This episode was written & produced by Miellyn Fitzwater Barrows.

Some car sounds are more obvious like the horn or engine... but what about the not-obvious-until-you-point-them-out sounds like the hollow thud of a trunk or the click of a latch? The sounds a car makes are so closely associated with quality, so how, exactly, do car makers handle this aspect of the driving experience? Featuring Car Enthusiast & Sound Mixer Brian Garfield, David Zenlea from Road & Track, and Tom Teknos from Ford.


"A Million Years" by Awake or Sleeping
"Boy with a Kite" by Joe Moralez
"Reach" by  Roary
"Way Out - Instrumental" by  Could Ever
"Take me Home" by  The Analog Affair

Twenty Thousand Hertz is hosted by Dallas Taylor and produced out of the studios of Defacto Sound.

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View Transcript ▶︎

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[Music start]

From Defacto Sound, you're listening to Twenty Thousand Hertz... The stories behind the world's most recognizable and interesting sounds. I'm Dallas Taylor. This is the story behind why your car sounds the way it does.

[car engine start SFX]

Some car sounds are more obvious, like the horn [horn SFX] or the engine [engine SFX]. But what about the not obvious until you point them out sounds like the sounds of the blinker [blinker SFX], the satisfying “spsss” sound of opening the trunk [truck opening SFX] or the click [door lock SFX] of locking the door.

Every sound a car makes is important to the experience of driving and automakers know this.

David: Every sound in a car has been carefully engineered. That becomes more and more the case as you go up in price. My name is David Zenlea. I'm a features editor at Road and Track.

The door sound for instance, there’s gaskets on either side of your door and the thicker a gasket a car has, that insulates a car from outside noises but it also will affect the way that car sounds, the door sounds when it closes.

The gasket is that black rubber strip on the inside of your door frame. Here’s what an older car sounds like without much thought given to the gasket [old car door SFX].

And here’s what a newer car sounds like with the sound of the gasket in mind [new car door SFX].

David: Automakers know that consumers are sensitive to noises like that and they are very careful about making sure that it meets consumer expectations.

Keep in mind, this is the first sound you encounter when you test drive a car. It’s a subliminal selling point. If the car door sounded loose or unpleasant or dissonant, you’d automatically make assumptions about the quality of the rest of the car. So, this is the care companies first opportunity to communicate to you how well built this car is.

Brian: As an enthusiast and a consumer the thunk of a door is important to me. A lot of German cars have a very heavy door or a thunk to it, it feels solid [heavy car door thunk SFX]. Every time I get in and out of a car that doesn’t sound like that [light car door thunk SFX], it doesn't seem as nice of a car to me. [heavy door thunk and car honk SFX]

My name is Brian Garfield and I am a car enthusiast and amateur racer. At an early age I could not wait to drive. Growing up, both my parents used to motocross which is a form of ameteur racing. I used to race an original Mini Cooper.

Because my parents were automotive enthusiasts, there were always car magazines around the house. Car and Driver, Road and Track, Motor Trend, Autoweek which I always read. And in about the 90’s I got into autocrossing like my parents did in the 60’s and I got them back into it. So we actually did it as a family and we still do it as a family.

Just like when I grew up, all of us are enthusiasts. My younger son drives a Mini Cooper and my older son drives the BMW with a performance exhaust. My wife drives that Subaru STI and I’m driving the Miata with an X5. That’s where we like to spend time and that’s what we like to do as a hobby.

Many people’s live revolve around cars. So what does a certified car guy listen to while he drives?

Brian: I can be entertained by the sound of the motor [car motor SFX]. I like to hear the car and stay connected to it. It’s not uncommon for an enthusiast to drive for hours at a time without listening to the radio, without listening to anything but the sound of the motor. [contine car motor SFX]

For decades, automobile enthusiasts have had a fascination with how cars sound.

David: The very first issue of Road and Track which started in the late 50s has advertisements for exhaust headers and special mufflers and this was popular throughout the 60s. Some muscle cars like the 1970 GTO [GTO SFX] had an option where you could pull like a little lever and make a louder noise [continue GTO SFX]. We've had a long time of sort of editing or engineering the way an engine sounds. The way an exhaust pipe sounds [exhaust pipe SFX] is a very careful engineering process because they're trying to produce a certain sound and trying to edit out certain sounds, but the electronic editing of engine sounds is a little bit more recent.

Yep. You heard that correctly. Electronic editing of engine sounds. But what does that really mean?

David: The way that automakers go about creating engine noises differs and it’s an evolving technology. They basically take a recording of the engine, they take out things that they think a customer wouldn't want to hear and then they play that back through the speakers inside the cabin.

While bringing the sound of the engine back into the cabin can add to the visceral experience of driving...some car enthusiasts are a little uneasy about the practice.

Brian: I’m kind of torn, as an enthusiast I appreciate that I can hear it even more raw. And if you were to put the windows down you wouldn’t hear it as well as if you put the windows up. That’s how you know it’s being pumped into the car. As an enthusiast you might go, “Wait a minute”, but as a lay person you’re like “Wow, there’s a neat car sound.”

David: The first one that really drew the ire of automotive enthusiasts was the BMW M5, the current generation. It debuted in 2012 [BMW M5 engine SFX]. It basically plays the soundtrack of its engine over a stereo inside the car and if you pull the right fuse you basically will cut the engine noise from inside the car.

One of the reasons they do this is that cars are so much better insulated than they used to be. Features like dual pane glass, which are great for blocking out road noise and wind, block everything else out too.

