This is a complicated post to start. Three weeks ago I got the opportunity to fulfil one of my biggest dreams, ever. A dream connected to my geek roots, the things that shaped me in my creativity and actually my whole life. Something that I had on the radar, but was not sure how to tackle. Nothing like buying a fancy product or so, I really mean something very dear to my heart, nothing you can ordinarily buy or just go and do.
It all started with a very short SMS, a call, a weekend of anxious waiting and finally another call and a very, very short notice invitation by the Mercedes-Benz Team to join them in San Francisco for a trip to… wait for it… wait for it… oh snap, its in the title already, to the Skywalker Ranch and more precisely the Skywalker Sound studios. Why you ask? Well, of course the force is strong in me and all, but Mercedes-Benz has worked on something very very cool and groundbreaking in its field.
With the new Mercedes-Benz SL they introduced a unique approach in terms of in car audio. The SL is the first car ever, of any brand, that has the the subwoofers integrated in the cars frame. They are a part of the firewall and right in the foot space of the passengers. The rest of the premium sound system is also positioned differently and and aimed to be as close to eye-level of the passengers as possible. The concept is called Frontbass and in the SL it is uniquely combined and engineered with something called the Signature Sound. A very unique 5.1 audio system with a twist. To showcase the possibilities and the idea behind the whole concept Mercedes-Benz engineers teamed up with the brain behind the whole Signature Sound concept and 5.1 pioneer Herbert Waltl. Add the best facilities and audio specialist, hand them 25 tracks we all know and let them work their magic.
After month of remixing every single of those 25 tracks from stereo to 5.1 surround sound you have a listening experience in the car that is just unmatched. In the beginning I was very sceptic about the whole thing. There have been 5.1 surround sound systems in cars for quite some time, but they never really blew me away or even sounded really good. It was rather distracting than anything else. As Herbert Waltl himself says, all approaches into that field are generated and produced by computerised processes and there lies the whole problem. His approach reintroduces the artistic vision and feel. A factor you might underestimate as you maybe just read about, but will understand by the first time you listen to it. On our drive up to the Skywalker Ranch we obviously drove with an open roof, windows down, enjoying the great weather and scenery and even then the sound was just so much better than what you have heard from other factory installed sound systems. We obviously had to stop the DVD with the Signature Sound tracks at some point and connect our MP3 players to get a feel for the difference and also to listen to songs we are much more familiar with. Still a very nice system and clearly more capable than what I have heard from any other system (keep in mind, talking of factory installed systems only). I really don’t want to sound to fanboyish here, but I was impressed, as someone who is not a big fan of air conditioning I often drive with open windows in my car, but the speakers and sound system are not up to the task when it comes to Autobahn speeds or even country roads. At least not with a very good quality. In the SL you can enjoy much more of your music even with the top and windows down. Of course with the windows up it gets better and then with the roof up it is just fantastic.
One thing you have to know is the fact that Herbert Waltl approached Mercedes-Benz with his idea of the Signature Sound at a time they were thinking about the Frontbass and they decided to see what they could do with their forces combined. So this is more a tech-demo, a proof of concept than an end consumer ready product, even though SL customers that order the appropriate sound system will get a copy of the Signature Sound DVD. A fun and surprising fact. Mercedes-Benz is often seen as a very conservative company, geared towards conservative people, solid products, all kinda greyish though. You wouldn’t expect such a bold move from a company like that. Pushing boundaries and doing experiments like that shows how driven and passionate the people at Mercedes-Benz can be. That fact actually was proven to me two days later in Florence Italy, when we got to test drive the brand new Mercedes-Benz CLS Shooting Brake. Unrelated, but I was talking to one of the designers after dinner and we got to exactly that point. The passion that you can feel when talking to the people creating these products and cars. Especially when you look at the CLS and the CLS Shooting Brake for example, both built out of passion, kind of leaving all the accountant bla bla aside. Concentrating on the fun part. Extreme cars for a company like Mercedes-Benz, but through that I think they will achieve much more. Passion always has the advantage in my book.
