Sound Matters, part 2

A few days ago I touched on the importance of paying attention to all aspects of your product’s use experience, even to the point of considering the sounds it makes.

Sound character can be a vital element of your entire brand.  Consider the lengths Porsche went to make the new 911’s exhaust note evoke the same intense, visceral reaction in listeners as did 911’s of yesteryear.

To understand why sound is so important to Porsche’s brand, understand that the original 911 was powered by an air-cooled, boxer motor which sounded like nothing else.  Most cars used liquid-cooled motors in a vee or inline configuration, combinations which sound radically different than the raspy banshee wail of an air-cooled 911.  The new 911 uses a liquid-cooled motor, and the cooling fluid muffles the sound of all those whirring chain-driven camshafts, pistons and valves, much as wrapping a violin in muslin would deaden its voice.  As a result, the motor didn’t meet people’s expectation of what a Porsche should sound like when it debuted six years ago.

Porsche carefully engineered the old 911 sound back into the new car.  First, they recorded a sound signature of the 911 using 32 microphones in an anechoic chamber.  The design team used the resulting acoustic fingerprint to help shape the sonic character of the new 911 as heard from the driver’s seat.  They even placed a computer-controlled Helmholtz resonance chamber in the air intake manifold plenum.  The engine control computer automatically adjusts this resonance chamber to tune the sound of the motor in real time, much as trombone player adjusts his airstream to create music.  The result of all this is a car which sounds remarkably like an old Carrera RS even though it share very little mechanical DNA with that car.

The visceral element of a brand can (and should) be a source of intense emotions.  Porsche gets it.

1 thought on “Sound Matters, part 2

  1. I agree completely that the visceral elements of a brand should be a source of intense emotion — but you miss a crucial point about the quality and authenticity of the sources of that emotion.
    The sound of a 356 or a vintage Alfa (and I have both) is unique not because the design team spent hours simulating a sound in an anechoic chamber. Their sound has character because the engineering had character, distinction, individuality — the metallic raspy lope of the air-cooled boxer, the musical-mechanical growl of the twin cam, even the whine of straight-cut gears on early British cars were all solutions to a problem: how to go as fast as possible given the “stone knives and bearskins” available to that set of engineers on that day in that country and that decade.
    I am saddened, but not surprised, to read your description of the lengths that Porsche went through to “fake” the sound of an early 911. It reminds me of nothing so much as digitizing the moans of arousal of Angelina Jolie for an anatomically correct doll, and synthetically reproducing them when certain, er, touch sensors are stimulated in the right sequence. Or to use a more family-oriented metaphor (though one that requires a certain classical knowledge which may not be widely available), it’s a mechanical nightingale.
    Truly ground-breaking designs have always been cool because they ARE cool, not because they were carefully engineered to remind people of things that USED to be cool. They were cool because they were themselves, distinct from other things, neither pretending to be something they weren’t nor aspiring to something they couldn’t deliver. You seem to understand this when you talk about “authentic” design — I’m surprised you don’t realize how inauthentic, how ersatz the “sound stylists” at Porsche are by comparison.
    Now, if you really want to work yourself up over something that defines the difference between design (old Porsches, old Alfas) and style (making new Porsches sound like old Porsches), look at the differential housing on a 105-115 series Alfa. It’s cast from aluminium, finned for rigidity and cooling, and every curve and post of it reminds the viewer that this was engineered by the direct lineal descendents of Benvenuto Cellini and the architects of the Duomo di Milano. But the most magnificent thing about it, what makes it truly COOL in a way that the wonderful Mini Cooper S exhaust tip (as much as I love it, and the story about it) can never duplicate…
    …is that nobody ever looks at the differential housing of a car. It isn’t beautiful in order to make a statement, to attract attention, to nudge market share up a point or two.
    It’s beautiful because the people who made it were fundamentally incapable of making it any other way. It’s an engineering solution, yes — just as Bernini’s columns in front of St. Peter’s were an engineering solution. But they’re not TRYING to emulate Bernini, or the duomo — it’s just the way they thought, the way they designed, the way they engineered for lightness, strength and heat dissipation. But because of who they were, they couldn’t help but make it beautiful.
    THAT is why the old 911 (and the 356 and the Giulia) were, and are, such landmark designs, and that’s why the cars are so engaging to drive today. The cars sound the way they do because the engineers were working to maximize the effect of the negative exhaust pulses at the valve face at a certain RPM, and that combined with the sound of cam chains, lifters, fans and gears give these cars a uniqueness that isn’t synthetic or artificial.
    One’s real. The other’s fake. It’s a very DETAILED fake… but it’s a fake.

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