I Hate Alarms! Sound Design As Afterthought

Hello, this is a little blurb because I am just really fed up with the lack of care given to sound design. Unlike our sight, we cannot turn off our hearing. We cannot decide what not to hear like how we can just turn our heads to avoid seeing something. While our sight is limited by our line of sight, sound can travel around and through objects. Therefore, a sound of a place or a product is very much unavoidable and just as much care should be taken to ensure it is as pleasant as possible. Yet, it is often overlooked.

There is an episode of the podcast 99% Invisible that talks about how the machines in hospitals constantly give off sound and they often clash with each other and don’t provide intuitive information for what each sound means. This is troubling not only because it makes hospitals unpleasant places to recover in but also in case of emergencies, the machines contribute to the chaos and provide little apparent information.

Another example would be in cafes and other public hangout places. There have been many times when I’ve decided against this or that coffee shop because their music was too loud or the genre they were playing was too distracting. I used to work in a cafe and I hated the sound of the ice machine humming in the background. The various timers in the kitchen is also annoying because you have to remember what timer you set for what food that’s currently on the stove or in the oven.

It would be a really good product if you could customise sound cues to alarms. Like if phones also allowed you to add a voice recording as a reminder rather than just a text description. So your alarm to remember to take out the cookies you’re baking would have a voice say, “The cookies are ready!” rather than just a constant beeping sound. On second thought, a lot of these products for sound cues already exist. These products already exist because they’ve been designed for those with certain disabilities that render it critical to have informative auditory input. (This is another example of the curb cut effect.)

It might be that I care a lot about this because I am sensitive to sound and it is the most common cause of sensory overstimulation for me. However, good sound design should be at least no hampering a good experience and at best, a vital part of that experience.

They do it quite well in video game sound design whether it’s sound effects while interacting with menus, diegetic sound cues, background music, the soundtrack, etc. Whenever there’s a game that has good sound design, its fans definitely take notice. Just look at Nintendo with Breath of the Wild, Animal Crossing and Arms. All of them have sound design that not only informs the players of the environment and tone of the game but also provides important feedback information in intuitive sound cues. And just as visual and haptic feedback is important so the player knows that when they press a button, something happens in response, sound design is another way to provide that feedback.

Scruffy’s YouTube channel has several of these sound analysis videos on different video games. I highly recommend his videos on the sound design of FNAF. Despite a game with such limited mechanics and scope, the variations and nuance in sound design is impressive and super interesting.

If I can go on a tangent here, one of the things that’s super impressive about the Jackbox games is in their insane high quality and their incredibly consistent attention to accessibility. Their sound design is on point. They don’t settle for some generic elevator music. Not only do they make unique background tracks that fit each game but they sound good and further embody the tongue-in-cheek design philosophy they take to these games. Good games don’t particularly need stellar sound design but good sound design can make a good game great. It’s that little bit of extra polish, the icing on the cake, if you will.

In reality, sound does so much heavy lifting while being one of the more subtle ways we gain information about the world. We are surrounded by so much unpleasant sound in our lives like cars, construction, the air conditioning, the refrigerator, perhaps your neighbors or their dog(s), even the fan of the computer if you’re reading on a PC right now so when you use something or go somewhere where it sounds good, it’s immediately obvious and contributes immensely to your experience.

Sound is another tool. Make it work for you.

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