Written by Jennifer Walden. Images courtesy of Jaguar Land Rover Automotive PLC.
What if a car was so quiet it didn’t make a sound, and so you could give it any sound you wanted? An engine for an all-electric car wouldn’t have to sound like a standard combustion engine. (Here’s a great summary of how combustion engine sounds are created, for US visitors.) It could sound like anything. It could react sonically in ways that break typical conventions. For example, acceleration wouldn’t have to produce a higher pitched engine sound. Maybe it produces the opposite, a descending tone, so the faster you go the lower in pitch the engine gets. Maybe it reacts in a completely new way, with one sound morphing into another the faster you go. But how far could you push it? How far would you want to?
For good or bad, the human brain has been conditioned to recognize and interpret standard engine sounds. Some even find satisfaction in them. Tons of money goes into research on how to make a specific car sound the way it does. For instance, there’s the engine ‘purr’ that Jaguar prizes. So when Jaguar was developing the I-PACE — their first all-electric (and nearly silent) car — they were faced with the question of, “How do we want this vehicle to sound?”
They turned to Atlanta-based electronic musicIain and sound designer Richard Devine, who recently released a new album “Sort\Lave” on Planet-mu/TimeSig Records. (Check it out on Bandcamp). Here, Devine shares details of what it was like to create the engine and interface sounds for Jaguar’s I-PACE, and how he went about doing it.
What was your official title and responsibilities on the Jaguar I-PACE project?
Richard Devine (RD): Sound Designer was my official title. I was also working with Iain Suffield who was the NVH Technical Specialist at Jaguar Land Rover. He was overseeing all my work, and helped me tweak and format all the sounds into the vehicle.
This wasn’t my first project with Jaguar. I’ve done some other work with them which led up to this. We did internal research and worked on a prototype car for which I did some initial sound design, to test different technologies before they released the I-PACE out into the world. We wanted to make sure that what we were doing was going to work and so there was a lot of trial and error.
The whole reason we had to create the sounds to begin with was because of legislative law that passed in the UK, which stated that all-electric vehicles had to make a sound so that visually impaired people could hear the cars coming. There’s nothing really mechanical about the car that would generate enough sound, so it presented a new problem sonically that wasn’t there before.
Iain contacted me over Twitter (of all places) and just sort of randomly. He said he saw one of my shows back in 2003 when I played in Birmingham and that he’s been a big fan of my music for a long time. He said he worked with Jaguar Land Rover in the UK on their design team, working with the engineers that design engines for the cars. He asked if I was interested in working with him on this project. I’m all about jumping into new projects that deal with sound in a way that I haven’t worked with before. This seemed like something out of the ordinary that was really interesting.
I was excited to learn about this process as it’s so different from what I’ve done in the past, which is a lot of work in TV, video games, advertising, website sound design, and UI sound design for apps. Last year, I worked with Google doing user interaction sounds and Ambisonic ambiences for their virtual reality platform Daydream. So this was another project that was out of my realm of experience.
I learned a lot throughout this process. It was strange and unusual because I had to work to a very specific speaker specification because they had speakers that are outside the car and there are different speakers that are inside the car. So what the passenger and driver hear inside the car is actually quite different from what the pedestrians/people hear outside the car.
Is it two different sounds that play simultaneously — one for interior and one for exterior?
RD: Yes, we did two — one you hear inside the car and then a similar yet different sounding one for outside the car. I also worked on a ton of other sounds such as: system ready await error sounds, all the touchscreen navigation system sounds, the engine EV exterior sound, and engine sound for the interior. I did some different SMS ringtone-type sounds. There were all kinds of user interaction sounds like cluster sounds. I worked on the ‘Left’ and ‘Right’ blinker sounds. We spent a lot of time trying to get that right.
Everything had to have an identification marker to tell the user what the car was doing. I had to come up with a sonic language for the car.
Any sounds that would be heard repeatedly by the driver/user — like, warning or notification sounds that come up for a hazard on the road, or the seatbelt chimes, or the startup beeps — we spent a lot of time on those sounds, trying to find the right balance of articulation (what the sound should say to the person or indicate what state the car is in, e.g., is it charging? Low on power? Seatbelt fastened?) Everything had to have an identification marker to tell the user what the car was doing. I had to come up with a sonic language for the car.
Then, when you get near the car with the key remote, it senses that you are close-by and so there is a sound that I created for recognizing when you are near. It wakes up and lets you know it’s there.
