Imagine you’re a child and you’re riding in the back seat of a car at night. You watch the trees passing by you through the window, and then you close your eyes so you can feel the vibrations through the seat. All the while the engine softly rumbles all around you, surrounding you like a blanket. Over half of parents surveyed said they’ve used “dream drives,” taking their children on a drive at night just to help them fall asleep. But what if you’re driving an electric vehicle? Would it still have that soothing rumble?
Last year Nissan partnered with Tom Middleton to find a way to preserve this timeless experience in the Nissan LEAF, an electric car that would normally be completely silent. To help the LEAF sound and feel more like an old-fashioned car, Middleton created an ambient album of combustion engine sounds called the “Nissan Leaf Dream Drive” that’s available on Spotify, Google Play and other platforms. To learn more about it, just click the link below:
This isn’t the first time sounds have been added to electric vehicles to make them seem more familiar, and it won’t be the last. A new EU law mandates that by this July all hybrid and electric vehicles will need an “acoustic vehicle alert system” to make sure pedestrians can hear approaching vehicles. Those sounds are required to resemble a gasoline engine, and to scale up and down with the vehicle’s speed. A similar “quiet car” law will take effect in the United States this March, after a six-month extension.
Electric cars are just one example of how new technology is changing many of the sounds we take for granted, and how we’re working to bring those sounds back in new ways. You may have heard of the “coconut effect,” especially if you’re a fan of old westerns or a certain Monty Python movie. Whether it’s coconut shells clapping to imitate galloping horses, or the squealing tires during every car chase, or whirring, beeping computers, there are sounds in movies that we just expect to be there. It turns out that many of the sounds we take for granted in our lives work much the same way.
If you’ve ever had a cell phone call drop – and who hasn’t? - you could probably tell after just a second that the line’s dead. But how did you know? Though we don’t usually notice it, there’s a slight background hum added to digital telephones called a “comfort noise.” It’s only there when the line’s open, and when that hum stops we know that the call’s ended without even really thinking about it.
That hum was just a side effect for landline phones, but we’ve become so used to it that, even though modern phones don’t really need it, we’ve added it back in. Smartphones also do this with buttons that click when you press them, even though you’re just tapping a screen, while haptic feedback gives your hand a slight jolt with each click. It doesn’t need to do that, but it wouldn’t feel right for us if it didn’t. From rumbling vacuum cleaners and clicking car locks, from satellite radios with fake static to potato chips meant to crunch with each bite, a surprising number of sounds around us are intentionally designed to enhance our lives. For a closer look at some of them, check out this video:
As digital technology expands and replaces older, mechanical sounds with silence, it turns out that at least some of those background noises, whether it’s the rumble of a car engine or the hiss of a phone line, are still pretty useful. Sound remains an important part of our lives, and in many ways the audio industry is now working to replace and improve upon those missing sounds.
Most of us aren’t that comfortable with things being too quiet. Having those little clicks and hums all around us helps give the world context, and reassures us that everything’s still working even when nothing seems to be happening. Ambient soundtracks and background noise generators are becoming more popular these days; the link below discusses the difference between distracting noise and relaxing background sounds, and illustrates that subtle difference with a coffee shop ambience:
While it often feels like we’re simply reacting to the sounds all around us, those sounds, more than ever before, are being molded to fit our needs and meet our expectations. As technology works to make our devices, our cars and even our homes quieter, we’re finding more freedom to fill them with the melody of our own lives.
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