The scoring stage at Skywalker Sound can showcase a single performer or a 125-piece orchestra, but for several months it was home to one of the first 2013 Mercedes-Benz SL 550 pre-production cars, often hidden under cover and behind sound baffles when other recording sessions were taking place. Though the car didn't have an engine, it did feature one of the auto company's more surprising innovations—an industry-changing audio system named FrontBass and nicknamed by some "Bass in Your Face."
Concepted in 2004 and patented in 2005, the system took eight years to bring to market. The idea was anchored in a rather simple premise—improve sound in the car by moving the two woofers (bass speakers) to the front foot well, freeing up space in the doors to rearrange the four tweeters and midrange drivers to a more optimal position closer to the passengers' ears, and likewise prioritizing the location of the eight other speakers in the dash and behind the seats. That process was easier said than done, requiring years of engineering—primarily because the desired woofer placement was smack in the middle of the car's structural cage, an area crucial to the car's safety, performance and stability. Additional space had to be created behind the speakers to create resonance chambers. The entire audio system, too, had to be redesigned from the ground up.
Launching FrontBass deserved more than a standard demo CD to impress upon customers the innovation at hand. Herbert Waltl, the senior producer and CEO of mediaHYPERIUM suggested creating the Signature Sound program, and the team was quickly put together, Led internally by Ralf Lamberti, the director of advanced telematics development at Mercedes-Benz, and engineered by Leslie Ann Jones, the director of music recording and scoring at Skywalker Sound. The program took several months to create, and the result is a music DVD compilation of 25 songs directly mixed in 5.1 Surround Sound from their original master recordings, optimized for listening in the 2013 SL 550. We had the chance to explore the car last year, but we couldn't pass up Mercedes-Benz's invitation to drive it around California's Napa Valley and to visit Skywalker Sound (a division of Lucasfilm Ltd.) to geek out on the program details.
The control room at Skywalker Sound features an AMS Neve 72 input 88R analog console with an 8-channel VSP post panel, and a range of gear you would expect to find in one of the world's foremost recording studios. What I liked most was the mix of some awesome old school gear alongside some of the newest. Highlights (for recording freaks) include Bowers & Wilkins 802 Diamond reference monitors, Summit Audio EQP-200B Dual Program Equalizers and TLA-100A Tube Leveling Amplifiers, Avalon Design AD2055 Parametric Equalizers and AD2044 Opto-Compressors, Millenia Music & Media Systems Twin Topology TCL-2 Opto-Compressors and NSEQ-2 Parametric Equalizers, CML Model b200 Parametric Equalizers, Universal Audio Teletronix LA-2A Leveling Amplifiers and Pulteq EQ-15 Program Equalizers, dbx 120XP Subharmonic Synthesizers and 160X Compressor/Limiters, George Massenburg Labs GML Model 8200 Parametric Equalizers, an Eventide H3000 SE Factory Harmonizer, Inovonics 201 Average and Peak Limiters, vintage AMS RMX16 Digital Reverb and DMX 15-80 Digital Delay processors, to name a few.
Leslie Ann explained to us how they would adjust each track (some of the masters had as many as 200 tracks) and run back and forth to the SL 550 in the studio to hear how it sounded. The result of all of that effort is truly impressive. From Foreigner's "Cold as Ice" to Lady Gag's "Poker Face" to the first movement of Beethoven's “Symphony No. 5” recorded by the San Francisco Symphony conducted by Michael Tilson Thomas, each of the recordings sounded different and as they intended to be heard, much as they would on a good system in your house (and remember this is in a convertible with the top down). That may not sound like a big deal, but most of us suffer through much more modest systems in our cars that make the music sound like it was recorded in a cheap studio and played on crappy boom box. If you have satellite radio you know what I mean. It was also great to see Leslie Ann and Herbert finally get behind the wheel of a fully operational SL 550, outside, with the top down, after so many months of sitting in one in secret inside the studio.
Fortunately the FrontBass design will find its way into more models in the next few years, and though it wasn't stated I wouldn't be surprised to see more Signature Sound tracks produced and made available to drivers on DVD or online, either as a perk or as some kind of subscription service.
Mercedes-Benz is a big company and has the resources to do whatever it wants, but it still surprised me that they chose to pursue better sound not because they needed to or because customers were demanding it, they did it because they simply thought it could be done better.
The SL features FrontBass with all three of its stereo systems (standard, harmon/ kardon, and the Bang & Olufson Beosound (which packs 900 watts delivered from two amplifiers), each of which have 12 speakers. In the U.S., the car comes standard with the harmon/kardon system with the Bang & Olufson available as an option on the SL 550 and SL63 AMG, and is standard on the SL65 AMG. Visit Mercedes-Benz to learn more.
Images by Evan Orensten and Teymur Madjderey