5 Clever Ways Products Use Sound To Trick Your Brain
Basically everything you can buy was at least partly designed by a crook who wants to deceive you. That's just the nature of the game. And the more subtle the deception, the more likely it is to succeed. For example, you probably don't think a whole lot about how products sound, and that's why marketers think about it all the time. They know the sneakiest way to slip their products into your subconscious is through the little cash-holes on either side of your head. That's why ...
VoIP Adds Fake Static Because We Find It Reassuring
The ability to call somebody over the internet is cool and all, but it's not perfect. There's always a quiet hum, like white noise, in the background. It's barely noticeable, and not enough to interfere with the call in any way. If anything, it reminds you that you are in fact in a conversation, and that the audio didn't suddenly cut out just because the other person is taking a very long time to mentally prepare their reply to your marriage proposal. But here's the thing: VoIP could be perfectly clear if the makers wanted it to be. That static sound is added artificially, on your end.
Why? Because users seem to prefer it. The noise makes the call sound a little bit more like what we think calls should sound, based on decades of inferior phone use. Part of the issue is that digital recording is a lot better than phones of yesteryear, and so could sound freakishly clear, but there's more to it. A lot of the time, when you're talking to someone over VoIP, the line transmits absolutely nothing to you, but creates this fake noise, called comfort noise, to trick you into thinking it's doing something.
For about half the call, the person on the other side is saying nothing, so there is no reason for the program to listen to the silence on their end and then transmit that non-information all the way to you. So the people who invented VoIP came up with something called "voice activity detection." When the other person isn't talking, the program detects that and stops transmitting, saving a ton of bandwidth. Then in comes the comfort noise to convince you the conversation's still happening and saving you from a call that audibly goes in and out.
When Skype was first being put together, engineers tinkered with a bunch of different levels of comfort noise to figure out which worked best. And while bandwidth for carrying audio may not be quite so scarce today as it was a decade or two ago, reducing bandwidth by half has got to offer some savings when multiplied across millions of users, so new versions of Skype still use the system. Currently, programs don't also fill silences with simulated breathing, the crinkling of chip bags, or the occasional unscheduled toilet flush, but we trust they'll add all those in time.
Most TV Animal Noises Are Dubbed In
If you're ever had the misfortune of watching golf on TV, you know that sometimes the commentators stop talking and there's just a terminally awkward spell of birdsong and wind. During the PGA Championship in 2000, alert viewers discovered something off about these sounds: One bird heard on the broadcast was a white-throated sparrow, which wasn't native to Kentucky in the summer (where and when the game took place). "And you said my interests in birding and golf made me boring!" said one hypothetical viewer. "But look at me now! I uncovered a FRAUD!"
CBS admitted that yes, the viewers were right about the sparrow, and were right about a canyon wren who'd sung over a different tournament in Ohio. The network played taped bird recordings over the broadcasts. It's really hard for their mics to pick up ambient sound, so these prerecorded noises help fill the silence. When possible, they do try to use the calls of birds from the actual area, but that's not always an option. One way they pick up native calls is to set up separate microphones next to piles of birdseed, hoping to attract birds -- which you might say is also a way of artificially adding in bird sounds, and even weirder than relying on tapes.
Of course, most people don't tune in to golf for the birds, or tune in to golf at all, so that's not too much to get worked up over. But full-fledged nature documentaries, where the authenticity of the animals is the entire point, also use dubbed-in sounds. The roars and chirps you hear in even the really great ones like Planet Earth are a combination of sounds of other animals recorded in the area, sounds of animals recorded years earlier, or completely synthetic sounds mocked up digitally.
They kind of have to do that because of the way they shoot those documentaries. Their cameras use powerful zoom lenses, and that's no secret. They never claim the camera guy is standing 2 inches from the lion tearing through a gazelle's flesh. But there's no way to isolate and zoom in on individual sounds from hundreds of feet away, at least not without secret Department of Defense tech. In a normal film, they pick up actors' lines using boom mics right outside the frame, and that's not an option when you want to stay far from the animals. Either that or they plant hidden wireless mics on the actors themselves, and while pinning a mic on a rampaging hippopotamus may seem awesome, the process has been soundly rejected by the Screen Animals Guild.
Acoustic Technicians Manipulate All Sorts Of Car Sounds
We're all vaguely aware of why cars make noise. There's an internal combustion engine, there are parts that suck, squeeze, bang, and blow, and that sort of thing can make quite a racket when you're not careful. But car technology has been advancing every year, so if we didn't want engines to be so loud, they no longer would be. We do want engines to be loud, though, so we make those suckers loud ... artificially. In the case of electric cars, we're even forced to by law, lest silent vehicles mow down pedestrians who have no other way to know when one's coming, like visually impaired people.