I digress, it costs a lot of money and time, but I really hope that the Signature Sound concept will find its way to the consumer in one way or the other and then with a huge music catalog. Licensing issues and technical difficulties may keep it from happening in the very near future, but hey, something like this will find its way I am sure. And it might open up a new job-market too. 🙂
As we were talking about the SL and the CLS Shooting Brake, I want to add something that kinda surprised me also, but in a not too positive way. The SL looks great, is very comfortable and drives very well… well… until we got to the twisty, windy roads… not that it ever felt bad in a general sense, but from a front engine rear wheel drive car with lots of horsepower I expect certain characteristics. Especially one though… it not understeering and at times the car felt like it was about to understeer… it NEVER ever did understeer, I want to make that clear, but it also didn’t feel as sporty as I thought it should. And oversteer or rather the hint of oversteer is what I would have love to see. I heard somewhere that the cars for the US market might be modified to be “calmer” or so, if that true it might be a good explanation, but riving the CLS Shooting Brake right after the SL the feeling got even stronger as the CLS SB was so much more fun to drive. A more agile and dynamic ride somehow. Three weeks later now and 10 days with the AMG SLS Roadster, which obviously is a pure sports-car, I am actually not too sure how to place the SL in the line of sporty two-seaters. I might be a tad oversensitive or just weird, but I thought I should mention that…
There is still the matter of my dreams come true on this trip.
Driving through the gate at the Skywalker Ranch is something I will never forget. A place I have dreamed of visiting for ages. since a very young age, like so many others, I have been a huge Star Wars fan and movie geek. With that my interest in movie making and story telling grew equally quick and when I learned more about George Lucas and his filmmaking, the Skywalker Ranch and the work the people around George Lucas did and still do, the more I wanted to visit that place. The place where they made dreams come true, where the people I looked up to made what I love to watch while doing what I wanted to do. I watched every video, looked at a every photo I could get my hands on and so on, its not a coincidence that I love the making of and behind the scenes parts of DVDs and Blurays often more that the movies themselves.
About 17 years ago I found a photo of the research library at the main building of the Skywalker Ranch and cut that out. That cut-out is hanging or lying next to my office desk since then, its travelled with me all over Europe when moving. This photo of the library somehow stood and still stands for so many things. What I want to achieve at some point, to listen to my heart and do what I love, subconsciously for quite some time I guess.
So you can imagine my emotional state and sanity when I entered the library kinda exactly three weeks ago. I know it might seem childish to many people, but I was emotional. Blown away. I can’t really describe it to well, but certainly a wonderful and inspiring moment. If I just could have taken one photo of myself in there… with my “Han shot first” T-Shirt 🙂
Unfortunately we were only allowed to take photos in the recording studio and on the soundstage. And can you imagine… I get to the Skywalker Ranch and their official Store is closed that day?! I mean c’mon!!!!!!! Whyyyyyyyyy??? Certainly someone was very concerned about the state of my bank account, I can’t explain it otherwise.
I will never forget the images of driving through the Skywalker Ranch gate, through those beautiful hills, past the gardens and free roaming turkeys (I think) and seeing the main building for the first time. Not to mention all the original Star Wars and Indiana Jones props and all the good stuff geeks all over the world would do terrible things for :-).
I should also mention the wonderful Calistoga Ranch we stayed at. What a beautiful and peaceful place to stay. I am missing my own open air hot tub ever since, but I got to wake up my sweet girlfriend by facetiming here from in the hot tub, which is a nice memory to have.
Yes this was Trip full of superlatives. And for my Geekheart thats even an understatement. I think Eric Yang of Gearpatrol put it best… “I have arrived!” (I am most probably paraphrasing to be honest, but you get the point). Anyway for me this was the greatest trip ever!
And as the trip itself was one thing it wouldn’t have been as awesome without my buddy Jan. Absolutely fantastic to have a road-trip partner like him. We just click. Also thanks to Frank Kreif, Robert Basic, Bernhard Rietschel, Ji-Hun Kim and Jan Dreier for a very pleasant company. Two special mentions have to be Eric Yang (Gearpatrol) and Evan Orensten (Cool Hunting). A huge pleasure and especially after the following Florence CLS Shooting Brake Trip where I met Josh Rubin (Cool Hunting) and Jean Aw (Notcot), in just two days I met four people who’s work I follow daily and appreciate a lot. Even-though their work costs me way too much money every now and then. Its gotta go somewhere if not the Skywalker Ranch store… right?!
Last but not least a huge THANK YOU to Tobias Müller form Mercedes-Benz for making this possible. Just amazing!
For more great shots and some videos check out Jan Gleitsmanns Blogpost too. One of them right here though for your enjoyment.
Enjoy and cheerio,
oh and as a special bonus the video Phillip Bloom shot on the Skywalker Ranch when he got invited there.
Just to be given a privilege and chance like that…
Bast… nevermind. Well deserved!