Tiny Music: The navigational sound that is our co-pilot on the journey through digital experiences.
Bridging the Digital and the Real
We live in a world where we are required more and more to interact with the digital. The digital is all around us, for better or worse. In this world, our interaction with products, services, and the companies that make them has become bi-directional. We are no longer passive consumers, but active participants in the stories these companies are telling. Because humans communicate primarily through sound, it is the key to intuitive and emotional engagement in these experiences. It must be carefully crafted and curated so as not to annoy or overwhelm, but provide emotional connection and intuitive direction.
Digital experiences in one form or another have been around since the first video game in the late 1950s (that’s right, it was before Pong!). Since then, video games have largely led the charge in interactive digital sound experiences… until recently. The rapid proliferation of smart phones and service apps has created a new captive audience: the private, personal “audience of one”. As the technology has developed, digital footprints have also exploded on site at stores, museums, shopping, malls, interactive call centers, restaurants, public transportation hubs and stations, the list goes on.
The curmudgeon at this point says: “Stop! Please, please make sure that none of these things make noise. There’s too much sonic trash around as it is.” I agree. They should not make “noise,” but does that mean they shouldn’t make sound? And if, as makers of this stuff, we program them to make sound, why not have it be musical sound while we’re at it? I’m not suggesting that if you walk up and touch one of Control Group’s Wayfinding Kiosks it should play a music track (buskers do that already, and better, I might add). No. I’m talking about tiny music, or navigation sounds (okay, and sonic logos too).
Beyond Bleeps and Bloops!
If a pop song is a paragraph, a navigation sound is a word and a sonic logo is a short sentence. Navigation sounds, or as we at Man Made Music call them, Brand Navigation SoundsTM, are those little markers that help lead your way through an app, a digital touch screen experience, or even a public space with potentially no screens at all. But “they’re just little bleeps and bloops” you say? No way! In order for the sound to have impact, function, emotional connection, and not be annoying, they need to be carefully constructed. Every little sound, whether it’s a hefty three seconds long, or simply two-hundred milliseconds, is made with the same elements that make up a piece of music: pitch, rhythm/tempo, timbre, and envelope.
You’ve Got Voicemail
It would require a treatise-length piece to explain in detail how all of this works. Actually, this is interesting in and of itself because it’s understandably hard to believe that such a small amount of sound can have this many components, but they do! The iconic iPhone “Tri-Tone” voicemail alert is a perfect example of tiny music. Even if you don’t have an iOS device, you’ve probably heard this sound out in the world. Here it is, in case you need a refresher:
First I want to clear up one thing: Neither of the two musical intervals in this sound are a tritone (oft-considered one of the most dissonant and tension-filled intervals in Western music). It’s made up of a perfect fifth and perfect fourth, arguably the least dissonant intervals in Western music. But I digress. What makes this sound so effective is the purity of timbre, simple harmonic consonance, and a succinct, yet slightly imperfect (slightly swung), rhythm (approximately three 16th notes at 110 beats per minute). When making this sound, it would have been easy to simply string together three distinct notes, but they chose to let them overlap, as if played organically by human hands on an instrument. If you listen carefully, you can hear the first and second note sustain into the last one. It’s entirely possible that it was played, actually. Sometimes when making these we have to zoom in and manhandle each note or beat and in doing so things can get mechanical sounding very quickly. Depending on the character of the brand voice, we must painstakingly re-create that imperfect quality that so effectively bridges the gap between the needs of the user and the interface.
The Sum of Its Parts
Another very important factor in the making of tiny music is how multiple sounds fit together in the experience as a whole. Timbres should be related, that is, cut from the same cloth so to speak. The relationship between pitched elements is really important, just as it is within one sound in the example above. Consider another iOS example (Can you tell I’m an Apple guy? Yep.): the “ready tone” you hear when activating Siri.
It’s a quick two-beat tone (rea-dy). If you let go without any input or if Siri can’t understand you, the same sound plays, but down a fourth. Hearing this drop sounds like a nice “I didn’t understand”. I have no data to back this up, but hearing a drop in pitch sounds like “nope” to us Western humans anyway, because it mimics the relative pitch direction our voices take when we respond in the negative. Remind me to find a linguist and have some research done… Anyway, in this case, a drop via a consonant interval (the perfect fourth) makes the “nope” less annoying and more related. It’s the answer to a question posed by the ready tone instead of an unrelated error. The experience has a unified feel.
