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The future of electric car sounds

Leading music producer Steve Levine is creating an ‘engine noise’ for electric cars – and he lets us in on his secrets

Top music producer Steve Levine is best known for giving a boost to the pop careers of everyone from Culture Club to The Beach Boys. But the tunes he’s mixing for his latest client feature an altogether different beat.

Based in his hi-tech West London studio in his garden shed, Steve is working with the automotive infotainment specialist Harman to create a suitable soundtrack for the electric cars of the future. Thankfully, what he’s working towards is a bit more advanced than Boy George singing ‘Do You Really Want To Hurt Me?’.

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A global standard for external electric vehicle noise – which is seen as key to ensuring the safety of visually impaired pedestrians – has yet to be agreed. But it seems likely that car makers will be given free rein when it comes to what the driver and passengers hear inside, so Steve is working with Harman in both areas.

Video: Steve Levine's electric car sound created exclusively for Auto Express

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“When I start working with a band, we have a conversation about how it’s going to be, and they look to me to realise their performance,” explained the Grammy and Brit winner. “It’s no different to what I’m doing with Harman. Creating an EV noise is like doing a movie soundtrack. The only strange thing is I’ve never asked the public’s opinion before.”

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The last point is crucial, because Harman is focusing the direction of the project on its own research. It quizzed 600 drivers about how EVs should sound, and it found that the majority want a soundtrack similar to those of petrol and diesel cars.

However, it’s expected that manufacturers will want to have distinctive notes for their respective models, creating opportunities for ‘signature sounds’ that use Steve’s talents.

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“When you sit in a Ferrari, there’s a sense of occasion because of what you see, but that’s heightened by what you hear,” he explained. “I’ve been given a blank canvas to enhance the EV driving experience.”

So what noise should an EV make? Steve’s studio is packed with keyboards, computers and production kit. He uses these to create a sound from scratch, then manipulate it to perfection.

But it’s not only about hitting a single note. While EVs don’t need to change gear, Harman’s research revealed that most drivers want artificial shifts included, and would like the note to change as the car speeds up and slows down.

The audio aftermarket is also being considered by Harman. It believes motorists will want to change the cabin noise from time to time – as people do with mobile ringtones – and feels there’s scope for regularly selling new ones. These could be official tones bought from main dealers or unofficial ones sourced from third-party suppliers.

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Kay Robinson, Harman’s global marketing specialist, told us Levine was chosen for his expertise at sparking an emotional response in the listener through sound. “His credentials are great and he’s got some excellent ideas,” she said. “It’s still a work in progress, but we’re confident that it will produce results very soon.”

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Harman isn’t new to this game. Its Halosonic concept car, based on a Toyota Prius, allowed the driver to switch between V8, V12 and spaceship noises at the push of a button. The sounds could be heard both inside and outside the vehicle. The first production car to feature the system, with internal noise only, will go on sale this year, although Harman won’t reveal what it is. There’s no date yet for a car with a Steve Levine soundtrack.

“Like hearing your record on the radio, there’ll be a bit of parental pride,” he laughed.

EV noise debate

A meeting between EV experts and transport industry bosses took place in Germany early last month to thrash out how electric cars should sound to pedestrians.

Japan and America have taken the lead on the issue so far. Europe has been watching from the wings but is now keen to get involved. The US wants a standard in place by 2014, to come into force two years later, and that seems likely to be adopted by everyone.

But there’s still plenty of debate on issues such as which vehicles should be included – EVs and hybrids or other quiet cars, too? What should the noise level be and up to what speed? Should it indicate direction of travel? What should the frequency range be? And what if the EV is idling?

The other sticky topic is stop-start technology. Safety groups warn that blind pedestrians waiting at crossings can’t hear vehicles if their engines have shut off to save fuel.

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