Brian: In luxury cars, they’ll do things to quiet them down, but you’ll still hear that deep low frequency sound from an 8 cylinder and the customer wants to know it’s an 8 cylinder. They want to be able to say say “Here’s my such and such car, it has a V8.” [V8 SFX]

Less road noise also mean less engine noise. And for engineers, playing the engine soundtrack over the car stereo was a workaround.

David: Performance cars, in particular, you want to hear what’s going on in the engine [car engine FSX] so they’ve had to figure out ways to sort of pipe that back in. The other reason of doing this electronically is that modern engines don’t sound as conventionally good as older engines.

Back when V8's were synonymous with sports cars cars with bigger displacement engines and more cylinders tend to make a deeper noise [deep car engine SFX]. It’s very hard to disconnect the buyer impulse from all those things that automakers have been driving into us for many years. It’s something we've come to associate with power and masculinity and wealth.

This seems like a lot of effort for engineers to put into something that is secondary to the function of the car. Just how important is the engine sound for buyers?

David: The sound of an engine is, a selling point for any car. What customers want to hear from their engine, how much they want to hear from their engine, depends on the kind of car that that person is buying. The automaker first has to figure out, "Well, what do people actually want to hear?" Then they have to actually getting into tuning the engine sound.

The unique feeling you get from a car, whether that’s power, safety, fun or practicality is no accident. Automakers know that the way a car sounds is critical to this experience. What factors do they consider when determining how a particular vehicle should sound, and what tricks and tools do they use to achieve that sound? We’ll find out, after the break.

[music out]


[music in]

A lot of thought and care goes into designing the sounds cars make. Automakers design the sound of a car to meet consumer expectations, but just what are the factors and characteristics they consider when designing those sounds?

Tom: For a luxury car, you're going to want the sound to be a lot more refined, smoother, at a lower volume [luxury car SFX]. For a sports car you'd want it to be a lot rougher with a lot more character and at a much higher volume [sports car SFX].

My name is Tom Teknos. I’m an NVH technical specialist at Ford motor company.

NVH stands for noise, vibration, and harshness. Noise and vibration, those are just what you’d think. Harshness is the term they used to use to describe ride quality, but now, it deals more with the noise and vibration of the powertrain.

The powertrain is the set up that makes the car go and going can be noisy.

[car driving SFX]

Ford, and other automakers, have to figure out what customers expect in their cars and how they’re going to give it to them accurately and consistently.

Tom: You don't want to have a four cylinder Focus [four cylinder SFX] sounding like a Ferrari [Ferrari SFX]. Likewise, you don't want to have a really powerful sports car [sports car SFX] that sounds like a golf cart [gold cart SFX]. That's kind of the whole point of our jobs is to make sure that the character does match the performance level of the vehicle.

The automaker, it seems, would have a lot to figure out. And it can get really complicated, really fast.

Tom: Every different vehicle class and every engine family is gonna have a different characteristic sound. So, just corporate wide at Ford, there are ranges that are established. We call them part of the DNA of that particular vehicle. Then those ranges kind of define how loud the engine sound should be during acceleration. What's the basic character, so that when we execute a program, it's done consistently year after year and model after model?

Sure, but how exactly do they do that?

Tom: We pipe in a significant amount of engine sound into the cabin using the audio system. It's completely synthetically generated, but it sounds so true. You can shape it to make it sound however you want. You digitally generate the sound first from your desktop, then once you've arrived at a sound that you're happy with. You think, "Okay, this is the right character for this vehicle.” Then that's migrated into the vehicle.

All of this is to make sure that the driver’s are getting real time feedback on how the engine is working. Even if that has to be amplified or even reproduced.

Tom: I'm not exactly sure where this is gonna end up going, but one thing I know for sure is that vehicles that don't produce a lot of noise naturally and are performance oriented vehicles, industry wide, everyone is using this electronic sound enhancement.

Hybrid and electric cars are clearly becoming more and more popular. And it’s almost certain that this trend will continue. As new generations grow up without the roar of a gasoline engine, what will they want to hear?

Brian: Nostalgic to me is still a V8 because that’s a muscle car. The V8 is synonymous with power, with strength, with a cool sound. I think that’s still going to define nostalgic for a while. But, the same way that our language changes over time, our definition of performance through our ears will change. As more and more things become electric, the electric motors will become a sign of performance.

These new engines produce a completely different and much quieter sound. Which creates a whole new set of questions. Will these cars be so quiet that you can’t hear them coming up behind you? Do we need artificial sound for safety? And what about future generations who drive electric cars, will they still associate the sound of the V8 with performance and power? Will a quiet whirl [whirl SFX] become the new sought after sound?

Twenty Thousand Hertz is presented by Defacto Sound. A sound design team dedicated to making television, film and games sound insanely cool. Find out more at defactosound.com. This episode was produced by Miellyn Fitzwater Barrows and me. With help from Sam Schneble and Stephanie Wilkes. It was sound designed and mixed by Nick Spradlin.

Special thanks to Brian Garfield, David Zenlea at Road and Track and Tom Teknos at Ford. All of the music you've been hearing in in this episode is from our friends at Musicbed. The track you’re listening to currently is Take Me Home by The Analog Affair. Musicbed has been licensing music by great indie artists like this since 2011. They have thousands of songs from dozens of genres. Check them out at musicbed.com.

Connect with us on facebook and on twitter and tell us what sounds you like and what sounds you dislike in your own car.

Finally, we need your help to keep this podcast on the air. Consider supporting the show. You can do this by visiting donate.20k.org. You can find this link in the show description.

Thanks for listening.

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