Clarity in Execution
Just like any piece of music, it’s important that navigation sounds and logos speak clearly over the speakers they were created to play through. The sound in question spans an entire octave so it speaks clearly and loudly over a variety of small speakers (e.g. iPads and iPhones). Because of its bright quality and high register, it perks the ear immediately. In order to create this bright quality it’s important to first pick timbres/textures that are bright in character. However, if you can’t do that, it’s possible to bring out some of the upper harmonics from a slightly darker sound as well using some studio tricks. One that works well for us is to layer, at a very low volume, the same sound pitched up an octave or two. It’s not loud enough to hear as a separate element, but it gets your attention quite nicely.
So there you have it, a little window into the not-so-humble world of sound in under three seconds. The amount of words it takes to describe it is, unfortunately, inversely proportional.
Hear an example of the “Tri-Tone” iOS notification separated into its three distinct notes:
Ben Arons is Creative Director, User Experience at Man Made Music. Talk to him on Twitter @BenArons.
Digital experiences have been on everyone’s mind here at Man Made Music. Companies are creating more digital experiences for their customers than ever before and media companies are no exception. With the upcoming untethering of HBO, floating into digital space as HBO Now, and CBS’s new All Access live-streaming and broadband service, we are expecting a wave of digital media subscription apps. This sparks an opportunity for these brands: Since they will no longer be stuck in the clunky, inefficient interface of the cable box, brands can deliver content to their users in a way that is unique, engaging, and tuned to their needs. Through knowing our audience well, we can create a user experience that draws the user in and keeps them engaged, and best of all, entertained!
A perfect example of this is some work I had the pleasure of doing for Man Made Music recently: the sonic user experience design for the Noggin iPad app. The fine people over at Nickelodeon created this kids media app to be a platform for a huge amount of their back catalog and what better way to do it than to leverage one of their existing brands? They knew they needed an immersive sonic landscape to engage the user base of preschoolers, based on the existing Noggin theme song, and to support the characters who lead kids through the experience, Moose & Zee. Our task was to figure out how to use the existing theme to create an app that these kids, and their parents, wouldn’t want to put down.
What does it take to keep a four-year-old engaged in a digital experience? A simple visual interface filled with bright colors and fun, friendly characters combined with an ever-evolving musical background and buttons that provide playful, instant sonic feedback. What does it take to keep their parents from wanting to ’shut that darn thing off’? Some of the above, plus a taste of nostalgia in shows, a theme they know well, and real instruments playing the background music of the app (this is hard to find in kids entertainment these days).
Nuts & Bolts
Luckily, several of us working on the project are parents and have plenty of experience with trying to keep our kids attention. Most pre-schoolers love music but have notoriously short attention spans, and the trick to keeping them interested is to keep it lively and change it up. To achieve this we considered the different app landing spaces as different environments: introduction/loading, channel selection list, and then the specific channel itself. The introduction is a composed piece based on the existing theme and the other two are the theme itself, but played on different instruments, such as a person whistling and a melodica, that come in and out over time. The channel selection environment is the place where kids spend the most time so it has the most material. Because of engineering considerations (which we are always contending with in UX design) we had to limit the space the music requires in the app (more material = larger file). We decided on a one-minute loop which, in ‘toddler time,’ is an eternity! Lastly, the interactive moments/buttons transitioning between landing spaces were created to be fun to touch (sound is immediate upon pressing them), as well as extensions of the background sound (matched key/pitch and texture-relevant). Each one sounds like it could almost be a moment in the music as well as a reward for tapping the right spot.
In the world of User Experience, it goes without saying (although I’m going to say it anyway) that every decision we make must be empathetic and consider deeply the perspective and context of the human interacting with the digital world. This particular job was a joy to work on because we were directly accessing our inner children. I hope if you use the app, that immersion into the world of Moose & Zee will do the same for you!
