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Why sound research will make a big splash

Why is there growing demand for sound products?

Jean-Yves Le Porcher, Director of sound experience at Ircam amplify
On March 6th, 2024 |
4 min reading time
Jean-yves le porcher
Jean-Yves Le Porcher
Director of sound experience at Ircam amplify
Key takeaways
  • Ircam Amplify is a commercial subsidiary of Ircam set up to meet the growing demand from companies for sound products.
  • Sound plays an increasingly important role in everyday life, not least because it is associated with the management of man-machine interfaces and enables users to find their way around.
  • The SpeaK method was developed by Ircam to characterise sounds and expand the sound vocabulary.
  • According to one study, sound can have a 40% influence on a consumer’s intention to buy.
  • Sound influences purchasing behaviour, road safety and the user experience, requiring particular attention in product design.

What is Ircam Amplify?

Ircam Ampli­fy is a sub­sidiary of Ircam (Insti­tut de recherch­es et coor­di­na­tion acoustique/musique). After set­ting up an in-house indus­tri­al devel­op­ment activ­i­ty, Ircam cre­at­ed this ded­i­cat­ed com­mer­cial sub­sidiary for the tech­no­log­i­cal trans­fer of its research work. In recent years, there has been a grow­ing demand from a vari­ety of com­pa­nies for acoustic prod­ucts. We respond to this need with a team of around thir­ty peo­ple includ­ing sci­en­tists (engi­neers, researchers) and cre­ative pro­fes­sion­als (design­ers).

We deal with sound in all its forms, from the sound that is emit­ted, trans­formed, and trans­port­ed, right through to its dis­tri­b­u­tion. We are divid­ed into two divi­sions: a tech­nol­o­gy devel­op­ment divi­sion for artists and the music indus­try, and a sound expe­ri­ence cre­ation divi­sion. The first essen­tial­ly devel­ops prod­ucts and soft­ware for pro­fes­sion­als in the music, auto­mo­tive and con­nect­ed object indus­tries. The sec­ond part, “expe­ri­ence”, which I man­age, cre­ates inno­v­a­tive prod­ucts and ser­vices that trans­form the way we expe­ri­ence sound on a dai­ly basis. They meet the needs of inter­na­tion­al cus­tomers from all kinds of indus­tries, from music to the auto­mo­tive and lux­u­ry goods industries.

Do you create “sound signatures”, associating sounds with products?

Yes, we believe that sound can be as impor­tant a mark­er as image in iden­ti­fy­ing a brand. This was a very real issue dur­ing con­fine­ment. How can you per­ceive – and sell – a fra­grance if you can’t smell it? What does a smell sound like? What does a taste sound like? Our answer is based on pol­y­sen­so­ri­al­i­ty. This word refers to a neu­ro­log­i­cal phe­nom­e­non that occurs when infor­ma­tion intend­ed to stim­u­late one of our five sens­es stim­u­lates another.

For some peo­ple, a sound can even pro­voke a taste in the mouth or be asso­ci­at­ed with a colour. Our job as sound design­ers is to find the sound that best evokes a con­cept, an ingre­di­ent, for a giv­en tar­get. But while we have a high­ly devel­oped vocab­u­lary for taste and smell, and we know how to define key con­cepts such as bit­ter or sour, we are very lim­it­ed when it comes to the vocab­u­lary of sound. So, we used the SpeaK method, devel­oped at Ircam’s “Per­cep­tion and Sound Design” lab­o­ra­to­ry, to char­ac­terise the sounds.

How do you build a vocabulary of sounds?

The SpeaK method is rel­a­tive­ly sim­ple. It takes the form of a pack of cards on which words from the lex­i­con of sounds are clas­si­fied into three cat­e­gories: the gen­er­al qual­i­ties of the sound, inten­si­ty (weak/ loud) and pitch (low/high). Tone is asso­ci­at­ed with sen­sa­tions of bright­ness and rough­ness. Mor­phol­o­gy is asso­ci­at­ed with tem­po­ral vari­a­tions in inten­si­ty (crescendo/decrescendo). A sound can, for exam­ple, be of low or high qual­i­ty, have a con­stant or fluc­tu­at­ing mor­phol­o­gy, a warm or bright tone and char­ac­ter. By work­ing on this vocab­u­lary, we have been able to attribute “sound cap­sules” to choco­lates or perfumes.

Sound is play­ing an increas­ing­ly impor­tant role in every­day life, not least because it is asso­ci­at­ed with the man­age­ment of man-machine inter­faces. For exam­ple, you know your com­put­er is charg­ing when you plug it in, because sound sig­nals the action. Man­u­fac­tur­ers are also work­ing more and more on the “organ­ic” sounds of objects, even if it means try­ing to make them qui­eter. If you want to sell an elec­tric tooth­brush, a hairdry­er, or a cof­fee machine, it’s not just the appear­ance of the object that needs to be tak­en care of, but also the noise it makes when in use.

Can sound influence buying behaviour?

Yes, we car­ried out a study on a pan­el of French and Amer­i­can users who test­ed two ver­sions of the same e‑commerce site, fea­tur­ing four fra­grances. The first site offered an audio trans­la­tion of each prod­uct, while the sec­ond pre­sent­ed the prod­ucts in the tra­di­tion­al, silent way. In France, 47% of respon­dents who test­ed the first site said they would poten­tial­ly buy the per­fume. For the tra­di­tion­al site, this rate was only 30%. The impact was even greater when users enjoyed the sound, with 40% intend­ing to buy.

Is sound used in certain sectors for safety reasons?

Euro­pean leg­is­la­tion requires hybrid and elec­tric cars to emit a min­i­mum sound lev­el of 56 deci­bels when trav­el­ling at less than 20 km/h, equiv­a­lent to the noise of a dish­wash­er, an office com­put­er or the ambi­ence of a qui­et restau­rant… The aim is to alert pedes­tri­ans and cyclists to the arrival of a vehi­cle. As our ears are trained to lis­ten to the noise of inter­nal com­bus­tion engines, they can be fooled by the faint sound of an elec­tric motor. In col­lab­o­ra­tion with Renault, Ircam is work­ing not only on this exte­ri­or sound sig­nalling (VSP: Vehicule Sound for Pedes­tri­ans), but also on the acoustics inside the vehi­cle. This has a lot to do with mar­ket­ing con­cerns, as some users have com­plained about the lack of char­ac­ter­is­tic sounds in new car mod­els. Peo­ple who used to enjoy the typ­i­cal engine noise of a 2CV, a Volk­swa­gen Com­bi or a Maserati do not like the silence of the new vehicles.

Do you use existing sounds or create completely new ones?

It depends on the prod­uct. When the object is par­tic­u­lar­ly inno­v­a­tive, it’s some­times bet­ter to work on exist­ing sounds. For exam­ple, when you place a doc­u­ment in the recy­cle bin of an Apple com­put­er, you hear an object falling, then when you emp­ty the recy­cle bin, you hear the sound of crum­pled paper, which doesn’t cor­re­spond at all to what’s hap­pen­ing in your com­put­er! But it’s the clos­est metaphor (or skeuo­mor­phism1) that allows the user to find their way around this new environment…

Marina Julienne

Ref­er­ence :

Speak lex­i­con: https://​speak​.ircam​.fr/​l​e​x​i​q​u​e​/​l​e​x​i​q​u​e​-​i​rcam/

1In dig­i­tal design this con­sists of imi­tat­ing the appear­ance of a real object when design­ing a vir­tu­al object.

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