Fake car sounds are rubbish

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I’m of the belief that car sounds are very important.

That could mean a lack of sound, too, depending what it is. If I’m buying a small hatch to dart around the inner ‘burbs, I may want it to be quiet, or at least not care if it is. If I’m buying my first performance car, though, I’ll most certainly want it to be sonorous in what it decides to emit from the front, as well as from the back.

There are in between moments, too. Sometimes it’s nice to have a little gruff three-cylinder letting you know it’s doing the work. A nice reminder that there’s combustion and spinning things not too far away, providing you with propulsion. In the case of three-bangers, the good tones usually come from the front.

A brief dive into the car sound world tells you that brands agree it is important. When questioned on what one of my favourite car melodies may be; the Audi five-cylinder comes to mind. The unique layout of five cylinders, inherently quite wobbly, results from a formation of two pistons up then three pistons down, creating an unmistakable harmony. The description I’ve heard, “sounds like half a Lamborghini!”, is actually bang-on.

Fundamentally, the engine is exactly that. Odd-cylinder cars create such great sounds, and we need more of them. I’m excited to see what the new Fiesta ST brings to the car sound game.

The five-cylinder ring is so significant, that Audi recognises it as an important part of its history. So much so, there’s a large portion of this great video you should watch dedicated to why Audi bothered to spend money they didn’t really need to, on developing a new five-cylinder engine.

Whenever I hear an Audi RS 3, or even an RS Q3 for that matter, I get visions of the white-and-yellow Group B quattro flying through the woods at maximum attack. It makes me smile for two reasons: it sounds great, but it’s also pleasant reminder that they also care about how things sound. It makes for a nice piece of branding, too.

There are other sound signatures that instantly pop into my head. A sparkly atmo V12, arguably a Ferrari thing. The low-end clashing of frequencies that resembles a burble, probably a WRX STI. A bit of flatulence between gear changes, more than likely a Golf. Good or bad, like it or loathe it, these are mechanical objects creating sound either by inherit engine traits or by engineers fiddling with a computer or items of resonance. They are real. The sounds made are the product of things actually doing something.

Ford is another brand that places an importance on sound. During the development of the first global Mustang, they put considerable thought into ensuring the V8 was able to talk to potential customers. If you’ve watched the doco on its development, it makes a mention. One of my favourite parts of the film, mind you. They claim to have cycled through many, many different combinations of pipe just to get it right. Or so they thought.

More often than not, with good sound comes volume, or to some, noise. There is a time and a place for noise, however. Sound isn’t selective. I share air with people who will also be listening to the things that I am generating. Starting an obnoxiously loud car at six in the morning on a Sunday will piss off your neighbours, no doubt about that. I also, after a long week, a long night, or whatever, do not wish to be awakened by loud noises. Young children can also be irritated. Being considerate can be hard, with something that may be a bit loud as a consequence of sounding great.

When Ford was told the Mustang wasn’t loud enough (thus not good enough), what did it do? Make it louder, of course.

However, it acknowledged the point above and introduced “good neighbour mode”. A preset in which its newfound loudness can be tamed at times where it is inappropriate to be noisy. As many performance cars do commence on a cold start with the exhaust dialled to 11, this was a very thoughtful introduction. It also shows that there are ways in which you can introduce sounds when appropriate, mechanically.

However, not all sounds are good. There are fake types hiding among us, pretending to deliver what we want.

Some of these generated tones that we hear are not real. Well, I personally classify them as fake. It is usually a speaker, or speakers, either pumping actual sounds into the cabin or playing frequencies that augment existing wavelengths – for the better, apparently.

Let’s draw a distinction, before your minds race. 'Fake' in my eyes, is sound generated from a speaker. Piping air inlet noises past a diaphragm is not fake. It isn’t as desirable to me as an exhaust, or as cool as other more natural methods, but it still sounds somewhat natural. In this case, it is the sound of induction further amplified by tubes and rubber things. Sort of like an instrument. A speaker is not the same. So that’s where the line is drawn in my book.

This insistence to take the cheaper, easier route of making sounds “better” with speakers and artificial augmentation has nowhere near the same effect as real sound amplification.

You can hear its synthesis; it adds a layer of strangeness to the sounds in the cabin that feels awkward. And in some cases, can sit oddly in a physical sense, within the cabin. I’d rather not have it at all, personally. What’s worse is when you’re unable to engage the sportiness of a car without its introduction.

Since we’re on the topic of sounds that only the driver can hear, there are still other ways to do this. The aforementioned inlet-plumbing of the 86 / BRZ combo does this quite well. As does the Mazda MX-5.

I’m sure, with enough smarts, you could find other ways to introduce turbocharger recirculation vibes into the cabin. I’d like to see less defaulting to digital methods, though, when trying make something so analogue sound better.

A necessary point on a major aspect of our future automotive direction: I understand that with electric cars, synthesised sounds are important and a part of safety, but that’s a different issue. They don’t have fuel mixing with air under their bonnet, so you can deal with the fact it’s fake. When a car has all the makings to sound good naturally, tarnishing it through the introduction of odd noises is nothing short of a bloody curse.

We don’t need more fake things in the car world. Fake vents and pointless spoilers are enough. Please, save our ears the burden and keep things real – while we still can.

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