Sound design of common objects
February 22, 2014 1:15 AM   Subscribe

What are good resources to learn more about sound design of real (as opposed to digital) objects e.g. the sound of your keyboard when you type. Surely someone purposefully makes and designs those sounds, using a gang of engineers, psychologists, and who knows what else. I'd really like to learn more about this process. Any pointers?
posted by mateuslee to Science & Nature (17 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
On all the projects I worked on in my career that had keyboards, I don't recall anyone ever even mentioning the sounds that the unit made physically, or paying any engineering attention to it.

And there's never been a psychologist as part of any engineering team I've ever been on.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 4:37 AM on February 22, 2014

Thanks, Chocolate Pickle. Good to know. However, somehow I still suspect that keystroke on a Mac or Thinkpad must be designed, no? The size of the key, the depth of "press" ... all of these are probably taken into consideration by someone.
posted by mateuslee at 4:45 AM on February 22, 2014

A lot of the aspects you're describing are part of the design process, yes. But I suspect that in many cases, and at least in the examples you mention, sound is not the taken into account in design decisions: visual aspects are much more important, as are 'tactile' ones. If it sounds really horrible they might try to do something about that, but if not...

That said, this might be of interest to you.
posted by Ms. Next at 4:51 AM on February 22, 2014 [1 favorite]

More of an example but it may send you in the right direction: a video featuring BMW's sound designers. And Opel's.
posted by JackBurden at 5:06 AM on February 22, 2014 [2 favorites]

Tapio Hakanen is currently leading Nokia’s Sound Design team, who creates the sounds for our Nokia devices (ringtones, notifications and UI sounds). We talked to Tapio to understand more about what he does, how he does it and what makes him tick in terms of sound design!
posted by infini at 6:31 AM on February 22, 2014

One person's sound is another's noise. In the power engineering projects I've worked on, "as little as possible" has always been the goal. Most sounds are side-effects of the components, mechanisms and assemblies available to you during construction — think of the IBM Model M key click, or the trademark side-valve burbling of a Harley-Davidson. Most sound can be attenuated, given enough time, space and money.
posted by scruss at 8:49 AM on February 22, 2014

I work in a design school and I haven't heard about this kind of role.

To have a specialist role of sound designer for mechanical aspects of an common item or device would be a frustrating role. You cannot change sounds without changing mechanics or materials of the item, and changing these require understanding of all the other consequences that material and shape of mechanism has for the item. Specialist sound designer would be the one whose recommendation would be always voted down for n other engineering and design reasons. That said, those who take care of user experience probably have sound of the device as one aspect that affects the experience and the power to make decisions on it, but they consider it together with all the other aspects: tactile, visual, functional etc.

Two areas where sound engineering of items could have a specialist role with decision making powers are 1) very large objects like cars, where there is room for padding, channeling etc. engineering for acoustics and where sound is unavoidable feature to consider 2) any item where sound is a measurable problem: e.g. vacuum cleaners and computer cooling systems seem to have lots of attention and engineering to make them as silent or pleasant as possible.
posted by Free word order! at 9:05 AM on February 22, 2014 [1 favorite]

Recently, I went to the BMW plant in Munich on a study trip. Basically, the video JackBurden linked is true. What would probably be impossible to show for business reasons (we weren't allowed to take pictures at all), is their amazing work with prototypes in full scale at almost all stages of the process. They test the sound, smell, touch of every single detail all the time throughout the 5-year design process. You may disagree with some of their design choices, but every aspect is intentional. Not least sound.
I'm going to buy the Jonathan Ive book today if I can find it in a physical store, so maybe I can get back here tomorrow about Apple sound design..
posted by mumimor at 9:17 AM on February 22, 2014

Rolls Royce made sound (or the lack of it) a part of their advertising.
posted by infini at 10:06 AM on February 22, 2014

Here's the only mention of the thought given to the keyboard sound of a Thinkpad keyboard that I could find. So yes, David Hill did take it into account. And if you're interested in how well designed computers are designed, Lenovo's design blog is champion.
posted by ambrosen at 10:33 AM on February 22, 2014 [2 favorites]

When you're designing a keyboard there aren't really a lot of choices. Further, there are a lot of aspects of it which are important. There are only a handful of ways it can be done (only a handful of ways to physically implement it), and so you choose the one which fits your main requirements: size, weight, cost, manufacturability, RELIABILITY!!!!, and about ninth on the list if it's on the list at all is "how it sounds".

That just isn't anything that is usually paid much attention. Even in cases where the result is satisfactory, that's more luck than intent.

Maybe Rolls Royce pays attention to such things. Your average engineering team has a lot more important things to worry about, and budgets are tight. (Budgets are always tight. There's never enough time and money to do everything you would want to do, so some things always fall off the bottom of the chart.)
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 10:44 AM on February 22, 2014

Here's a paper that seems relevant...

posted by neroli at 11:01 AM on February 22, 2014

... Also this editorial from the Journal of Sonic Studies
posted by neroli at 11:05 AM on February 22, 2014

You'd probably find something relevant in the work of Don Norman. I remember reading a bit about the consideration of sound in product design in his 1988 book, The Psychology of Everyday Things, which has been updated more than once.

And I still remember the sweet little click of the keys of my Atari Portfolio "palmtop" computer in 1989. Nothing I've used since then has ever produced the same satisfying, virtuous feeling of productivity as those little clicks, one for every letter! That was a brilliant bit of product design -- the keyboard was so pleasant to use that procrastination and writer's block just evaporated.

uhOh, I see you can still buy them on ebay... there goes my afternoon
posted by Corvid at 11:45 AM on February 22, 2014

I know that processed food companies are incredibly careful about aspect of their product. Or, so says Malcolm Gladwell, in Blink. I would imagine that Kellogg does pay some attention to the snap, crackle, and pop of their Rice Krispie cereal, and that McDonalds cares about the sound their pies make when you crack them in half.

I also think that good hotels must get someone with sound background to go over their plans: I've been in terrible hotel bathrooms that had a million amenities, were clearly designed for multiple people to use simultaneously, and were so echoey that no conversation or communication could reasonably happen.

But aside from "look at food companies" I don't really have anything more specific. I am curious about this as well.

I guess here's an article about engineers making the Sun Chips bag quieter:
posted by batter_my_heart at 3:18 PM on February 22, 2014

Boeing has spent an amazing amount of time and effort in making their jets quieter, especially the engines.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 4:34 PM on February 22, 2014

No new resource but an anecdote. I ran into an academic German psycho-acoustician in Los Angeles who did research on sound design for automobiles. We talked for a while and he told me an interesting psycho-acoustical fact:

Whether a person shopping for a car will buy a certain one can be reliably predicted from how they react to the sound of the click when they first open the door. Moreover, people have subliminal stereotypes of what types of sounds 'should' go with what types of objects in general and what types of car door clicks 'should' go with what cars in particular. People have a fairly consistent idea of what an expensive luxury car's door click sounds like, and what a budget car's door click does. It turns out what we consumers are looking for more than anything is a 'correct' match of sound and object. We will for instance reject a car (= not buy it) if it is a budget car with a luxury car door click.

I found that super fascinating.

In general the psycho-acoustician conveyed to me that there's a large, mostly unnoticed but tremendously impactful world of product sounds with a growing body of research on them that designers are definitely taking notice of.
posted by bertran at 7:10 PM on February 22, 2014

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