Noise pollution from all types of transportation and its everchanging role in our everyday sound environment was one of a number of topics discussed during the Forum on the Power of Sound in Industry 2022 hosted by Ircam Amplify. As our societies move to new modes of transportation that reduce atmospheric pollution, how does that change the noise pollution we are faced with every day? What place does artificial sound have in our ecosystem? How can we transform noise into sound? These are just some of the questions that arise when we examine the relationship between sound and transportation.

Living with Noise

We have all been confronted with the noise of a passing train, which is often at least an annoyance to riders, an often represents a consistent noise nuisance for nearby residents. To respond to this type of problem, the SNCF is working on better noise prevention for their trains and the world around them. Françoise Dubois, Coordinator of the Synapses SNCF network, leads nearly 500 researchers as they work on new noise reduction strategies developed in conjunction with the Le Mans Laboratory (LAUM).

Since opportunities for change are few and far between for transportation, especially for public transit systems, this issue of noise pollution and how we live with the sound of our own mobility requires support not just from the transportation industry, but from the audio world as well. Often, research centers, like Ircam, are called upon to think of new ways to approach and limit noise pollution generated by both personal and public transportation.

Reducing noise pollution is one thing, but creating sounds we can all live with is another. This added complexity is why Ircam relies on the expertise of sound professionals, such as artists, composers and sound designers, to find truly revolutionary ways to help all of us live with the noise of these essential transportation methods. Combining art and science makes it possible to imagine innovative answers to the questions posed by the sounds of our movements. The search for the perfect solution to public transit noise may be long, but the work of research centers like Ircam, alongside industry leaders like SNCF, is creating a turning point for the relationships between sound, noise, and our mobility in an increasingly globalized world.

Creating a Soundscape

When talking about a soundscape, sounds generally fall into two categories: unintended sounds, like noise pollution from public transit, and intentional sounds, which are artificially added. Given current levels of noise pollution, it seems almost absurd to suggest adding more noise to the overfull soundscape of our daily lives. Yet, sometimes it is necessary to add sounds in order to make us all safer.

This is the case when we consider the Zoe, Renault’s electric car, which is so quiet it becomes practically invisible to pedestrians.  Nicolas Misdariis, Deputy Director of STMS Lab and head of the Sound Perception and Design team at Ircam, works with his team to give a voice to the electric vehicle in order to allow its presence to be felt in our everyday soundscapes.

Nicolas Misdariis, Deputy Director of STMS Lab and head of the Sound Perception and Design team

The automotive field, like other fields, showcases an evolution of everyday sounds over time. Historically, there were all kinds of noisy combustion engines. As time went on, each new iteration emitted different sounds. Today, we are in the midst of a transition towards fully electric vehicles, which are making our streets even quieter. Yet, as we’ve seen with the Renault Zoe, we’ve had to change the soundscape again, intentionally this time. In 30 years, the soundscape of our personal transportation will be different still. Thus, research on the ever-evolving soundscapes of our modes of transportations is not just about responding to our present-day situations but about molding soundscapes for the long term.

Some of this research on sound goes even further than the relationship between cultivating soundscapes for safety when near a vehicle, and works to extend the soundscape of movement beyond transportation itself.

Communicating with Sound

We all understand that voice is a way to communicate with sound. With the integration of voice-activated software, Human-Machine Interfaces bring voice as a means of communication to the automobile industry. Voice, however, is not the only means of communication. Other sonification solutions, such as an ignition sound or a reversing signal, make it possible to use sound to transmit non-verbal information. However, Nicolas Misdariis warns that you can’t just put any sound on any object. The personalization of audio interactions must be used sparingly and precisely to create a distinctive sound that is specific to the object, action, or even to the brand.

The SNCF voice, as heard on all SNCF trains and public transportation systems, carries a distinct sound identity. In the midst of the daily sounds of a station, the screeching of the trains, the beeping of machines, the conversations of passengers, the voice of Simone Hérault brings a specific, unique character that marks each SNCF announcement. This voice is so characteristic that it has been digitized for use in different venues and has extended the SNCF identity outside train stations.

These methods of using sound for communication can go beyond a purely physical framework. It is possible to take advantage of these familiar sounds to extend a traveler’s experience beyond a physical space, say inside a train or in a particular type of vehicle. This type of soundscape is so powerful that listeners can be transported to their last train ride or their next road trip from the comfort of their sofa.

Moving beyond Noise: Further Insights on Sound and Transportation

There is so much more to be said about the way movement, public transportation, and sound work together to impact our daily lives. Experts from Ircam and SNCF explored these important topics during a panel called “Sound, Movement, and Transportation: Can Sound Replace Noise?” at the Forum on the Power of Sound in Industry 2022 hosted by Ircam Amplify. Access their in-depth conversation, recorded at the forum.