Robert Ludwig & the strange case of his 1969 “Hot” Stampers
Or how Atlantic discarded the sonic genius of “Led Zeppelin II” for mediocrity
The management of expectation
So why do record collectors lose so much sleep and money in the pursuit of that elusive first pressing? Clearly they are the oldest pressing of any album and the chances of finding one in as close a condition to “mint” is a far less likely outcome. To answer this is to understand that there are many ways to master and cut a long playing 12” vinyl record. Are first pressings always the best? Well, often so but not necessarily. And this is because…?
Imagine that you’ve designed, prototyped and fully tested a new product, on the road ahead corners may be cut by using far more modest parts than those found in your launch day version. This beautifully hand crafted item must not only function perfectly but must look the part on launch day. If it looks well engineered and crafted and functions flawlessly then investing more money than might be strictly necessary is likely to prove to be a smart decision when moving out of the R&D environment and placing it before the worlds media and a watching public.
The same can be said to be true of a long playing record. The debut album has struck gold, your protégés are overnight sensations and now you must launch the tricky second album. Sure song writing, performance, sequencing and all the other hallmarks of the artistic nature of such a product are the key ingredients. But if the soundstage, the separation between instrumental spaces and overall fidelity goes above and beyond the norm then this can only serve to capture attention and fast track your audiences desires. After all it was captured on fresh top quality tape and delivered by a mastering engineer of the highest order to whom a requirement of the highest level of remuneration was gladly ponied up from the coffers. In sport they express this as “small gains”. Why give those journalists who are equally, if not more, comfortable with administrating brutal condemnation the chance when you could just go that extra mile to have them fawn over musical genius. Similarly DJ’s, retail record chain big wigs and even the larger independents are standing in line for their freebie so you really want that white label copy to soar as high as possible over the deceptive plainness of its humble sticker and hit them hard in the pleasure zones where endorphins can be released to tame all those who stand in judgement. If achieved then the reviews and opinions should match accordingly and a long waiting fan base shall be, to say the least, keener than mustard to throw their hard earned cash your way at the promise of such sonic art.
Such was the decision in 1969 when Atlantic Records in the U.S.A. approved the mighty and thunderous cut of “Led Zeppelin II”, the second offering from a band who were moving across the musical heartlands of America and beyond leaving tales as tall as the mighty arms of Atlas in their wake.
A young Robert Ludwig was a mastering and cutting engineer regarded highly, he could demand recompense above the average, and with names such as Jimi Hendrix, Judy Collins and Fairport Convention already on his CV confidence was his right. Indeed over half a century later he remains an engineer of unquestionable repute with a body of work that reads like a who’s who of modern music. So much so that the master tape this fresh faced Ludwig served up was approved by Jimmy Page himself, the founder and architect of Led Zeppelin. Page required only those who knew their way around a mixing desk blindfolded to man the galleys and steer his airship to happy landings.
The triumph of the common denominator
Compromise. So often the reluctant path of the ambitious, Jimmy Page was certainly ambitious and didn’t need to waste energy on his chosen troupe of minstrels to persuade them into performing at the top of their game These were all young men as cocksure in their individual abilities as they were solid in the joy of musical union. But that’s art. And what lies beyond this particular art form is another art, a dark art of precision, fact and realities imposed by physics. In the path of deliverance stands compromise, a concept feared perhaps by the delicate artiste but the bread, butter and acceptance of the studio engineer. Manufacturing, a potentially rocky road not built for the reluctant, but one that regardlessly must be taken before any notion of art may be turned lose.
Rock music was only just coming of age and its young consumers were still, by and large, lacking the high precision components necessary to accurately track the grooves onto which were cut the magic filled grooves of music for their ears to digest and finally be realised in musical experience in the bedrooms, youth clubs and watering holes completed by soundtracks. In the less deprived environs of the middle classes some were fortunate to have equipment nudging slowly towards the higher end but even then for those more privileged perhaps only a single big payout on hifi was possible and this might well be the preserve of father and mother to enjoy a more mature, serious and time honoured musical form. These soundtracks to the youth culture were now a well established mass market, rock was huge and showed no signs that it might be going on a diet any time soon.
