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Uwe Sattler's children like to talk about his teenage years in Germany, where he launched an unauthorized radio station that played Dixieland jazz. Authorities eventually located the pirate station and closed it down, which landed Sattler in a heap of trouble.
While Sattler, 67, laughed off the incident last week during his retirement party at Sennheiser - the German maker of audio equipment that has its U.S. headquarters in Old Lyme - it's clear that the longtime New London resident still has the heart of a pirate engineer first exhibited half a century ago. And that's what helped make him one of the most sought-after audio-design experts in the nation for the 33 years he worked at Sennheiser Electronic Corp., his colleagues said.
"He's a little rough around the edges, but he's genuine," said Mike Lieske, director of operations at Sennheiser. "He always comes up with out-of-the-box, creative ideas."
Sattler, as service manager, took on some of the biggest challenges in Sennheiser's history, helping design the wireless microphone systems used in such high-profile venues as the Olympics, the Super Bowl, Monday Night Football, The David Letterman Show and even Broadway. ESPN, NBC and CBS are some of the major networks that have counted on Sattler to work out technical problems and design custom audio systems.
Bob Dixon, director of sound design for NBC during several Olympics, remembered during Sattler's retirement party that ESPN once was having difficulty with a headset used by announcers who kept moving the attached microphone from its accustomed position.
Sattler, according to Dixon, was emphatic that the microphone could not be moved.
"No, no, no, they cannot," Sattler insisted with authority, Dixon said.
And, from that moment on, nobody dared change the microphone's position, ensuring the production's audio success.
"It was the way he said it," Dixon said. "'It has to be this way.'"
Henry Rousseau, coordinating technical manager for ESPN, recalled another incident 20 years ago in which Sattler scolded him for not choosing a wireless Sennheiser product for the fledgling network's broadcasts.
"You'll be back," Rousseau remembers Sattler warning him.
And, sure enough, Rousseau soon realized that the network had made a terrible mistake. Hat in hand, he went to Sattler and came back to the Sennheiser fold.
"I felt like the prodigal son going back to the father," he said.
Sattler, known for his blue suspenders and a sense of humor that tilts toward Dilbert cartoons, seemed to know competitors' products nearly as well as Sennheiser's, his colleagues said. He had a small, cluttered laboratory at Sennheiser where he took on some of the company's most high-end projects, including the recent refurbishment of vintage headphones purchased by a client for $24,000.
Sattler remembers his interest in audio production being closely associated with his fascination for electronics. In the 1950s and 1960s, when he was growing up in Germany, radio was synonymous with electronics, and he began as a teenager to ask endless questions of the owners of local radio-repair shops while collecting old parts to try to build his own radios.
Sattler also developed a love for music - particularly Dixieland - and tried his hand at the trombone, trumpet and piano before settling on the clarinet. Eventually, he gave up playing music for the much more powerful position of setting up the audio systems for bands, where he was at the center of attention and importance.
"It became a control thing," he said. "I've always been a little bit of a control freak."
He went on to graduate in three years from a four-year apprenticeship program in radio and television technology, the last year and a half at the university level.
At Sennheiser, Sattler was known for his wizardry in the "black art" of wireless technology. Especially at venues such as the Olympics, where wireless technology from all over the world was being employed, Sattler's abilities were constantly called upon as he had to coordinate the frequencies of various users to make sure they didn't interfere with one another.
Kevin Waehner, channel manager for integrated systems at Sennheiser, said Sattler was also known for developing the wireless systems for mega-churches across the country, some of which were employing as many as 40 different frequencies.
"He's been such a big part of what we do," Waehner said. "He's going to be hard to replace."
Sattlers' sons remember their father as the guy who could fix everything.
"He's a workaholic," Gregg Sattler said. "But he always provided for us, he always supported us."
During his retirement send-off, Sattler's dedication to work was put to the test. He went through a gauntlet of different challenges to his technical know-how that were live streamed to colleagues awaiting a surprise party in a Sennheiser conference room.
"Why only obsolete?" he asked during one challenge that required him to match Sennheiser microphones with the product name.
"You're obsolete," a colleague shot back.
"You talk like my kids now," Sattler growled.
Soon enough, Sattler was ushered into the party room, where a loud cheer and a band playing "Auld Lang Syne" greeted him. Nearly everyone wore blue suspenders.
"It's not every day we get to celebrate 33 years of service," said Greg Beebe, U.S. president of Sennheiser.
"I can't remember one day that I went to work," Sattler said. "I still see it as more of a hobby."
Sattler could be ornery at times, with such Uwe-isms as "It was never designed for that" and "There is nothing wrong with this; the customer is at fault" seen as an enduring - and endearing - part of his legacy. But colleagues joke that Sattler has forgotten more about his specialty in sound design than most others will ever learn.
"Everyone knows him in the audio industry," Sennheiser official Leiske said. "He is an original."