Tuesday, February 13, 2007



Bob Ludwig is the Guru of mastering engineers. An ear of gold. Check just about any amazing album and you’ll see his name. So, via Randy Ezratty, we set up a trip to see his setup in Portland Maine.

Saturday morning early, I met XM Audio animator John Stevens at the Manassas Airport. John had been up all night and told me that he threw up on the way to the airport. Not a great start, but he had a Mc Muffin to settle himself as we climbed into my plane for a trip up to White Plains New York to pick up Randy and his Wife Jo Ann. Takeoff was a turbulent affair as a powerful cold front passed and the bumps were everywhere. I kept a close eye on John whose stomach has a bad track record. Leveling off at 7000 feet we hit smooth air and a huge tailwind giving us awesome speed. Pretty uneventful flight as it was too windy for most people to fly so the traffic, even into New York, was light. We landed at White Plains where the line man guided us into a bank of ice that tore up my wheel pants. Shreds of composite material everywhere. Not cool. We met Randy, loaded into the plane and began our trip to Portland. The ruined wheel pants had no impact on the flight characteristics—but looked like crap.

Arriving into Portland, the controller warned us of severe winds. Fortunately, they weren’t too severe and after an magical approach over Portland Harbor on a perfectly clear day, we had arrived. No cabs, so Randy requested one from the terminal attendant. 5 Minutes later a massive stretch limo arrived and the four of us poured in.
Nice ride. I guess they figure most private plane arrivals expect this. All we wanted was a cab. The limo driver charged us cab like fare so immediately I was into the Portland thing. Met up with Bob at Walters, a cozy café. Perfect for the sub arctic weather outside. Had a nice lunch. Bob did some technical work for XM early on with our Tony Masiello. Unfortunately, Bob ONLY listens to Classical music and HIS Classical music---so no XM. Then took Bob up on his invitation to see his facility. We drove, Randy and John walked. They got lost, but eventually we all met up at Bob’s creative oasis.

WOW! First there was his guest book. It would be worth a fortune on e-bay. Springsteen to Clapton. Everyone was in it. They all come here to have their CD’s mastered. In fact, Portland is a secret hang out for the stars, who all pay homage to Bob’s sound. Legend has it that Eric Clapton loves the cheeseburgers here.
Then the walls. Grammy’s, Audio awards and literally thousands of platinum CD’s from every imaginable artist. Thence the tour begins: All of the trappings of a cool place to create. Pool tables, nice offices and whatever it takes to maximize the vibe. He takes us into a room where I sit in the middle and watch a Roy Orbison documentary in surround sound. You are THERE. I have never heard such a clear transparent soundtrack. I twitched when I heard the audience clapping as they sounds appeared to be next to me where in reality there was nothing but an empty room. Talk about theater of the mind! But that was nothing. In we go into “his” studio. I have never heard sound like this. The speakers are made of granite and bolted into the ground…there are NASA type baffles and every imaginable type of equipment including analog that he records two tracks on two inch tape. He played us some things he worked on ranging from a 1958 Miles Davis recording to a recent Foo Fighters.
I cannot tell you how amazing it sounded. Truly. I have NEVER heard sound so clear and pure. Chillingly beautiful yet completely natural. You are INSIDE the notes.
It was mind blowing.

Bob is the nicest guy you could meet. A genius. Probably born with this gift.

We departed Portland at dusk. Flew over Hartford, Bridgeport and back into White Plains. Randy’s Wife Jo Ann is now an official co-pilot as she studiously asked questions and memorized every aspect of the flight. Light snow created a psychedelic affect against the wingtip strobes as a full moon was overhead and the lights of the Northeast once again dazzled. Upon landing, I made sure John drank some coffee. Otherwise he sleeps from takeoff to landing and it was late and I wanted someone to talk to. The return flight paid us back for the supersonic tailwinds on the way up. 80 mile an hour headwinds right on the nose. I think trucks were beating us. Not really, but we were slowed down—a lot. Once again the full moon, infinite ground lights and snow provided a wonderful backdrop for a magical night of aviation.

I often get asked “Do you ever talk to Kent Burkhart”? Kent was my partner for years and years at our consultancy Burkhart/Abrams. I DO talk to Kent but not as much as I’d like. I have this vision of him, sitting on the beach in Key Biscayne, pipe in one hand with his yellow can of Balkan Sobranie tobacco, cell phone in another hand, nursing a Margarita…doing a deal. Kent was the consummate deal maker, and again that ying yang thing that made our Company so successful. Talk about complete opposites. Kent would get front row seats to see Paul Anka in Vegas while I’d go watch Yes perform 80 minute epics…Kent came up with the Disco format at WKTU that went to #1 in about 8 days while I was blowing up disco records at our Rock client stations. One thing about Kent is that he stays in sync. In 1970 I sent around proposals to the big name broadcasters preaching my FM concept. I got three replies: Rick Sklar at WABC, Buzz Bennett at Bartell…and Kent. His served me well—the REAL big shots wrote back. The mid level guys didn’t. I NEVER dis some young guy with an idea. Now Kent even in 1970 was a “veteran”—He actually worked for Todd Storz in 1956 at the first Top 40 station, but he completely “got” the FM idea. We met at his client station KSTP in Minneapolis one morning and 18 minutes later had a deal. It was perfect. He does AM...I do FM. He does the business part, I run around and hang with Program Directors. The next day I was in my car driving to Atlanta where his lovely Wife Pat drove me around for days to find a nice apartment that met my very low budget. We went on for an amazing ride throughout the 70’s and 80’s. I think we had over 1000 clients at one time. Kent was very good at putting up with me…though I DID bring in a ton of revenue so I guess it all balanced out. In any case, yes---I do talk to Kent. More on Burkhart/Abrams adventures at a later date….there was SO much happening then. Heady days. I’m lucky enough to work at XM which is a renaissance for me personally. Blessed with the opportunity to do something paradigm changing…TWICE!

