Interview: Bob Ludwig of Gateway Mastering Studios
Bob Ludwig of Gateway Mastering Studio is a living legend and has mastered practically ever big name rock and pop star you can think of. Some of his clients include Led Zeppelin, Queen, Jimi Hendrix, Paul McCartney, Nirvana, Bruce Springsteen and Daft Punk to name just a few. But he is also no stranger to metal. In fact, he was Metallica‘s go-to engineer for many years, mastering many of their early classics and EPs including Kill’Em All, Ride the Lightening, and In Justice For All. He has also mastered Tool and Megadeth as well. Recently, Bob has taken over mastering duties for another big name metal act, Avenged Sevenfold, whose latest, The Stage, may very well be the best sounding metal record of the year. I had a chance to have a brief conversation with Bob to talk about The Stage as well as his thoughts on the Loudness War in general.
MFi: The Stage is not only a fantastic record in its own right, but production wise, superb. And a big part of that fact has to be its clear focus on dynamics. But this isn’t A7X‘s first foray into creating dynamic metal. In fact, their last one, 2013’s Hail to the King, was also quite dynamic as well, and was the first record where you took over mastering duties. Can you give some background on how you got involved with A7X and who brought up the idea of bringing back dynamics in the first place? Was the band even aware of the Loudness War?
Bob: Much as I liked Hail To The King, I think The Stage is their tour de force with such excellent musicianship. I bet there aren’t many bands in the world who could even copy a few bars of their music, it’s so fast and precise.
The band was well aware of the Loudness War and it was part of the conversation from the get-go. A few years ago M. Shadows wrote me, “We have always been anti-loud. We need to feel the dynamics, gloss, and overall hugeness without losing the tones we worked so hard for.”
MFi: But was the band actually surprised by how much better a high dynamic master sounds over a more industry standard compressed one? At least from an outsider’s perspective, it seems like they became true believers almost overnight.
Bob: I think it is a matter of context. Some clients seem to hold Death Magnetic as the standard by which everything else is measured, and when their record has a PLR (peak-to-loudness-ratio) a few dB lower than it, they think their mix is “dynamic” in comparison. It’s not.
For Stage, I first mastered the album to be similar to King which already was much more dynamic than Death Magnetic, but the band felt that the great mixes Andy Wallace made were losing some of the detail that this fast, precise, music demanded. I mastered a version that, like the good old days, used compression only as an artistic tool to help glue some aspects of the sound together while still retaining all the transients. They were ecstatic with the result. A few days later, I almost timed it to the hour, they came back to me nervous that it wouldn’t be as impressively loud as their peers’ recordings, so I mastered a version that split the difference. They were still on the fence. I then sent them Matt Mayfield Loudness War YouTube video and shortly thereafter they decided to go with my version with full dynamics, and that’s what was eventually released. Even the radio single was not needlessly ‘hyped’ for radio as almost all A&R people think needs to be done. I was thrilled to participate in a project that proves once again you don’t need loudness to sell, you just need great music!
MFi: And I assume the vinyl master is just as dynamic?
Bob: The vinyl is cut from the same 24-bit/96Khz mastered files as the CD, digital download, and Mastered for iTunes version. In other words, they are all equally dynamic.
MFi: Bob, you’ve won numerous Grammys for your work with practically every major artist known to man. But do you approach mastering metal differently than other genres? I mean at the very least, I would assume most metal bands come to expect a really hot master. So do you talk about the Loudness War at the onset of every new metal project you’re involved with?
Bob: Yes, most of them expect loud and bright, but not all. With loudness normalized streaming taking over bands will soon see that the louder you master the record, the more the algorithms the streaming services use will turn them down!
MFi: That’s true. But how do you balance a band’s need for volume with high fidelity?
Bob: One of the purposes of mastering is to have the clients vision transmitted to the listeners. It’s the client’s record, not mine. If they want it a certain way after sufficient investigation, then that’s exactly how it should be.
MFi: You mentioned loudness normalization. How do you feel streaming has impacted the industry with respect to volume and where do see the industry heading?
Bob: I think at this point in time a lot of bands as well as A&R people are still not educated enough about what happens with even normal radio broadcast or loudness normalized streaming, and many of them are still aren’t referencing their mixes within iTunes with Soundcheck on. When they finally become aware how the new competition has a more punchy sound rather than a squashed one, it will an enlightening experience for them!
MFi: Finally, what advice would you give metal bands going into the studio to achieve the best possible results?
Bob: Compression is the backbone of pop and metal. One can’t get the natural loud energy of pop and metal to be heard on small systems without compression. But don’t needlessly over compress just to make it loud instead of musical. Don’t forget, equalization can be somewhat reversed, but compression, once over applied can’t be backed off!
I can’t thank Bob enough for taking the time out of his busy schedule to talk about The Stage and the Loudness War. Let’s just all hope that the industry takes notice as what A7X have been able to accomplish with their last two releases has been nothing short of extraordinary.