Hear some of the engine sounds of the Jaguar I-PACE here
It was almost artificial intelligence-creepy in a way. We’re moving into the realm of technology getting to know you and your habits. The cars that my wife and I drive definitely don’t have the level of technology that the Jaguar I-PACE has. This car is closer to a Tesla than a gasoline-based car. They’re utilizing the latest technology to make this car what it is. It was eye-opening and ear-opening too. You take for granted all the things that a mechanical car has, like the vibrations and noise of the mechanical engine. I’ve had a gasoline-based car my whole life, ever since high school. My mother-in-law has a hybrid and driving that around is really strange. It switches to electrical mode and economy mode where it doesn’t use as much gas. I always feel like the car has just died on me. It sounds like it just turned off. I’d stop at a red light and think the car has turned off. It switches to electrical mode and the battery kicks in and you don’t feel it. It’s weird for me because I’ve spent my whole life driving gasoline-based mechanical cars which sound different and feel different when you hit the gas pedal. It’s just an entirely different experience.
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Since the I-PACE is an all-electrical car, you don’t have those gasoline-based engine components creating sound. So as you were coming up with sounds for the I-PACE, were you constrained to people’s ideas of what a car should sound like? Did the engine have to sound like ‘an engine’? Did the turn-signal have to make a tick-tock sound because people are used to that?
They gave me many documents that showed pictures about lifestyle and what their brand means — modern, technical elegance, hand-crafted, precision, confidence
RD: That was one of the most difficult parts to tackle. I had to meet with Jaguar’s branding division that was overseeing everything. There were many levels of interaction and research on these sounds on a company-wide basis. The sounds would go through a first research group of people at Jaguar, then to another level of approval, and then another level. When I first started on the project, they sent me numerous concept boards, visual cue points, and info about the brand and the company heritage. They gave me many documents that showed pictures about lifestyle and what their brand means — modern, technical elegance, hand-crafted, precision, confidence… all these terms that match the brand. They’re centered around luxury. Another thing was ‘the purr’ of the Jaguar engine. A Jaguar engine has this ‘purr.’ So I decided to do a little research based on that.
Before I started designing any sounds, I set up a meeting with the Jaguar dealership here in Atlanta. They allowed me to record all the cars — their current line of cars and also some older models from previous years. I wanted to see where all of the engine sounds sat harmonically. So I captured some internal engine recordings with DPA 4060 lav mics. I gaffer-taped them to the engine. Then I had Sennheiser 8040s in ORTF and an X/Y set. I have four pairs that I used for the interior sounds. I wanted to conduct an engine study of all of their current cars.
I also captured some of the Range Rover vehicles because they and Jaguar are owned by the same company. (We did another project, a research hybrid Range Rover luxury vehicle. We did some sounds for that.)
The focus study was mainly on the Jaguar. I recorded the interior and exterior engine sounds. I analyzed all of that in the computer and listened to it. Then, we went out on a race track where I could hear a car at higher RPMs, lower RPMs, and in the idle position. What is the engine doing at 40 mph, 50 mph, and at max speed? I listened to the harmonics and made notes. I heard some similarities between all the engine sounds.
Then, I re-synthesized those engine recordings. For the Jaguar project, they didn’t necessarily want me to make a “motor” sound. They knew they wanted there to be traces of the past in the new sound. So I did a play on harmonics. I was going to build the engine sounds with synthesis but make it more modern.
They also sent me some sounds they liked for reference, like the podracers in Star Wars and the bikes in TRON. I did some analysis on those sounds. They essentially wanted the I-PACE engine to be smooth and electrical sounding.
This process took a while. I did many, many “engine models” until we finally got down to a group of “engine models” that they really liked. They would implement those into the engine and test them out.
I was designing the sound here in Atlanta and they were testing the I-PACE at a track in Coventry, UK. So they had a B& K (Brüel & Kjær) binaural recording system that they used for all of the interior and exterior perspectives. They would implement my sounds into the car’s software and then they’d take the car out on the track and I’d be able to hear my sounds through their playback system, with the wind noise and interior ambience, just like I was there in person. So I was able to get feedback right away every time they set up a test.
I was also using Jaguar’s proprietary software to layer different types of sounds, whether they were generated synthetically (via the Jaguar software) or my own samples. What ended up being the final product was a combination of samples that I created using synthesis and then internal synthesis using Jaguar’s proprietary software. There were layers of sounds that I had made using Kyma (by Symbolic Sound). I used the Pacarana system to generate some additive-type sounds. And I used a Native Instruments’ Reaktor patch that I built specifically to create the engine tones.
Before I built the patch, I was looking at different things like FMOD and some of these gaming engine algorithms for driving simulations. I wanted to see how they set up these environments to control the sound with a pedal, for acceleration/deceleration, and load limit/passenger capacity and how the on load and offload filters affect the sound when you are accelerating. So I decided to build something of my own because I couldn’t really find anything that did that with synthesis. I created one in Reaktor. It turned out to be pretty cool. That was Jaguar’s favorite.
