Interactive Sound in Cars
The role sound plays in a car has shifted during recent years. We sat down with Fredrik Hagman, interactive sound designer at Volvo Cars, to find out how the automotive industry uses sound today and what lies ahead in the future.
Fredrik, you work as an interactive sound designer at Volvo Cars. Tell us a bit about your background and what lead you to your current position?
Music has had a big impact in my life, mainly from a listening perspective but I’ve played myself in various constellations over the years, mainly as a front singer. In 2005 I found an education at Örebro University focusing on electrical engineering with a twist of sound production. After getting my bachelor’s degree, I was pretty sure that sound production as a profession wasn’t for me. I was instead getting more and more interested in why we perceive sound differently. Starting with myself I wondered why I got the physical reaction of goose bumps when listening to certain music.
To find this out I applied to Chalmers Technical University in Gothenburg which at the time was renowned for its work in psychoacoustics and emo-acoustics, in other words how sound is affecting our emotional state and what we can do to alter this. I finished with a master thesis on how different acoustic spaces alter your reaction to sound and the knowledge that my goosebumps are closely connected to my personal memories. After graduation I was eagerly searching for jobs within this pretty narrow field and luck, good timing and a much-appreciated mentoring from my good friend and colleague Pontus Larsson then led up to my current employment at Volvo Cars.
And as an interactive sound designer at Volvo, what kind of work are you involved in?
I´m involved in all kinds of work related to actively adding sound in our cars, both interior and exterior, mainly for information and warning purposes.
Our work consists of matching the sound with the desired experience of the car, function and brand.
Our customers are internal stakeholders for the different functions and brands within our company. For the moment, we’re delivering sounds to Volvo Cars, Polestar and LEVC, a company delivering the London Taxi. Besides the sound design that reaches the end customers, we also deliver sound design to prototypes and research projects within the company.
Our work is very centered around cars and interaction with the driver, the passengers and the surroundings, finding a good usability for sound and a sound design which fits both the functionality and the brand. We work in regular DAW’s, but our studio environment is often shifting from a regular studio to in and out of different cars.
Is the soundscape in a car an important detail of the total experience?
I believe sound plays a crucial part of the total experience of the car. In the automotive business, sound has historically been treated mainly in the context of noise, but that mindset has shifted, especially with the introduction of electric vehicles. In combustion cars we´re constantly using the sound to get an appreciation of the vehicle speed or the strain on the engine. These are sound cues that gets lost in the electric car.
Information sounds have previously been designed with a main focus on safety and audibility. This has changed in recent years and now we, besides the safety and usability part, also consider these sounds as a brand feature or differentiator. For the driver, information sound is the cue to either complement a visual message or be the main source of information in the case that your visual attention is blocked or occupied. This is also something we explore in our research project together with Pole Position and RISE Interactive.
At Volvo cars you have sorted the sounds in different categories. Why is that?
In general, when we talk about sounds at Volvo Cars, we divide them into three categories. Sounds that impress, sounds that inform and sounds that annoy. The fact that we humans don’t have any “earlids” makes us always aware of our sound environment and changes that happens in the same. This is very useful for sound as an information carrier but needs to be treated with care since it’s easy to cross the line and cause annoyance instead. Working with sound design for cars is therefore a search for the sound usability. If there is no sound usability, the driver is better off without sound in order to fully focus on the task of driving. When analyzing our users’ responses to our sound design, we can see a clear connection between the usability of the sound and the annoyance caused by the same, and this is something that is independent of our work with sound design. Poor usability equals high annoyance and vice versa. Once the usability of the sound is secured, we can start enhancing the experience even further with our sound design.
In our previous cars, sound design was limited to a simple buzzer behind the speedometer to generate all sounds. This was obviously a major limitation to sound design but since the launch of Volvo’s current electrical platform, all sounds are being played through the audio system and all sounds are stored as .wav files in the system. This has been a great benefit for sound design, enabling us to work with conventional DAW’s for sound creation and also work more with the impressive part of the experience.
How do you find the “right” sound and how do you make sure it suits the car’s other attributes?
We start by looking through the brand material for the car and try to find a suitable scope for the sound design by selecting and sorting the brand keywords. We then start the process of putting sounds to these words and align that with our stakeholders. This is done by both sampling and use of synthesizers. We then end up with what we call a sound board, equivalent to a mood board for visual design. The aim for this is to agree on a timbre which represents the car.
For Volvo we´ve been designing an organic and serene sound interface with a rather elegant feel, making use of organic instruments and other organic sampled material. An example is the turn indicator sound which is a sampled, rather tiny twig from a fir tree, tweaked to a suitable signal with the intention of bringing the nature into our cars in the form of an actual Scandinavian fir tree.
For our sister brand, Polestar, we´ve taken a different approach with a more progressive and synthesized sound interface. Here we stepped away from nature elements and took inspiration from science and technology. We made a turn indicator for Polestar based on a Kronecker pulse, giving a sound which is far away from a conventional turn indicator sound but rather sounds like an electric spark, saluting the cars all-electric powertrain.
Next step in the process is to use the agreed timbre to create a set of sounds for specific functions in the car. Being a sound designer in the car industry means that we’re working a lot with perceived urgency of the sound. We alter the sound’s perceived urgency by altering for example pitch and repetition frequency of the sound. The perceived urgency can be measured in simulators by measuring for example the drivers time to reaction. There is also quite a lot of research in this area which we make use of in the sound design.
After iterative design loops with stakeholders, both in the studio and in the car, the chosen sounds are integrated to the core system of the car. The final but very crucial part is the tuning in the car where we do the spectral tuning depending on car cabin and audio system, as well as setting the final loudness of each sound before delivering everything for production start.
Your current research project together with Pole Position and RISE, what sound category does that fall under?
Going back to the three categories, I would say that this project combines impressive and informational sound design. We from the car industry are bringing the usability thinking into the sound design while Pole Position is bringing their knowledge from gaming sound design. One of the visions for the project has been to marry the two businesses of automotive and gaming to find the synergies when it comes to sound design, leading up to new ways of sound design for the car industry. That is why Pole Position has been the main responsible part for the sound design, of course with support and input from all project partners. RISE, the third partner of the project, are very much in the forefront when it comes to finding new ways of interacting with sound and all these competencies have been really interesting to bring together in this project.
Considering the ongoing shift in the car industry, where we are moving away from manual to more automated driving, the driver becomes a passenger and is free to do other stuff than focusing on the road. This enables sound to be used as a more primary cue for information, but not necessarily in the way we’re used to. Designing sound with perceived urgency in mind becomes less relevant when the car is driving by itself, and other design parameters are instead introduced. Having a project where we’re facing this challenge from different angles is truly inspiring.
I think we both learned a lot during the project and the results that are coming in sure look promising. We can see that sound interaction has a positive effect on gaining trust for autonomous vehicles and preliminary results show that sounds have an effect also for motion sickness. I won´t say too much right now but I’m rather excited and confident that we’ve found ways of using sound that have great potential.
Do you think that sound will play an even bigger role in future cars?
I think so, but probably in other ways than today. Autonomous cars and electrification will drive new user needs and desires and we hope that this project will satisfy at least some of them. I also think we’ll see that sound design becomes a factor also on the outside of the car. We can hear already today that electric vehicles are making sounds for lower speeds. With autonomous cars I can see an even bigger need for exterior communication which requires well thought-through sound design.