Expert Eye: Sound and Vision

Bob Ludwig is the music industry’s preeminent mastering engineer. A protégé of the legendary producer Phil Ramone, Ludwig has perfected recordings by some of the greatest artists of the last 40 years. Pharrell Williams, Beck, Bruce Springsteen, Led Zeppelin, Janis Joplin, Dire Straits, Nirvana, Phish, Steely Dan, Pearl Jam, ZZ Top, and hundreds of others have relied on his musical sensibility and his golden ears. This year alone, he is nominated for five Grammy awards. Recently Ludwig took a break from his studio in Portland, Maine, to tell us a few of the secrets to superb sound.

What are the best formats for listening to music?

In the digital realm, it comes down to how high the sampling rate is, and then it’s a matter of how much your playback equipment can handle. We put more sound onto a compact disc than you can hear, but the better your digital-to-analog conversion rate, the better the sound will be. Most discs have a 16-bit dynamic range, but if you step up to a 24-bit digital file you’ll hear a lot more detail. You can download music with these higher resolution rates from companies such as Acoustic Sounds or HDtracks. They’re a little more expensive, but the quality is noticeably better.

For a true audiophile listening experience, I’d recommend picking up a Grace Design m903 headphone amplifier and a pair of Audeze LCD-X headphones. Also consider downloadable software like Audirvana+ or Amarra to use with iTunes. They go right to the file, bypassing the bells and whistles built into the iTunes program, and they seem to change the sound for the better.

Another option is one of the new digital-audio players that enable you to download tracks directly to them. PonoMusic is creating great buzz—it’s Neil Young’s baby, and he’s so opinionated about great sound that it’ll wake people up.

Digital or vinyl?

If you have a great vinyl turntable and everything’s been calibrated carefully, the LP will likely sound a little better than CD because it comes from the original source. Pop music has had a tendency to use compressors to push the volume levels, to help them stand out, but that leads to digital distortion. With loudness normalization processes like Apple’s Sound Check [on iTunes] and with most streaming services, compression is no longer an issue.

Tracks marked “Mastered for iTunes” are changing the sound of music by bringing back dynamics and avoiding distortion; regardless of the equipment you’re using, this will improve the sound.

Do you use headphones when you’re mastering an album?

No, I just recommend headphones because they’re the best way to get amazing sound without spending crazy money. At work, I listen to a pair of customized Eggleston Works Ivy speakers. They’re a little over 6 feet tall and cost $90,000 a pair. They’re powered by bridged pairs of Cello Performance Mark II amplifiers and everything’s connected with Opus speaker cables made by Transparent Audio.

Do cables really make a difference?

Big difference. Back when surround sound first came in, we had to redo our control room to work with the extra channels. We already had Transparent’s top-of-the-line cable, but they’d developed some new ideas, so we rewired. Clients noticed the difference immediately. There was just more music coming out of the speakers, not just sound.

How else can you improve the sound?

There is no divorcing the room from the speakers. Dr. Peter D’Antonio’s website [rpginc.com] has a ton of information about how to tune your room.

At the end of the workday, do you listen to music?

Sometimes when my daughters come home, we put the iPod in shuffle mode and play “identify the track.” I tend to win.

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