Reflections on Sonic Environments

Vincent Meelberg and Marcel Cobussen

Sound Design

Last summer I traveled with friends to Switzerland. On the way, on the German Autobahn, oncoming traffic consisted of a remarkable stream of old (camper)trucks: Scania, Mercedes-Benz, Zil, Ural, MAN, DAF, Deutz. This event elicits many enthusiastic reactions from my fellow passengers. They recognize makes, types, technical details … and sounds. The sounds of the engines: the rutting and rough sound of the Scania V8 or the more refined sound of the straight-six or inline-six engines …

Of course, it is not only the engines of trucks and cars which sound. Specialized companies produce exhaust systems, the sound of which is adjusted to the customer’s desires. Toyota equips its newest hybrid cars with sound generators in the front bumper to warn pedestrians, the so-called VSP-system (Vehicle Sound for Pedestrians). The sound, partly developed by Japanese composers of film music, is a hybrid mix of a vacuum cleaner and Star Trek. BMW pays a lot of attention to the sound of the motors of the wipers and the windows. The doors, but also the glove compartment, should have their confident and solid “BMW-clicks”. “We design sounds which are not authentic, but the clients take them to be authentic,” a researcher on psycho-acoustics in BMW’s service explains. (Oosterbaan 2008: 6, my translation)

Sound design. It is becoming a more and more critical component. And not just in the car industry. In other industries too, competing for the favor of consumers happens less and less in the arena of the purely technical features of a product. The look, the feel, and certainly also, the sound matters. For users, sound is not just a supplement, a negligible addition; rather, it is part of a product’s identity. Initially sound was something that needed to be suppressed, e.g. the development of silent vacuum cleaners and washing machines. However, too much silence contains a danger: people start thinking the device isn’t working properly.

By designing sound, designers can give products an extra emotional content – see above the examples of the V8 or inline-six motors and the exhaust systems. Similarly, CRT-scanners should be relieved of their most terrifying sounds; wide-screen TVs should have a ‘wide’ sound as well; juicers should produce a pleasant hum instead of a tasteless whining; the disc-tray of a CD player should produce a smooth sound rather than a plastic rattle. All this must be designed and subjected to intensive and expensive research.

Sound can also transfer information. Sound signals (Schafer 1994: 10): a bleep indicates that you have touched the screen of your cell phone correctly; a steadily increasing stream of peeps in your car urge you to fasten the seatbelt; a bell-like ping informs you that the microwave oven has warmed up your meal. (Oosterbaan 2008: 6)

Sound design, or acoustic design as R. Murray Schafer calls it, brings together the fine arts, the art of sound, and the industrial crafts, the science of sound. (Schafer 1994: 205) In this domain, science and art inform each other; although utilizing different approaches, both investigate the possibilities of technological innovation. At Bell’s Labs, for example, artists were involved in sound research, which was instrumental to telephony, electronic voice research, as well as electronic music. Sound design is a form of artistic research from which both the scientific and the art world might benefit.


                                                                                                                              The Study

                                                        The Shop

            Sirens                                                                                                                                                                  The Gym


                    The Bedroom


                             The Ear and/versus the Eye

                Sound Design    



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