Another travelogue: Kevin Straley who runs our Talk Channels asked me if I’d fly him and Eric Logan to Raleigh to see Duke play UNC. Of course I said yes. Kevin and Eric had to bail, but I went with Steve Cook our EVP of Auto Relations and another guy who’s been here from the beginning. Steve is a Duke Grad and was bordering on manic excitement about the UNC DUKE game we were about to see. I kinda humored Steve more than anything.

We ditched work early (though I didn’t feel guilty because the game was an XM event---covered by an Army of XMers on our Sports channels…hosted by Tobi from XMU so it was more college insanity than a typical sports broadcast). I was more excited about the plane ride than the game. Once in the air, Steve impressed upon me the importance of this. I was starting to get into it. Steve brought me a Duke sweatshirt insisting I wear it. Upon landing in Raleigh, it was mayhem—you’d think it was the World Series. Scores of heavy iron (business jets—BIG ones) were there armed with CEO types in for the big match-up. A car met us and we headed to Bullocks (no kidding) a world class Red State BBQ joint. Authentic with charming waitresses who have been there since the 1920's, well fed factory types with their families and an air of old school Middle America. Brilliant stuff. Steve brought three pounds back with him. Got a tour of the Duke campus including the gothic Duke Chapel where Steve was married. Pretty impressive place. Then off to the game. It was unreal. The SPIRIT rivaled a Metallica show in ’92. Definite Duke crowd. The chants were X rated and the young crowd was electric with passion and craziness. Outside the auditorium it looked like hobo camp as students have camped out for days before the game. Satellite TV vans were everywhere. The air was filled with a combination of stale beer, teen spirit and an attitude you could cut with a knife. We sat 4 rows back center court. Actually we never sat—you HAD to stand the whole time. Now I was REALLY into it. It was a nail biter. Duke was ahead til the last 4 minutes---then lost. By the second half I knew the players--their strengths and weaknesses. I was impressed by this kid Pulos on Duke. We were so close to the floor I could hear him working his team mates. It was kinda cool how a guy would miss a free throw and get high fives for tryin'. I haven't had this kind of a sports buzz since Game 1 of the 05 World Series where my Sox (White) Clobbered the Astros in Chicago. In 2 hours I went from a who cares guy to a believer in the magic of a game like this--and how RADIO can capture the magic which is not only on the court, but in the stands and outside the venue. I was and am still mesmerized by the whole scene. I've been so caught up in the musical side, I have not engaged in this side of the equation. After the game it was back to the plane and in line to take off behind a dozen corporate jets loaded with well heeled alumni and ESPN types. The flight back was like a dream. It was the middle of the night as Steve had to be back for a marketing meeting so we got back around 3am. Nice flight—flew through some more psychedelic snow on an otherwise frozen clear night. I have new respect for College Basketball….and Bullocks.


At 1:33 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

It's fitting that you rhapsodize about sound quality. You obviously seem to agree that it's an integral, CRITICAL component of the music listening experience. So why has XM become the complete antithesis of that?! Yes, initially, XM music had a full, warm quality in 2001/2002. But since then, it has steadily degraded to a tinny, muddled mess that completely undermines the brilliant music programming being presented every day. It's utterly baffling that so much effort and time is obviously spent in programming, while sound quality is completely ignored. Music content + sound quality = experience. Without both, you don't have it.

I'm sure many readers of this blog agree and would welcome your insights on this topic.

At 10:15 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Personally, I don't notice the poor sound quality the previous poster speaks of but I have heard that complaint before and I too would like to hear your thoughts on the matter Lee.

At 3:09 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...


YOU ARE A Wacked Charles Lindberg,

C'mon, ICE, Heavy Winds,Turbulence,

That Plane of yours, have parachutes?

I hear you can BUY an F-16, cut your flying time in 2/3, Have ammo, to shoot the Canadien Geese, and of course an EJECT button.

Have A Nice Day

At 5:08 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I also would like the issue addressed. I have contacted XM numerous times and have never received any type of real response. Why has the sound quality on XM taken a nose dive?

At 5:36 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The White Sox did not "clobber" the Astros in Game 1 of the 2005 World Series. They won 5-3. The score was 7-6 in Game 2, 7-5 in Game 3, which went 14 innings and 1-0 in Game 4. Every game of the series was decided in the late innings.

At 9:49 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I've mentioned it here before: the crappy sound quality is the *only* thing keeping me from subscribing to XM. The overcompression hurts my ears. I'd much rather have half the number of (often redundant) stations at twice the bitrate, but quantity sells, I guess.

I harbor some hope that the proposed merger would help on this front (twice as many satellites), but I suspect not.


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