Why music composers are replacing the sound of engines in cars

  • The increase in electric vehicle sales has raised the risk for pedestrian and cyclist collisions due to the lack of sound they make.
  • Lawmakers will require electric vehicles to emit a warning tone while driving at low speeds
  • Automakers are hiring music composers to turn their warning tones into audio logos, to give their EV's a distinct sound.
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Following is a transcript of the video.


Narrator: We're all guilty of this: walking down the street, staring at our phone, and neglecting our surroundings. Until... you hear a car coming your way. But the cars of the future might sound completely different, like this: [slow electric whirring] That's the sound of BMW's Vision M Next. Which was composed by Hans Zimmer, one of the most famous movie-score composers of all time. Or like this: [electric revving] That's the sound of Volkswagen's ID.3, which was created by Leslie Mándoki, a composer who played drums in the European disco band Dschinghis Khan. So, why are these cars making artificial sounds, and why are automakers tapping music composers to create them?

First off, what do the Vision M Next and ID.3 have in common? Well, they're electric vehicles, which typically sound like this. [silence] And that can be a problem, since we use our sense of sound to alert ourselves to oncoming traffic and other potential dangers. So if you were, say, distracted by your phone while crossing the street and a noiseless EV was headed your way, you'd be more likely to get hit. In fact, one study shows a hybrid vehicle accelerating on its electric motor is 1.18 times more likely to hit a pedestrian and 1 1/2 times more likely to hit a cyclist than a vehicle with an internal combustion engine.

Lawmakers in the US and Europe have passed a new regulation to minimize these risks. The solution is an acoustic vehicle alerting system, or AVAS, which requires hybrids and EVs to emit a sound that alerts pedestrians and cyclists to their presence. But sound doesn't only make EVs safer. It's also a way for automakers to give their cars a voice, or a sonic identity. Just as a Porsche has an unmistakable sound, something like Nissan's Leaf can now have its own sound, handcrafted by a musical genius, like Danni Venne, the lead producer and creative director for the Nissan Leaf AVAS tone.

Danni Venne: When the project came in, it was framed as, like, "There's a new regulation in town, and we're gonna put sound to the regulation. And I had to kind of turn my head around to think about, if I go to buy a, look for a car, go shopping for a car, when that car rolls in front of me, the way it looks, the way it moves, and the way it sounds is gonna have some sort of emotional impact that's gonna make you be like, "I want that."


Narrator: Nissan, like other automakers, wanted to turn its AVAS tone into a marketing device. Simply put, the AVAS tone would become an audio logo for the Nissan Leaf. And who better to compose a sound like that than a composer or a team of people who have studied sound and understand how to use it as a tool to market products? But first, Venne and her team had to figure out what instruments to use.

Venne: That piece of audio I'm talking about is going to be about two seconds or less, looped. And so two seconds of sound that's looped has to sound smooth. We experimented with a wide range of instruments. That said, I wanted to explore what suggests movement and power and energy.

Narrator: Venne and the rest of her team experimented with sound she categorized as pulsating, wavering, and smooth. Pulsating sounds mimic an engine in the way they bounce up and down abruptly. Wavering sounds are similar, but are much smoother in the way they bounce between notes. And smooth sounds are, well, smooth, solid tones that don't waver or bounce at all. Venne: You really have to go for instruments that don't have a hard attack to them. Wind instruments, flutes, oboes, clarinets. The tone in wood, in wind instruments can be more like this, right? It can kind of waver a bit, have a little wave to them.

Narrator: Finding tones and instruments that work was only the start of composing the AVAS tone. The sound had to be active. For every kilometer per hour, the tone increases in pitch and speed by 1%, up to 30 kph, or 18.6 mph. This way, pedestrians and cyclists have an audio cue of what the car is doing. After 30 kph, there's enough wind and road noise to alert pedestrians to a car's presence. [instrument humming]

Venne: This might be a sampled flute. Can't remember at this point. You can also, I started blending the pulsing sounds. [instrument pulsing] Some of these pure, organic tones, even though I like them, they ended up sounding a little spooky. You know, a little like ghosts. Some of the smoother ones, like [instrument humming] that... even though this feels a little bit like... that feels a little bit, to me, like a vacuum cleaner. Though it did suggest a certain amount of power. What we found, though, was we kept moving more towards sounds that had a pureness to them. And that led us to use a lot of sounds that were synthetic. Even though they might be warm and rich sounding, but using sounds that came from the synthesizer and then really manipulating those sounds. Layering them with different ones, 'cause we could have that complete control and stability. And I think that idea of, like, control and stability translates, then, emotionally, to, like, good engineering.


Narrator: While increasing in pitch and speed, the sound had to stay within the required frequency range. Once Venne and her team had a sound that Nissan approved, they used an equalizer to process the audio, adjusting various frequency ranges to make sure it met all the requirements of the regulation.

Venne: That's when it got to be very difficult to adjust things too much further than where the regulation needed to be. My engineers and mixers were going in with a very fine-tooth comb to just EQ it exactly. And that last stage of it was, I wouldn't call it creatively inspiring. It was challenging. It was very challenging.

Narrator: Designing an AVAS sound is much more complicated than it seems. The tone is twofold: On one hand, it needs to alert pedestrians and cyclists to a car's presence to mitigate collisions. And on the other, it needs to radiate a pleasant tone, one that will attract people to the car and the brand.