Sound design

By Rob Scovell, in , posted: 8-Jul-2007 19:46

I'll never forget one meeting I had once at Waikato University. We were sitting around discussing something or other and there was a beep. It came from the table of the chap whose job it was to do innovative things with PDAs and other small devices. When it beeped, he jumped, started looking frantically at the collection of gadgets in front of him, and said, "Whoooaaaaa! What was that?! What am I meant to be doing?". Was it a phone call? A text message? An appointment reminder? Or was a device announcing that its battery was going flat?

That was the first time I thought about sound design. Not design that is sound, in the sense of a bridge being sound, but design of appropriate sounds for appropriate situations. I thought about it briefly, but it never really went to the front of my mind.

I thought about it when I first came across a cellphone ringtone that emulated an old American phone ringer. The lady who had it was Chair of the Board of Trustees of my daughter's school. It seemed to be appropriate for such a lady to have a sober and non-gimmicky ringtone, although I couldn't decide whether it was non-gimmicky or gimmicky!

It's always a bit strange when you're in a meeting discussing serious and weighty issues and someone's phone starts playing some wacky jingly-jangly tune. The old American phone ringer ringtone struck me as being much less intrusive than an upbeat rendition of the Charge of the Light Brigade. It is emotionally neutral: it doesn't alter the mood of whatever gathering it interrupts. (Although there are possibly subtle Hitchcock movie connotations lingering around it.) Its value and its success is that it matches more or less what we over-thirties have grown up expecting a phone to sound like.

I have a collection of phones around my house and office, each of which has different sets of pros and cons. I have different sets of people who call me about different things, and a phone (and number) for each set:

Private cell phone. Family and close friends know that if they call this number, I will always answer. The ringtone is the Polish National Anthem, which always gives me a warm emotional response.

Clients' cell phone. Local NZ clients can get me on this number if they need an urgent response to an IT situation. It has the old American phone bell ringtone.

Office phone line. This is an 07 VoIP number supplied by 2talk. I use my Nokia N80 for this so I have what appears to be a normal landline that rings wherever I am in a WLAN, whether in the office, at home, or in Starbucks. This plays MP3 files as ringtones so I use a song (Creed by Rich Mullins) that has a long, light guitar intro.

Home landline. I have a Uniden phone with some nice features that allow you to associate different ringtones with different people. The kids always know that Nana is ringing because it plays Happy Birthday when she rings. You can set tones that match the person. We also have a 1970s standard dial phone with a loud bell so that we can hear the phone ring from the garden. It's a very satisfying sound when it rings!

Home UK VoIP phone. I also have a home voip phone that friends and family in the UK can call using a London number. This has no fancy ring tones, but I did hack the ATA to change the length of each ring when my mother calls.

The whole point of the above was to introduce this article that I discovered on how to be more 'intentional' when designing sounds. It's a good read, if you like this sort of thing ...

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Angry with the Green Party's lack of strategic thinking
ZONE music

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Comment by SomeAudioGuy, on 18-Jul-2007 08:34

Definitely true, and it goes so much farther than just ringtones. The first thing that went on my phone were the horrid email/sms alerts. Most of my ringtones/alerts/reminders are now ripped up sound effects or song leads. Baba O'Reily's lead intro for family and friends, a TARDIS woosh for email now, and I also love the old fashioned telephone ring.

Comment by soundchief, on 30-Aug-2007 12:10

Just, I envy you. Congratulations to first page on the google. just, i'm searching for the 'sound design'. hm.. maybe, i'll starting on my blog. like you. sorry. -_- ; it's joke.

Comment by soundchief, on 30-Aug-2007 12:15

Just, I envy you. Congratulations to first page on the google. just, i'm searching for the 'sound design'. hm.. maybe, i'll starting on my blog. like you. sorry. -_- ; it's joke. anyway, so great things. good day, commando. ^_^

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