In the past when a car door was shut, it sounded with a click or a clunk as its mechanical parts locked together. The door, in other words, sounded shut. As automobile engineering grew more sophisticated and the mechanism of the door was replaced, that click was elided. Enter the engineer who tunes the car door to make just the right sound as it latches so we know it has been shut properly. Click. Clunk. The technology itself tends toward silence but we, the human operators whose savvy still trails behind that of the technology we use, still require auditory feedback which must now be faked.
The case is the same with the electric car, which makes only the sound of wheels rolling and wind blowing. A new US law requires that hybrid and electric cars emit a minimum level of sound to warn pedestrians, blind and otherwise, of their approach. As an answer, some automobile companies have hired acoustical engineers to produce the sound of an electric engine. Take AUDI, who received a writeup recently in a number of publications including Wired and the blog designboom:
“For future use in its electric ‘e-tron’ models, AUDI has developed ‘e-sound’, a realtime technique of generating synthetic motor sounds for the essentially silent vehicle.”
But why settle for a backward-listening game of skeuomorphs and imitations, re-creating the shaky vroom of the combustion engine? AUDI engineers are projecting the sound of a future, composing the automobile. They are experimenting with what a car, having lost its noise-making mechanisms, should and could sound like. It is an act of imagination as much as legal compliance. (The photographs in the text remind me of nothing so much as John Cage’s story about the non-silence of anechoic chambers.)
The legislation is a challenge like those made famous by the Oulipo and Dogme 95—a restriction that necessitates creative maneuvering to overcome. Unfortunately, the manufacturers respond by composing the equivalent of sonic ad copy. The post notes that AUDI has taken the opportunity to experiment with “the creation of a perfect sound signature to represent the brand” and that
“each model of the e-tron is planned to have a unique sound.”
This is the natural extension of a common branding tactic: the recognizable sensation. Though enthusiasts may have been able to discern a Mustang from a Mini Cooper in the past, soon the sound of an AUDI might be as easily recognizable as the taste of Coca Cola, the scent of Chanel No 5, or an icon of Che Guevara’s face.
I see a more promising response suggested by designboom’s description of the way the composed engine sound is generated and projected:
“the ‘e-tron’ car does not broadcast prerecorded engine noises but instead generates sound in realtime to the millisecond, calculated based on data including the electric motor’s rotational speed, vehicle speed, loads, and other parameters.”
It’s striking that the car is a system of controls for modulating a pre-determined tone—AUDI’s e-sound essentially turns the automobile into a rolling instrument for playing the sound of the engine, one controlled by pedals and levers in lieu of valves, keys, or a grid of blinking buttons.
Artistic uses might make e-sound less useful as a safety feature—at least for now—but this should not stop us from considering the artistic potential of the idea. It is easy to conceive of a MAX/MSP module that feeds different sounds into the car and interprets them according to all the environmental variables a modern car measures—a voice modulated by speed and moisture, a mangled twitter feed with pitch and tempo controlled in near-infinite precision by torque and temperature. Perhaps manufacturers will design the cars to ring out in harmony with one another and in dissonance to their competitors. Maybe car owners will hack the sounds of their cars to respond to one another, their distance and speed acting as the parameters of a living, moving compositional system.
Of course there are tensions implied in these potential uses and willful misuses of e-sound, clashes between commerce and art: Will the sound of your car be trademarked? Could a musician be fined for hacking into her own car’s sonic hardware? For including the sounds of traffic in a recording? Could that same musician escape litigation by sampling traffic instead? By chopping and screwing it?
In any case, this development seems to be a seed for a soundscape where these concerns become meaningless. To speculate: I imagine e-sound spreading to any household appliance with sensors and moving parts: toasters, Roombas, washing machines, refrigerators. We will have tuned living rooms, kitchens humming happily. Life in the home will be a tightly defined, melodic drone, a perfected realization of Erik Satie’s Furniture Music,
I also imagine, perhaps naively, that once traditional music ceases to be the dominant composed sound in public the combinations of self-created and corporate whirs and buzzes will start to define their own technological sonic ecosystems filled with little eddies and flows, the new wash of nature.
Images via Design Boom
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