If you’ve ever driven a hybrid or electric vehicle, one of the first things you’ll notice is that the engine makes almost no noise at low speeds. Refreshing as it may be, the silence is a hazard for pedestrians: If they can’t hear a car coming, how will they know to get out of the way?
Joel Beckerman is on the case. The sonic branding firm he started 20 years ago—Man Made Music—is working with Nissan to come up with a sound that not only complies with regulation (the U.S. government says automakers must add noise to all hybrid and electric vehicles by September 2020) but is also recognizable to the consumer and embodies the brand.
“We don’t want people to say ‘What’s that sound?’ and get hit by the car,” says Beckerman, 54. “We want them to say ‘Oh, there’s a car coming,’ but [also recognize] there’s a unique personality to that car.”
As Man Made Music has grown from one employee to 26, the company has scored everything from the Super Bowl to hospital alarms to HBO’s feature presentation opener (below), proving that the branding power of sound can impact any experience. In a recent interview, Beckerman reflects on his work and discusses where it could go next.
You’re a musician and composer. When did you get your start?
It was back in grade school during an assembly. Usually assemblies were kind of boring but this time there was this man standing in front of us talking about the history of gospel music. I was struck by how this music was so alive and constantly being reinvented. During his talk he’d sit down and play some examples on the piano. As soon as he started playing, the whole room just filled with sound. It was so inspiring and amazing to me the amount of emotion he could coax out of this one instrument. I remember going home that night and begging my parents for piano lessons.
Where’d you go from there?
I originally went to Union College in upstate New York to study chemistry. I found was I was doing what I needed to do on the sciences, but I was spending all my time writing music and playing in bands, writing little avant-garde musical theater projects And I was like, I need to do this. I remember speaking to my parents about it; of course like every other rational set of parents, they completely freaked out. I ended up transferring to New York University to study music and business. It was kind of the best thing I could’ve done.
In college, I was working as an intern at this recording studio that focused on publishing demos—demos that help sell a song. A songwriter would come in; I’d have eight hours to learn the song, arrange it, bring in the players, record it, and push it out the door. It became my first full-time job out of college. I think my first year I made 250 publishing demos. That was the way I cut my teeth on production.
How did Man Made Music come about?
I was doing the publishing demos and was the night manager at a recording studio. That’s where I learned about the craft of sound and music production. Then I got into working on commercials. Eventually it felt a bit cookie cutter—it felt like I kept walking the same path. At that point I got a little taste of television. I was freelancing for some of the music companies in town and met people through ad agencies. At some point I said I’m doing all this work for other people, but I felt at arm’s length from the process. I felt like I wanted to get in deep—not just be taking direction, but actually being part of making the creative direction of things.
What is it about sound that makes it so impactful from a branding perspective?
We don’t necessarily realize it, but every moment of our lives is scored with music and sound. Some of it is human manufactured and some of it is just ambient—it comes with being part of an analog world. The reality is we respond to sound quicker than any other sense—quicker than touch, which I didn’t even know until I wrote my book (The Sonic Boom: How Sound Transforms the Way We Think, Feel, and Buy). Since we respond quicker than any other sense, sound actually becomes an organizer for all the rest of our senses…if the rest of the experience is in sync with the sounds we hear, that generally tends to result in a more pleasurable, fruitful, useful experience.
Tell us about one of the notable projects you’ve done.
iMax is this amazing technology and brand that is in service of filmmakers, trying to bring their vision to life in the most pure way possible with visuals and sound. But this was one of those situations where the cobbler’s children had no shoes: iMax had a visual identity, but no real sonic identity, no sound or music that really gave them credit in the theater experience. We developed this sonic identity system for them, which was based on a simple question: “What should iMax sound like?” We knew it should sound like pure experience, but what did “pure experience” sound like? We set out to discover that and created 10 different solutions. It’s like making pancakes— sometimes you have to throw out the first batch and try a different recipe.
We ended up creating a long-form piece of music, which is an anthem for iMax that shows up in different places. We created a countdown version of the anthem, which is shorter. Then we created this little pneumonic, a little hook called the iMax “drop”—it has musical elements but it’s not a piece of music, it’s more like a gesture. That gesture, in a very economical package of three seconds, triggers memories: it brings you back immediately to that iMax experience. The sum total of all the iMax movies you’ve seen rushes back to you.
How is sonic branding being used outside of entertainment?
As much as I love all the the work we do in entertainment and devices, the work we do in health care is the most important work we will ever do as a company. Take for example this problem of hospital alarms: Who says an alarm has to scare the crap out of you? Can’t we have alarms that are more informative? The horrible soundtracks that are in hospitals right now scare patients, create cortisol reactions, and make patients sicker.
We believe you can bring together the different data streams in almost a symphony of health care. It’s about asking, “What does a proper heart rate sound like? What does a proper blood pressure or oxygenation of the blood or respiration sound like?” How can we connect those sounds together in a pleasing soundscape so that a nurse could walk past the hospital room and know whether or not a patient needs attention?” We believe we can use sound to make alarms and soundscapes much more purposeful.
Edited for length and clarity.