Ben Arons is Creative Director, User Experience at Man Made Music. Talk to him on Twitter @BenArons.
As a followup to my favorite topic, sonic trash, I thought I’d write about something unexpected: There is some sound on the street that you should seek out before the season comes to an end. That’s right, sound on the street you won’t hate! This year, the holiday window installations of three big department stores in Midtown Manhattan have included sonic with their offerings.
The city is crowded and especially packed with tourists and their families seeking to bask in the glow of the Rockefeller tree, shop, and get in the spirit of things. This makes for an even higher baseline of noise and competing sounds, but hear me out. You’d think that this would make any music emanating from above store windows very annoying or indiscernible at best. Case in point, the sound above the window display at Harry Winston (an ethereal, floating, generic Christmas soundtrack), while not particularly connected to the experience as a whole, was so different than the sounds of the environment that it pulled me in from across the street. Before I knew it, I was staring longingly at the diamonds in the windows of the storefront.
Now and Then
Let’s get something straight. I am not setting out to do a critique of these windows. They are all awesome and represent best-in-class window design, hands-down. However, the ones that really stood apart to me, the grumpy sound guy, are those that use sound in a way that drew us in.
Barneys New York leads the pack with their Baz Dazzled wonderland, a collaboration between writer/director/producer Baz Luhrmann and designer Catherine Martin (The Great Gatsby, Moulin Rouge). We should expect no less the full-on spectacle from these two. What struck me in particular about this experience, though, is that it is fully immersive for the passer-by. The bar has been set! No longer is sound outside a storefront just a subtle impression of what’s going on behind the glass. It is what’s going on behind the glass. Without the sound and music, it would be a beautiful abstract but with it, you are led on an emotional journey.
A beautiful and compelling visual transported beyond by a great musical soundtrack:
In this excerpt, a ‘steam-punk’ owl reads poetry. ‘True Owl’ by Chris Cole:
Next up is Macy’s, of course! By the way, they set the standard way back around the turn of the century (the 20th century, for all you Millenials out there) when plate glass first became widely available. This allowed them to construct large windows, in some cases, the length of the entire store. It didn’t take long for all the retailers nearby to realize the importance of window displays.
The holidays became a time for a special theme in these windows and evolution grew from then… to now:
This year each window frame is another mini-chapter in the full story of a little boy who goes on a fantastical Christmas voyage through his telescope. Again, it’s fully immersive as with the Barneys exhibit, but more Disney-like in character. There’s even an interactive component as kids can interact with a touch-screen game in the lower part of one of the windows.
Granted, I was out there seeking sounds for this article, so maybe you’ll have a different take on this, but I thought they were delightful! I love this time of year in New York City (unless I’m on the train at rush hour from Midtown… very different story for a very different article) because it is transformed by twinkly lights, sparkling reflections, a cheery, curious, demeanor and… new sounds! There is so much awesomeness emanating from these windows that I was distracted from the hideous sounds of sirens, honks, loud trucks, garbage cans, et al. I hardly even noticed them as the sonic trash sank into the background.
When out shopping and surveying the streets this holiday, remember to pay close attention to the spectacle of sound that these artists have pulled off so masterfully in their window displays. The emotional connection they forge with the future customer can be largely attributed, at this particularly festive time of year, with their indispensable sound tracks. Let us know any of your favorite window displays in the comments below or on Twitter.
Let’s face it. New York City is just too darn loud (insert video clip of Huey Lewis from Back to the Future). It’s a fact of life. Through casual observation, I’ve noticed that most folks out there are pretty desensitized to it. Makes sense. It’s nature’s way of protecting us from constant distraction. If we weren’t constantly filtering, we’d never have survived this long. Unfortunately this filtering can have a negative effect as well: Because we aren’t immediately aware of the onslaught of sound around us, we are less likely to avoid it. If the average noise level of a nearby ambulance or fire truck siren doesn’t make you wince and cover your ears, something is wrong. Are people worried they might shatter their street cred? Or, and more likely, they probably have what I call “ear callouses.”
