The Sound of the Artificial World

Roman Mars:
This is 99% Invisible. I’m Roman Mars.

Roman Mars:
Without all the beeps, without sonic feedback, all of your modern conveniences would be very hard to use.

Jim McKee:
I mean, try using your telephone without the beeps and i’s really confusing. You’re lost immediately. Did I get it? No, I didn’t get it. The number is there but I didn’t hear it. And you used to get it physically with the rotary.

[S for sound.]

Jim McKee:
This whole world is artificial. When I started I was working with this guy at the advanced product group at Apple.

[S-s-s-sound.]

Jim McKee:
And he had a case for a walkman, I think. And he opened it up and he closed it and you heard it click. And he said-

Roman Mars:
“Somebody worked really hard to make that click sound that way.”

Jim McKee:
That was an acoustical element on a mechanical device.

Roman Mars:
Well, there aren’t a lot of moving parts and mechanical bits in today’s devices, but Jim McKee still has to make them sound right.

Jim McKee:
My name is Jim McKee and I have a company called Earwax Productions. We do sound for film, radio, internet, and product sound design.

Roman Mars:
Quite simply, a product sound designer looks at a product and thinks “what kind of sound should this thing make when it does a particular thing?

Jim McKee:
So typically what I do is I create a bunch of button sounds.

Roman Mars:
These are would-be buttons for a Yahoo widget.

Jim McKee:
Say, okay, you guys tell me which ones are the closest and then you end up with what? 38 sounds here.

[Widget sounds]

Roman Mars:
I love that. I could listen to that all day. In fact, let’s hear it again.

[Widget sounds]

Roman Mars:
Oh yeah. The best sounds are not completely synthesized. They come from the everyday world.

Jim McKee:
My top drawer, my dresser drawer at home, over the years I’ve been collecting all these little things. You know? Like, oh, cool, a marble, and I would leave it there. Or oh, cool, it’s this little tiny shiny ceramic bowl, or some kind of funky clip. And I realized that all these things are very kind of intimate to me, very close to me, but they make sounds. The one cool one was dropping a small marble into this china bowl and it has a dynamic to it which everyone is familiar with. It bounces but then bounce-bounce-bounce-bounce-bounce.

[Marble bouncing]

Roman Mars:
That’s the marble, sped-up and compressed and EQ-ed and who knows what.

Jim McKee:
All sorts of things.

Jim McKee:
Actually the funniest one, the one that everybody loved, and it seems to have stuck more or less across the board, is the sound of a vice grip opening up because it’s got the click and the spring. And for some reason, it really works and people like the way it sounds. I think you can hear almost the same sound when you plug in your iPhone to get powered — oh no. When you turn it on. Hear it?

Roman Mars:
Oh, yeah I do!

Roman Mars:
If a device and its sounds are designed correctly, it creates a special theater of the mind that you completely buy into. Electronic things feel mechanical. It’s the feeling of movement, texture, and articulation, where none exists. On Jim McKee’s most recent phone project, the sounds that worked best were the ones you felt.

Jim McKee:
Resonating quality of the sound, in relationship to the chassis its self is what sold it. It’s like, “oh that feels…that really feels like it’s part of this thing.”

Roman Mars:
Once you find those frequencies that resonate in a device, you keep exploring that space.

Jim McKee:
It almost got to the point where I didn’t even have to ask them which one they were going to select because typically I would give them half a dozen ones to pick from, varying in volume, varying slightly in pitch, and I’d go, “okay, it’s going to be 46B.” And they’d come back and go “I don’t know why but that seems to work a lot better.”

[Music]

Jim McKee:
You take any actor and put them in a room, and they’re immediately going to find the size of the room with their voice, right? It’s just human nature. And so why can’t we expect the same thing out of our devices, you know? It needs to feel like its indigenous to this piece of plastic.

Roman Mars:
99% Invisible is produced by me, Roman Mars, with support from Lunar, making a difference with creativity. It’s a project of KALW, the American Insitute of Architects San Francisco, and the Center For Architecture and Design. Find out more at 99percentinvisible.org.

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