans for a SACD or DVD-A release it might have made economic sense, but these days record companies are only interested in doing these high resolution releases if there are 5.1 surround mixes involves and there aren’t any of those for Styx.
AH: The work you do, at least the Styx releases I have heard, do not seem to exhibit the hallmark of many "modern" mastering jobs (i.e. maximized, very small dynamic ranges, excessive noise reduction). How have you been able to escape the trappings of this trend? Or do you feel the pressure?
BL: I’m constantly fighting to maintain dynamic range which is always completely lost at the expense of high level. This is actually quite stupid beyond belief as all it takes to make something loud AND dynamic is to slightly turn up the playback knob of your CD player! Radio stations are all in competition with each other so there is never any problem having something sound “loud” on the radio. Fortunately the band wish to maintain their signature sound that best represents their art. Squeezing it to death does harm to that esthetic so they are happy to have the records be adequately loud but very dynamic. Bravo to them!
AH: How has your approach to mastering changed over the years? Do you find that the amount of technology today has made your job harder or easier? And do you feel that the quality of lower cost mastering tools has helped or hurt the industry by allowing Joe Musician to master his own album?
BL: My approach has always been to have the finest monitoring system, the finest acoustical room and the best gear. So my approach has been to constantly upgrade, almost at any cost, to have the very best. This is why I started my own studio. When I worked for Masterdisk and Sterling Sound there were other engineers there. If I wanted something, the other engineers would want it too and often it would be too costly to buy something for 5 or 6 engineers at once. I don’t have that issue anymore. We are still very analog oriented (as well as having a killer amount of state-of-the-art digital gear. We were the first mastering studio to do a high resolution digital project using alpha software and hardware on Sonic Solutions and we were the first in America to own the dCS 96kHz and then 192kHz converters when they were first invented. Some of the technology allows me to do more of what I think the final result should be. Some things like digital domain “look-ahead” compressors have been a curse as those are the devices that crush the life out of some music when over-used.

Lower cost mastering tools simply aren’t used by professionals as there isn’t enougn digital signal processing in them to sound any good. Mastering is extremely difficult and requires a dedicated acoustically near-perfect room with excellent monitors. Hardly any “Joe Musician” has that. They can approximate something, but seldom does it sound very good. This is especially true when they try to make things sound loud, yet dynamic…very difficult to do with cheap tools. A professional mastering job is more crucial than ever now that musicians don’t use real studios as much. For the past 10 years the average quality of the mixes coming to us is getting worse not better due to so much basement and garage recording. A good mastering job can make a poor recording at least sound “normal”!
AH: What equipment did you use in the mastering of the Anthology?
BL: I reproduced the tapes on my Ampex machines with the fabulous “Aria” discrete Class-A electronics designed by Dave Hill that was used on the Rolling Stones re-issues and many of my analog projects. As I said, the console was my SPL 124 volt DC rail class-A console. I don’t want to give away too many secrets!
AH: For the last few Styx songs on the Anthology (from Return to Paradise and Cyclorama), did you use the existing mastering, or were you supplied the tapes for mastering? To my ears, the mastering sounds different especially on "One With Everything".
BL: The very newest song was mastered in Chicago and I was requested to use the already approved version of that.
AH: This Styx Anthology has been a long time in the making, dating back to 1998 or 1999. Have you worked on interim versions that were rumored to have been more than 2 CDs?
No, Bill Levinson at Universal probably has been dealing with that!
AH: Your primary job, or possibly love, is doing new projects vs. back catalog releases such as the Anthology. Do you have a preference to projects, and how much latitude do you have in accepting work vs. turning it down or giving it to your colleagues at Gateway when the customer is specifically asking to have you do the job?
BL: Adam Ayan, my protégée at Gateway Mastering & DVD, got so good at mastering we had to build him his own room! Adam has plenty of his own clients so if someone asks for me and it works in the schedule, they get me! I love doing a wide range of projects. Fortunately for me I get to work on a lot of truly fabulous music. I am one of those engineers that has reached “critical mass”. If I turn on a radio, almost any time of day, and spin from one end of the dial to another I will almost always hear something I have worked on at some time, often 2 or 3 songs! If I go into a mall for ½ and hour I will always hear something I’ve done on their PA system. It’s great! So I love doing all the first-line projects I do. It is much more difficult to make the first statement of how a recording will sound. With back catalog there is already a history of how it is “supposed” to sound and the artist either wants to to be in that neighborhood, or they wish to entirely re-work it…it is up to them…it is their music afterall.

Allan and StyxCollector would once again like to thank Bob Ludwig for making this e-mail interview possible.