Recording Tips for the 'The Loudness Wars': An Interview With Mastering Great Bob Ludwig Part 2

This post is Part 2 of a two-part interview with mastering great Bob Ludwig of Gateway Mastering. Read Part 1 here

I'm sure you don't master with freeware, can you give an overview of the kind of technology you use?

Bob Ludwig: We have great state-of-the-art gear and we also have some classic gear like the 5 different sets of tape machine playback electronics we have to reproduce the client's tape with the very best sounding playback for that particular recording. It makes a big difference.

We have Esoteric Audio Research tube amps, Aria Class-A solid state electronics, ATR Services tube amps, souped-up stock Class-A electronics and Studer tape machine electronics...they all sound different. We have all kinds of equalizers and compressors, but we often use the Manley Massive Passive Equalizer which is tubed as well as the George Massenburg solid state equalizer, My SPL (Sound Performance Laboratories) German console has 124-volt DC rails in the Class-A electronics making it probably some of the most advanced electronics known to man!

We run our entire studios off huge batteries so we create our own 60 Hz. AC, the power is as clean as you could imagine. Using bridged Cello Mark II Performance Amplifiers which are capable of outputting 4,000 Watts of power into my 790 lb. Eggelston Works "Ivy," one can put one's ear right up to the tweeter and you can hardly hear a peep with no signal fed to the speaker. [Ed: I can attest to this first hand.]

Is there a top 3 "don'ts" that you have to fix in mastering?

Bob Ludwig:

1. The most common big criticism I have is not paying enough attention to the vocal. The vocal is everything to the success of a song. Make it loud enough to be able to hear the lyrics. The problem is, if the vocal level is too high, all the energy of the track disappears, if it is too low, you can't understand what is being said. If you want to be able to hear every word and you are mixing it, be sure to have a friend who does NOT know the words come in and tell you what is being sung. Once you know the lyrics, you can mix them very low and still understand them, but everyone else might miss some important words. It is hard, but crucial to get the right level.

Always cover yourself by doing one or two extra mixes with the vocal raised +0.5dB and another +1dB. Some languages need extra vocal level as more nuances of the language can easily get lost. Louder vocals are usually found on country music mixes, French and Japanese mixes.

2. Vocal sibilance not contained is a problem. As in item "1", some producers will make the vocal as bright as musically possible in order to have it be intelligible yet tucked into the track. Sometimes the vocal is simply too sibilant. These days where most big projects are being cut for vinyl it is even more important to control sibilance as it creates high amplitude, high frequency grooves that are beyond the ability of all but the best cartridges to reproduce and one gets a "spitting" sound on the
sibilance. Controlling sibilance in the mix is by far the best place to do it as the de-esser will only affect the voice while de-essing during mastering necessitates compromising the brightness of the entire track.

3. A mix with a bright vocal and a dull drum sound is really a problem. The all important snare takes up a lot of spectrum and trying to brighten it with eq will make the bright vocal even brighter and quickly become unacceptable. It is a real trap that can only be helped by mastering from the TV track with a separate vocal a cappella track, something that most often is not an option.

Visit the Gateway Mastering site for more information on Bob and his team.