Friday, June 24, 2011

Reassuring Sounds

Here's an interesting article about designing sound into (5) products we use everyday:

A car door is essentially a hollow shell with parts placed inside it. Without careful design the door frame amplifies the rattling of mechanisms inside. Car companies know that if buyers don’t get a satisfying thud when they close the door, it dents their confidence in the entire vehicle.

To produce the ideal clunk, car doors are designed to minimise the amount of high frequencies produced (we associate them with fragility and weakness) and emphasise low, bass-heavy frequencies that suggest solidity.

Reminds me of the phones back in the days when there was only one phone company. That was Bell Telephone, and when I was a kid they offered one phone, the model 500. In the 60's they introduced the Trimline and Princess phones (the "gay phone" lines), but mainly everyone had the 500.

They were almost Soviet in design, no pretty in them, but they were solid and had the kind of heft that could put an unwary intruder into a coma should you choose to defend your home with Ma Bell's property.

Anyway, in 1970-something I had occasion to work in the recycling center for these phones. (the phone company actually rented you the phone back then; you couldn't own your own) In the warehouse, returned and damaged phones would come in on a belt and various parts would be replaced as needed.

So on one job I found a handset in the aisle where I was working. Not wanting anyone to break a toe on this rogue phone, I picked it up. But something was wrong. The darned thing only weighed a few ounces. It wasn't the hefty flail I had imagined I could fight off burglars with. So I asked one of the phone sanitizers I had gotten to know on the job. "Was this some kind of joke handset? A pretend phone of some kind?"

So she showed me Ma Bell's trick: All the phones were like that; so to give the customer the feeling that his rented phone actually had substance, they would put a bag of sand in the handle. It worked too. With the sand you had a phone; without it, the thing felt like a toy.

For some reason I felt betrayed by this simple deception. You mean all those years I was paying a dollar a month to rent this cheap, plastic, ugly device?

But it was the same thing as the car doors. Sure, it's misleading, but it gives you the impression that everything is solid. Stuff is dense and firm and nothing is going to break.

Sort of like a president that sounds good, intelligent, and caring; even though you know that there's nothing on the inside but a bag of sand, and sometimes chili dogs.