I'm about to embark on a sound design project for an interactive piece that will be a public installation. It will always be surrounded by people in a large space (think a trade show floor or lounge-type area), so human background "walla" and environmental noise will always be present. The speakers themselves are a pair of small, one-driver units built into the device.

While I have my own research and guesses as to how to approach this (and am prepared to do lots and lots of tests/testing), does anyone have any techniques or theories that could help guide sound design that would cut through such human mid-range background noise as to be audible? (The goal here is aural feedback of touch interactions, not the creation of super-detailed sound effects.)

5 Answers 5


I have some experience with (interactive) sound design, interaction design and interactive product design and in general and I learned that it pays off to look at how we perceive sound: what type of sounds do we notice easily, or even distract us? What sounds make us turn our heads?

From a psychoacoustic standpoint, you could focus on those sound characteristics that make it stand out from the crowd (-noise): Sharp attacks, pitch modulation, amplitude modulation, tonal rather than broad-spectrum noisy timbres, deliberate rythm, strong dynamics etc.

For a project I did the exact opposite: design sounds that would very easily blend in with the environment. Sounds that people quickly forget are there, yet can convey information to those specifically focussing on them.

  • EMV: You confirmed a lot of my suspicions and added a few things I hadn't considered. Supremely helpful, and arms me with a lot of techniques to try out. Thanks so much for the insightful suggestions. Commented Apr 8, 2010 at 21:29

Here's another perspective, for whatever it's worth.

In a studio or post-production environment, your mix generally represents the entirety of what people will hear. With this project, you are only adding sound into an existing space, where your mix must compete with other sounds.

There are obviously differences, but live sound engineers have to deal with this sort of thing all the time. A live mix at a concert, especially in a small to mid sized club, is really only half a mix, if you think about it. To put it another way, if the sound system is turned off entirely, you will still hear the drums and guitar amps coming from the stage. That's why vocals are always way louder than everything else on sound board recordings.

Also in a recording studio environment, a lot of times when you solo a track it might not sound right by itself, but it will work within the context of a mix.

I understand the Skywalker Sound people added a "popcorn noise" fader channel to their sound board, so they could see how their quiet dialog sections compete with people whispering to each other in the theater, eating popcorn, getting up to go out to the lobby, and so on.

You might think of the sound coming out of your device as only part of the "mix" of sounds that people will hear. If you have some extra speakers, consider recording some typical background noise to play back alongside your device, and see how it sounds in an environment similar to where it will end up.

  • thats great advice!
    – user49
    Commented Apr 9, 2010 at 22:12

These might be a bit obvious, but high frequencies will be more easily heard, especially with small speakers.

Another approach is to design sounds that are inorganic, if the sounds don't fit into the environment then people will probably notice them more.

As you say, your design is for aural feedback and (maybe) secondary to the interaction itself, so it shouldn't need a full bandwidth design.

I'm curious, is this for TouchTones?

  • Andrew, all great advice, thank you! This is, in fact, for a different project but on a similar hardware platform. At least we know what the speaker placement and specs are, that's a big help, too. Maybe we just need to throw a huge party as part of our QA process! Commented Apr 8, 2010 at 21:28

You could approach this from a music mix standpoint. Such as using EQ techniques to boost sound design elements as well as cutting what you can from your ambiance to make room for the sound design. You could then use something like Waves S1 to narrow the stereo field of one aspect of the final mix, such as the sound design aspect of the audio, then widen the ambiance tracks using the same technique.

You could also try using Waves Center as well...



Consider your sound palette. Let me give you an example. I mixed and edited a programme for just this sort of setting and the video had a lot of seaside shots, so in the studio I laid up appropriate sea wash sound effects and it all sounded fine. I had the option to do the final mix 'in-situ' before uploading it to the venues playout system and what I found was that the sea wash was lost in the noise of the venue. So I replaced it with seagulls which had the same signposting effect but unlike the sea wash cut through the noise of the venue.

Hope that helps,


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