That was the biggest challenge. How can I create a pleasurable sound that people can hear for hours and hours and not drive them absolutely insane?
Based on the examples they sent me, I was trying to figure out how I could do this. It was a lot of problem-solving. That was the biggest challenge. How can I create a pleasurable sound that people can hear for hours and hours and not drive them absolutely insane?
So there were so many challenges to this project. It was probably one of the most challenging that I have ever worked on because there were so many other things factoring in. A lot of projects I’ve worked on you may only experience the sounds in short spurts, whether that’s a 30-second TV commercial or even a 90-minute film. Even with a videogame, which people might spend hours playing at one time, it’s still different. With a car, a whole family could spend hours in there on a car trip to the beach. You can spend 17 hours in a car. And the engine sound is something that you hear the whole time.
There was a lot of trial and error that went into this project. We would try out sounds and they may have sounded good in the higher RPMs or the lower RPMs, but the sound ultimately had to work for both. There was a lot of experimentation with modulation and cross-modulation of oscillators and different filters. You want to create sounds that will mix well harmonically and also cut through the ambient air. When you’re in a car, there are a lot of other distractions — ambience and conversation and the radio is probably on. And then there is wind noise.
The sound that you ultimately gave Jaguar, was it a steady-state sound that, via their software, reacted to the driver’s input?
RD: Exactly. That was the only way that we could make it happen. There wasn’t a lot of memory either so I couldn’t use long audio files. I had to create a bunch of seamless loops that could play through their software, which could also generate synthesis as well. So there was sound-sample playback and internal synthesis playback. It also had its own complex filters and other effects that could be applied through the system.
Was their software kind of like a game engine?
RD: Yeah, and I had the basic tools to construct the sound but I had to do a lot of work to make it what the final outcome was.
What was your deliverable to them? Was it an MP3, or AIFF?
RD: It was a WAV or AIFF file. We didn’t do any compressed audio. They wanted everything high-res. So the files were all at 24-bit/96k. I don’t know if they got compressed later but that was my deliverable.
They’re in this unknown territory, trying to create this new set of car sounds and we’re making things up as we go along.
This was all new for Jaguar too. They had a lot of questions about what they’re doing because they eventually want to move all their cars in this direction. They know they want to make this happen, but they don’t have a reference or point of comparison with other manufacturers. They’re in this unknown territory, trying to create this new set of car sounds and we’re making things up as we go along. Then, we discover things and have to figure out a solution for it. We have to come up with sounds that will give the user feedback on what’s happening with the car. There was a lot of back and forth, figuring things out.
Ultimately, how would you describe the sounds you made for Jaguar? What are some adjectives that you would use to describe these sounds?
RD: I really tried to make the sounds and the whole user experience — like the welcoming sound you hear when you sit down and power the car on — as on-brand as possible. I wanted it to feel like an elegant, luxurious experience. It’s very classy and modern. I tried to make sure nothing sounded dated. Jaguar didn’t want it to sound too techie. We had discussions about not making it too Matrix or Predator, nothing super-techie. They wanted something more simplistic and smooth, warm and refined.
If I had to pick three terms, I’d say: elegant, classy, and modern. I tried to keep the sounds in those categories. Nothing sounds too jarring.
Did you start with organic sounds and then resynthesize those? Or were these all synthesized sounds that started in the digital realm?
RD: It was all synthesized. I did engine recordings and I also did some experimentation with different “purr” sounds, like hummingbirds and fan blades and small motors that emulated the Jaguar “purr,” mainly to just get some ideas going.
Eventually, the best route for us to get the exact sound that we wanted was via synthesis. Programming synthesizers is one of my strong points. I make patches for virtual instruments and plug-ins for a lot of other companies and so I had an advantage in that. That is something that I was doing already. I have a good understanding of how to use synthesis. If you just give me sine waves I can make any sound you want.
And that’s where the ‘hand-crafted’ aspect comes into play. You ‘hand-crafted’ these sounds for Jaguar out of raw sine waves?
RD: It was sine waves, and square waves, and some custom wavetables that I used. I did use wavetable technology where you can draw in your own wave shapes so you don’t have to use typical square, sawtooth, or sine waves. You can draw in different wave shapes that have different harmonics and things happening. When you layer all those up, you get different pitches and different harmonics with different filters. You get this overall multi-layered sound that makes up the engine tone. So, yeah, it was built with synthesis from the ground up. That was the only real way we could achieve the sound that Jaguar wanted.
A big thanks to Richard Devine for introducing us to the innovative and leading-edge sounds of the Jaguar I-PACE – and to Jennifer Walden for the interview!
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