So plagued by a blight of limitations just beyond the point of sale a common denominator became the only possible solution to this imbalance between the cheap technology at the point of playback and the high tech potential found in the studios and onward through the factory floors. Notes that fell so deftly from the fingerboards, drum skins, ivory keys and vocal chords of the angst riddled musicians found themselves tamed to some degrees as not to defeat all commercial logic and artistic purpose.
The studio engineers of the 50’s and 60’s lived with these limits of dynamic range, loudness, frequency responses foisted upon them for to stray beyond these metrics was about as plausible as the notion of straying over the edge of a cliff while enjoying a sea view on a Sunday afternoon stroll.
It would seem however that Robert Ludwig’s cut of “Led Zeppelin II” breached these limits in such a deliberate way to, in all likelihood, accommodate the bands vision. Approved by the band and Atlantic Records the master tape made its journey from lacquer and onward through fathers and the mothers that would give birth to the stampers, the metal work from which the thousands of blank vinyl discs would be cut with the grooves that would deliver “Led Zeppelin II” to the Zeppelin nation.
Ludwig was working with Eddie Kramer who at the time was finishing the mix for “Led Zeppelin II” at A&R. Kramer had had a couple of mastering engineers cut some demos, most notably Dave Crawford who’d turned in an excellent effort. “Can you make it hotter?” asked Kramer of Ludwig, “well, let’s see”. Ludwig took his very first test pressing (which he still has in his possession today) to a neighbours house who owned a hifi. This neighbour was none other than Paul A. Rothchild the producer of The Doors. The record played through with no skips or distortion, Ludwig approved it as did Kramer so Ludwig went ahead and created his “hot master”.
Initial pressings were sent to radio stations and, inevitably due to their high end decks, again no problems were encountered. The album was released but gradually complaints started filtering through from the retail outlets back to Atlantic Records. More and more copies were being returned due to almost constant jumping of the stylus out of the grooves due to the prevailing cheap players with very basic cartridges being powerless to cope with the heat of the mix.
Beware Atlantic execs bearing gifts
In most quarters an anonymous Atlantic executive is anecdotally credited as the catalyst for a re-cutting of “Led Zeppelin II”. He came home from work with a copy and gave it to his young daughter to see what she thought of Led Zeppelin. Ludwig himself is of the opinion that is was non other than Atlantic Records co-founder and chairman Ahmet Ertegun himself who bequeathed a copy to his daughter with some tales casting his niece as the recipient. One thing that is universally agreed upon is that it was the complaints of this little girl that led to the temporary grounding of the mighty Zeppelin. Her stylus just couldn’t track the record properly.
“Led Zeppelin II”, ready for take off
Either way it was Ertegun himself who instructed Atlantic Studios to recut the record from Ludwig’s EQ’ed master tape by cutting all of the low end out and then compressing the living daylights out of it to reduce the dynamic range. And so it was that a change to the sound of a classic album robbed it of all intended identity. From its audio ecstasy to the more pedestrian version with which we are all accustomed to.
That said it did nothing to halt the insanity around the band and was an album boasting music so good that Zeppelin continued to soar unhindered in exactly the way that the R101 Zeppelin, the ill fated Hindenburg, didn’t.
A vessel laden with a cargo of freshly composed, albeit at times dubious in origin, rock and blues riff orientated musical heaviness such as “Whole Lotta Love”, “The Lemon Song”, the guitar histrionics of “Heartbreaker” and the percussive low thunder of “Moby Dick”. From the shifting dynamics evidenced on “What Is And What Should Never Be” and “Bring It On Home” to the steady rolling “Livin’ Loving’ Maid” and tempered with the lighter complimentary caress of acoustic strings on “Ramble On” and the cloud like touch of a dreamy Hammond B3 on “Thank You”. Led Zeppelin II provided the soundtrack with which many a student would grapple examinations.
So the pedigree of this album remains unscathed, following as it did from the March ’69 debut “Led Zeppelin” to deliver a perfect brace of albums that would form the bedrock of the Zeppelin cannon and the only time that the band would deliver consecutive records of a similar contrast.
