Product Sound Design: The Art of Perception

Car manufacturers are Jedi Masters of product design based on their mastery of customers’ perception of their cars more than any innate design quality. Part of the magic of any expensive mechanical product is the sound, and car companies have perfected a variety of devices that deliberately add interior sound to boost the sensation of power (Porsche’s Sound Symposer, BMW’s Active Sound Design, VW/Audi’s Soundaktor), while having no effect on what your neighbors hear. (This is not news: see Car and Driver’s summary “Faking It: Engine Sound Enhancement Explained.”)

Wicked Powerful

I confirmed this practice firsthand over the weekend when I disabled the Soundaktor in my VW Golf R, and turned it from growly and “powerful” to the quietest car I’ve ever owned. The Soundaktor is a puck-shaped transducer bolted to the firewall, using it and the windshield as a giant speaker cone. Disconnecting the nearby controller/amplifier took 5 minutes. Being an audio person, I appreciate the sound effect, but I really prefer quiet. If I want to hear the engine and exhaust, I’ll roll down the windows. I’ve also contemplated obtaining the Soundaktor system from something fancy like an Audi S7, or simply wiring my car’s Soundaktor system to a gigantic trunk-mounted subwoofer.

The VW Soundaktor makes my car sound like this.

The VW Soundaktor makes my car sound like the car in this picture.

The art of automotive sound design extends to door closing, trunk slamming, etc. and is supported as a science by skilled engineers at companies like Acentech that grew out of Bolt Beranek and Newman (BBN). Audio is as important as CMF – the Color, Material, and Finish – an industrial designer’s responsibility and sometimes managed by a distinct person, such as the Director of CMF at Newton-based Euro-Pro, creator of the Shark vacuum and Ninja blenders.

Sorry, Harley. We don’t want tunes with good sound…

Harley-Davidson is the obvious king of using sound as a highly evolved marketing tool, along with the corporately supported conformist behavior based on clothing and accessories, like Hello Kitty for people in a midlife crisis. I am sure riding Harleys is fun and engaging, but so is religion, which is why I was amused to find that the original Charlie Tuna version of my silly pun above is a favorite in religious sermons (look it up), which somehow makes sense relative to Harley.

Ride the Best.

Ride the Best.

Also making a lot of sense is the fact that Harley is a faithful customer of a company I worked with recently – Cambridge Sound Management – who makes a product designed to add workplace privacy and reduce office distractions by adding a low-level noise (similar to HVAC) to an office space. It works on the same principle that keeps you from hearing others talking on an airplane, but it’s more subtle and pleasant than air travel. Sound masking is an effective system, and CSM is a successful company in a growing sector. I see irony in the fact that Harley-Davidson ADDS noise to its office environments to reduce distractions and increase worker productivity. If it works, and works well, who’s to argue?

Is this good?

The moral of the story is that sound (or really, what you hear) is essential in far more than making consumer electronics equipment or mixing movie soundtracks. It is just a slightly less well known (and perceived) part of products or architecture, and it is as important as color, material, finish, physical layout, user interface, or any other part of the user experience.

© Copyright 2015 Stephen Shenefield

1 thought on “Product Sound Design: The Art of Perception

  1. More on this topic from the Wall Street Journal…
    “Cadillac ATS-V and the Strange Joys of Engine Noise”
    The Cadillac ATS-V Coupe—featuring Engine Sound Enhancement—is a performance version of GM’s premium compact coupe. Dan Neil feels the noise

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