Don't Believe Everything You Hear

The following is an article from Uncle John's Fully Loaded 25th Anniversary Bathroom Reader.

At the Bathroom Reader Institute, one of our goals is to make readers look at the world in a new way. After reading this article, you'll also be listening in a new way. Listening to what? To sounds that seem real …but aren't.


Have you ever heard of a skeuomorph? Pronounced SKEW-a-morf, it's a feature that's been added to a new version of a product that, while not functionally necessary, makes consumers more at ease with the new technology. For example, the "PLAY" button on your DVD player has a little arrow on it that points to the right. There's nothing inside a digital player that actually moves to the right, but there was on old VHS tape players. The arrow remains because consumers are used to it.

When it comes to sound, skeuomorphs are a big deal: If a product doesn't sound right, it can be very tough to sell to consumers. Companies employ sound designers -not unlike the sound engineers who work on Hollywood movies- to ensure that every noise a product makes will be pleasing to the ears. Sometimes it's for nostalgia's sake; sometimes for safety …and sometimes for more nefarious reasons.

(Image credit: Flickr user Lisa Risager)

* Digital cameras: For more than a century, film cameras had mechanical shutters that clicked when the shutter button was pressed. Digital SLR cameras have a similar electro-mechanical shutter that also clicks, although not as loudly. But what about cell phone cameras and small point-and-shoots? They, too, have shutters, but they're so small that the sound they make is barely audible. So manufacturers have added fake shutter sounds to let the picture-taker know that a picture has been taken. Many people find the feature annoying, and some camera models allow you to change the sound to a beep. A few models even allow you to turn the sound off altogether.

However, there's a movement underway to mandate that these fake shutter sounds not only remain, but that they become louder. Reason: to prevent creepy voyeurs from secretly snapping photos in locker rooms and dressing rooms. In 2009 U.S. Rep. Peter King (R-NY) drafted a bill called the "Camera Phone Predator Alert Act" which would "require mobile phones containing digital cameras to make a sound when a photograph is taken." In Japan and South Korea, the governments have urged camera makers to keep the fake shutter noise to deter people from secretly taking pictures up women's skirts (apparently a problem in the Far East). So far, camera makers haven't complied, and King's bill went nowhere, but the shutter noise issue remains controversial.

(Image credit: Flickr user Tristan Schmurr)

* Car doors: When you closes a steel car door, it's loud. In recent years, safety and emissions standards have forced auto makers to use lighter materials, resulting in new doors that sound more like toys. Because most people equate a lower pitch with power, and a higher pitch with weakness, auto engineers have redesigned car doors with dampeners and other materials in order to replace the tinny "tink" with a much more satisfying "thunk."

* Turn signals: The "tick-tock" you hear in newer cars doesn't correspond to the actual signal mechanism, which is a silent electronic relay switch. The sound is there mainly to alert the driver that the signal is on, but it's been carefully crafted to be noticeable without being too loud, and to have a pleasing tone. (In fact, nearly every noise you hear in a new car has been labored over by engineers -from the seatbelt click to the sound the seat makes when your butt hits it. If the sound doesn't sound good enough, it will be tweaked until it does.)

* Electric car motors: To ensure that pedestrians and cyclists hear them coming, silent electric cars come with speakers under the hood that play a recorded engine noise. But not just any random engine noise will do: The designers of the electric Nissan Leaf, for example, hired focus groups to listen to dozens of engine sounds and then vote on the ones they found the most satisfying.

(Image credit: Flickr user diluvi)

* Harley-Davidsons: These motorcycles make a very distinctive "potato-potato" sound, but that wasn't originally by design; it was the result of the cylinders of the V-twin engines firing at an uneven rate (which was necessary to pack more punch into a smaller engine). Over time that noise became so associated with Harleys that other bike makers tried to copy it, leading the company to attempt to trademark the sound in the 1990s. The trademark bid was unsuccessful, but Harley-Davidson claimed they had won "in the court of public opinion."

Ironically, in recent decades Harley engineers have had to perform some trickery to retain that distinctive sound. Because of tighter engine regulations, the cylinders now fire at a more even rate, so the company has set up a "Noise, Vibration, & Harshness Department" tasked with meeting regulations, but also meeting rider's expectations of what a Hog should sound like.