What becomes of the broken hearted?
Or rather what became of those Robert Ludwig hot stampers and the vinyl LP’s that did make it off the presses? Well this was still the 1960’s, don’t think that recycling is a modern invention, back then with a world war still hardly a quarter of a century in the rear view mirror the industrial west knew all about thrift. “Dig for victory” had been a well worn phrase in the UK, “waste not want not”, we were still in an era where we knew the value, if only to economic ends, of “make do and mend”. Recycling, upcycling? Call it what you will, in the UK fish n chips were served up in yesterdays news papers and a ha’penny was your reward for returning your empty beer bottles to the off-licence.
Basically an unknown quantity of Ludwig’s hot master made it out there and stayed out there and if you’re unfazed with parting with a few hundred notes in any currency for a single long playing record then go find one. The likes of eBay and particularly Discogs is you’re route to getting hold of a copy and experiencing the magic for yourself. During the transition between the master and remaster that formed this first US pressing unsurprisingly there also exists hybrids, some pressed with Ludwig side 1 stampers others with his side 2 stampers. More than a mere curio copies of this record with its original master go beyond the mere collectable and curio. They are sought after predominantly to … er, … well, er listen to. Does anybody remember listening? They are coveted with the same insatiable appetite as any modern day repressing by the many small artisan labels are. Of course you want one in as premium condition as possible and you will not be surprised to learn that the better preserved a copy is the bigger your financial investment will be. Unless of course you find that elusive Robert Ludwig Hot Master in a charity shop or a garage or yard sale from a vendor to whom a Led Zeppelin record is a Led Zeppelin record is a Led Zeppelin record. Then maybe 50p? A fiver tops? Well good luck with that.
The Train Spotters Rough Guide To Robert Ludwig’s Hot Master
How do you know if it’s a Ludwig? Well that’s easy, thanks to the long standing tradition of mastering engineers and lacquer cutters etching their particular moniker into the dead wax (the silent grooves that follow the last audible sound to the record label). Nicknames, symbols and a plethora of symbols can be used, there is certainly no established precedence for scratching your personal stamp into the runout groove. In fact the most common is of course the engineers initials and conveniently this is the Robert Ludwig way, “RL”. Check out Discogs and you will find a plethora of variations of everything else that may accompany his initials but if “RL” is present on either or both sides then you have a Ludwig, well half a Ludwig at least. No doubt the best way to check is just to play the thing and if you’re still seated comfortably in your favourite listening spot after the first bar of “Whole Lotta Love” then you can rest assured that you don’t have one. However if you’re blown through your wall and come around later in your back garden then you will without doubt know you have a metrics mashing, energy sapping, toe tapping, volcano uncapping, boot strapping, hand clapping, sonically unstrapping Robert Ludwig hot cut. Whilst on Discogs you may also of course list ones currently on sale, but be sure to have some tissues with you so as to maintain maximum visibility while contemplating the eye watering sums. At the time of writing there are currently 22 variants listed. As for availability you can glimpse the magic for as little as £50.88 for a “VG” copy with a side one only hot cut. Moving up to £72.88 we find a “G+” complete with seller disclaimer “not perfect by any means, but played through decently enough on my turntable”. Sadly unless you’re just gap filling your collection then “decently enough” just isn’t going to bring home the bacon for the thrill seeker who is in search of an actual audio experience which is, after all, what this article is about. £3,299.69 is top of the shop right now for a near mint copy.
What becomes of the broken hearted (reprise)?
