Product Sonification: Elevating The Consumer’s Experience Via The Beauty Of Sound Engineering
Cult favourite Dyson is one brand that takes sound (or the lack thereof) very seriously. At close to $400 each, Dyson’s bladeless fans are as much of a status symbol as they are a fully-functioning household appliance. But the journey of creating a near-silent fan had its obstacles. Despite its otherworldly design and concept (a running party trick when the fan first launched was to shock/impress guests by inserting one’s hand through the opening), the first-generation Air Multiplier really wasn’t very quiet.
$60 million, 65 engineers and 640 prototypes later, the Air Multiplier underwent a well-needed facelift in 2014, eliminating its irritating 1,000 Hz hum akin to a mosquito’s high-pitched buzz. Its successor, the Cool Fan, was 75% quieter, made possible thanks to the invention of the Helmholtz cavity, which reflects pressure fluctuation to improve the fan’s tonal quality. Aero-acoustics engineers used a combination of microphones, complex 3D models and high-speed cameras to test the new technology.
Creating beauty-centric sounds
More recently, Dyson’s foray into the beauty industry has been changing the way people perceive their everyday beauty tools. Gone are the days when we would begrudgingly ignore the deafening racket of high-powered hairdryers, all in the name of vanity, because Dyson’s Supersonic hairdryer has transformed this dream into a reality. Also bladeless, the device’s internal motor has 13 blades instead of the usual 11, thereby pushing the sound emitted beyond the audible range for humans.
That being said, elevating the user’s product experience in the world of beauty isn’t something new, but it’s often overlooked. How many times have women parted with their hard-earned money for a product, only to be disappointed by the finishing of the packaging? Worldwide, the value of the cosmetic packaging industry alone is estimated to be about $170 billion a year. In general, higher-end products are packaged more elaborately, often evoking some sort of emotional response like nostalgia, reliability or wealth. And it isn’t just about how they look; it’s also about how they sound.
During an interview with Peter Philips (then-Creative Director of Chanel makeup), he talked about the painstaking effort it took to create a multi-sensorial experience for beauty lovers. The subtle “click” you hear when you snap your favourite Chanel lipstick cap shut is more than just a simple sound. During packaging production, it would have taken dozens of reiterations to achieve that specific click, which gives the user the impression of luxury and elegance. At Chanel, every single detail is taken into account, from the sound a skincare bottle makes when it’s placed on a tabletop, to the sensual twist of a jar cover as it scrapes along its grooves to lock perfectly into place.
Complementing the consumer’s experience
Award-winning audio designer Karel Barnoski echoes this sentiment: “sound is perceived very much in the same way as any other type of stimuli. By manipulating sound, you can affect the user’s perception of an experience. Through sound, you can make a product as elegant, simple or complex as you desire. Therefore, it’s essential to design the audio experience in such a way that it becomes parallel to the other aspects of the product. Otherwise, there might be a disconnect between the auditory and visual experience for the user.”
“If a product sounds elegant, users are going to perceive it as elegant. But if the product sounds cheap and crude, like the sound was thrown in at the last minute, that’s the way users are going to see the rest of their product experience,” said Barnoski in an interview with UX Magazine.
As a sound designer, Barnoski has designed a multitude of sounds for consumer electronics, appliances and applications, with top-of-the-line brands like Whirlpool, Microsoft and Kodak as part of his clientele. One of his most notable works is the Kodak V-Series camera, which was nicknamed the ‘James Bond’ camera when it was first released. Working with Kodak’s creative team, Barnoski created a sound experience that echoed the camera’s sleek style, reminiscent of our favourite 007 agent’s image. When you turned the camera on, the power-on sound reminded you of a James Bond movie soundtrack, tying into the central theme, resulting in a seamlessly unified user experience.
Making a sound impression
But truly, is sound engineering a profitable business? For Radium Audio, these sonic worlds help connect users with brands and businesses. The Emmy Award winning music and sound team elevates the experience people have with sounds, crafting a unique form of narrative through what you hear.
Radium’s founder, Andrew Diey, talks about the time when he was approached by luxury car maker Bentley. It was 2008, and Volkswagen had just acquired the British brand not long ago. A new Continental GT model was going to be released, and expectations were high. Luxury was of utmost importance, and every interior sound, from the indicators to the alert systems and heads-up displays, had to be on point.
While touring Bentley’s collection of luxury cars, he gained valuable insight into the psyche of the Bentley driver. “He or she is someone who has achieved a certain level of success, and rewards themselves with a Bentley. When designing aspects of the car, you have to account for this psychological element. You need to convey the satisfying feeling of ‘I have made it’”.
In cheaper cars, the indicator often gives off a plasticky, tick-tock sound. For Bentley, Diey chose to incorporate the sound of a stoic grandfather clock, and proceeded to contact as many antique stores, warehouses and markets possible to find the perfect sound. Live recordings were made in locations like Portobello Road Market, the London Antique Clock Centre, an old antique warehouse in Glasgow, an antique shop on Edinburgh’s high street, and also the Bentley factory itself. At the warehouse in Glasgow, they recorded thirty different clock sounds.
The question is: why a grandfather clock? According to Diey, “It evokes craftsmanship, and paints a picture of comfort and effortlessness. These sounds are like small pieces of art that influence the overall feel of the car.” After much tweaking and balancing, Diey finally created the perfect clock tick for the Continental GT – a “clean, unfussy and to-the-point” sound, which was then fitted into the car via a computer chip and played directly out of the car’s speaker system.
Bringing the experience into your living space
Taking the speakers out of the car and into the home, there is no denying the importance of a superior sound system to enjoy your favourite tunes in utter comfort, without compromising on sound quality. For the audiophile, timbre is one of the key aspects (if not the most important) to consider. Also referred to as ‘tone colour’, timbre gives music its unique texture and richness. Listeners who take great pleasure in recognising the subtle nuances of a performance will know how essential it is to capture these overtones.
When putting together a home audio system, your top priority lies in accurately-reproducing the timbres of original recordings. Your speakers shouldn’t place additional emphasis on any particular frequency, but instead, keep the highs, mids and lows in the same proportions as on the recording. Based on years of acoustic engineering and innovation, British audio and sound system brand KEF’s speakers are timbre-matched from series to series, making sure all your left, center, right and even rear speakers deliver second-to-none articulation.
The brand’s Acoustic Compliance Enhancement (ACE) technology has solved the problem of bulky speakers, delivering the same bass performance from smaller speaker boxes with the ingenious use of activated charcoal. Placed inside the loudspeaker cabinet, the tiny holes in the porous ACE material act like small air sacs in a lung, helping the bass ‘breathe’ more easily. With ACE, size is no longer an obstacle, but potential waiting to be explored.
In a world where UX reigns supreme, product sonification has opened our ears to a new frontier ahead of us. With the beauty of sound engineering, there can only be even more exciting things in store for consumers to expect in the near future.
Cover Credit: Victor Furtuna / Unsplash
Writer | Michelle Tan
Underneath her RBF, Michelle is actually a friendly raccoon. Loves collecting ugly things, changing her hair colour, and dinosaurs (not necessarily in that order).
October 14 2021
Thanks for the quote and credit to some of my sound design and sonification work. Great article!