(Image credit: Flickr user Elvert Barnes)

* Segways: If you've heard a Segway scooter rolling down the sidewalk, you know it makes a very distinctive whir that sounds a bit like the futuristic vehicles from The Jetsons. That's no accident. Segway designers tweaked the two-stage transmission until both stages hit notes that are exactly one octave apart. That gives the Segway a modern, musical sound -whereas two random notes could have made it sound clunky and out of tune.

* Computer mouses: The Apple Mighty Mouse makes a clicking noise when the user scrolls, yet there's no actual mechanism that clicks. Instead, a tiny speaker inside the mouse plays a simulated clicking sound. (To see if your mouse has a speaker inside, unplug it and use the scroll ball. If it's silent, the click is fake.)

* Ebooks: There are some aspects of reading a real book that simply can't be captured by reading an ebook …but that hasn't stopped ebook makers from trying. Some ebook readers feature faux paper texture, page-turning animation, and the actual sound of a page turning.

(Image credit: Flickr user Prayitno/ more than 2...)

* Slot machines: As tickets replace coins in slot machines, the familiar "ching-ching" sound is in danger of going away. No problem: Newer slot machines that award tickets play recorded coin sounds. To entice non-gamblers into the room, the same sound is heard whether a player wins 25 cents or 25 dollars. And not just any "ching-ching" will do. As one slot machine designer explained, "We mix several recordings of coins falling on a metal tray and then fatten up the sound." On digital slots that don't have a spinning wheel inside, a simulated spinning sound is played. Same thing if there's no lever. In fact, some slot machines employ up to 40 fake sounds just to keep people gambling.

* Phones: You can set up your phone's ring tone to whatever you want, but when you make a call -be it on a mobile phone or on a landline- you always hear the familiar "ring-ring" sound. Callers haven't actually heard the sound made by a phone ringing on the other end since the 1950s. It's been simulated ever since.

(Image credit: Flickr user Nathan Rupert)

* Football games: Sports fans have certain auditory expectations when they go to the stadium, so little is left to chance. Even the vendors who walk through the stands are trained to yell "Get yer hot dogs!" and "Cold beer here!" in a certain way. That adds to the nostalgia value of going to a game. But some things you hear at a sporting venue may be designed to give the home team an advantage. In 2007 the Indianapolis Colts were accused of piping in fake crowd noise during a home game against the New England Patriots -but only when the Patriots had the ball and the snapper needed to hear the quarterback's call. Colts officials denied it, claiming that what fans watching on TV said sounded like a "CD skipping" was actually feedback caused by the CBS Sports broadcast of the game. Nevertheless, the NFL enacted strict rules against this practice, with heavy fines for offenders. Since then, a few other teams have been accused of using fake crowd noise, but nothing's been proven.

(Image credit: Flickr user Ben Rodford)

* The Olympics: During the 2012 broadcast of the the Summer Games in London, NBC admitted to some fakery with the rowing races. Because the motors on the chase boats and the TV helicopters were so loud, it would have been impossible to pick up audio from the actual rowers. So the Games' official sound engineer, Dan Baxter, didn't even try to use the live audio. Result: The viewers watching at home heard a playback of rowers on a calm, quiet river that Baxter had recorded himself. "Some people think it's cheating," he said. "I don't think I'm cheating anybody. The sound is there. It's just not necessarily real time. When you see a rower, your mind thinks you should hear the rower and that's what we deliver."


This article is reprinted with permission from Uncle John's Fully Loaded Bathroom Reader.

Get ready to be thoroughly entertained while occupied on the throne. Uncle John has ruled the world of information and humor for 25 years, and the anniversary edition is the Fully Loaded Bathroom Reader.

Since 1988, the Bathroom Reader Institute had published a series of popular books containing irresistible bits of trivia and obscure yet fascinating facts. If you like Neatorama, you'll love the Bathroom Reader Institute's books - go ahead and check 'em out!

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Interesting bit. My hearing is bad, can't hear certain frequencies at all. Old fire alarms used to be a single bell clanging that I could not hear. The new multi-frequency alarms would wake the dead. I guess that's the idea.
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