With some cars, manufacturers make them loud to suit buyers who think the loudest cars are the most powerful ones. Harley Davidson counts on you revving up your engine and blasting everyone behind you in gaseous testosterone, and when Japanese competitors started making motorcycles that sounded similar, Harley tried to get their sound trademarked. When BMW and Ford found that their engines weren't throaty enough, they turned to active noise control, pumping in extra engine noises through the car speakers.
Having V8 engine noises coming very obviously out of speakers comes across as fake, but your car doesn't resort to that sort of thing, right? Maybe it does, but handled a little more elegantly. Say, if the turbocharger reduces the engine noise too much, they'll tweak the exhaust to push it back up. They'll mess with the cylinders to add a more metallic flavor. Manufacturers have aural engineers who work in studios comparing possible configurations. One, says an engineer, might sound like a dull pop song, another like something smooth from Kanye West, and another rougher, "a bit of a dizzy rascal."
Engineers fiddle with the sounds of other parts of your car, too. Doors used to shut loudly, then safety standards mandated that they be reinforced, which left them with a weak clink instead of a manly thunk. So automakers added in dampers to muffle the clink and added additional parts to generate the thunk. Is the sound of a door as important as the engine? No, but it does happen to be the very first sound you hear when trying a car out that you want to buy, so it had better leave you with a good impression.
The "Pouring A Soda" Sound Was Electronic
Picture how it sounds to pour out an ice-cold glass of Coca-Cola. You probably imagine a very distinct sound of liquid sloshing out of the bottle in a series of glugs, and then bubbles popping, getting louder as the beverage's level rises. Now actually go pour some Coke into a glass. You'll notice, to your horror, that there's actually not much of a sound at all. Sure, there'll be a fizz as soon as you unscrew the cap, but when you actually pour it, the bubbles don't make anywhere near that much noise. Unless you put your ear right up to the glass, and then you're a person listening intently to your drink, which makes you seem a tad off.
The sound you associate with Coke was created by advertising folks. The Coca-Cola Company calls it the "pop and pour." It isn't even a recording of a heavily amplified actual pour, but a sound totally synthesized electronically, and it was made in the '70s, when synthesizing sounds electronically was a strange and frightening new technology, probably the work of witches.
In 1974, New York advertising firm McCann Erickson was working on a Coke campaign called Coke Adds Life. Don Draper had died a few years earlier (killed mid-sentence by an escaped Russian hitman), so they had no one to help them fill a few seconds of awkward silence within a jingle. Then in walked sound designer Suzanne Ciani, who had been trying to get a job with McCann, and who wasn't actually referred to as a sound designer at the time, since that title didn't exist yet. The music director asked for her help, and the rest was pure audio shenanigans.
"Of course, bubbles don't make sound," she'd later admit, "but this is the magic of sound design ... you can create the concept of a sound and it seems real." She banged out the pop and pour using her Buchla, an analog modular synthesizer that she'd carted over from the other side of the country. The sound was reused again and again over the following decades. Ciani went on to some renown as the first solo female composer for a Hollywood film, but she's going to spend the rest of her life answering questions about how she fooled us into thinking falling soda can sound whimsical.
Snapple Spent Years Getting Plastic Bottles To Pop Like Glass Ones
After a long time selling their beverages in glass bottles, Snapple recently started making the shift to plastic. Considering some of the complaints people have recently raised against single-use plastics (like straws, or worse, coffee stirrers), this might sound like an awful, backward decision, but from the company's standpoint, plastic has a lot of advantages over glass. The big one is weight. Using PET saves a ton on freight costs and greatly reduces energy consumption. Plastic also tends not to shatter. That means less loss to breakage, fewer toes injured by dropped bottles, and virtually no deaths from blood loss after stepping on shards.
But customers were so used to getting Snapple in glass bottles that the company figured they might respond to any kind of change with misplaced fury and thunder. So they aimed to make the new plastic bottles as similar to the glass ones as they could. The biggest challenge with that was getting the caps to pop when you first open them.
Popping is something most metal caps on glass bottles do naturally, but screw caps on plastic bottles don't. It happens in glass bottles because of air pressure and the fact that the bottle is totally rigid, but that goes away when you switch to flexible plastic. So Snapple engineers set about figuring out how to keep the pop, and the process took years. The final product featured a vacuum within the bottle, used extra thick walls, kept a specific liquid level to maintain a minimum amount of removal torque, and distributed the capping force through lugs without deforming the plastic finish ... and that's just the engineering stuff we can understand well enough to relate.
Beyond that, there's even more proprietary bottle tech they keep secret. They figured it was all worth it, though, because consumers really care about the cap's pop, just as much as they care about their Snapple facts. (Snapple bottle caps have recently surpassed TV networks as authoritative news sources among the 18-34 demo.) Consumers associate a popping cap with freshness, so the pop is essential for Snapple's image. After all, who would ever buy a bottle of filtered water, sugar, and juice concentrates if it didn't sound fresh?
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