In Search of Sublime Sound | Germany| News and in-depth reporting from Berlin and beyond | DW | 17.11.2004
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In Search of Sublime Sound

In this ludicrously loud world of ours, one might argue that the last thing we need are sound designers, but apparently these are the people who can go some way to taming the willful nature of noise.


Noise is an integral part of contemporary life

Once upon a time, the sound of industrial noise was more acoustic waste than anything else and thus something to be accepted and not analyzed. But that was back in the days before sound fell prey to the booming design market.

"First and foremost, sound should convey an impression of quality," Thorsten Ronnebaum, who co-owns a company which tunes machines for other companies, told DW-WORLD. "Ronnebaum & Springer" put their ear to anything and everything from cupboard drawers to shower doors.

When it comes to shower doors, the decisive factor is the material from which they are made. "Solid shower doors have to generate a deep sound when they are opened and closed, yet if the same sound were to echo from a more light-weight version, the customer would be irritated," the sound designer said.

There are few creatures more choosy than customers, who, according to Ronnebaum, have a fixed idea of just how a vacuum cleaner should sound as it sucks the dirt from a dusty shag-pile. He says what they are looking for are not only audible dust particles, but a turbine which whirrs with a passion, as anything less will not convince them that the job is being done properly.

The way the cookie crumbles

Ronnebaum believes that human beings have an ear instinct, which requires sounds to fit with their expectations. "If the customer is spending time thinking about the way something sounds, it's too late," he said.

Bahlsen Keks

Should the perfect cookie crumble or crunch?

The principle can be applied to a multitude of noise-making accessories to daily life, including the good old cookie. Heinz-Dieter Lechte, who is responsible for research and development at Bahlsen cookies believes a good cookie is not based on the way it looks, or even the way it tastes. "Each cookie has its own sound", Lechte said. Some are supposed to melt in the mouth, while others have to crunch. And if the sound is not quite right, the cookie consistency is adjusted to meet the needs of the aural palette.

But all this racket about the perfect bite doesn't convince everyone. Peter Gries, spokesman for Bahlsen's competitor Griesson-De Beukelaer, thinks it's crackers. "The untrained consumer can't distinguish between noises," he said. "It's just a nice PR gag."

The roaring Porsche

Consumers apparently let their eardrums drive them when it comes to choosing cars. The Porsche plant in the southern German city of Stuttgart has had sound engineers in its employ since the late 1950s. These so-called "Vivaldis of the automobile industry" fiddle with exhaust systems, engine electrics and resonance fluctuations so as to create a sound which is sporty without being deafening.

Porsche 911 Turbo Cabriolet

Oh, the acoustic perfection of Porsche

The sound of slamming doors should be densely metallic, and even the tick of the turn indicator has to be perfectly tuned to perform in harmony with the rest of the automobile orchestra.

Men like it loud, women don't

What works on the highway doesn't go far in the intimacy of the home. Sound designer Ronnebaum says there are bathroom sounds for men and women. "The razor should have a deeply droning masculinity about it, and it should make a scratching sound to give the impression that the beard is actually being removed. Women, on the other hand, prefer gentle hair removal, and that's the way they want it to sound," he said.

Composers of contemporary industry can fine tune the cacophony to some degree, but as Ronnebaum says, "what we can't do is teach a vacuum cleaner to sing a happy tune."

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