Why do we keep using these sounds?

Image:Charles Knowles on FLICKR
Image:Charles Knowles on FLICKR

Today, Tim Johns, a reporter at BBC Radio 2, raised a question in his (excellent) audio summary of the Next Radio conference.

Why does radio (and TV) continue to use this sound?

You know it.

If you are a radio producer, I pretty much guarantee you’ve used it at least once in your career.

But why?

How many people play music from a record player now? How many of your radio listeners have ever used one? My children have never used a CD player, yet alone a record player, or a cassette deck, or a video recorder.

How many people remember going into a shop and hearing this?

Really? Or only in TV sketches or radio commercials?

If I think of the sound of a pistol being fired, my original sound reference is the TV westerns I watcehd in the 1970s.

They sounded like this:

But, I’ve never been in the middle of a cowboy fight. And I’m not sure a volley of bullets sounds exactly like that.

And how often does any door you open sound like this?

These sounds are shortcuts. Quick audio cues to take you somewhere. They may not be real. Or current. But they help set the scene.

On radio, a sound effect can quickly get you to the right place in your imagination, whilst using no words whatsoever.

Want to place a listener in a hospital? Life support machine and ventilator sfx <check>

Want to place them in a street scene? Traffic noise, newspaper seller, chattering voices <check>

But if you actually visit a hospital, or take a trip down a high street, I doubt it actually sounds like this false creation.

But does this matter? Probably not. But the sounds are useful in helping create a mood.

And it’s not just radio. Watching almost any TV drama and the sounds have been enhanced

Sound effects (or audio effects) are artificially created or enhanced sounds, or sound processes used to emphasize artistic or other content of films, television shows, live performance, animation, video games, music, or other media.

This is because normal sounds sometimes don’t sound real enough. This is obviously ridiculous, but sounds need to be exaggerated, particularly with many visuals, to enhance the visual spectacle.

Or in this case, not..

And it’s not just TV, cinema or radio that is guilty of using these audio shortcuts.

Next time you take a photo on your iphone or on your computer, what sound does it make. Old camera shutter? On a computer? With no shutter?

What happens when you delete something on a computer? The sound of paper being scrunched up? Paper? Bin?

So, is Tim right – should we stop using these old fashioned sounds?

Probably not.

But maybe it’s worth thinking why you use a particular sound. Are you falling into a trap of doing things the same way as it’s always been done? And if so, what does a WAV file on a computer sound like when it is stopped?

Oh, it doesn’t.

Of course, if you can’t find the right sound possibly, you could start creating your own

3 thoughts on “Why do we keep using these sounds?

  1. As you say it is a short-cut, a common language. Why does the Windows “Save” icon look like a floppy disc? Perhaps the arcane origin of these things doesn’t matter. Nobody worries about why “no entry” is a red circle with a white line across it, it’s just a handy short-cut which we all understand. If we don’t use the “scratch record” sound to indicate “I’ve had enough of this, let’s move on swiftly to something else” then what can we use, given that modern devices are silent in operation?

  2. I totally agree. I guess it’s a reassurance thing – we love stuff that is familiar – so using a previously familiar thing is comfortable. My favourite clever icon used to be on the Sadie digital editor, where the Save button to “write to source” was a bottle of Ketchup (sauce)!

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