Now, I consider myself something of an odd duck because unlike most folks I see roaming the streets, I still cover my ears when said ambulance goes by. I’m fighting against desensitization every day because as a sound engineer and sonic user experience consultant, I make my living with my ears. On a basic level, my job involves analyzing the effects of acoustics and sound on people in public spaces. I am here to tell you that ear callouses are bad for you. They serve to dull the immediate pain of loud and intrusive sounds, sure, but the psychological effect of them remains: increased stress and irritability.
We all know that prolonged exposure to high sound pressure levels can cause physical hearing loss, but what about the more nuanced psychological effects? Let’s assume the aforementioned ear callous is merely a psychological phenomenon, loosely defined as a condition where conscious acknowledgement of sound is inhibited due to overexposure at high volumes (the guy with the jackhammer in the middle of Fifth Avenue drilling away with no earprotection would be an extreme example). Having ear callouses actually causes the subconscious reactions to sound – stress, fear, anxiety, etc. – to be more extreme because you do less to protect yourself.
When it comes to sound desensitization, I see three main sonic factors at play that can either be its cause or solution: the source of the sound itself, the acoustics of the space in which they are transmitted, and the balance or blend of them in that space (especially those of you with ear callouses, try your best to listen up!).
The Sounds Themselves
At the most basic level, when sound travels to our ears, it provides information about our environment. For most animals, the ability to sense or hear sound is a survival mechanism that could indicate the presence of a predator, for example.
When the sound provided doesn’t provide any information about its surroundings, we call that sonic trash. There’s plenty of it that you might be willing to accept on a conscious level, but could be elevating stress and anxiety beyond your comfort level on a daily basis.
Here’s an example of sudden disturbance that can elevate your stress: riding on the Amtrak Acela. You’re sitting in a quiet train car, reading a book and basking in tranquility, when the person across from you decides to get up and – WHAM! – the footrest smacks against the back of the seat. The reaction to that noise is something we have little control over, and those without ear callouses might literally jump in their seats. But everyone who can hear the sound has been disturbed, and that peaceful, smooth ride they worked so hard on is taken down a few notches because they neglected to put simple rubber nubs where the footrest should land against the back of the seat.
To build on the ambulance example above, let me bring up the hideous screeching and grinding from a 4/5/6 train when it enters the Union Square MTA station here in NYC. This is another place where, shockingly, you don’t find people covering their ears!
You might think every station suffers from this problem to some degree (Union Square was measured as the worst), but there is one that I’ve been in that doesn’t: The Brooklyn-bound E train platform of the 53rd and Lexington station. Why? I have no idea. If any of you can find out, please indicate so in the comments. When the train comes into this station it’s like a small boat approaching a slip. All the whoosh, grind and clacks are sucked up by the sound absorption above. The sound of the people on the platform is affected too. The loud CLOP CLOP CLOP of shoe heels becomes a controlled and very delicate poc-cik, poc-cik, poc-cik, with one simple echo of each hit instead of a massive buildup turning into an aural stampede. Here’s an easy solution: What if every major MTA station in New York had sound baffling on the walls and ceilings over the tracks? It would make for a much more relaxing experience, and since 4.3 million people ride the subway every day in New York City, it could also make for a happier, calmer population.
Cover It Up or Blend It In
Sonic trash is a growing problem, and New York City has plenty of it. The result is a massive amount of sound-desensitized New Yorkers who are often irritated and aggressive. The only way to get a New Yorker to relax is to remove them from the city – and it’s not just the fresh country air that they appreciate, whether they know it or not.
At Man Made Music, one of our major offerings is transforming physical spaces to make them sonically optimized. We might go into a restaurant and set up the sound system in a way that makes the seating area feel tranquil despite the large amount of people in the area. Or, it could be creating an experience for customers when they walk through a physical space to tell a brand story, like we did for AT&T’s Flagship Michigan Avenue store in Chicago.
Instead of deafly wading through the hullabaloo of modern city living, it behooves us to pay close attention to how the sonic world we inhabit affects us. Simply covering our ears may be an appropriate step to improving our overall health and mood, but if we actually pay closer attention to our environment, we might be able to affect change. The more people that notice the causes of this sonic trash on a personal level, the better off we will be as a whole.