Your browser is out-of-date!

Update your browser to view this website correctly. Update my browser now


Product sound design

In this week's feature The Prof explains why the sound a product makes is becoming just as important as the way it looks

Does your shaver sound manly and virile, or is it discrete and soothing? Apparently the gentlemen among you want it to sound like it’s having to work hard to cut through all that tough stubble on your face, whereas the ladies prefer it to sound like it’s doing as little work as possible… (I can’t think why). Research in product sound design aims to find ways of tailoring the sounds made by consumer and industrial products so that the overall experience can be optimised by a designer. Until recently the sound made by products was largely neglected, with most of the attention being placed on the visual aspects of design, but the Product Sound Design Group at the Technical University of Delft is working to change all that. In a recent study they redesigned the sound of the Senseo Crema coffeemaker, for example, using synthesised sound mockups to enable listeners to rate aspects of its sound quality. A powerful rumbling boiler was simulated, as well as various other options such as a “warm and homely” sound. (If you read my article on the emotional impact of sound logos a few months back, you’ll recognise some things in common here.) The sounds things make matter a lot, telling us about whether they are working or not, leading us to like them or believe certain things about them, perhaps. One of the most well-known examples of the importance of product sound design is the car door-closing “thunk” that almost everyone wants to hear as a sign that they have a quality vehicle. You don’t want it to go “ting” when it closes, do you? Then there’s the fantastic and patented Harley Davidson exhaust sound that is surely at least half the reason its fans buy the bikes. But what about electric cars? They don’t make much noise at all, and the driver may struggle to know that the engine is even working, let alone pedestrians being able to hear them coming. A short while back researchers from GM’s Advanced Technology Office did a study on designing interior audio cues for electric and hybrid vehicles, suggesting that even when there is no engine to be started as such, there is still a need for an ignition sound to tell the driver when the car is ready to go. There was also an attempt to divide potential users into customer groups, such as early adopters of new technology and environmentalists, who might prefer different sound designs. The Delft group also worked on medical alarm sounds. It’s important that such sounds can be clearly identified, yet not create such a cacophony that they mask each other or that nurses start to ignore them. They found that the internal structure of many medical alarms was lacking because the alarms had similar temporal patterns (repeating on/offs, for example) and there was not a clear hierarchy based on urgency. Well-designed alarm signals were easy to learn and had a clear hierarchical structure to indicate their urgency. The group also described a product sound sketching tool (called PSST!) at last year’s AES conference on sound quality evaluation, consisting of a number of so-called phicons (physical icons) that could be manipulated by designers to control the synthesis of product sound mockups. Take a look at some of their ideas at, which as you might expect is something of a “sound rich” website.