Or rather what became of the original metal work? “Metal work”? For those not au fait with such terminology and without taking too deeper dive into the process of high volume record manufacturing then suffice to say the “metal work” refers to the stampers, the discs that imprint a copy, 5 generations from the original master tape, onto the vinyl we’ve been buying for the best part of 75 years now. Each stamper is capable of pressing around one thousand vinyl LP’s before starting to show signs of waring. If any are left over they might well be used for the second pressing (or at the start of the second pressing). Sometimes left overs might be shipped overseas to pressing plants far and wide. In the case of “RL” stampers Atlantic might well have destroyed them, however, they certainly did not which brings me to …
Robert Ludwig’s Hot Master – on a budget
“2 Originals Of…” was a mid 70’s budget series of double albums which did precisely what it said on the tin, it took two single albums by a single artist and paired them up into a double album with the “2 Originals Of…” title being completed by the artists name. Aretha Franklin, Neil Young, Yes, The Doors, The Allman Brothers Band and Little Feat are just some of the acts who got a brace of their albums onto the label and Led Zeppelin were of course invited to the party also. Packaged in a gatefold sleeve with original front and rear artwork the original album front covers were typically displayed on the two gatefold panels. “Led Zeppelin” and “Led Zeppelin II” were Zeppelin’s contribution to the series.
I purchased the copy illustrated here some 3 years ago for just £20 purely for the purpose of adding to my Zeppelin collection. I find a certain quirkiness to this sort of release and upon arrival I regarded and consigned it to my shelves without even spinning it. About two months ago I decided it was time for a “Led Zeppelin II” shoot out so lined up my UK first pressing, my 2014 Jimmy Page remaster and my original copy purchased in 1976 brand new from my local record shop. Probably a fourth or fifth UK pressing. With battle complete I had my answer (UK 1st pressing though my ’76 copy certainly more than held its own). I then remembered I had “2 Originals Of Led Zeppelin” so decided out of completeness to reopen proceedings, expecting very little of course. Little did I suspect that this copy, filed and forgotten and as yet unplayed would go on to top my most prized Zep possession, my UK first pressing of “Led Zeppelin” with its turquoise lettering. What ensued was breathtaking, as the intense fidelity knocked me into tomorrows dawn only one word sprang to mind, “Ludwig”. Instantly I lifted the stylus, halted rotation and grabbed the platter while allowing my eyes to fall onto the dead wax. I felt like Sydney Greenstreet playing the devious Casper Gutman, “the fat man”, in the closing scene of my all time favourite movie “The Maltese Falcon”. Hands trembling Gutman uses a pen knife to scratch away furiously at the surface of the films eponymous “black bird” only to be heard, following much endeavour inluding murders, theft, honour, dishonour and two “slappings” from Humphrey Bogart to the face of Peter Laurie, “it’s a fake, it’s a fake”. However my outcome was, as I’m sure Mr. Gutman would have phrased it, “a far more favourable one Sir”. The “RL” etching was my confirmation. I then of course flipped my attentions towards side 4 (“Led Zeppelin II”, side 2) but with less favourable results, “RL” was conspicuous here only by its very absence. A subsequent spin almost turned to insult as I heard positively the worst pressing of “Heartbreaker” I have ever heard. Unusually given the prowess of German engineering this track and indeed the entire side was drenched in the awful reverb in what I can only imagine was some sort of bodged attempt to reconcile the fidelity of the two opposing sides. But hey, all the same I got lucky and am so appreciative that I at least got the side with “The Lemon Song” on. I am not a greedy person (my brief morphing into Caspar Gutman aside) and appreciate what I have. And to quote the fat man again; “you can’t win them all, onwards and upwards”.
Get ‘em while they’re hot
Now, I am by no means claiming a world exclusive here on behalf of Now Spinning Magazine but the fact remains that in my extensive research for this article I have not found a single piece of information on the Internet that chronicles the 1974 Atlantic Germany pressing of “2 Originals Of Led Zeppelin” as being an alternative source for the Robert Ludwig hot stamper. I did find one single reference where somebody suggested that these stampers may have been used on early German pressings of “Led Zeppelin II” but I have been unable to corroborate this. All I can say is that Discogs does document German pressings with “RL” on side 3 of the album and it’s as if nobody has made this connection. So, seek and you shall (half) find. I shall give my closing salvo over to Sam Spade, Bogarts intoxicating and mercurial character in the aforementioned “The Maltese Falcon” and leave you with the last line of that film. As the cops lead this motley crew of characters away one of them asks Spade what the falcon is; “The, uh, stuff that dreams are made of”. XXX
Paul Duggan | Now Spinning Magazine