Have you ever taken a joyride in a really nice car? We’re talking massage seats, audiovisual entertainment, and air-conditioning that feels like a breeze filtered directly from the Swiss Alps. While these things all scream luxury, there’s also something a little more subtle that whispers luxury: The sound.
Building the soundscape
When you hear the term the sound of the car, one of two things likely come to mind:
1. The engine: The smooth purr of a sports car, the desperate whines of an old jalopy, and everything in between.
2. The sound system: Beats made for the streets emanating from the subwoofer, or maybe that weird buzz you hear when you try pump up the volume anything above Grandma Levels.
But engineering a car’s soundscape has almost nothing to do with the mechanical sounds your car makes. According to Kara Gordon, GM’s Noise & Vibration Performance Engineer (promise we didn’t just make up that title), today it’s not enough for a car to simply run well – it needs to sound like it’s running well too.
So what exactly is a car’s soundscape? It’s what is known as product sonification and is designed by audio engineers to enhance the user experience, mostly for luxury products. It’s why closing a door on a 1995 Toyota Corolla sounds so different to closing the door of a 2020 Mercedes-Benz GLC.
“Sound is perceived very much in the same way as any other stimuli,” explains award-winning audio designer Karel Barnoksi, “By manipulating sound, you can affect the user’s perception of an experience. If a product sounds elegant, users are going to perceive it as elegant. But if the product sounds cheap and crude… that’s the way users are going to see the rest of their product experience.”
Designing how sound feels
One example of product sonification in cars is the blinking sound of the indicators. In older cars, this sound was a byproduct of their relays but in modern cars, this sound is no longer a mechanical necessity.
Indicators could be completely silent, but drivers got so used to it that it became an important part of the experience – now it’s carefully designed to give drivers exactly what they expect when they flip the indicator.
But when it comes to super-luxury vehicles, sound engineers have more room to play (and funding to experiment with).
According to Andrew Diey, founder of sound and music studio Radium, the person who drives a Bentley wants to feel like they’ve “made it.”
For a car that costs upwards of R3,6 million, we get that.
View this post on Instagram
While working with Bentley, he wanted to avoid the “plasticky tick-tock sound” of cheaper car indicators (ouch, Andrew) – instead, choosing the sound of a grandfather clock. Hundreds of live recordings were tested at various locations across the United Kingdom until they settled on the perfect sound.
Now that’s a pretty classy indicator.
The most luxurious sound is silence
Driving in perfect silence (while feeling like you’re coasting on clouds) has long been the mark of a luxury car.
It’s one of those simpler luxuries you don’t really notice until it’s gone; until you’re driving a rickety old car on a road full of potholes or cruising down the highway while your car sounds like it’s about to launch into outer space.
As it turns out, silence really is golden.
Silencers like insulation, aerodynamics, and (car) body weight are all extremely expensive and difficult to reproduce for cheaper cars. In fact, in most lower- to mid-market cars, the only reason you don’t hear a cacophony of vibrations and humming is because they’re all drowned out by the volume of the engine.
Some car manufacturers like Nissan, Volkswagen and Honda are working hard to keep their cars quiet, and it’s not just for luxury. As Honda engineer Andrea Martin puts it, “Low and mid frequency noise levels can dramatically contribute to driver fatigue, and higher frequency noise levels can also inhibit the ability to hear conversations in the vehicle.”
Using everything from paint sealers to insulating spray foam to acoustic glass to tighter window channels, car manufacturers are getting smarter about silence to give their cars the impression of luxury and safety – without the luxury price tag.
How does your car sound?
Next time you go for a ride, listen a little closer to how your car sounds.
The way your key clicks, the satisfyingly deep thud of your boot closing, the sharp metal clink of your seatbelt and the slap of your visor as you put it up were all engineered by entire teams of professionals who wanted to give you the best user experience possible.
Somewhere out there, a team of sound engineers will really appreciate the fact that you noticed.
Apart from all the normal car sounds, sometimes there’s also a whizz or a brrrrr that definitely wasn’t an engineer’s choice. Get covered with Motor Warranty from dotsure.co.za to keep your car sounding, looking and feeling in tip-top shape – getting a quote only takes only 3 minutes and is obligation-free!
Top 5 gifts for your favourite petrolhead
What does the law say about pimping your ride?
Why you should never drive without a child car seat...
Could whiskey waste drive the future of motoring?
Is your car roadworthy?
5 Car maintenance tips you should know