GM Gives Us A Peek Into Its EV Sound Designers’ Work

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A few days ago, I was driving home and my kids were standing near the driveway when I pulled my Bolt EUV into the driveway. From inside the car, I don’t hear much except the whine of the electric motors during takeoff from intersections or the regenerative braking when approaching a red light. But, one of my kids said, “Your new car sounds almost galactic.”

I don’t have my own recording, but here’s a sample of the sound it makes that someone else put on YouTube (from another GM vehicle, but still the same sound):

Like nearly all newer EVs, mine has a government-mandated noise device that comes on at low speeds. Why? Because people are so used to hearing the sounds of an ICE vehicle moving, that they’ll assume nobody’s there and walk right in front of you. On my first Nissan LEAF, there was a button I could use to turn the sound on and off, and there was a noticeable difference between how people would behave in parking lots and other places where pedestrians get close to cars. Without the sound on, it was like I wasn’t there.

Beyond clueless smartphone addicts walking around, there are people with visual disabilities who have to rely on their hearing to know if a car is coming. Having these technologies in cars that don’t make much sound at low speeds is essential to their safety. Drivers obviously have to pay attention, but the noise adds an extra layer of protection to keep the blind from walking right in front of a car with no time to react.

But that government mandate doesn’t tell automotive manufacturers what sound their cars have to make. It only tells them that they have to make these pedestrian warning sounds. So, that gives automotive manufacturers great leeway to design sounds that give cars a unique signature. For example, my last Nissan LEAF had a sound that was kind of like crunching gravel with a whistle sound mixed in, and my Bolt has that “galactic” sound my kids described.

But, How Do They Choose The Sounds?

In a recent article on GM’s website, the company introduces us to the team that designs these sounds, and we learn about the thought process behind them.

They first introduce us to Jay Kapadia, GM’s Creative Sound Director. Jay is a classically trained musician, electronics engineer, and wellness coach, so he’s got a pretty well-rounded background.

Jay, who currently resides in San Antonio, Texas, moved to New York City in 2008 to pursue a master’s degree in music technology and subsequently worked at some of the world’s most famous recording studios. Jay is an audio designer at GM and works with a team of engineers to turn ideas into reality.

In addition to his work with advanced technology and patents, Jay is also responsible for the aural sound strategy for GM brands. Music and wellness are two things that Jay is very passionate about. Outside of work, he enjoys practicing sound healing therapy and is also a member of the board of trustees for the Detroit Symphony Orchestra.

“As both a musician and an engineer, I am fortunate to combine my passions and work with a broad team of engineers to create the sounds that customers associate with comfort, ease and safety,” said Jay. “Sound plays an important role, as it evokes emotions and becomes a critical component to becoming the voice of the car.”

Jay Kapadia became GM’s first sound design engineer in 2017 and is now the company’s creative sound director. Jay didn’t just think about sound through the lens of each vehicle brand, but also through each individual vehicle — ensuring that a GMC HUMMER EV would not have the same sound as a Cadillac LYRIQ.

This explains why the Chevy Volt sample above sounds about the same as my Bolt EUV. That’s the sound identity they chose for Chevrolet EVs and PHEVs.

Jay felt that it was critical for Cadillac to convey luxury and comfort in its new sonic identity, so he took a minimalist approach. The layered textures of major chords combined with low frequency tones that add to the vehicle’s refined audible character are specific EV sounds for Cadillac. Jay has creative license to create sounds that complement the luxurious interiors of automobiles while also providing a pleasant trip experience for passengers because of Cadillac’s robust sound system hardware and numerous speakers.

Electric vehicles from GMC will have a sonic identity that is proportionate to its size and torque. The sound design for the HUMMER EV, in particular, is dynamic and distorted like a loud electric guitar.

Other EV Sounds They Design

EV warning sounds are far from the only thing the sound designers work on. Another element of EV sound design is the sound of alerts and chimes, which are intended to fade into the background. The same basic functional sounds will be used across every GM electric vehicle, but they will be tuned and calibrated differently for each brand and model.

The goal is to create an ambient soundscape that helps get the message across, rather than one where the customer notices the sound itself. Take, for example, the “fasten seat belt” alert. Rather than sounding like a generic beep, it should have a sound that would make the customer think about buckling their seatbelt.

Jay combines two sounds with distinct frequencies to create turn signals. The sounds are then evaluated by Jay and a team of systems engineers to see if they should be closely paired. In addition to seat belt and turn signal warnings, Jay creates a variety of 20 other alerts and chimes, such as high-speed alerts and low tire pressure notifications.

You can read all about the sound design, and hear more samples, over at the GM website here. The Hummer EV’s “Watts To Freedom” (or WTF) sound is particularly interesting.

A Lot Of Effort For Something That Blends Into The Background

It’s pretty cool to hear this story, but it sounds like they put in a lot of thought and effort for something that ends up blending into the background most of the time. But, that’s really the point. If every musician in a band tried to have a solo at the same time, things would get noisy and unpleasant fast. When everyone works together, you get synergy. That’s what GM and other manufacturers aim for with their EV sounds, and they can all do it their own ways.

Featured image provided by GM.


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Jennifer Sensiba

Jennifer Sensiba is a long time efficient vehicle enthusiast, writer, and photographer. She grew up around a transmission shop, and has been experimenting with vehicle efficiency since she was 16 and drove a Pontiac Fiero. She likes to get off the beaten path in her "Bolt EAV" and any other EVs she can get behind the wheel or handlebars of with her wife and kids. You can find her on Twitter here, Facebook here, and YouTube here.

Jennifer Sensiba has 2018 posts and counting. See all posts by Jennifer Sensiba