I joined Masterdisk in 2010. A lifelong musician, I had also been working as a marketer in the staffing industry for 10 years. Joining the Masterdisk team was a move I was very excited about. I knew the legacy of the studio, the work of the engineers, and the parade of stars whose music had passed through the Masterdisk mastering consoles.
In my first week on the job full-time — it might have been the first day — I’m going into the men’s room, and who’s coming out, but Lou Reed.
LOU FUCKING REED.
I had that amazing sense of being in the right place (the studio, not the men’s room.) He looked older and frailer than I expected, but he had not been in great health for a while. He still looked cool though. On that occasion he was working with Scott Hull on a video soundtrack. I would see him again a number of times over the next few years.
I think I saw him once around the time of his Metallica collaboration, “Lulu,” that he mastered with Vlado Meller. Same Lou, maybe moving a little slower, still cool.
And then in the last few months I saw him a few times again, as he returned to the studio to do some extensive remastering work with Vlado. One day I was working in the back lounge of the studio, which was then next to Vlado’s room. Lou came in one day, walking very slowly. He made it to Vlado’s room, the door shut. After a little while some of the most iconic sounds in all of rock and roll started vibrating out of the walls. A famous bass line. Vocal lines that have become part of all our DNA. It was an eerie feeling knowing that the creator of those sounds was in that room next door, reviewing them. Revisiting them. Full songs were played all the way through. Some were played a few times in a row. I felt like I was eavesdropping on a very intimate moment.
Later that afternoon, after Lou left, I popped in to Vlado’s studio. “What happened in here today?” I asked. “Lou’s very happy,” Vlado said. “He said he thought his CDs sounded like shit, and he wanted it done right. We got new transfers off the master tapes, and they sound great. You want to hear an A/B?” Yes I did.
Vlado played me “Walk on the Wild Side.” The old CD against the new transfer. And the difference was astounding. The old CD sounded so thin compared to the vastness of the sound in the new transfer. The bass sounded like a BASS. It sounded like a Miles Davis or Mingus record. You could hear fingers on the strings. You could sense the size of the instrument and the size of the room it was in. It had physical force, air and space around it.
This new version sounds incredible, beautiful, startling. It choked me up. Apparently it made Lou tear up himself as he says around the 4-minute mark in this video:
I asked Vlado about his experience working with Lou.
“Lou was gracious. He had a sense of humor too,” Vlado said. “He was appreciative. He thought the sound was amazing and he was so happy. He said ‘nobody will probably buy them but I don’t give a shit.’ He was a true artist.” A&R man Rob Santos was in attendance on at least a few sessions and Lou was very appreciative of him, and the label as well, for putting up the funding to get the records to sound the way he wanted them to sound. He had a lot of appreciation and thanks to go around. Lou Reed remastered fifteen albums with Vlado over the past few months.
Scott Hull worked with Lou on a number of projects over the years as well, starting with the “Mistrial” album in 1986. Scott at that time was primarily a digital editor — that’s before DAW workstations when digital editing was an extremely specialized skill.
“The call came in in the afternoon that Lou wanted an editor, and it needed to be done that evening. He had been working on the record at another studio and they had made a digital copy of their edit. Lou listened to the original edit and the copy, and was hearing a difference in the tone. The engineer insisted that it was impossible that there was a difference, because the numbers were the same: there’s no degradation and no difference in a digital copy. Well, Lou didn’t agree. He heard a difference. And that was the end of that working relationship. He called us that day and he finished the record at Masterdisk with Bob Ludwig.”
“It’s not that Lou was so stubborn, necessarily,” Scott said. “If he felt something wasn’t right, you weren’t going to convince him that it was otherwise. He trusted his perceptions completely. He trusted his team, and if he didn’t have a very strong opinion about something he would take other people’s input. But once he knew something, that was it.”
Scott said that over the course of his 30-plus year career, there aren’t many artists he encountered with that same level of confidence. “It’s interesting, because their music is so different, but Lou and Donald Fagen are alike in that way. So confident. So familiar and deeply in tune with the music. Donald’s emotional reaction to his music is similar to Lou’s.
The next record Scott worked on was “New York” (1989). “For Lou, it was his guitar tone,” Scott said. “It was everything. Lou’s acoustic reference, for years after, was the first minutes of ‘Dirty Boulevard’. Just like an engineer has a reference recording you bring to a new room, Lou had that. He only needed to hear a few seconds of the guitar part and he understood the room he was working in.”
The last major project Lou worked on with Scott was the remastering of “Metal Machine Music” (2010). Scott remembers, “he was passionate about it. There was nothing arbitrary about it at all.”
The project was remastering the album in both stereo and quad formats. “When we compared the new transfers to what had been released we realized that so much of the low frequency information had been eliminated when they cut the record. For whatever reason. So it was a new experience with all this low frequency energy. What do we do with it? Is it good? It certainly changed the impact. So we spent a fair amount of time going over how that change in tone impacted the listener.”
“The original was stereo,” Scott continued. “Lou and Bob [Ludwig] had worked on a quad master way back. The thing is that Metal Machine Music was a live two-track [stereo] record, so there were no other assets to put into channels 3 and 4. So what they decided to do was to take the entire recording and record it backwards, and THAT became tracks 3 and 4. We manipulated the relation between these channels quite a bit when we did the quad remaster.”
“What I remember most about those sessions,” Scott said, “is how emotionally draining it was to listen to the album at a decent level. Even Lou wasn’t really able to listen to the whole thing with intese focus. It just took so much energy as a listener. It’s taxing. The QC [quality control] guys had to listen to it all the way through — two passes. It wasn’t easy work. You had to stay really focused. But when you did, it took you on a journey, maybe a once-in-a-lifetime journey.”
“Lou knew that nine-tenths of the population would dismiss MMM as noise,” Scott continues, “but he opened a lot of listeners to new concepts in music. Minimalism. Maximalism. The avant-garde.”
“I got the chance to work with Lou through several different phases of his career,” Scott said. “When he was deeply into his solo career. Then when he was more focused on performance art and avant-garde music. He reminds me a little of someone else — John Zorn — in the way that most people have a singular idea about him. People have an image of Lou that he’s this ONE WAY, that he makes THIS kind of music. But he was very multi-faceted.”
“I remember when we were working on Laurie [Anderson’s] album “Homeland” (2010). Lou attended the sessions. It was a more relaxed Lou, but he was really involved in the process. It was clear that Laurie and Lou worked well together. I remember around that time their dog was having some medical problems and it was really stressful… and so there’s another completely different side of Lou. Collaborating, offering support. Worrying over his dog. He was a three-dimensional guy.
The sadness around the Masterdisk offices, and the city, and the whole music world has been palpable in the weeks since Lou’s death. There’ll never be another one like him, but we can be glad he was here. And we can continue to listen to the legacy he left behind — listen, feel and learn.